Midnight movie houses may be dying out, but the spirit of B-movie cinema is living on in a new miniseries coming from Dark Horse Comics. This October, Eisner-nominated writer Alex de Campi is bringing the grindhouse genre to comics in quadruple feature miniseries titled Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight.
Told as four two-part stories spread out over eight issues, Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight showcases de Campi and a cadre of artists from veterans like Gary Erksine and Simon Fraser to newcomers such as Federica Manfredi and Chris Peterson taking on tales of sex, drugs, aliens and exploitation. In the first story, “Bee Vixens from Mars,” a one-eyed female country deputy with a southern drawl faces off with a town being invaded by sex crazed aliens with stingers that’ll kill. For more on this and the other three stories, Newsarama spoke with de Campi.
Newsarama: So Alex, tell us about Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight’s debut story, “Bee Vixens from Mars.”
Alex de Campi: It's a hot night in a small Southeastern Tennessee town. So hot, you just want to stick your head in the freezer and go to sleep like that. Mars is hanging in the night sky like a blister. And one of the local girls noticed a new beehive up on Cemetery Hill and she reckoned she'd go and collect some honey from it, seeing as how it was just dripping all over the graves. She's passing it around with her girlfriend, the sheriff's wife, when a call comes in: trouble up on the Hill. Some kid, hurt. The girls start acting... strange, and the menfolk start disappearing. Then things start getting bloody real fast.
Nrama: The lead in this, Garcia, is described by Dark Horse as a “one-eyed southern Latina deputy;” what’s her story?
de Campi: She's got one chopper, one sawn-off shotgun, one eye, and one bad attitude. That's all I can say.
Nrama: Understood. But she’s up against some aliens, but these aren’t your typical invaders from the sounds of it. Who or what are they?
de Campi: Gah, these things you ask me, they fall in the realm of King Spoiler and he and his minions will smite me hard if I give unto you of his property.
Nrama: If you can’t tell us that, ca you give us a tease about the other stories in this miniseries?
de Campi: This I can do.
“Prison Ship Antares” is the women's prison film... in space. Seriously, man's next great step... going to all these earth-like planets that are like 10 to 20 light years away. Or even just Alpha Centauri, a little over four light years away. Assuming no suspended animation, who has all that time on their hands? Lifers. Save money on prisons, send the lifers off to check out new solar systems. Except for that old problem, the warden. She's a doozy. And now that they're falling out of radio contact with Earth, she decides it's time to get sadistic. And these girls, well, they go down on each other all the time. But when she gets involved? they're not going down without a fight.
“Bride of Blood” is the rape-revenge film. I set it in the Middle Ages, in homage to the first major rape-revenge film, Bergman's Virgin Spring. You might know its remake, Last House On The Left. A 16 year old girl is being married to a much older man from a neighboring noble family, on a beautiful lake island. Some unexpected guests show up and things go very, very horrible. Like all of the, well, truly affecting films in this genre (I hesitate from saying "great"), there is a lot of hugely uncomfortable, brutal violence.
“Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll” is me musing on two things: girl gangs, and really the whole early Colonial history of the United States. So all these people left England in search of religious freedom... normally we think of them as people leaving because the prevailing church wasn't strict enough for them (Puritans! Such a barrel of laughs.) But what if some were Satanists? Leaving England to set up a Satanic cabal on one of the portals to Hell which is, naturally, in Upstate New York not far from Binghamton. Well, thank heaven for Native Americans, who foiled their demon-raising attempts... at least, until centuries later, when a girls' field hockey camp was built over the site and some genius decides to go fracking for natural gas in the surrounding area. So we have a bunch of horny field hockey girls, and a half-demon half-woman craving virgin blood. Parrrr-tay!
Nrama: Those stories are two issues each, which adding up with the first one equals eight issues. What led you to go down this route with the format?
de Campi: 48 pages is a really nice story length. Enough for a complete, detailed worldbuild, with space for double page spreads as well as more quiet moments. You get in, do your thing, and get out before it gets old. I think it's pretty much a length I default to, on some primeval level. Mind you, my writing style is quite different from the average, very flabby/decompressed mainstream pacing, so you probably get about four issues of other people's story in those mere 48 of mine.
Nrama: Each of these two-issue stories finds you telling a new story and partnering with a new artist, starting with Chris Peterson for “Bee Vixens From Mars.” How’d you bring all these artists together, and decide which would be right for each story?
de Campi: Chris had sent me his stuff over the internet previously, and I had really liked it so thought of him when starting to put the series together. And he was so the right choice for “Bee Vixens From Mars.” He can do sexy, he can do gross, and he can do badass. I'm glad I got him before everyone else finds out about him.
“Prison Ship Antares” has a very diverse cast so I needed someone who understood the huge variations within each of the Latino, Asian, and Black populations in terms of skin colors, body shapes, and faces and could draw individuals, rather than just the usual generic ethnic averages that appear in comics. So I picked a white guy from Scotland to draw it. No, seriously, Simon Fraser is the best and draws beautiful women who are beautiful in all sorts of different ways, big, short, thin, round, angular, you name it. Which is good because he has to draw a lot of mostly-naked women in this book. And I've known Simon for a while; we've never found a project that fit both of our schedules until this one. (Another great thing about the 48-page length: low commitment level for artists. They can fit it in around other things.)
I knew for “Bride of Blood” (the rape-revenge story) again I needed a really special artist who wouldn't objectify the rape or try to make her look hot/sexy while it was happening. And there was also a very specific design choice I wanted to do in the book, and the only person who could have realised it was my old collaborator (from Tokyopop days) Federica Manfredi. That book, seriously, a whole lot of it is no fun. I could talk a lot about the choices you go through when writing a book with a rape in it, but this may not be the time or place. For “Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll,” we needed someone who could draw hot teenage girls, mopeds (CORRECTLY. MOPED CORRECTNESS IS IMPORTANT!), and really unsettling monsters. Gary Erskine is that person. And besides, I know Dave Gibbons will drive up to his house and throw rocks through his window if he fluffs the mopeds.
Nrama: The promotional materials for Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight really play up the over-the-top sexy and violent nature of B-movie grindhouse movies. Is it posturing, or is it real? And if this were to have a MPAA movie style rating, where would it rank?
de Campi: It would be R. A hard R, but an R. We definitely kept it to the letter (although certainly not the spirit) of an R rating.
Page 1 Panel 3 is a crotch shot, and not the sort of hyper-anodyne superhero-femme kind of panty shot. A sweaty, hot night, finger under the elastic about to get some teenage kicks kind of panty shot. We got a lot of pushback from the publisher on the fact that throughout the series we combine fairly hardcore sexuality with gore-fests. Part of the pushback might be because the girls are owning it -- they're not just objects there to be killed off, and neither are they objects written to fulfill the male fantasy. It's more about their wants and pleasing themselves, not pleasing men. As for the gore, well, unless there is at least one scene per issue that gives you nightmares/makes you cross your legs, I'm not delivering what the audience wants. My fear throughout the books were we didn't put in enough gore, but the artists have been going to town with both the porny stuff and the gory stuff so I'm pretty happy.
I keep getting messages from our colorist, Nolan, like "You know I colored 28 Days Later and this is WAAAAY more blood, right?" (he had only gotten to page 10 of Issue 1 at that point) and “I am not sure how to process this" I'd say that compared to the classic grindhouse movies, our pacing is faster, too, because some of those movies were pretty slow and snoozy for long stretches. So yeah, we were pretty cognizant that the entire purpose of this series was to give you the horn then totally gross you out/disgust you. And we like to exceed expectations.
Nrama: Since you’re talking grindhouse movies, what would you be your top recommendations for grindhouse movies for people to track down – and why?
de Campi: In terms of quality (and indeed brutality), the Italians win hands down. For horror, Lucio Fulci's The Beyond is so beautifully filmed and so utterly gross and creep-tastic... nobody did special effects like those Italian practical effects departments! You can positively hear the pus squelching. And the choices are just so nuts and stylized. Of course the creepy lady is hot and blind and standing in the middle of the Pontchartrain Causeway with her German Shepherds while there is miraculously no traffic. Of course the coroner has some sort of mind control machine he's working on. There's Ruggiero's Cannibal Holocaust, the original "found footage" film. For the gangster films, di Leo's Milano Calibro 9 is just one of my all time favorite gangster films, grindhouse or no. Tarantino stole the living crap out of di Leo's Manhunt for Pulp Fiction but Milano 9mm is by far the better film. Obviously, Argento, but stick to the early ones. I find some of his a bit silly, frankly. Now for the English. I love Ken Russell's contribution to the Harry Palmer series, Billion Dollar Brain. Ken Russell directing the workingman's James Bond! Oh God it’s so good.
And if you're an art-department junkie, Russell's The Devils. Americans? Roger Ebert wrote the screenplay to Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and it's, oh, hello the late 1960s, you were a time. I could go on...
Nrama: Lastly, what attracted you to the grindhouse genre in the first place?
de Campi: The stupid, the sexy, and the badass. Grindhouse has such a great toolbox... you can literally do anything, no matter how crazy. I'd sit there with every scene and be like, "how can I make this more badass?". ("Should her shotgun be gold-plated?") And the genre (and its huge number of subgenres -- nunsploitation, anyone?) has had a tradition of awesome female heroines and heroes/heroines of color long before Hollywood did -- oh wait, Hollywood still doesn't really. Heck, grindhouse even gave great trans heroines -- look up the Thai film The Adventure of Iron Pussy. A lot of the films are boring, slow and/or bad, but the good ones are fantastic. And even the duller ones usually have one or two fun things you can take away.