Horror director's career back from the dead

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He spoke with a soft, almost Southern lilt, though he grew up near the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. He had a goatee and was energetic, charmed by the new attention but guilelessly matter-of-fact. On that stage at Lincoln Hall, before mostly young guys, several wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the titles of his movies, Turner wore a big smile, a Cubs jacket, a Cubs hat and not an ounce of self-importance. He did not seem like a man who had just discovered a treasure chest of hipster cred.

He explained to the audience that part of the $10,000 it took to make "Black Devil Doll" went to crew and actor salaries (he didn't know that working for free is an accepted part of the culture of independent filmmaking).

And when a guy asked what "Quadead Zone" meant, he replied: "'Quad' means four.

'Dead' … you know what that means."

Told in his apartment later that many of those people at Lincoln Hall (and at his well-attended appearances in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas) were there undoubtedly because they just wanted to see the guy who would think to make a movie with sex scenes between a puppet and an actress, Turner chuckled. "When I showed that movie to my mother, she said, 'I love you, Chester, but you're a weird cookie.' I said, 'Ma, you helped finance me!'" Turner said. "Ideas just come to me. It's how I think: Say I have an idea about a grandmother, and she's baking. OK, what is she baking? You assume she's baking people, right? That's just the start for me."

Turner said he grew up fascinated by "The Twilight Zone" and was constantly writing horror stories, but he went to work in the remodeling business and put aside dreams of being a filmmaker. Then came the VHS revolution of the 1980s, when "lots of people noticed that something like 'Friday the 13th' was selling well on shelves and, as long as the box on a video-store shelf looked pretty good, they could make a horror movie with store-bought video cameras," said Joe Ziemba, a Homewood native, founder of the Bleeding Skull horror website and a programmer at the influential Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin (which has shown Turner's films).

Asked if Turner's being an African-American in a white scene or any degree of irony factored into the appreciation of his movies, Ziemba said: "Absolutely not. His work transcends all of that, actually. Like a lot of people who started making movies with video cameras back then, he had a creative volcano in his mind."

Indeed, Turner was so determined to make a film that he took a correspondence course on filmmaking, the only route he knew to get even the most rudimentary instruction. Turner said: "I'm not going to use the N-word, but that's what it felt like back then, even among my friends: 'Who's this … guy think he is? Spielberg?' Chicago doesn't offer support to any filmmaker, I think. And can you imagine how hard it was to make anything with four people? I had no connections to anyone or knew anyone who knew anyone who knew anything about how to make a movie. It was like telling someone I was going to be an astronaut now."

In the end, though Turner hoped to get his films shown on cable, the best he could do was selling several hundred copies of each movie, mostly to video stores; for a short time in the 1980s, "Black Devil Doll" was distributed on a now-defunct video label, which Turner says sent him a one-time check of just under $1,000.

"Chester was always the strongest one in our family," said Keefe Turner, his younger brother. "It took a lot of endurance even to get where he got. But I always thought it would happen for him eventually — eventually."

Chester Turner's rise from obscurity to slightly lesser obscurity began a year ago. Louis Justin of Massacre Video, obsessed with landing a copy of "Quadead Zone," spent months scouring phone books and databases for Turner; indeed, Google the name "Chester Turner," and the first thing you get is a wealth of material on the convicted Los Angeles serial killer Chester Turner. "I looked in obituaries," Justin said. "I searched the names in his credits (many of which were fabricated by Turner to give his productions a greater feeling of authenticity). I called every Chester Turner in Chicago, then every Turner in the Chicago area. The name was so common, and people would not know what I was talking about: 'Are you related to the Chester Turner who made "Black Devil Doll From Hell"?' A lot of people thought I was being a racist (expletive) and hung up on me. I went to Chicago and hit video stores on the South Side until I came to one that knew about the videos, and then I narrowed my search to a 5-mile radius of the store."

Justin returned to Michigan and dialed the phone numbers that hadn't picked up the first time — and then found Chester Turner. "I said to Chester, 'Did you direct a film by chance?' And Chester said, 'Yes, how do you know about that?' I hung up and composed myself, then called him back and told him that I wanted to release his films on video again."

Said Turner: "I didn't believe him. He said he was a big fan. So I'm thinking, 'Right, and your bottom line is?'"

Justin drove to Chicago. He and Turner talked over pizza and hashed out a deal: Justin would pay Turner for the rights to the two films. He also agreed to help finance a new Chester Turner horror movie. Justin said he paid Turner more than the director received for his films combined (he wouldn't say exactly how much but that it was less than $10,000). Turner, in a separate interview, said the deal was "very fair."

"But I actually didn't completely believe him that people loved my movies until we went to (a horror movie convention in) Cleveland," Turner said. "He got me a round-trip ticket and a hotel room. When I got there …"

Turner became misty-eyed recalling that day last fall: "It touched my heart."

Justin recalled: "Chester just kept signing autographs and looking over at me, and I would nod, like, 'See? I told you.'"

In fact, as they toured last fall, so many fans told Turner about the relative ease and affordability of digital filmmaking — as well as the micro-funding site Kickstarter, which Turner had not heard of (but which has been used by many filmmakers, including Zach Braff and Spike Lee) — that Turner became encouraged. He immediately set to work on writing "Tales From the Quadead Zone 2" and "Black Devil Doll From Hell 2."

"Quadead Zone 2" will be the first; Turner plans to begin shooting in March. And Keefe is building the next Black Devil Doll From Hell, which Chester said will look more like a Henry Winkler than a Rick James.

"This will be my next act, my way of repaying the warm feelings," Turner said. "But I'm different now. I'm older and can't do the extreme low-budget thing the same way. Not if it stunts my ability to make what I want. Though if I have to dig into my pocket, I will. Because I do my best with what I have to work with."


Twitter @borrelli

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