The 1971 camp-horror flick The Corpse Grinders was moviemaker Ted V. Mikels’ biggest commercial success. You wouldn’t think a film about cats turning bloodthirsty once a manufacturer starts making feline food out of people would outdraw an artistically ambitious Jason Robards war picture, but Mikels says that in Hawaii, when The Corpse Grinders and Tora! Tora! Tora! made their world premieres opposite each other, it was his modest little $47,000 movie that outdrew the latter five-to-one.
The beating was so bad, Mikels says, that the controller of MGM came to his office to grouse about how he wrote a $26 million check for his picture, only to have his lunch handed to him by a movie that cost relative pennies.
There are only two problems with the story: The first is that Tora! debuted Sept. 23, 1970; the second is that 20th Century Fox made that movie.
I don’t doubt the broad strokes. I believe there was a brief time and particular place when The Corpse Grinders did better, for at least a weekend, than Tora! Tora! Tora! In any case, it’s no surprise that Mikels found a way to take control of the narrative—a rare, pure win—and make it into an indelible part of his mythos.
Mikels sits in his northeast Las Vegas living room, paging through his phone’s inbox for an e-mail from a graphic designer. He’s looking at the DVD cover artwork for his newest picture, Astro-Zombies: M4—Invaders From Cyberspace. It’s the fourth movie in a franchise that started with his 1968 film The Astro-Zombies. The glowering skull of one of the titular monsters menaces the viewer, while the Brandenburg Gate is in flames behind it. “Ain’t that something?” he asks with a grin. He looks over it with paternal pride, until he notices the title has been misprinted as Attack From Cyberspace.
He tsks. It will have to be fixed, quickly. The movie premieres May 20 at downtown’s Theatre7. The true era of the grindhouse has long passed, and most of the other legendary directors of the time have died or moved on—Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman and the like. Mikels, though, is still soldiering on, doing low-budget originals that not only keep fans of the classic movies humming, but serve as a blueprint for young, indie film hopefuls.
This is the sixth decade in which Mikels, nearly a month past his 83rd birthday, will have released a movie. A short man, slightly bent with age, Mikels moves about his townhouse dressed all in black, wearing heavy silver jewelry and a boar’s-tusk necklace. He wears a precisely manicured Van Dyke beard with a waxed, Dali-esque mustache, and his white hair is pulled back neatly. He’s stocky; you can tell he used to be muscular.
He was, in fact, a bodybuilder, he says. Back pain has him moving stiffly now, the price of a red-lined physical life. Mikels boasts that he once did 3,555 military sit-ups nonstop; that he beat a Canadian world-champion fencer after just a couple of lessons. He did stunts in the Kirk Douglas film The Indian Fighter; spelunked caves and filmed hanging out of an airplane for his 1963 debut, Strike Me Deadly; that he shot parts of Alex Joseph and His Wives (1976) from horseback; and once filmed for 37 hours straight and sent actors home in shifts to sleep.
I press him on the fencing match, in particular. I’m familiar enough with the sport, having spent time in the salle. When he tells the story, it sounds to me like he may have claimed victory in a bout when all he did was land a couple of touches against a superior foe. Then I notice a saber, a foil and a fencing mask among the things casually scattered about his living room. If Mikels tells me right now he rode to movie sets on the back of a pegasus, I’d be half inclined to believe him. I am not, by nature, credulous.
He casts a showman’s spell, learned from his days performing under the name Mikels the Magician. It served him well with The Corpse Grinders. The dog-and-pony he served up with the film was crucial to its success. He brought out nurses and ambulances to screenings. He had theater owners make their own corpse-grinding machines to display in their lobbies. Patrons had to sign health waivers. The movie would go on to play 3,500 theaters and take in around $10 million by Mikels’ estimate.
The grindhouse era lent itself to Mikels’ marketing tactics, though he laments being saddled with the horror tag. It was The Astro-Zombies—the space-Frankenstein-cum-Tura-Satana-spy-thriller that will forever be most closely associated with his name—that set him on that path. He ended up doing three straight horror flicks from 1968-72 (territory he’d mine almost exclusively from 2000 on) and became cemented in the public imagination as a blood-and-monsters guy.
“The industry kind of commands what you’re going to do,” he says. “By the time we got to The Corpse Grinders, we had such a phenomenal success that that’s all anybody wanted. The people who promoted this for me were the ones who promoted me as the king of horror. To me, I had never made a horror movie. A little of that sticks, because other people will read that and don’t know anything else about you. They don’t know you may be a family man and maybe would have preferred to make family movies.”
It’s the other Mikels I prefer. The one who made the movies from 1963-68, like proto-blaxploitation flick The Black Klansman (1966) and the go-go dancer redemption story Girl in Gold Boots (1968). Those films work like David Lynch movies for real people—Lynch without all the High Lynchian Weirdness. It’s all temporary journeys into barely glimpsed underworlds, and lurid peeks at the unknown and forbidden, back when those things were still possible. Then, at the end of the movie, everything gets tied up with a neat back-on-the-side-of-the-angels morality bow.
That M.O. is on display in 1965’s One Shocking Moment, a movie that handles its protagonists’ temptations with a dream-like quality, a subtly disjointed logic, that Mikels would repeat again in the likes of Girl in Gold Boots, The Corpse Grinders and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils.
One Shocking Moment is the story of young couple Cliff (Gary Kent) and Mindy (Lee Anna) relocating from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Los Angeles. It doesn’t take much of a push to send both of them into the arms of other women. The plane is barely off the tarmac in L.A. before Cliff starts eye-humping every dame who wanders into his field of vision, but it isn’t until halfway through the movie that he breaks with what until then had been mostly harmless hornball antics and goes headlong over the cliff, first into adultery and then attempted rape.
On his first day of work, Cliff meets with new boss D.G. Brenner (Victor Izay). Brenner tells Cliff that his predecessor, Walton, was the company’s best until a heart attack put him in the hospital:
INT. D.G. BRENNER’S OFFICE
A 1960s modern office. Everything is covered in wood paneling. Ersatz African art hangs on the walls
Well, it’s a damned shame to lose a man like that. The doctors feel pretty sure he won’t be a use to anyone from here on out.
I’m sorry to hear it.
It’s a 20th century hazard. A man busts his guts to make it, but the gears of progress grind him to pulp in the process. But it’s our way of life. You have to walk over the fallen and move on, so let’s get to work.
Society’s mechanization and dehumanization come up again and again in Mikels’ films. His characters tend to respond to it by lashing out in base, animalistic ways—in Cliff’s case, through sex, though violence gets its turn in other movies—until a course correction restores the moral order.
Mad scientist Dr. DeMarco’s (John Carradine) titular Astro-Zombies are a pair of human-mechanical hybrids meant to work in deep space. One’s made with the brain of a killer and one from an upstanding man who met an untimely end. The former breaks free and terrorizes the town with an orgy of machete violence. As it embarks on a rampage, DeMarco, in a fit of repentance, furiously works controls in his lab to destroy his first creation before the second is activated. “We must destroy him. Then we can complete mobilization of the second astro-man, whose brain is morally pure,” DeMarco pleads before the exotic foreign spy Satana guns him down.
It’s no accident that the second, “morally pure” astro-man is the one who destroys both Satana and itself in the film’s climax. You get the feeling Mikels saw himself in these righteous men beating back malicious forces whose desire for control threatened to strip the humanity from the pure among us.
For Mikels, this purity is a cinematic stand-in for endangered artistic integrity—one of the great themes of his personal life story. But there’s also a traditional morality play embedded in films that, on the surface, seem to thumb their nose at moral qualms. Always affable and gregarious, Mikels gets somewhat testy when the subject of sex comes up. He calls an S&M scene in One Shocking Moment a sexual perversion he didn’t want to include originally. He refuses to even acknowledge 1964’s Dr. Sex after he grudgingly agreed to co-producer/co-writer Wayne Rogers’ demands for that title. (Rogers, who went on to TV fame in M*A*S*H, worked under the name “Juan Rogero.”) Although he admits the movie is fun, Mikels had always wanted to call it The Doctors. He ultimately would spend nine years trying to get financing to finish Mission: Killfast after refusing money that would have come with the string that lead actor Tiger Yang appear in a sex scene.
As early as Girl in Gold Boots, Mikels wouldn’t take studio money to make a movie. Paramount could have given him up to $2 million for the movie, but they wanted Joyce Selznick, niece of Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick, to ride shotgun as executive producer. She’d never made a movie before but was going to learn the ropes on the production. Mikels turned them down three times.
“Maybe it was a little bit high-minded of me to not accept,” he says. “For some reason or another it was my stupid ego, probably, that kept me from saying OK, I’ll do it. I had the opportunity, but turned it down, probably because of not wanting to be controlled.”
Maybe that’s why Mikels is so steadfast in curating his own biographical legend; it’s just one more production to control.
When Mikels began making movies, he vowed to himself that he’d spend 10 years learning the craft. He wouldn’t show anyone the films. If, at the end of that time, he still wanted to do it, he’d dedicate his life to movies. By the time his self-imposed apprenticeship ended in the late 1950s, he was committed.
Over the years, he’d sell property and businesses to fund his movies. As liens against his home in Glendale, Calif., the Sparr Castle, piled up, he took a lifeline offered by a company out of Salt Lake City. They promised him a brand-new studio in Las Vegas and operating costs for new movies. They were going to raise $5 million for all of it by issuing penny stocks. The money never materialized. It took Mikels seven truckloads and more than four months to bring all his gear to Las Vegas. Even after he realized that the people he had partnered with couldn’t deliver the goods, he couldn’t go back to California. It had to be a crushing blow, not least because he’d no longer be living with his “castle ladies”—a group of actresses who moved in and out of the Glendale home.
Eventually, he got a studio going in Las Vegas. He survived the 1980s and ’90s largely by doing commercials, an old Arizona Charlie’s Monday Night Football spot among them. By the 2000s, digital technology made it possible to make movies without extensive financing, and Mikels quickly adapted. It meant ditching his beloved Moviola—a device upon which a young Francis Ford Coppola once watched him edit—and hundreds of thousands of dollars of analog equipment. Now he works with volunteers to get his movies made. He has people who fly in from Australia and Germany and London just to appear in his pictures. Several doctors, he says, plan their vacations around his shooting schedule. He films where he can—sometimes right outside his front door. He can still be the director, producer, cinematographer, writer and everything else.
For years he had to listen when other people had demands. That’s over, now that he’s not duking it out with financiers to get his movies made. “The passion never waned,” he says. “It just made you hurt and want it more. It made you more determined to hang in and get it. Get the money and find a way to do the movie.”
He’s already starting to think about his next project, a paranormal picture that will return to the character-driven focus he had in his earlier films. He just signed a deal for Cinema Titanic—the new website from part of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew that reprises the snarky film commentary—to riff on The Doll Squad (1973). He’ll also serve as executive producer on The Corpse Grinders III, which is being made overseas by a Spanish crew.
I’m taken aback. Is Ted Mikels really ready to let go? I ask him if he’s OK allowing other people take creative control of one of his franchises. Sure, he says. It’s not like he could go to Spain and do it. Those days of filming hanging out of an airplane or on horseback are gone. “How much more of that can I do? My body just doesn’t cooperate like it used to,” he says. He doesn’t sound upset about it. Who could be upset? There are movies yet to be made.