A lot has changed since David DeCoteau began making films, but one thing the producer/director has never lost sight of is the bottom line. When DeCoteau changed the title of his 2011 movie A Dream Within a Dream to 1313: Nightmare Mansion, the veteran exploitation filmmaker found a surefire way to boost his audience.
“The ‘1313’ branding put me in a very, very enviable spot on all the On Demand menus on all the cable services,” says DeCoteau. “There is some sort of recipe. You want to be early in the directory, but you also want it to be a simple, high-concept title. With 1313: Nightmare Mansion, you kinda know what you’re getting.”
Thus, the 1313 series was born – 1313: Cougar Cult, 1313: Haunted Frat, 1313: Actor Slash Model, 1313: Cougar Cult, and many more. The series has only a few linking threads: a cast of young, chiseled studs, often dressed only in briefs; long scenes of the men showering, swimming, and lifting weights; a token female character, often played by an aging glamor queen; a mansion setting; and titles that guarantee a spot at the top of a Netflix menu.
Even if the 1313 series isn’t to your taste, if you’ve spent any time on a streaming service in the last few years, you’ve probably encountered the work of David DeCoteau. As the founder and chief creative force behind Rapid Heart Pictures, he has pumped out a daunting catalogue of low-budget movies in any and every genre: historical drama (Bonnie & Clyde: Justified), action (Badass Showdown), horror (Bigfoot vs. D.B. Cooper), thriller (Beastly Boyz), comedy (My Stepbrother Is a Vampire!?!), fantasy (Hansel & Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft), Western (Doc Holliday’s Revenge), and family (A Talking Cat!?!, which Nathan Rabin described in the A.V. Club as “The Room of anthropomorphic animal movies featuring Eric Roberts”). Somewhere in Texas, Terrence Malick is laboring to complete his seventh movie in 41 years; meanwhile, David DeCoteau has directed 102 movies since 1986, including 37 since 2010.
“Back in the day, B-movies were made in LA, New York, and maybe once in a while regionally,” says DeCoteau. “Now there’s a lot of noise and a lot of competition, so you have to stay on top of the trends. You have to be able to turn on a dime and be aware of the markets.”
He may be a schlockmeister, but David DeCoteau is the hardest-working schlockmeister in the business.
DeCoteau’s exploitation credentials could hardly be better: He joined the industry in 1981 at age 18 as a production assistant for the legendary Roger Corman. At Corman’s New World Pictures, where generations of filmmakers learned their trade, he remembers working alongside another director of some future success named James Cameron. Unlike the King of the World, DeCoteau’s ambitions leaned more towards salesmanship than directing.
“I wanted to be a producer/distributor, and I realized that if I was going to be a producer/distributor, I needed to have movies. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to have to do a bunch of jobs if I’m going to get some movies to distribute, so I’m going to have to produce them and direct them,’” say DeCoteau.
So direct he did. He cut his teeth for a time in the porn world before landing his first feature, Dreamaniac (1986). It was an assignment from another schlock legend, producer Charles Band of Full Moon Pictures, and led to more commissions, including Creepozoids (1987) and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988). He quickly proved himself capable of cranking out competent work on a budget, and thanks to video and cable, he worked constantly. “Every pitch meeting we’d get the green light, because this was the beginning of the VHS market. There were 30,000 video stores, and they needed new movies on those shelves every week.”
Under Band, movies would be presold to foreign markets based on a title, premise, and poster. DeCoteau became a master of the catchy title and lurid logline, and his credits are a roll-call of hard-sell: Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, Beach Babes from Beyond, Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000, Naked Instinct, Prehysteria 3, Bikini Goddesses, Frankenstein Reborn, and many more. “I always wanted to make what I could sell,” he says. “So I just promised myself that I would not be set in my ways. If somebody said, ‘Look, we need a horror film, we need a creature feature, we need a Western, we need a period costume drama,’ I was able to put it together pretty quickly.”
In these years, DeCoteau directed so many jiggly boobfests that few viewers might have guessed he was gay. Sensing a void in the marketplace, DeCoteau pitched Band a horror film that would feature a cast of well-built men, with nary a topless women in sight. “Charlie said, ‘I don’t understand it – there’s one girl and eight guys. Horror movie fans want to see eight girls and one guy.’ I said, ‘This is a horror movie for girls. As a matter of fact, it’s the first horror movie for girls.’”
The result, Voodoo Academy (2000), was a success. Shortly after, DeCoteau started his own production company, Rapid Heart Pictures, and explored his new formula: genre movies that celebrated the male body, tastefully enough to avoid censorship in foreign markets, and with potential to reach both gay and female audiences. While DeCoteau acknowledges these movies as “more my style,” he doesn’t claim them as deeply personal. “Titanic became the highest-grossing movie of all time, and the media said that was because teenage girls saw it 50, 60 times, so I thought: Why not make a horror movie for the same audience?” he says. “This was just me being pragmatic, it was not me trying to get my own personal agenda in there. No, it was really more of a dollars-and-cents thing.”
But among these dozens of exploitation movies, one sticks out as a passion project: Leather Jacket Love Story (1987), a black-and-white gay romance with a tone somewhere between John Waters and Bruce LaBruce. “I was sort of the ‘token homo’ in the business, and most of the day I’d be filming naked women and crashing cars,” he says. “They’re genres that I love, and I care about all my movies… but after a number of horror and action films, the producers said, ‘David, you know how to make a movie fast and affordably – why don’t you have a coming-out movie?’”
The only DeCoteau film to play the festival circuit, Leather Jacket Love Story occupies a similar place in his filmography as the race-relations drama The Intruder (1962) does in Roger Corman’s. Both were from-the-heart gambles made away from their directors’ usual distributors. Both were rare instances of the filmmakers prioritizing art over commerce. And both were their directors’ only films to lose money.
DeCoteau began making children’s movies for the same reason he makes most of his product: international sales agents told him there was a market. After a pair of movies about talking dogs, A Christmas Puppy (2011) and A Halloween Puppy (2012), he sensed there might be demand for something about a talking cat. So, in 2013, A Talking Cat!?! (that’s the title, with two exclamation points and a question mark) was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Eric Roberts, of all people, voiced the kitty, and recorded his lines in 15 minutes. “I just called him up and said, ‘Hey Eric, can you do the voice in my talking cat movie?’ He said, ‘Sure, when do you want to do it?’ I said, ‘How about now?’”
Thanks to its rock-bottom special effects and otherworldly awkwardness (it was shot in the same antiseptic mansion where DeCoteau set his 1313 series), A Talking Cat!?! has found an appreciative cult audience. “People have called me who I haven’t seen since high school who said, ‘David, after 100 movies you’ve finally made a movie we like,’” DeCoteau says. “I watched it again, because I hadn’t seen it since we made it, and it is so ridiculous and hilarious and over-the-top.”
No one who has seen it will be surprised that A Talking Cat!?! was shot in only three days. In the ‘80s, DeCoteau had few peers when it came to speed and efficiency, but the collapse of the DVD market and the proliferation of digital technology means he now has to work faster, cheaper, and with more competition than ever. When I called DeCoteau, he was out on his morning walk as part of a fitness regimen: “Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I’d just sit in a director’s chair behind a monitor, barking out orders to my 80-person crew. Now that I have only eight people on my crew, I have to kinda do ten different jobs, so I’m tired of dragging around 30 extra pounds.”
He soldiers on, more productively than ever. This month saw the release of Doc Holliday’s Revenge, a western with Eric Roberts, William McNamara, and Tom Berenger that he shot at the Paramount Ranch (the same place as an earlier Doc Holliday film, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral). 3 Scream Queens, with Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, and Michelle Bauer, will premiere on Halloween. November will bring Knock ‘Em Dead, a horror comedy with Rae Dawn Chong, Betsy Russell, and Johnny Whitaker. And in February, DeCoteau will ride the Sharknado wave with 90210 Shark Attack. When he talks about these actors and others – some of whom he grew up watching, all of whom he loves – the businessman melts away. “I got into the business because I love movies,” he says. “As long as I continue making them, and as long as I find enough people who will pay to watch them, I will continue to make them.”
And while the Los Angeles mansion from the 1313 series has been leveled, DeCoteau has moved on to a new series of homoerotic genre flicks. “Now I’m doing similar movies called 666,” says DeCoteau. He laughs. “I’m just trying to compete in a very difficult marketplace!”
David DeCoteau’s Doc Holliday’s Revenge is now available on DVD and Digital HD from Lionsgate. 3 Scream Queens debuts October 31 on the Rapid Heart Vimeo On Demand Channel.