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Tampa Bay: 'the hottest cult horror movie scene in the country'

Krista Grotte, who often stars in Tampa Bay movies, teases a killer clown during a break in filming.
Krista Grotte, who often stars in Tampa Bay movies, teases a killer clown during a break in filming.
Published Jul. 31, 2015

Call them a creatively incestuous bunch of filmmakers, often working on each other's movies, sometimes helping each other to distribute their macabre artistry. Grisly loves company. Especially in Florida.

The masked reapers are gruesome, doing unspeakable things to two nude, barely alive women strapped on tables. Limbs are amputated in grainy closeup, internal organs fondled, flesh peeled. Garden-tool surgery at its most sickening.

Don't worry, it's only one of the currently more popular movies among underground gore horror fans, who are legion.

And it was made in Tampa.

American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore is pseudo-snuff directed by Stephen Biro, inspired by a series of Japanese films that even shocked Charlie Sheen, who reported them to police.

Biro belongs to a loose confederation of local filmmakers keeping the Tampa Bay area a wellspring of grossout terror, a tradition in various shades of red stretching back decades.

"Tampa Bay, both sides and into Pasco (County), is the hottest cult movie and horror movie scene in the country right now," said Andrew Allan, a filmmaker and co-founder of cultmoviemania.com, a Tampa clearinghouse of carnage on DVD and retro VHS tapes.

There's a big market for such movies. Allan and partner Shelby McIntyre take orders from around the world, and not just from cheap-thrill seekers. Yale University's library recently purchased a set of cannibal-themed imports from the 1980s for its archives.

"There are so many people here (in Tampa Bay) who love these types of movies and happen to know how to make them," Allan said.

Not all their movies look as autopsy-authentic as Biro's. Most are presented with ripped tongue -in -cheek, semblances of a story and well-intended performances. Shoestring budgets would be nice; most of these filmmakers work with fishing line finances, in time off from day jobs.

But they deliver the grim goods, under titles like Die Die Delta Pi, an '80s slasher parody that cracked at least one top-25 sales chart in June, and Sean Donohue's upcoming Death-scort Service. Collectors seek older stuff such as 2005's The Bite, directed by and starring Tampa cult star Joel D. Wynkoop, the Christopher Lee of lower-case b-movies with 116 acting credits.

All the filmmakers abide by the three elements of exploitation singled out by drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs: blood, breasts and beasts.

Allan's oeuvre includes directing and co-writing the cranium drill thriller Brainjacked. He put a (severed) finger on why Tampa Bay is such a splatter capital:

"Think about the other 49 states' perception of Florida, which is almost like the Wild West. There's a freak of the week every day in the news.

"I can't help but think in some way that's having some influence on the movies. It's almost like anything goes in Florida. With that being the context in which we're all working, it's the same for the movies. Anything goes."

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'Very nice people'

What sort of person turns death and dismemberment into such gleefully grotesque entertainment?

"A lot of these people who are into exploitation or extreme horror films, they're actually very nice people," said producer Andy Lalino of Clearwater, like many of his peers middle-aged and gainfully employed.

"They're not bad; they're not deviant. They just like this entertainment … the carnival aspect of it, the dare."

True story: A few years ago, my wife and I were cruising garage sales, pulled by a roadway sign into a neighborhood near ours. The address was Lalino's. By his mailbox was a plastic laundry basket filled with doll parts — arms, legs, smiling heads — with a sign offering them for free.

He'd used them as props for some movie, possibly his appropriately titled short Filthy or The Uh-Oh Show, a game show spoof in which wrong answers cost contestants more than money.

We bought a juicer for $5, joking about how that may have been used for Lalino's art. He smiled like Norman Bates.

An ordinary guy who would never hurt a fly.

Donohue, who co-directed Die Die Delta Pi with Chris Leto, understands why exploitation-innocent bystanders find that hard to believe.

"A lot of these movies are gross and have horrific kills and deaths," he said, "and a lot of people would look at it and say: 'Oh, the person who made this is the sickest person alive.'

"But I myself, and any of us, if you met us, we're pretty regular guys. I'm pretty clean-cut, have a day job, a dog and parents, the whole middle-class childhood. Most of the guys I work with, it's the same kind of deal."

"Guys" is a key word. Women aren't usually making exploitation movies, only acting in and objectified by them.

Krista Grotte is a scream queen who occasionally bares her body for art, often starring in Tampa Bay productions; her credits include Brainjacked and Lalino's Filthy. She is filming Check Point with blaxploitation legend Fred Williamson and answered an obvious question by email from North Carolina:

Do these movies degrade women?

"They do degrade women, but then again, that exists in reality," Grotte wrote. "There is a demand (for such movies), and where there is a demand, there (are) productions and willing participants. If it becomes a great money-making opportunity, I may write one myself."

It came from Florida

Blame the horror scene partly on Dr. Paul Bearer, longtime (g)host of Creature Feature, a bay-area televised Saturday dose of schlock and awe that several filmmakers cited as must-see childhood TV. It was tame stuff by today's standards but a gateway potion to video store gore, where slaughter has a long shelf life.

Many filmmakers have stories similar to that of Joe Davison, who wrote and produced the killer clown thriller 100 Tears. Davison was a teenager in the early 1990s when he discovered Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead and Peter Jackson's Dead Alive — twice — at a video rental store.

"One box, the back was very plain," Davison said. "On the other, there was someone with his ribs exposed, another person cut in half, so it's like, 'I'm going to go with that one.' ''

He picked up the sequel, Evil Dead II, too.

"I watched those movies over the weekend, and it changed my life."

Meanwhile, Florida in general was already established as an exploitation movie haven. In Miami, Herschell Gordon Lewis practically invented drive-in theater gore with 1962's Blood Feast. Four decades later, Lewis wrote and directed The Uh-Oh Show in St. Petersburg, with Lalino producing.

Tampa Bay's earliest contributions to the bloody genre included the late Joe Wiezycki's Satan's Children (1975), a scum-cult howler filmed in Hillsborough County. Lalino recently showcased the movie at Tampa Theatre, and he profiles it in the current issue of Fangoria, the gorehound's monthly handbook.

A year before Satan's Children, Tampa writer-director Robert J. Emery released the mama's-boy shocker Scream Bloody Murder (aka My Brother Has Bad Dreams). Unlike other local filmmakers, Emery, 74 and living in Apollo Beach, never made another horror movie, mostly opting for documentaries.

"I never liked violence in films," Emery said by telephone. "I hate violence. … If it wasn't for the title, I never would've made that movie."

Emery cribbed the title from a national automobile safety ad campaign that urged concerned citizens to "scream bloody murder."

"I thought, what a wonderful title. I've got to write a movie around it."

Scream Bloody Murder premiered at the now-extinct AMC Twin Bays 4, near its South Tampa filming locations.

"I was so proud," Emery said. "There was an Elvis Presley movie playing at the same theater … and we did more business. We had no publicity, no mention that it was made in Tampa."

Emery was surprised to learn that Tampa Bay's horror film community endures, and he wouldn't guess why. "That's a tough one to answer," he said. "The question is: Why do audiences love (horror movies) so much? If the audience didn't respond, nobody would be making these films."

'We like to be shocked'

So, why do people watch? What is it about violently desecrating silicone molds of body parts smeared with fake blood that keeps the genre going?

"It's almost like a way of earning your manhood or womanhood, or getting a trophy for bravery," Lalino suggested. "Can I endure that? Can I challenge myself to be shocked like this? It's like a haunted house at a carnival. When it's over, you want to line up and do it again."

Allan nailed the coffin shut:

"People like to be stimulated by what they see. Sensationalism that comes with a horror movie certainly does that. We like to be shocked, we like to be scared, and we like to be disgusted.

"Apparently, we have a knack for doing that here."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.