Don Jones: A Jack of All Film Trades

Exploitation filmmaker the late Don Jones (1938 – 2021) is best known by lifelong horror fans for his writing and directing debut in the genre – the infamous Schoolgirls in Chains (1973). Riffing on Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological horror thriller masterpiece Psycho (1960), it is encapsulated in a sleazy atmosphere, telling a haunting and shocking tale featuring disturbing scenes of sexually abusive violence. Nubile young women fight for survival, as a pair of deranged brothers holds them captive in chains in the basement of their Californian orange farm and tortures them, seemingly under the influence of their domineering crazy mother.

The elder brother in Schoolgirls in Chains is played by fellow independent filmmaking stalwart Gary Kent, who as well as an actor was a stuntman and occasional director, and was Quentin Tarantino’s inspiration for Brad Pitt’s stuntman character Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). Kent and Jones met when they started out in Hollywood in the early-1960s, while they were working nights at a restaurant in California as a doorman and a valet parking attendant, respectively, to support themselves, and so it freed up the daytimes for interviews and film work. Don Jones managed to get work at major studio Warner Bros. as a juicer (chief electrician) on eight-times Academy Award winning musical comedy-drama My Fair Lady (1964), and Gary Kent helped him get into the low-budget film business when he hired him for stunts and effects work. Jones tried his hand at acting too, but with wife and children, it was not paying enough to make a living, so he got behind the camera. A Pennsylvanian farm boy, a once aspiring middleweight professional boxer in his teens, and a former officer in The United States Army Signal Corps, he would find himself working in a variety of areas in filmmaking – gaffer, sound, editing, he taught himself how to use camera and lighting, and of course, he eventually became a writer and director. A jack-of-all-trades in low-budget filmmaking, and skilled in all, Don Jones worked very hard throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to make ends meet, including working on commercials, for the Discovery Channel, on educational programmes, and a show for German television.        

Jones made his uncredited co-directorial debut in adult film, while serving as a credited producer on the long lost black and white nudie Excited (1968), for notorious Poverty Row producer Ed De Priest and Canyon Distribution. The credited co-producer, cinematographer, and director is Gary Graver (1938 – 2006) under the pseudonym Akdov Telmig. Graver was a prolific director and cinematographer of pornography all the way through the industry’s evolution from nudies and roughies to hardcore, right up until the late-1990s under another alias Robert McCallum. Under his real name, he was the last cinematographer for legendary filmmaker Orson Welles (1915 – 1985) on The Other Side of the Wind, finally released in 2018, and shot many horror films from the late 1970s to throughout the 1980s, including The Toolbox Murders (1978), Mortuary (1983), and They’re Playing with Fire (1984). He even wrote and directed his own horror Trick or Treats (1982), as well as serving as its director of photography. Although unconfirmed, the credited screenwriter of Excited is Edward Davis Wood Jr. – the one and only Ed Wood (1924 – 1978). The World’s Worst Director of classic B-movie shlock, his magnum opus of cinematic awfulness is Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). By this time, he was making a living as a writer and director of softcore porn and as a writer of adult novels under various noms de plume, one of which for his book author work was actually ‘Akdov Telmig’, the name of his favourite drink spelled backwards – Vodka Gimlet. Graver adopted this pseudonym again for various roles after Wood’s passing, one of which was as the director of the softcore comedy short One Million Heels B.C. (1993). Its title is a sly nod to Ed Wood’s screenwriting work on sexploitation comedy One Million AC/DC (1969) directed by De Priest, which Don Jones was the uncredited DP on, and features Gary Kent in an uncredited small role. Although, Wood’s alias on that film is misspelled as ‘Akdon Telmig’. The trailer for Excited can be seen on Something Weird Video’s Twisted Sex Vol 09.

Next up for Jones as a director of adult film was the sleazier roughie The Kiss-Off, released in the same year of 1968, again for Ed De Priest and Canyon Distribution, and starring Gary Kent. Roughies were softcore in nature focusing on the spectacle of T&A, and darker in tone than the lighter nudies of the era, but no more sexually explicit. Jones is credited here as D.E. Jones (his full name was Donald Evan Jones), but IMDB has it down as two different filmmakers. After The Kiss-Off, he refused to work with De Priest again due to his heavy drug addiction and failing to pay everything he owed him for his work. Therefore, thanks to his friendship with his future director of photography on Schoolgirls in Chains, Ron Garcia, his next directorial effort would be the nudie detective melodrama Who Did Cock Robin? (1970) for Republic Amusements Corp., which was owned by sultan of sexploitation Bob Cresse (1936 – 1998). His most infamous work was for his previous production and distribution company Olympic International Films, Love Camp 7 (1969) directed by Lee Frost, which Cresse also wrote and acted in, playing the role of the Commandant. The film would influence two sub-genres – women in prison and naziploitation, and it remains banned by the BBFC to this day. Garcia had previously directed for Bob Cresse the unknown sci-fi The Pleasure Machines (1969), which was barley released. He would go on to have an accomplished career as a cinematographer in film and television. His most notable work is Michael Mann’s crime drama series Crime Story (1986 – 1988), and crime thriller TV film L.A. Takedown (1989), which formed the basis for Mann’s 1995 masterwork Heat, and David Lynch’s pilot of cult mystery horror series Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991), and Lynch’s theatrical film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Who Did Cock Robin? is easily confused with another 1970 nudie called Who Killed Cock Robin?, which IMDB lists as Jones’ film credited as Donald Jones.

As adult film transitioned into hardcore, Don Jones wanted no part of it, so he made his first endeavour into horror. This was made possible by Ron Garcia, as he met producer Dave Arthur who wanted to make a couple of low-budget horrors. Schoolgirls in Chains was entirely financed by executive producer Arthur with a budget of $42,000, and filmed over 13 days in Riverside, California. The shooting title was The Black Widow, although, Dave Arthur thought it sounded too blaxploitation, so he came up with Playdead, but when the film was bought for distribution by Mirror Releasing, they slapped the Schoolgirls in Chains title on it so it would sound more exploitative, and therefore, more potentially profitable. It went through various other titles in the USA for VHS, DVD, and reissue releases – Let’s Play Dead, Girls in Chains, and Come Play with Us, respectively. It was called Abducted in the United Kingdom and Australia, and is also known in the Land Down Under as The Abduction. Swingers Massacre a.k.a. Inside Amy (1974) was written by Arthur’s wife, directed by Garcia, and shot by Jones. Don Jones would then serve as director of photography on The House of Seven Corpses (1974) directed by Paul Harrison, with Gary Kent as associate producer and production manager, and Ron Garcia as art director, who also had a small role. Jones’ next job as DP would actually lead to his next gig as a director, which would end up being his most memorable directed film next to Schoolgirls in Chains, albeit more obscure.

“Your Feminine Pulchritude is Detestable” – The Love Butcher (1975)

Don Jones was hired as the cinematographer on the twisted sleazy trash piece The Love Butcher, produced by Mirror Releasing, with Mikel Angel (1926 – 2001) in the director’s chair, who was also co-screenwriter with James M. Tanenbaum credited as Jim Evergreen. Angel’s best known work is co-writing supernatural horror Psychic Killer, released in the same year of 1975, and writing the screenplay for horror sub-genre pastiche Grotesque (1988) starring Linda Blair. He was an actor too, even having a small role in Swingers Massacre. Tanenbaum would go on to have a successful career as a sound mixer, and his work includes three Brian De Palma films – Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984), and The Untouchables (1987). Shot in twelve days on a meagre $40,000 budget, The Love Butcher would be Mikel Angel’s sole directorial effort, and this could be because his first cut was deemed by the entire crew to make no sense and was unwatchable. Jones was then brought in to finish the film as director and do rewrites, with Austin McKinney as his director of photography. Mckinney had just finished shooting indie horror Axe (1974), which would end up as one of the 39 prosecuted films on the DPP list during the video nasties controversy in the UK, and he would later do visual effects photography for John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), and James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984). Don Jones created a new supporting character, so he did a little more casting, and injected humour into the script. About half of the film would end up being his, so he is co-credited director with Angel.

Gruesome murders of beautiful naked young women can be seen in this proto-slasher. It was released in the grindhouse theatres and on the drive-in circuit the year after Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas – 1974 genre landmarks that would set the template for the modern horror film. It was given a slightly wider release in 1983, in an attempt to capitalize on the slasher boom, which was ignited by the gory elaboration of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). The Love Butcher was ahead of its time during its limited run in 1975, as it predates a sub-genre that would be rounded out and established three years later in John Carpenter’s horror masterclass Halloween (1978), but was barley seen. Despite its ‘83 lesser limited re-release, The Love Butcher got lost in the sea of red of all the cookie cutter slasher flicks released every weekend, sinking into obscurity, as it does not entirely live up toits title, featuring only a little bloodletting and female nudity. It does hit this mark a few times though, and does so effectively. In addition, Don Jones’ contribution of humour contradicts Mikel Angel’s sleazy nature, making for an uneven tone; the film is unable to decide what it wants to be – dark comedy, or powerful trash cinema in its disturbing depictions of misogynistic violence. It had no chance of being placed in the same league as those three aforementioned influential classics, but it is a quirky little film that entertains as a schizoid psychological character study, again inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The opening three shots of the pre-title sequence perfectly sum up the basic premise. The camera pans across toy train carriages on a track in a garden from the right of the screen where bushes are, to and past a flower bush. On the other side of this, we see the dead body of a young woman lying on the grass, impaled with a garden rake through her back that is sticking out of a bloodied wound on her stomach, a pool of blood has stained the grass, and we hear composer Richard Hieronymus’ juxtaposing, harmonious, romanticized score. Hieronymus would work on four more of Jones’ films – the 1950s set sex comedy Sweater Girls (1978), the ghost story cannibal slasher The Forest (1982), actioner Lethal Pursuit (1988), and supernatural horror Molly and the Ghost (1991). We then see a close-up of a man’s hands using a pair of secateurs (pruning shears) to cut off the head of a flower, and in the final shot, he throws it at the woman he has just murdered, aiming it perfectly at the rake, of which it hangs off. The title The Love Butcher then appears over a close-up of a flower. The film’s original title The Gardener would have been more suitable, but The Lover Butcher has a more exploitative ring to it.

This is just one of a string of bizarre and brutal murders of young attractive housewives with the use of garden tools that has an upscale suburban neighbourhood in a grip of terror. Shot entirely on location in Los Angeles, California, the gross interior décor of these suburban houses just reminds us of why the 1970s was the decade taste forgot. Local gardener Caleb (James Lemp credited as Erik Stern), a bald, hunched over, crippled simpleton, wearing overalls and thick-lensed glasses, performs his daily duties tending to the gardens of local female residents that verbally abuse him. At the end of his days, he returns to his filthy little apartment and argues with his younger brother Lester, as they are at odds with each other due to a sibling rivalry. Lester turns out to be just a mannequin with a wig, as Caleb is not as he appears. When pushed too far, Caleb transforms into Lester (also Lemp), his confident, charming, handsome with chiselled features, yet psychotic other personality, and using a variety of disguises and accents as crude stereotypes, gains entry into the women’s homes to seduce them, and then punish them for wronging Caleb, convinced all females are evil. “Your ugliness is on the outside… theirs is hidden away”, Lester tells Caleb.

The useless police are unable to catch Caleb as Lester, despite all the women being killed with, you know, gardening tools and, you know, Caleb being their regular gardener. In the film’s procedural investigation aspect, the police chief played by veteran exploitation character actor Richard Kennedy (1929 – 1985, 1975’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS) butts heads with local newspaper reporter Russell (Jeremiah Beecher, in his only acting role) who berates them for their incompetence in failing to catch the killer. This just makes him a hypocrite, however, as Caleb is his girlfriend Flo’s gardener. Kay Neer plays Flo, also giving her sole acting performance, portraying the only likable female character. In the end, Caleb must overcome Lester to put an end to his reign of terror.  

It is hard to care about the female victims as they are cruel bitches; we see them ridiculing the weird yet harmless gimp Caleb for his disability, and cannot feel sorry for them when they meet their grisly demises at the hands of Lester. It could have been the writers’ intention to get us to root for the unfortunate Caleb when getting his revenge as Lester, if it were not for his alter ego being his polar opposite. Not only is he an alpha-male stud that sees himself as a Godly figure of masculinity that all women should worship, but he is a detestable misogynist too, he just hates all women anyway, so we are certainly not going to be cheering him on either. Lester’s hatred for women stems from a childhood trauma related to his mother, revealed in a flashback depicting the origin of his madness in the film’s climatic twist, which is a tragic heart-breaking moment. In author Stephen Thrower’s book Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (Fab Press, 2008), he points out an auteur thread of “nasty mothers” in Don Jones’ work. He writes that the mother in Schoolgirls in Chains is an “incestuous dragon”, and here Caleb/Lester’s mother guilt-trips him, laying the blame on him with callous words, “sowing the seeds of future mental illness in her son.”

In Nightmare USA, which was a key part of my research into Jones’ career, there is a quote from The Aurum Encyclopedia: Horror (Aurum Press, 1984) in Thrower’s interview with the filmmaker. “The Love Butcher is interesting in that whilst its production pre-dates the stalk- ’n’ -slash craze, its ironic tongue-in-cheek script actually highlights and parodies the gross misogyny of the sub-genre.” A long line of short-sighted critics have accused the slasher film of being nothing more than the male fantasies of the sexualized mutilation of women, but miss the point that the lone killers are often unattractive and socially inept (Caleb), and mentally ill and morally abhorrent, their homicidal actions are never morally justified (Lester). No male viewer in their right mind could identify with them. The slasher sub-genre also inhabits a Conservative Catholic/Christian world – pre-marital sex, drugs, and alcohol are all sins, and these killers embody this poisonous worldview. In The Love Butcher, Pat (Eve Mac, another one-time performer) is Don Jones’ character. After a few beers, Lester seduces her in her home, then a bible-bashing nuisance turns up at the door preaching to her about how her “immortal soul is in jeopardy”. She closes the door on him, and then Lester stabs her to death. The scene predates John Carpenter’s template slasher Halloween by three years, a film that would establish this as a major slasher trope codifier.

The following paragraph contains spoilers. Lester kills warm-hearted Flo out of jealously, as due to his sibling rivalry, he is infuriated at the kindness she showed Caleb, who pleads with him not to do it. This most shocking murder sequence is purposely saved for Flo, as she is the only sympathetic female character. Used as buffers are moments of romantic light-heartedness  between herself and lover Russell, including their plan to get married, which makes us like the couple and relate to them, and we are made to think they are the ones who will bring down Lester, because of Russell’s determination to catch the killer. This comfort zone placing makes Flo’s nasty unsettling death scene feel all the more tragic. As they struggle, Lester tears off her clothes until she is completely naked, and he tells her, “You will leave this world as you entered it.” As she sits on the floor trying to cover herself with her arms, she begs for death rather than being tortured, to which he obliges, and hacks her to death with a serrated garden hoe. She dies covered in blood. End of spoilers.

Lead James Lemp (1938 – 2012) who was often credited as Erik Stern, as he is here, gives what should have been a breakout performance in his dual role as Caleb/Lester, carrying the film that would not have worked without him. The actor has a lot of charisma, and is full of manic energy in a highly memorable turn. We sympathize with the poor Caleb, but are terrified of the menacing and merciless Lester, and Lemp’s transformation is astonishingly convincing. Lester taunts his victims with oh-so over the top monologues consisting of ridiculous demented dialogue…

“Your feminine pulchritude is detestable, and you were trying to drain the energy from me!”

“You emasculate a man with your bottomless body pits. You leave him empty and unfulfilled. You drain him like a sewer into a cesspool.”

“I am the great male Adonis of the universe! I am beautiful, I am love. I am Lester, and I am alive.” 

“You’re going to make love to me. Satiate me. Fill me with nymphoid satisfaction. Drain me. And then you’ll lie at the foot of my alter. And adore my godly beauty.”

He even has a catchphrase – “But of course!”

When the two personalities spar when alone in their dingy poky apartment, it is pure pitch black comedy. Lester berates Caleb for his handicap – “You’re ugly. You’re a cripple. No one loves a cripple or a mental moron… blame yourself for what you are.”, and “I shall go to her. Women love me, Caleb. I’m not like you. You’re ugly. But I am handsome and delightful. She shall love me, Caleb, as much as she hated you. I am love, total love. I am Lester, and I am alive!” Unfortunately, due to the obscureness of the film, James Lemp would end up playing bit parts on TV shows, but would land a supporting role in Cannon’s Charles Bronson action vehicle Assassination (1987).

Most of the performances from the supporting cast are what we would expect due to the nature of this independent ultra-low budget production, but while not special, none is bad, as the actors perform capably enough in doing what the screenplay requires of them. The real stand out here is the lovely Robin Sherwood. Her character Sheila tells Caleb that his services are not needed while her husband is away for a month working, because she does not want strangers around while she is home alone. He becomes agitated and it freaks her out, so she tells him to leave. She is married to a mean selfish husband who does not fulfill her needs in the bedroom. This seems to set up her seduction by Lester, but it does not play out this way, subverting our expectations, as he fails to bed her, which Caleb mocks. Spoilers until further notice. In an original murder sequence, as Sheila is swimming in her private pool, Lester dives in with a hosepipe, in doing so, he loses his wig, and he attacks her, in which during the struggle he tears off her bikini, and then forces the hosepipe down her throat drowning her in phallic rape symbolism. He takes her dripping wet naked corpse to the bathroom and puts her in the bathtub, which he fills with water until it overflows, to make it look like a suicide. End of spoilers. Sherwood went on to star in David Schmoeller’s cult classic supernatural horror Tourist Trap (1979) produced by Charles Band. She would have a memorable small role in a scene in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. She achieved a little fame in Cannon’s smash hit vigilante action sequel Death Wish II (1982) directed by Michael Winner, playing the traumatized rape victim Carol, the daughter of protagonist Paul Kersey, played by Charles Bronson. She then retired from acting.

While not as solid an effort as Don Jones’ best film as writer and director, Schoolgirls in Chains, The Love Butcher has enough highlights to make it enjoyable viewing, and it is certainly better than his next trip into horror with his unsuccessful mix of supernatural and slasher in The Forest. It is far from perfect, but considering the not ideal circumstances of its production history, it is surprising it turned out as well as it did, which is testament to Jones’ talent in undertaking such a salvage job. I kept my critique as spoiler free as I could, and gave spoiler warnings, as this competently made pretty good little curio is waiting to be plucked from obscurity by exploitation and slasher enthusiasts, and added to their collections. Code Red’s 2013 DVD and 2016 Blu-ray releases have made this possible. It is a very good remaster presenting the film in its original (2.35:1) aspect ratio in Techniscope, and features a commentary track by Don Jones and film historian R.A. Thorburn (a.k.a. R.A. the Rugged Man, the hip hop artist), and moderated by Lee Christian.