John Ed Bishop wears a belt made out of bullets around his waist and a bandanna on his thigh. His pants are tight, his black-and-white-striped T-shirt is gaudy and feminine. He faces his fellow actors with a bemused look. One of them quips, "You look like a guy who should date Rob Halford."
But resembling the boyfriend of a gay metal icon is the least of Bishop's problems. His big scene is approaching, and he doesn't know his lines. "My name's Weasel in this," he says, glancing at the script nervously, as if he's never seen it before. "Do I have any lines? I don't know what's going on."
He's not alone. Co-directors Andy and Luke Campbell are asking for a lot in this scene -- a lot, at least, for a no-budget slasher movie about a gang of blood-thirsty mutants known as the Red Skulls. Luke talks Bishop through it. "All that's in your head is tits and A," Luke says. "All you're into is chicks and beer. You're watching hot girls walk by, and your name is Weasel."
Meanwhile, other cast members demonstrate a proper nut-grab for actress Roza Haidet. The scene requires her to squeeze Bishop's crotch, then kiss him. But even after practicing, she struggles with the motions through several takes. She also can't help but laugh every time Bishop pulls down his collar and rubs his nipple -- his interpretation of what the script describes vaguely as "some sort of disturbing sexual motion."
Andy offers to pay everyone a dollar to shut up and stop giggling. His brother is more direct. "No matter what happens, just finish the scene," Luke snaps sternly. "I don't care if someone bursts out laughing or pukes. Just finish the scene. And remember, you're all in a gang. You're way more drunk, way more pissed off, and way more tough than you actually are." He barks his most assertive "Action!" of the day as he tracks behind Bishop with the dolly he and his brother built out of PVC and wood.
Bishop finally gets through the scene, which he attributes to the freeing tendencies of the alcohol he's using as a prop. He asks idly whether anyone else is bothered by the fact that the stench of cat piss that was overwhelming when they arrived at this abandoned Youngstown house is now barely noticeable.
Andy spits on the filthy floor in relief. "That was way more Speed Freak's style," he says with glee, referring to the name of his and Luke's production company. "A little fighting and way more tension," he says. "Back to normal."
Francis Ford Coppola, winner of five Academy Awards, said in 1991, "One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's camcorder, and for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever, and it will really become an art form." Luke and Andy Campbell of Kent are neither female nor fat, and their movies are not beautiful in any conventional sense. But in most other ways, they resemble the prodigy of Coppola's prophecy. What they lack in financing (they made their first film for about $285, their second for $3,000), they make up for in tenacity. Their passion is such that friends volunteer to spend entire weekends in reeking, rotting buildings and other unpleasant locations, dressed in ridiculous costumes and often smeared in fake blood, for no reward other than pizza and the fulfillment of the geek dream of making a really cool, really sick movie.
The Red Skulls, shot over the summer on a $5,500 budget, is the brothers' most ambitious project to date. If it's well received by the small but discerning low-budget, straight-to-video horror-movie fan base, they might never have to max out their credit cards and rely on all-volunteer casts and crews again.
Growing up in the small towns of Salem and Sebring, Ohio, Andy and Luke Campbell were, by their own admission, "dorky, oddballs-out." For the tall but reed-thin brothers, playing sax and tuba in the marching band was the closest they would come to the glory of their high school's championship football team.
They worked stage crew for school plays, but it was a class assignment they both received -- to make a short video on a historic event -- that introduced them to their calling. "It was the first time we ever picked up a camera to do something like that," Andy says. Luke's and Andy's projects weren't any better than the crap other students handed in, but the process of writing, shooting, and editing was so intriguing that they wanted to do it again.
After practicing with cameras at backyard wrestling matches, the brothers and their closest friends took a shot at narrative film. Teenage Zombie House Massacre, made in 1999, was 40 minutes long. Then came Midnight Skater, shot in 2002, the year Luke graduated from Kent State with a degree in electronic-media production. (Andy is still at Kent, pursuing the same degree, despite a visceral hatred for his radio and television classes.) Skater was their first attempt to tell a feature-length story with humor as well as gore -- which, in this case, included an on-screen penis-chopping.
In Demon Summer (2003), they toned down the violence a bit in hopes of making the movie slightly more accessible -- a decision, they admit, that also makes it more sluggish.
At a horror convention held in Strongsville last year, they met J.R. Bookwalter, president of Tempe Video in Burbank, California. They passed him a copy of Midnight Skater, and he's been a fan ever since. "There's a lot of heart and soul in their work that many others don't have," says Bookwalter, whose company distributed the brothers' first two films. "Something like Midnight Skater wouldn't have been likely to have been picked up by anyone else, because the image quality was pretty poor. But I look past that, knowing that fans will appreciate the audacity and heart that went into it, even if retail buyers and nonfans won't.
"As impressed as I was with Skater, the boys earned more of my respect with Demon Summer," Bookwalter continues. "I felt that flick was a real step forward in their maturity as filmmakers . . . They obviously paid attention to their own strengths and weaknesses on the early projects, plus they listened to what people had to say. You have to know when you failed and when you succeeded, and be willing to keep learning. The Campbell brothers are doing that."
Among genre aficionados, response has been mixed. Fred Olen Ray, director of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold, called Skater one of the most original horror movies he's ever seen. "As I watched it, I realized I was seeing something special," he recalls. Fangoria magazine critic Michael Gingold wasn't so kind. "[It's] told with a level of humor that's as crude as the movie's gore FX," he wrote.
Ritch Yarber screened Demon Summer as the feature attraction at his Twisted Spine micro-budget film festival in Cleveland last May, and fans loved it. "The writing is funny," Yarber says. "The movies are very loose, and they don't take themselves too seriously. I've been recommending [Demon Summer] to everyone." Yarber, who isn't shy about comparing Andy and Luke to Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen, says he admires how they value amusement over profit.
The deal with Tempe netted the brothers $1,000 and 200 packaged DVD copies they can sell themselves. That money, as well as sums gleaned from the pockets of the brothers and their friends, is funding The Red Skulls.
"At our level, it's very hard to be motivated to pick up from scratch and to scrabble for money and pretty much give up every weekend for the movie," Andy says. "But I don't want to spend my time not doing it because we don't have the money or the time. There's always a way to do it. I'd rather settle and make it work than not do it."
Even with a comparatively extravagant budget of $5,500, The Red Skulls is very much a DIY venture. Most of the cash -- $3,500 -- went to a digital camera that will give the movie a sharper, cleaner look than their previous works.
When funds are lacking, persistence and luck must suffice. The ramshackle three-bedroom house that serves as headquarters for the movie's titular street gang was a true find, discovered through a friend's father's connections in Youngstown real estate. The paint in some spots of the house is so chipped that there's more of it on the floor than on the walls. A yellowed newspaper left lying around is dated March 19, 1983. The crew's additional touches include a motorcycle in the living room (the bike belonged to Luke, who dragged it in), beer cans scattered on the floor (emptied by the crew), and a homemade coffin, which will hold a certain fictitious alcoholic beverage that is integral to the movie's plot.
In the kitchen, a recently deceased bird is set to enjoy a second life as a prop. It was found in the yard, not far from an old, empty bird cage, and, well, such serendipity cannot be overlooked when you're making a horror film for the price of a used car.
"This is going to be sick," says Andy, as he and a crew member string the bird's feet to the top of the cage with a thin wire.
Some of those nearby voice concern over the disrespect to the unfortunate bird, not to mention the possible consequences if it were discovered by a member of PETA. Actor and co-writer Cory Maidens assures them, "No animal society will ever see this movie."
The Red Skulls' costumes -- lots of ornamental metal, red bandannas, and jeans so tight that it's hard to sit down -- are based on photos of real gangs taken by German photographer Karl Heinz Weinberger. But that's about where the connections to reality end. The Campbells' gang members drink a poison-laced concoction that turns them into blood-spewing, homicidal mutants -- all the better to wage war against their rivals, the Rats.
The Campbells have always considered one of their greatest cinematic gifts to be their ability to get their friends, some of whom don't have a single line of dialogue, to stand around for 12 hours at a time for nothing but two pieces of pizza and some beer. But once the itchy latex is applied to their faces and the fake blood -- which contains a hint of a photo-processing chemical -- is in their mouths, the usually patient actors become justifiably antsy.
One actor, suffering from excessive burning in his latex-covered eye, begs Luke to shoot his scene immediately. After putting him off for a few minutes, Luke points the camera at the guy and tells him to freak out. "It won't be hard," the actor promises. After some serious gagging and squirming, he's off to the basement to vomit up the fake blood that has dripped into his throat. Another Campbell victim, struggling to retain a mouthful of red corn syrup, motions to Luke to turn the camera on and point it at him before his body rejects the stuff.
A female mutant detects soap in the blood that fills her mouth. Andy admits that her taste buds haven't failed her and commands her to convulse a little more crazily. She does so, and he gives her performance his approval. She then coughs, spits out the blood, and begs for a glass of water, which causes the crew to do some scrambling, since the house doesn't have running water. But, true to form, the girl's a trooper. "It tastes really bad," she says. "But did that look OK? Because I've never done that before."
Teams of filmmaker-brothers are not only common, they're remarkably successful. In addition to the Coens (Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), there are the Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy), the Farrellys (Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary), and the Hugheses (Menace II Society, From Hell). Clevelanders Anthony and Joe Russo (Welcome to Collinwood) recently won an Emmy for their work on the TV series Arrested Development.
The late film critic Pauline Kael once noted that making movies is so stressful that it must be a great advantage to have a partner you can trust implicitly. The Campbells agree.
"We've grown up sleeping in the same bedroom for most of our lives," Luke says. "So if I'm trying to get something across to him about this movie, it's very easy, because I just tell him, and I don't worry about what he thinks. Sometimes he'll get mad at me, but since we're brothers, we always end up forgiving each other."
"I can say anything to him," Andy says of his older brother. "We don't hold things back with each other. After 22 years, I'm not really worried about offending Luke. He'll get over it if I do. And we are on the same page 90 percent of the time."
On the set, the brothers work almost as one, but there are differences. Andy might be called the good cop -- he is quick to sweet-talk a cranky actress or coddle an exhausted crew. Luke prefers the traditional method of yelling at gabbing extras to shut the hell up. So Andy is better suited for providing actors with one-on-one scene study, while Luke is the master of shouting directions to a crowd.
When the scenes set in the Youngstown house are in the can, the production moves to Andy's backyard in Kent to shoot the finale -- a huge night battle between the Red Skulls and their rivals, the Rats. The latter are armed with everything from machetes to baseball bats with nails jammed into the end to a large stick with a buzz saw attached.
Inside the house, Luke explains to the Skulls what motivates them to barge out and attack the Rats. "It's like you've got a million pounds of adrenaline in your veins," he says solemnly. "And you're just very vicious, very crazy, and very animalistic. All you want to do is rip their fucking arms off and drink blood from their necks. Does that help?"
Apparently it does. The Skulls rush out of the house and collide with their opponents with joyful fervor. Andy flows in and out of the writhing crowd with the camera as the FX guy shadows him, squirting a ketchup bottle filled with artificial blood to achieve the bloodiest melee possible. It's not the Battle of Helm's Deep, but it's got moxie.
Their films "may be crudely made," Bookwalter notes, "but they're over the top, ballsy, and hilarious . . . And overseas, we're starting to get more interest in the Campbells' flicks." (Tempe distributes in several European countries and Canada.) "So I think this is just the beginning."
No one who works this hard to make movies aspires to an office job. Asked whose careers they'd like to emulate, Luke points to Sam Raimi, who rose from the low-budget cult favorites of the Evil Dead trilogy to two of the top-grossing films of all time, Spider-Man and its sequel. Similarly, Andy notes John Carpenter's ability to "work with studio budgets, but still make his own movies. That's pretty much the best of both worlds."
But for now, they are delighted just to have their films viewed by more than the friends who helped make them. "When you see your movie in a big-name store like Suncoast, you're like, 'Wow, that's crazy. I don't quite understand how that happened,'" Luke says.
"I just want to be able to make movies and be able to make a living at it," Andy says. "Not get rich or famous, but just be able to support myself." Luke has heard all the excuses and seen the odds of success, and he's decided that it'll take more than that for him to give this up. "I'll probably, honestly, be making films, one way or another, for a long time."