Midwest Monsters: An Appreciation of Bill Rebane's Spirited Schlock

Movies Features Bill Rebane
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Midwest Monsters: An Appreciation of Bill Rebane's Spirited Schlock

The first takeaway from Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection, Arrow Video’s jumbo-size tribute to that undersung Latvian-American-Wisconsonite low-fi to no-fi filmmaker, is that making movies 0n limited resources takes guts and grit. Rebane’s career tells an inspiring and bitter story, one of a man born at the right time, drawn into the right industry and denied the right financing.

His first attempted feature, Terror at Half Day, was more nightmarish than most horror cinema in the history of either the medium or the genre could imagine, something detailed by Stephen Thrower in his liner essay, “From Latvia to Wisconsin: The Song Remains Rebane.” (Stephen, please spare an amazing title pun or two for the rest of us.) “Rebane’s problems on Terror at Half Day began when he hired a full union crew,” Thrower explains, “only to find that paying industry standard wages drained his budget after a single week’s shooting.” Can you imagine a more terrifying scenario than running out of money for union guys? Rebane should have made that movie. Instead, he abandoned ship on Terror at Half Day, and his pal Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Godfather of Gore himself, bought up the footage, shot a few new scenes and released the resultant patchwork picture as Monster a Go-Go! in 1965. How Rebane found it in himself to rebound after a cock-up of such colossal scale is a testament to his mettle, and to his background.

Rebane was born in Riga in 1937 and relocated to the United States in 1952. He bounced back and forth between Europe and America, picked up English as a fifth language (in addition to German, Estonian, Latvian and Russian) by watching American movies, started working in the film industry at 19 when Hamburg’s Adalbert Baltes took him under his wing, and through that relationship wound up influencing development of both Cinemax technology and Rotascope cameras. It’s through his association with Baltes that he was able to secure U.S. rights to the circular motion picture process, then shop them around the country. His entrepreneurship didn’t go anywhere, because he couldn’t afford to actually make the projectors himself, but we have them today because dammit, he tried.

After that, the man was nonstop, at least until a stroke in 1989 gave him reason to close shop. If that’s what it took, then it’s no surprise that one disastrous directorial experience simply forced him to take a step back and replenish his coffers with industrial and commercial productions. Between then and the 1960s, though, he treated the world to cinema that for all its scrappiness proved ahead of its time, not unlike the work of one George A. Romero, who—much like Rebane—understood happy endings as anathema to science fiction and horror. Romero leaves Night of the Living Dead on a bummer note not unlike that of Rebane’s The Alpha Incident, the ultimate gut punch for audiences who, having spent so much time growing fond of the characters, must watch helplessly as they get black flagged at the last lap.

If Romero was one of Rebane’s forerunners, then one might argue the same is true of Rebane for John Carpenter, whose The Thing and The Fog echo the plot, structure and climax of both Invasion from Inner Earth and The Alpha Incident in pure nihilism. Maybe it’s coincidence. Maybe Rebane had an impact on Carpenter that Carpenter either isn’t aware of or just doesn’t talk about. Either way, the connections between the filmmakers’ work are hard to miss.

The new Arrow set allows room for those connections with the inclusion of Invasion from Inner Earth, The Alpha Incident and The Demons of Ludlow, and gives a taste of what else Rebane was capable of with The Game (alternately titled The Cold), Monster a Go-Go (of course) and his final movie, Twister’s Revenge. There are gaps in between each for the pictures the set doesn’t include: The Giant Spider Invasion, The Capture of Bigfoot, Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake and Blood Harvest. Not all of these are horror movies. Twister’s Revenge, for example, is an action-comedy, and even The Alpha Incident and Invasion from Inner Earth qualify more as sci-fi on the genre pie chart. But horror was a mainstay in Rebane’s repertoire, a product of his funding woes. No genre is cheaper to shoot, and Rebane’s movies sure are cheap.

Don’t take that as a dig at his cinema. When Weird Al parodies your song, you take it as an honor. Mystery Science Theater 3000 spotlighting your movies not once, but twice, isn’t quite the same thing, but it isn’t far off either: Only a few directors, like Jun Fukuda and Noriaki Yuasa, can claim that distinction, and while MST3K pokes at the expense of cheesy movies, it’s more centrally about embracing those same movies. There’s joy in ham-handed B-movies, unadulterated pleasure, a reminder that there’s an inner filmmaker (or actor, or cinematographer) in all of us. Rebane found his all the way in Germany, and brought it all the way back to Wisconsin of all places, where he established his own studio in the middle of nowhere to make his movies as he saw fit. Each spills over with “let’s put on a show” energy. Even the best of them are scruffy, true DIY efforts, but there’s palpable glee in every single one…except Monster a Go-Go.

That’s because Monster a Go-Go is disjointed as hell. The film and continuity pass one another like two ships in the night, with actors showing up, disappearing and reappearing as other characters, among other slights against consistency. Watch it in the name of science rather than enjoyment, then move on to the rest, with The Alpha Incident, The Demons of Ludlow and The Game sitting at the top of the list. The last of these best exemplifies that unbridled delight felt in Rebane’s work, taking the “rich people put a bunch of plebes in one space and pick them off one by one” niche and injecting it with two doses of zaniness and inscrutability. Like Invasion from Inner Earth, the climax makes no goddamn sense. Unlike Invasion from Inner Earth, that’s a feature rather than a bug, a capstone to the escalating weirdness defining the movie from start to finish.

Meanwhile, over in the other viral terror movie, because Rebane appears to have had a minor but shockingly prescient fixation with pandemics, there’s Ralph “Mike Hammer” Meeker living up to his name as a laconic train station-master quarantined in his place of employment with his secretary (Carol Irene Newell), a don’t-tread-on-me farmer (John F. Goff) and a government doctor (Stafford Morgan), tasked by his bosses with keeping everyone in place after they’re exposed to a lethal Martian micro-organism. That’s the fault of a train operator (George “Buck” Flower), who feels so bad about the whole thing that he runs off into the woods to die after taking a bullet from the doctor. The atmosphere here is thick and suffocating, being shot mostly in one location, and the twitchy distrust brewing among the primary cast gives these actors so much to do that it’s hardly a loss when Rebane starts doing gory horror things in the final 15 minutes. In fact, The Alpha Incident is at its best among its central quartet.

The Demons of Ludlow goes in the opposite direction: The cast is fine, but how can they measure up to a sentient evil piano? It’s the main antagonist of the movie, and the demons start popping up all over the sleepy town of the title after it’s mysteriously shipped there during its bicentennial shindig. The characters matter less than the monsters or the effects, functioning either as cattle or as exposition vehicles. The Demons of Ludlow is by far the bloodiest chapter in the set, and just as much a celebration of Rebane’s spirit as the others.

He’s the hardest working filmmaker most of us have never heard of, and his cinema should affirm to us all that movies, even movies as, shall we say, economical as his, have value. May Rebane, and this set, awaken the inner indie auteur and self-starter in all of us.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.