Here's a sneak peek at my latest book - now available from BearManor!
I met filmmaker Tom McLoughlin in the spring of 2008. I was searching for interview subjects for a documentary on the history of American horror films, and my friend John Muir recommended Tom. “He knows a lot about classic monster movies,” John said. I knew that McLoughlin had directed a respectable Gothic horror film called One Dark Night and the best sequel in the Friday the 13th series, but I didn’t really think of him as a “horror director.” Even so, I decided to call.
I talked to Tom one dark night while he was editing Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal. It turned out to be the first of many long conversations. Horror movies, he explained, had helped him to get through his formative years, growing up across the street from MGM studios. When he was about ten years old, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Around the same time, Tom became fascinated with Vincent Price—particularly the maniacal characters he portrayed in Roger Corman’s film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. On weekdays, he would skip out on classes at St. Timothy’s Grade School and take a city bus to Santa Monica for the noontime movies, where he reveled in the artificial madness of Roderick Usher, Nicolas Medina, and the evil Prince Prospero. Around the same time, he discovered the classic Universal monsters on television. After watching Dracula, he rode his bike to Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City and sat beside Bela Lugosi’s grave, remembering the dead man’s immortal words: “To die . . . to be truly dead . . . that must be glorious.”
One week after that first conversation, Tom and I sat down in my Studio City apartment and recorded an interview for Nightmares in Red, White and Blue. We talked for more than two hours, until the tape ran out. Afterwards, I wanted to keep going . . . not just to hear Tom’s thoughts on horror movies, but to hear more about his life, which sounded fantastic enough to be its own movie. In the days that followed, I realized that Tom McLoughlin is living proof that Hollywood myths can profoundly shape a person’s life, blurring the line between fiction and reality.
Before he was a filmmaker, McLoughlin was a singer in a rock ’n’ roll band that played regularly on the Sunset Strip in the late ’60s, opening for classic rock bands like The Doors, The Animals, and Chicago Transit Authority. When the music died, he went to Paris and studied mime with the legendary Marcel Marceau. When he returned to Los Angeles, he tried his luck at acting, and slowly worked toward his ultimate goal of becoming a director. Along the way, he crossed paths with countless legends: Woody Allen, Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, John Frankenheimer, and Frank Capra, who became a personal mentor. All of this happened before he made his first film.
McLoughlin’s life and career are nothing if not eclectic, but his stories—fiction and nonfiction alike—are bound together by an unyielding sense of adventure and whimsy. In Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives!, a cemetery caretaker discovers an open grave and an empty coffin. Believing it to be the work of teenage pranksters, he grumbles something about “damn kids”—then promptly breaks the fourth wall, turns to the moviegoing audience and quips, “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” It’s an amusing self-incrimination.
This book is the outcome of the ten lengthy interviews conducted in the fall of 2008, through which I tried to glean as much as I could about the filmmaker’s creative process. I have always believed that true creativity is based on a subtle dialogue between everyday life and art, and McLoughlin’s answers consistently reinforced this idea. His movies have drawn heavily on his early childhood influences, from Charlie Chaplin to Famous Monsters of Filmland. Likewise, his adult relationships with friends and family have played a major role in his fiction. In 1990, while McLoughlin was directing Stephen King’s Sometimes They Come Back—a film about letting go of the past and facing the future—his father died and his daughter was born. This was a turning point in his career as well as in his personal life.
Over the course of the following decade, he took his wife Nancy and two young children with him on every shoot. Nancy often appeared in supporting roles, while Shane and Hannah made frequent cameos and helped with production. Each film was a family affair, and the director’s real-world experiences as a father and husband continually found their way onscreen, in a succession of films about family dynamics.
In 1993, McLoughlin directed two back-to-back films about mental instability. He describes A Murder of Innocence, based on the true story of spree killer Laurie Dann, as a reflection of the “dark side” of his mother’s illness. The Yarn Princess, a story about single mother with mental deficiencies, is a rumination on the qualities that made his mother such a wonderful caregiver. Similarly, The Lies Boys Tell (1994) provided McLoughlin with an opportunity to eulogize his father.
The filmmaker turned his focus toward young children at a time when he was re-experiencing childhood from an adult perspective. He was interested in exploring both the dark side of those formative years, starting with Journey and The Turn of the Screw (both 1995) and culminating with The Unsaid (2001), as well as the light side, in Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997) and the surprisingly ethereal Murder in Greenwich (2002). As his own children got older and entered high school, so did the characters in his films. In 2004, McLoughlin kicked off a series of Lifetime movies about teenagers struggling to find their places in the world: She’s Too Young (2004), Odd Girl Out (2005), Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life (2005), Not Like Everyone Else (2006), and Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal (2008).
On the verge of his fourth decade as a filmmaker, McLoughlin is trending toward more socially-conscious films. D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear (2003) and Not Like Everyone Else are harrowing reflections of post-9/11 America. The Staircase Murders (2007) and The Wronged Man (2009) are unsettling depictions of contemporary crime and punishment. As always, the filmmaker’s focus remains on the characters because, as his mentor Frank Capra taught him, movies are a people-to-people medium.
The director’s first responsibility is to empathize with his characters (even the most reprehensible ones) and to understand their thoughts and motivations. That’s how McLoughlin has established personal connections with nearly all of the stories he’s told, and that is why he’s a filmmaker worth studying. The best filmmakers comprehend our everyday hopes and our fears, our trials and our triumphs, and show them to us through the magic of the movies. That has been—and continues to be—the story of Tom McLoughlin’s life.
If you still need convincing, The Modest Proposal e-journal previewed a chapter of the book (dealing with Tom's experiences making the Stephen King adaptation Sometimes They Come Back). You can read the preview HERE.