“I gotta let you people know something. I’m not dead.”
Chester Novell Turner’s odd remark was met with great applause to the room at the Cinema Wasteland horror convention in Strongsville, Ohio this past weekend. Up until just a few months ago, there was nothing but doubt as to Turner’s livelihood. Internet rumors had become “common knowledge,” and the general consensus was that Turner had died in a car accident in 1996.
Thanks to diligent sleuthing by Massacre Video founder Louis Justin, however, this rumor could now be laid to rest. The packed house, including a batch of people who resorted to standing in the back, could see that the director of BLACK DEVIL DOLL FROM HELL and TALES FROM THE QUADEAD ZONE, two of the most memorable shot-on-video films of the VHS era, was very much alive. The weekend marked Chester’s first public appearance, promoting the new Massacre Video re-release of his films, and he and his star Shirley L. Jones had spent the past day interacting with fans and finding that the movies they’d made on a shoestring budget nearly three decades ago have a legion of fans who just wanted to know more about these weird, wonderful cinematic morality tales.
When I had the chance to speak with them in Louis’s hotel room after the show, Chester excitedly began talking about future projects, to be made with the help of Massacre. “We’re going to make TALES FROM THE QUADEAD ZONE 2,” he mentions. “I’m going to start working on that – I’ve got some stories in mind. I was thinking about doing a book, so a lot of them are in book form, and I’ve got to put them in screen form. And I’ve got to work out the special effects part of it, gotta work out the financial part of it, the marketing part of it… “
The mild-mannered Chester Novell Turner speaks with bursts of contagious energy. He rarely swears and doesn’t drink, though he mentioned he’d had a celebratory beer the previous evening that mostly ended up with Shirley – he’d switched to Diet Coke for the night. (“I had one. That’s enough for another ten years.”) At first it’s a bit difficult to reconcile him with the BLACK DEVIL DOLL and QUADEAD, whose scarcity makes them seem more lurid than they actually are. But the truth is that the two films are less lurid than they are pure and sincere little horror parables, made with a vision that was uniquely one man’s.
The pair have been unavailable for years, coveted by the VHS collector circuit (the recent doc ADJUST YOUR TRACKING devotes a chunk to the rarity of QUADEAD) and frequently seen on the bootleg market. Chester, who now runs a contracting company in Chicago, was incredulous when Louis first got in contact with him and told him that his barely-distributed microbudget horror pics had a cult following. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t believe [Louis] until tonight. He said he was a fan, and I said,[pensively] ‘Okay….,” and he said, ‘Chester, you don’t know how many people would really love your work,’ and I said, ‘Okay….,’ You know, I’m listening. Maybe do a contract thing with me, and I said, ‘Okay…’ I’m really starting to listen a little bit now, and when I came here, ‘Oh-KAY,” Turner says, smiling.
Turner was always a huge fun of movies before he went into making his own. “I liked Christopher Lee playing Dracula,” he explains. “ He was great. Lugosi always looked like a ghoul to me, not a vampire. Like somebody’s going to eat you, like a zombie. That part wasn’t right for him. I love FRANKENSTEIN, the original, the black and white. Great work. Low budget, but great storytelling. Battlestar Galactica, the original one, the first one on TV.”
“James Bond,” Shirley Jones mentions, looking up from under a giant hat.
“James Bond, yeah,” Chester responds, “Every James Bond movie I’ve got!”
He started writing in his 20s, “horror stuff,” but it wasn’t until his 30s that he decided to go out and make a movie of his own. The plan was for an anthology film of several stories that eventually became QUADEAD, but BLACK DEVIL DOLL FROM HELL took on a life of its own. “When I started writing [BLACK DEVIL DOLL], I knew I had to make this movie,” he’d explained at the Q&A following the screening of the film. “But the amazing thing is that I was going to do TALES FROM THE QUADEAD ZONE first, but when I started writing BLACK DEVIL DOLL, which was originally going to be one of the stories in QUADEAD, it got to be so long that it wouldn’t work, because I wanted to do three stories. The interesting thing is that when I started writing it, I couldn’t put my pen down! Hand to God! For three and a half days, all I did was write, use the bathroom and eat. I had to finish it! It was just something I knew I had to do. Of all the things I’ve written, this is the only time I really couldn’t stop. It’s like I was possessed!”
BLACK DEVIL DOLL was financed entirely by Chester himself, and shot in Chicago (not Philadelphia, as some rumors claim). “When I did BLACK DEVIL DOLL, I tried to get people to invest in it in Chicago. No people I knew wanted to invest in the movie because they thought I wasn’t going to get it made, and they thought it was silly. Here it is, a black man with no movie credentials and you’re going to come out here and make a movie. Who do you think you are, Spike Lee?”
Having never made a movie before, Chester took a mail order course on making movies. “It was a course you could take through videotapes,” he explained at the Q&A. “You’d send them a certain amount of money and you could listen to them with booklets and learn. And I always had a love for movies anyway. It was easy to pick up the technical part. I took every dollar I could scrape, borrow or steal – not literally steal – to get this movie finished.“
Later, in conversation, Chester explained that everyone involved with BLACK DEVIL DOLL got paid, with the exception of Chester and Shirley. “Everybody got a little bit of money to make it legal. At the time, I wasn’t giving them much. I probably could have made the movie for $1500 less if I hadn’t paid people, but I didn’t know any other way but to pay people. Me and her was the exception to getting paid – everyone else got something!”
Shirley, who stars in BLACK DEVIL DOLL as Helen Black, the churchgoing woman who is seduced by a ventriloquist’s dummy with magical powers, joshes Chester about not getting paid. “You’re getting paid now!” Chester chimes back.
“I didn’t need to get paid! I was having too much fun, and you was my man!”
The two weren’t a couple at the start of the shoot, but soon become one after Chester’s girlfriend at the time started sneaking around his back. “She was screwing a friend of mine,” relates Chester, “so I already knew this relationship was dead. But I just said I would deal with this another time, I had other stuff on my mind. But in my mind, I was like, you started it, I’m going to finish it, but I’m gonna finish it on my terms on my time.”
Nothing about the content of the movie bothered Shirley. “I wanted to do it,” she says adamantly. “Let’s do it, let’s do it. Because he was dating my lady buddy. And when they talked to me about making the movie, I said, ‘I wanna be in it!’ Then, when we started making it, we had more time together than [Chester and his girlfriend] had.”
The incredibly memorable doll was just purchased at a hobby shop in Chicago. “Shirley did a lot of work on that doll,” Chester explained at the Q&A. “She did his hair, got his clothes… I wanted him to look like Rick James. “ The doll’s wardrobe was inspired by the painting “American Gothic.” “That’s where I got the idea for the clothes. I said let’s dress him like a farmer, but look like Rick James.”
For walking scenes, the doll was played by a child, whose identity was finally revealed. “He grew up and became a minister! That was my sister’s son. I had to do that very carefully. Once again, if I had enough money, I would have done it a little differently.”
The story isn’t just a standard killer doll tale, however, but rather a morality play, one made more obvious when Chester cites “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” among his favorite shows. “Most people think the doll can only give you sexual things. He can give you whatever that’s in your heart. If you want to be rich, he can find a way to do that for you. If you want to get somebody killed for revenge, he can do that for you. It really depends what’s in the person’s heart.”
After the years and a half it took to make BLACK DEVIL DOLL essentially by himself (many of the credits in the film are fakes and most of the production work was done by Chester and Shirley, much to the chagrin of Louis in his efforts to track them down), they got the film distributed by Hollywood Home Theater, and “they just screwed me six ways to Sunday. “
“I was going to take the movie myself personally to video stores. That wasn’t a big decision to make, but it would start there. Then I started calling distributors and sending them copies of the movie, and we made a deal. I was supposed to get $6 a copy. I wound up with I think it was $946 or something like that? That was very disheartening to me, because I went back to the video stores where it was and they told me they rented it over and over and over. I knew that just didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t a lot I could do about it, I couldn’t prove how many copies they sold, but I knew it wasn’t right. After that, I started working on TALES FROM THE QUADEAD ZONE.”
QUADEAD ZONE features three stories, including one that serves as a wraparound starring Shirley. One segment was shot in Chicago, but two were lensed in Alabama, where the couple had moved, and where Shirley still lives. “THE BROTHERS was shot in Chicago. We shot FOOD FOR… in Alabama, and also we shot the wraparound there. The only story that was shot in Chicago was THE BROTHERS. And the funeral scene was shot in Chicago.”
The memorable FOOD FOR… segment used locals from Sulligent, Alabama. The highly entertaining short involves a family that resorts to murder when they don’t have enough to feed themselves. Chester meant it as satire. “A lot of people ask, ‘You had four sandwiches, why don’t you break ‘em up for everybody to have?’ I say to myself, I thought about that, but then there would be a half a sandwich, and you’d rather take your chances on the lotto and have a whole sandwich! It was funny to me.”
With QUADEAD, Chester and Shirley released the film on their own, going from store to store “in a 25 mile radius of Chicago. That’s about as far as I went,” he explains in the hotel room, accounting for the film’s lack of distribution. “Gas had to be taken into consideration. And today, I wouldn’t even try that, because of the internet. I learned that marketing is everything. You have to have a marketing strategy, that’s important.”
“I actually planned on placing a thousand copies at $29 a copy, and I figured that would have been $30,000 roughly. So I thought I could make this movie for five to ten grand, and that’s okay. I’m not going to get rich like that, but I’ll do okay, and I can keep going.”
Financially, this didn’t work out much better than BLACK DEVIL DOLL. “Once again, I got no money from that. So it came to the point where I had to give it up because I had to eat and feed myself. But I never gave up the love I had in my heart for making movies.”
BLACK DEVIL DOLL is so notorious that venom against the movie’s production values have given it added life, and neither Chester nor Shirley are oblivious to the movies’ reputations. “On the internet, there was this one guy,” Shirley mentions, “he was talking about it, and he was like, talking it down. [The Cinema Snob] Then my daughter said there was another man talking it up. I said talking down, more people are going to want to watch it!”
“There’s also the curiosity factor,” Louis tells them. “If someone hates it that much, people want to see why. But those reviews are kind of tongue in cheek, he’s acting. He said he doesn’t like shot on video films.”
Chester isn’t bothered. BLACK DEVIL DOLL had some intentionally funny parts, and he was pleased to see the reaction of the audience. “They were laughing at the things they should have been laughing at. That’s what you’ve got to be looking at. When you get that, you’re doing your job.”
Chester has plans to make both TALES FROM THE QUADEAD ZONE 2 and BLACK DEVIL DOLL FROM HELL 2, the latter of which will require a larger budget, which he announced at the screening to wild applause. “I have the script already written for BLACK DEVIL DOLL 2, which will cost a lot more money to make than at this particular time I can see myself making. I’ll tell you the subtitle, too – BLACK DEVIL DOLL 2: THE GODDOLL. And he takes on the Godfather. And get revenge for a maid that steals the Godfather’s money and the Godfather kills her. And he’s got two lovely daughters. He’s got a brothel house – I had fun with that. He’s got a dope operation – I really had fun with that. He plays psychological games at first, but then he goes after him. When he makes this man look at what he does to his daughters – now, they like it, but to him, it’s unbelievable! It’s just an amazing story.”
“BLACK DEVIL DOLL 2, there’s things in there that you’ll just love,” he explained to me after the Q&A. “If I ever get to make that movie, that will be a great movie. It’ll cost some money. The Godfather has a pool in the shape of a gun. And he does all his killing with a butcher knife. And he keeps it in a safe, and what he does, everybody works for him lost their tongue, lost their balls… he’s got two daughters, and he cherishes them. They’re his trophies, sort of. He loves them beyond anything on this planet, and anyone who does anything obscene to them or tries to do something with them…”
But don’t think it’s going to be pure exploitation. A writer by nature, Chester wants to make sure that the story is what matters. “The things that’s going on in the story are so intriguing, not so much the violence, but the storytelling. All sexual things I do in the movie have to be in context. I’m not showing no tits to be showing no tits. I’m not flashing some ass to be showing some ass. It’s got to be relevant to the story.”
“I look at my own stuff, and I’m like, ‘what are you thinking about? Why couldn’t you write this better?’ I’ve written some stories and then I’m through with it and I’m like, I don’t like this. The idea I like, but I don’t like… I’ll just start writing. I’ll work with it and work with it until I get it right. Every word means something to me, every sigh’s just got to be right. Because that’s what a director and a writer should do. That’s the first obligation, to tell a story. You get away from that, man, none of the other stuff matters.”
During our conversation, Louis mentions to Chester how well the film is doing on Amazon. Chester’s happy to hear it – this release will probably mark the largest legitimate distribution either film has had. Massacre is not only re-releasing the films on DVD, but also on limited edition VHS, including an amazing edition emulating Continental’s great double bills.
Chester N. Turner will be present this weekend for a screening of BLACK DEVIL DOLL FROM HELL at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, where another standing ovation will no doubt greet him. Screenings later this month are scheduled for Austin and Philadelphia. Over two decades later, one of the most mysterious filmmakers of the shot-on-video era is finally getting his due, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
“In my wildest dreams, I never would have figured what happened today. People were applauding, and I felt really good about that. I know I didn’t make the money, but I brought joy into people’s lives for something I did, and that makes me feel good.”
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