Saturday, 11 February 2017

A chat with legendary Melbourne writer John Harrison

Next up in my ongoing series of interviews is a chat with good friend and fellow Melbourne writer, John Harrison. Also a film historian and collector, John has written for countless publications (including Weng’s Chop, Monster! International, Filmink, Is it Uncut? and the much missed Fatal Visions and European Trash Cinema). He’s also completed liner notes and essays for countless DVD and Blu-Ray releases, penned the best-selling Headpress book Hip Pocket Sleaze: The Lurid World of Vintage Adult Paperbacks, and contributed to the true crime volumes Death CultsBad Cop Bad Cop and Guns, Death, Terror. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of this local legend’s body of work...he also regularly introduces movies for Melbourne film society Cinemaniacs, self-published a number of fanzines including one of Australia’s very best, Reel Wild Cinema!, is an optioned screenwriter, and appeared in an episode of the ABC series Collectors.
One of the most talented writers in the cult cinema and pop culture fields, John’s work is never anything but top class. Anything with Harrison’s name on it is definitely worth seeking out as his writing is immensely entertaining, informative and enjoyable to read. He is currently co-writing two books on actress/singer, former Hollywood stunt woman, and the lovely Mrs. John Harrison Marneen Fields, and is also preparing to write the definitive biography of the extraordinary former evangelist preacher and actor Marjoe Gortner.

I first met John in 1998 when I stumbled across a copy of Reel Wild Cinema! when lending a box of zines from a friend. Immediately impressed by the mag’s writing and content, I wrote John a letter complementing his work and also included a copy of my own – embarrassing in comparison – horror/music/alternative culture zine Archetype Malice. John was kind enough to reply and sent me some back issue of RWC. In subsequent years I noticed his presence on the World Wide Web with his ‘The Graveyard Tramp’ Ebay store (formerly a mail-order business) and excellent blog Sin Street Sleaze, but it was only until early 2013 when I reconnected with him on Facebook that we became friends. This also inspired me to start writing again (I’d been on a hiatus from 2007-13), something which I’ll always be extremely grateful for. Many thanks to John for taking a break from his busy schedule to answer my questions!!!

What is your earliest memory of seeing a movie theatrically?
Hmmm, I guess my earliest moviegoing memory was my grade school English teacher taking me and a couple of other classmates to the long-gone Astrojet Cinema at Tullamarine Airport to see Conquest of the Planet of the Apes in 1974. He was a bit of a science-fiction nut I guess, and recognised that in me and the other kids as well. It wasn’t a school sanctioned outing or anything. My parents were fine with it. Can you imagine the uproar these days if a school teacher turned up at a 10-year-old student’s house to take them to the movies on his own?!?

It was a great experience. I still remember the excitement and anticipation, hearing the theme music and seeing the opening shots of the apes actually being projected onto the cinema screen curtain, as they were still parting as the movie started.

How and when did you discover and really get into horror/trash/cult cinema? When did you first discover a like-minded ‘community’ of fans/collectors of these films whom you could correspond and collaborate with?

It kind of relates back to the previous question and answer. I was a fan of comic books and TV shows like Batman, Superman, The Munsters, etc. for as long as I can remember, but a defining moment was when I was ten and turned-up for school one morning at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Primary School and our class was ushered into one of the houses which the school owned next to the property, where we were told we were being treated to a movie, thanks to a classmate named Bradley French, whose father was some programming big-wig at Channel Seven at the time. I sat there mesmerised as a 16mm print of Beneath the Planet of the Apes was screened onto the white wall, and my life as a genre film buff has never really been the same since! Not long after that I discovered Marvel’s Planet of the Apes comic book magazine and the Scanlons bubble gum cards at the local newsagents, which helped trigger off the collector in me.

Which genre fanzines/magazines you found of special interest in the 1980s/1990s?

I read Fangoria for a while in the 80s, those early issues were great, but I started getting a bit tired of seeing Freddy or Jason on the cover of just about every second issue. My interest in genre magazines and fanzines really waned in the mid-80s, I was more reading books like Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and RE/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films volume.

Thankfully, things started picking up again late in the decade, with the appearance of Psychotronic Film and, more locally, Michael Helm’s seminal Fatal Visions, both of which were highly influential on me, both as a fan and a burgeoning young genre writer. Then the 90s saw a real explosion in publications that had passionate, informative writing and a presentation to them that was somewhere between fan and pro-zine. Craig Ledbetter’s European Trash Cinema, Michael Copner’s Cult Movies, Tim Paxton’s Monster! International, Tim Lucas’ Video Watchdog, etc. There were also the UK magazines like Flesh & Blood and Delirium. The internet was only in its extreme infancy at this point, so you still had to depend on the printed word to find the bulk of your information.

It was a real treat going into Minotaur and Alternate Worlds and seeing their magazine racks filled with these magazines and more, while at the same time continuing to obtain the more traditional fanzines by mail, especially local zines like David Nolte’s Crimson Celluloid, Kami’s Sprak!, Dann Lennard’s Betty Paginated and Andrew Leavold’s Stumpy.
You have an incredible collection of movie and pop culture memorabilia (posters, lobby cards, books, figurines/models, clippings, and much more) What are some of your all-time best bargains or freebies you had with obtaining these?

Bargains are few and far between today, sadly. Sometimes you might come across a cool old vintage movie tie-in paperback at the local goodwill store. And when you find a cool item on eBay at a good price, outrageous postage costs will often sour the deal if the item is outside Australia. But when I was a young teenager in the late-seventies there was a shop at the top of Swanston Street called Space Age Books, who specialised in sci-fi/horror and fantasy books, and they had a box filled with original posters and lobby card sets that, even at the time, seemed like a real bargain. I picked-up lobby card sets for films like The Deadly Manits, Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera, Blacula, William Girdler’s notorious Abby, etc. They were all less than $5 a set! I also bought a lot of individual lobby cards for various 1950s sci-fi and horror films, I still have many of them with their 25-cent price written in pencil on the back. Those were the days!

What’s the most extreme reaction to a horror/exploitation film that you’ve personally ever witnessed?

Hmmmm…I remember seeing a double of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead at the Astor Theatre around 1984 and one lady running out screaming and retching during the climax of Chainsaw (when old Grandpa is trying to hit Sally over the head with his hammer at the film’s climax), and I also recall two women behind me storming out in disgust during a screening of Pasolini’s Salo at the Lumiere in the late-90s, during one of the periods when the ban was lifted on the film.

And putting on the Palace Explosive VHS tape of Bloodsucking Freaks for a room full of people usually resulted in a few interesting reactions. You often found out who your true friends were at that point!

What are your all-time favourite films (of any genre) and whom do you believe are the greatest directors of all time?

Among my constant list of favourites: Blood Feast, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Bless the Beasts & Children, Alien, The Exorcist, The Naked Prey and When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder. I could easily rattle off another hundred titles off the top of my head when it comes to perennial film faves!

Favourite directors, for a variety of reasons, include Herschell Gordon Lewis, Stanley Kubrick, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Russ Meyer and so many more!

You’ve been involved with various forms of media for a few decades to date – writing for books, newspapers, magazines and online. What are some of your thoughts on the vast technological changes you’ve observed and adapted to in your involvement in these fields during this time?

Obviously the internet was the thing that changed thing irrevocably, and both for the better and the worse. It’s great to have such an easy platform to be able to get your writing and thoughts across to a potentially huge audience, and with a bit of basic HTML knowledge anyone can build a really nice looking website or blog in an afternoon. And that is the blessing and the curse. Everyone has and is entitled to their opinion on things of course, as long as they are informed opinions I will always respect them, but there is also a lot more misinformation being spread, rumour reposted as fact, and plagiarism is more common because the internet has made it a lot easier for people to steal your work without credit or permission. Some people unfortunately still believe that because something is posted online then it is not considered ‘real’ writing, and is up for grabs with a simple right click.

The old hand-typed, cut, paste and photocopy fanzine took a lot more time to produce, and cost a lot more money and would be lucky to reach a couple of dozen people, but the end result really made all the blood, sweat and tears that went into it. It doesn’t feel that special to have a website or blog because everyone else has one, but not everyone has gone to the lengths of actually putting out their own hardcopy publication. I know that personally I felt a much greater satisfaction from collating and stapling an issue of my Reel Wild Cinema! fanzine together – laying out the pages on my bed, desk, couch and floor – than I ever have from posting a new blog entry. Though, importantly, I do get more satisfaction from my actual writing today, and obviously I am happy that my work has a chance to be a lot more widely read that it was in the old fanzine days.

What general advice would you offer writers of cinema discussion and criticism wishing to establish themselves?

Just to write about subjects you feel the most passionate about. Even if you are writing about something that has been thoroughly covered by other people, if you have a unique angle or perspective, it will always make your work seem original and fresh and engaging. Also, don’t be afraid of covering the more obscure subjects that you think may have limited interest – some of the best non-fiction books and articles I have read, and documentaries I have seen – have been about subjects that I had little previous knowledge of, or interest in. As a writer, it’s always a buzz to hear that your work has helped make someone a fan of something, whether it’s an individual film, book, etc., or a whole genre or body of work.

I know you’ve met few individuals in the public eye. What are some of your most memorable ‘celebrity’ encounters, good or bad?

Thankfully I haven’t had a bad experience with anyone, but some are more friendly towards their fans than others. Some of the best encounters I have had were with Fred Williamson, Robert Englund and John Waters. And getting to interview H. G. Lewis for my Hip Pocket Sleaze book, even though it was only via phone, was a dream come true. I also corresponded for a while in the 1990s with legendary sexploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer, and had a few entertaining telephone conversations with him. He invited me to visit his Hollywood home next time I was in the area, but sadly we lost contact as the dementia started to take hold of him.

What works or projects are you most proud of?

That’s an interesting question, and a tough one to answer. As a writer yourself, you probably know the thrill and pride you feel when a new project is finished and published, and often your latest work is your favourite. But then after a bit of time passes and you look back on something, you start to pick it apart more and think of things you could have done to improve upon it. But at the same time, that is a good sign that you are growing as a writer.

Obviously my Hip Pocket Sleaze book, which was published by Headpress in 2011, is something I am still immensely proud of. And I love the work I did for Something Weird Video in the late-90s/early-2000s, writing reviews of their amazing catalogue of titles for their VHS and DVD covers and sales catalogues. It was always a thrill when a box of five VHS tapes would arrive from Something Weird for me to cover – it was always such a delightfully odd, random mix of titles. There would be a gritty B&W sexploitation roughie (Olga’s House of Shame), a seedy and sick Harry Novak production (Hitch-Hike to Hell), a dubbed piece of Eurotrash (The Seducers), a collection of creepy old classroom education shorts, and a long-lost Ed Wood porn flick (Necromania). It was a real film education, and I am still proud that I got to be a part of this important film label, if only in a small way. My Something Weird video tapes are definitely a personal highlight of my collection.

But mostly I try to focus on my current and upcoming writing, and trying to make that the best thing that I have done, and the best that it can be.

What are some of your current and future projects you’d like to mention?

I always seem to have multiple projects on the go at any time, but that is a lot more preferable than having nothing to work on! 

Coming up in the near future, I have written the booklet essays for a couple of upcoming vintage ‘Ozploitation’ Blu-ray releases – Snapshot and The Survivor - being put out locally by Glass Doll Films. They are due out in March and April. I will also be doing an introduction to one of my all-time favourite films, Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts & Children, when Melbourne film society Cinemaniacs screen it at the Backlot Cinemas on April the 8th this year. I’m really looking forward to talking about this vastly underrated movie, watching it for the first time in a cinema and seeing how the audience reacts to it.

I am also keeping busy with a number of book projects. I am currently co-writing two books with my lovely wife Marneen Fields, who is an American singer/composer, actress and former Hollywood stuntwoman. One of the books we are working on, Rolling with the Punches!, covers her film and television work in detail, with some great stories and recollections, while Cartwheels & Halos is a more of a biography that delves into Marneen’s personal stories of survival and inspiration, as well as her music and movies. A fair chunk of both of these books has already been written, and Marneen has an amazing archive of photos that will richly enhance the text. We also plan to do a few film-related events together, as we did in 2016, introducing a screening of The Gauntlet (which Marneen performed stunts on) and appearing on the TV Movie discussion panel at Monster Fest.

And finally, I have my own individual book project, Wildcat!, which looks at the film career of child evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner, whom I have always had a fascination for ever since I first saw him in The Food of the Gods when I was a kid, and finding out about his unique past only increased my interest in him. I have been busy researching and interviewing a number of people who worked with Marjoe over the years, and am attempting to track down the elusive man himself. Wildcat! Is scheduled to be published by Bear Manor Media in the US, hopefully in 2018.

People can keep-up with my writing and other projects by visiting my blog at:


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