David Black interviews Michael Helms of Fatal Visions
DB – Today, I’m chatting with an amazing guy who’s been active in the Australian indie movie industry as a writer, publisher and distributor for a massive 30 years or so. I first heard of Michael Helms when his magazine, “Fatal Visions” graced the racks of those Melbourne shops that stocked zines back in the 1980’s. Michael didn’t just write about local movies though, he also distributed them. I saw the infamous Melbourne vampire flick, “Bloodlust” at the State Film Theatre in 1992 thanks to his efforts. All these years later, I’m collecting up the Ozploitation movies released on his Fatal Visions label, such as Cat Sick Blues, Mondo Yakuza and Sheborg Massacre. Without Michael, many of these would not have made it to the dvd shelves. It’s an honour to be able to speak with a man who has helped so many and fed my appetite for local horror movies over the last few decades.
Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to chat to me today. You’ve worked tirelessly within the local indie movie industry for years. Fatal Visions mag ran from 1988 – 1998, which is an amazing run for a fanzine. Can I ask what attracted you to horror, action and exploitation movies originally?
MH – Sure, several salient points bleed into each other: Being raised Catholic helps a lot. From the outset you are told what you can’t watch or do (actually, that sounds like a completely modern corporate plan performed by HR departments across the planet in dealing with a company’s major liability: their employees) and that a severe punishment is waiting for any sort of transgression. At the very least Catholicism can create a deep appreciation of darkness and fear (especially of concepts of The Devil) and even art. It can also make rebels of the more strong-minded. You wouldn’t believe how many dedicated horror filmmakers are Catholics by family but not conviction and who readily agree that this particular religion really made them horror fiends.
Secondly, as a child of the 60s, being born at the end of the baby boomer cycle meant that at this particular juncture in history there was an overflow of horror goodness surrounding me at the most impressionable age. In the late 60s/early 70s from rubber monsters and the Scanlen’s version of horror movie bubble gum cards at the local milk bar to monster masks, Deadly Earnest and horror movies on TV in general, and going to Burke’s ACTU department store to pick up the Aurora model kit of, “The Victim”, with your mother, an interest in horror movies could easily become a 24/7 thing especially if you are encouraged to be an Arts lover and supporter, which I was. From a very young age and as an avid reader of everything I could lay my eyes on, I felt constantly let down by mainstream media especially daily newspapers who even I could see were blindly accepting the ad dollars from the distributors of films just for the privilege of placing large and lurid advertising in their publications without providing any sort of editorial response. When the odd review of a horror film did appear in the daily press it was rarely positive and often snide, principally designed to make the writer look good but in an entirely imperious manner. At this point I think I made some sort of vow to myself that one day I was somehow going to turn around this, ‘love to hate you’, approach to horror films.
Years later I came across a couple of these pompous blowhard daily print critics in a completely reactionary situation after a preview screening of BRAIN DAMAGE that involved the brandishing of a walking stick at the female publicist. My empathy for distributors ballooned although it would not be a smooth relationship especially when major distributors would treat their own horror products with contempt. At the time, besides Deadly Earnest, there was only one place to turn for critical responses to horror films: the Catholic Church. In the weekly publication The Advocate they carried comprehensive title listings for the latest releases. They were rated by being divided into columns, one of which was for, ‘advised against’ films. Of course, unintentionally, these films instantly became the most desired and sought after especially for those who wouldn’t be able to legally view them until many years later.
Most importantly I was brought up in a house that was lined with books. Never underestimate the power of literature, nor as a source for cheap films when their copyright has expired. Everyone in my family had a subscription to something. Even though I ended up getting The Story Of Pop every week and that helped create another important part of me, I can cite two books that directly influenced the reason we’re talking today: Play Power by Richard Neville & Horror Movies by Carlos Clarens. Both books were the first things I borrowed as an 8 year old from a certain suburban library not long after it opened. Over a period of months I got my Dad to photocopy (a new technology then) nearly every page of the Clarens book especially the pictures. Incredibly, some of these photocopies still exist today while lots of the historically interesting faxes (like Larry Buchanan explaining how he wasn’t up for an interview or Ollie Martin chewing up nearly a whole fax roll to tell us everything we wanted to know about HOUSEBOAT HORROR when he realised that we were very serious about horror) that were sent to Fatal Visions in the 80s and printed on thermal paper that allowed them to fade away faster than the runs of many of our favourite films, which were often given the shortest of release windows.
Play Power was all about the documenting of youth or new culture in Oz magazine, and became engulfed in the most drawn out and expensive obscenity case ever put upon a publication in a court of law. I already knew I was attracted to horror films because of their ability to take on and present numerous contentious issues. I liked how they needled and provoked people including myself and felt that this wasn’t just a matter of personal taste but one of almost social political communications that needed to be continued and supported. The mission was taking form. Armed with my growing collection of horror film ads cut out of daily newspapers, a growing horror film book library (I also decided then to build the largest horror film book library I could, something I’m still working nearly 50 years later) and my knowledge of the legal travails of Oz magazine I felt prepared to fight any battle regarding the public display of love for horror films. I began to get vocal and argumentative with anyone about horror films. Then I discovered Space Age Books, the precursor to Minotaur Books, who began importing American fanzines emerging from the messy era of the mimeograph (Mum was a teacher and the Roneo machine was an every day tool) with thick offset printed publications jam packed with stills and in the case of one, the very smart Photon out of New York, each issue actually contained a beautiful black and white 8” by 10” still from a horror film. As a matter of fact, a framed copy of filmmaker Tod Browning surrounded by his cast members from FREAKS sits just above my head right now. I was also heavily influenced by early issues of Cinefantastique, in terms of writing and analysis and layout and design but especially for their coverage of Euro-horror (which of course, wasn’t labelled as such then).
DB – Amazing! Let’s chat about the Fatal Visions fanzine Michael. Most of the younger generations won’t understand the difficulties and risks involved with publishing way back in the 80’s and 90’s. Blogging on the web is easy and anyone can get their story up within minutes with just the click of a button. You don’t have to get bromides of pics, print out type, cut it with a scalpel and metal ruler and then lay it out by hand and paste it onto graph paper. There are no costs for physically printing and none of the hassles of carting the mags to outlets or the cost of postage.
I published 3 zines way back then (Gooby Comics, Sartorial Titbits and St Kilda Funnies) that were stocked at Greville Records and Minotaur Books, so I remember Fatal Visions well. It looked good and really stood out. But what I recall most was the risk of pushing the bar too far.
You were there in the bad old days of the 80’s and 90’s when there was always the chance of being busted and having the police seize your product. Publishers and shops that were brave enough risked legal charges and hefty fines. Amongst those I remember being hit were Missing Link records around 1981 who had stock seized and faced the beak for displaying a Dead Kennedys single. Local cartoonist, Fred Negro was also hit, when his booklet “Fred Nile Suck This” was declared obscene and confiscated in 1985. Also Polyester copped it a few times over. They were raided the first time in 1997, their shelves emptied, and the owner, Paul Elliott got fined. Was this ever a concern for you Michael?
MH – Personally, I really dug the opportunity to hand assemble the first six issues of Fatal Visions and believe it thoroughly grounded me in the basics of publishing. Things like dealing with contributors and their copy, editing, proofing, layout, marketing, promotion, distribution, schedules, postage and freight, expenses, budgets, previews, advertisers, filmmakers, interviewees, publicists, retailers and perhaps the most important: deadlines. No matter what production method is utilised publishing is always labour-intense, as you yourself might have experienced. I think you should use this understanding to prime yourself to present the best version of your work possible and not become lazy at the last minute just to get it quickly to the printers or online. Despite electronic publishing allowing you the luxury of fixing your work on the fly with a sly edit or two, as far as I’m concerned dead tree technology is a superior publishing medium in every way. Especially if you’re some whiney millennial who thinks google is the sole receptacle of world history.
As far as content is concerned I knew that what I was doing with Fatal Visions should it receive mainstream attention, could provoke adverse reactions way beyond the small but loyal band who took it to their hearts and minds. You can only live in hope. What I’m referring to here is the serial killer component to Fatal Visions. Violent onscreen death is integral to horror movies as is the monster that performs it. The interest in serial killers who have always been a part of film history and an ongoing and long time fascination for humanity in general, reached some sort of peak during the 90s. Thanks to Fatal Visions friend & columnist David Nolte, the editor and founder of the zine Crimson Celluloid originally out of Sydney, who I found a contact address for in the letters page (edited by Graham Kennedy) in what was perhaps Australia’s best consumer video magazine The Video Age, we had a direct line to some of the world’s most infamous prisoners (the previously mentioned FREAKS pic presently sits next to a Manson original). So, why not utilise this vast and untapped resource? Nolte was and remains Australia’s most prolific pen pal to local and international serial killers and his interviewing technique and style is humorous and second to none and by the way, continues to this day. However, despite publishing what could sometimes be described as jailbird ravings was also able to offer insight into the mythical world of Snuff film production, which I’d never seen written about before especially from the perspective of production and distribution. You’ll notice that the second Fatal Visions compilation book contains very little serial killer material. This was a conscientious decision simply predicated on the fact that some of it especially the Snuff film related material, had been reprinted in the first two versions of the fantastic book Killing For Culture by David Kerekes and David Slater. They utilised even further FV material and new interviews with Nolte and I in their incredible re-worked and much-expanded edition published in 2016 that was sub-titled From Edison to ISIS and A New History Of Death On Film, altogether, a highly recommended work that should be of great significance to all sorts of horror enthusiasts.
Despite the busts you mentioned I was only ever really concerned about Fatal Visions not receiving attention and then any sort of attention, even the wrong kind. Getting charged with sedition was something of a career ambition for a while but in retrospect it’s perhaps good that I’m yet to achieve it. Also, I think that culturally within Australia the emphasis had shifted from literature to videotape by the mid 80s. Of those events you mention above most of them were connected to music and packaging infringements and bootlegs but I’ll always remember the Polyester bust that was conducted by the Federal Police and one representative from the O.F.L.C who asked then proprietor Paul Elliott, “Could you please show us to some of the tapes we’re supposed to be confiscating?” Wouldn’t you know it that that raid and one would have to suspect the few like it, were being conducted by knuckleheads who couldn’t even do their own research! The next Fatal Visions book will include further investigation into dealings with the authorities by independent distributors and others. Even though FV received a massive amount of vhs tapes we were never once given a letter of warning that an item had been confiscated. Yes, it’s true that it only takes one complaint from one person to send you into a downward legal spiral but Fatal Visions simply never received one. Instead the most common gripe was the age old, “When’s the next issue?” even if you’d just slapped the latest issue into their hands.
DB – From writing about films and publishing, you moved into distributing them. Was this a natural pathway that presented itself, or was it something that you had to pursue? Way back then, discovering information on anything non mainstream wasn’t easy so finding the films must have been hard. Can you tell us how you got into film distribution?
MH – First of all I was always interested in film as industry. It always helps to look at it more closely in those often seemingly endless gaps between the releases of really cool films. Keeping your ear to the ground and eyeballs constantly immersed in everything from the latest trash film fanzine to the variety of industry mags that in the late 80s/early 90s could even be found in the largest and best newsagents (McGills in Elizabeth Street for example, now long gone) was the best way to proceed. Attending film festivals wherever they may be is also a definite must. Nowadays it seems to be the only way I can watch a lot of films at once is at festivals. Working for an advertising company that was also a partner in FV and had associated businesses in distribution, exhibition and even a little bit of production, made the whole process not only highly organic and natural with highly exchangeable information flying around corridors at all times but enticing. With FV attracting interest from filmmakers from the beginning this was also a major fillip especially when we got into promoting screenings and developing a short-lived film national festival that did attract a major film distributor (but they wouldn’t let us show any more of their horror product). Same as now you could always glean information from others by simply talking. I have never abandoned writing and see it as more important than ever before actually. It just matters how you do it and where you put it.
DB – At the time that you were handling Bloodlust, there were a number of indie movies being made, such as “In Too Deep”, “Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat”, “Dogs In Space” and “Done 2 Death.” Some made it to the shelves of our local the video shops while others were not so lucky and have been forgotten. I only knew about Done 2 Death because it was shown at a house in Acland St, in a similar way to how indie short film nights get run at pubs nowadays. As for “In Too Deep”, I didn’t manage to see it until recently, despite having been an extra in it.
This obscure era is almost lost to time. It comes after the golden age of Ozploitation, which was fuelled by a tax concession called 10ba. It ended with the digital revolution that made filming and editing cheaper and easier while online platforms enabled distribution to the masses. You were as close to the heart of it as anyone could get. Can you tell us a bit about this crazy time?
MH – Let’s say from Mark Savage’s MARAUDERS, the first feature shot on tape in Australia circa 1986 (and never officially released here in any format other than at special one-off and festival screenings) which I’d learned about from Philip Brophy and Bruce Milne’s EEEK! radio show and screenings at the Melbourne Super 8 group. Yes, things would get busier but it didn’t happen overnight and I wouldn’t call it crazy activity in fact it would be nearly five years before the next comparable film would go into production: BLOODLUST.
The producers of BLOODLUST spent most of their $75,000 budget on hiring a three-chip TV broadcast standard camera and an operator. By the end of the decade you could buy such cameras for under $500.00 at the nearest JB! However, after BLOODUST was completed and had travelled right around Australia four times with various festival appearances (which in itself was pretty amazing considering it only existed on video tape and projection wasn’t half the thing as this projected world we now live in, much less the ability to be programmed at all), the chatter factor was amplified and suddenly it had a set a benchmark that everyone thought they could beat. Everyone included everybody from film-schooled genre fans to people who probably had never previously thought about even making a film. Peter Jackson’s BRAINDEAD which was shot in 1993 (after BAD TASTE & MEET THE FEEBLES) soon began to create waves of influence across the planet and when BODY MELT was shot a year later in Melbourne and began to receive it’s own very spotty theatrical release there was more than a moment of, “Bloody Hell, there really is a genre explosion going on!” But it never really panned out. Nonetheless, an output that became a solid dribble did eventuate.
Out of Sydney came MAD BOMBER IN LOVE while country Victoria produced MAD MAX piss-take RANKO. Melbourne hosted DAWN OF THE D.M.Fs while BLOODLUST co-writer & co-director Richard Wolstencroft shot DELIVER US FROM EVIL and then PEARLS BEFORE SWINE. DAWN, DELIVER and PEARLS all remain unreleased in Australia with DELIVER still in post-production. Even Tasmania chipped in with the destined to be unseen gore-fest BACK FROM THE DEAD. Queensland produced DEMONS IN MY HEAD and naturally with Warner Roadshow Studios nearby on the Gold Coast it was perhaps inevitable that more little films would originate from there. Across the pond in Wellington a low budget film about killer lizards in a snowbound environment called ABERRATION was made in a co-production situation with a British film company and Grundy Films who despite their ability to produce TV and establish themselves as an international production powerhouse only ever made two features. The other being ABBA: THE MOVIE. ABERRATION received tape releases in some territories but largely remains buried with the exception of a Fatal Visions screening in 1997. A little film made in Melbourne called STYGIAN produced by some very keen RMIT students, drew the attention of Madman Entertainment, genre distributors on the rise, who advertised it in one of their catalogues but failed to release it.
From the turn of the century no-budget production has definitely been on the upswing with technology getting even cheaper but one early win was Mark Savage’s low budget SENSITIVE NEW AGE KILLER which saw his attention to twisted detail pay-off with a national release into multiplexes. Nothing like that release has really happened since though.
Unfortunately, as noted, many of the films mentioned above and quite a few others haven’t achieved any sort of release. So, while the Fatal Visions label will attempt to bring the widest range of new genre films to rapidly shrinking Australian retail spaces, until we can establish a Fatal Past retrospective release line, then they may forever remain unreleased. Or until streaming can broaden it’s own content and play schedules.
DB – Michael, you’ve been active over four decades, publishing and distributing in what many would see as an obscure genre that has little support. Ozploitation is now re-emerging with a new generation of fans. There are many hopping onto the band wagon now but you’ve slogged it out for all this time and have been vital to keeping the torch going. Has it been hard to maintain enthusiasm over all these years during the lulls?
MH – That’s one of the questions I frequently ask filmmakers who rarely come up with any sort of satisfactory answer on the spot. Even little films act like unstoppable juggernauts once in production and are difficult to walk away from especially if you’ve designed and lived with the project for sometimes years before actually making it. For every film I write about there seems to be almost as many that don’t quite make it across the line no matter who is attached to them. I often reassure myself though with the observation that there are several things that are constant in life: death, taxes and horror films. There’s always something on the way. Maybe it will be the next hardcore horror winner!
Of course, you can always do the obvious and that is go and watch a horror film! CAT SICK BLUES should do it for you…
DB – What have been some of the highlights of your career so far Michael? I’m sure that you must have a few really wild stories to tell!
MH – While I forever remain proud of the title Weird Film Expert that was bestowed on me by People magazine when I wrote for them in the early 90s, that’s hardly a wild thing. I could mention my absolute surprise and shock discovery of unisex showers when I was on the set of BRAINDEAD actually in a shower but for the minute it’s going to be this: On a Sunday morning just before dawn I found myself reluctantly driving towards a ‘set’ at the end of the earth outer suburb of Bayswater. Next to a building that was so decayed it barely existed but housed their minimal catering services and a nice backdrop for all of the characters to be photographed next to, I was soon under a bridge standing next to the director who was wearing a fully functional hyper-dermic needle glove on one hand and in the other held a camera that he was using to shoot a scene involving the Bruce Campbell–type lead and the needle fingers.
The actor was stationed out of sight on the other side of the bridge so the director had to set it all up with him via a walkie talkie to get him to run towards him but stop in a certain spot. Simultaneously he ordered me a cup of coffee while filming and got the shot with a minimal amount of takes. All the while he also kept conversing with passing production assistants as he was well into setting up the next shot. He also operated his needle fingers himself leaving me simply amazed that he could remain so focussed with so many distractions and communicate effectively with everybody at all times and even seem to enjoy it! Actor Michael J. Fox once told me that directing was like being nibbled to death by ducks and wasn’t for him after earning his sole directorial credit on a TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode. The name of the director was James Wan and the film was STYGIAN. To this day I have never seen anyone multi-task like James Wan on a film set and let me tell you from Peter Jackson to Alex Proyas and the Wachowski siblings and beyond, I’ve witnessed some of the biggest names in filmmaking working on some of the biggest most expensive sets and none of them have ever even come close to demonstrating such natural and almost casual ease on a film set as that kid did. I was never surprised that his career in filmmaking has had the trajectory that it has.
DB – I believe that the next couple of releases on Fatal Visions are a zombie movie “The Last Hope” and Daniel Armstrong’s latest release “Tarnation.” I’ll be excited to see them because I had a small involvement with both.
With the first one, I helped them achieve their massive zombie horde by getting the newspaper articles in The Leader and Star Weekly newspapers that went viral. I was also the zombie on the front cover of five Star Weekly mastheads.
With the latter one, Tarnation, I got to be the scarecrow extra in the bonus feature, “God vs Oscar”.
I haven’t seen either movie yet though, so please, tell me about them.
MH – THE LAST HOPE is a viral outbreak survival film that utilizes as you describe, a massive amount of zombie extras. I think it’s actually something of a record for an Australian no-budget film. Undoubtedly, it also helped THE LAST HOPE become the first ever Monster Fest film to sell out three sessions. But while it’s one thing to logistically organise several hundred extras onto a location set (and one of the two directors has indeed practical logistical organisational skills developed from his day job in the Australian Army) but it’s a totally different thing to actually have make-up applied (by a team of 30) and give them direction that makes them look and act like a totally dangerous and out of control mob, especially one that seems to be only concerned with swallowing the still steaming entrails of their non-diseased victims. Amazingly the two directors Leigh Ormsby & Glenn Ellis also portray two main characters in THE LAST HOPE and also film it!
Joining previous films MURDERDROME, FROM PARTS UNKNOWN and last years SHEBORG MASSACRE (also a Fatal Visions label film), TARNATION is what director and no-budget auteur Daniel Armstrong describes as his first real horror film. A spam in a cabin film that Armstrong likes to emphasize with an oversize poster for the EVIL DEAD soundtrack that just about dwarfs all the actors who appear near it, TARNATION also includes a black unicorn, some impressive wing flapping flight from one of the main characters, demon possession and naturally enough a superb sense of non-stop mayhem. It’s also perhaps Armstrong’s most psychedelic film.
THE LAST HOPE is due for release in April while you can expect TARNATION out in May. There will be at least one other Fatal Visions release before the end of the year.
DB – Thanks for taking the time to chat to me today Michael. I normally make a comment here about how interesting the chat is, or something along those lines, but my mind has been totally blown away by all of this. Do you have any links where people can keep up to date with your work?
Links go here –