Bill Blair was a visionary. A longtime film collector and fan, he spent his early adult years primarily as an appliance salesman for a Tulsa concern, installing some of the first color TVs that city had seen. In the early ’60s, he began parlaying his obsession with celluloid into a 16 mm film-rental business called United Films. In those pre-video days, the only way to watch a commercial film outside of a movie theater—or sliced up by commercials on one of the three network affiliate stations available in most of America at the time—was to rent it and thread it onto a film projector. Movie clubs and other organizations relied on 16 mm rental outfits like United to provide those reels of film, and Blair’s company became one of the best-known in the country.
The thing that made Bill Blair different from many of the other film rental people, however, was that he would always try to sew up all the nontheatrical rights to the movies he acquired. This was, of course, long before there was anything like a home video market, but his sons Bob and Don—who joined Bill in the family film business— believe their father saw it coming.
When the whole idea of videotaped movies for home viewing began to take hold in the late 1970s, the rights that Blair had presciently purchased became the foundation of a whole new business, and his United Video, later VCI Entertainment, became a pioneer in selling movies on videocassette—at first to video rental houses and later, directly to consumers. His pioneering days, however, were just beginning.
By the time the early ’80s rolled around, Blair had also gotten in on the burgeoning cable television market, using his movies to provide all the programming for a local cable channel. Working with him on the production end was Linda Lewis, promotions director for Tulsa radio station KRAV. Because her position involved getting publicity for new features coming to Tulsa theaters, she was doing a lot of face-to-face interviews with movie stars, and videotaped versions of those sit-downs were the perfect thing to play between Blair’s pictures on the cable station.
“When I started being invited on the interview junkets, I went to Bill Blair and said, ‘I have this footage. Would it be something we could work with?’” remembered Lewis recently. “He said, ‘If you can learn to edit, you can do whatever you want with it.’ So I was working in his back room on his old three-fourth-inch editing machine, putting together these fifteen-minute Intermission with Linda Lewis shows.”
Lewis’s husband, Christopher Lewis, was hosting an afternoon newsmagazine show for Tulsa’s KOTV at the time—but he was itching to direct a feature film. And he had the pedigree. Not only was he the son of screen legend Loretta Young, but he had also gone to film school at the University of Southern California, where his pals included George Lucas.
Blair knew this, of course. And when his pipeline for new video releases began to shut down, thanks to more and more companies— including major studios—getting into the homevid act, it was probably only natural for him to start thinking about making his own picture.
Truth to tell, he’d thought about it before. He’d even cowritten a script with a then-Tulsa-based neurologist, Dr. Stuart Rosenthal (also the author of 1976’s The Cinema of Federico Fellini). They came up with a horror-style picture titled The Sorority House Murders, which Blair initially wanted to do as a theatrical film with his friend Buster Crabbe—a former screen Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Billy the Kid—in the lead. But Crabbe died in 1983, before Blair could get it going, and the script went into a drawer.
Then one day Blair brought it back out—and showed it to the Lewises. “He said, ‘I’ve got this script. What would it cost us to do a movie on it?,’’ recalled Christopher. “So we looked at it and we said, ‘Well, maybe $25,000.’ I made a couple of additions to the script—they had a snake in it that got in and scared somebody, but I wrote it out because it was too hard to get a rattlesnake. A couple of things like that. I said, ‘If you want to make it, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll see if we can talk Sony into giving us Betacams.’ The Betacams were very portable cameras, [using] half-inch tape, and all the TV stations were just getting them. They were just coming in. So we called Sony, and they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll give you a couple of the cameras and an editing system if you’ll say it was recorded on Betacams.’ Actually, I think they charged us a thousand bucks or something, but it was a very good deal.”
Lewis’s idea was to shoot a feature film like a TV soap opera. He’d gotten the idea from his sister, actress Judy Lewis, who had produced some episodes of the daytime drama Texas in the early ’80s. “I knew they taped an hour long show every day, and I thought if we used videotape instead of film, and edited it ourselves, we could do it,” remembered Lewis. “Then, if we used the crew from [the KOTV show] PM Magazine, and we all took our week-off vacation at the same time, with the weekend we’d have nine days to shoot.”
Although the film ended up costing a couple thousand dollars more than Lewis estimated, and a few pickup shots had to be done after the nine days were over, director Christopher and producer Linda were right in the ballpark with both their estimates. “We had to be right about the shooting schedule,” said Christopher. “We all had to be back at our jobs on Monday.”
Although Blood Cult—as the movie was ultimately titled—was a local production in every sense of the word, its cast featured one actor who had a handful of theatrical-feature credits—Julie Andelman was her name. A former Tulsan, her resume included the 1980 horror picture The Silent Scream. In Andelman was top-billed as Tina, the daughter of the local sheriff who gets involved in a series of killings on campus that point to a dog-worshipping cult.
“I think Bill Blair brought her up,” recalled Linda. “I think he knew she was a Tulsa girl, and we didn’t have to pay for a hotel if she was from Tulsa—she could stay at her mom’s place. That’s how cheap we were.”
The cast was rounded out by Tulsa-based actors Charles Ellis (in the sheriff role originally written for Crabbe), Josef Hardt (the TV announcer who’d previously costarred in the Oklahoma-produced Thirty Dangerous Seconds), Bennie Lee McGowan, and James Vance. McGowan was a local theater veteran, while Vance was a writer, an award-winning playwright, and a well-known Tulsa actor. (Most recently, he’s made his mark as the highly acclaimed scripter of the graphic novels Kings in Disguise and On the Ropes.)
“One thing about everybody we used: they all hit their lines and did their thing,” noted Christopher Lewis. “They were theater people who knew their stuff, and they were good at it. Everybody took it really seriously and did a good job.”
Despite its ultralow budget, the production was also aided by the reliable Oklahoma Film Industry Task Force and its coordinator, Mary Nell Clark. “Mary Nell really helped us in getting locations,” Christopher said. “We didn’t have enough money to pay anybody, so we pulled in favors.”
Even with Clark’s help, though, things could get a little rocky. Among the locations she found for the shooting was Cascia Hall, a private Tulsa high school where much of the dormitory footage was shot. Because this was a horror-exploitation film, there were lots of scantily clad young women present, along with a considerable amount of fake blood and gruesome makeup effects. A combination calculated to draw young male viewers to the movie, it also drew them to the filming.
“We had to take the boys who actually lived there and move them over so we could shoot in that part of the dormitory,” explained Christopher. “The girls were all in their little skimpy stuff, you know, and it was like heaven for the boys. They were drooling, looking through windows, all of that stuff, and word got around Cascia Hall that night that we weren’t on the up-and-up and maybe we were doing a porno film. So we wrapped it up there about one in the morning, and we’re due the next morning at the big library at the University of Tulsa. Mary Nell and I had called the president and personally cleared it through him. He’d okayed it a week or two before. But we show up the next morning and the security people tell us we can’t set up. We can’t film.”
As it turned out, the president, Dr. J. Paschal Twyman, was traveling and couldn’t be reached, and the group was told that no one else on campus had the authority to let them shoot. Christopher, however, believes that they were kept away from the campus because “word came over from Cascia Hall that we were doing a porno film.” He also recalled that a young woman had been violently assaulted on the campus not long before, and perhaps school officials thought that the Blood Cult crew was intending to exploit that incident.
“I didn’t even know about it,” Christopher said. “That was the farthest thing from our minds. All we wanted to do was do our story, and Paschal Twyman knew what the story was about. But someone who was in charge while he was out of town took on the responsibility of not letting us in there.”
Clark jumped to the rescue, securing a new location on the fly—Tulsa’s Central Library—and the production lost only a few hours. But it gained a tagline, one that ran across much of the promotional material that heralded Blood Cult’s release to video stores: “A movie so gruesomely realistic, it was banned from two mid-western campuses!”
Shot during March of 1985, Blood Cult was ready for distribution (at a cost of $59.95 per cassette) by August. It received a lukewarm notice in the August 21 issue of Variety, which found reviewer “Lor” taking positive note of director Christopher Lewis’s development of “some effective atmosphere, especially in night scenes”; the convincing work of special-effects makeup artists Dave Powell and Robert Brewer; and director of photography Paul MacFarlane’s “wide angle shots and moody lighting [that] prove horror via video can compete with the filmed variety.”
The people behind Blood Cult found out their film could compete in the video marketplace as well. According to Christopher Lewis, “It cost $27,000 to make. VCI spent $100,000 promoting it. But on the opening day of its release, because cassettes were selling at that time for sixty bucks a shot, it made $400,000.” The direct-to-video feature ended up grossing well over a million dollars and is still available from VCI.
Before Blood Cult, VCI had released a movie now and again that had never seen a legitimate theatrical release and had subsequently been acquired from filmmakers looking to cut their losses. Certainly, that was true for an early ’80s movie called Copperhead, made in Sedalia, Missouri, by a filmmaker named Leland Payton. He had shot it on one-inch videotape, hoping to bump it up to 35 mm for theaters. But that never happened, and Blair acquired it for VCI and took it directly to home video.
Copperhead, in fact, is sometimes cited as the first real made-for-home-video movie, and Blair in fact mentioned it in interviews as an inspiration for his own efforts. But the distinction is not so much about the medium as it is about intent. Payton and those auteurs before him went into their projects with the idea of being seen on the big screen, whether they were shooting on 35 mm or 16 mm film or—in Payton’s case—one inch videotape. Blair and the Lewises and Blood Cult did not have that intention—and that makes all the difference. As Bill Blair told the author in an interview for a May 19, 1985, Tulsa World story: “There are three markets in the movie industry that command big, big dollars. Those are the home video market, the theatrical market, and the television market. The way we feel is that when you can hit two out of three, you’re doing pretty well.”
They did more than pretty well with Blood Cult. They changed the face of the industry forever. The release of Blood Cult in August 1985 represents nothing less than the line of demarcation between the old definition of a movie and the new one, which continues to evolve even as these words are being written.
Reprinted with permission from Shot in Oklahoma: A Century Of Sooner State Cinema by John Wooley, courtesy University of Oklahoma Press.