Chapter 1: Merlin
“Marvelous to see you, my boy! Sit down, sit down!”
Merlin was a giant of an old man, if only through his personality. He radiated a kind of friendliness so intense it became intimidating, a powerful onslaught that could not be stood against. Not that Art intended to stand against it- he had to get the funding from somewhere. He stumbled into the canvas-backed seat pushed up near Merlin’ desk, just as he was handed a glass of wine by a stunningly beautiful office assistant.
“That’s Viv,” Merlin said. “You’ll be seeing a lot of her if you work for Camelot Studios.”
“You’re his assistant?” Art asked her, and she shook her head.
“He keeps me around because beautiful young girls make him feel young, even if I don’t let him touch me. I’ve been slowly embezzling money from him for years to start my new studio.”
“An enterprising girl, isn’t she?” said Merlin with evident delight. “Now, my boy, let’s talk business. I saw those films you sent me- well shot, could hardly tell how little money must have been spent on it! That’s the kind of creative vision we like to see around here.”
Art had been slaving away as a cinematographer for hire since he graduated high school. He had sent around a few reels from those days, plus a couple of experimental films he’d put together himself. He’d worried the latter was a little highbrow for Camelot Studios, but rumor had it that as long as your movies turned a profit, Merlin would more or less allow you to film anything, even if it was good.
“I brought the script for Broceliande, just like we discussed,” said Art cautiously. “I don’t think you had time to listen to my plot synopsis over the phone, but it’s about this haunted forest-”
“Going to have to change the title,” Merlin interjected. “But look, my boy, you can’t expect me to actually read the scripts I produce! Give me blood and tits and I’ll let you film anything. I think I’ve even published some communist propaganda in my day! The point is, are you willing to do things the Camelot way? We give you a very short time and small budget to film all of this- we’ve got to spend more of the money on advertising. I’m already thinking up a campaign- the Forest that Drips Blood! A nurse will be standing by at all times to tend to those whose hearts fail! How does that sound to you?”
Art could barely squeak out the word “Good.”
“Oh,” continued Merlin, “as for advertising, didn’t you say you had a celebrity in the family? Get them to appear in the movie and you’ll get twice the profits.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far- she’s a very local celebrity” Art mumbled.
“Local is still celebrity! Give her a call, tell her now she’s going to be a movie star. Oh, and throw in some bikers if you can- they’re the hip thing these days.”
Art nodded his way through the rest of the contract negotiation. He’d only told Merlin about his sister over the phone because he knew she’d shown a heavily edited version of one of his movies on her show. He hadn’t expected to be asked to reel her in herself.
Or maybe he had, subconsciously, and figured this was the best chance he was going to get to attempt a reconciliation.
And so at the end of the meeting, still numb from Merlin’s bluster, he left the phone message he hadn’t expected to have to make until a family emergency or some other kind of excuse.
“Hi Morgan. It’s Art…”
Chapter 2: Morgan
“And that, my friends, was Curse of the Cat People. A shame they didn’t show the part where little Amy used her new were-cat friend to devour her schoolyard tormentors. But trust me, I saw it. Morgana sees all.”
Say what you would about her dialogue, at least Morgan wrote it herself. The morbidity of her jokes told Art that much- even for a horror host. People tuned in on their local channel to The Morgana Show to see a sexy witch make dark jokes and deliver brutally honest commentary on the horror movies she showed, and her taste, at least, was hard to argue with.
Art hoped she was happy doing it. So happy that she wasn’t going to be angry when they met up at the diner.
Morgan wasn’t all that different from the character of Morgana, Queen of the Witches. Or at least, she didn’t dress very differently between tv and real life, favoring gowns in black or dark red with cleavage cut to an obscene degree. As he was seeing now, she didn’t even mind wearing it into family diners to meet with her brother.
“So,” she said as she swept into the room and draped herself across the side of the booth opposite Art, “you need my help.”
“I’m extending you and opportunity,” Art said. Damn it, he’d never gotten over being a little scared of his half-sister.
She lit a cigarette and let an alarming amount of time go by before speaking.
“Your dad was an asshole. He ruined mom’s life.”
So that’s what this was about.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, Morgan. I know dad was an asshole. That’s why the state put me in foster care after you ran away. If you want to lavish scorn upon him, I’m not going to stop you. Is that what you came here to tell me?”
“I guess.” Morgan offered Art a cigarette and he shook his head. “Funny,” she went on. “I thought it would feel a lot better to say it aloud to your face. It doesn’t feel like much of anything.”
A stretch of silence passed, and Arthur wondered if he was seeing his sister’s facade crack just a little.
“Tell me about your stupid movie,” she said. This was more promising. At the very least, Morgan knew about what kinds of horror movies worked and which ones didn’t.
“It’s about a group of friends- bikers, I guess, Merlin wants a biker movie- who go into a haunted forest. They’re on the run from the law, and they’re trying to get to a hideout, but they’re plagued by a man who seems to get back up again no matter how many times they kill him, and the witch who was unjustly hanged here centuries ago.”
“Me,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“You, if you like. You’re good at playing a witch.”
She took another drag on her cigarette.
“Well, I guess there’s nothing that would have pissed off your dad more than us working together. Fine, I can do business with you. Just one more thing.”
She stood up and began making for the door.
“I get a topless scene,” she called back over her shoulder. “That’s what’s going to sell this movie.”
This was a mistake, Art thought, but it was too late now.
Chapter 3: The Sons of Orkney
Bikers. Merlin wanted bikers. Bikers were the big thing these days. Well, Art knew a biker gang...sort of. They rode motorcycles, at the very least, wore denim jackets with green patches, and he was pretty sure at least one of them had been in jail. Most importantly, they would work for beer money, and that was roughly the budget Art had. The Sons of Orkney did have a certain charismatic vibe for them, and four out of the five of them looked at least a little intimidating. (The fifth was Gareth, who had occasionally been called “lady hands” behind his back. Nobody did that to Sonny Barger…)
Art had met them a few months ago when their leader, Gawain, had stopped to help fix his car stalled on the side of the road. In imitation of the Hells’ Angels, Gawain gave him his card and told him to remember that bikers could also be heroes. It was time to take him at his word.
Gawain was going to make a great leading man, Art could just tell. Sure, half the time you couldn’t understand what he was saying, what with a Scottish accent think enough to be a blanket, but he was handsome and earnest and excited to film, and that was all Art could reasonably ask for.
He suspected Gawain was at least part of the reason Morgan kept going on about doing a topless scene, no matter how many times he told her that he was categorically not filming his own sister topless. If she was after, Gawain, she could have saved her energy; he was all wrapped up in his own “old lady.” Professor Ragnelle from UC Berkeley made regular appearances to drop off snacks and ride home on the back of Gawain’s bike after the shoot. She was roughly a decade older than her boyfriend, flat-chested and pockmarked, but with a stunning smile that was hard to ignore. As best he could gather from Gawain’s glowing tributes, she taught logic and rhetoric with a feminist bent. Well, somebody had to do it.
Unlike bikers, effects could not be paid for with beer money. They’d toyed with the idea of getting one of the taller members of the production crew (Kay, probably) to rent out a monster suit, but ultimately it was decided that the monster should be barely ever glimpsed. A clawed hand here, a shot of bloody teeth there. That was all an audience needed for suspense.
One afternoon Gawain’s brother Agravain suggested Gawain just get his girlfriend to play the monster, and she wouldn’t even need a costume. Gawain made a flying leap at his brother in response, and art grabbed a handheld camera as the feud between brothers turned into a full-on biker brawl.
Gwen, who was supposed to play the love interest in the upcoming scene, looked at Art in confusion.
“Are you really going to use this footage in the film?”
“I have to,” Art said. “Who knows how much filming time I’m losing over this stupid thing? I might as well get some of that biker brawl footage Merlin is always going on about.”
“Fair enough”, Gwen admitted. “I’d get Lance to break it up, but I’m afraid he usually makes these kind of things worse.”
“Hold off on Lance for now. We’ll find a way to work this in. Otherwise, they’re all fired and we have to get a new biker gang.”
Chapter 4: Lancelot and Guinevere
“It looks like the Morgana Show is showing The Black Cat tonight. Want to watch it?” Gwen asked.
“Not right now,” said Art. “I’m getting more than enough of Morgan already.” The work day was over, but they were all still carrying all the stress with them home. Art was on his third glass of wine, the usually put-together Gwen wasn’t bothering about setting her hair before bed, and Lance had to be physically dragged away from the editing room to get some sleep. Art admired his dedication to the craft and to supporting the general cause, but it wasn’t going to help anyone if Lance went mad from exhaustion, especially not before the movie was ready for release.
It wasn’t really an apartment made for three people, but they were all managing as best they could. Lance hadn’t been meant to move in with them- they’d all met at one of those hippie artist parties Gwen liked so much, and he’d just been supposed to stay for an evening. He was handsome and French and Gwen thought he looked like Jean-Paul Belmondo (which he did not, thank goodness) and they’d been intending to explore all that free love stuff anyway so long as it was together and Lance could quote romantic poetry and knew all the best new bands, and before anyone knew it he’d become a permanent fixture in their home. This was his first feature film project- he’d only edited educational shorts before- but at this point leaving him out of any kind of project was unthinkable.
“If I can’t keep working, I want to watch a good movie,” Lance complained. “And the Black Cat is a legendary work from before the stifling days of the Hayes Code ruined American cinema.” Like many French artists, Lance had specific tastes towards trashy American films, filled with language that elevated them to classics. But he probably wasn’t wrong.
Art headed for the couch, giving in as he always did when Gwen and Lance were set on something. He certainly wasn’t going to object too hard to Gwen leaning up against him sleepily wearing her red robe, nor to Lance dressed in only his boxer shorts on the other side. Art’s partners joined him, and he had a moment to reflect before anyone reached for the tv remote.
“Do you think this is all going to work out?” he asked. “Lance, you’re the one in the editing room- from my end, I’ve just been shooting a bunch of scenes and I long ago lost track if they even go together.”
“If they do not go together, I will make them go together,” said Lance, earnest as ever. “I will not rest until we have created the perfect film. For the sake of my dearest Gwen on the screen and my dearest Art behind the camera, I will bend heaven and earth to give us a good movie.”
It was hard not to get caught up in Lance’s enthusiasm. It was part of why he was still living with them after all this time.
“Ooh, Boris Karloff!” squealed Gwen as the tv came on. “He was so young back then! Can we get him for our next movie?”
“Probably,” said Art, and the three of them settled in for the evening.
Chapter 5: Bedivere
Bedivere was not a man anyone would have expected to become a hero to the cause of film history and restoration. In his youth, he’d had few ambitions other than to fulfill the family tradition of joining the army, and with his service during the early years of Vietnam came the loss of both his idealism and his left arm. He’d ended up as script supervisor on The Forest that Dripped Blood largely as a favor from his friend Art, as an alternative to out-and-out charity. Sure, he liked movies, but no more than your average man.
Something about The Forest that Dripped Blood changed that, he said in his memoirs. Or maybe it was just working with Art Pendragon and his contagious enthusiasm.
It was due entirely to Bedivere’s saving good prints that the minor cult film lasted to the point that it could have a VHS release, followed by DVD and Blu-Ray. It was due to his essays in underground magazines that, years later, Pauline Kael would reference his term “Idealistic Filmmaking.” It was due to his affable willingness to parody himself that he not only encouraged Mystery Science Theater to show a highly edited version of The Forest that Dripped Blood, but that he cameoed as himself, allowing the small robot Tom Servo to kick him in the shins for his poor job at continuity.
Though he spent much of his career as a film writer explaining the notion of Idealistic Filmmaking, perhaps the most succinct summation came from his interview with the editors of Incredibly Strange Films.
“We had no budget,” he told the interviewer, “we had what actors we could find, and it was only by the grace of god or the devil that we ended up meeting a guy with a pet lion he could coax into lounging around for the final fight scene. Now, I’m not trying to insult other low-budget horror filmmakers here- Roger Corman is legitimately a genius- but a lot of them would have just shrugged, said that nobody was expecting a masterpiece, and turned in a piece of crap. But Art cared, really and sincerely, about making a good movie. Not just a good movie, but one that was smart and well-made and not especially misogynistic. Sure, we all knew we weren’t going to able to make Citizen Kane here, but Art wouldn’t let any of us just give up.
So that’s what I mean by Idealistic Filmmaking. I know it sounds pretentious, but it’s the best way I could explain it. You’re given crap to work with, and you know there’s a good chance that what you produce will be crap, but you’ve got to try. You’ve got to act as if your movie is going to be good. Art believed that, and because he believed it, the rest of us believed it.”
Bedivere waited for the interviewer to come up with another question, which turned out to be about the surprisingly good cinematography. He smiled.
“Viv- that’s the assistant who was embezzling from the studio, not that Merlin didn’t deserve it- she gave us a camera. She said it was high quality, though it didn’t look different than any other camera. She said it would be good luck to us.
I still have that camera, you know. Someday I oughta make a movie of my own with it.”