– Dashiell Hammett
The film HELLFIRE entered my life like my old girlfriends – namely, it caught me unaware, slapped me in the face and screamed, “Pay attention to me!” This happened via a full page advertisement (see left) that appeared in an American Film Market issue of Variety in February 1986. I first spied the ad in 2008 and was instantly intrigued by the subtle combination of sci-fi and exploitation. Oh, and the naked girl. A quick cross reference of the actors listed brought up the info that it had been re-titled PRIMAL SCREAM and put out by Magnum Home Video in 1987. Thanks to the power of eBay, I soon had a copy.
My initial viewing of it left me mystified. While the plot was a tad confusing (“I hope I never have to sit on a bench in a court to weed out who is who and what was going on,” director William J. Murray amusingly confessed), there was much to admire about the film. Although low budget, it was ambitious in nearly every department despite being made outside of Hollywood. The screenplay was filled with twists and turns as sharp as the dialogue as futuristic private eye Corby McHale (Kenneth McGregor) tries to figure out what is going on with a new killer fuel codenamed Hellfire. Matching the ambitious nature of the script, the director provided plenty of visual style in assembling his grimy future. So it shocked me to find out that Murray had made just one lone feature and, like a victim of Hellfire, seemingly vaporized.
William Murray was born in Northfield, New Jersey in the late 1950s. Like any healthy kid growing up in the 1960s, Murray developed a sci-fi and horror film addiction. His pusher went by a name familiar to thousands of kids: Forrest J. Ackerman. Yes, it was the old “Famous Monsters of Filmland” that got his creative juices flowing and it was Murray’s cousin Michael who provided the initial dose. “He subscribed to it before I subscribed to it,” Murray reveals. “He lived in Philly and I lived down near Atlantic City. We’d visit each other in the summers and he had some early issues. We saw that kids were getting their parents’ 8mm cameras and making movies.”
By the time college rolled around, Murray had found his passion and looked to a future in filmmaking. Initial plans to attend school in New York were dashed due to an illness in the family and he instead enrolled in Bucks County Community College located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The school suited Murray fine as it had a healthy film program and he eventually met two men –Richard Heierling and Thom Parkin – with whom he would begin a collaborative relationship. Like John Carpenter and Don Dohler before him, Murray didn’t just aim high he literally reached for the stars with his debut, by choosing to do an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic sci-fi novel RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. “This was crazily enough the year STAR WARS (1977) came out,” he says. “So science fiction was everything in the fucking world at that point.”
Also in the late ‘70s, Murray entered in the exhibition end of movies. He started working at the Tilton Theatres that he used to frequent as a kid and through an unfortunate circumstance (the manager died of heart attack while on vacation) ended up becoming the manager. A few years later, Murray and some friends leased an empty theater and opened Stage Door Cinema, an art house theater that specialized in foreign and cult films. Unbeknownst to Murray at the time, the avenue of theatrical exhibition would be fortuitous to the genesis of HELLFIRE.
Eventually the two men decided to give feature filmmaking a try. Their initial projects were more exploitative in nature – Reamer wrote a film called BODY COUNT and Murray penned a teen horror film titled BOARDWALK BLOOD. “That was something we kind of whipped together really quickly,” Murray explains. “It is something that would never get done now because it opened with basically a theater massacre in one of the boardwalk theaters in Ocean City. We thought we’ll have a guy and he’ll shoot up the place and it’ll be cool.”
Reamer, who had a decidedly bigger interest in horror/exploitation cinema than Murray, was helpful in getting a meeting with New York’s first family of fringe filmmaking – the Mishkins. The duo headed into the city to meet with William Mishkin. “He was exactly what you would expect an incredibly marginal, drive-in film producing guy to be like,” Murray reveals of Mishkin, who reigned supreme in a cluttered two room office. “We were encouraged and let down. He said ‘I’ve got to see what you can do. I need to see something finished and if you can get through all the hurdles that would be something.’ We were just not going to take no for an answer.”
The rejection led Murray and Reamer to drop the horror film idea and instead concentrate on a sci-fi detective project that Murray had been concurrently developing with friends. This story turned out to be HELLFIRE. With a budget of less than $400, Murray shot a 5 minute teaser in 16mm that would be used to interest potential investors in 1981. Actor Steve Emhe was enlisted to essay the lead detective Corby McHale. “We just did some action scenes and added some narration,” Murray reveals about the short.
The video game entrepreneur in question turned out to be Howard Foulkrod, the man who would eventually finance HELLFIRE. Murray showed Foulkrod the HELLFIRE short along with bits of RAMA, which was enough to convince the Pennsylvania native to back these first-time filmmakers. Things fell into place quickly after that. “I got a hold of Keith and said, ‘We need a crew. We need this and that. We’re going to get funded,’” Murray says. “And then we just started whipping it together in the fall of 1982 and early 1983. Keith pulled in a couple of people from the University of Bridgeport. I even got my cousin, the one who got me interested in filmmaking, involved.”
Assembling the script was a collaborative effort between Murray, Di Pietro, and Dan Smeddy, although Murray is only given credit on the final film. “Yeah, oh boy, lucky me,” he jokes. While BLADE RUNNER (1982) is often listed as an influence in reviews online, the concept actually predated the Ridley Scott film. The group, however, did actually draw inspiration from another fictional detective – Harry Orwell. “I was a huge HARRY O fan as was Dave Di Petrio,” Murray reveals of the cranky television detective played by David Janssen. “The show had just gone off the air.”
Perhaps the biggest name in the film is also the most surprising. AD Swift managed to track down ‘50s and ‘60s character actor Mickey Shaughnessy. Having starred opposite Elvis in JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957) and John Wayne in NORTH TO ALASKA (1960), Shaughnessy came out of retirement to play local bookie Charlie Waxman. It would prove to be his final film role as he passed away shortly after filming.
Continuity shot to maintain big hair:
The ability to get stuff on the cheap also allowed the filmmakers to add some futuristic production value with the inclusion of the tiny LiteStar cars featured in the film. “Those guys were actually trying to produce them,” Murray reveals of the prototype futuristic cars showcased in his film. “We had two of them. They’re real. They had motorcycle engines and would ride on the road.”
The LiteStar car:
The cast & crew on location:
An amusing anecdote, however, from the time of film did provide Murray with a bit of karmic justice for McGregor’s insubordination. “We scheduled to do a daytime alley shot with Corby running with a gun drawn,” he explains. “Before long somebody sees this white guy with a gun standing around and calls the cops. They got Ken. They grabbed him, threw him in the car. Then they come and ask who is in charge. I said ‘I guess I am’ and they threw me in the car. I get in the car with Ken and he just fumed the whole time. They took us to see the police commissioner and it is his last day on the job. He’s drinking in his office and saying, ‘I love it when movies come to town.’ We lost a whole half a day, but managed to keep Ken out of jail. The whole time I’m thinking, ‘Do not get into character here. Don’t be going all method on these guys.’”
Director Murray on the set:
Keith Reamer editing (or eating) HELLFIRE:
It was through Manley’s company that the film was sold worldwide with deals in the UK, Germany, Netherlands and Australia. Although the film did end up going directly to video in the United States via the aforementioned Magnum, it was initially picked up with hopes of theatrical distribution by Florin Creative. “The US distribution rights were picked up by Steve Florin, who ran a chain of theaters in New York state,” Reamer discloses. “Florin was brought to the project by indie-producer Jerald Intrator.” It was Florin who was responsible ultimately for the title change from HELLFIRE to the less-descriptive, but equally grabbing PRIMAL SCREAM. At the end of the day, the producer got his money back and everyone got paid. Anyone who’s read our pieces on independent filmmakers here on Video Junkie knows this is a very rare thing.
Believe it or not, the filmmakers didn’t have any sort of premiere for the cast and crew, though producer Foulkrod did go to Cannes to oversee its selling. Murray got his chance to see it theatrically when he flew to the West Coast to catch a screening at the AFM. With childhood buddy / ‘Simpsons’ Producer David Mirkin in tow, he was able to catch it on the big screen.
Once the film got to market, Murray was exhausted and returned to his theatre job. While he does still own a 35mm print of the film, he has long since lost track of who now owns the rights. Bijouflix DVD announced the film in 2009 (for which underground auteur Damon Packard cut a trailer), but it never came to fruition. “At this point I’m totally unaware of who owns the rights to it,” he says candidly. “It is the son that walked out the door that doesn’t come back. You’re just glad he’s gone. That was a long time ago and that thing has kind of slipped away.”
Damon Packard trailer for PRIMAL SCREAM:
DP Dennis Peters would go on to lens many other features and recently completed his own directorial debut, the thriller I’M NOT ADAM (2014); Stan Mendoza worked as a location manager for dozen of Hollywood movies in New York City; Dan Karlok continued gaffer and camera work and also moved into the director’s chair, directing episodes of LAW & ORDER and receiving a Grammy nomination for the documentary ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: THE MAKING OF “RIDE WITH BOB.”; David Swift continued to work as an electrician in the film industry; and Reamer would have a flourishing and diverse editing career climbing from PLUTONIUM BABY (1987) to the Sundance titles as I SHOT ANDY WARHOL (1996) and AMREEKA (2009). “My experience with HELLFIRE was invaluable, and unforgettable,” Reamer adds. “In many ways, it made the rest of my career possible and I will always cherish its existence.”
HELLFIRE 30th Anniversary Reunion (left to right):
David Swift, Stan Mendoza, Keith Reamer, Dan Karlok, William Murray
David Swift, Stan Mendoza, Keith Reamer, Dan Karlok, William Murray
Many thanks to William Murray and Keith Reamer for their assistance in bringing this piece together. To see Mr. Murray’s music video work, click here; to learn more about Mr. Reamer’s continued work as an editor, click here. Also, thanks to EB Hughes and the tenacious Bill Picard for their help in locating the key player in this story. And, of course, Tom for saying, "You need to watch it again!"
Alternate PRIMAL SCREAM poster: