DONALD G. JACKSON
and THE DEMON LOVER
By Scott Shaw
Here is a piece I wrote for the book, God in Polyester: A Survivors' Account of 70's Cinema Obscura about Donald G. Jackson and his film, THE DEMON LOVER.
To understand the creation of the film THE DEMON LOVER one must first look to the paradox that was Donald G. Jackson (1943 - 2003). Revered Donaldo, as he was affectionately known, was born in Tremont, Mississippi, but grew up in Adrian, Michigan. His mother had returned to her hometown to give her first-born a proper southern birth.
First and foremost, Don was a lifelong Christian. He could instantly detail to you the order of the books of both the Old and New Testament, and could exactly quote scripture.
He was a Christian, but only a close knit group of his closest friends were aware of this fact. Most were exposed to the other Donald G. Jackson — the one who was prone to yelling and screaming at inept cast and crew members, the filmmaker who hated a person one minute but loved them the next, the man who was married for forty years but frequently seduced the new starlet on the set, the man who was known to trip on mushrooms and ecstasy, the man who loved the music of Elvis Costello and Kid Rock but was a consummate folky. Perhaps Fred Olen Ray described Don best when he placed a notice of his death on the Fangoria website, "Of all the independent low-budget/no-budget filmmakers I have known throughout the years, I can say, with a completely straight face, that Donald G. Jackson was one of the few true artists of the genre. Never cowing to the pressures and demands of financiers, or straying from his course in order to please others, he stuck with his vision through hell and high water. In doing so he created some of the most bizarre films of recent memory, films that often left the viewer scratching their heads in disbelief. Whether you 'got it' or not, Don truly had his own vision and he never gave up on it. I knew Don for 27 years and I'm pleased to say he was my friend."
Don possessed the desire to create a feature film long before production on THE DEMON LOVER every began. As Don grew up, he was in love with the Republic Serials of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He was also an avid comic collector. With action-adventure super heroes, and the good guy always prevailing over the bad guy as a backdrop, he was forever shaped by his early influences.
Don first began shooting 8mm, then Super 8, and finally 16mm in his adolescence and early twenties. Though he wanted to be a filmmaker, like so many other would-be creative people, he was locked into the grind of the nine-to-five. He worked at a factory which produced auto parts for fifteen years. Ironically, it was at this factory that Don meet the man who would helped to get his first full-length feature film, THE DEMON LOVER, off of the ground. That man's name was Jerry Younkins.
Younkins, on his first day of work, at the same factory where Don was employed, had his finger chopped off by a machine. This accident was to equal $6,000.00. Younkins decided that the money would best be spent on making a movie with the budding filmmaker, Donald G. Jackson — a movie in which he would star.
Prior to meeting Younkins, Don was already in motion towards making his first feature film. It was to be a film about an Africian-American Private Investigator named, Lincoln Green. This was also to be the title of the film. Younkins, on the other hand, was much more influenced by the horror genre of the era. As he had the money, Don's focus was shifted to making a horror-style feature entitle, THE DEMON LOVER.
Though Younkins wanted to make a straight-ahead demonic, horror film, Don, as a Christian, changed the focus of the film to a parody. Whether or not this was by accident or decision, Don would never say. But, by the time the feature was complete, it was so bizarre, a parody was all that it could be called.
The ironic things about all of this was the fact that by the time everything was in place to make the movie — Younkins had spend all of his money. THE DEMON LOVER was, therefore, financed by Don taking out a mortgage on his house, getting a loan on his car, and borrowing money that eventually drove his family into bankruptcy. By the time the creditors came calling, Yonkins, claiming poverty, was nowhere to be found. Don would often lament, "I wonder what would have happened if I had made the movie I wanted to make..."
THE DEMON LOVER had at least two strikes against it from its inception. One, the majority of the actors had absolutely no experience in acting for the camera. And two, the script was written as a high-budget feature that could never have been made for the small amount of cash which was actually possessed by the filmmakers.
Many may think that simply attempting to make a movie in Michigan would be hard enough. This was actually not the case. The Ann Arbor Film Festival was one of the most influential festivals of the era. In addition, many seasoned filmmakers lived in the area. Though this was the reality, the disorganized wildness which was the cornerstone of Don Jackson's filmmaking career lead the film down the road to becoming, for lack of a better description, "An art film."
The man who would later rise to rock star status as, "The Motor City Madman," Ted Nugent, actually signed on to do the music for the film. In the late sixties and early seventies, Detroit was the Mecca for hard rock. Nugent lived close to Don and Yonkins and signed on for the gig during a period of time when his band, The Amboy Dukes, was going through a period of reorganization. Soon after this, however, Nugent got a new record contract and shot to superstardom. Don claimed many of the songs intended for THE DEMON LOVER were on Nugent's album, CAT SCRATCH FEVER.
Pre-Production on THE DEMON LOVER took almost two years before any film actually began to roll in the camera. Once filming was completed, it took another two years to be edited and released. As is so often the case of the filmmaker, Don made virtually no money on the film, even though it was released to the then very lucrative drive-in theater market, and was also eventually released on video under a number of titles.
Though Don was an active participant and an outspoken proponent of the film, he never liked the final content of the movie. He would often detail, "A lot of negative things happened in association with making that movie. Things that I do not believe would have happened if it was not about such a dark subject. I really made a mistake letting Yonkins talk me into making that movie."
Though the movie was never the feature Don wanted to make, and he regretted it ever since its inception, Don was given a gift in association with THE DEMON LOVER that few first-time filmmakers will ever receive. That gift was a documentary about the making of the film entitled, THE DEMON LOVER DAIRY. Though THE DEMON LOVER DIARY, was made over twenty years ago, it continues to show at film festivals and receive extensive publicity in newspapers and film magazines to this day.
Joel DeMont and Jeff Kreines made, THE DEMON LOVER DIARY. Don had initially hired Jeff to be the cameraman on, THE DEMON LOVER and agreed to allow them to make their documentary, financed by AFI, The American Film Institute.
For those of you have seen, THE DEMON LOVER DIARY, it is obviously a one-sided attack on Don, which does not really depict the true essence of the film, nor the knowledge of filmmaking that Don possessed by that point in his life. This being stated, THE DEMON LOVER DIARY did more to immortalize the life and the filmmaking career of Donald G. Jackson than anything to date.
In 2002, THE DEMON LOVER DIARY was screen to a sold-out crowd at THE DIRECTOR'S GUILD OF AMERICA, in Hollywood, California. Just prior top this, there was an enormous amount of press about Donald G. Jackson and THE DEMON LOVER. Several newspapers ran long articles and full-page photo spreads on Don and the movie. This was a great passing gift to the filmmaker, as he died less than a year later.
DONALD G. JACKSON AND THE DEMON LOVER DIARY
Don prepared a list of anticipated questions and passed it out at the end of the aforementioned screening. This questionnaire provides a deeper insight into the life, the filmmaking career, and the paradox which was Donald G. Jackson and his movie, THE DEMON LOVER.
Why didn't you fire Jeff Kreines, Joel DeMont, and their assistant Mark as soon as you realized what was going on with THE DEMON LOVER DIARY?
I had no money. Firing them would mean a total failure on my part. They would have taken the camera equipment and there would be no film. Word would have gotten out the film was shut down. I needed to keep the shoot going until we could find local investors. Lucky for me, we found some money and I didn't have to put up with any more crap. I fired them with a vengeance!
Wasn't Jeff Kreines your friend?
I met Jeff in 1974. We got along great until he got hooked up with Joel DeMont who had her own agenda. Also it took so long for the film to start that Jeff was very frustrated by the time we actually started to shoot. Plus, I fired him on the phone several times before he left Boston to come to Michigan. We had plenty of friction before the start of the shoot. He knew I'd talked to other cameramen and also that I wanted to shoot it myself.
What was it about Jeff Kreines that impressed you?
I saw his movie RICKY AND ROCKY at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. It was all shot with a wide angle lens and a moving handheld camera. This is the style I wanted to shoot THE DEMON LOVER. It never occurred to me that our amateur actors wouldn't be able to say but only five or six words without a fumble. We did some long takes, but ended up having to fragment the movie and puppet the actors just like a normal movie.
Does it bother you that all the reviews are in favor of Jeff and Joel and that you get slammed beyond belief?
What can I say? DEMON LOVER DIARY was made twenty-seven years ago. Jeff and Joel were there for six days. How could they live every day with this movie?
I've gone on and made over forty different features plus worked on plenty of others. They've done nothing except promote this DEMON LOVER DIARY and send it to festivals since 1980!
Why do you think the DEMON LOVER DIARY has done so well?
You have to remember. This is before home video; before the internet. There is a lot of BLAIR WITCH type realism in the movie. It is in reality a mixture of real and fake. Many times I was acting for the camera — but try and convince someone of that. People want to believe it is all true. Jeff and Joel were self-righteous brats who were too lazy and low energy to have what it takes to make a real movie.
Do you have any regrets?
I sure wish Joel had focused some of her film on Bob and Dennis Skotak. Bob made the Demon suit. Dennis took over for sound. These guys went on to win three Academy Awards. Also my friend Bryan Greenberg isn't given any coverage. He helped with the sets and became my camera assistant when we fired Jeff and Joel. Everyone on my team moved to California and has been working. I stayed behind a while to make I LIKE TO HURT PEOPLE -- a classic wrestling film starring André the Giant. Bryan Greenberg shot a lot of the movie. Dennis Skotak did most of the sound work. Hollywood was calling them. I finished the movie and headed for Roger Corman. Later New World put the wrestling film out on home video.
Did Jeff and Joel miss anyone else who was part of THE DEMON LOVER?
Marvel comic book artist Val Mayerik played the hero. He was on the set and available for interviews. They never once talked to him. We also had Gunnar Hansen — star of the biggest independent movie of all time in 1974-75, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Jeff and Joel could have cared less. There is a 10 min sequence where Joel photographs two kids playing on a swing set instead. Those kids are probably 35 years old today!
Any final words on THE DEMON LOVER or DEMON LOVER DIARY?
THE DEMON LOVER was one of the world's first films shot on 16 mm color negative. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was filmed on ECO reversal. We were going to be one of the last film shot on 35 mm TECHNISCOPE, but Technicolor discontinued the process a few months before we started the shoot. THE DEMON LOVER was also one of the first movies where a group of kids get together and then get killed off one by one. This later became popular with movies like FRIDAY THE 13TH. Sam Rami and Bruce Campbell came to a midnight show and asked questions. I taped some of their telephone calls to me when they were researching shooting 16 for 35 mm blowups. Fred Olen Ray saw THE DEMON LOVER in a drive-in. He treated it just like a regular movie. Later he called me and I think got more inspired to shoot his own movies. We've been friends since 1977. And I've known The Skotaks and Bryan Greenberg since about 1965.
Where was THE DEMON LOVER shown?
We had seven 35 mm prints. The movie played drive-ins and theaters in Texas, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and New York. When we played the Lyric Theater on 42nd street in New York City, THE DEMON LOVER out grossed CARRIE that had just opened across the street. We had three world premieres and midnight shows. Jerry and I was on the cover of Detroit newspapers and on Detroit TV. We did radio interviews. I got fired from my factory job, but it forced me to find investors and continue as an indie filmmaker.
When did you first see DEMON LOVER DIARY?
John Caldwell showed it to me in a private room when Jeff and Joel entered it in the Ann Arbor Film Festival. DEMON LOVER DIARY wasn't show at the festival because the selection committee knew it was contrived. Next time I saw it was 1982 at the NuArt theater on a double bill with THE DEMON LOVER. I have pictures of the marque. DEMON LOVER/DEMON LOVER DIARY. L.A. Times critic Kevin Thomas was there and talked to me afterwards. He gave the event a semi-good review. DEMON LOVER DIARY showed at UCLA in 1987 and I answered questions afterwards. The last screening was in Hollywood three years ago. It was a small theater. Sold out. About one-hundred people in the audience. I answered questions for over an hour after the show. The filmmakers loved it!
How did it happen for it to be shown on 22 June 2002 on Saturday night at the DGA on Sunset in Hollywood?
Jeff and Joel are in solid with the IFP. I'm shocked that anyone would care about this 1975 documentary, but I guess the subject is still fascinating. AMERICAN MOVIE came close, but that guy only made a twenty minute film. He was on Leno and Letterman. Got tons of publicity. And there's a lot of BLAIR WITCH type events that go on in the film.
What would you do if you had it to do all over again?
Well, I've had this discussion with my good friend Dr. Scott Shaw. He and I created Zen Filmmaking, a style of filmmaking where we allow spontaneous creativity to be our only guide. He thinks if I hadn't made THE DEMON LOVER, I might still be back in Michigan working in a factory! So, though it was never the film I wanted to make, it did get me out of Michigan and gave me the opportunity of having a filmmaking career.