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Craig Muckler: From the Microwave into the Taboo

I have a long history with the film Microwave Massacre (1983). I originally rented it from my local video store in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in the mid-1980s. At that time, I was quite honestly still in an idyllic time in my life before the shit would hit the fan, as they say. I was a horror fanatic, who rented and bought these films as a feverish pace. This film at that time of my life was out of the scope of what I thought a horror film should be, and therefore dismissed it. I forgot about it and went about living my life.

By the time I had a chance to view this film after purchasing it from a video store going out of sale in the early 1990s, my life had changed drastically. I was a work-a-day slob who had been divorced, and the money for child support and living expenses came out of my pockets almost as fast as the hair from my quickly balding head. So, the second viewing of Microwave Massacre resonated deeply in my soul, as I sympathized with the deadbeat Donald (Jackie Vernon) and his battles with his unstable wife May. While I never resorted to cannibalism as Donald does in the film, I felt for his empty existence and his separation from reality. I became enamored with the film and made it a priority to purchase the Blu-ray upon its release from Arrow Video in 2016. With that purchase, I found an even deeper appreciation and respect for the film. I fell in love with exploitation films years ago because I craved something different, and Microwave Massacre is well… different. So, when the opportunity arose for me to interview one of the men behind Microwave Massacre, Craig Muckler, I jumped at the chance.

Diabolique: I am unabashed fan of what I consider one of the most original horror films ever, in the film Microwave Massacre. Tells us about your involvement on this film.

CM: After moving to LA, California, after finishing up graduating from the University of Minnesota in Theater Arts and Journalism, I started taking some UCLA film courses in film production. Classic independent filmmaker Irv Berwick taught a class in producing low, low budget film. I wrote the story of Microwave Massacre, which had to follow guidelines as exploitive and make it for the drive-in marketplace. I got an A. Later, while I was a producer on the film Malibu High in Santa Barbara, my co-producer Tom Singer and soundman Wayne Berwick and I were talking over a few beers. I told them my story and they both howled with laughter and said we must produce it after Malibu High. Tom and I would produced it from my storyline, and he’d write the script, and Wayne would direct. With the success of Malibu High, for a couple of young filmmakers, it was easier than expected to raise the funds. In short order we started putting our crew team together, some who had worked on some of the top classic horror films from the era, like the key lighter and gaffer from Phantasm (Roberto A. Quezada) and Robert Burns, the art director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Diabolique: Tells us briefly how you ended up in Hollywood.

CM: As a kid growing up in Northern Minnesota, I had a bad stutter, and at times was bullied as result of it. That said, my grandparents were friends with Rock Hudson’s mother, Kay Olson. When I was young and all the way into high school, Kay would spend a month or so every summer with us. She was like my grandmother, and we’d even spend vacations in Newport Beach with her and occasionally Rock. He even told me that someday my stutter wouldn’t affect me, and I too would be working in films like him. Ever since the age of five I knew I’d be working in films someday. In high school I took speech and acting courses and would not let my stutter interfere with my plans. After graduating from college, I moved to Hollywood. Within two years I was a producer on one of the most successful drive in style films of all time in Malibu High.

Diabolique: Jackie Vernon and Claire Ginsberg as Donald and May respectfully, the unhappy couple, are the reasons that Microwave Massacre works so amazingly well. Tell us how you acquired the services of each.

CM: After starting to secure the funds and putting together our team and our studio (I paid Micky Dolenz of the Monkees $1000 to use his house he was selling). We first sought the services of Rodney Dangerfield who was very interested in playing Donald. His services were just too expensive, so we went with who would turn out to be in the long run, the best possible Donald on the planet in Jackie Vernon, one of the top stand-up comics in the world, famous for the voice of the classic Frosty the Snowman and top comic on late night TV. Vernon said this would be one of the best and most challenging parts of his career. His manager jumped at the chance to have his client be the star of such a startling, surreal film, unlike anything he ever read. Ruth Buzzy wanted to play May in the worst way, as she loved the part and the thought of working with Vernon (who she worked with on the Dean Martin Roasts). Buzzy informed us at the last minute, saying she couldn’t do it because she was set to appear in a Walt Disney film and they wouldn’t let her appear in a cannibal movie. At an earlier audition, the actress Claire Ginsberg had nailed the part of May, which she did in the film, wow, did she ever. 

Diabolique: On the Arrow release it’s noted that the film was originally going to be a lot darker, why the change to what eventually appeared?

CM: Yes, my original story and treatment was of very dark humor (this side of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Once Vernon was involved, we decided to really cater to the obvious funnier side of the Donald character, the way the seasoned comedian Vernon would play it. A lot more gags were added and at times in pre-production we all thought, what the heck is this turning into? Something new, yes, something total different, yes, and a bit of a change from anything appearing in the horror genre, more like in the vein of Eating Raoul (which also used our DP, Karen Grossman). 

Diabolique: The film had setbacks upon its initial release and was shelved for a few years. Did you ever lose faith in the film?

CM: Well at times I think we did. Right after we finished it, some top distributors liked it, like Paramount (who thought we made it for a million dollars, not $100,000) but thought it too risky, thinking that the public would think it too odd a film. United Distribution who had just released the hit film Dawn of The Dead also loved, it but being as it’s not anything like a zombie film, they didn’t know how to market it, so they rejected it. Richard Ellman, a top independent distributor told me, “Are you kidding me Craig, what can I do with this?” Three years later, when the video age was quickly unfolding, Ellman called me back. His Vistar Films had just made a deal with Midnight Video, and he said out of dozens of films they wanted it to be the key film to promote, he said Microwave Massacre stuck with him like glue. The time had final arrived for my total different film. In 1983 I made a deal with England’s Radiance films and it became a top five VHS release over there. Vistar and Midnight Video would release it in both video stores and drive ins at the same time in the summer of 1983. Variety would note this was the first of its kind and we were on the cutting edge. It caught on and become an instant cult film. However, through the years is when it really started to achieve its cult status, that in part to Vernon being the voice of Frosty the Snowman and his turn as a flesh-eating cannibal in our movie. 

Diabolique: The legendary Bob Burns performed the art direction on the film. Burns is probably best remembered for his work on the seminal horror film Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). How did he become involved in the production?

CM: I met Wes Craven and he talked me into using his editor from The Hills Have Eyes. It turns out they were very close friends. The next day I got a resume from Robert Burns and we hired him almost immediately. Through the years Robert would become one of my best friends. Shortly before he passed away, he told me Microwave Massacre was the one film he was most fond of. He said it had a loving feel to it, and of all things, it being about a cannibal. He thought it was amazing how Tom Wayne and I on such a small budget had acquired the services of some of the best horror film personal for that film.

Diabolique: It’s been well over a year since Microwave Massacre was released by Arrow Video on DVD/Blu-Ray. What’s your thoughts on the reception the film has received in that time?

CM: Arrow has done a remarkable job and it appears to be one of their top releases, since its launch in August of 2016. They took great care in the transfer from the original 35MM negative and remastered it. The cost of the remastering and the extras (like our commentary with myself fellow filmmaker Mike Tristano, Wayne Berwick, and star Loren Schein), and the booklet written for the DVD by top critic Steven Thrower, cost half of what the original film cost to make. It was worth it… as the ratings by the many fans who have purchased it per Amazon, give the film constantly a four or five-star rating. The critical response now is treating it like one of the top classic cult films, in fact placing it over many horror films released in the 80s. Also, as such, it’s been playing in many theater’s in cities in the US and Canada, thus, opening it up for a whole new audience to discover. 

MH: Another noteworthy film you were involved in was recently released by Vinegar Syndrome, which is the dark drama Malibu High. Can you tell us a little about your involvement in it and the reception it has received?

CM: Malibu High was a fun film to make. Larry Foldes and I took Irv Berwick’s low budget UCLA film course together in 1977. He’d already planned on getting his own independent film off the ground. Thus, he got myself and Tom Singer to partake with him in this endeavor. Within six months his father started a general partnership and we raised around $60,000 for a film that was to be called Lovely but Deadly. We used our instructor Irv Berwick to direct (Monster of Piedra’s Blancas) and his skeleton crew and students from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara to assist. So Larry Foldes, Tom Singer (associate producer) and myself (coordinating producer) produced Lovely but Deadly. We made a deal with Crown international (with a tidy advance) and two years after moving to LA, I had my first produced film playing theaters worldwide. Crown changed the name to Malibu High for marketing purposes. 

MH: Please tells us about your latest release A Taboo Identity, which looks at the life of the legendary adult film actress turned metaphysical counselor, Kay Parker.

CM: A Taboo Identity I conceived with scholar and sociologist David W Wahl. We decided to do a feature documentary exploring the identity work involving Kay Parker shifting from being a legend of the adult film industry (classic film Taboo) to her current occupation as a metaphysical counsel. It has turned out to be a very positive and uplifting experience for all involved. I produced it along with David W. Wahl and Mike Sherry. We employed the services of friends and associates including the legendary Seka, Howie Gordon, Leon Issac Kennedy, Eric Edwards and Bill Margold. The beautiful and highly talented Jill Schoelen returns to the screen as our star interviewer (fans know her from film classics The Stepfather and Popcorn). We have already made a major DVD deal with MVD, release scheduled for early into 2018, including some theatrical dates.

MH: What’s on the horizon for you?

CM: Mike Sherry, David Wahl and myself are already working on the follow up to A Taboo Identity, exploring David’s theory on sexuality. We hope to have the services of Jill Schoelen again. Also, we have in the works to produce one of the most anticipated werewolf film in decades, called Ripped to Shreds (written by David Baughn, producer of Graduation Day and myself). It’s a fun old-fashioned melodrama which has already attached the likes of Jill Schoelen, Bruce Davison and Chris Mulkey to it. Also, a true-life drama called Howard Lake, to be filmed in Minnesota (about an unsolved AXE murder of 1897), to be directed by Jill Schoelen.  

Thank you Craig!

About Mike Hauss

Besides writing for Diabolique, Michael has also written for the magazines Monster!, Weng’s Chop, We Belong Dead, Grindhouse Purgatory, Exploitation Retrospect and various others. A regular contributor to the online blog Theater of Guts and to the Spaghetti Western Database. Has also had his work published in three books; 70’s Monster Memories, Unsung Horrors and Son of Unsung Horrors. Lives in the United States with his daughter and their cat Rotten Ralph.

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