The Phantom Speaks! An Interview with Cult Movie Critic Joe Kane

Joe Kane has been writing about movies for four decades, now. However, Oscar contenders or the latest box office blockbuster have never been his beat. The films Kane writes about are the ones that are more likely to go straight to DVD. In other words, Kane gets to write about the fun stuff on the fringes — low budget horror movies and action movies, exploitation movies, cult movies, B movies.

In the following email interview, Kane tells about his time writing and editing the first tabloid magazine about monster movies, The Monster Times, freelancing in NYC, drinking with Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches, penning the B Movie column for the New York Daily News as “The Phantom of the Movies”, starting his own cult movie magazine, VideoScope, and lists his choice for the five greatest American horror movies to come out in the ‘70s.

How did you first start writing professionally and what did you first start writing about?

Actually, the first three pieces I sold were all college class assignments—an article on doomsday movies my film course teacher suggested I submit to Take One magazine; a short story/memoir my English teacher submitted to a Doubleday anthology called “Growing Up in America”; and a media course paper on how comic strips reflected the changing culture, which New Times used as a cover story, illustrated by legendary underground cartoonist Yossarian, no less. My main areas of interest were fiction, satire and genre-movie criticism, though I wrote a bit about rock music and other pop-culture topics, as well. I also co-won the Queens College literary award my senior year, which paid cash, which, as Yogi points out, is just as good as money.

Eagerly misinterpreting these signals, I used some of that dough to rent a slum pad ($28.50 a month!) deep in New York City ’s now-posh, then-rancid Lower East Side , and decided I would try writing for a living.

Welcome to the real world: My first post-college gig (which I wrote about in VideoScope #64) was hacking out comic porn stories for two sex rags, Luv and Bang, run by a then-notorious artist/street narcissist named Louis Abolafia, most infamous for his aggressive Presidential campaign on the self-invented Nude Love ticket. (I probably should have hired one of my college profs as an agent.)

To make ends meet, I briefly took a file clerk job at an insurance company, which cured me of the 9-5 life within three months. Luckily, with help from legendary underground genius Dean Latimer, I landed a gig at Screw X, a comic spin-off of Screw magazine (sounds pretty redundant, then as now) art-directed by ex-acto wizards Larry Brill and Les Waldstein. As most people did, Larry and Les eventually had a falling out with Screw publisher, legendary mogul Al Goldstein, and had the bright idea to launch The Monster Times, sort of a Famous Monsters of Filmland filtered through an NYC underground attitude in an East Village Other vein.

Les and Larry hired me as editor, so I was a lot closer to my original plan of covering the genre-movie beat. That run lasted about vie years and was a lot of fun. Little could anyone predict, especially me, that The Monster Times would enjoy such an enduring shelf life, still something of a fan favorite today.

In general, where one looked for publishing outlets was mightily dictated by the time and climate back then (circa 1970). A fierce generational/culture war raged in the media. There were essentially two separate (if not quite equal) publishing orbits in New York City . Mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The New York Daily News were not interested in hiring “hipsters” and in fact largely dissed or dismissed “counter-cultural” topics.

At the same time, most of my contemporaries had little interest in joining the mainstream media, where their work would be straitjacketed. My peeps and I felt our present and future lay in the alternative media, which really thrived then, with underground papers and mags like The East Village Other, New Times, The New York Ace and the slightly more ossified Village Voice, rock zines like the early Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, and Creem, the aforementioned The Monster Times, National Lampoon and slightly later High Times, Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith’s Arcade, along with lots more I’m forgetting, including dozens of short-lived titles. The lesser-tier men’s magazines, like Gallery, Genesis and Swank, sharing a somewhat similar outré attitude (and whose editors hit the same bars as the rest of us), were also friendlier to counter-culture writers than the mainstream media at the time.

The one time I tried to score a mainstream gig, right out of school, I answered an ad for an editorial assistant ($85 a week) at Esquire. I was totally shocked to find some 15 other applicants—all older than me, some by a wide margin, many with thick resumes—there to interview for the job. I didn’t get it, natch, but it confirmed my belief that better ops awaited downtown.

Tell me some more about The Monster Times for those that don’t know or don’t remember. I’m not sure but it seems like a good music magazine anology might be that if Famous Monsters of Filmland was Rolling Stone, The Monster Times was Creem? What kinds of things did people write about for The Monster Times?

The Rolling Stone/Creem analogy would be pretty accurate. Forrest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland invented the monster-movie mag concept in 1958 and took a compelling but largely “fan”-oriented approach to the material, a combo of great visuals, interesting industry info and bad puns. It spawned many imitators that, with the exception of the more scholarly Castle of Frankenstein, basically hewed to the same formula, appealing mostly to a pre-teen and early adolescent demographic.

The upstart The Monster Times, debuting in 1972, was geared to a totally different, more irreverent era and took a totally eclectic approach, mixing in detailed scholarly articles on classics like King Kong, with reviews of then-current horror and sci-fi films, books and TV shows, wide-ranging interviews, humor pieces like the “Do It Yourself Exorcism” kit, travel articles (e.g., a tour of modern-day Transylvania), even a Godzilla for President campaign.

Another major difference—The Monster Times was the first monster publication to use a tabloid format, filled with wild visual designs, lots of silhouettes, bleeds, flamboyant typefaces and the like. We were the first to celebrate beloved bad movies with our Worst of the Monster Times edition (well before the Medved Brothers’ Golden Turkey awards)—my personal fave issue (#30). We were also the first to interview then-fringe, later cult figures like Herschell Gordon (Blood Feast) Lewis and William (Death Curse of Tartu) Grefe; I’m probably proudest of working those into the mix.

We had contributions from quite a few writers who already had some visibility, like Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, journalist Mark Jacobsen of New York magazine fame and National Lampoon regular Dean Latimer, along with filmmakers like Roy (The Projectionist) Frumkes and Alan (Deranged) Ormsby, plus artists like Gray Morrow and Bernie Wrightson.

The Monster Times folded in 1976, mostly, I think, because the underground style was on the wane; while it still did decent numbers, it became more of an uphill climb for Les and Larry to maintain. A couple of years after our folding, Fangoria appeared and became the new model for a new fan base—a slick color glossy with a more earnest, less ironic (and generally bloodthirstier) tone. Ironically, Fangoria has been looking to revive The Monster Times and currently features a complete collection of The Monster Times covers on its site.

So after The Monster Times folded, you did some freelancing for High Times, Penthouse and The Village Voice. What kind of stuff did you write for High Times and Penthouse?

I only did occasional pieces for The Village Voice—one about the Babe Ruth Museum with its talking robot Babe in Baltimore comes to mind, another dealing with my intimate, early history with downtown slum dwellings—for legendary The Village Voice editor Ross Wetszeon.

Penthouse repped my single biggest thrill sale to that point (late ‘70s, around the time Bob Guccione was about to launch his science mag, Omni) when they bought—cold over the transom–a satiric sci-fi short story called “Death After Death”, a riff on the Life After Death craze of the period. It was the biggest check I’d ever received for a spec piece and the most prominent placement for one of my fiction stories. Plus they ran it virtually 100 percent intact, sans changes (I believe they were known for heavy editorial supervision at the time)—another kick. The acquiring editor called me in for a meeting and assigned a lot of stuff but wanted the pieces to be more in the “traditional” Penthouse mode, so that didn’t work out that well; still, their kill fees paid more than a lot of articles I actually sold elsewhere.

I did extensive writing for High Times, mostly humor pieces (e.g., a cultural history of bananas), movie reviews and, my fave, a long-running multi-part book-length series on “Dope in the Cinema”, with which founder Tom Forcade planned to debut an High Times book imprint with a major publishing partner. Didn’t happen, though; his suicide may have been a factor.

Didn’t write many music articles at that point but did play in a couple of writer-driven mock-rock bands, Blind Orange Julius (in 1975, first group to play CBGBs on dead weekday nights) and King Rude. King Rude used to perform a tune called “Rock Critics’ Roll” when we played the Bells of Hell bar, during which we’d try to shame our rock-crix buds in the house—Lester Bangs, Billy Altman, John Swenson, John Morthland, Bob Duncan, among others—into getting up and kicking out the jams. Lester later got his revenge by bringing his band, Birdland, to the Bells for some counter sonic dissonance.

Bells of Hell, CBGBs and other Cult Writer Hangouts

Bells of Hell, CBGBs and other Cult Writer Hangouts

Nick Tosches would talk about how the Bells scene would be immortalized–a kind of moveable drunk—but I admit I didn’t see it at all. (Remembering what happened the night before seemed challenge enough!)

Like you said earlier, you used to hang out with rock critics such as Lester Bangs, Billy Altman, John Morthland, and Robert Duncan — all Creem vets but NYC freelancers at the time — at the Bells of Hell bar. Where you guys just drinking buddies or did you become close friends with any of them? Also, how well did you get to know Lester Bangs? What did you think of his work back then, how do you look at it now and did you have any idea in the ‘70s that Bangs would be as revered as he is today?

Originally, it was basically separate groups at the Bells. My first writers’ hangout was the Buffalo Roadhouse in Greenwich Village, where the crowd was mostly composed of underground press types—Dean Latimer, playwright Lynda Crawford, journalist Ray Schultz, future (and still current, I think) Hustler honcho Bruce David, and occasionally P.J. O’Rourke, then (and I paraphrase) “establishing his radical credentials” before his ultimate conversion to comic conservative commentator (the man always had a plan).

When the Roadhouse went upscale, most of us migrated a few blocks north to Hilly Kristal’s pre-CBGBs bar, Hilly’s, on West 13th Street . The Bells opened across the street, but at first as more of an old-fogy Irish bar presided over by Malachy McCourt. When Hilly left (or was evicted from) his bar and opened CBGBs, the Bells became our permanent hangout and the tenor shifted to a younger writers’ and hip Irish émigré vibe. Nick Tosches was already ensconced there and I believe he introduced some of the rock crix who lived in the nabe to the place, likewise populated by High Times regulars, National Lampoon scribes (Tony Hendra, the late, great Doug Kenney), skin-mag workers and freelance journalists (Nancy Naglin, Susan Toepfer, among many others).

Journalists/publishers Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman recruited Lester, who’d just moved to NYC and lived two blocks from the Bells and one from me, to write for their new magazine Reliable Source. Lester and pals John Morthland, Billy Altman and Bob Duncan gravitated to the Bells to partake of the drinking, schmoozing, and bitching-about-the-freelance-hustle scene. I became close friends with John Morthland, Billy Altman and occasional visitor John Swenson (all of whom remain pals).

Lester I first met by phone. He’d read a piece on baseball I’d written for Reliable Source’s “Boredom” issue, got my number from Rex and called cold late night to say how much he liked the article, that someone finally explained the game’s appeal to him—a very generous gesture, I thought. He invited me over for drinks and whatever other substances were on hand.

I enjoyed Lester a lot, though he could be argumentative—and sometimes fun to argue with. I thought some of his writing was absolutely brilliant—he could really nail stuff when he was on—which outweighed the occasional exercise in blather he was also capable of producing (much like Lester the person). I think much of his work not only stands today but is truer than ever; it’s a great loss for us not to have been getting Lester’s cultural take on the last quarter-century or so since he prematurely departed.

Do I think he would be revered today? No. Nick Tosches would say back in the day how the Bells scene would be immortalized–a kind of moveable drunk—down the line, but I admit I didn’t see it at all. (Remembering what happened the night before seemed challenge enough!) While there was a lot of fun and camaraderie, there was also a post-mortem air re: the mainstreaming and dilution of a waning alternative culture.

Book: Green Suede Shoes: An Irish-American Odyssey

Author: Larry Kirwan

Publisher: Da Capo

Publication date: 2005-02

Length: 397 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $15.95

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/g/greensuedeshoes-cover.jpgBlack 47 co-founder and frontman Larry Kirwan, then half of the Bells’ frequent house band Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, has some great Bells stories in his excellent memoir, Green Suede Shoes. The one person who has been largely forgotten/ignored is Dean Latimer, at the time mostly of National Lampoon and High Times—in my humble opinion the best and most versatile writer of the entire crowd. Time for someone to assemble a collection of his best stuff.

So what happened in between your late ‘70s freelance period and 1984, when you got the gig writing video reviews for The New York Daily News? How did you get the column job and where did the whole “Phantom of the Movies” name come from? Did you feel like you moved up from the counter culture world to the mainstream media?

I continued to freelance a little but felt really burned out with it. I took an editing gig with Screw magazine, which was a trip, then retired and wrote a novel based on my Screw sojourn—a bleakly comic (I thought) look at porn and depression. It wasn’t the angle publishers wanted, apparently, so I wound up taking my Screw job back (at a raise at least!) for a spell.

I sold a nonfiction baseball book, Baseball’s Dream Team, and wrote a baseball novel, which I wasn’t able to sell. I’d like to revisit those projects in the future and see if they might, with some tweaking, play better today. But that moment represented an excellent time to get a summons from The New York Daily News.

The call came from editor Susan Toepfer, a good friend from the Bells’ era who’d done a couple of The Monster Times pieces for me. The idea was for an irreverent column that would not only cover those many neglected B and genre movies that were opening with increasing frequency, usually without press screenings, in Times Square and neighborhood theaters but also to describe the bijou-going experiences and theaters themselves. We kicked around different names but I liked The Phantom of the Movies, which suggested an interactive component. The News added the tag line, “Is He Sitting Next to You?” and designed a cool column logo.

For me, it was a dream gig. I’d been a Famous Monsters of Filmland and Screen World fan since age 11, and had been haunting Times Square since my early teens. The idea of getting published in a major venue and paid for what I loved to do was really beyond. I also enjoyed the lone wolf autonomy.

After the first couple of columns, The News looked to me to track and cover those offbeat films that landed under the radar—from Avenging Angel and Jungle Warriors to Cannibal Holocaust and Night of the Creeps—and scope out related items of interest on my own. In film writing I’d always gotten a bigger kick out of turning readers on to cool movies that might have escaped their notice than in adding my opinion to the same slate of mainstream films that other critics were covering any given week. So all in all, the beat felt much more like bringing a counter-cultural (specifically The Monster Times) take to the mainstream, rather than joining the mainstream.

And at the time, I think The News, like many other outlets, was consciously looking to add more editorial fun, funk and edge, since the strict lines between what had been perceived as mainstream and alternative were increasingly blurring. After The Phantom of the Movies caught on and expanded to homevideo coverage as well, the paper enlisted one of their best staff writers, Jay Maeder, to do a weekly column called “Lounge Lizard”, sort of a Phantom of the Saloons, and even introduced a gonzo wrestling column by the anonymous “The Slammer”.

I liked the underground “masked man” persona. Even a lot of The News personnel I’d see when I picked up my mail at the office didn’t know my identity. I think most of them thought I was a messenger getting the stuff for me!

One aspect I didn’t realize at first was what an accelerated death watch the gig would become, that those venerable 42nd Street grindhouses and somewhat faded Times Square picture palaces would disappear so rapidly. One by one their marquees went dark, victims of a greedily steamrolling 42nd Street Redevelopment Corp. that would soon bulldoze the district, redesigning it as a sterile Disneyland theme park crossed with a neon-drunk, brand-crazed recreation of downtown Tokyo. Witnessing the death of much-maligned Taxi Driver-era Manhattan was a grim thing indeed!

‘70s Scream Greats Set in a Desolate New York City

Image (partial) by Sean Unruh, Dust and Rust.com

‘70s Scream Greats Set in a Desolate New York City

There’s nothing like the smell of steaming sewers in the morning.

So you started to publish your own horror/genre/cult movie magazine — Videoscope — later. When did that happen and why did you do it? Describe what kind of stuff you publish in your magazine? Also, even though its 2009, do you view Videoscope as a fanzine or counter culture publication?

Even though I had multiple weekly columns in The Daily News, and my first related book The Phantom’s Ultimate Video Guide (Dell) led to some columns in other outlets, I began to feel there wasn’t much protection, especially when The News almost went under in 1991 before Robert Maxwell bought it (and a lot of staffers and freelancers were let go), so I thought about starting a Phantom newsletter (newsletters were pretty popular at the time).

I put a pitch in my flagship The News column for potential subscribers and enough readers signed up that I had the seed money to launch the newsletter, with the invaluable assistance of my wife (writer Nancy Naglin) and my writer friend Tim Ferrante, in early 1993. After 14 issues, we expanded to a magazine format. From that point on I didn’t feel entirely dependent on the vagaries of the publishing biz for survival.

Besides that, it’s just been a tremendous amount of fun. I realized The Monster Times had given me the training to assemble a magazine. I enjoy working on every aspect—assigning, editing, design—as much as writing most of it. It’s almost closer to putting a movie together every three months. I was also lucky enough to attract reviewers who are experts in their particular niches and can bring more to discussing anime or genre TV shows or art-house, say, than I can, allowing me to concentrate on the areas I know best—exploitation, horror, noir, et al.

Basically we cover all genres, the only rule being that the titles, whether contemporary or vintage, are new to DVD. We also run interviews with genre figures from Dario Argento and Clive Barker to Pam Grier and Rob Zombie, movie-going memoir pieces (like my long-running Screen Savers series), film fest coverage—basically, whatever’s fun and fits the general format.

At this point, I would categorize VideoScope as a “brandzine”, in that it carries the Phantom brand, a lineage/attitude that goes back to The Monster Times and The Daily News. The counter-culture designation probably doesn’t apply; nerds/geeks seem to be the new hipsters in our current “wild and crazy conformist” culture, but I think VideoScope magazine and our website, VideoScopeMag.com offer an alternative attitude that our readers like.

Are there any horror/exploitation/B movie blogs or online magazines out there that you like to read for fun? Do you see blogs and online magazines as the new fanzines or the new counter culture publications?

The sites I visit most are poster-driven—David Colton’s Classic Horror Film Board.com — which is a hardcore monster-kid posting board, and Ross Melnick’s Cinema Treasures.org Cinema Treasures.org, a site devoted to listing, describing and updating info on virtually every movie theater that ever existed anywhere in the world (it’s an ongoing quest).

Basically, I enjoy reading the back-and-forth exchanges, informational items, the sometimes strange controversies and petty bickering that pack those sites. And, of course, imdb.com is invaluable; it’s like the world’s biggest film library, only with a lot less depth and accuracy. So basically I like reading e-mails and getting research tips online.

I have less patience with reading articles on-line, though I will sometimes scope out sites like fangoria.com and bmonster.com. Have to admit I still prefer the print experience, for its portability and sense of completion. I’m very glad to have access to print and the Web. Blogs and online magazines are the new fanzines and generally favor increasingly narrow niches; I don’t think there’s a cultural point of view today that’s broad and collective enough to be seen as a “counter culture”—things are much more fractured.

Let’s play the word association game. I will name six movies and then you just write down a couple or a few sentences — the first things that pop into your mind — when you hear (or read) each movie title. (By the way, these are all movies that take place in — where else — a desolate NYC)

Taxi Driver

Dig that opening: Love the smell of steaming sewers in the morning. Saw Taxi Driver again recently on cable, and it’s more brilliant than ever—celluloid sprinkled with angel dust. De Niro created an icon in solipsistic psycho Travis Bickle. Scorsese is to be commended for capturing those soon-to-be-vanished locations, not just the obvious (Times Square ) ones, but Harvey Keitel’s pimpquarters on 13th Street between 2nd & 3rd Avenues.

I lived around the corner (2nd & 14th) just prior to that period (1973-74) and that was one block locals would go out of their way to avoid (ditto for East 3rd St ., home to the NYC Hell’s Angels chapter). Drew very divisive reactions when first released, but it really caught the rage of the era.

Maniac

Haven’t seen Bill Lustig’s slasher pioneer since it first played theaters, so I no longer recall its NYC aspects beyond some flavorful 42nd Street , subway and disco locales. The late, great idiosyncratic actor Joe Spinell (a cab dispatcher in Taxi Driver) remains unforgettable in the title role, though. It’s a flick I should revisit on DVD.

Two other films recommended for those suffering from Times Square sleaze nostalgia—Allan Moyle’s otherwise horrendous Times Square (1980) and Abel Ferrara’s Fear City (1985).

The Warriors

Another controversial (for supposedly instigating youth violence in a couple of theater incidents) and ahead-of-its-time romp, Walter Hill’s stylized comic-book gang-war odyssey more than stands the test of time while offering an extended tour of some of NYC’s seedier precincts, including that terrific Coney Island climax. James Remar gives a wonderful performance as the animalistic Ajax . The Special Edition DVD restores some touches (including comic-book panels coming to life) cut from the theatrical release.

Cruising

Didn’t catch up with Cruising until its VHS release, but I remember the protests surrounding William Friedkin’s thriller set in NYC’s gay demimonde, into which undercover cop Al Pacino descends to catch a killer. It wasn’t as exploitive as it might have been, I thought. A few years later, cop Al posed as a hetero swinger to nail a slayer in Sea of Love , another film with some vivid NYC scenery.

Escape From New York

The ultimate in Big Applephobia before the city became a combo yuppie playground and Disney theme park. John Carpenter’s dystopian pulp actioner, with its wild NYC-as-max-security prison production design, still works brilliantly today.

The concept didn’t quite translate in his sequel, Escape from L.A., though I enjoyed that one too. Like most of the films here, Escape from New York probably didn’t do much for NYC tourism at the time, though Ernest Borgnine presented a friendlier cabbie image than Travis Bickle had.

Wolfen

Haven’t seen Michael (Woodstock) Wadleigh’s fear fable since it first came out, but I recall being somewhat put off by its self-righteous tone, though the film also offered its share of cool locations, from a bombed-out Bronx to the isolated Mohawk Indian bar (even if it was a set). I appreciated the theme of shape-shifting Native American spirits striking back at the white man’s greed in Manhattan , but it all seemed a bit pretentious.

Withal, a strong lineup to kick off an NYC Wasteland film fest. And just so Staten Island shouldn’t feel ignored, we’ll add Buddy Giovinazzo’s 1985 nightmare, Combat Shock.

For me, the 1970s was an amazing and weird decade for film. Give me two top five lists — your favorite five horror films and favorite five character actors from the 1970s.

Five great horror films from and truly of the American ‘70s:

1. Dawn of the Dead (consumers turn cannibal)

2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (youth road trip goes south)

3. Deathdream (aka Dead of Night) (the ultimate Vietnam nightmare)

4. God Told Me To (serial killers, aliens, transgender issues)

5. The Crazies (George Romero strikes again—with biochemical warfare)

Also a shout-out to these ‘70s scream greats: Alice, Sweet Alice, Alien, Don’t Look Now, Eraserhead, The Exorcist, The Hills Have Eyes, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Phantasm, Race with the Devil, The Tenant, The Wicker Man.

Best Quintessential Wonderfully Bad ‘70s Horror Flick: Blood Freak (beware the marijuana turkey monster).

Fave character thesp: Even though he began the decade as more of a lead, Robert Forster—always believable, any era, any part. Also right up there: Strother Martin, Dick Miller, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bakalyan.

Steven Ward is a staff writer at The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), a freelance magazine writer, and a contributor to PopMatters.com and Rockcritics.com.

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