Crowned and Renowned: A Look Back at Crown International Pictures (Part 2)

This week the Movie Morlocks are proud to offer part two of David Konow and Chris Poggiali’s exhaustive look back at the films of Crown International Pictures, a portion of which appeared originally in Rue Morgue  magazine. I’ll be back next week to participate in the Morlocks’ Toshiro Mifune blogathon. – RHS

POINT OF TERROR / BLOOD MANIA

At the dawn of the ’70s, Crown released two ultra-cheap horror movies spearheaded by the late writer-producer-actor Peter Carpenter, a dark-haired stud with a passing resemblance to Tom Jones: BLOOD MANIA and POINT OF TERROR (both 1970).  Whereas the latter is bad in a hilariously inept way, the former is just dreadful, and possibly the worst film in Crown’s filmography.  “That was a mistake,” writer-director Robert Vincent O’Neill says of BLOOD MANIA.  “About a week before shooting, the producers lost their director.  I think he chickened out or something.  The cinematographer, Bob Maxwell, had just done THE PSYCHO LOVER (1970) for me, so he recommended me to the producers.  I had like five days to step in and do this film, and my ego got the better of me.  I thought I could do it.  I just didn’t have the actors.  The actors were not good.  They weren’t experienced.  The film was cast through friendship and personalities and love affairs and that crap.  So I was saddled with pretty bad actors.  Plus, I had problems with the producers.  We didn’t get along.”

O’Neill continues, “When I did the final cut, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll never see that picture anywhere.’  It didn’t get much of a release, and I knew it would never be on TV because the character that Maria de Aragon plays walked through the hallways of the mansion naked with a knife killing people.  At that time you couldn’t have nudity on TV, or that kind of violence.  OK, so we jump forward seven, eight, nine years later.  I come home one night and my wife says, ‘You’ll never guess what’s on TV.’  I said ‘What?’  She said, ‘BLOOD MANIA!’  I was stunned.  I said, ‘Well, we’ve gotta watch this.’  In every sequence where Maria went down the hallway naked, they cut that out and…”  O’Neill pauses to say, “Red Jacobs, very innovative guy,” before bursting into laughter.  “They took the nurse, who was the only good actress in the whole film, and she would come into this waiting room and tell the bad guy — y’know, the blackmailer? — what had occurred the night before.  In other words, she would describe the murder.  That’s funny in itself, right?  But what’s really funny is that the actor who played the blackmailer that she originally had this relationship with and would be telling these stories to had died, so they got an actor that looked like him and they put this big palm tree with these fawns that just happened to come across his face a little bit.  I couldn’t believe it!  To this day, the film haunts me!  Boy, that was one that I thought would die a death in some dark storage room!”

Screenwriter Tony Crechales, who did some work on BLOOD MANIA and POINT OF TERROR as well as Grefe’s IMPULSE (1974) starring William Shatner, also wasn’t happy with how BLOOD MANIA turned out.  One time, he saw it with some friends in Hollywood, and as the theater was letting out, he overheard someone say, “That’s the lousiest movie I’ve ever seen.” Crechales replied, “You’re right!”

Before gaining infamy for playing ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1975), Dyanne Thorne also played a murderous black widow in POINT OF TERROR, which she recalls “was a step away for Crown. They’d been doing a lot of action pictures, and this was a little bit off of their beaten path.” Thorne had a lot of fun working on the film, “and I got to keep my heritage of killing somebody in every film I ever get to do!” The late Verna Fields who edited AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) with Marcia Lucas, PAPER MOON (1973) and won the Academy Award for editing JAWS (1975) was the supervising editor on POINT OF TERROR. In one scene, Thorne is chased around her pool by her jealous husband, who’s bound to a wheelchair. She torments him by waving a blanket in front of him, and yelling Ole, and it was Fields’s idea to put Spanish music over this segment. According to Crechales, POINT OF TERROR did well in the States and overseas. “I think it made $3 million domestically. In those days, that was very good.”

HORROR HIGH (AKA TWISTED BRAIN)

Another horror flick that became a big late night TV favorite was 1974’s HORROR HIGH, a teenage Jekyll and Hyde story, where Vernon Potts, a nerdy kid who’s good at science, played by Pat Cardi. Potts invents a formula that turns him into a monster, and in his altered state, he gets violent revenge on the teachers and jocks who bully him. HORROR HIGH was a very low budget (under $100,000) extravaganza shot in Texas, and the makers of the film had connections to the Dallas Cowboys, which is why the film features the NFL greats Mean Joe Greene, Roger Staubach, and Calvin Hill. Cardi was a child actor who started in 1959.  He was on a TV series IT’S ABOUT TIME (CBS, 1966-1967) with Imogene Coca, and also starred in William Castle’s LET’S KILL UNCLE (1966).  When Cardi was coming up, he competed for roles with the young Kurt Russell, Jeff Bridges, and The Livingston Brothers, and by the time he hit 18 or so, he wasn’t getting roles because of the competition. (Cardi also admits he wasn’t that good of an actor.) Then the call came in about HORROR HIGH. Cardi read some scenes with producer Jim Graham and director Larry Stouffer, they glanced at his credit sheet, realized he had some legit credits and wouldn’t ask for a ton of money, and hired him on the spot. “And I think I had the look they were looking for,” Cardi says. “I don’t think there was a lot of sophisticated thought that went into it.”

HORROR HIGH was shot in Texas the same time Brian De Palma was filming PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974).  “My career was just going in the toilet, and when HORROR HIGH came around, I was down on my luck. When I landed in Texas, and they told me they were doing it in 16mm and it cost (about) $100,000, that night I took a good, long look at myself in the mirror and said, ‘Acting’s over!  I’m not doing this anymore!’” Where HORROR HIGH is definitely great, low budget late night schlock, it’s also surprisingly poignant because there’s a love story at its core. Potts is in love with Robin Jones, played by Rosie Holotik, who also starred in the low budget Texas horror classic, DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973).  Robin is dating one of Vernon’s jock tormentors, Roger Davis (Mike McHenry), but begins falling in love with Vernon in spite of his geekiness.  At the end, she’s horrified to learn he’s the monster doing all the recent murders, and is devastated when he’s finally gunned down by the police.

HORROR HIGH has a funky ‘70’s rock score that was inspired by The Edgar Winter Group. Cardi says initially Stouffer wanted to use traditional ‘30’s horror music when he’s chasing Holotik down the high school halls. Then Cardi gave Larry a copy of Winter’s They Only Come Out at Night album, featuring his signature tune “Frankenstein,” and said, “This is the music we want. Play this with the scene and take a look at it. It’s gotta be more modern. I used to have an 8-track of the music and played it in my car all the time!” HORROR HIGH also co-stars Austin Stoker (best known now from John Carpenter’s 1976 film ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13), as a police lieutenant investigating the killings. “I knew Austin was professional because he was one of the only people on the set that actually knew how pictures were made,” says Cardi. “I felt like we were constantly training everybody else. Austin knew his lines, he was very willing to work, and he was somebody I looked up to on the set. I felt like I was on an island, and finally somebody threw me a life-raft and there was Austin.” In one especially memorable scene, Vernon transforms and stomps his hard-ass gym teacher to death wearing cleats. As Stoker recalls, “I used to run track myself, and I thought ‘There’s no way you could kill somebody with these spikes! They’re not even sprinter’s spikes!’  But that movie was fun to do. The people on it were wonderful.”

When Mean Joe Greene shoots Vernon at the end of the film, he falls to the ground as his shotgun goes off, an accident that was kept in the film. Greene was so pissed by his gaffe that he smashed the shotgun on the side of the building. “Probably the largest major expense of the film!” says Cardi with a laugh. As far as having the film come out through Crown, Cardi has mixed feelings. “I think they got a good job of getting it out there,” he says, although he clearly didn’t see much money from the company.  Crown re-released HORROR HIGH under the title KISS THE TEACHER GOODBYE and sold it to TV as TWISTED BRAIN.  Cardi says, “I wasn’t sure if they were trying different names, or if they were trying to keep us from knowing where it was playing!  The money thing sucks, but the fact is they got a lot of exposure for the film. I have kind of a minor fan base because of it, apparently it struck a chord with people, and I think it’s cool there are people out there that like this movie.”

ACQUISITIONS

Jacobs’ daughter, Marilyn J. Tenser, and her husband, Mark Tenser, became more involved as Crown executives at the start of the 1970s.  “Mark knew dollars and cents but creatively he wasn’t that strong,” Crutcher says.  “Red, on the other hand, was very good in all departments.” However, one department the Tensers excelled in was acquisitions.  “I’d say they looked at six or seven films a week,” remembers Crutcher, who worked closely with the couple during the production of STANLEY (1972) and SUPERCHICK (1973).  “They brought me in to see everything they screened for consideration.  I saw a film with Lyle Waggoner in it called LOVE ME DEADLY (1973), which was about necrophilia.  Another one I saw with them was LITTLE LAURA AND BIG JOHN (1973), which they actually ended up distributing.  I thought it was pretty good, but when the lights came up I could see they weren’t a bit impressed by it.  I told them it had a unique setting in the Everglades and that I liked the vintage cars and Karen Black, but they were ho-hum about it, and that’s why I was surprised later when I found out they had acquired it.  I don’t think that was my doing at all though.  They probably got a good price on it.” Sometimes filmmakers would screen incomplete movies for Crown in an attempt to interest Jacobs in putting up the funds needed to complete the pictures.  This was writer-director Lee Frost’s plan for THE CHAIN, a low-budget prison escape movie released by Crown in 1971 as CHAIN GANG WOMEN (1971).  As the late Frost explained to Shock Cinema magazine in 2002, “I got some guys together and we shot that, but then I got an AIP picture I had to do, which I think was CHROME AND HOT LEATHER (1971).  So I put THE CHAIN on a shelf, didn’t touch it for a year, and one day I’m sittin’ there watching it, and I said, ‘Y’know, this picture has merit.  This can be something in the major market.’  My partner [Wes Bishop] said, ‘I’ll talk to Red Jacobs about it at Crown and see what happens.’  So I made a presentation for them.  I ran a part of the picture and I said, ‘Now we’re going to shoot this, this, this, and this,’ and then I ran another piece of the picture, did the same thing, and nobody understood what I was saying.  They wouldn’t do anything with it.  I said to my partner, ‘Let’s raise the money from somebody else.’  So we raised some more money, shot it, did all the stuff that you see in the picture — the chains, the guys fighting in the mountains, helicopter shots of the truck moving and all that — and then we finished it off with the old picture.  We showed it to Crown, and they said, ‘Whoa, this is great!’ and they took it.  I said, ‘But that’s what I was telling you — you assholes.’”

“They were more into the action pictures and sexy things than horror, but they’d look at anything,” Crutcher remembers of Crown.  “If you were legit, you could call them up and very easily get a screening appointment.  And they had a knack for knowing what would sell and how they could sell it.”

Crown wasn’t always quick to cash in on a trend, however.  Their Chinese martial arts pickup KUNG FU MAMA (1974) didn’t reach theaters until a year after Warner Brothers kicked off the kung fu craze with THE FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1973), while the Filipino fighting female flicks recently celebrated in Mark Hartley’s documentary MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (2010) were out of vogue with drive-in audiences by the time Crown released the Cirio Santiago-produced HUSTLER SQUAD in 1976.  The company’s lone foray into the so-called blaxploitation movement — WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES (1975) — was also late to the party, but more than made up for its tardiness with an abundance of raw style, rich subtext and jaw-dropping chutzpah.  “This is the first black picture that Crown has been associated with and I consider it one of the most important black pictures to appear on the market,” Mark Tenser told Boxoffice magazine, describing the film as “a gutsy picture” that presented “a side of life which white middle-class America seldom sees, but it is a way of life black America knows well and can see every day of the week in any inner-city community.”  An audacious UCLA film school project by a then 33-year-old undergraduate named Jamaa Fanaka, this treatise on African-American male sexuality dispensed with the post-SHAFT (1971) “superspade” clichés and focused instead on an average citizen of Watts named Charles Murray (Marlo Monte), who’s nearly castrated by a racist cop during a marijuana bust and railroaded into prison by a corrupt judge.  Emerging three years later with newly discovered powers, Charles proceeds to take murderous revenge on the guilty parties who put him behind bars.  However, the deadly weapon he uses isn’t a gun or a knife but his own “shaft,” which holds hypnotic power over women and can extend to 10 feet or more and strangle his enemies!  Tenser intended to showcase Fanaka’s freshman effort at film festivals but ended up not even screening it for critics during the initial release, making it one of the most underexposed oddities on the exploitation circuit for many years.  Even after Crown re-released it on a triple bill with KUNG FU MAMA and Norman J. Warren’s SATAN’S SLAVE (1976) in May of 1980, a dearth of coverage still caused the film to fly below the radar of most schlock hounds until its video release nearly 10 years later under the title SOUL VENGEANCE.

John Burrows, a producer for Crown during the early ‘70s, remembers Jacobs as an honest, by-the-books businessman.  “If you made a picture and went to [Crown] for distribution, the deals were very tough.  Red’s contracts were ironclad.  Some of the producers, after they saw their first checks, would go back to him and say, ‘Oh my gosh, is this all we’re getting?’  Red would say, ‘Of course!  You read the contract.  We’re doing all the work.  We’re out there pushing your picture.’” Burrows worked for over a decade at Allied Artists, where he produced a number of films including AL CAPONE (1959) starring Red Steiger, before leaving the company to become an independent producer.  He biggest supporter at the time was Jacobs.  “I talked to Red, told him my desire and my abilities and he said, ‘I’ll distribute the first picture you do, but you’ve gotta raise the money.’”  Burrows managed to pull together $62,000 for a PG-rated youth movie titled THE YOUNG GRADUATES (1971).  “It did all right, made some money, and from then on, if Red needed a picture made, or someone came in with a good idea for a picture, he would hire me to be the producer.  I did that for 4 years.  I produced WILD RIDERS (1971), STANLEY, SUPERCHICK and a few others.”

The beautiful blonde star of THE YOUNG GRADUATES, Patricia Wymer, had previously top-lined Crown’s summer of ’69 hit THE BABYSITTER, a sexy T&A quickie that helped shape the template for a decade’s worth of drive-in programming from the company.  “One thing Crown was really good at were those girl pictures like SUPERCHICK,” says Grefe.  “There was a new one out every summer and they always did really good business.”

“After STANLEY IN MIAMI got scratched, John Burrows came up with an idea based on THE CAPTAIN’S PARADISE (1953),” says Crutcher.  “That was a movie with Alec Guinness as a ship captain who went back and forth between two lives and two wives.  He had Celia Johnson in Gibraltar who could cook up the kippers and Yvonne De Carlo in Tangiers who could kick up the capers.  Tony Randall bought the stage rights and had a hit with it as a musical called OH, CAPTAIN!  Anyway, Burrows thought of doing it with a stewardess having layovers in New York, Miami and L.A.  So I wrote a script and it was announced in the trades as SUPERGIRL, but Warner Brothers quickly contacted Crown and said ‘You can’t call it that.  We own the rights to Supergirl.’  So we changed it to SUPERCHICK, and right about that time Ross Hagen started a movie about cockfighting called SUPERCHICKEN.  Crown told him he couldn’t use that because it was too close to SUPERCHICK, so he changed his title to SUPERCOCK (1975).”  Crutcher pauses for a moment, and then adds, “We thought for sure that John Holmes was gonna call him about that, but he never did.”

“I really became involved with the Crown bunch during the casting of SUPERCHICK,” Crutcher says.  “It took nine months to cast that movie!  They had every beautiful young actress in town come in and read for it.  Rene Bond auditioned.  I fell madly in love with her, but she wouldn’t have made a good Superchick at all.  Roberta Collins auditioned, and she would’ve made a great Superchick.  We went to her place on Holloway and she opened the door in hot pants and boots, a cutoff with no bra, and one of those belts with the hand clasps right under the belly button – man, was she hot!  Well, Mark Tenser just froze when she got near him.  She did the whole audition and afterward he said, ‘She’s not right for it.  Let’s keep looking.’  I couldn’t believe it!”

“So in comes Joyce Jillson and her husband, who was an executive at Universal.  She sits on Mark’s lap and says in a baby voice, ‘Oh, I know I can do this part, daddy, I know I can!  Just give me the chance, daddy!’  Mark’s laughing away, ‘Oh well, shucks, oh-ho-ho!’  And he gave her the part!”  Crutcher wasn’t happy at all with the casting of Jillson.  “I couldn’t stand her.  She agreed to do the nudity, did one little scene, and then halfway through refused to do any more unless she got paid extra.  Well, they paid her more money, but she still raised all kinds of hell about it, so they brought in a body double to do more nudity, and the double turned out to be problem as well.  She kept saying, ‘Why don’t you show my face?’  We tried to explain to her, ‘You’re supposed to be Joyce Jillson.  If we show your face, then where will we be?’  But she still didn’t get it.  We finally said, ‘Look, we just need your body!’ and then she started screaming and crying.  It was awful.  But the movie came out and was a hit.  STANLEY did better, but SUPERCHICK did very well.”

POLICEWOMEN

“So I had two hits for Crown under my belt and I thought I was all set up,” Crutcher goes on to say.  “I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m the member of a moviemaking stock company now!  What do we do next?’  They said, ‘We’d like to do an action piece about policewomen.’  So I got another $750 for a treatment called POLICEWOMEN.  It was about a female police officer who worked in the K-9 unit.  Her partner was a dog that sniffed out drugs.  Unfortunately, the dog was an addict.  It would sniff out the drugs and then eat them.  They made a lot of arrests, but the dog was always so stoned that it didn’t know what it was doing.  For instance, whenever she’d turn the siren on, the dog would start howling along with it ‘cause it knew it was about to get some drugs.  Finally, the dog OD’d, and I had the same gag that Cheech and Chong later used in UP IN SMOKE (1978), where the dog’s flat on its back with its legs in the air.  Anyway, the dog’s death is terrible publicity for the police department, so they make all their dogs take drug tests.  Meanwhile, the policewoman falls in love with a dealer…”

Crutcher pauses for a beat.  “…and then suddenly, two fuckheads appeared on the scene, one named Lee Frost and the other named Wes Bishop.  They told Mark, ‘We’ve got an idea for POLICEWOMEN that will actually work,’ and before I knew it, they’d taken over the film.  They invited me out to a party they were throwing at their place, way out in the valley, and they knew at the time they were sticking the knives in my back.  They were the biggest bunch of phonies.  Wes sat by a fireplace the whole time playing a guitar and singing folk songs, and then this nude girl came in and sat on my lap and started reading Rod McKuen poems out of a book!  I remember thinking ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’  A few days later, Mark did a FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973) on me — took me out to a football game, the Rams at the Coliseum, and kicked me off the film.  Remember when they took Eddie Coyle to the hockey game?  At least they fed him!  I didn’t even get a meal out of Mark!  And then at halftime he said, ‘Let’s go.’  ‘Let’s go?  Shit, I wanna see the other two quarters!’  So that was the end of me at Crown International.  I was crushed.  Man, I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do — ‘til I wound up working at Columbia and raking in $125,000 a year for half the work I was doing at Crown!”  Crutcher lets out a laugh, and then adds, “I never spoke to them again.  It’s been 40 years.”

THE POM POM GIRLS, THE VAN, VAN NUYS BOULEVARD, MALIBU HIGH

As with many drive-in companies, T&A was often Crown’s bread and butter, and they released a number of box-office hits in the horny teen subgenre, most of which were surprisingly less raunchy than similar picture from the competition.  In fact, they often had more in common with the beach party pictures of the sixties, just with more nudity, customized vans and ‘70s AM Gold soundtracks.  The runaway success of Joseph Ruben’s sexy high school comedy THE POM POM GIRLS in 1976 inspired this further streamlining of the Crown formula, with youth pictures like THE VAN (1977), MALIBU BEACH (1978), VAN NUYS BLVD. (1979) and THE BEACH GIRLS (1982) becoming the company’s biggest breadwinners for the next several years.  It also stirred up more bad feelings between Crown and AIP; THE POM POM GIRLS was so successful — grossing more than $18 million by the start of ’77 — that Sam Arkoff and his son Louis, a fledgling producer, took notice and lured Ruben away from Crown to direct a trio of teen-oriented movies for them: JOYRIDE (1977), OUR WINNING SEASON (1978) and GORP (1980).

THE VAN cashed in on the customized van craze with a soundtrack that included Sammy Johns’ hit single from 1975, the million-selling “Chevy Van” (Pop #5).  Released during the days of the “love machine” — custom painted vans with water beds and state of the art eight-track sound systems — THE VAN  stars Stuart Goetz, now a successful music editor, as Bobby, a teen trying to get lucky and make money racing his customized Dodge.  The poster’s tag line was, “Bobby couldn’t make it…till he went fun-truckin’!” (THE VAN was also one of Danny De Vito’s first big screen acting roles before he finally broke through with the popular sitcom TAXI.) MALIBU BEACH (1978) was a sequel to THE VAN, but arguably the best of the lot was VAN NUYS BLVD., which Crown released in 1979.  Bill Adler, a supporting actor in THE POM POM GIRLS and THE VAN, stars as Bobby, a kid from a small town looking for action and finding it on Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.  The film is loaded with love machines, street races, a Playboy Playmate or two, disco music, sex, nudity, rollercoasters, go-karts, early low tech video games, and much more.

Crown scored good marks from critics with MY TUTOR (1983), which had a surprisingly tender romance between teacher Caren Kaye and student Matt Lattanzi, for being more tasteful than the raunch-o-rama comedies that followed in the wake of ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) and PORKY’S (1982).  “Mark Tenser didn’t like dirty, smutty movies,” says David Baughn, the former executive vice president of distribution at Crown. “He liked a very clean image, and light T&A comedy.”  As with all of Crown’s previous teen flicks, the leading male character in MY TUTOR is named Bobby, apparently something that Marilyn Tenser insisted upon for reasons that were never explained to any of the writers or directors. The Crown formula took a darker turn in 1979 with MALIBU HIGH.  The ad campaign shows a beautiful, tanned model in a bathing suit flashing a big smile, with a cartoon in the background of a bunch of fuddy duddy teachers checking her out.  “Every teacher in school wanted to FLUNK HER…,” read the ad copy, “But nobody dared!”  It was a classic case of deceptive B movie advertising, because the model in the poster, Mary Margret Humes, isn’t in the film, and MALIBU HIGH is a much darker, more disturbing film than the artwork implied.  The tag line is more truthful, since the movie is about a troubled high school girl who becomes a blackmailing hooker and hit woman.  In the early stages of production, the film was known as DEATH AND DENIM and TEEN TERROR. MALIBU HIGH producer Craig Muckler took a low budget filmmaking course at UCLA taught by Irv Berwick, the director of THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS (1959) and HITCH-HIKE TO HELL (1977).  Berwick’s writing partner, John Buckley, wrote this script, and Berwick came aboard as director, with Muckler producing.  The film cost $75,000, and Berwick’s connections got it seen around town until Crown acquired it.  The title was changed to MALIBU HIGH because of Crown’s success the previous summer with MALIBU BEACH (1978).  “Honestly, I couldn’t complain,” says Muckler. “It brought people to the theaters.”  MALIBU HIGH was a bona fide hit for Crown and company president Mark Tenser loved to say he had the ability to “turn shit into gold.”

The start of the 1980s saw a large number of Canadian tax shelter films coming out in the U.S. through independent companies like Avco Embassy, as well as a few major studios eager to cash in on Paramount’s success with FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) by grabbing up slasher movies produced north-of-the-border.  Crown acquired several of these unremarkable Canadian productions including THE HIGH COUNTRY (1981), IMPROPER CHANNELS (1981), and THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT (1980), a tepid political thriller featuring William Shatner as a Secret Service agent up against a South American guerrilla leader who has kidnapped the President of the United States (Hal Holbrook) during a diplomatic visit to Toronto.  The most notable of their pickups from the Great White North was THE LAST CHASE (1981), the fifth and last attempt to turn popular TV actor Lee Majors (THE BIG VALLEY, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) into a movie star following his box-office no-shows THE NORSEMAN (1978), STEEL (1979), KILLER FISH (1979) and AGENCY (1980).  In the early 21st century, two decades after dwindling oil supplies in the U.S. have made automobile ownership illegal, a former race car driver (Majors) now employed by the Boston Transit Authority - suspecting there’s a less restrictive life waiting for him in California – ditches his job, reassembles his prized Porsche and takes off for the west coast, accompanied by a teenage electronics (Chris Makepeace from MEATBALLS and MY BODYGUARD) and pursued by a fighter jet piloted by kindred spirit Captain Williams (Burgess Meredith), a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.  Moviegoers in 1981 gave THE LAST CHASE a wide berth, but if anything, the film’s message seems even more on-target today than it was thirty years ago.

DEATHROW GAMESHOW and MY MOM’S A WEREWOLF

“I had made a Super 8 film for a couple thousand dollars called A POLISH VAMPIRE IN BURBANK,” says filmmaker Mark Pirro.  “I was showcasing it around to different places, and a guy named Dave Bond who worked at Crown at the time saw it and I guess he was impressed enough with my filmmaking that he brought me in to see Mark Tenser.  We were actually making another Super 8 film at that point called CURSE OF THE QUEERWOLF.  I was shooting the film and Crown said they might be interested in releasing or making CURSE OF THE QUEERWOLF one of their movies.  They were going to put up the money for it and we were going to make it their film, but they decided against it at the last minute.  I went ahead and continued making the movie on my own, and then about a year later they contacted me again, asked how we were doing, what was going on, and we had already finished the movie.  I guess they were impressed with our tenacity so they ended up saying ‘Well, do you have any other scripts that you might want to make?’  DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987) happened to be one of them.  I pitched that to them and that was pretty much it.”

Similar to THE RUNNING MAN — and released the same year — DEATHROW GAMESHOW is a black comedy about a TV game show, Live or Die, that affords death row inmates a chance at a reprieve if they survive life-or-death challenges in front of a studio audience.  The budget for was under $200,000 but the experience was valuable in that it gave Pirro his first shot at making a feature in 35mm.  “I had been warned by other filmmakers before I went [to Crown], so I kind of knew what I was getting into,” Pirro explains.  “At the same time, it was a good opportunity to get a 35mm budget and to be able to go ahead and make a movie with real cameras and real trucks.  I don’t think we spent more than 4 weeks on the whole film.  It was made under the umbrella of our company, so we had pretty much complete control over the making of it, but then once it was finished I was out of it entirely.” Pirro was dissatisfied with the theatrical release Crown gave the film.  “It didn’t even play in L.A.  The closest it played was San Diego.  A bunch of us actually got into a car and went to see it in San Diego.  It was practically an empty house.  They made a video deal, and I think part of that deal was a requirement that the movie play in either 20 or 40 theaters across the country.  I know it played New York and a few other cities here and there, but they didn’t put any promotion behind it.  They didn’t do any advertising, apart from some newspaper ads.  The theatrical release was really sort of an obligation.”

The video deal was so lucrative that Crown ended up doing very well with DEATHROW GAMESHOW, and approached Pirro and his crew about making a second movie.  “They wanted to do the same thing for MY MOM’S A WEREWOLF (1989), only in this case they wanted to use actors with a little bit of name value.  They got John Saxon, Ruth Buzzi, Susan Blakely — they pulled in a bunch of names to give it a little credibility, so the budget mainly went to the actors, yet they still wanted to shoot the movie barebones like we did DEATHROW GAMESHOW.  They had hired me to write the script, which I did, and I was going to direct it, but I think they were offering me something like $300 a week to direct it.  The actors were getting a minimum of $400 a day to be in it.  I thought, ‘Oh, come on, we gave you a free movie with the first one!  Let’s be a little nicer to our crew.’  They didn’t budge on that.  No qualified director’s going to do a movie for $300 a week unless he’s right out of film school.  So I pretty much left the project at that point, but they did use a lot of my crew, the people who had worked for me on DEATHROW GAMESHOW.  They approached them individually and asked if each one would be interested in being involved.  Some were and some weren’t.  They brought in another director, and I think they were paying him $600 a week.” Incredibly, Pirro got involved with one more project at Crown.  “I had written a script for them called SIDE SADDLE, which was supposed to be a western comedy with a female lead.  I got paid for it, but then Sharon Stone’s movie THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (1995) came out and didn’t make any money, and Crown decided a female western was probably not the way to go so they ended up not doing it.  And that was the end of my tenure at Crown.”

Thanks to David and Chris for being us these stories. Rent a Crown International Pictures movie today – you’ll be glad you did. Or at the very least, you’ll remember you did.

(c) David Konow and Chris Poggiali, 2012

9 Responses Crowned and Renowned: A Look Back at Crown International Pictures (Part 2)
Posted By Juana Maria : July 27, 2012 3:32 pm

The list of movies here reminds me of the films I find in bargian bins or the Dollar Store! Cheap but fun! Hey that sounds like a tagline!

Posted By swac44 : July 30, 2012 10:09 am

I got a smile by reading about Superchick and seeing the poster, since when I first met my girlfriend seven years ago, she was wearing a Superchick T-shirt she’d bought in Toronto, and we’re still together happily today. I saw the movie years ago on VHS, and we watched it together a year or so into our relationship thanks to those great bargain DVD sets of Crown pictures that can be found at pretty much any bargain department store. I probably enjoyed it more when I was a teenager sneaking a peek at a Restricted movie, but we got a few chuckles out of it.

I’m not saying Crown International brought us together, but seeing that T-shirt made me think she was a pretty cool gal, and it turned out I was right. Thanks Joyce Jillson, wherever you are!

Posted By William Grefe : August 27, 2012 9:58 am

Chris : Great job , Red was great,tough in business,but his handshake was as good as a written contract, more than i can say about Hollywood exc. today. Bill

Posted By Steve Offers : January 29, 2014 10:46 pm

As an independent artist and designer I was contratcted to create and prepare most of ad campaigns for Mark Tenser from the late sixties and did the artwork for most of the titles listed in your very thorough history of Crown. I was shocked when I ran across a note recently that Marilyn (Tenser) had been killed in a tragic motorcycle in July of 1988. Although I left that part of the business in the early 80′s, I recall many meetings that I would have with the two of them at their home in the hills South of Ventura. Sadly, If you could let me know if this indeed did happen, I would appreciate it very much. That’s a big loss.
Steve Offers, Sherwood Forest, CA

Posted By Steve Offers : January 29, 2014 10:50 pm

I just sent you an eMail regarding Crown International especially Mark and Marilyn Tenser, and seemed to have neglected to check the box below that I DO wish to receive your comments by eMail.
Thank You, Steve Offers

Posted By Patrick Murphy : April 12, 2016 3:05 pm

I produced Pink Angeles, a winner for Red, Mark & Marilyn, at
Crown. They where Rip-off artist, of the first degree, if your film should be successful, they would charge your film with all the charges they could create to make sure you didn’t get a penny…I guess Red got his Karma

Posted By Pat Cardi : December 21, 2017 4:11 am

I starred in and co produced Horror High (aka Twisted Brain) – As far as I know Crown never paid us a cent in royalties to us. As a SAG actor I don’t believe I ever recieved residuals from the countless television airings, or foreign sales. I have never heard an independent producer who made a dime from making a deal with Crown. There should be a class action lawsuit against them. They were financial criminals of the highest order. They should have filmed their accountants, admin, Newt, Mark and their legal staff and called it “SLIME”.

Posted By Pat Cardi : December 21, 2017 4:13 am

William Grefe : BULLSHIT

Posted By George : December 21, 2017 11:58 pm

BLOOD MANIA is fascinating for its utter incoherence. I’ve watched it several times and have no idea what is going on in most of the scenes.

But it is a time capsule of 1970 (three years before Roe v. Wade), with its references to abortion as something that could send a doctor to prison.

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