Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection (1965-1988)
Arrow Video is proud to present the first ever collection of works by Bill Rebane, the epitome of an independent regional filmmaker who built his own studio in the wilds of Wisconsin.
The Wisconsinites of RedLetterMedia will readily admit “there’s Milwaukee, there’s Madison, and then there’s the rest of Wisconsin… which is nothing.” In America’s Dairyland, there’s roughly one cow to every five people, but one farmer churned out a different kind of cheese: Bill Rebane. Terrible joke but entirely true; the Latvian-born filmmaker believed his scenic midwestern home was beautiful enough for the big screen so, rather than abandon his roots and migrate to Hollywood, he built his own. A bona fide B Movie Skywalker Ranch spanning 200 acres that was the first and only film studio in the Midwest for 30 years!
That might not seem as impressive three decades on, now anyone’s bedroom can become their own studio with a greenscreen, some lights, and a bit of imagination. But think about the news of entertainment giants like Disney and Netflix priming to purchase cinemas; even if you produce your own film independent from the big leagues, they won’t show anything they’re not invested in. History repeats itself. The government shut down this “vertical integration” the first time in 1948 which flourished independent cinema with opportunity for people like Rebane. No longer selling their dreams directly to Hollywood, they could just sell their car to cover production costs, shoot everything with their own two hands, and shove their product onto every nearby screen in hopes of enough profit to cover the next project.
This ‘exploitation’ of cinema spawned an entire movement; lucrative markets like New York’s 42nd Street were renowned for their ‘grindhouse’ pictures and renegades, like Hershell Gordon Lewis and John Waters, were deemed salacious anarchists. Not everyone was aspiring to burn down Hollywood, Rebane never went near it. He reminds me of another Wisconsinite who was an outsider to the system: Orson Welles. Nothing in this collection is on par with Citizen Kane (1941), of course, but in an era of regional filmmakers he carved his own legacy from humble beginnings to his own, still humble, Xanadu, and perhaps Arrow Video in their extensive retrospective extras have uncovered the rosebud for Citizen Rebane.
A space capsule crash-lands on Earth, and the astronaut aboard disappears. Is there a connection between the missing man and the monster roaming the area?
Why do the worst films tell the best stories off-screen? The Room (2003) and Troll 2 (1992) have had their own feature-length explorations trying to answer every question that arose from enduring those cinematic disasters, namely “how did this movie get made?” Ed Wood scored a wonderful biopic from a career of relentless showmanship on a shoe-string budget, and entertainers Herschell Gordon Lewis and Bill Rebane were cut from the same cloth. These two would collaborate, though not an entirely appropriate word, on a truly baffling venture reflected aptly by the tag line “an astronaut went up—a “guess what” came down!”
A Rebane narrative is a perplexing exercise; belaboured in the starkest exposition and yet esoteric in comprehending. An astronaut is nowhere to be found at his landing pod, so his family and colleagues investigate the alarming radiation signals to encounter a ghastly giant (Henry Hite) that may be their missing friend. Sounds like simple science-fiction but the execution is extraordinary; bodies “mangled in a way they had never seen before” appear pristine, a colossal radioactive pig that fries his pen-mates, the tranquilised monster destroying the laboratory that was producing an antidote. All these narrative events, unseen by the audience, that the narrator (Bill Rebane himself) must carry like an Olympian because, despite two directors, cinema has never been more told than shown.
Terror at Halfday began production in 1961 but, after relenting to film unions for cast and crew, Rebane drained his budget after a week. Lewis wanted to package his Moonshine Mountain (1965) as a double-feature and so bought the film, filmed new footage, and slapped on the catchy title of Monster a Go-Go! These two could not be further apart in goals of entertainment; Rebane’s contemplative sci-fi is as dry as toast, but Lewis was the grandfather of The Last Drive-In oath of “blood, breasts, and beasts”. There’s little violence but this at least explains the bikini-clad babes strutting their stuff before being chased off, and though not important to the story, nothing is. Most of the actors weren’t available years later so Go-Go! carelessly shifts onto a new cast supported by one returning role whose character died already so he simply plays his brother!
Mystery Science Theater 3000 decreed this one of the worst movies they’ve ever covered, so critical appreciation is challenging! Acting would be too easy to deride and honestly too mean given that people aren’t even sure which credits apply to which faces; Rebane always features Wisconsin locals and even if we can recognise them it’s likely the only role to their name. They have so little to work with from the script by Rebane (uncredited) and Sheldon Seymour (a Lewis pseudonym) as both characters and narrator rehash an underdeveloped premise ad nauseum. It’s one thing for scientists to combat a mystery but Monster a Go-Go! starts and finishes with absolutely no satisfying resolution.
The experimental anti-radiation formula transfixes their attention, for most of the interminable runtime, as emerging side-effects seem to prove their theory of mutating the human astronaut into a towering freak. They track down the monster just as it begins to irradiate Chicago, only it disappears, and then receive a telegram that their colleague was found adrift at sea. Rebane ends with no less than six conjectures in his closing narration but the resounding response is an equally befuddled “who cares?”
USA | 1965 | 69 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
A group of young pilots in a remote region of the Canadian wilderness begin to hear strange reports over their radios about planes crashing, cars stalling and a deadly plague which has gripped the planet.
Monster a Go-Go! is entertaining behind-the-scenes but thankfully Rebane’s filmography improves to be tolerable, if still wildly untraditional. A group of ecologists fly home from the Canadian wilderness when their friend sends a cryptic warning that everyone is dead before interrupting their landing with his collapsing body. Couped up in a cabin in the woods with nothing but sporadic radio reports of an unknown pandemic, tensions rise as the urge to return to civilisation is met with mad theories of an alien invasion from inner earth.
Rebane filled a setting in the middle of nowhere with a handful of local actors for an eerily effective film for practically nothing. Practicing this across his career, this is an incredible leap in quality from the ineptitude of Go-Go! and, while tempting to call these chamber pieces, he often strays out never for the value he strives for. Invasion is the first great example of his strengths; forcing characters together until social graces wear thin and conflict arises from within. However, Rebane was riveted by the scenic majesty of Wisconsin and his exterior cinematography demonstrates the era of cinema. Go-Go! was stilted and rudimentary like Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), whereas Invasion features expressive panoramas with natural lighting, recalling the documentarian direction of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
Rebane doesn’t share Hooper’s emotional intensity or precision pacing, alas. Invasion is like hearing the chainsaw but never seeing Leatherface at any point. The atmosphere of self-enforced exile is undoubtedly relevant to our current period of isolating quarantine and the lack of clear exposition aids a simmering tension. An imperfect precursor to Signs (2002) where M. Night Shyamalan constructs an emotional journey within a worldwide event while Rebane starves us of any traditional progress of narrative. Crediting the screenplay to frequent collaborator and wife Barbara Rebane, the two seem intent on letting the scenario of people quietly waiting play out without insisting upon additional theatrics. Mysterious red lights and dispassionate alien broadcasts appear, and once in a while people disappear, but you have never been as bored in lockdown as these characters are.
Lengthy dialogue and action no more energetic than entering and exiting a cabin gives the cast a genuine acting challenge, to which some actors could be mistaken for being frozen from the snowy climate. Not all performances are wooden, as the naturalism suits the tone of ordinary folk in extraordinary circumstances, like the affable cast of The Thing (1982), just minus a thing for anyone to react to! Presumed lead Jake (Nick Holt) is serviceable, sister Sarah (Debbi Pick) is flatter than the alien broadcasts, and support role Stan (Paul Bentzen) surreptitiously steals the limelight by virtue of his tales of underground Martians being the only interesting dialogue. Aside from the odd spike in stir-craziness, Invasion plateaus with little conflict; these people are all too nice!
Infrequent editing flairs suggest a creativity Rebane hides along with a penchant for bandwagon jumping on successful sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). That comparison becomes clear in the resolution, if it can be called that, whichgives the enormous space baby a run for its money. Stan’s theory of the Martian enacted pandemic is never even confirmed but whatever happens at the end is certifiably out of this world.
USA | 1974 | 94 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
A micro-organism from Mars, brought to Earth by a space probe, terrorises passengers in a railroad office.
When a deadly virus leaks onboard a freighter during delivery, a reassuring doctor and a clumsy train employee are forced into self-quarantining in a claustrophobic train depot with a handful of civilians who all wish to leave. Trapped between the threat of military shooting and an unknown disease, the already stressed party learn that sleeping causes instant and horrifying death. If most of that premise sounds familiar, then you still remember Invasion of Inner Earth.
Rebane has basically remade his own film, considering this his “first real feature”, and though he’d never admit it, this script from Ingrid Neumayer is markedly better than his wife’s prior effort. The man sure loves his arid sci-fi, but at least here characters are defined in distinct personalities leading to far more engaging dissension, drama that Invasion urgently lacked. Conflict of government scientist versus small-town hicks is nothing special, and Rebane and Neumayer still stretch their middle act interminably long for relationships with no remarkable depth but thank god he can at least deliver a recognisable three act structure.
The most shocking improvement in Alpha Incident is the actual story takes place onscreen. Integral inciting events like rampaging monsters or alien invasions take budget so Rebane always insists this action is taking place just off to the side, but cinema is a visual medium! Feature length reaction shots get tiring fast, so an invisible catalyst is perfect for when a filmmaker has no money, and his persistent disconnect with story and plot is mercifully coalesced with characters outraged at their circumstances and soon petrified at their mortality. Dr Sorensen (Stafford Morgan) is a dutifully calm protagonist who sadly only starts emoting near the very end resulting in a rather sombre performance, however others like cantankerous Jack (John F. Goff) efficiently test your patience, and Jenny (Carol Irene) draws pity when pining for her outside date. Two ‘recognisable’ names are Ralph Meeker playing the submissive Charlie in a subdued, disquieted part, and George ‘Buck’ Flower delivering a marvellous role of poor Hank whose peek at the ‘medicine’ dooms them all.
Familiar problems like excessive passiveness arisebut are more excusable with the inescapable exhaustion of staying awake, the imminence of death strips away all significance of trivial arguments. The eventual third act, ahem, climax is Jenny reluctantly giving in to Jack’s nonstop sexual advances which anticipates another lack of impactful resolution. The Alpha Incident abruptly evokes Night of the Living Dead (1968) with a startlingly bleak ending entirely out of place in Rebane’s filmography. The effects of the virus are visceral even for modern standards and spiral the cast into a spontaneous domino effect of ramping despair. Rebane may have felt strongarmed into the horror genre later in life but he gifts easily his most grisly, brutal, and depressing story right here.
USA | 1978 | 95 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
A murderous demon lurks inside an antique piano in a picturesque coastal town.
The small community of Ludlow ready their bicentennial anniversary but ignore the true history while celebrating, and so the ghosts of those persecuted by their founding fathers enact violent retribution. There’s no avoiding the obvious: this is basically The Fog (1980), and Bill Rebane is no John Carpenter! Even in my appreciation for ambiance, Ludlow is especially disappointing in its drifting, disjointed execution. Also, likely retribution for Herschell Gordon Lewis butchering his first film and now Rebane is returning the favour with Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964).
The origins of The Demons of Ludlow are somehow dumber; having constructed his own Winsconsin studio, he had an old piano constantly being lugged out of the way for other productions, so why not produce an entire film around it eventually getting demolished? Rebane favoured ruminating concepts of alien visitations but, as a pragmatist with mounting overhead costs, he recognised the lucrative straight-to-video market for cheap horror. He leans right into it with horny teenagers stalked while having sex and gets exceptionally cruel with an elderly woman stoned to death in her bed by children!
From here on out, Rebane would stick with William Arthur for his scripting services, to varying degrees of success. His usual chamber piece formula is abandoned for muddled plot threads following several characters across town, which may seem more traditional film-wise but highlights Rebane can only achieve what he has experience with, which is not traditional filmmaking. This jumbled narrative is unfortunately made worse because of his homely studio; set across a half-dozen houses that all look like the same sparsely decorated set room, Rebane shies away from his usual exteriors creating an unintentionally suffocating environment.
Preacher (Paul Bentzen) and Debra (Stephanie Cushna) are both serviceable leads in their investigations of ghostly revenge but appear so generic without Rebane focusing every single scene on them. Rather we get a myriad of bizarre scenes which for are haphazardly entertaining; a bleeding piano or a ghostly noose breaking through a bedroom ceiling to hang someone. Then there’s the perplexing sequence of the little girl playing with her collection of dollies; they may or may not be haunted and she may or may not be a grown woman playing a girl. I really hope she is when her dolls guide her downstairs into the otherworldly dining room and the high-spirited spirits cheer and laugh amongst themselves before tearing her clothes off and then her flesh. Exceptionally odd titillation for a character coded to be underage.
A shame that Rebane would hold himself to higher esteem than Herschell Gordon Lewis only succumb to exploitation for profit. Should a director not be free to experiment and broaden his creative range? Testing innovative methods of narration like voice-overs and flashbacks, both of which are overstated in their echoey effects and understated in explaining anything. He’s having fun with the Victorian costuming which provides a surreal Twin Peaks vibe of the ghosts consuming blood and guts in what still feels like someone’s living room. The finale has some gory highlights of severed limbs but the lacklustre closure lacks punch for a story of revenge. Plus, unlike The Fog, which literally envelops the town ensuring an overwhelming punishment, this is just a piano. Some of the townsfolk are even aware of this prophetic reaping so just throw it out before the film even starts!
USA | 1983 | 93 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Three bored millionaires gather nine people in an old mansion, and give them a proposition—if they can meet and conquer their biggest fears, they’ll get one million dollars in cash.
The Demons of Ludlow would prove an unwieldy knock-off but, by transferring the blood-and-breasts of 1980s shlock horror into his tried-and-tested formula of small casts in enclosed locations, The Game is a tighter narrative—even if it makes less sense! Three aging millionaires have begun the annual game of inviting strangers to their estate to face their fears in pursuit of cash, as they say themselves “it never fails to amaze me what some folks will do for a million dollars!” Amazement is a strong descriptor for tepid scares, confusing twists, and a mansion that looks like a poorly rated Pontins hotel.
Recognising how flimsy the plot is, The Game reiterates itself constantly to appear rich in story. The narrator frames the events with a whimsical rhyming storybook fashion, then the millionaires discuss their plans over brunch, who then unveil their games to the ‘contestants’. Almost 15-minutes recounting the premise until Rebane effectively gaslights the audience into considering if they’re too dumb to comprehend it, and when the twists and revelations make zero logical sense, who’s to blame for not keeping up!?
Not difficult keeping track of nine guests whose personalities range from horny to not so horny. Most are interchangeable, due to the “semi-scripted” nature, and half disappear so there’s no point roll-calling but there are some standout performances. Moustached sleazeball Joe (Jim Inaquinta) steals the show desperately trying to score with the women and inexplicably becomes the pseudo protagonist when avenging one of their deaths, promising “whoever has done this has called the tune, but I’m the piper and I promise I’ll make them pay for this… permanently!” One of his intended conquests is the equally eccentric Southern Shelly (Lori Minneti), who speaks in such a breathy voice it’d put Jennifer Coolidge to shame. Providing the film with most of the gratuitous nudity, she also shares many of the funniest scenes with Joe, at one point screaming “we’re locked in a sauna and we’re freezing our balls off! Sorry, you’re freezing your tits off!”
A cheap update on House on Haunted Hill (1959), these three millionaires are no Vincent Price or Carol Ohmart. George (Stuart Osborne), Horace (Don Arthur), and Maude (Carol Perry) all play essentially the same character and engage in the theatrics only slightly more than Jigsaw does in Saw (2004), and he was just lying on the floor. They mention medical checks as if their games are deadly to those faint at heart and then play parlour tricks like plastic shark fins in the swimming pool or a real tarantula in a soup bowl. Occasionally an eerie video of someone hanging will play on their bedroom TVs or a pale-faced ghoul stalks the background, and in one discordant sequence the masked hosts tie a half-nude woman to a chair and torture her via forced Russian roulette!
The setup of unexpected surprises does allow Rebane a fine excuse to never develop anything properly while his glacial pace drags toward a ludicrous finale. Hosts become as scared as guests when guns go off, people truly disappear, and that creeping mist continues to chill everyone to their bones. After one zig of an extended chase and gun duel leads to the zag of actors and pretenders divulging their ruses, everything seems to have played out to plan, but we can never just settle for one revelation. The patently more famous The Game (1997) knew when to end on one last hurrah, but this meanders onward to something resembling The Shining (1980) and fizzles out with even the narrator confessing “quite confusing is this story.”
USA | 1984 | 83 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Three bumbling criminals have been trying to get their hands on the computerised control system of Mr Twister, a talking monster truck with a mind of its own.
Our last film sure lives up to the promise of weird Wisconsin; bumbling locals scrambling through a nonsensical script are at their pantomime extreme while the scope explodes across the entire town with wanton destruction. Three criminals, a modern Three Stooges, set their eyes on a monster truck filled with expensive gadgetry, but ‘Mr Twister’ has artificial intelligence and goes to war. I can’t stress enough how little plot there is here, but who needs that when we have car crashes, exploding houses, and tanks firing down city streets?!
Once Dave (Dean West) loudly announces he has $200,000 riding in his truck before heading to the country fair, he and his assistant/computer specialist/love interest Sherry (Meredith Orr) have very little to do in the story. Following a bizarre opening credits sequence of monster trucking and the crooks—Kelly (David Alan Smith), Bear (R Richardson Luka), and Dutch (Jay Gjernes) fooling around in a jungle gym for children—Twister’s Revenge may genuinely spend more screen time on the baddies than the titular truck. Marvel as they labour over the risks of breaking a van window to steal precious equipment only to then kidnap a woman at gunpoint, ransom her off while strapped to dynamite, and then rampage a tank straight through town.
Dave, the constantly self-described cowboy, provides zero momentum in the story; his introduction acknowledges that he doesn’t even have to drive now that Twister can do it all himself! He can fire a shotgun alright but acts more robotic than the truck and has the gall to host his honeymoon in the back of a dirty van out in a field. Sherry ought to pursuit loftier aspirations; after putting a super-intelligence in a monster truck she’s promptly kidnapped and spends the remainder of the film restrained in a mineshaft. That setup takes the entire first half-hour before Mr Twister pipes up. Rebane has never had a more intriguing hook; can the cowboy learn to think before shooting and can a robot discover how to loosen up inside a monster truck? It may already be Knight Rider but a wildly fun premise nevertheless!
Twister’s Revenge never quite lives up to that. The two constantly bicker over who’s smarter when both their plans are the exact same acts of public mayhem. Dave has one early clue directing to the local biker bar and the usual antics almost play out when he’s immediately hurled through the cardboard front door, but there’s no breakout brawl and only a car gets trampled rather than the entire row of motorbikes that would be so obviously satisfying. Dave gets his information after returning—not sure why this couldn’t be one scene—and lightly tapping a guy on his helmet with the butt of a gun. Sequences always dodge the anticipated as the three goons pursue the honeymoon van and pull over the wrong one but rather than let an elderly couple go they hold them at gunpoint and slash their tires!
Subverting expectations is what Rebane excels in and Twister’s Revenge is the perfect outlet for all his wildest “brain farts”. Learning that he rewrote the entire script with the producers over a night and a bottle of liquor will not surprise you once the film has been witnessed. We meet Kelly’s parents who yell about “big Japanese cars” driving through their home, Bear’s nympho girlfriend so pent up she yells about sex to her chickens, and there’s a full ‘burlesque’ musical number for an audience of gas-masked bikers and bat-people! Mr Twister barrelling through a flimsy “Shit House” leaving a dirtied Bear miraculously surviving in the refuse hole underneath is the least insane of practical stunts.
Rebane has always preferred to shoot small with merely the suggestion of scope, though Demons of Ludlow and The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) were earlier examples of him conveying a real outside world. As one of his final films, I could almost believe the people of Wisconsin let him run wild to celebrate his dedication to the state, “we’re throwing a parade, you can drive your monster truck alongside it! We’re not using these buildings, feel free to bulldoze them! You, Mr. Rebane, have done our state a service so blow our town to smithereens with a goddamn functional tank!”
USA | 1988 | 89 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Arrow Video always present a wonderful HD restoration of niche obscurities and this is no different. Researching older coverage on these films especially highlights the god-awful VHS-rips being used on past DVD releases and I would’ve never been able to sit through them until now. It validates the efforts by Arrow Video to highlight the tremendous obstacles of past eras that low-budget filmmakers like Rebane have their talents, however uneven, be tarnished so grievously on the original home-market. Granted, he was not the greatest sound engineer and nearly all of his films feel like they left the microphone in the next room. It’s not unbearable and subtitles clear up the muddier dialogue but there is only so much Arrow Video can upgrade.
director: Bill Rebane.
writers: Jeff Smith, Dok Stanford & Bill Rebane (Monster) • Barbara J. Rebane (Invasion) • Ingrid Neumayar (Alpha) • Willam Arthur (Demons) • William Arthur & Larry Dreyfuss (Game) • William Arthur, Larry Dreyfuss & Bill Rebane (Twister’s)
starring: Paul Bentzen (Invasion, Alpha, Demons) • Carol Perry (Demons, Game) • Philip Morton, June Travis, George Perry & Lois Brooks (Monster) • Debbi Pick, Nick Holt, Karl Wallace, Robert Arkens & Arnold Didrickson (Invasion) • Ralph Meeker, Stafford Morgan, John F. Goff, Carol Irene Newell & George ‘Buck’ Flower (Alpha) • Stephanie Cushna, Carol Perry, C. Dave Davis, Debra Dulman, Patricia J. Statz & Angailica (Demons) • Tom Blair, Jim Iaquinta, Wally Flaherty, Don Arthur & Debbie Martin (Game) • Dean West, Meredith Orr, David Alan Smith, R. Richardson Luka, Jay Gjernes, Tena Murray, William Dexter & J. Worthington Kratz (Twister’s).