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

Steven Ward

Joe Kane writes about the fun stuff on the fringes -- low budget horror movies and action movies, exploitation movies, cult movies, B movies.

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.

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