Horror movie director to film movies in Minnesota

October 27, 2018

VIRGINIA, Minn. (AP) — Werewolves and zombies (playing football) may be coming to the Iron Range at a location near you.

Perhaps, also, the recreation (on film) of a real-life 1897 unsolved double axe murder that took place in a small Minnesota town.

It’s all part of Craig Muckler’s vision for the future of his already successful movie producing career and for his hometown on the Range.

And if the films Muckler is intent on producing in Virginia, Minnesota and locations nearby are anything like his cult flick “Microwave Massacre,” they may have a following with 20-somethings, too.

It seems the young crowd is drawn to the rebirth of the 1983 low-budget horror comedy about a guy who has had enough of his wife’s fancy cooking (he just wants a bologna sandwich), murders her in a drunken rage, and then cooks and eats her using his wife’s prized oversized microwave.

It’s far from gory, a little bit corny, and has been described as “so outrageously different” that the film developed a cult following, which heightened after Arrow Video released “Microwave Massacre” on DVD/Blu-Ray in 2016, and that year screenings were held in Hollywood and at theaters across the United States and Canada.

The Virginia native has had a taste for the horror genre since he was a kid.

Greg Altobell, of Virginia, remembers his friend and garage band cohort “Muck” as a kid who was continually dragging him to Saturday matinees of horror pictures at the local theater. “He was always interested in monster movies,” Altobell told the Mesabi Daily News .

“I always knew I’d be involved in films in some way,” Muckler said by phone from his current home in St. Paul.

He was determined to overcome his stutter, for which he was bullied by some of the kids at school. In fact, teachers “thought I was slow and I was held back a year” while attending grade school in Virginia, said the 1971 Roosevelt High School grad.

But thanks to none other than Hollywood icon Rock Hudson, Muckler followed his dreams.

Through connections at the family cabin on Lake Vermilion, Muckler’s grandparents became friends with Hudson’s mother, Kate Olson, in the 1950s, explained the producer.

“Every summer she would come up and stay with us,” he said. “She was like my grandmother, and I was like the grandson she never had.”

Muckler and his family sometimes visited Olson and her famous actor son in California. Hudson told the young Muckler he should shoot for the “big screen” because acting is often a “cure” for stuttering.

Muckler recalls a Christmas dinner with Hudson and his mom in Newport Beach, California, during which Muckler said, “I want to be like you, Rock.” Hudson replied, “You will, Craig.”

Hudson outfitted him with the courage to shine, Muckler said.

Muckler launched a garage band, Winds of Change, in eighth grade. Altobell was its drummer. The group lasted into college.

In high school, Muckler starred in plays, and in 11th grade, “I was the only teen” performing in a Northern Lights Players production of “Guys and Dolls” at Kaleva Hall in Virginia.

Hudson was right, Muckler said. While acting, “I didn’t stutter.”

While in junior college in Virginia, Muckler had a role in the play, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” During the four performances, “I never stuttered once.”

Muckler went on to attend the University of Minnesota, where he studied theater arts and journalism.

After graduating from college, Muckler moved to Hollywood and enrolled in film classes at the University of California-Los Angeles. Within two years, he said, “I was a producer on the film, ‘Malibu High,’” a 1979 low-budget picture which Muckler describes as “one of the most successful drive-in style films.”

And from 1982 into the early-1990s, Muckler hosted his own program: “Craig Muckler’s Hollywood Showcase.” The Los Angeles talk show featured a number of the famous Hollywood guests Muckler hobnobbed with during his time on the West Coast, and it was among the top-rated public access shows in California, he said.

Muckler’s success with “Microwave Massacre” was, at the beginning, not so successful at all.

While at UCLA, Muckler wrote the movie’s storyline for a class taught by an independent filmmaker on producing low-budget films. He got an A on the project.

Then, while working on “Malibu High” in Santa Barbara, Muckler’s co-producer and soundman shared a few laughs over the plot — and then decided to turn it into a script and produce it.

They originally wanted to cast actor Rodney Dangerfield in the main role of Donald, but his services were too expensive. Stand-up comedian Jackie Vernon, best known as the recognizable voice of “Frosty” in the classic “Frosty the Snowman,” got the part.

Once Vernon was involved, the character of Donald was catered to the comedian, veering the film into a more comedic version of the much more dark humor Muckler originally intended.

The film was shot in large part at the home of Micky Dolenz of the 1960s band the Monkees, who was selling his house and offered it to the crew for a $1,000 rental. The musician sometimes stopped by to watch production.

And the legendary Bob Burns, known for his work on the 1974 film “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” served as the art director on “Microwave Massacre.”

However, the film was a hard sell. It took three years for it to be released, Muckler said. It was just so different from anything out there, he noted.

But several decades later, something remarkable happened. The film developed a cult following. Perhaps, Muckler said, it’s because of its star Jackie Vernon, who appealed to a younger generation because of his association with the popular snowman.

In any case, the film enjoyed a comeback, and a screening was arranged at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in December 2016. Also on the marquee: “Frosty the Snowman.”

That’s right, Muckler said. They ran as a double feature.

The film was shown on may other screens, as well, including at the historic Parkway Theater in Minneapolis.

Muckler said he was notified just days ago that a theater in Indiana wants to screen “Microwave Massacre” with the 1991 B-horror movie, “Popcorn.”

During his time in California, Muckler connected with many stars.

“I was like a magnet for celebrities,” he said, rattling off names like actress Linda Hamilton from “The Terminator” movies; actor Anthony Perkins, who portrayed Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” films; and Jessica Lange, a film, television and theater actress born in Cloquet.

For a while, Muckler dated musician Del Shannon’s daughter, he said.

Indeed, said longtime buddy Altobell, when Muckler drops by on the Range, there’s a lot of name-dropping. And it’s all very legit.

In fact, Muckler’s phone is continually ringing, Altobell said, with people in Hollywood calling to try to contact some of Muckler’s big-name associates. “They call him because he knows so many people,” Altobell laughed.

Muckler eventually returned to Minnesota in the early-2000s, mostly for the sake of his family, he said. He favored the school systems in the state for his kids.

He went to work as an insurance broker and opened his own production company, Persistent Productions, in South St. Paul. Muckler is president of the company, and the name is quite fitting, he said. “I am persistent.”

That persistence was proven recently, when Muckler co-directed and produced “a top feature documentary” released in some theaters this winter called, “A Taboo Identity: Kay Parker’s Journey.” It tells the story of the former adult film actress-turned metaphysical counselor.

The documentary, now on Amazon Prime, is narrated by Jill Schoelen, who acted in the 1987 thriller film, “The Stepfather.”

Muckler also assisted with Ironbound Studios of Chisholm’s production of the mystery-thriller, “The Harbinger,” currently in post-production and filmed on the Range.

And he and his good friend, actor Chris Mulkey — who currently lives in the Twin Cities and has starred in television and film, including the 2005 motion picture, “North Country” (also filmed on the Range; a drama based on a true story starring actress Charlize Theron) — have plans to begin producing on the Range as early as next year.

Muckler, along with Mulkey and actress Linda Blair, best known for her role as the possessed child in the 1973 film, “The Exorcist,” will be at the horror convention, Crypticon, in Minneapolis.

Muckler first met Blair 30-some years ago in the San Fernando Valley, he said. ”‘Malibu High’ was on the marquee, and four blocks down, I was having drinks with Linda Blair.”

The Virginia native expects many of his “Microwave Massacre” cult fans at Crypticon.

But he is equally thrilled to be “advocating” for the production of films on the Iron Range. He would like to assist the area’s economy and bring in some big names, he said.

“I was born and raised up there, so why not?”

One of them is titled, “Zombie Football,” which, just as it sounds, is about zombies playing the sport for the “ZFL.” ″It’s (the satirical movie) ‘Airplane’ meets (sports drama) ‘The Longest Yard’ meets (science fiction movie) ‘Night of the Living Dead,’” Muckler said. “It’s zany.”

Another is “Ripped to Shreds,” a werewolf movie that Muckler has pegged for production in Virginia.

And he aims to produce a film based on the murder of 61-year-old W.T. Boxell and his 19-year-old wife, Rachel, who were found bludgeoned to death by an axe at their home in Howard Lake in May of 1897. The double murder remains a mystery.

Altobell said “Muck” has come a long way since their garage band days. And he is proud of his friend for never letting his stuttering bother him. “I give him a lot of credit for taking the leap” to Hollywood.

Debbie Markstrom, of Virginia, remembers playing kick the can with her neighborhood pal, who was a few years her senior. Next thing she knew, he was out in California, pursuing his showbiz goals, she said.

“He’s been pretty successful, and I’m glad to see that,” said Markstrom, who still keeps in touch with Muckler. “He keeps telling me he’s going to put me in one of these movies,” she said with a chuckle.

“He’s always been a good friend,” said Altobell. Muckler was even the best man in his wedding.

It’s probably Muck’s down-to-earth Minnesota style that makes him so appealing to all the Hollywood types, he said.

When Muckler told Altobell he would be at Crypticon with “The Six Million Dollar Man” (actor Lee Majors), “I told him, ‘You can be Six Buck Muck.’”

Yes, Muckler has come a long way, indeed.

One of the bullies from junior high, who Muckler prefers not to name, is now one of his biggest supporters, he said, adding that he’s also become “a hero to stutterers” — something the Iron Range native never intended.

But “Muck” is glad to go on to inspire others.

Just like “Rock” did for him.

When “Microwave Massacre” screened at the Egyptian Theatre on Dec. 23, 2016, Muckler told the following story:

It was Dec. 23, many years ago, when Muckler, just a kid, and Hudson visited Gruman’s Chinese Theatre and the historic Hollywood Walk of Fame, where Hudson showed him his hand- and footprints in the concrete.

“Rock said someday you will be on Hollywood Boulevard, too.”

Sure enough, all those years later, to the day, Muckler was standing on the iconic street.

“I think Rock and Kate would be smiling.”

“Not bad,” Muckler said, “for a kid from Virginia, Minnesota.”


Information from: Mesabi Daily News, http://www.virginiamn.com

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