Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dan O’Bannon: Real Horrorshow

Halloween is coming, which means scary movies on everyone’s radar. Last week I was invited to the USC Film School to see a documentary titled Shock Value: The Movie—How Dan O’Bannon and Some USC Outsiders Helped Invent Modern Horror. This assemblage of USC student films circa 1970 provides a riff on Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value, a fascinating book on the evolution of contemporary American horror films that I’ll revisit as October 31 creeps near. At USC I was enthralled by my glimpse of student work in the early 1970s, full of sex, miniskirts, and endless cigarettes. (The level of violence, though, was tame indeed, even by today’s TV standards.)

These days, USC’s film school—the nation’s oldest—is housed in palatial digs built by George Lucas and other Hollywood royalty. But in Dan O’Bannon’s era, film students mingled in a ramshackle former stable. Everyone knew everyone, and they all knew Dan O’Bannon, who was probably both the weirdest and the most multi-talented of the film geeks. O’Bannon could do it all: writing, directing, acting, special effects. But, as a post-screening panel made crystal-clear,  he was not an easy guy to be around. For one thing, he would never suffer a fool . . . or a bad movie. At student screenings  in  the hallowed Room 108, he could be blunt when criticizing the work of his classmates. And his private life was turbulent. He kept by his bedside a huge stack of porn , topped by a wicked-looking .45.

The evening at USC was essentially a tribute to the work of O’Bannon, who’s best remembered today as the writer of Alien. (He also directed such Hollywood hits as The Return of the Living Dead, but succumbed to Crohn’s disease in 2006.) The documentary kicked off with his funny and gruesome Blood Bath, in which a young man bumbles from a morning-after hangover to a death most bloody. Dan’s acting chops (as well as his makeup skills) were also on display when he impersonated an elderly codger in the futuristic Good Morning, Dan. Most memorably, in Judson’s Release -- which was later renamed Foster’s Release -- he played a maniacal stalker, harassing a pretty babysitter over the telephone before making a deadly in-person appearance.

Sound familiar? Author Jason Zinoman applauds this student film (directed by my future Roger  Corman buddy Terence Winkless) for establishing the horror tropes that we associate with John Carpenter’s big breakthrough movie, Halloween. No surprise: O’Bannon and Carpenter were USC classmates, who together had their first taste of success with the spoofy sci fi flick, Dark Star. This student film was snapped up by Hollywood and expanded into a feature, with O’Bannon on camera (eluding the fearsome tomato monster) as well as collaborating with Carpenter on the script. When they hit the big time, though, Carpenter was only too happy to dump his old pal. It was clear from all of the evening’s speakers that John Carpenter is not the most generous of men.

Of course, that’s the way Hollywood operates, and in later years  Dan O’Bannon suffered
 his share of betrayals. He had to fight for credit on screenplays he had originated, and (according to an elaborate story that was told from the stage) the great Orson Welles apparently swiped one of his story ideas.  Others have gotten far richer, but his widow Diane insisted that  “what he cared about was the work . . . and the audience.”  Diane knew Dan for 17 years before they married, by which time he had mellowed from a weirdo into “a fusty old guy with a very big heart.”


  1. I am a big fan of Dan O'Bannon's - I enjoy his movies and the crusty persona he cultivated. However, I take a little umbrage at the John Carpenter bashing. Whatever happened to derail their friendship and partnership in filmmaking - Carpenter went on to great success with Halloween and the movies that came after. But he certainly shared the credit for those movies with his co-writer and producer Debra Hill. She is credited right along side him, and every time he is interviewed about those early movies he certainly cites her contributions. Maybe the "turbulent" fellow who kept the porn and gun by his bed - while undeniably talented - simply didn't play well with others?

  2. I understand your concern, but the consensus at USC that evening was that John Carpenter is the one who doesn't play well with others. (Everyone chuckled over one story they couldn't/wouldn't disclose.) I have my own John Carpenter anecdote that fits the pattern, but I'll save it for another day. No one denies his talent, but -- Debra Hill notwithstanding -- he seems to be short on graciousness.