❉ Tom Lee Rutter profiles indie horror film-maker Mike T. Lyddon.
“Lyddon’s film-making is usually a one man band affair born out of necessity. This is testament to his true love and passion for the craft. A do-it-yourself spirit that dances in the realm of the horror spectrum and special practical effects. He stands out for me as an indie film-maker in the classic sense.”
As a self taught and self financed independent film-maker I know too well the struggle of having to not only realise a vision of varying degrees of ambitiousness but also the struggle of getting the finished work seen and distributed. So many remarkable pieces of work get lost in the oversaturated world of indie where every man and his dog are in the directors chair and are barely seen. I’m sure there was always a sense of oversaturation in the market but in this age of cinema-ready consumer cameras and the game-changer that is ‘the internet’ we are talking multitudes of output. With Going Underground the pleasure is all mine in presenting a series of articles showcasing weird and wonderful films and the film-makers of the underground whom I feel deserve your attention.
We begin with US film-maker Mike T. Lyddon who has been making independent horror films for over 25 years. In his own words Mike is a man from everywhere:
”My dad worked for NASA/Rockwell so we moved several times when I was a kid. I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, then spent my teen years in Lancaster, California, and I’ve had that “ramblin’ jones” my entire life I suppose… By now, I’ve lived in 10 states and spent about 5 years in Peru and another 2 years in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.”
After a decade of inactivity based in LA; Mike moved to New Orleans. It was there he made his first feature thriller film Cut Up (1994) in which he was co-writer, producer and director with cinematographer Jeff Turick. He also contributes articles in MONSTER! Magazine and has dabbled in horror fiction. After several other collaborations in film we look at Lyddon’s two most recent features in which he was sole creator: First Man on Mars (2015) and Witch Tales (2020).
First Man On Mars (2015)
Straight off the bat it is apparent that First Man on Mars (FMoM) has been shot on celluloid. In the age where it is standard, economical practice to go digital – it comes as a great surprise to see that Lyddon has gone the extra mile. ”Man on Mars is 85% film, 15% digital…” He tells me – ”…as a couple of scenes did not turn out well enough on film, so we were shooting film/video in tandem just in case, and boy was that a good idea!” The digital scenes soon show themselves in a couple of instances, but in others they blend seamlessly with the celluloid majority. The grain of film is an unmistakable aesthetic that you just cannot replicate entirely – believe me, I’ve tried! I had to ask Mike how the experience of working with film panned out for him:
”Pure Hell…I had my Canon Scoopic Ultra-16mm (it’s like a Skid Rowe version of super 16mm, but it works pretty well) and an old friend of mine from back in the CUT UP – ZOMBIE! days, John Woods, came down with his Aaton super 16mm camera for the majority of the shooting. First day, his camera took a crap, and so we carried on with my Canon Scoopic. He got another camera sent to him, but they didn’t pack the adaptor for the lens, so over the next week I was cutting 400 foot rolls of film down to 100 foot rolls of film in my bathroom-turned-darkroom until 3am in the morning, to turn around and get up at 6am to shoot the next full day. How I got through that I’m not sure, but most filmmakers will tell you…just make the damn film! So that’s what we did.”
The opening scene of FMoM is evocative of those sleazy docu-sploitation films that used to play grindhouse double bills in Times Square as coroner Dr. Fritz Leiber lectures us on the dangers of Mars and repeatedly urges us to ‘Keep watching the stars!’ Leiber is in Criswell mode here which welcomes in the film’s obvious 1950s influences as well as it’s 1970s ones. We are then presented with a montage of stock-footage shots of an astronaut gearing up for lift-off and a rocket being shot into space. Our astronaut; Mr. Colone is off to explore Mars but doesn’t account for the indigenous substances that infect him and turn him into a raging psychopathic mutant as he returns to Earth to wreak havoc – despite all the intentions back at base to prevent him doing so.
We then see the helmeted astro-zombie in action as he disembowels a dim back-country redneck who; along with his companion – happen upon the crash landed escape pod. At this point it occurs to me that Lyddon has made his own take on The Incredible Melting Man (1977) and ask him if this is the case:
”Absolutely. I love THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN and still have the super-8 condensed version of the film.”
I ask if there were any other films in particular that influenced this one. He says First Man Into Space (1959) was certainly influential and that makes sense: The Incredible Melting Man is basically a remake of First man Into Space, which in itself is a re-telling of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). The extra ingredient in Lyddon’s film is the humour for which he was influenced by the anarchic and comic films of Troma Entertainment.
Throughout the film we are inroduced to your usual gamut of b-movie characters; the team of bumbling scientists headed by the beautiful and geeky Dr. Munro who are tasked with tracking the mutant Mr. Colone down, bikini bimbos with machine guns, short-sighted cops – and various victims who parade the screen solely to be splattered. The film is without sense of deeper characterisation – this isn’t the party for such developments and would potentially be a problem if the film ran too long. Luckily it doesn’t as FMoM is a brisk 77minutes and before the action predominantly takes place in the sticks I found myself busy wowing at Lyddon’s flare for detail in his ‘cardboard’ sets. The space station HQ is wall to wall of bleeping lights and buttons for something or other. The police station, local bar – all classic Ed Wood, and without art-director! The scenes shot on Mars in particular were really effective. I had to ask Lyddon where he shot those:
”Finding that location for the Mars footage took some doing. I was looking all around and was preparing to drive out with a skeleton cast/crew to Texas, when at the last minute I stumbled upon this amazing place in north Mississippi called Red Bluff Canyon. It’s unusual in that that it is 90% “Red Clay” so when you hike down into the canyon, you are surrounded by orange and red cliffs.”
We are treated to lot of fun special effects sequences which range from all-out gore, miniatures and even a stop-motion creature sequence. The serpentine-like Martian cave-dweller gives more than a nod to the classic Medusa sequence from Clash of the Titans (1980). Practically all of the effects work comes courtesy of Lyddon himself:
”I LOVE doing that stuff. As a kid, I was as fascinated with special make up effects as I was with filmmaking. Dick Smith and Tom Savini were my idols and I learned a lot just by watching their work. And of course there’s Don Dohler’s incredible CINEMAGIC magazine of which I have many copies of and still refer to when doing effects. Dohler was a big influence on me, and there’s definitely inspiration from his films (NIGHTBEAST, THE ALIEN FACTOR) in FIRST MAN ON MARS. In the scene where the cops are driving, Sheriff Dick Ruffman is talking to dispatch and she mentions Don Dohler as a character in the film.”
A lot of passionate hard work clearly went into this production and it had this viewer anticipating the next feature Lyddon put his name to; the horror anthology feature Witch Tales (2020).
Witch Tales (Cuentos De La Bruja) (2020)
Lyddon shot his horror portmanteau Witch Tales in Peru. I did wonder how this came to be and he told me ”My ex is Peruvian, so we moved down there because she has family. Soon after, I got the filmmaking bug, and decided to make another film.” He had spent time in South America in the past; taking veterinary courses and moving to Venezuela to help out at an animal shelter. It wasn’t long before he put his film-making practices to task whilst there as he wound up filming traditional, indigenous South American music for Howlingearth.com.
Witch Tales pays homage to the horror anthology comics of the pre-code era. Actually, it’s more adaptation than homage as all three tales of terror packed within it’s, again, short runtime (78 minutes) are in fact stories from various horror comics of the pre-code days. For those unaware of the history; The Comics Code Authority was established in 1954 by the Comics Magazine Association of America and it saw an influx of regulated content in comic books as most labels strived to adhere to comply with the code to avoid major distribution problems. This meant heavily censored and toned down depictions of violence and gore in horror comics. Lyddon explains:
”Unlike EC who continued on by going to the magazine format with MAD magazine, thus bypassing the Comics Code Authority, many of the pre-code publishers were put out of business and thousands of jobs were lost because of implementation of the code.”
The comics Lyddon adapted from were called Chamber of Chills, Haunted Thrills and Fantastic Fears – portmanteaus of terror from labels long gone. Lyddon did his best in attributing who authored-what to shed light on some of the artists and writers who created the tales within the comics that excited him so much:
”The history is sometimes a bit hazy on who did what in these comic books, but I discovered that Ruth Roche is responsible for one or possibly two of the stories I adapted: Experiment in Terror and Bon Appetit. She was a major player in the pre-code days working for comics icon Jerry Iger as editor on many of the titles his company produced, and she ended up writing quite a few of the pre-code horror stories. Roche was one of a handful of women working in pre-code comics in the 1950s.”
We open with an atmospheric and suitably spooky set piece awash with coloured gel lighting, fog machines and a bubbling cauldron. Tending to it is our host; The Witch (played by Mayella Lloclla) who is cooking up a brew of ingredients acquired through-out the three tales of terror she presents to us which leads to a ghoulishly fun conclusion filled with make up effects by Nanistronix Crimson. Lloclla’s Witch makes a terrific host. The location serving up as her lair was the perfect setting and one that Lyddon deemed as the catalyst for the whole production; an old house converted into a museum called Casa Museo del Terror (House of Terror Museum). Lyddon’s framing device really brings those anthology comic books to life with it’s use of primary colours and spook-house imagery. The tales themselves in contrast, look grounded in reality as Lyddon shot in various real-life locations in down town Peru.
The first tale; Cycle of Horror (Ciclo de horror) see’s two petty thieves rob a man of his money only for the one thief to then double cross the other by killing him and leaving him to be eaten by rats in their seedy hideout. The thief can only run so far with the loot as every place he tries to take refuge in he finds himself back in the room he initially left, faced with the horrific site of his dead partner being eaten alive. This was my favourite story of the three and it really captured the grim sense of morality which would usually be the type of many of the tales found in the comics.
The second tale Experiment in Terror (Experimento de Terror) sees a deranged scientist imprison a loving couple – caged up and starved in a bid to determine whether love can overpower hunger. This is a blackly comic offering with a very bloody ending, even if I did want it to go somewhere a little further.
The third and final tale Bon Appetit sees a highly celebrated chef lead double lives. He is an arrogant, diva perfectionist who embraces the celebrity lifestyle and showers his beautiful mistress in expensive jewellery. In reality he has a wife and child who he resents and neglects. The wife is subjected to domestic violence during his many tempers and the child eventually succumbs to malnourishment which leads to a vengeful and violent denouement. Mario Maldonado is perfectly detestable as Chef Francois and we love seeing him get his comeuppance. Lyddon himself pops up in this one in an uncredited cameo as a doctor.
The film has an overall light and quirky tone – though not overtly played for laughs like First Man on Mars it maintains the right balance of tongue-in-cheek. It is serious when it needs to be in order to serve up the fun and frights one would get from reading an issue of, say, Chamber of Chills. It is clear that Lyddon has a true passion for the source materials, and grew up on Tales From The Crypt and standalone homages such as George A. Romero’s Creepshow before delving deeper into the pre-code titles.
Witch Tales boasts another distinction in Lyddon’s indie oeuvre; the film was shot in both Spanish and English language versions. It brought to mind the Spanish version of Dracula (1931) which was shot concurrently and on the same sets as Tod Browning’s classic film – or perhaps more accurately Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979) for which he simultaneously shot German and English language versions in a bid to reach wider English-speaking audiences. It is with the same reasons that Lyddon tasked himself with the same tactical gambit:
”A lot of people watching horror films don’t want to read subtitles, so I thought if I could shoot a film in two languages I could get a wider audience, and I think that is playing out based on sales and feedback I’ve gotten. That being said, I DO NOT recommend trying this unless you have an actual budget to work with. Flipping back and forth from English to Spanish on the set after shooting 12 hours was occasionally nightmarish, but somehow everyone stuck with it and we pulled through in the end.”
I asked Lyddon how he sourced a cast and crew capable of doing such a thing seeing as some of the players struggled notably more than others:
”As luck would have it, a horror convention in Peru called HORROR FEST LIMA was happening and we ended up being invited to attend. I quickly moved to set up casting at the event and interviewed over 50 people and ended up with 80% of my needed cast from that event alone! This included some of the prime actors – Raul Chamorro, Juanjo Rodriguez, Erick Lopez, Erik Javier. Some were bilingual actors, some were actors who spoke little English but had the talent, and some were just horror enthusiasts who spoke English and could handle a given role, so it worked out amazingly well… Many of the actors were fluent in English, but I had to have additional dialog coaching sessions with a few of them and that’s fine, they learned quickly and did a great job. Some problems occurred occasionally on set because I can’t think in ‘film language’ in Spanish, so at times it was a little frustrating. I can speak Spanish fairly well, but not so hot in technical terms. This is absolutely one of those situations where storyboards were CRITICAL, and I can’t stress this enough to filmmakers… put in the extra effort and do storyboards for your films.”
While First Man on Mars saw Lyddon filling practically every crew role in production, he had more help behind him this time round but that didn’t stop Witch Tales from becoming one of the most challenging productions of his filmography:
”Handling the Spanish/English scenes added a whole new dimension of terror to the production, not to mention that I had the bright idea of shooting the witch scenes on both digital and super 16mm film (only one scene survived). It was almost like I wanted to give myself a heart attack. Seriously, no other production has pushed me to the mental/physical limits like WITCH TALES, but I think the insanity is paying off…I have never received the amazing feedback and emails from customers on a film like I have for Witch Tales. It seems to be connecting very well with horror anthology fans, and for this I am eternally grateful.”
His film-making is usually a one man band affair born out of necessity. This is testament to Lyddon’s true love and passion for the craft. A do-it-yourself spirit that dances in the realm of the horror spectrum and special practical effects. He stands out for me as an indie film-maker in the classic sense. Part of the old guard who wanted their images to flicker through the emulsions of celluloid film no matter the struggle, the kid who stood in front of the bathroom mirror applying gory make up effects to himself after reading movie magic magazines. He wants to recreate and celebrate the classic aspects of the genre that he grew up with – this is no frivolous subscription to the current trends of aestheticizing nostalgia.
What is next for Mike T. Lyddon? Well, other than continuing writing short horror and science fiction – it appears he isn’t quite finished with exploring the world of pre-code comic books yet as his latest feature is a documentary about them called ‘Haunted Thrills’. It is currently in post-production and he hopes it will play the festival and convention circuit in a post-covid world. It will certainly be a film I’ll be looking out for!
❉ Buy FIRST MAN ON MARS on DVD here: https://amzn.to/2TgC2m6
❉ Buy WITCH TALES on Blu Ray and keep up with news on Mike T. Lyddon here: http://www.horroranthologymovies.com/
❉ Thomas Lee Rutter is a director and editor, and creator of Carnie Films’ folk horror short Bella InThe Wych Elm (2017), acid western Day of the Stranger (2019) and upcoming feature The Pocket Film of Superstitions (2021).