Regular visitor to Beekman 1802 and Sharon Springs native, Ross Wassermann, recounts how Hollywood has come calling to Sharon Springs before. We think the results will be better this time around.
On the morning of May 23, 2010, the New York Times ran a prominent obituary for David E. Durston who had died at the age of 88. Mr Durston’ s claim to fame was having directed the 1970 cult horror film I Drink Your Blood. If you look up I Drink Your Blood online, you will learn that the film has the distinction of being the first to be rated X for violence, rather than for sexual content, but that exactly what and how to cut in order to qualify for an R rating was left to the discretion of the individual projectionists in the theatres where it was shown.
So much for the I Drink Your Blood’s place in film history. But for those of us in Sharon Springs, it holds a far greater significance. You see, it was filmed in our village. So here is the real story of how one of the worst films ever made got that way. I was there…sort of. To be completely accurate, I was only there at the beginning and the end. I was ten years old and away at summer camp for much of the filming. But a steady stream of letters from my father kept me up to date with a story that would be hard to invent.
According to the Wikipedia entry on I Drink Your Blood, the film was shot in Sharon Springs because it was supposed to take place in a ghost town and Sharon Springs was one. This is not true. Although there were several boarded up hotels and rooming houses, and the village had seen much better days, the town still did a steady if diminishing summer business with elderly eastern European Jews who came for the sulfur springs. There was also a considerable summer community of Satmar Hasidim, who had their own boarding houses, and a Zen center, both of which come into the story later.
When it became known in the village that “they” wanted to make a horror film in town, there were the predictable debates about whether it would be good for business and whether we wanted “that kind of people” in town (what kind was never specified, but “they,” whoever they may be, are always “that kind of people”). The village elders, the families known at the time as “Old Sharon,” were generally suspicious of outsiders and reticent to approve. To give you an idea of how suspicious and reticent they could be, at about the same time, the Institute on Man and Science approached the village about using it for a pilot project in rural renewal. That idea lasted about as long as it took the first lady of the village to let it be known that she had contacted the FBI to make sure that this was not a front for Communist activity. The Institute found another, less paranoid village. I their defense, this was only one year after the Manson Family murders and the film was about hippies with rabies (or “with the rabbis,” as one local gossip memorably put it) and that made some people in a small town understandably nervous.
But back to the movie. The hotel owners and newer folk thought that the film might do something to help restore interest in the village. But almost everyone was thrilled that something was actually happening, if only as a new topic of conversation. Old Sharon was eventually seduced with the offer of bits parts in the film and while nobody did their interpretations of Grecian urns, the situation did resemble something like The Music Man with Ed Wood in the title role.
So, at the end of June, 1970, David Durtson. a group of hippy-ish actors, camera crew, technicians and a large python moved into the New Brighton boarding house. We should have known then that this was not going to be a glamorous affair. The New Brighton was not the nicest place in town (which wasn’t all that nice), nor the second, nor the third. It was on its last legs but it was available for the whole summer and the owner was glad to rent the whole thing out t and have done. And unlike a hotel, it offered kitchen facilities. This shoot was to be self-catered.
The New Brighton was down the hill from my family’s house (it still is, but it’s not the New Brighton anymore) and the company were very generous about inviting locals to hang out with them in the evenings. My father, was especially welcome because as a an infections disease scientist, he knew much more about the rabies (and, about rabbis, probably) than anybody working on the movie.
My father is a very gregarious man and soon became a bit of a regular at those evening gatherings. That is how he learned, for example that the leading lady saw this film as her big chance to break into the mainstream from the “kind of movies she had been doing”. We all took this to mean porn and we were probably right. He also learned that the python had been fired. After filming one scene with the snake, they made the mistake of feeding the beast. It subsequently became completely torpid and could not be coaxed out of its cage. Rather than find another, less complacent snake, that part of the plot was cut from the film. This was an indication of things to come.
Filming went on at various locations throughout the village. The local lumberyard was turned into the bakery where the meat pies that contained the blood from the rabid dog (if you don’t know the plot, google it) by hanging out a sign that proclaimed it to be “Mildred’s Bakery”. Nobody bothered to take down the sign and throughout the summer people would stop in only to leave disappointed when no fresh baked goods were to be had. Most of the scenes we watched being filmed involved one character chasing another with some kind of sharp object, Day after day more holes appeared in the siding of the long abandoned Roosevelt Hotel, where a chase with an axe kept being re-shot.
The number of takes on that scene had nothing to do with any kind of perfectionism but, rather with unforeseen circumstances. When they started filming the scene, it was discovered that the microphones were picking up the distant sound of traffic passing on Route 20. That was fairly easily fixed when Babe (our one man police department), who played himself in the film, agreed to stop and/or divert traffic as needed. Nobody even considered getting permission to do so. But no sooner had that problem been solved than the sound of the Hasidim chanting Sabbath prayers on the porches of the various nearby rooming houses created a more intractable problem. Now the hippies were really afflicted with the rabbis.
The scene was postponed until the following morning when the whole story was repeated, only this time the chanting was came from the Zen Center. I don’t know whether that scene, like the one with the python was also abandoned. I do know that the New Brighton did not contain anything that could be considered a film lab. It’s not likely that anybody watched that “dailies” or rushes, so when all the film was developed at later date, the options for re-shooting were limited and they probably cobbled the final masterpiece together from what was in the can.
I returned from camp in time to watch the filming of the climax of the film, a car chase that was to end in a crash and explosion. But without the equipment for tracking shots, and without the budget for stunt drivers and special effects, and only one car, the reality was rather different. An oil drum with some burning gasoline was placed behind a wreck that had been bought from the local used car lot to make it appear that the car was on fire. As in a Greek tragedy, various charcters told us about the horrors that had occurred out of view. But at least Babe got to drive up with siren blaring and jump out of his car with his gun drawn, possibly for the only time in his life.
There was no wrap party and the circus left town the within a day or so. Nothing more was heard about the movie until we got a call from a cousin who was a student at the University of Colorado. A horror film had opened at local drive-in under the title of I Drink Your Blood (on a double feature with I Eat Your Skin) and he was certain it was the movie we had watched being filmed. The working title (which I can’t remember but which I am sure will come to me in my sleep soon after this is posted) was quite different, so the only way to find out was actually to go see it. His hunch was correct but by this time, there were so few wide-focus shoths that it was hard to tell where it had been filmed. It ran a mere 90 odd minutes and I doubt that I Drink Your Blood would have been any longer or any better even if it had not been censored. Like the python, much of the plot seemed to have been left by the wayside when it didn’t work.
Once we knew the real title, we noticed that the same double feature turned up in a seedy movie house near Times Square. Like Sharon Springs, Times Square had not yet hit bottom, but there was no way my parents would take us to one of those theatres (or go there themselves, for that matter) and it was to be about thirty years until I actually saw the movie.
In a depressed town that didn’t particularly trust non-locals, the whole experience was a bit of an embarrassment. By the next summer, few people would admit to having been excited about the movie or to having had any expectations for it. It was just one more way in which “they” had put one over on us. It deepened an already well established chip on our collective shoulder and when it became known, in the late 70s – when we really were in danger of becoming a ghost town — that “they” were back in town to scout locations for another movie, there was little enthusiasm for it. There must have been many other reasons not to film scenes for The Shining at the Adler Hotel (most of that film was actually filmed on soundstages in England) but perhaps if we had been a little more enthusiastic…