His spectral figure is clad all in white, his face pale and ghoulish. He creeps forward with a stumbling gait, chin resting on his chest, dead eyes staring forward. He comes inexorably closer, thirsty for revenge, and then … inevitably gets distracted by horror-movie trivia, which he feels compelled to share.
In the short film Paying the Price, the late local punk legend and honorary mayor of South Street fulfilled a lifelong dream of portraying his screen idol, Vincent Price. The role may be in name only — Price, of course, was tall, striking and erudite, intoning droll, macabre witticisms as if relishing the feel of silk across his lips. Wild, on the other hand, was diminutive and antic, his voice an always-enthused mumble, as if his tongue was arm-wrestling his teeth.
Still, in Paying the Price, directed by Isaac Williams, Mikey Wild is Vincent Price, as well as his ill-fated twin brother Brandon. The film’s brief 20 minutes are full of murder, deception, an imprisoned maiden, stabbing, strangling and the walking dead — the familiar stuff of horror movies. But the true horror can be witnessed in the documentary Maybe We Can Go to Hollywood, in which Williams lives the waking nightmare of valiantly trying to direct Wild through two performances in three blistering late-July days, his lead actor less concerned with learning his lines than with recalling his favorite moments from The Fall of the House of Usher or The Terror or Maniac.
Maybe We Can Go to Hollywood ultimately becomes an endearing portrait of what turned out to be Wild’s final years, as a nagging cough interrupting early script read-throughs is revealed to be the lung cancer that would end his life in May 2011. Despite his illness, Wild is unceasingly upbeat throughout the drawn-out two-and-a-half-year process of making Paying the Price, forever declaring the film to be a masterpiece, a future Academy Award winner, and professing his love for his director.
“This film started out documenting us as crackpot filmmakers,” Williams says, “and turned into the weirdest buddy movie ever.”
The documentary (which includes Paying the Price in its entirety) will screen next weekend at PhilaMOCA’s Mausoleum Art Show of Horrors convention, presented by Philly film blog Cinedelphia. The convention also features a program of short terror flicks curated by local filmmaker Matt Garrett, a horror-themed art show, live performances and a variety of local vendors.
But Maybe We Can Go to Hollywood is what will resonate with many locals. Williams, a 33-year-old graduate of Temple’s film program, met Mikey Wild the same place so many others did: on South Street. Williams worked there for years, first at TLA Video and later at the Relapse Records store. “During all of that time,” Williams recalls, “Mikey was a figure who would always show up and make a beeline to the video section, saying, ‘I need Vincent Price!’”
One day, Williams took the initiative to inform Wild about the upcoming DVD release of Price’s 1968 film Witchfinder General, and a bond was formed. “After that, when he would come in, it was almost like we had opened up a direct access,” Williams says. “Instead of just being like, ‘Get out, weirdo,’ he could have another spot to stop off at near the Record Exchange and his other haunts.”
Paying the Price was inspired by the little-known 1935 Boris Karloff vehicle The Black Room, in which the horror legend plays identical good and evil siblings. Brainstorming with Wild, Williams came up with a simple plot as “an ode to Vincent Price in the ’70s.”
The pair made an unlikely duo. In his mid-50s at the time, Wild was a familiar character on South Street, his mental hurdles never having prevented him from taking the stage at J.C. Dobbs as frontman for bands like the Magic Lantern and the Mess, or hawking his hastily scrawled portraits of John Lennon, Hitler or, naturally, Vincent Price. A few years before his passing, he was the subject of a documentary, I Was Punk Before You Were Punk, shot by bandmates eager to celebrate Wild’s eccentricity.
Williams is more than two decades younger than his star, with hair to the middle of his back, a full scraggly beard and a jean jacket emblazoned on the back with the pig-headed, chainsaw-wielding killer from Motel Hell. He’s the sort whose wardrobe includes little that isn’t black, with at least one skull on it. Contrary to appearances, though, he’s soft-spoken and thoughtful, with a sense of humor about his somewhat off-kilter tastes. “I’m not a dark and brooding person,” he says. “But I like to write stories, and most of them are awful; I like to make movies, and most of them are dark.”
The metal-loving horror kid grew up in Lancaster, then graduated from Temple in 2002. Four years later, he started shooting his debut feature, The Mind. Like all his films, it was released under the banner of American Original Pictures, a nod to bygone producers like American International Pictures and Independent-International, absurdly classy names for companies that churned out drive-in fare by the likes of Roger Corman and Al Adamson.
“At the time, the Saw films were really popular, and their production company was called Twisted Pictures,” says Williams, rolling his eyes at such an obvious sobriquet. “I’d rather have something that’s totally banal and an ode to the old exploitation films that I like.”
According to Williams, American Original is an “independent cinematic guerilla-warfare unit” both by choice and by necessity. While toiling on his own films he also does bottom-rung PA work on major productions that come through the city, the most recent being the Jason Statham action flick Safe. “It’s a relief to see that no matter how many millions of dollars and trained professionals they have, you can watch the same snafus and mistakes happening, costing a lot more money than when they happen on your set.”
Paying the Price was made for a paltry $178, a sum too meager to even be graced with the word “budget.” Though he recently played the leading role in friend and fellow filmmaker Adam Ahlbrandt’s upcoming feature Cross Bearer (“a really nasty, unfriendly horror movie”), Williams had no intention of starring in his own behind-the-scenes doc. “While editing the film I ended up in a strange situation where I wasn’t just making a documentary about Mikey or about making this movie, but about he and I and what we were doing together. It’s weird to suddenly realize you’re the subject instead of the puppet master.”
Their offbeat friendship came more to the forefront as Wild became sicker and the production of what was meant to be a quick-and-dirty short stretched out over two-and-a-half years. Williams says that no matter how ill he became, Wild was never less than enthusiastic about shooting, and recalls Wild’s mother crediting the production for giving her son focus and positive energy during the ordeal.
As comes up with other differently minded entertainers like Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston, training a camera on Mikey Wild raises uneasy questions about celebration versus exploitation, laughing with versus laughing at. “I never had in my heart the idea of doing anything except for making a movie where Mikey knew what was going on,” Williams insists. “I wanted to showcase his performative tendencies and abilities.”
Williams also realizes that the documentary is likely to find a much broader audience than his hack-and-slash mini-epics might otherwise. “It’s a boon to know this, and it’s also frustrating as a person who likes weird, old movies that have nobody in particular in them,” he says. “An audience is going to be much more likely to watch a documentary about a weirdo that they’ve never heard of than to watch a [fictional] movie starring a weirdo they’ve never heard of.”
In the near future, Paying the Price will get yet another incarnation as one-fourth of an anthology based around the loose theme of supernatural revenge. The anthology will include Simon Says, also directed by Williams (which will have its premiere in late July before International House’s screening of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession).
Wild will rise again in that anthology; not long before his death, Williams shot host segments featuring Wild as “a cross between Alistair Cooke and the Cryptkeeper” that will introduce the four films. The from-beyond reappearance makes for a fitting epilogue to a horror story, one that already had its happy ending. Wild got to see Maybe We Can Go to Hollywood in 2010 at the first Philadelphia F/M Festival. As Williams remembers, “When I turned the house lights on, Mikey was standing at the back of the theater in the dark, bowing. I pushed him halfway to the front and he stopped and, as if he had practiced it, he looked at me and said, ‘So, do we get the award?’ And somebody in the crowd shouted, ‘Yeah, Mikey, you do!’”
No gold statuette or gala awards ceremony would have suited Mikey Wild more.
Maybe We Can Go to Hollywood screens Fri., June 15, 11 p.m., $7, as part of the Mausoleum Art Show of Horrors, June 15-16, PhilaMOCA, 531 N. 12th St., philamoca.org.