Midnight's man: American icon Ted V. Mikels appears in person with films from the archives and a documentary about his life and work at the Clay, beginning tonight. (Photo courtesy Landmark After Dark)

Baloney Sandwiches With No Cheese: Ted V. Mikels' Wild World

Matt Sussman September 18, 2008

In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s great backstage drama, The Red Shoes (1948), Boris Lermontov, the controlling impresario behind a famous ballet company, asks the up-and-coming dancer Victoria Page why she wants to dance. She snaps back with the question, "Why do you want to live?" I imagine that director Ted V. Mikels would give the same response were he asked why he makes movies. "It takes your guts and your entrails and your soul to make a film," Mikels proclaimed in an interview in RE/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films. "It takes everything you possess within you!"

Mikels—who with his waxed white mustache and barrel chest looks like a cross between Salvador Dali and a big-rig trucker— belongs to that pantheon of American independent filmmakers that includes Ed Wood, Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman, Ray Dennis Steckler, and John Waters (many of whom were also interviewed for that same RE/Search book). He is of that certain breed of filmmaker solely dedicated to committing their unique vision to the camera, regardless of the stylistic conventions and working conditions of ‘the industry’ or accepted notions of good taste. Indeed, Mikel’s biography at times reads like a script for one of his movies. We’re talking about a former magician and ventriloquist who for 20 years lived in a castle outside of Glendale, California, with up to seven female "castle girls" who acted as live-in studio staff.

It is only appropriate that Mikels’ life and work is being honored this weekend at the distinctly American forum for cinema’s lone wolves: the midnight movie. Landmark Theater’s Midnights at the Clay series is bringing Mikels to town, with his muse and partner Shanti, to screen his cult classics Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1972) and The Corpse Grinders (1972) as well as Kevin Sean Michael’s new, John Waters-narrated documentary, The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels.

As evinced by Blood Orgy and Corpse Grinders, Mikels has a knack for titles. Scanning the list of over 20 movies he has directed, produced, written, or been involved with in some way since 1963’s Strike Me Deadly, one comes across such fonts of imagistic suggestion as The Black Klansman (1966), The Astro-Zombies (1968, which horror punk band The Misfits named a song after), Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), Apartheid Slave Woman’s Justice (1997) and Cauldron: Baptism of Blood (2004). The titles also speak to the breadth of genres Mikels’ fervent imagination has covered: supernatural horror, science fiction, animals run amok, women-in-prison (Ten Violent Women, 1982), rape-revenge dramas (War-Cat, 1987), and Rambo-style shoot-em-ups (Mission: Killfast, 1991).

Mikels’ vision has at times been prescient, even beating Hollywood to the punch—though often without receiving due credit. In Kevin Sean Michaels’ documentary Russ Meyer vixen and Astro-Zombies star Tura Satana recounts bringing Aaron Spelling to a screening of Mikels’ buxom secret agent romp The Doll Squad (1973) at 20th Century Fox. Three years later "Charlie’s Angels" would sweep the Nielsen ratings and become a pop cultural force.

But Mikels has proved time and again that he is nothing if not tenacious in his dedication to making movies. When a censor, outraged at the premise of The Corpse Grinders, charged, "Grinding human corpses into cat food is no joke!" Mikels upped the gag ante with William Castle-style promotional gimmicks such as requiring audience members to sign certificates waiving any damage to their mental health, hiring ambulances to park outside of theaters and paying nurses to administer blood pressure tests in theater lobbies. The Corpse Grinders is Mikel’s highest grossing feature to date.

In the documentary, Mikels speaks with an unsettling matter-of-factness when he describes repeatedly having to buy and sell property just to finance his next picture. Shanti, who also works as a psychotherapist under her birth name Wendy O. Altamura, recounts a time when the cast of Mission: Killfist had to forfeit dinner after shooting in the mountains for a period of days, when Mikels demanded that a BBQ that was already grilling food be used to un-freeze stage blood on a prop knife. Suffice it to say, the Karo-Syrup-covered meat had to be thrown out.

One gets the sense though, from the associates interviewed in the documentary, that Mikels’ pursuit of perfection comes off more like Father Knows Best rather than resulting in the kind of on-location mini-dictatorships associated with Erich von Stroheim or Werner Herzog. Their dedication to Mikel’s cause makes for some the most unexpectedly sweet moments in the film. As Amanda Hamblin, a young actress in Mikels’ current production, Demon Haunt says with unbridled enthusiasm, "It was a challenge playing a paraplegic who gets thrown from her wheelchair by a demon—that wasn’t actually there [when we filmed]— but it was something I would definitely do all over again."

Why, you may still find yourself asking? Perhaps the answer lies in Mikel’s philosophy on what it takes to make one of his films. It is a formula best distilled in the recipe he gave when describing The Corpse Grinders in Incredibly Strange Movies, "Baloney sandwiches with no cheese, a little bit of mustard, and a lot of heart and soul"

Sept. 18-20: "The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels", with Mikels in person, at the Clay. More at Landmark After Dark.