If you’ve ever before heard of the man I’m writing about this week, I already know what you’ve heard. Every article and interview available online refers to Ted V. Mikels as a savant of sorts, an indefatigable and perversely genius filmmaker with a cult following of folks who adore his no-budget flicks and revere him as a surviving visionary of the Ed Wood School of Campy and Bizarre Cinema.
No, this isn’t going to be that kind of column. Although I had never heard of the guy prior to lunch last week with a journalist friend from Germany—Mikels is evidently big in Deutschland—I have been assured by my own Weekly editors that the longtime Las Vegan who created such Oscar bait as Demonheart and Corpse Grinders II has, in fact, enjoyed his local media close-ups several times.
So, okay. This isn’t going to be a piece about how terrific Ted V. Mikels is—and for good reason. I have a different story to tell. Ted V. Mikels is 80 years old and broke. He vacated his 2,500-square-foot studio near the Mandalay Bay a couple of months ago. Most of his old 35mm filmmaking equipment is in the Apex landfill, as he was unable to sell it off. His credit cards are maxed out, the equity in his modest east side townhouse has been spent and he has absolutely no idea how he’ll make his mortgage payments.
“Right now I’m in a quandary,” he says as he sits in a living room crammed with masks from his horror films, a dummy he has spoken through for ventriloquism back in the day and swords and other regalia from the Glendale, California, castle where he lived with an honest-to-goodness harem years ago. “In previous years, my movies have sold various rights to various places in the world for showing or televising, and I’d get something for that. In the last few years, that’s down to nothing. I’m facing right now the very daunting problem of having to make a living.”
I wanted to meet Mikels because he sounded like yet another one of those wacky, colorful characters hidden throughout the Vegas landscape. The guy sports a silver handlebar mustache, always wears a big, honkin’ boar’s tooth on a chain around his neck and frequently uses fellow eccentric, ex-Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren in his movies. (If you’re an oddball in Vegas, you’ll sooner or later find a kindred spirit in schlock-collector Hammargren, it seems.)
Mikels should be enjoying himself right about now. Last year, he was the subject of both a John Waters-narrated documentary called The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels: A Man Gone Mad With a Movie Camera and a book, Film Alchemy: The Independent Cinema of Ted V. Mikels by Christopher Wayne Curry. He had a surprisingly great ride in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s, making these cheap, strange films about killer zombies or killer cats, full of cheesy set pieces, wooden acting, circuitous plots and colorful, outlandish posters. Some of the films weren’t horror, he is quick to note, pointing to The Black Klansmen, about a black man who wears the sheet, and Heart of a Boy, about a child’s need for a heart transplant.
And though his budgets were always a pittance and ideas always difficult to explain, Mikels managed for the original Astro-Zombies to cast the late John Carradine and Wendell Corey, who had appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Another Mikels alumni is Jeannine Riley, of his 1964 Strike Me Deadly, who went on to star in the TV series Petticoat Junction.
Mikels claims his biggest hit, Corpse Grinders—about cats who attack people after learning how much they love human flesh when it’s ground into their cat food—has grossed more than $10 million on a budget of $47,000. There’s no way to verify that, but he says the money he earned from that has long since been spent on making other films.
In the mid-1980s, he moved to Las Vegas to make movies and even a few commercials to pay the bills.
“I’ve got any location I might need right here,” he said of Vegas. “I’ve got every sort of a modern building. I’ve got every sort of an old building. I’ve got locations from Lake Mead, Hoover Dam to Mount Charleston, I’ve got access to everything from snow-covered streets to old lakes and even the Colorado River.”
If only Mikels could have frozen time back in the day when you really had to be industrious and creative to make even bad movies. But those days are now gone, and in the modern era of cheap digital cameras and iMovie and YouTube, anyone can make schlocky movies and so nobody can make a name for himself or get financed to do so.
Which explains why Ted V. Mikels is broke. For years he relied on his home equity to pay the $2,000-a-month rent on his studio, even though what he was creating there wasn’t remotely profitable. Then the bottom fell out of the real estate market and he no longer had his home to borrow against, and Ted V. Mikels became yet another part of the economic horror story in our midst.
The only thing he thinks about is making the next film, which, at the moment, is Astro-Zombies M3: Cloned. In it, scientists at Area 51 unleash a new breed of astro-zombies, and female assassins from his Doll Squad flick are called in to save the world. This month, footage is being shot by volunteer crews in Florida and California, and he is heading to a bookstore on Boulder Highway and into the home of local aspiring filmmaker Joshua Cohen in Henderson to shoot scenes. Then he has to figure out how to do the editing on a Toshiba computer and hopes the movie will be out early in 2010.
Mikels doesn’t care so much that they’ll never get shown in mainstream theaters or that, as he admits, they’ll never make even their modest expenses back. He is motivated by the story, however weird, and by the constant flow of e-mails he receives from fans and wanna-be filmmakers asking to be involved. His last premiere, in fact, was screened at the Palms after a fan rented one of the theaters for him.
“I really have to get on that lecture circuit to make some money,” Mikels says, hoping to speak at film schools around the nation. “How many people have been writer/producer/director/cinematographer/lighting/sound effects/music editors for 60 years? How many?”
And if that fails, Mikels has yet another escape plan as unlikely as his plots: That Quentin Tarantino might swoop in and pay him for the rights to remake some of his titles.
“Quentin is involved in so many things, but he’s been quoted many times that he loves Ted V. Mikels movies and that I was the inspiration for Kill Bill and so on like that,” he says, although I couldn’t find such a quote anywhere online.
More likely: Devoted Ted V. Mikels fans the world over read this column and decide they can’t possibly let their hero end up indigent. They send astro-zombies to the mortgage companies to make his debt—or at least his debt collectors—disappear. And then he writes some wacky film about it that is seen as an allegory for the frustration of the house-poor masses.
You’re welcome, Ted V. Mikels. Let me know where to show up for my cameo.