By ROCCO THOMPSON
Celebrated comics and mystery writer, Max Allan Collins is a renaissance man in the truest sense. His graphic novel, Road to Perdition inspired the Oscar-winning screen adaptation in 2002, and most recently, his Quarry novels hit the small screen as a Cinemax series. Collins is also a playwright, film critic, songwriter, columnist, and practicing musician, but to horror fans, he may be most recognizable as a director. His films MOMMY and MOMMY 2: MOMMY’S DAY were staple home video nasties in the 1990s, and are now making their high definition debut just in time for their twenty-fifth anniversary! Below, we chat with Collins about his career in horror, THE BAD SEED, and the process of restoring these labors of love for a new generation of fright fans.
Can you tell us a bit about your history as a horror fan?
Long-time horror fan, pretty much everything from the Universal monsters and Hammer horror to Brian DePalma, Dario Argento, John Carpenter, and a ton more. My wife Barb and I wrote a horror novel called Regeneration, and I novelized both MOMMY movies. And some of the movie novelizations I did were at least vaguely in that area, all three MUMMY movies for example, and I did a KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER short story for a licensed anthology. I also co-edited the Hot Blood erotic horror anthologies with Jeff Gelb. My Quarry novels have been called “dark suspense,” which is the next-door neighbor to horror, and the graphic novel I did about the character, a hitman, was definitely in part a horror comic. My CSI novels had a lot of horror elements, and the CSI graphic novel I did, Serial, was about Jack the Ripper. My frequent collaborator, Matt Clemens and I have done a lot of horror short stories and novellas together, including most recently stories in Pop the Clutch, a rockabilly horror antho, and Hardboiled Horror, which Jonathan Maberry put together. Favorite horror films? PSYCHO, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, and ARMY OF DARKNESS
MOMMY was your first feature film as a director. How did the project come about?
I had written a movie for Bill Lustig, who directed MANIAC of course. He and his producing partner had optioned my Nolan book series and, when they needed somebody to take over after Larry Cohen left their current project, they gave me a shot. I had always loved movies and jumped at the chance. It was a remake of the famous prison movie BRUTE FORCE and eventually aired as an HBO world premiere called THE EXPERT. It was a troubled production – Bill eventually took his name off the picture – but I learned a lot from the experience. I went back to Iowa, where I lived (and still do) determined to make my own indie movie – specifically a horror film with direct-to-video in mind. This was 1994 and it was all about getting into Blockbuster, chainwide, and onto cable.
Being a Lifetime movie, were there certain expectations of MOMMY?
It didn’t begin as a Lifetime movie – they were just who our distributor sold it to. What we had in mind was, again, Blockbuster. I put the cast together with an eye on making the video box attractive. Through my writing contacts – in comics mostly, where I’d done Batman and had written the Dick Tracy strip for fifteen years – I was able to get Brinke Stevens, Majel Barrett, Mickey Spillane, and initially, Miguel Ferrer, from Seduction of the Innocent, the band Bill Mumy and I put together to play at San Diego Con, which we did in the ‘90s and beyond. Miguel had to drop out, and for a time we had Mark Hamill for the same part, a Columbo-ish cop. I had deals with both that if a real job came along, they could take it. At the last minute we got Jason Miller, which, with his EXORCIST credit, was a strong video-box name.
It seems the film was marketed as an unofficial sequel to THE BAD SEED. Was this always the intention?
It was. That was what it was all about, really. I loved Patty McCormack in the BAD SEED film, and the original book by William March is still one of my favorite novels. I’d followed Patty’s career, post-Rhoda Penmark, and had the idea of doing a switch on THE BAD SEED – instead of a seemingly perfect child who was really a sociopathic murderer, a fact slowly figured out by her beleaguered mother, I thought about a grown-up Rhoda type seeming the perfect mother to a child who slowly realizes her mommy is a homicidal maniac. Not a sequel – a switch. It got us a lot of attention. That’s how we got noticed by Entertainment Tonight, Entertainment Weekly and major newspapers around the country.
What was it like to work with Patty McCormack?
A dream. The consummate professional. That she hasn’t worked more is criminal. Not that her career wasn’t successful as an adult actress – she had a major sitcom, has appeared in many theatrical and TV movies. She had a recurring role on THE SOPRANOS. What makes her participation really special is that she had turned down many opportunities to do sequels to THE BAD SEED or take-offs on the character, and had always rejected them. She read my short story, “Mommy,” in Jeff Gelb’s anthology Fear Itself and said if I wrote a script, she would consider it seriously, because she felt I “got” Rhoda where other writers hadn’t.
What brought you back to the story for a sequel?
I’m inclined to sequels. My first three novels all spawned book series. Maybe it’s the horror fan in me, wanting more in the way horror films have always been willing to provide. But we did well with MOMMY – the Lifetime sale and getting picked up chainwide by Blockbuster and into the other video chains of the era. That success suggested a sequel was a good thing to invest in, with the money coming in. The first film cost about half a million, the second about two-hundred thousand. I think the second looks like it cost more than the first, which indicates a decent learning curve. I should add that I also wanted to do a sequel that was not just a remake of the first one. I’m proud of the fact that we did something different but enough the same to please people who liked MOMMY. Another strong video-box cast, too — we lost Jason, but Gary Sandy and Arlen Dean Snyder joined the party.
You’ve said you’re often surprised that critics don’t see these as the dark comedies you intended them to be, why do you think that is?
Mainstream critics usually got it. Really, most reviewers did. But some horror fans saw only that these were low-budget productions and didn’t give us credit for knowing that some things were meant to be humorous. It’s that assumption by some fans that they’re smarter than the people creating the material. Of course, sometimes they are.
What do you think of the movies looking back on them?
For me, they are home movies, time in a bottle. I remember the trials and tribulations, and the joy of working with these actors and those two crews, which were largely the same. I see Jason and Majel and Mickey and my close friend Michael Cornelison, and it’s bittersweet, wonderful to have them frozen in time, terrible to not have them around anymore. Some of the crew members are gone, too. The movies themselves I’m proud of. We had a lot of turmoil on the first one and it doesn’t show. I think the stories are good. That I got to bring Patty back to this iconic characterization is something I treasure. I wouldn’t have bothered with the project if she’d said no.
Can you tell us a bit about the restoration process? Does this physical release better reflect your original vision for the films?
We shot on a mix of high-end video and 16 millimeter, and took our masters to L.A. for the then popular, much-used FilmLook process. That enabled us to get on cable and in the video stores – theatrical release was never considered. After twenty-five years, we could not locate the original Beta tapes. We did find the original Beta master that we’d taken to FilmLook and used that, which had allowed us to overcome the unexpected darkening that the FilmLook process added. For MOMMY’S DAY, we had a high-end digital master, but not the un-FilmLooked version. But in shooting the second feature, we had allowed for the darkening effect, so it looks fine. We had always intended it to be widescreen when we showed it at festivals and on the laserdiscs that Cary Roan put out. But those masters were just cropped, not actual widescreen. I had shot the film using video assist that had grease-pencil indications on the monitor suggesting the intended aspect ratio. Preparing this release, my editor and director of photography, Phil Dingeldein, and I went through every shot of both films and reframed them to properly fill a 16:9 frame. The picture looks softer than I’d like, but this is the closest we can come to what we intended. Yes, we started with an SD source, but if you compare the DVD in the set to the Blu-ray of the two films, the latter is noticeably better.
What do you hope fans take away from the 3-disc set?
I hope they like them…horror fans should realize that the money was raised in a conservative Iowa town, and I felt I had to stay within certain bounds of conventional good taste in MOMMY. It’s more psychological suspense with horror aspects than straight horror. The second film, after our success with the first, I allowed myself stronger horror elements. At the time, that cost us a second Lifetime sale. It was too violent for them. Oddly, I think MOMMY paved the way for where Lifetime has gone in later years. They even did a BAD SEED remake, with Patty playing a nice supporting role, with some winks to both the original and to the MOMMYs.
There’s a Blu-ray with both movies, and a DVD with both movies, and another DVD with all kinds of fun stuff, including behind the scenes documentaries and an interview with Patty. It’s a movie that I made by raising a bunch of money in my home town – let’s put on a show. Anyone who likes THE BAD SEED should have fun with this release.
The MOMMY & MOMMY 2: 25th Anniversary Special Edition Double Feature 3-Disc set is available now from VCI Entertainment