Conversations With Gary A. Sherman Part Four: POLTERGEIST III, LISA and More…

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Part four of our series of interviews with horror and cult filmmaker Gary A. Sherman.

Two weeks ago SHOCK ran part one of our ongoing series of conversations with filmmaker Gary A. Sherman, beginning with an in-depth interview about the making of his mesmerizing 1973 horror classic DEATH LINE (aka RAW MEAT).

Then, in part two, Sherman discussed what might be his most famous horror film, writer Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shussett ‘s unsettling 1981 chiller DEAD & BURIED.

Then, we discussed Sherman’s sojourns into hard-action filmmaking with his brutal VICE SQUAD and hardcore TV remake WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE.

This week, we we discuss the doomed POLTERGEIST III, the underrated LISA and the devastating 39: A FILM BY CAROLL MCKANE

Sherman is one of the most under-appreciated auteurs working in the genre, his own personal brand of films serving as a vehicle for expression of his political perspective, and acknowledgement and advocacy of basic human rights.

Again, here’s Gary…

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SHOCK: POLTERGEIST III was plagued with misfortune and dire shortcomings, which ultimately led to the temporary shelving of the project during post-production. Can you share some insight into what actually happened?

SHERMAN: We had all kinds of problems on the film. People were dying—the engineer that ran the John Hancock building died on set while we were shooting. Zelda Rubenstein’s mother died while we were actually in shooting. Heather O’Rourke was sick a good deal of the time while we were shooting. We did have an ending of the film that we didn’t like. I wrote a new ending that everybody did like but we were not in the position to shoot it because it needed so much special effects work. So at one point, because of the pressure that we were getting from NBC to get the Sable pilot done, we actually shut down Poltergeist III for a while and got the Sable pilot ready to air. Then we were going to come back, finish POLTERGEIST III and then I’d go right into doing the series on Sable. While we were shut down and getting ready to shoot this new ending, Heather passed away. I flew back to Los Angeles, then two days later I was a pallbearer at her funeral, which I think was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do in my entire life because I really loved that little girl. She was just the best, and carrying a box with her in it… I couldn’t have imagined wanting to do anything less. Her funeral was just terrible.

Anyhow, having gotten through that, I didn’t want anything to do with the movie. Then later, the board at MGM said we have a lot of money invested in this thing, we have to finish it. So I wrote that terrible scene that is the end of the movie now where everybody comes back from the other side and Tom Skerritt carrying Carol Anne on his shoulder, but it’s a double; it’s not Heather. We were threatened that if we didn’t finish the film somebody else would be brought in to finish it. But we had another 17 minutes of the film to shoot, which never got shot, and so the film was short. I just had to put a version of the film together and stretch it. So we made that hodgepodge that is POLTERGEIST III, and if nobody ever saw it I would have been very happy. I hate the movie. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, and I wish I had never made it.

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SHOCK: Let’s talk about LISA…

SHERMAN: LISA was a film that I am really proud of and is probably hopefully going to be remade. It was released on Blu-ray last September, because the film has enjoyed a whole new rebirth. There’s like a whole cult movement behind it now, which I’m glad happened. Scorpion put out the Blu-ray and they’ve done a great job. It has some great extras on it and stuff, and so I’m excited about that. LISA was never previously released on DVD; it was only released on VHS. Recently Amazon started selling DVDs [on demand]; you order a DVD and if it doesn’t exist they print it and send it to you. They did that with LISA and from what I understand they sold so many of them that’s when MGM decided to pull it back out of mothballs and made the deal with Scorpion to do the Blu-ray.

SHOCK: 39:A FILM BY CARROLL MCKANE was your last theatrical film to date; but as it stands, this film has never been released, and has barely seen the light of day. What can you say about that particular film and why it met the clandestine fate that it did?

SHERMAN: The script had been sent to me and I felt that there was really something to it but I didn’t like it… but it haunted me. I was then contacted by the writer and I talked to him and he said, ‘You know this movie has been optioned a million times but nobody ever makes it, and I don’t know why.’ I started talking to him about why I thought it hadn’t gotten made, and I told him what I thought I wanted to do with it. I made a deal with him and I bought the script from him outright, and I said I’m going to re-write it but I’m going to leave your name on it—because I can make a film that I’ve always wanted to make out of this script, and that is a film that is so frightening that people will say that this is either the scariest or at least the most disgusting movie they’ve ever seen in their life. One of the things that I started thinking about was that every good horror film gives the audience a rock to hide behind so that they can watch the film from a point of safety where they’ve got a place to hide, and they can experience the horror and they can experience the terror from behind this rock. I decided that I wanted to remove that rock. So that’s what I did with 39—I removed every obstacle that could separate the horror on screen from the audience.

I had no distribution deal for the film, but Mitch Davis had seen it and we premiered the film at FanTasia, and it was an absolutely horrifying experience for me. During the screening we had a full theatre. People sat down, the movie came on the screen and nobody moved; nobody got up and went to the bathroom, nobody did anything. For 90 minutes, the audience sat there glued to the screen. There were gasps; it was very contained. I had warned the audience about the film before it started: I said, ‘this is not a film you’re going to enjoy. This is a film that you’re going to experience, and if you’re not ready for that experience I don’t think you should stay.’ The lights came up at the end of the screening and it was just absolute silence. I showed it at a few others places; FANGORIA set up a screening at the Pioneer in New York where we showed it. I ran it in Chicago, I think Rusty Nail set up a screening. I ran it at the University of Wales (there was a filmmaker there that wanted me to show it). I think those were the only public screenings that we did of the film. I just decided that as a filmmaker I had a responsibility to my audience; I just didn’t feel that I wanted this film released to the general public. It’s a pretty devastating experience. It’s the story of a serial killer and it is so real and so intimate. Nobody really needs to meet this character; that’s the bottom line. There’s no reason why anybody needs to bring this character into their life. This is a character that I purged out of my own being and out of my own fears, and I’m glad that I did it. I don’t want people to see it.

SHOCK: Much of your career falls in the realm of made-for-TV movies. How did come to do so much work in television and how does directing, writing and producing for TV differ from making theatrical features? Which do you prefer?

SHERMAN: I love making movies but a movie becomes your entire life for like two to two and a half years. There’s no way around it; if you’re really going to be serious about a movie, it has to be your life. Television offered me the opportunity to do new things; I had written a lot of scripts other than scary movies. I had actually written some romantic comedies and stuff that I really wanted to try my hand at, and nobody would let me do that. Television allowed me to do anything I wanted. In feature films, unless there was a body count, they weren’t hiring me to direct it. And television is a much more concise media; it’s much quicker, and the risk isn’t as great. In the beginning, everything that television wanted me to do was what I was doing in movies. But then it expanded, and Missing Persons especially just changed everything for me, because there I was able to do a show that was 100 percent character driven. Nobody got shot, nobody got killed; there were no car chases and no explosions. There were no guns fired. I really enjoyed that, and that just kind of moved me; it endeared television to me and that’s why most of my career since Missing Persons was really aimed at television.