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Cinematic Birth

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Tulsa's shining cinematic moment -- at least in the past few decades -- came in the early '80s, when filmmakers Tim Hunter and Francis Ford Coppola came to town to helm movie adaptations of three of Tulsa novelist S.E. Hinton's books. Hunter came first, shooting "Tex" for Disney Studios in '81. Then came Coppola, already famed for such pictures as "The Godfather," ``The Black Stallion'' and "Apocalypse Now," who lensed "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish" back-to-back in 1982.

After Coppola left town, things settled down considerably on the movie front in Tulsa -- at least as far as theatrical films were concerned. But in 1984, the moviemaking team of Christopher and Linda Lewis joined with Tulsa video distributor Bill Blair to create an ultra-low-budget horror picture called "Blood Cult."

Lewis -- the son of famed actress Loretta Young -- had been working in town as a newsman and TV personality; Blair owned Tulsa's United Video, an independent video distribution oompany. With Linda Lewis, Chris' wife and a Tulsa radio-industry veteran, they decided to make a movie that had no theatrical pretensions, one that Blair could release directly to home video. That sort of thing is done all the time now, but then, the idea was nothing short of revolutionary.

"Bill Blair was one of the first people in the country to recognize the value of home video, and he got the video rights to a lot of major films," recalled Linda Lewis recently. "But then the major studios got into it, and it became harder and harder for him to buy the video rights. Realizing that the home-video market was really opening up, he sat down with Chris and me and we looked at the future of the whole thing."

Blair had a script he'd co-written with a Tulsa doctor called "The Sorority House Murders." He'd planned to shoot it on film with '40s star Buster Crabbe, a friend of his, in the lead. But Crabbe had died in '83, and the script had been languishing ever since.

So "The Sorority House Murders" became "Blood Cult," and Crabbe's role was taken over by Tulsa theater and opera veteran Charles Ellis. Shot on videotape on a budget that wouldn't have covered the catering charges on "The Outsiders" set (reportedly, somewhere around $30,000), and featuring a local cast (including current Tulsa World correspondent James Vance), "Blood Cult" hit the video-store shelves in 1984, making it -- by most accounts -- the very first made- for-home-video feature ever. The approach worked, too. "Blood Cult" grossed a reported $1 million and greased the wheels for two more direct-to-video features from the trio, each on a bigger budget.

Nineteen-ninety-five saw the release of "The Ripper," with actor-makeup artist Tom Savini flown in to essay the title role of a modern-day Jack the Ripper; the next year, it was a sequel to "Blood Cult" called "Revenge." The group's biggest budgeted picture to date, it was shot on film and featured Hollywood veterans John Carradine (in what he said was his 500th picture) and Patrick Wayne.

"We had more fun on those sets," recalled Linda Lewis. "It was inventive, you know? You were part of a step forward in the industry, and if you had the spirit, if you had the perseverance to go for it, all the doors were open to you."

The Lewises and Blair split up after the third picture, although Blair's United Video (now called VCI) continued to produce made- for-video movies. Some were made outside of Tulsa; others, including "Terror at Tenkiller" and the action-adventure "The Killing Device" (with Hollywood veteran Clu Gulager) included Tulsa locales.

In 1990, Chris and Linda Lewis returned to Tulsa to shoot a made-for-TV movie called "Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective," known on video as "The Raven Red Kiss-Off." The '40s detective story, with a script by yours truly, moonlighting from the Tulsa World entertainment beat, starred a group of Hollywood character actors and B-picture stars, including Marc Singer, Tracy Scoggins, Nicholas Worth, Gulager, Arte Johnson and Paul Bartel. It ran on 200 independent TV stations in prime time before going to video and TV-movie packages.

Carl Bartholomew, well-known to Tulsa TV audiences as kids'- show host Uncle Zeb, wrote and starred in the contemporary western "Cole Justice" in 1989. The film did well in home video and had a nice run on Cinemax, but perhaps the most surprising thing about it was the cult status the picture gave Bartholomew in certain parts of the world. At one point, he was invited by officials in a small Florida town to don his Cole Justice garb and appear as grand marshal of a parade.

The success of these local filmmakers, as well as the influence of Coppola, inspired others to make their own low-budget, direct-to-video pictures. Some were never seen outside the filmmaker's circle of friends and financers. Others, like Larry Thomas' campy alien-horror romp, "Mutilations," have received national distribution. The futuristic "Subterfuge" from Rod Slane (editor of and composer for a number of other Tulsa movies), and Mark Mason's psycho-on-the- loose "Party Crasher" don't currently have domestic deals, but they're all over the rest of the world.

Slane's picture is being seen just about everywhere, including such exotic locales as Croatia, Hong Kong and South Africa; Mason's movie is making an especially strong showing in Belgium and Spain.

"We're playing on low-power UHF stations all over the world -- or pretty close," says Mason with a chuckle. "We're opening up all sorts of new territory."

Two recent Tulsa-area pictures, producer-writer Harvey Shell's hommage to the masked-avenger fictions of the '30s and '40s, "Vigilante Blood" (directed by Larry Thomas) and Craig and Cheri Lamb's black-and-white tribute to classic low-budget horror, "Curse From the Mummy's Tomb," were shot on budgets that would make even the "Blood Cult" budget look huge. But they continue to hew to the direct-to- video tradition begun here by the Lewises and Bill Blair -- they're still full of the inventiveness, spirit and perseverence that Linda Lewis remembers from more than a decade ago, back when the whole thing started.

(Most of the videos here are available through regular outlets; many are handled by the Tulsa- based VCI. "Vigilante Blood" -- $16.50 by mail from Brigantine Productions, 4313 W. 43rd St., Tulsa, Okla. 74107 and "Curse From the Mummy's Tomb" -- $20 from Arrow Entertainment, P.O. Box 161, Claremore, Okla. 74018 -- are available only via mail-order at this time. They'll also be available at Defcon, the science-fiction and comics convention, this weekend. So will "Party Crasher" -- $16.50 from Budget Movies, 1611 S. Utica Ave., No. 290, Tulsa, Okla. 74104. Rod Slane's "Subterfuge" is also available for $16.50 by mail from Adventure Films, 2 Diamond Drive, Sand Springs, Okla. 74063.)

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