A man of many hats, Gary Gerani is known as the author of the pioneering book Fantastic Television, a crafty member of the Topps Trading Cards crew who thrilled twisted generations of kids and horror/sci-fi fans, and the screenwriter of Roger Corman's much-debated adaptation of Vampirella. However, horror fans may known him best as the co-writer who created Pumpkinhead along with the late Mark Patrick Carducci. This directorial debut for FX legend Stan Winston became one of the '80s' most indelidble movie monsters, rising from the ashes of distributor mishandling to become a major cable and home video hit and the basis for two sequels and numerous spin-off stories.
MONDO DIGITAL: How did Stan Winston become involved as director of Pumpkinhead?
Mark and I first played around with the revenge demon as a Lovecraftian scaly monster like the ones in our Super 8 projects. Then we got sidetracked into an interesting area; a lot of people thought if it’s called Pumpkinhead, it’s gotta have a pumpkin for a head. We got into trying to do a Sleepy Hollow type of creature where the witch would tell Ed Harley to go to a graveyard, dig up a corpse, cut the head off, bring it back; in the meantime she’s carving out this pumpkin with these evil eyes, and when he brings the body back, she brings it all to life. When Stan got involved, you’ve got arguably the greatest creature maker around. You’re not going to tell him to simply put a pumpkin on a human body, so we got back to the Lovecraftian idea. It’s still a bloated head, and we even threw in an extra line in the film about how he comes from the old pumpkin patch in the graveyard. The ultimate irony was this project came into being because of the title, but the alternate title, Vengeance: The Demon, became so prominent that when I was doing trading cards for pop horror movies, I thought I could squeeze my own monster into this. We made a deal with DEG, and those cards are labeled with both titles. The worst title they came up with was The Demon’s Revenge; that’s gonna pack ‘em in! Even Charles Band wouldn't be that trite. So wisdom prevailed and Pumpkinhead was allowed to stay Pumpkinhead.
So with Stan we thought this guy would give us a great monster, and he liked the script, the whole simple moral fable of it. We did a few rewrites with him after that; Mark would go to California, and I had a 9 to 5 job at Topps in Brooklyn. I went to the set a couple of times. Mark would come back and we’d bang out our revised pages and hope Stan was pleased. One of the good things was Stan was such a horror buff in addition to a creature creator that we were all kind of on the same page. For the sequence in the burned-out church, Stan knew that we were all familiar with Howard Hawks’ The Thing, so he suggested we do the same kind of moment with a silhouetted Pumpkinhead standing in the doorway. Another interesting difference is that we wrote the witch to be more of a real character, meaning she has dialogue that, while she always spoke in that nifty way, she was a little more normal so she could entrap people. Stan wanted the ultimate picture postcard witch; he even said just give me the cliché but take it to the max! That’s essentially what Haggis is, the spooky old witch. Originally she was more like Jeanette Nolan where it’s conceivable she could say enough interesting things to lure you rather than a few little word bites, which is what we wound up with. Mark and I came from the same background when it came to how we viewed the supernatural with a physical world sense rather than a fairy tale, magical approach. We wanted it to seem like another life form from another dimension, like that famous line that “magic is just another person’s science.” What we view as magic is another realm of existence we’re not aware of yet. That’s how Stan and his sculptors approached Pumpkinhead, like he’s conforming to the physical laws of somebody else’s universe. Maybe what we perceive as Hell is simply an alien environment or dimension filled with exotic, ultra-vicious life-forms.
How have you been involved in continuing the Pumpkinhead story?
I’ve written so many Pumpkinhead stories over the years including a Tales of Pumpkinhead TV series that included the origins of these creatures, which are very much like parasites. Some of that mythology even pops up in the Dark Horse comic Mark and I wrote back in the ‘90s. One of the concepts I created for that proposed TV incarnation was the Dark Pantheon, a horrific group made up of various demons, with each of them directly connected to a specific sin or evil of Man. Every other week would be a Pumpkinhead demon of revenge story, alternating with a new demon that was part of this pantheon. At the end of season one, I had some guy in a heat suit going down into the bowels of Hell to see all these demons massing for an attack. I knew that ending would be a real pip. In addition to the “new demon” angle, we’d be exploring various Pumpkinhead attacks throughout human history, with tales set in time periods ranging from Ancient Rome to the American west. There was even a story about a Holocaust survivor who manages to buy Pumpkinhead embryos through the black market, the starting point of a heinous scheme to punish the grandchildren of concentration camp runners who tortured his own family. We’re trying to take that universal concept of revenge and just explore it in every interesting, exotic way possible. There’s more to Pumpkinhead than just a backwoods story.
I have to admit Mark and I were huge fans of Deliverance, and when we saw it together, we realized we had to do a creature feature in that world. It was too good, too evocative. That’s what Pumpkinhead is – by day it’s Deliverance, and by night it’s Mario Bava. That’s one of the reasons it’s a good picture, because it’s grounded in that reality. The backwoods meant a lot to Mark and myself as an environment to play with; we both really loved the atmospheric possibilities. At one point, Ed Harley was going to exit the story after the first act, and the tale would unfold as an almost documentary-like procedural. We soon realized that Ed was Pumpkinhead’s most interesting character, the guilt-choked protagonist, and who wants to spend screen time with a bunch of serviceable, but unexceptional, teenage victims? The movie is clearly about Ed Harley, which is why it begins with that flashback featuring him as a little boy. You then establish him as an adult, set up the heartfelt father-son relationship, and finally roll in the city kids. In no time this terrible accident occurs, and from then on there’s a serious sense of reality to the piece. Mark actually had a fondness for the “teens being chased through the woods” genre, and I sort of don’t. My mind spaces out because teenagers in a scenario like this really aren’t that interesting; they just have to come across as believable. In the original script we had a scene where we introduced the kids at a diner before you see them all on the road. It was as well-filmed as anything in the film, but it was Stan who cut it. I think he was right; it’s rare for the writer to say the director was right cutting a scene introducing a group of characters, but dropping that scene really did reinforce the notion that this was truly Ed Harley’s story, his own horrific, Faust-like morality play. That creative choice helped to make Pumpkinhead a better kind of fright flick. Still, it’s too bad this footage didn’t turn up as a deleted scene on the special edition DVD.
How did you become involved in writing Vampirella for Roger Corman?
How did you become associated with Topps trading cards?
I have a saying: fiction is the dream, non-fiction pays the bills. In a way I’m very lucky; I’ve always been able to support myself doing the things I love – thank God, because I probably couldn’t function working at anything conventional or non-creative. Back in the early ‘70s, I had just graduated from the High School of Art and Design, and my first professional writing assignment was “becoming” the Creature from the Black Lagoon for a humorous, autobiographical feature article. This appeared in an early issue of The Monster Times, a kind of tabloid answer to Forry’s monster mag. This piece made me a bit of star up there, and before I knew it, I was “ghost writing” Godzilla’s monthly column as well. Since I was now an associate editor, I was given a free classified ad in the back of the publication. It said something like: "WANTED! 16mm SCI-FI AND HORROR FILMS." Len Brown, who was Creative Director at Topps, was also a film collector, and got in touch with me. Before long I was writing, editing and art directing trading card sets for the company, something I do to this day. It’s actually a lifelong creative relationship; I’m preparing a new Star Wars Galaxy series even as we speak.
For the record, my first day on the job I doubled for Boris Karloff in a movie set called Creature Features. Universal back then had the right to license their monster characters, but not the supporting “human” players. So we had to replace actor’s heads with the heads of people who worked at Topps, to avoid copyright violations. Then there were the never-ending stream of Wacky Packages that needed to be created, series after series. Half a dozen of us would sit around the office and stare at some product I just picked up from the supermarket; one person might come up with the main gag, another a cool idea for the illustration parody. It reminded me of the process on the old Dick Van Dyke Show, with the comedy writers sitting around sharing ideas. Stan Hart, head writer of The Carol Burnett Show and the author of Mad Magazine’s movie and TV parodies, was part of our regular group of zanies, which also included comic artist Art (Maus) Spiegelman. We all knew what it was like as a kid in school, and we tapped into that gleefully subversive side of the American youngster. It was a real split personality in that company between that and the sports division. That was way ahead of the snarky 21st century humor that’s everywhere now. We tapped into that and gave it to the kids. Of coruse, the mothers of America hated our guts because those damn Wacky Packages would stick to their refrigerators. Occasionally they would transfer a call from the outside, an irate mother, to talk to me.
I remember one of the first things I tried to do was a sequel to the legendary Mars Attacks!, but they pulled out the sales figures. It bombed, but it became a major cult item. Originally there was controversy because of the violence. The concluding idea was a sci-fi set wouldn’t sell, but the gross humor stuff would. I finally managed to sell them on an original sci-fi series when dinosaurs became popular in the 1980s. Unlike Mars Attacks!, which was handled totally straight, Dinosaurs Attack! combines heavy melodrama with some satire and over-the-top humor, which stems directly from the outrageous of the concept itself: dinosaurs are alive again, and are chomping their way through our fatuous society. The problem when a filmmaker tackles this sort of thing is the temptation to do an out-and-out farce, instead of allowing the laughs to flow naturally from the exaggerated situations. Tim Burton licensed Dinosaurs Attack! the same time he got the rights to MARS, and it was clearly his intention to do a send-up of Ed Wood-type movies (he had just finished up that movie bio). Joe Dante had also optioned the property – Dinosaurs Attack! predates the Jurassic Park novel, which eventually derailed Joe’s project -- and he was preparing to go in a “funny” direction as well. No offense to these fine filmmakers, but to me, this is the fastest way to kill a franchise. Viewers take their alien attacks, dinosaur thrillers and superhero adventures very seriously. Burton’s Mars Attacks! bombed and hurt the franchise the way the old Batman TV series humiliated DC’s property for decades by presenting the Darknight Detective as an object of ridicule. Sure, you may achieve a few cheap laughs, but goofing on a property that fans love is extremely dicey, especially given today’s tastes. I’m currently trying to revive Dinosaurs Attack! as a Battlestar Galactica-type series, but with ironic humor around the edges. This way, you have a chance to build your characters, and develop that all-important cult following which generally turns into a licensing bonanza. Look at Lost, for Heaven’s sake, or True Blood, or Buffy. The rule is simple: show the property some respect, and viewers start to get interested. Tell them “this is so bad it’s good, we’ll have a grand old time laughing at this material,” and you’re dead in the water. It’s that simple. Will Ferrell learned this obvious lesson the hard way with his recent Land of the Lost misfire. Who the hell wants to laugh at a T-Rex, unless you’re watching a Toy Story or Ice Age kiddie movie? Yet Hollywood continues to make this mistake, over and over again.
Reflecting this, my little publishing division is called Fantastic Press. That was the suggestion of my good friend Greg Goldstein, a key IDW executive, who grew up with Fantastic Television and just loved the idea of setting similar books in motion. So the goal is to create a series of books, covering all movie genres, that retain the visual excitement of Fantastic Television, but for more sophisticated 21st Century sensibilities. Basically, this is my personal choice for the Top 100; whether you agree with my rankings or not, no one disputes the fact that these are all great movies. And that’s part of the fun of it, debating about who's right and wrong. After all, I’ve had a loving relationship with most of these movies my entire life. Of course, both Pumpkinhead and IDW’s own 30 Days of Night were ineligible for the Top 100 contest, because of obvious conflict-of-interest reasons.
I also sold IDW on a graphic novel called Bram Stoker's Death Ship. This nightmarish tale expands the sequence from the original Dracula novel where he’s being transported from Transylvania to England on a Russian schooner and preys on the unsuspecting crew. Funny… This is something I’ve been wanting to write for nearly 25 years. Like I said earlier, non-fiction keeps you alive, but fiction is the dream, the ultimate prize. Sometimes it takes decades for a particular dream to happen, but we obsessed writers never seem to give up.