At age 15, future ’80s 3-D auteur Worth Keeter strolled into a showing of a StereoVision re-release of the 1953 Vincent Price film House of Wax—billed humbly on its one-sheet as The Most Astounding Motion Picture Since Motion Pictures Began!—and amidst the can-can girls, paddle-ball, fire, and more leaping off the screen at him promptly had his cinematic world flipped upside down.
“I just went crazy over it,” Keeter tells Diabolique. “I went back to see it again just about every day for a week or two.”
This eventually somewhat subsumed ardor for extra dimensional film experiences returned to the fore in the early ’80s when Keeter—now himself a fledgling director—began making films with prolific grindhouse producer/actor Earl Owensby.
“Earl didn’t like to pay actors much,” Keeter recalls. “And he certainly wouldn’t pay the money to have a known actor in a film. At one point he just said, ‘Well, I’m not even gonna do Screen Actor’s Guild anymore.’ In his mind 3-D was a promotional gimmick that spared him the expense of hiring a star.”
The initial fruit of this collaboration was 1982’s Rottweiler (AKA Dogs of Hell), which screens this weekend at the historic Quad Cinema’s gargantuan, jaw-droppingly awesome week-long 3D fest Comin’ At Ya! with Keeter in attendance.
Alas, in this case, getting there on this picture was decidedly not half the fun.
“Once Earl suggested 3-D, I was all for it,” Keeter says. “I got very excited. And then about a week into it I was like, ‘What was I thinking?’ We didn’t have any idea how difficult it would be.
“The shoot was a nightmare,” he continues. “No one had really [shot 3-D] in this country for a long time, so it was pretty much experimental. There had just been the Italian film Comin’ at Ya!”—1981; also, as one might glean from the title, screening at the Quad fest—“and, while I’m really not aware of what system they used, we partnered with Chris Condon and StereoVision on ours. First issue—there was only one prototype lens. And it was not the wide lens you would choose if you were going to have only one lens. During the filming they said, ‘We’re building others, we’re building others.’ We kept waiting and waiting. In addition we had to learn about the 3D process—ghosting and color contrast and lighting contrast. The lenses were very slow and took a tremendous amount of light to get an exposure on the film.”
Unfortunate considering the script—written before the decision to shoot in 3-D—centered around black dogs at night. Yet another wrinkle: The specialized film stock had to be shipped over from Japan.
“In those days we normally shot our movies on five or six-week schedules,” Keeter says. “I said, ‘You know, this could be more difficult—let’s give ourselves eight weeks.’ When we actually hit eight weeks in the schedule, we were nowhere near finished. It just went on and on and on. We started in the summer and shot until around Christmas. Luckily we got a lot of the bigger scenes done within our first ten weeks or something—as time went on Earl started thinning the crew down. Every couple of days somebody would be missing. And then somebody else. By the last month or so I had a crew of about five people. We just did all the little things required to put it together. We’d spend a day and maybe get one scene.”
Distribution was no picnic, either.
“At our facility we had two screening rooms that were set up perfectly with the silver screens and ample lighting and the lenses were tweaked to perfection,” Keeter says. “It was gorgeous. But outside those rooms it was a challenge. Instead of buying a professionally built silver screen—which you needed because the projection lamps were really not powerful enough to cut through all the polarizers and everything—theater owners would simply spray-paint it themselves and it’d look blotchy. In that era many theaters had also been twinned, which meant the projection frame was to one side of the back wall on each of the new theaters and they didn’t readjust the screen walls so you had keystoning. There were, in short, a lot of problems with the exhibition of the films.”
Yet, he avers, even with those frustrations and caveats Rottweiler “was much better technically than any of the 3-D films we had watched while we were making it because we were very, very careful about how we did approached it. Watching it didn’t hurt your eyes like a lot of them did.”
Rottweiler received a considerable amount of press for an independent film—it even figured heavily into a 60 Minutes profile of Owensby—and the well-executed effects captured the imagination of investors. Seizing the moment, a string of Keeter-helmed 3-D titles followed: Hit the Road Running in 1983 and then Hot Heir, Tales of the Third Dimension, and Chain Gang all in 1984.
During this run, the majors started sniffing around 3D. Paramount sent Steve Miner to meet with Keeter about potentially doing Friday the 13th Part III at his facility.
“I spent the day with him,” Keeter recalls. “We went over all the technical details. Finally he said, ‘How much is it gonna cost to make this movie here?’ I told him I needed to see a script to break it down and come up with a budget. ‘Well, we don’t have a script. By the time we have a script, we’ll be shooting the movie.’ I said, again, I couldn’t give him a number without a script. At that point I think Paramount sort of said, ‘Ah, screw you guys. We’re Paramount—we know what we’re doing.’ If I remember correctly, they shot for a about week and then shut down. Later, when I saw the film I felt a little sorry I could just tell the mess they were in. The whole movie I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I know exactly what that feels like. Those guys stepped into the same tar pit I did.’”
After a remarkable underground run, however, Keeter moved on from 3-D. “It was just getting tiresome doing the arrows, or darts, and all that sort of thing,” he says.
Over the years Keeter had received occasionally hints that his 3-D work had not fallen entirely into obscurity: In 1987, for example, he moved to L.A. and shortly thereafter stumbled upon a 3-D festival showing a couple of his films. And once Facebook took over the world, fans were more able to reach out and express appreciation.
One of those admirers turned out to be Exhumed Films/Garagehouse Pictures cult film champion extraordinaire Harry Guerro, who invited Keeter to a screening of both Rottweiler and Hit the Road Running at a Philadelphia 3-D mini-fest, thus setting the stage for further screenings at Guerro’s bigger, badder Quad extravaganza.
These days Keeter lives in North Carolina where he owns an audiobook production company and helps younger filmmakers produce movies. He also served as First Assistant Director on the well-reviewed 2014 supernatural shocker The Taking of Deborah Logan. He keeps busy, in other words. Nevertheless the blast from the past proved to be a welcome one.
“I always cringe through my own movies,” Keeter says. “Even thirty years later there are scenes where you’ll find yourself saying, ‘Oh, God, I should have done that differently.’ But, that said, it was great to see a bunch of 3D fans having fun with the films. It was sort of a time machine experience for me to see them the way were meant to seen with an enthusiastic audience.”
Rottweiler and Hit the Road Running screen this Sunday, October 15, as part of the Comin’ At Ya! 3-D Program.