Bill Rebane: A Retrospective

Wisconsin has produced more than its share of good film makers, but only Bill Rebane stayed . . .

As someone who’s proud of his Wisconsin heritage, I may be a little prejudiced when I say the state gets a bad rap. To the public at large Wisconsin is home to little more than cows, Cheeseheads, fat people (though that might be redundant), the Green Bay Packers, Ed Gein and Jeffery Dahmer. And cows. While all that may be true, Wisconsin has also spawned its share of renowned filmmakers, most of whom were dismissed by critics and major studios alike at the height of their creative powers. Orson Welles was from Wisconsin. Bert I. Gordon was from Wisconsin. Joseph Losey and Nicholas Ray were both from Wisconsin. And so is the great Bill Rebane, the independent producer/director responsible for The Giant Spider Invasion, The Capture of Bigfoot and several other low budget sci fi wonderments. Of the lot, only Rebane stayed in Wisconsin, shooting his films at a small studio he opened himself in the late ‘60s.

His pictures didn’t always feature the big stars other independent productions were able to afford (though he has worked with the likes of Ralph Meeker, Tiny Tim and Alan Hale, Jr.) and the production values and special effects may have been a little shaky at times, but he told a good story and offered up a few genuine creeps and as a result his cult reputation has continued to grow over the years. Especially in Wisconsin and given that Wisconsin is the nation’s reigning capitol of weirdness, it only makes sense.

Rebane came to the States from Estonia at 15 after growing up in postwar Europe. He studied drama in school, worked at WGN television in Chicago and moved to Germany when he was 19 to get his first taste of feature filmmaking. When he returned to the states Rebane made a couple musical shorts that were picked up by AIP and did well. Well enough that in 1961 he decided he wanted to make his own feature.

Inspired to some degree by Val Guest and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Xperiment, Terror at Halfway opens with an American space capsule crash landing in a Midwestern field. Instead of an astronaut, though, what emerges from the capsule is a 10-foot-tall mutated, radioactive monster who proceeds to go on an obligatory rampage. Although its assumed throughout the film that the monster is in fact the horribly malformed astronaut, the astronaut himself mysteriously appears some 8,000 miles away in the middle of the ocean, quite unharmed and unmutated. What exactly happened is never explained.

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Rebane began shooting around Chicago in ‘63, but perhaps taking the title to heart the production ran out of money around the halfway point.

Having gained some business smarts by this time, Rebane sold the finished footage to Herschell Gordon Lewis, who shot a few extra scenes and edited it all together. The one small problem with this is that a number of the actors from Rebane’s shoot didn’t show for the extra scenes. As a result, a number of characters, even important ones, have a tendency to well, vanish randomly throughout the film. While this might have been used as a tie-in to the disappearance of the astronaut, Lewis wasn’t thinking that far ahead. He retitled the film Monster A Go Go and released it in ‘65. The film didn’t have much going for it save for one of the greatest taglines in film history: “The movie that comes complete with a 10-foot-tall monster to give you the wim-wams.” (Although accurate medical records are hard to come by, at least one recorded case of the wim-wams was reported in Indianapolis around this time.)

In the late ‘60s Rebane bought a farm in Wisconsin and, along with tending to the cattle, he also opened a small film studio (the first in the Midwest) that he called The Shooting Ranch. For the next several years it did a brisk business as an industrial and commercial house until 1974, when Rebane decided he wanted to take another stab at features.

With a microbudget and a screenplay written by his wife, Rebane’s first Shooting Ranch feature production was a sci fi epic on a tiny scale and one that foreshadowed his later Alpha Incident. Invasion from Inner Earth starred Rebane regular Paul Bentzen as one of a group of airmen on a training flight who hear radio reports of everything going to hell on the ground below. It’s unclear what, exactly, is taking place but it sounds mighty bad: plagues, explosions, plane crashes, destruction of every which ol’ way.

Coming to the general conclusion it must be an invasion of some kind and unsure what else to do, they land the plane and huddle together in a small cabin in the woods waiting for the world to end. It’s a very stage bound film in which most of the action takes place by way of speculation and imagination, which saved considerably on the special effects budget. In a way I guess it’s like an apocalyptic Twelve Angry Men or any of a dozen Twilight Zone episodes.

It’s not a great film, but what it did do was establish Rebane as a director who wasn’t simply aiming for the AIP crowd. (Unless he was and simply failed miserably.)  It was a slow, deliberate picture more focused on character than action. The same could be said of all of his films, regardless how weird and wooly they became.

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Speaking of weird and wooly (I can’t fucking believe I just used that), it was the following year’s Giant Spider Invasion that put Rebane on the cult film map.  Jesus, I saw this as part of a double bill with Godzilla vs. Megalon, sitting in the theater with a hundred screaming 8-year-olds, at once amazed by the storyline, confounded by the special effects and feeling like a big pervert for being alone in a theater with a bunch of 8-year-olds.

According to Rebane it was a disastrous production from the beginning. He was working with five producers (never a good idea); he had two screenwriters with very different ideas regarding what the film was supposed to be; he had a $325,000 budget with only $10,000 set aside for special effects; a special effects supervisor who was a drunk and a brutally short shooting schedule during a brutally hot Wisconsin summer.

By the time filming started he still had no script, but he did have a 50-foot spider that resembled a VW Beetle with some big pipe cleaners sticking out of it (because that’s essentially what it was). On the bright side he’d been able to sign Alan Hale, Jr. of Gilligan’s Island fame and Hollywood legend Steve Brodie.

As rough as the cinematography can be at times, as shoddy as the special effects and as amateurish as the acting, it was still a story populated with some unique low-rent small town characters and several intertwining storylines. It may not be Bergman (unless Bergman decided to make a giant spider movie), but it’s not as dumb a picture as most smug commentators would have it.

Rebane takes his time getting started, introducing a cast of sad drunks, trailer trash, creepy stepfathers, a pretty astronomer, a goofy town sheriff (Hale), a 16 year-old newspaper editor, a NASA official and a tent evangelist whose sermons snake throughout the film.

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As the story develops it almost has the feel of a Larry Cohen script. When what appears to be a meteor crashes into a northern Wisconsin field, things start to go all funny. See, it didn’t act like any normal meteor.

Oh, hell, I’m not even going to try to recap the plot. There are miniature black holes involved and geodes filled with tarantulas and diamonds and there’s a gamma ray shower and that damned preacher and slaughtered cattle and Alan Hale, bless him, playing the same character he’s played his entire career and those VW spiders and neutron bombs.

It’s insane and a mess and it’s fascinating and when you grow up in Wisconsin you just come to expect giant spiders and mini black holes to crop up every August or so, so it was even comforting in that way. For as little as he had to work with, it’s clear Rebane had some mighty big ambitions here. And believe it or not, the film went on to become one of the highest grossing pictures of 1975 (right behind, y’know, Jaws). And that mini black hole gimmick would be picked up some 20 years later by one of the later generation Godzilla films and put to similar use.

The same year he made The Giant Spider Invasion Rebane made another monster picture on a much smaller scale. Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake almost sounds like a doo-wop number, but was instead a Rebanian variation on the then-popular Bigfoot genre. Unlike say, The Legend of Boggy Creek or The Search for Bigfoot, instead of an ape man, Rona is more a man-frog; an amphibious local legend on the rampage. The plot involves a young man out for revenge 20 years after Rona killed his father.

While not as twisty or baffling as Invasion, in fact as amphibious humanoid revenge pictures go it’s pretty standard, it still represented a step forward for Rebane in technical terms. It was Rebane’s next film, however, 1978’s The Alpha Incident, that presented him as a much more confident director. To put it a little bluntly, it actually feels like a real, live movie. The camera work is better, the acting’s much improved and the editing’s pretty clever at times. The Alpha Incident may not be as bone crazy as Invasion, but as a biothreat conspiracy picture Rebane’s not playing for the same kind of goofy laughs.

With hints of both Night of the Living Dead and The Thing From Another World (as well as Rebane’s own Invasion from Inner Earth), the picture opens after a Mars probe has returned to Earth complete with a deadly microbe. Researchers can’t figure it out and can’t neutralize it. All they know is that it seems to kill everything and quickly.

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The government decides the best thing to do is hide it away in an underground bunker in Colorado and the best way to get it there is on a train following a route through, yes, northern Wisconsin.

The only two men aboard the train are a sort-of undercover government biochemist (Stafford Morgan, a Rebane regular until hitting it big) and Hank, the crusty, drunken and nosy old railroad employee (the great George “Buck” Flowers, who spent a lifetime playing drunks, bums and hobos). Well, there wouldn’t have been much of a movie if Hank didn’t sneak into the cargo hold and break a couple vials full of alien virus, now would there? At the next dusty little depot, when the biochemist sees what’s happened, everyone’s put under quarantine and the soap opera begins. Along with Hank and the scientist, you get the sexy accountant, the horny yard worker and Ralph Meeker (Paths of Glory, Kiss Me Deadly) as the station manager.

This was near the end of Meeker’s career and he earned top billing in the credits. But by this time his drinking had become more than a problem. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could exactly shoot around anymore. As a result, he has five (short) lines of dialogue in the whole picture and stands only twice. Mostly what he does throughout the film is sit in the shadows and stare glumly ahead. First time I saw the film I spent more than an hour looking for Meeker before realizing he was the motionless lump in the glasses. I thought he was in bad shape in Food of the Gods, but this was ridiculous. This is the kind of man who’s keeping the trains running? No wonder the railway system’s in the mess it’s in!

Ah, poor Ralph Meeker. I’ll still see anything he’s in.

But anyway, once Rebane establishes the crew of personalities locked together in the train depot, he begins cutting back and forth between the increasing tension there, the two frustrated scientists in the research lab back East and a small group of government officials trying to figure out what the fuck to do after calling out the National Guard. It’s a tight little thriller with a surprisingly dark ending, and one of Rebane’s best films, even though his leading man’s in a stupor.

In 1979, about two years after the curve, Rebane took a stab at the Bigfoot genre proper with The Capture of Bigfoot. Now, when you’ve made collecting Bigfoot films part of your major life’s work (something you tend not to bring up in mixed company) you can’t help but rank them. It can be tricky at times as it’s really a subgenre of the much broader “ape man on the loose” pictures. Nevertheless among the specifically Bigfoot-related films there are some winners, from the above-mentioned Boggy Creek and The Creature from Black Lake to the downright baffling The Curse of Bigfoot. Most Bigfoot films, it must be said, are dull as dust. Lingering shots of trees, lingering shots of snow and most of them open with some insipid folk rock song about nature. You always know you’re in trouble with a Bigfoot movie when the fucking nature song begins.

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Given his track record for simple weirdness and the title at hand, I was expecting quite a bit from Rebane. Then the fucking folk rock nature song began over the shots of trees and snow. That’s pretty much the way it continues for the next hour. That, together with a lot of long snowmobile shots (another bit of standard Bigfoot film filler).

There’s not a whole lot of plot going on. When two trappers are killed after briefly bagging a baby Bigfoot (here known as “Arok,” guardian of one of those inescapable Indian Burial Grounds), the local townsfolk go a-hunting. Stafford Morgan, Buck Flowers and several other regulars return. Olson, an increasingly unstable local businessman who cackles maniacally quite a bit (B-film stalwart Richard Kennedy) posts a bounty, then decides he wants to, as the title would imply, capture Bigfoot alive to turn him into a tourist attraction. When Olson finally does get his wish about fifteen minutes before the closing credits, things pick up considerably with car chases, gunplay, large explosions, and some of that late-70s Indian mysticism. But damn it took a long, slow time getting there.

The film was marked by two interesting things. It was the first of Rebane’s films in which some characters actually had Wisconsin accents. It also marked the first time a Black character appeared in a Rebane film, though he was a bit of a lazy, shuffling, “sho’ ‘nuff” 30’s-style caricature who gets tied to a tree and used as bait near film’s end. In general the special effects were a vast improvement over his earlier films, save for Bigfoot himself, whose white fur suit left him looking a bit too much like the Son of Kong on his way to a perch fry.

It wasn’t the worst Bigfoot movie ever made; I mean, at least SOMETHING happened, which can’t be said for all of them. Still, though, judging it within genre terms it’s mid-level at best and second-tier Rebane.

He was back on track four years later with ‘83’s The Demons of Ludlow.

As the Amityville Horror series hobbled painfully along the producers grew more desperate (or drunk) in their search for ways to haunt a house in increasingly stupid ways. Already by the fourth installment (starring Patty Duke) we watched in horror as a family found itself terrorized by a haunted floor lamp. I can’t make this stuff up. Whenever that sucker’s 60-watt bulb started glowing, watch out boy, ‘cause something really Evil was about to happen.

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Yes, well.

So upon first hearing that The Demons of Ludlow (the title a clear nod to The Devils of Loudon) involved a haunted harpsichord I didn’t get my hopes up. But damn if Rebane didn’t pull this one off. It worked because he surrounded the evil harpsichord with characters and storylines and history and atmosphere and creepy dolls enough that you forget you’re watching a movie about, y’know, an old upright piano (though I’ve known a few of them to be pretty evil).

There are definitely hints of Stephen King here as Ludlow, a small but quaint New England coastal town, celebrates its bicentennial. It seems Ludlow’s always been plagued by disasters, accidents, mysterious deaths and suicides. After 200 years there are only 47 extremely pigheaded  residents left and a lot of them are planning to move.

Supposedly brightening up the celebration is a gift from England: the great grandson of Ethan Ludlow, the town’s founder, sent along Ethan’s very own harpsichord, still in pretty good condition. Weird thing is, no one seems very happy about it. And sure enough as soon as it arrives people start dying in really dumb ways.

As all this is happening, a journalist who spent her childhood in Ludlow before moving away (Stephanie Cushna) shows up intent on writing something about the town’s spooky history. Problem there is, not only will no one talk to her; there are absolutely no records of the town’s history anyplace. So she teams up with a young and earnest local preacher man who has a few clues and together they uncover the Horrible Truth about the town’s founder, the town curse and the demon in the harpsichord.

At times the film feels like a slasher movie, what with the silly deaths and all, but again as in Rebane’s better efforts, the characters are rich enough and the assorted stories strange and disturbing enough that he dispels that. It’s certainly one of his most complex films, with an effective score and some fine camera work.

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Weird thing is (though I’ve never heard any mention of a curse associated with the production), for most of the actors involved this turned out to be the only film on their resume. And Rebane himself directed the film under the pseudonym “Ito.” I’m not sure why.

The following year’s horror-comedy The Game (sometimes released as The Cold) is another head-scratcher. In technical terms the film seemed to be more akin to Spider Invasion than Demons of Ludlow. At the same time, though, the film is strangely prescient.

It opens like a silent picture, with Scott Joplin ragtime on the soundtrack and old-fashioned title cards. Then a narrator neatly sets up the story…in rhyme. It’s all an effort to telegraph that we’re about to see a comedy. Good thing, too, as it’s not always evident and sometimes easy to forget.

Three bored millionaires gather at a northern Wisconsin resort, having chosen nine carefully selected strangers to join them in a game. The game, see, is a simple one. The millionaires will be trying to terrify their guests, and the last one who doesn’t flee screaming from the grounds  wins a million bucks. After laying out the ground rules the millionaires disappear to a control room where they can watch and comment on everything that’s happening in the resort.

There are hints of everything from De Sade to a couple Karloff movies from the ‘40s, to The Most Dangerous Game, to countless Scooby-Doo episodes. To contemporary audiences of course it’s a model for a reality show. Several even, complete with young attractive players (half with Wisconsin accents) with different backgrounds and different personalities, different tactics and different drives to win. And like most modern reality shows, most of the actors seem to have been picked from the bottom ten percent of some local community college’s drama class.

Potentially interesting as this may have been, the acting’s taken a nosedive, the sound is far worse than usual and the editing seems to have been done with some kind of sharp rock. One of the film’s opening scenes involves an unusually long and painful dance number that serves no purpose except to make the audience squirm (again like most any episode of any modern reality show), while later scenes vital to the story have clearly been excised.  And it’s best not to even bring up the jokes.

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At times watching it I found myself wondering if it was all intentional, some kind of meta-joke, in which Rebane took an idea with potential and did absolutely everything wrong with it. But I don’t think that’s the case. There are still some interesting twists here and a few nice scenes (a game of Russian roulette is particularly good) and I don’t think he would have left those in if he was after a big joke.

So the crazy ten-year Rebane roller coaster continues. After proving he can make real-type movies he’s back to the beginning again.

After The Game, Rebane took another break to help create the Wisconsin Film Office. He returned in ‘87, though, with two pictures. Twister’s Revenge is a whacky crime comedy involving three sub-par criminals, the beautiful and brilliant computer programmer they kidnap and a talking monster truck.

Yes, a talking monster truck. He’s the Twister of the title.

Blood Harvest is a small town slasher picture starring Tiny Tim as an insane clown.

There’s really nothing more that can or should be said about either. It’s best you just sit quietly for a moment and contemplate the implications.

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…………..

Shortly after they were released Rebane had a stroke which eventually forced him to close The Shooting Ranch. In the subsequent years he’s written and contributed to several books on filmmaking, published a UFO conspiracy novel, done more work with the Wisconsin Film Office and in 2002 he ran for governor of Wisconsin as the Reform Party candidate.

At some point, five of his films were obtained and sold illegally by Synergy and Mill Creek productions, prompting him (along with the prolonged lawsuit) to become a vocal anti piracy activist. He also founded Independent Artists Pictures, a group which helps indie producers with marketing and distribution and whose website also acts as a repository for (legal) copies of his films and books. In 2009 he was given the Wisconsin Filmmakers’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

There have been a few attempts to get another film project off the ground (including a UFO movie) but at present those remain up in the air.

Like Wisconsin itself, once you step outside the state Rebane doesn’t get much respect. But if you take the time to watch the films closely and not just crack wise, you’ll see they’re much better than most people realize. The important thing to keep in mind with filmmakers like Rebane, Del Tenney, Ed Wood, Herschell Gordon Lewis and so many others is that it’s not always about the finished pictures but what surrounded them and went into them: the fact that Rebane kept swinging on his own, stayed far away from the corporate Hollywood game, fought the odds and actually was somehow able to channel the twisted atmosphere of the Dairy State into each and every frame.

 

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