SHOCK’s david j.moore talks to director Michael Miller about a pair of ’80’s cult classics.
The year 1982 saw the release of two films directed by Michael Miller, who’d made a name for himself in Hollywood directing two notable pictures produced by Roger Corman STREET GIRLS (1975) and JACKSON COUNTY JAIL (1976). Miller’s two films in 1982 were radically different from one another, but both are unique slasher-type films that rode the wave of the slasher boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s. His first film of ’82 was the Chuck Norris-starring action/slasher hybrid SILENT RAGE, which pitted Norris’s sheriff character against a hulking silent beast of a killer, who Miller intended as an homage to Frankenstein’s creature, but it’s difficult to view the film as anything other than a slasher picture with Chuck Norris’s karate cop at the center. It’s unique for a Norris vehicle, and it’s been building a steady cult fan base, as a recent sold out 35mm screening at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater (which was presented by Cinematic Void and Dammaged Goods) showed. Miller’s second film of ’82 was the slasher spoof NATIONAL LAMPOONS CLASS REUNION (written by John Hughes!), a startlingly unique movie that is set at a high school during a CLASS REUNION. The film remains a curiosity not only for fans of National Lampoon films, but for diehard fans of slasher films and spoofs of the genre, as it was one of just a few similar-type movies to be released during that period. In this interview, Miller responds with surprise at the growing interest in these two movies and the fact that they’ve cultivated a fan base.
SHOCK: SILENT RAGE and CLASS REUNION are both considered fringe horror films in that they’re both more or less slasher films. That said, they’re very different types of movies.
MILLER: Yeah, I got CLASS REUNION off of SILENT RAGE.
SHOCK: Well, how did SILENT RAGE become your next project after the two back-to-back Roger Corman pictures?
MILLER: Right, I did STREET GIRLS before JACKSON COUNTY JAIL. We did STREET GIRLs in Oregon for like $35,000. Then we took it to Roger Corman and he picked it up. Then he asked the producer and I if we wanted to do something else and we said yeah we wanted to do JACKSON COUNTY JAIL. We had no script or anything. I then spoke to a guy named Bob Klane, who wrote a movie called Where’s Poppa? He was a novelist, and still is. So, I called him because he was the most legitimate guy I knew, and I said, “We need someone to write a screenplay.” He put us in touch with Don Stewart, who was an advertising executive from New York who moved out here. We went with him and we all collaborated on JACKSON COUNTY JAIL. SILENT RAGE came to me through the executive producer Paul Lewis. He was the Columbia guy. The reason Chuck Norris wanted to do the picture – and I think it was the reason we all wanted to do the picture – is because it was a major studio picture. I had talked to Paul Lewis a couple of times, but I’m not sure if I talked to Paul or the producer Tony Unger first. Somehow I got the script, and then we met with the people at Columbia, and everybody was happy with it. I hadn’t met with Chuck yet, but Tony Unger was really the mover and shaker who was essential to the whole thing.
SHOCK: When you received the script, can you remember if it was written as a karate cop type of film? Was it written with Chuck Norris in mind?
MILLER: Oh, yeah. I think that was the idea. You don’t hire Chuck Norris not to do karate. It wasn’t like it was an old John Wayne script that they ended up giving to Chuck. He does his thing. I think the idea was to try and broaden the audience in that it wasn’t a karate movie. In my mind, it was a Frankenstein movie. It was like Frankenstein meets Chuck.
SHOCK: SILENT RAGE followed the big boom of the slasher genre. It came after HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13th, but it’s definitely got the vibe of an ’80s slasher.
MILLER: It’s funny because I wasn’t familiar with those pictures. I’m not a fan of those. When I read it, I thought that it was Frankenstein. That’s what I was heading towards. We’ll have the mad scientists bringing this guy back to life. Chuck will have to try to apprehend him. We did it in Dallas. In the best of all worlds, there would have been sequels. At the end, the guy is still not dead. But that never happened. I would have liked that. You can see that this guy is not a slasher. He kills people the way Frankenstein’s creature kills people. He throws them and bang. When he goes in the chicken coup, that’s the beginning of it.
SHOCK: Well, the movie starts off with a pretty vicious axe murder. He kills a family.
MILLER: That’s true, that’s true, that’s true. That’s right, I forgot about that. But you see, that’s before he becomes Frankenstein. Right? Then he gets shot. He kicks his way out of the police car and he gets shot.
SHOCK: Talk about casting the silent killer. Brian Libby played him pretty well. He made an impression.
MILLER: Brian came in and he was, I think, a friend of Aaron, Chuck’s brother. He was also kind of a stunt man. He reminded me of Lee Marvin. He came in and I thought, Okay, this guy can play Frankenstein’s creature. He was a real cooperative kind of guy. He never balked about anything. I put him in a silver suit, and put him through a lot. A lot of other actors would have thought that was beneath them, but he wasn’t like that. I think he went on to have a nice career.
SHOCK: He doesn’t say a word in the movie after the first two or three minutes. I guess that’s why it’s called SILENT RAGE.
MILLER: Yeah, I guess! It was his rage. (Laughing.) I have no idea why it was called SILENT RAGE. It was probably his inner rage.
SHOCK: Talk about working with Chuck. He’s an icon now, and he was already well on his way to becoming an icon then.
MILLER: Oh yeah, he was, there’s no question about it. He’s the real deal in terms of being into karate and being a fighter. As I understand it, he didn’t get into martial arts until he got out of the military. He got into it late. He went into it and when he fought, he would just take people out. It was like no holds barred. While we were doing the movie, he was always very pleasant. The stuntmen who worked with him, he knew them all. His brother Aaron was involved. Occasionally, he would not pull his kick or his punch, and he’d take somebody out. It was an honest mistake. He was always willing to do the fights. He was most comfortable fighting. There’s a scene with him and Toni Kalem, who played the love interest, and they actually improvised, and that was a big deal for him. “You want me to what?” he said. I said, “Just talk and have fun,” I told him. He did, and it’s a nice little scene.
SHOCK: A lot of people do perceive SILENT RAGE as being a little off Chuck Norris’s reservation in that it’s a slasher film. How do you feel about that?
MILLER: I don’t know. What I’ve been told is that this is Chuck Norris’s “good” film. It’s got a broader appeal in that it goes past the karate market. In terms of slasher films, I don’t think the slasher audience – the John Carpenter audience, or whatever – think it’s great.
SHOCK: I think this movie is gaining some steam in the cult world. You’ll start to see it in your residuals.
MILLER: I thought it was just because this is Chuck Norris’s “good” movie! Not that there’s anything wrong with his other movies. I do enjoy them – especially the war movies. Well, I’m glad that it is a cult movie. That it’s got an audience.
SHOCK: Talk about filming the bar fight with the bikers. That’s a great scene.
MILLER: That was a cool scene. It was inspired, in my mind, by Kurosawa. I think it was YOJIMBO. There’s a bunch of bad guys who attack Yojimbo. They all just pile on him, and they’re doing all this stuff and then all of a sudden they all fly backwards. He whips them all. I just love how it turned out. Those were real bikers. I think Aaron, Chuck’s brother, was in there too. I like how Stephen Furst goes in the bar first. Stephen, in my mind, was Andy Devine. It’s got some comedy, it’s a little sexy, and it’s got a great fight. Chuck takes on everybody in the bar. He whips them all. The leader of the gang was one of Chuck’s stuntmen.
SHOCK: Your cast is great. Did you enjoy working with Stephen Furst and Ron Silver?
MILLER: Stephen Furst! I worked with him again on CLASS REUNION. In his own right, he’s a legend. I love him. He was in ANIMAL HOUSE. SILENT RAGE was not the kind of picture he would have been cast in, and so I thought we’d pair him up with Chuck. I don’t know if that part was written in there for Chuck to have a sidekick, but if it was it certainly wasn’t written for a short little round man who’s so innocent. There’s a scene in the truck where he talks to Chuck about a dog he had. That was pure Stephen. He told me that story and he wanted to use it in another movie, but he’d never been able to use it. I thought it was great. I told him to tell Chuck the story. It’s so dark. Ron Silver came with Steven Keats. They were New York actors. Steven Keats was one of my favorite actors. I was so pleased that they came to work on this. They played mad scientists. This work was so below their pay grade and their talent level. There they were, totally insane and trying to bring Brian back from the dead. They were Broadway actors.
SHOCK: Talk about the ending of the picture. The killer is kicked into a well, setting up a sequel, which you already mentioned. Was a sequel ever discussed?
MILLER: No, no. Not to my knowledge. I don’t think this was one of Chuck’s favorite pictures. He went to the screening, and I think that was the last time I ever saw him. He seemed to enjoy it, but he wasn’t sure it was going to work. It was outside of the formulas he’d been doing. I think he was too much of a gentleman to ever say, “I don’t like this.” I just don’t think this was in his wheelhouse. He didn’t do any more slasher type pictures.
SHOCK: Well, he did do another similar film called HERO AND THE TERROR a few years later. It was a Cannon picture.
MILLER: Aha! Cannon, again, was a version of New World Pictures, which was Roger Corman’s company. Roger would have done a picture with Chuck Norris, but it probably wouldnt have been a slasher. Anyway, how did HERO AND THE TERROR do?
SHOCK: I think it did okay. It had a similar vibe to SILENT RAGE. If SILENT RAGE is Chuck’s take on Frankenstein, then HERO AND THE TERROR is his take on Phantom of the Opera.
MILLER: Ah, except I don’t think anybody has ever verbalized that before! (Laughing.)
SHOCK: Talk about how SILENT RAGE was received. You went right into CLASS REUNION after it.
MILLER: SILENT RAGE did okay. I still get residuals from it. We had a screening, and the screening went well. As I recall, the reviews weren’t bad. Columbia loved it. I moved on from that. I did CLASS REUNION next. That was a showstopper. John Hughes had written that. I was glad to do it, but I was stupid to do it. The definition of a comedy is that nobody gets killed, and we have people get killed in that movie. I got a kick out of it, and the audience liked it, but the sales people didn’t like it. It’s still kind of the bastard child of all those National Lampoon movies. I wasn’t smart in casting in it. If it had starred Chevy Chase or some of those other National Lampoon people, it would have been a different story. But there was no reason to like it.
SHOCK: Well, that’s not true. I watched it again the other night, and I think it holds up pretty well for a slasher comedy.
MILLER: Well, I sat in the screening of it in Westwood and it was a full house, and people were screaming and laughing, and afterwards I was told, “We’re in trouble.” I do believe with a certain kind of picture, if you’ve got a reason for critics and audiences to think that they should like it – and casting is key to that – they will. If there’s no reason, then they’re really left on their own and you’re in trouble. I know there are people who like it because I’ve been to parties and guys will come up to me and they know all the lines, which blows my mind. I love the idea of the guy who plays the killer. His name was Blackie Dammett, and his son is one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I loved him. He had a paper bag on his head, and all those old jokes about paper bags. He was in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit for that scene. It tickled me. I’ve seen the picture occasionally. I like it. It just never took off.
SHOCK: CLASS REUNION is very much a cult film, and it falls in a unique subgenre: It’s an early horror spoof. There were just a few of those in the early ’80s. There was Student Bodies and there was another one called SATURDAY THE 14th.
MILLER: SATURDAY THE 14th! By Howard Cohen! He was my friend! I shot some footage for that. It blows my mind that you know that movie. Well, that’s good; I didn’t know that. It makes me happy to hear that. My movie JACKSON COUNTY JAIL is a cult film. I didn’t know that SILENT RAGE was a cult film until Duvien Ho at Dammaged Goods called me about the screening at the Egyptian a few weeks ago. I didn’t know anybody cared about these movies. It’s not included when they have Chuck Norris retrospectives on television and stuff.
SHOCK: It’s actually the only film Chuck Norris ever did with Columbia. That might be why.
MILLER: I think you’re right. Whoever buys those things, they buy a package from the same studio. There’s no package of movies he did with Columbia. The same thing may be true with CLASS REUNION. It was ABC pictures. They were trying to get into the feature film business.
SHOCK: Is there anything else you’d like to say about SILENT RAGE or CLASS REUNION now that you know that these are movies that are still being paid attention to?
MILLER: I don’t know what to say! (Laughing.) I’m pleased that there is still an audience who likes them! That these pictures will go on and have a fan base because of the slasher fans. They weren’t really made with those fans in mind. With any fans in mind, really. If they discovered them and are entertained, then I’m tickled pink. You’ve made my day. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I left theater and went into movies so that there would be some sense of a legacy. When I got the call from Duvien, I told him “It’s all empty calories besides JACKSON COUNTY JAIL. It all boils down to bullshit.” And now I see that it doesn’t!