John Dunning is no slouch. Co-founder of Canada's legendary Cinépix film company (now Lionsgate Entertainment), Dunning has produced nearly 60 films, including such horror gems as The Possession of Virginia (1972), David Cronenberg's They Came from Within (1975) and Rabid (1977), J. Lee Thompson's Happy Birthday to Me (1981), and George Mihalka's My Bloody Valentine (1981), among others.
And when he wasn't producing such shockers as William Fruet's Death Weekend (1976) or the hicksploitation Junior (1985), he was managing the first-run theatrical distribution of other horrors, such as The Pyx (1973) and Cathy's Curse (1977).
Dunning prospered throughout the golden post-Halloween slasher boon, weathering (and sometimes dodging) MPAA censor cuts, and churning out cult flick after cult flick, hand over axe. More recently, he executive produced the My Bloody Valentine remake in 2009.
A longtime friend of the genre, Dunning was kind enough to sit down with us and discuss highlights from his last five decades working in film.
The Terror Trap: John, it's no lie to say it's a real honor for us to speak with you. Thanks for giving us the time.
John Dunning: Thank you for your interest.
TT: Cinépix was founded in 1962. Take us back to those days.
JD: Well, we weren’t making any films as early as ’62. We didn't really start to make our own until 1968.
At the beginning, Cinépix was strictly a distribution company and was distributing French films, basically from France. We were buying different kinds of movies from Italy, England, etc., and using the dubs that were being done in French.
The reason that came about is...I was running part of my father’s theatrical exhibition company. He died when I was seventeen and I had converted one of his theaters into a studio for television and rented it to a company called Niagara Films. They did TV shows for French CBC and I started working with them as a delegated producer – what they call a producer delegue.
The first job I had was working on a short at the University of Montreal. There, I learned the ropes about what was going on in production. I learned editing. I learned camera. All these different things that would make a movie. But Niagara Films went into bankruptcy and the French films they were buying were going straight to the CBC.
I went to the lawyers for the bankruptcy and said, “Look, we should try and get these good films into theaters." Before, most of the French theaters were playing French dubs from the U.S. They weren’t impressed with French films. I went to United Amusement, which was an offshoot of Famous Players, and asked them if they would give me a screen to try some of these French films.
George Destounis was the vice-president and he gave me a good break. He gave me an old theater with about 500 or 600 seats. I put in the first film, which was Léon Morin, prêtre (1961) with Jean-Paul Belmondo. And it went through the roof. People were lined up to see the movie. I did a good advertising campaign for it. So we broke into the distribution side of the business with the bankruptcy of Niagara Films.
TT: Seguing from distribution into producing now. Your first real success as a producer was Valerie (1969), is that correct?
JD: Yes. In 1968, we had been buying all these films and my partner André Link (who had come in and helped me with the distribution because I didn’t know anything about it) and I were sitting around and we thought...instead of buying some of these horrible, drug-ridden prostitute films, why don’t we make one in Quebec?
So we got together with Denis Heroux, who was coming out of film school from the University of Montreal. He was a professor at that time, I think. He said he would like to direct it and the three of us got together with a French screenwriter and we wrote Valerie.
TT: And it was a big hit.
JD: Oh, yes. We made it for $90,000 and it grossed over a million.
TT: In the early ‘70s, Cinépix shifted away from sexy romances to straight thrillers and horror movies, beginning with The Possession of Virginia in 1972 (AKA Satan’s Sabbath).
Was this a conscious decision on your part? Was horror just more commercially viable at that point in time?
JD: No, it wasn’t that we saw horror as necessarily more commercially viable at that point. It was the fact that once you had a hit film in a certain genre, everybody jumped in and started making them. There were so many around, there was no chance to get the kind of box office hit that we got in the early days.
TT: So producers had quickly begun to imitate films like Valerie?
JD: Right. There was an inundation. The market was flooded. So we shifted and said, what’s the next thing that might be coming down the pike?
TT: What comes to mind about producing The Possession of Virginia?
JD: Well, the liberal government had brought a breath of fresh air into Quebec by getting rid of Mr. Duplessis and had broken the power of the priests and the church.
So we figured, let’s take a slam at the church for all the repressions that had been done. We said, what can we do? The idea of a black mass was Dunning and Link's way of saying, here’s goodbye to you guys because your power is broken and we’re gonna help break it.
TT: You view that film as a political statement?
JD: Well, no I wouldn't put it that way. But yes, it's there. In the background. We also thought the horror would get away from the sexuality of the thing and still keep a little sex in it. The horror would come from the possession theme. It wasn’t a very good success because we learned that you don’t fool around too much with religion.
TT: Were you a fan of horror films yourself?
JD: Oh, I was a fan of any kind of film. Because of my father, I was practically born in a theater. My father was a manager, my mother sold tickets, and I sat in a high chair and watched movies beginning in the 1930s. I saw the early Frankenstein films and Bela Lugosi pictures. I saw them at 6 or 7 years old. So I had a background of over maybe 40,000 films before I started getting involved in making them.
TT: Would you call The Possession of Virginia a minor film for you?
JD: It was a minor film. Because at the time, we were being financed by the CFDC (now Telefilm Canada) – the government funding thing. The president was so incensed that he wouldn’t back the movie and he left us on our own to try and get the money back off the film. It takes 18 months if you have a good film to get your money. So it was a big setback for us.
TT: We want to make the distinction between your distribution deals and your film producing. There’s a core difference. You were brokering distribution deals separately from producing, correct?
JD: Yes. We had the philosophy that as a distributor, you’re forced to buy other peoples’ product. Which means that if they’re selling you the product, it’s because it’s not a success. If it was a success, we could never buy it because they wouldn’t let us or the price would be too high.
You’re going against major U.S. films and it’s a tough row to hoe. So you have to find some kind of exploitational facet to a film. And that’s what we looked for. That’s what we were trying to make. Something that nobody else was making at the time.
TT: Before we delve deeper into your productions, what are your thoughts on The Pyx, the 1973 thriller you distributed starring Karen Black and Christopher Plummer?
JD: Well, here's another Canadian film with a religious theme. We took it on but we weren’t happy with the financial possibilities of the movie because it didn’t lend itself to any kind of special exploitation. There was nothing to hang your hat on except it was a dark, religious film.
TT: It does showcase a terrific performance by Karen Black.
JD: Yes, it does. She was very good.
TT: How did you first meet David Cronenberg and what was your first impression of him?
JD: As some of these boys in Toronto were coming out of film schools…I’m not sure where David came from…they’d show up and say, “Look, you guys are the only ones that are trying to make commercial films in Canada and we’d like to get tied up with you. And we’d like to direct a film – or you can let us write a script.” And so on.
André and I were both impressed with Cronenberg. He’d made some films at school at that point, but he was basically into architecture. I mean, his films were very architectural, with angles and buildings and things. But he certainly had possibilities and he had a vivid imagination. So we tied in with him and he had a script for Shivers. We liked it. We had a possibility…but we were taking a risk with a first time director.
TT: What was the original title of that script?
JD: The original title was The Parasite Murders. They changed the title in the U.S. when they picked up the American rights to They Came From Within. In Canada, we called it Shivers.
TT: After reading that script, were you immediately sold on the concept?
JD: Yes. David had an interesting idea that no one had ever explored. He had evolved something about how horror can exist INSIDE the person, not some monsters running around and killing. The killers were inside you.
David had suffered because I think his father had died of cancer. This was his way of expressing himself. We found that was very unique. Little monsters were inside, taking over…manipulating you. You know that major motion picture where the monster leapt out of the guy’s stomach? The space one?
JD: Right. Well, we were a few years ahead of Alien. A monster coming through the belly and attaching himself to the face. We did it first.
TT: Although Cronenberg had the idea to do the sexual aspect on top of that…
JD: Yes. That was the way that the bugs could travel. They traveled through the sexual channels of people and provided them with the sexual energy…and the desire for sex…so they could keep going. You kiss somebody and the creature comes out of the mouth and into your stomach. It keeps going until the whole apartment house was infected.
TT: At that point, Cronenberg had done shorter, experimental films like Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970). But he hadn't directed a feature that could really pull in audiences. How nervous were you about that?
JD: Well, we also had Ivan Reitman on board at that time. He agreed to help with the production. He had more commercial experience than David. Between Reitman and myself, we were able to channel him through it.
TT: You saw that Cronenberg could do it with a little help…
JD: You put as much strength behind the man as you can. Ivan was definitely a striking person and certainly knew part of the business. He had that instinct. And between my instincts and David’s own, we made a good movie…and David showed that he deserved to be accepted in the film industry as a director and writer.
TT: Where was the picture filmed?
JD:Shivers was filmed on Nun’s Island in Montreal.
TT: How involved were you with the casting, in particular Barbara Steele?
JD: We all looked to see if we could get some “names” to help the foreign sales. Barbara Steele had been in quite a few horror films, Italian horror classics to be exact, so when we went through the casting, she came up and she agreed to play in it.
TT: Were you pleased with her performance as Betts?
JD: Oh, yeah. She’s a real trooper. She did a good job.
for They Came From Within
TT: Do you recall anything particularly memorable about the shoot?
JD: Yes. The thing I remember the most is one time when we were on set and David was coaching Sue Petrie (who played Janine). We were all waiting for him while they were behind closed doors. We heard her crying and we heard slapping. We said, “Jesus, what’s he doing…trying to get cinema verite out of this thing?!”
Sue came out in tears and we went over to Cronenberg and asked him, “What the hell are you doing?” And he said, “Look, man…she ASKED me to do this. She wanted me to hit her hard enough so that she could cry for the scene. So I did it.”
That was one thing that stood out. It was just a general fight to get it done.
TT: When you’re producing something like that, do you actually watch the dailies or rushes?
JD: Absolutely, absolutely. The thing is, I did have editing experience and I would look at the dailies and if I thought the scene was missing a couple of shots, I would memo the set and tell them it would be better to do those shots and put them in.
The dailies were very important.
TT: So what you saw in the dailies for Shivers was promising?
JD: Yes. It’s like a rough diamond and you do your best to shape it. It worked out. It managed to go through the Edinburgh Film Festival so there was something to it that impressed people.
TT: However, the reception to Shivers was notorious in that there was a huge public backlash due to the fact that funds were used from taxpayer money to produce it…
JD: That’s right. The literary establishment rebelled at the fact that money was going to make these kinds of films. They weren’t interested in the success of the film…they were interested in the Canadian quality or whatever they called it. We never really understood it. We thought we were in the movie business to make successful films and bring Canadian people into the theaters.
TT: It’s reported that you and André Link crafted a pamphlet called Is There a Place for Horror Films in Canada?
JD: Yes. We sent it to every MP (Member of Parliament) in Ottawa. It showed the success of the film across the world, the awards it had won, etc.
But you said "public backlash" a minute ago. Really, it was never the community that objected to the film. It was the literary hierarchy that controlled the writing and films and everything. It was a pretty high demimonde that ran everything culturally in Canada, and they were of such an artistic sensibility. But the citizens in Canada were NOT culturally minded. They could hardly wait to see an American film, for example.
TT: So what you're saying is that the aesthetes objected to the horror and sex, but the public actually enjoyed the hell out of these kinds of movies?
JD: That's absolutely correct.
TT: Did the critics object to the fact that you had sex and parasite slugs and some blood…and what they really wanted was art house romances?
JD: We used to say, throw a Mountie in it and the Canadian flag…and it’s a “cultural triumph.” Nobody cared about the script or anything. They’re all lawyers and carpetbaggers, we called them – that joined in at the tax rush. They didn’t give a damn about whether the script was good or not – it was how much producer’s fees they could pull out. A lot of crappy films ended up being made…in the name of what? "Canadian identity"?
Well, I never found out what "Canadian identity" was! (Laughs.)
TT: Tell us about producer Don Carmody. How did he come into the mix?
JD: He was a young guy that came on from film school as a driver for one of our shoots. He worked in costumes and different things before becoming a line producer. He worked his way through the ranks and became very good. And very successful. He had the heart and what we lacked – the hard edge to fight with the American production people.
You didn’t push an Irishman [like Don] around, like we got pushed! He was tough. That toughness is always appreciated in L.A. You become a “fire man.” Fire him, fire that, fire everything. And Don became a good fire man. We always got along very well. He loved movies.
TT: After collaborating with Cronenbeg on Shivers, was it a foregone conclusion that you would work with him again on Rabid (AKA Rage) two years later?
JD: Yes. We moved right along. Ivan backed off and went touring with a dramatic bunch in the U.S. and so David and I cooperated on his second film.
TT: What do you recall about your first impression concerning the script for Rabid?
JD: There wasn’t a script at first. We conceived the idea. David was working on something called The Mosquito. He was out at my place at Riviere Beaudette and he stayed there for the summer, working on the script. We’d talk about it, scene by scene, and put them together.
The Mosquito was about somebody who sucked blood. David had the idea that it would become a sexual thing, with the prosthetic under her armpit. The premise and writing it, was a cooperative effort, but David was doing the heavy lifting.
TT: Here’s an allegory about sexually transmitted diseases or drug addiction. Did you see it as any of those things?
JD: Yes. Certainly, sexually transmitted diseases and almost a foreshadowing of AIDS.
David was always happy if the thing was an internal part of a physical body. He wasn’t interested in outside monsters running around with patches on their eyes. He thought the real horror was inside of humans.
TT: Cronenberg’s special brand of biological horror.
TT: Let’s talk about porn star Marilyn Chambers. Whose idea was it to cast her in the lead?
JD: Well, Ivan was traveling around and he was going to the universities with a team that was putting on Saturday Night Live. He was in and out of L.A. and it was his suggestion that we try and get a name that would give us some publicity. He latched onto Marilyn. She was ready to do it and we accepted her.
TT: Did you market her at all as “the porn star” in the movie?
JD: No, we didn't. That promoted itself. The fact that a porn star was making a straight film. It sort of carried itself. Everybody was interested…the press was interested. Everyone was saying, “Here’s a very popular porno star.” We got massive publicity without even trying.
TT: We think she’s quite good. Very understated and believable.
JD: Yup. She was a natural! When you’re looking for gold and you find some, it’s a lucky day. We were absolutely pleased with her performance.
TT: Why was Rabid your final collaboration with Cronenberg?
JD: Well, we lost David because it takes eighteen months to turn a film around before you have the money to make another. Toronto was courting him like mad and he couldn’t refuse. He had to eat. Toronto lifted him out of our milieu and gave him carte blanche. They had money.
TT: You would have liked to continue working with him?
JD: Oh, yes. Actually we were working on something that was interesting. It was about an insemination of a woman from a doctor who posed as a gynecologist…
TT: Is that what became Dead Ringers later on?
JD: This was way more primitive than Dead Ringers. Dave was much more sophisticated when he did that particular film. He had matured and learned his craft – and was certainly capable of carrying on himself.
TT: In 1976, you executive produced the exploitative shocker Death Weekend (AKA House By the Lake). Was it influenced at all by Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left?
JD: I don’t know. To be honest, I never saw Last House on the Left.
Regarding the title change, the U.S. distribution was not in our control. We made a deal with a distributor, and he had the right to change the title if he wanted. That was his business.
The only reason we liked Death Weekend was we were getting involved with female revenge. You hardly ever saw a woman getting revenge on people who were abusing her. This was what was so unique about that film. She eventually ended up killing them all.
TT: What can you tell us about Brenda Vaccaro and Don Stroud, the two leads?
for Death Weekend
JD: Well, I think they were pretty good. We had a casting connection and she looked for ‘B’ players, rather than ‘A’ players, because the money was so tight, the economics were so bad. We put Brenda and Don in there and they both did very, very good.
William Fruet directed it with Ivan as a producer. Ivan kept an eye on it because he was in Toronto at the time. We had an agreement with him that we shared each other’s interests.
TT:Death Weekend is a very effective film that unfortunately has never had a DVD release. Any plans for that?
JD: I don’t know who the distributor is. I have no idea. I’m not sure if it belongs to Lionsgate or not. I’m surprised it hasn’t been released on DVD. That’s surprising to me.
TT: Let’s move forward to Happy Birthday to Me. What was the genesis behind it?
JD: Well, all the holiday titles were being used for slasher films. Valentine’s Day. Halloween. Christmas. So André and I were sitting around and we said…hey, no one has done anything about a birthday. Everybody has a birthday! (Laughs.) So we gestated a script about a birthday that would be horrific.
At the time, Columbia Pictures was having intense fears of an actors’ strike. All the studios were amassing films to survive the strike. We were in the process of making Happy Birthday to Me. They came and they looked at some of the dailies and they bought it from us outright.
We had budgeted it at 3 million (Canadian). And they paid us 3.5 million (U.S.) – and U.S. was ten percent at that time. We grabbed it because our investors had a good chance to get their money back.
TT: There's some uncertainty about whether Happy Birthday to Me was passed uncut, or was cut by the censors. Can you clear this up?
JD: Yes, it was definitely cut.
TT: Cut after you had sold it?
JD: That's right. We were not in charge of the cutting of that film. We didn’t do the cutting. We’ve been after Columbia for God knows how long, to bring it out in its original form and put the cuts back in. They can do that now. But as you know, they're a huge studio and they don’t give a damn about something that happened 30 years ago.
Fortunately, we moved recently. And in that move, we just discovered a box of some cuts that were made on Happy Birthday to Me for the Quebec Bureau to survey off.
TT: No way...
JD: Yes. And we’re going to put the trims together, and we’re going to compare it to the U.S. release and see what’s missing. And again, we're going to try and get Columbia to put the missing pieces in. Paramount did it with My Bloody Valentine. They put the cut pieces back in that I had stored away all those years. I'll see if they'll do the same for Happy Birthday to Me.
TT: That's wonderful!
To bear down on these cuts from Happy Birthday to Me: are they gore cuts or exposition cuts?
TT: Well, we like that! There were production stills that Columbia used to market the film which are clearly not in the final cut. Post-murder shots, if you will. That's not unusual in and of itself.
But do you know if those stills are from actual footage?
JD: I’d have to compare the U.S. release against the trims I've discovered. At this point, I can't say with absolute certainty what was actually cut.
What I'll reiterate about Columbia is that they were a tough bunch. With My Bloody Valentine, Paramount said, “You’ve got to get the rating and deliver it to us.” So we did the cuts, and the cuts for that film stayed with us.
TT: But here's the obvious next question: is there any financial incentive for Columbia to release Happy Birthday to Me with the gore footage re-inserted, or as a special feature, on a DVD?
JD: I'd guess not. Remember, My Bloody Valentine was put out with the restored cuts I gave them, only after the remake was released in 2009. As a marketing tie-in. For the last report I saw, that DVD has already made over half a million dollars.
TT: What did you think of the advertising campaign Columbia did for Happy Birthday to Me?
JD: We were given the privilege of okaying the advertising and using us as advisers, consultants. We had that right.
When they were releasing the film, we saw the advertising. You know, the skewer in the guy’s mouth. And we went before the chief of advertising and told him we thought it was a little strong.
We told him, "We think you’re concentrating on just one of the kills." And the Columbia guy said, “Look, Dunning and Link – you’ve been asked to come here and we’ve listened to you. Now goodbye.”
TT: Wow. Rude.
JD: (Laughs.) You don’t think L.A. is tough, man? Jesus...
TT: How did that make you feel? Betrayed?
JD: Look. There were guys who used to run the major film companies years ago, like Zanuck and Louis B. Mayer…guys who cared about the movies. You tell me if somebody exists today who is as passionate about a film. Nowadays, it’s all about the deal. If it’s a good deal, who cares? There’s no passion in the business today. It’s gone as far as I’m concerned.
TT: Do you think we'll ever see the cuts from Happy Birthday to Me restored?
JD: I don’t know. It might be unlikely they'll ever be seen. The cuts I have are for the Province of Quebec. For the French version. So they might have cut it a different way from the MPAA. We’ll find out.
Maybe someone in the U.S. can make a sub-distribution deal with Columbia to release it. Somebody that thinks there’s half a million or a million dollars in its revival with any cuts back in.