Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pouding Cinema of Kelly Hughes.

Directed by: Kelly Hughes

Starring: Betty Marshall, Kitten Natividad, Sarah Katherine Lewis, James Peterson and Ernest Rhoads

When Heart Attack came into my inbox, I was interested. I like the VHS style and I’m a fan of budget horror. So naturally, this body of work ticked those boxes and I got to work watching and noting lots of things about the series of films that I thought were both outrageous and genius at the same time.

I previously didn’t know anything about Heart Attack Theatre before getting the email, so I wanted to have a look at some clips and movies that aired back in the 90’s when Kelly Hughes was writing, editing and directing them each week. I got a better feel for the series and its ideas which helped me when I had a watch of the documentary about the series and its process.

Some of the work can be found here [x]. I really recommend having a look at some of the scenes and work on YouTube.

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The gritty VHS style of filming “really highlights a pre-youtube era of filmmaking” which is a phrase that I love. And that it does. You get the idea of what it was like for filmmakers on a low budget back in the 90’s. It’s quick, creative and has a no-holds-barred feeling when you watch it. This was the era of grunge and that really shines through when you’re watching the documentary. The series is fun to watch, and whereas there are horror elements to Heart Attack, you still see the entertainment shining through. There are some really great cringe-moments which really add to the atmosphere overall, giving it that throwback ‘toned down’ video nasty vibe. I feel that this is especially true to the Kitten Natividad episode, La Cage Aux Zombies. The documentary really shines a positive light onto the series of movies, it gives them a more three dimensional presence overall.

The actors whilst sometimes ‘overacting’ add to the theme and narratives of the movies themselves, with them being creative and willing to do anything for the Heart Attack series, this puts a level of devotion and dedication to their work. I really can appreciate the work and effort gone into these movies as back then obviously there weren’t a plethora of special effects and fx teams as there are in modern cinema. So this unique group of people really did whatever they could to achieve the effects and ideas they wanted to convey. I think this is an amazing quality in filmmaking as it shows not only commitment to the piece your creating, but an added layer of intuition and talent.

The music in each movie really ties it all together, the style of it both haunts and entertains within each scene. I’m a huge fan of using musical cues within filmmaking to enhance and orchestrate an audience’s emotions, and I feel Kelly was very talented in the work he put into this. The melodies were always fitting to the atmosphere, giving it that extra boost to get everyone on the edge of what was happening in the scene.

I enjoyed the interviews with the cast, as their positivity and enthusiasm for the projects really shone through. This gives you the idea that everyone was a close knit group and that not only did they make some excellent throwback style movies, they also had fun doing it. I feel that the fun they had putting these together makes Heart Attack Theatre that much better as it shows you that it was all about them doing something they loved and took pride in during that time.

My favourite additions to the Heart Attack theatre were the zombies and the anti-drug movies. These really shone through as the stand out pieces. The zombie idea had a softened ‘video nasty’ feel to them that wasn’t over the top but was fun to watch and entertaining. It’s a feel we don’t seem to get as much with modern cinema because we’re too afraid to push those boundaries now, so getting that vibe come across was pleasing. The anti-drug movies were both over the top and raising awareness for an actual social issue. It’s an idea that I feel could definitely be used a lot more in cinema, purely because it still is a prominent issue in society.

I would really recommend you try and watch some of the Heart Attack Theatre episodes, as they are honestly so fun to watch and interesting to see now that we’re accustomed to modern ‘screamer’ horror. It’s a different take on the genre from a completely different era of filmmaking. It’s great to see it from another perspective.

Many thanks to Kelly Hughes personally, I’ve found a new favourite kind of filmmaking in your work.

I was lucky enough to give Kelly a small interview with some questions I was eager to ask:

1. What really encouraged you to start making the Heart Attack Theatre movies? 
Fear! Fear of not expressing myself. Fear of wasting my talent and ambition. Fear of never putting myself to the test.
You know when you have that general sense of: “I’m a creative person. I have ideas. I’m going to be rich and famous one day.” But then you realize you’re just sitting on your ass? And you haven’t expressed any of these ideas in a tangible way? That’s how I was feeling at the time.
Just before Heart Attack Theatre, I wrote and directed several stage plays for a local indie theater festival. And then found myself in a lull. Working a menial office job. Doing nothing creative in my life. Approaching 30. And then I heard about Public Access TV. And was amazed to learn that you could have your own TV show on local cable. For free!
So without giving it much thought, I went to the station, filled out the paperwork. And within a month or so, my show began. And from then on, every Friday night at 10PM, people in Seattle got to tune in for thirty minutes of mayhem on my show.
And you have to remember I did all this while still working a full-time job. So Heart Attack Theatre became my only hobby, my only social outlet. I pretty much gave up everything in my life at the time (except my day job) to create this.
2. Which film makers and artists did you look up to when creating your body of work?
The movie Whatever Happened To Baby Jane was a big influence. I enjoy working with mature actors. They bring so much more grit and substance to a production. Young filmmakers should consider casting them more often. Not just their cute 19 year old friends.
I’ve always enjoyed giving women a unique voice in my work. The way Ryan Murphy cast Jessica Lange in American Horror Story. So I think I’m influenced by that Tennessee Williams southern gothic style. Women who act like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire. But with more blood and suspense. More Grand Guignol.
Brian DePalma’s Dressed To Kill was a big influence. Because it not only had bloody horror in it. But it had a real humanity to it. Characters you cared about. And a mystery to solve. I like the mystery aspect in horror.
Like most kids in the ’70s, I also grew up on disaster movies. And consider the original Poseidon Adventure to be the all-time greatest. Much more so than Towering Inferno. But what especially influenced me were all the disaster movie knock-offs. The killer bee movies. The made-for-TV movies with low budget disaster effects. Like people being trapped in a ski lift. Or being locked in a department store at night with a vicious dog. The made-for-TV directors are my heroes. They worked fast. They worked on a budget. And they gave ageing actors a chance to be back in the spotlight.
3. Looking back on the series, how did you get around creating your effects used? Such as blood and slow motion etc. 
We didn’t have green screens. Or computer editing. Or an effects budget. So that forced us to be resourceful.
Even mixing red food coloring and corn syrup seemed too complicated. So when we needed blood, I’m sure we just squirted ketchup on people. And if I didn’t have any ketchup in my cupboard, we probably went to McDonald’s and got a few ketchup packets.
I did dare to do slow motion once by having the actor simply move really slow. And talk slow at the same time. It was surreal.
My favorite effect was when we pulled off a character’s arm. And used a roll of toilet paper and some ketchup for the bloody stump. We were surprised at how good it actually looked. And for the scenes where I have blood shoot out of the stump, we inserted some aquarium tubing, and blew cherry Kool-Aid through the tube.
My favorite special effect of all time is during the nightclub scene in La Cage aux Zombies. At the end of the performance art piece, a drag queen takes a drag off a cigarette. But instead of blowing the smoke out of her mouth, it comes out of her crotch. And I will never reveal how we did it. 🙂
4. How has Heart Attack Theatre shaped your work as it progressed? 
It let me try out a lot of story ideas. And experiment with different genres.
It was a suspense anthology. Like Twilight Zone. Or Outer Limits. And it often had horror elements. But I also added Action Movie elements. Comedy at times. And even Art Film moments. I had free reign.
As it progressed, what inspired me the most was creating new and challenging characters for my actors. I like having a troupe of regulars. Loyalty means everything to me. And in exchange for my actors giving me their all, I always worked to create for them a new acting challenge. Something totally different than the character before. Something memorable.
Doing a weekly TV series also showed me just how much work goes into something like this. And by doing most of the jobs myself (writer, director, editor, producer, camera, lights, audio, wardrobe, sfx, music, etc.) it has given me an appreciation for each of these jobs.
But it’s also a big trade-off. A no-budget filmmaker pretty much gets total control on his project. For better or worse. But if that filmmaker wants to move up to bigger productions, it becomes a much more specialized world. And you have to give up some of that control. It can be worth it because all these skilled people are sharing their talents with you. And your production value starts to go up. But I also think that is why some underground filmmakers stay underground. It’s not just about the budget. It’s about having total control. Having your hand in every aspect.
I did that for several years. But it just about burnt me out. And even though I love my early work, it’s also nice to see your vision fully realized. To have beautiful cinematography, perfect audio. Fluid camera movement. At a certain point you have to ask yourself: “How much am I willing to let go to realize my vision?” I’m still asking myself that question. I think I will always be drawn to the auteur style of filmmaking. But at this point, it would be nice to have some young people on set to haul around my gear for me.

To see more of Kelly’s work, please have a look at his website.

If you have content (films, music, merch, art) you’d like reviewed and featured in your own post on The Scream Review, please drop me an email with the relevant links and information and I’ll be very happy to get back to you.

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