CREATURES FOR KIDS: A Book that Endeavors to Explore the Obscure Depths of Horror and SciFi Kiddie Cinema! Exclusive Interview with Authors John Campopiano and Matthew Spry!
If you’re a fan of exploitation and cult cinema, chances are you’ve always had an affinity for monsters. Whether they were romping around the dark corners of your adolescent brain, terrorizing you from your TV screen, or manifested in an alchemic mix of both, your formative years were invariably lined with some sort of slimy, sharp-toothed bogey that was most likely hiding under your bed. And admittedly, at times, we all want to go back to our cereal-stuffed 10-year-old selves and relive some of those early scares that are so often drenched with radical nostalgia.
Cue writers John Campopiano and Matthew Spry: two dudes currently concocting a book that aims to explore the dual-genre cinematic oddities of kid’s horror flicks. That may sound like a bit of an oxymoron, but these sometimes cheesy, often unintentionally insane, but undeniably influential slices of tween-targeted cinema were prone to provide that proverbial bridge for an adolescent weird film fan to graduate into a full-fledged fanatic for R-Rated fright flicks. And, of course, a ton of these kooky kid films and programs are only available via VHS. Read on, my fellow Videovores, and hear from John and Matt as they dig their claws into the depths of kiddie creature cinema and prepare to bring you a little monster tome of their own…
Co-Author John Campopiano with an original poster for the Polish film, PRZYJACIEL WESOLEGO DIABLA, described by John as, “a beautiful, atmospheric family horror/sci-fi story in the vein of WILLOW.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your creative history, and your current role in the world of multifaceted media preservation?
John: I’ve always considered myself to be a creative weirdo, though it wasn’t until around 2011 that I began to turn that self-perceived creativity into something tangible. That year another close friend, Justin White, and I began work on a documentary film chronicling the making of Stephen King’s PET SEMATARY—from book, to film, to horror cult classic. Since then, many of my creative pursuits have focused on writing about films and television for a variety of outlets including Dread Central, Mashable, and The Wrap. In 2015, I started my own organization, The New England Media and Memory Coalition (NEMMC) for which I also write and edit articles. Professionally, I work as the Archivist/Records Manager for the PBS investigative documentary television series, FRONTLINE. My work there focuses heavily on the organization and preservation of the digital assets that go into our broadcast films.
Matt: I’ve been blogging about martial arts B-films for a little more than six years, and just last year, I started writing about ephemeral film and video, especially those held at moving image archives, with The Archival Eye. I wrote about area film screenings for an online zine called Boston Hassle for a short time, and I’ve also collaborated with John on pieces that were published on Dread Central and his NEMMC website. I don’t perform media preservation in any professional context, but have always done so on some personal level, most often with old home videos and films.
The logo, man! Be sure to check out the site here. It's a good one, Tapeheads.
Tell us about the inspiration to author your current project CREATURES FOR KIDS? What was / is your attraction to this adolescent-centric sort of monster cinema?
John: My sense is that this book has actually been brewing for years—just barely underneath the surface—but I didn’t fully realize it until around March 2016. After rediscovering a film I had rented with my parents as a kid, MY GRANDPA IS A VAMPIRE, I developed a strong interest in horror films that were made for kids. It’s a subgenre that, in my opinion, is often forgotten or overlooked simply because they’re not straight horror or children’s films in the traditional sense. Sometimes these films are too benign for the hardcore horror fan, while also being too intense or even risqué for the younger audiences they claim to be catering to. This is one reason that some of these films have been tough to market and, subsequently, have been forgotten with time. Anyway, as I began researching and (in some instances) writing about these films the thought came to me to isolate my focus on creature/monster films and to explore the elements they have in common. Why was this film made for a younger audience? What’s the story trying to say to kids or even teach them? What do the creatures in these stories represent and how do they fit into the larger plotlines? As I tracked down and began to watch more and more of these films I started noticing some provocative things that I felt needed to be written about. This--in connection with the lack of critical writing about this subgenre of films in general--lead me to want to pursue something more ambitious than articles. Thus, the idea for the CREATURES FOR KIDS book was born.
Matt: I came on the project after discussing it in greater detail with John late last year. I really dug the conceptual framework with which he was approaching the book, and his enthusiasm for these films is infectious. There really is a lot of compelling subtext despite the surface silliness of them. This sort of cinema is unlike anything else I’ve turned my critical eye on before, so it’s been both fun and challenging. In some cases, these are films I haven’t seen in two decades or more, for one reason or another. And for both of us, I feel there’s a sense of nostalgia that consistently underpins our work; that tends to be the “hook” that brings us back to certain select films, but looking at them with adult eyes for the purpose of more serious writing has, for me, inspired a more critically grounded appreciation for each one.
Man, that tag line. What a gim'me. But we still love it. How can you not, dudes?
How did you team up with your co-author Matt Spry?
John: Matt and I have known each other since 2011. We were in graduate school together and quickly became friends after discovering that we have lots of things in common: from growing up watching professional wrestling to our admiration for horror and cult films, to just name a couple. Initially this book project was a solo, but sometime last year I asked Matt if he wanted to come on board and co-author it with me. Our cinematic tastes are so well aligned and Matt is a fantastic writer, so the collaboration seemed like an obvious next step for the book project. I’m really excited about this new partnership and I believe Matt is, too!
An absolute sci-fi classic from an absolute master, brought to life via home video. LCA was a great label for family friendly fare, Tapeheads!
I know a lot of the stuff you aim to uncover and discuss in this book is obscure, and in turn, a good chunk of the material is VHS-only. Can you share a few choice slabs of analog-only entertainment that’ll be appearing within the pages of CREATURES FOR KIDS?
John: Our current running list of films that we aim to include in the book (in some form or another) exceeds 200. And while we’re not at all claiming to have an exhaustive list, it is pretty extensive. These films represent a variety of countries, too, including Canada, Poland, England, Germany, Thailand and of course the USA. Matt and I are also working on defining the scope of the book as well as the types of film formats. We know for certain that feature length, made-for-TV, short, and educational films will have a place in the book. In terms of what eras we’ll be focusing on, we’re framing the book around films that were released between 1970 and 2000. As you broached in your question, a lot of these titles were only ever available on VHS -- if you can find them at all! Some of the choice slabs of VHS that will undoubtedly creep into our book include: CAVERN DEEP (UK), THE ELECTRIC GRANDMOTHER, MY PET MONSTER, PET SHOP, PUMPKIN MAN, ROBOT IN THE FAMILY, the PREHYSTERIA series, and TO CATCH A YETI… I could go on and on!
Maybe the tape I’m most excited about is called, BAYOU GHOST. It’s an adventure film from 1997 made in the spirit of STAND BY ME. The copy I have was released by Telegenic Entertainment and is packaged in a minty clamshell. I don’t know much about the Telegenic and the only other release from them that I can find is an animated short called, SPIDER-MAN: THE VENOM SAGA. I’ve never seen another copy of BAYOU GHOST, though in addition to an IMDb listing I did manage to also find a WorldCat entry for it: http://www.worldcat.org/title/bayou-ghost/oclc/632005308
As far as the film itself it’s actually a fairly charming creature adventure story with some nice cinematography and a sincere effort by most participants. Without giving too much away I will say that the monster angle has a twist to it! I also couldn’t help but pick up on some homoerotic undertones in the storyline, specifically among the boy characters. And for a film of relative obscurity it has a couple of notables in the cast: the late great George Kennedy as well as Gabriel Damon (of ROBOCOP 2 and NEWSIES fame).
A dope rarity that will receive some airtime in the upcoming CREATURES FOR KIDS book. Those coming-of-age films always get me.
And speaking of sources, have you come across any VHS recordings from TV on the internet (or in person!) that preserve these movies? I imagine a lot of these flicks were never released to any format, so home dub VHS from TV might be their only savior…
John: We’ve not yet come across any avid collectors also actively preserving rare made-for-TV gems on VHS (via dubs or anything else.) I did, however, meet a woman online who runs the website, TrueTvMovies.net -- an extensive resource for all kinds of made-for-TV fare. She has a collection of over 17,000 titles and sells both physical copies of films (DVD-Rs) as well as digital downloads. Much of her content has been ripped from VHS or directly from television broadcasts. From what I understand she’s been collecting for years—something I believe because her collection is massive. With some titles you can also order the artwork, while others are shipped in plain white sleeves. Last year I picked up a half dozen titles from her, all for the book project. They were primarily obscure made-for-TV British films, several of which I literally couldn’t find anywhere else!
A real slab of brain-sizzlin' kid stuff sure to appear in CREATURES FOR KIDS. Watch out for Meatloaf, man!!
What’s some of the most far out stuff you’ve come across while doing research for this book? The realm of tween monster movies certainly has a tendency to be totally bonkers…
John: Well, almost all of films we’ve come across by Donald G. Jackson (that also fit within the perimeters of the book) have been a total trip. Everything from purple rollerblading gators to neon baby ghosts—that guy had a special vision! Something else we’ve begun to discover is just how much certain films tried to feed off the success of the kiddie creature blockbusters of the day (E.T., Gremlins, etc.). Take, for instance, a film like MAC AND ME. It’s a kid’s film so clearly tethered to E.T. and yet when you throw in the MacDonald’s connection and the bombardment of product placement for things like Skittles, Coca-Cola, and the department store chain Sears, you end up with a serious casserole of crazy on your plate! “Rip-off” films, in general, have always fascinated me.
A classic in every aspect, Tapeheads, and an undeniable must-see for every person on this planet. Scan courtesy of VHS Wasteland!
Will the book be review-based, more historical, or a little bit of both? Essentially, what can people expect from the book once it’s all wrapped up?
John and Matt: In short, yes! Both of these things and maybe more. We have a table of contents to steer us where we want to go, but I think we’re also being conscious not to constrain ourselves too much. In short, stay flexible to see where these ideas take us, and don’t get hung up on consistency of format or trying to be that comprehensive end-all and be-all title. Some chapters may take the form of a critical essay discussing a particular theme that runs through multiple films, another chapter might be dedicated to a certain subgenre like educational creature-centric films, while yet another chapter could be an interview with a filmmaker or actor. We want it to be the sort of book you can grab off the shelf if you’re looking for a film to either revisit or maybe even show your own kids, but also something that lends itself to deeper reading for historical context.
Deeper reading on ROBOT IN THE FAMILY? Yes, please.
What’s the projected date for release? Do you have any publishing plans in place?
John: Our goal is to have the writing portion completed by the end of this year (2017). Lots of things could delay this, though, and when the time comes we’ll also need to explore possible publishers (unless we self publish, which is always a possibility). These things take time but as far as completing the writing stage we’re pushing hard to wrap everything up by the end of this year.
Where can we keep up with you on this project, man?
John: You can (and should!) keep up with us on our Facebook page: CREATURES FOR KIDS. We’ll be posting periodic updates about fun discoveries and radical film artwork. We’re also interviewing actors, actresses, and filmmakers for this book, so keep an eye on the page for updates about newcomers to the project!
Keep a lookout, no doubt, Tapeheads! This is one radical book project, and you can bet your copy of Creating Rem Lazar that we’re looking forward to diving into all the wacky, wild and just plain weird kiddie creature flicks John and Matt are prepping to kick up out of obscurity. Be sure to stay tuned to their Facebook, and hey, if you have a creature flick from your childhood that you think should be represented in this book, give ‘em a shout. The more monsters, the merrier, man. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to meet my buddy Mac for some McNuggets, fries, and one of those tasty little fried apple pies.