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August 15th, 2012 MATTHEW SINGER | Cover Story
 

Buried Alive

Portland film pioneer Don Gronquist was banned, panned and forgotten. He deserved better.

lede_gronquist_3841IMAGE: James Rexroad
Don Gronquist chose a lovely day to revisit the scene of his crime.

Sunlight pours into the Pittock Mansion as he lumbers into the room once occupied by nieces of the newspaper magnate who built this posh West Hills manor-turned-museum. Ghostly paintings of the girls, vacant-eyed and porcelain-skinned, hang on the walls. As Gronquist leans his long, soft frame over the rope cordoning off the former occupants’ bed, he remembers putting a hatchet through the head of a young brunette in this exact spot 30 years ago.

“We should’ve used a crab dolly for this shot,” he murmurs, mostly to himself.

DEATH ON THE STAIRS: Don Gronquist walks through the century-old Pittock Mansion in the West Hills, where he shot Unhinged from dusk until dawn. “It was like joining the circus,” says assistant cameraman Eric Edwards.
IMAGE: James Rexroad
A tour group convenes outside the door. The guide does not mention that the clean-shaven, gray-haired man lurking inside made an infamous slasher flick here. Unhinged had it all: buckets of blood, topless women in the shower, a squealing synthesizer score and a jar full of pig eyeballs. It sounds silly now, but the lo-fi gore got the film, which was tearing up the video charts, banned in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain during the uproar over so-called “video nasties.”

Unhinged was a botched cash grab and a poor follow-up to Gronquist’s debut as writer and producer, Rockaday Ritchie and the Queen of the Hop, a teenage exploitation film that became the first Portland-produced independent feature to receive international distribution. But Unhinged makes a much better trailer for the scuttled ambitions of Portland’s most important forgotten filmmaker.

A thin margin separates cult heroes and unknown pioneers. Gronquist, a 63-year-old Portland native, made three films in three different decades. Each failed, a victim of terrible luck and human frailty. But to understand what Portland filmmaking is today, you have to understand what it’s not. You have to understand Don Gronquist.

With John Carpenter and Wes Craven hacking their way to success in the early ’80s, killing teenagers seemed like a shortcut to Hollywood. Made for the relative pittance of $100,000, Unhinged was Gronquist’s plan to cash in on the then-booming market for cheaply made, direct-to-video horror pictures. It was well on the way when it was pulled from video shelves by order of British parliament. 

Four years later, Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche established an aesthetic for the Northwest—gritty, realistic, personal—and his version of Portland came to define the city onscreen. Meanwhile, only peers, local historians and the odd European horror-phile remember Gronquist. 

Gronquist boasts that his films never lost money, and that he brought every script he wrote to wide distribution. This satisfies him. But among the handful of people who’ve actually seen his movies, there is a belief that if the winds of fate had blown another way, the independent filmmaking scene in Portland would’ve turned out much differently.

“If Gus had never made Drugstore Cowboy, and Mala Noche had been his pinnacle, crowning achievement,” says David Walker, ex-Willamette Week screen editor, “I’ve often felt there’d be more people running around town wanting to be the next Don Gronquist.”

DINNER AND A MOVIE: Gronquist (far left) says this scene, shot in the Pittock Mansion dining room and featuring veteran Portland stage actress Virginia Settle (right, seated), was the most complex in Unhinged.
IMAGE: Tom Lipman

A thumbnail sketch of Gronquist, from those who know him: He is infectiously enthusiastic. He has a miniaturist’s eye for detail. He is a little crazy. Above all, he is a film buff par excellence.

“If the Internet Movie Database ever broke down,” says Ted Mahar, a former critic at The Oregonian, “you could just call Don.”

“In grade school, I knew all the managers at the downtown theaters. I’d skip school and go to the movies,” says Gronquist from his table at Via Delizia, a cozy Mediterranean bistro by his apartment near the Broadway Bridge. As he talks, he exerts a nervous, fidgety energy. He picks at the sleeve of his loose-fitting purple sweater. He occasionally realigns my digital recorder and adjusts the position of my notebook. 

With his long nose, droopy eyes and a gap between his front teeth, it’s clear why old buddies called him “Goofy.” Gronquist talks in a raspy, rapid-fire stammer, as if he’s trying to stop the miscellany filling his brain from pouring out at once. Often, he punctuates stories—he’s got a lot of stories—by rearing back in his seat, letting out a loud laugh, then smacking the table.

He claims to have danced with a young Laura Bush at a Washington fundraiser when George W. was too tipsy to stand. He says he talked fantasy baseball with Henry Kissinger in the lobby of a New York hotel. His favorite sunglasses were almost borrowed by Keanu Reeves for My Own Private Idaho. 

For all his difficulty keeping thoughts on track, once Gronquist set his path in life, he never strayed. “All I ever wanted to do my entire life was make movies,” he says. “Generally, most guys don’t even know what they want to do with their lives.”

It’s been 17 years since Gronquist last tried. A lingering back injury, the result of a botched stunt performed in the early ’80s—he leapt out of a window and missed the crash pad—made the shoot for his most ambitious film, 1995’s The Devil’s Keep, a grueling ordeal. He’s had six surgeries since; he gets MRIs “like most people get haircuts.” Painkillers shroud his hyperactive head in a permanent fog. A script for what would’ve been his fourth film, about a jazz musician/homicide detective’s slow descent into madness, turned into a planned novel, then into a pile of paper.

These days, he lives alone. Each morning, he pops a Vicodin and a handful of Advil, then waits an hour before getting out of bed. He supplements his Social Security checks by hawking items on eBay: comic books, records, collectibles he’s held onto since childhood. He puts his obsessive mind to use playing fantasy baseball. He goes to dinner with friends twice a week. Otherwise, he watches movies from his maxed-out Netflix queue.

Gronquist’s legacy is three feature films. Opinions on their quality vary, but nobody questions his ambition. In a small-batch city like Portland, Gronquist dreamt big. Instead of saying “fuck Hollywood,” his movies suggested Portland could be Hollywood.

BACK IN THE ROCKADAYS: At age 22, Don Gronquist wrote Rockaday Ritchie and the Queen of the Hop based on the serial killer who inspired the movies Badlands and Natural Born Killers and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska.”
Image courtesy of Don Gronquist
Gronquist’s vision has been realized—just not by him. NBC’s Grimm, a supernatural cop show that uses Portland as a backdrop, has just begun its second season. It bears no resemblance to the achingly personal work of Van Sant or Todd Haynes, but does share some things with Unhinged: an acknowledgement that, behind the city’s façade of hip urbanism lurks an eerie backwoods. Of Portland’s homegrown, only Gronquist was willing to exploit it.

“This is a city where people are trying to make art-house movies,” Walker says. “Maybe he’s a little too commercial for this city to fully embrace him.”

Forty years ago, however—before anyone had made a film of any kind that managed to escape the city’s borders—Gronquist had the opportunity to shape Portland’s cinematic sensibilities in his own image. It almost happened.


In 1985, a year before Mala Noche, Van Sant set up a camera in a room at the Heathman Hotel and invited Portland filmmakers to discuss the future of cinema. He called the documentary Room 319.

There’s Penny Allen, who directed two subversive comedies, Property and Paydirt, then moved to France. There’s Eric Edwards, who later lensed Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues in a successful career as a Hollywood cinematographer. There’s even the late Tom Shaw, an ex-porn peddler whose great contributions were his film equipment and 1984’s laughable revenge thriller Courier of Death.

And then there’s Gronquist. He introduces himself as “erstwhile writer, director, producer, stunt person, caterer.” In loafers and sunglasses, you’d think he just got back from shooting his fifth blockbuster in the tropics.

“Hotshots will come out of the film schools, of the ghettos of the documentary ranks, and they will get their glory,” he predicts, balancing a drink on the arm of the hotel-room sofa. “Talent will definitely win out, but it will end up being swallowed by the monied powers-that-be in Hollywood.”

If he sounds cynical, he has reason. At that time, he’d made two movies, each derailed by events out of his control.

His first film, Rockaday Ritchie and the Queen of the Hop, made in 1973, follows a teenage killer with a leather jacket and pomade-slicked hair on a killing spree through Happy Days America. The script, which Gronquist started writing as a college student in California, was based on the murderous 1958 road trip taken by 19-year-old Charlie Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend.

Gronquist didn’t know what he was doing, but that didn’t stop him from doing it. He prepared the contracts. He cast the actors. He found shooting locations. He set the budget—an astoundingly meager $50,000—and secured backers. He negotiated the rights to several period-appropriate rock songs. The only thing Gronquist didn’t do was direct, but that was only because, well, he couldn’t do everything. That responsibility fell to George Hood, an upstart whose father, Frank, founded the film-processing center TekniFilm Labs, then the epicenter of Portland filmmaking.

Rockaday Ritchie had two things going for it: a searing lead performance from Portland stage actor Russell Fast and the ecstatic energy generated by amateurs learning on the fly. A few months after wrapping in 1974, Gronquist found himself presenting the film to Bob Evans and Frank Yablans, the heads of Paramount Pictures.

“And they say, ‘Yeah, we’ll go with this,’” Gronquist says.

Weeks later, the deal fell through. Paramount learned Warner Brothers had its own account of the Starkweather killings, a movie called Badlands, in the pipeline. It starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and was directed by a young Texan named Terrence Malick. Paramount backed out.

“We went from thinking we made pop gold, the next great American teenage movie, and thinking we’d really have a shot at it, to ‘No, no one is going to touch it,’” Hood says.

Eventually, Rockaday Ritchie got picked up for distribution by a small, now-defunct company. It premiered locally at the Northwest Film Center in 1975. A recut version of the movie, with generic songs replacing the pricey hits, appeared internationally at the start of the home-video era, under the pun-intensive title Stark Raving Mad. In a 1983 review, Variety praised Fast’s “brooding presence” and complimented Hood’s “astute artistic decisions.”

At the time, that’s the furthest any independent movie made by Portlanders had managed to get. Considering what could have been, it was of little consolation to Gronquist.

“It was demoralizing, even though we ended up selling the picture,” he says. “We had the president of Paramount Pictures saying, ‘Yeah.’ That’s a pretty big deal.”

It would be eight years before Gronquist tried to make another movie. And this time, he would do everything.

MOTLEY CAST AND CREW: On the set of Unhinged (clockwise from left): Eric Edwards, assistant cameraman; Richard Blakeslee, director of photography; Peggy Miles, sound mixer; Harry Dawson, assistant cameraman; Chuck Roseberry, boom operator; Janet Scoutten, makeup and hair; Gronquist; Laurel Munson, lead actress.
Image courtesy of Don Gronquist

Asked to recall the first movie he saw, Gronquist doesn’t strain: Disney’s The African Lion, 1955, at the now-shuttered Guild Theatre on Southwest 9th Avenue. “I felt like I was enveloped in warm hands,” he says. “And I never looked back.”

Things were rougher at home. Born into a working-class Southwest Portland family, Gronquist grew up “in a house of fear and secrets.” His mother was a housewife. His father, who worked as an insulator, was a stern, short-tempered and abusive man. “He’d always ground me, then get liquored up and come pick fights with me,” Gronquist says. “It was just a hair-trigger situation all the time.”

Theaters became sanctuaries during Gronquist’s time at Wilson High School. He consumed everything from Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Although he had friends, Gronquist would typically go to Portland’s art-house theaters, the Aladdin and Cinema 21, alone. “People didn’t watch the same movies I watched,” he says.

At age 12, Gronquist saved the money earned from delivering newspapers and bought his first 8 mm camera. He spent his teenage years trying to mimic the shots of his favorite directors. He left Portland to attend film school at UCLA but dropped out when his father was dying of mesothelioma brought on by years of inhaling asbestos.

That’s when Gronquist discovered other people in Portland watched the same movies. They’d been sitting alone at those screenings, too. And, like him, they wanted to make their own films. “We were all spellbound in darkness,” Gronquist says. “You can’t know someone if you can’t see them.”


THIS IS STABTOWN: Sara Ansley, a model, was the first victim in Unhinged. Gronquist found the movie’s co-stars through a casting agency. “The trouble with that movie is we didn’t have good actors,” he says now.
IMAGE: Janet Scoutten
Unhinged, Gronquist’s second film, is not good. Even its director says so. It was, however, successful—before it became infamous.

Unhinged began as a bet between Gronquist and co-writer Reagan Ramsey made over drinks downtown. “We were sitting there talking about, how cheap can we make a movie?” Gronquist says. “How cheap could we make a commercially viable 35 mm film?” Its plot, involving three teenage girls marooned at a spooky estate, couldn’t be more rote.

Shooting at the Pittock Mansion in its off-hours, from dusk through dawn, for 19 straight nights, Gronquist had a rough time in the director’s chair. In a newsletter article about the shoot, cinematographer Richard Blakeslee wrote: “Don is going a little crazy by this time, zeroing in on something new every day.... The one we enjoy most is, ‘I’ve lost my pages!’ This is in reference to his script…which he has taken apart and carries around like a bundle of autumn leaves; at various times, these will be lost, splattered with stage blood, misplaced, left in other rooms, soaked with water, covered with muddy footprints....”

Unhinged’s best reviews adorn the box of a 1988 VHS release: “Hideous!” raved Video Business. “Gore lovers will wallow in it!” exclaimed Music and Video Week. As far as anyone can remember, the movie screened only once in Portland, again at the Northwest Film Center.

Yet, worldwide, Unhinged is Gronquist’s best-known movie. Ironically, its notoriety is based on the fact that, for 20 years, the movie went virtually unseen.

In the early ’80s, a furor over direct-to-video horror movies erupted in the U.K. With the advent of the unregulated home VHS market, British video shelves flooded with low-budget films filled with sex and violence. Public outcry against “video nasties” led to the creation of a law which retroactively banned 72 of the most reprehensible films. Oddly, Unhinged, which features only three murders, suggested only by sprays of blood, and two scenes of female nudity in 79 long minutes, wound up on the list next to Cannibal Holocaust, a purported snuff film that features the killing and eating of a live turtle, and the brutal rape-revenge fantasy I Spit on Your Grave.

The details of exactly how that happened are murky, even to Gronquist. He’d secured a distribution deal in England and took a hands-off approach. A month after its release in the summer of 1983, Gronquist got a call from the distributor, saying Unhinged was banned in Britain.

Unhinged was doing very well when it got yanked. There was a national television advertising campaign for the VHS version under way in Britain, with Video Trade Weekly reporting, “theatrical release is imminent.” The ban effectively killed the movie. Other foreign markets wouldn’t touch it. “I didn’t see the big picture at the time of what the echo effect would be,” Gronquist says.

A decade went by before Gronquist would attempt another film. In between, he opened and closed a restaurant called Pink’s. He coached his two sons, Peter and Addison, in Little League. He did copywriting and corporate imaging for the prominent industrial-equipment manufacturer Cascade Corporation, the company founded by the family of his wife, Wendy Warren. They divorced in 1991.

All the while, the back injury he sustained in the early ’80s worsened. What was initially diagnosed as a bone spur turned out to be a cyst pushing on Gronquist’s sciatic nerve. By 1992, he was in such daily “visceral” pain he had to have a chiropractor on the set his third film, The Devil’s Keep, a $460,000 globetrotting adventure film rooted in conspiracies about hidden Nazi gold. 

“We were all set to go, and he had the first of his major back surgeries,” says documentarian Brian Lindstrom, who worked on the film as an assistant director fresh out of film school.

Gronquist gave it a go, though: He built, to scale, an Austrian castle complete with a moat and swamp, in a warehouse in Clackamas.

“He was clearly in a lot of pain, and we were shooting under pretty grueling conditions,” Lindstrom says. “It was impressive to see, on a physical-endurance level.”

The film did not find an audience. By then, acclaimed directors such as Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and, yes, Gus Van Sant had raised the bar on what could be achieved in a low-budget film. 

“If you look at the 1980s, there’s a whole lot of opportunity, because there’s always a need for product for home video and cable,” David Walker says. “But at the end of the day, if you didn’t make a movie that really, really kicked ass, by the mid-’90s you were done.” 

VIDEO NASTY: Don Gronquist in his home office.
IMAGE: James Rexroad

In February, 200 people gathered inside Whitsell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum to watch the first local screening of Rockaday Ritchie and the Queen of the Hop in 37 years.

As part of its yearlong 40th anniversary celebration, the Northwest Film Center launched Essential Northwest, a monthly series reviving forgotten regional movies. Bill Foster, the center’s director, asked Gronquist and George Hood for an original print of their film. There wasn’t one. Instead, the film had to be re-created from recuts released internationally under different names: Germany’s Rock Baby, Australia’s Murder Run, Canada’s Execution. The version they cobbled together is 25 minutes shorter than the original. Full scenes have been lost.

 Still, the reaction from the audience—made up of cast, crew and cinephiles—was one of positive surprise. The movie held up.

“The assumption would be that if something went off into oblivion and never screened, it must’ve been bad,” Foster says. “Films have so many extenuating stories. A lot of good films never make it to the screen, because they were hobbled by legal disputes or bad reviews or something like that. Since it never made it, people assumed it was just a hobby.”

It would seem that the night would represent a small measure of redemption for Don Gronquist. As far as he’s concerned, though, he doesn’t need redemption. He made the movies he wanted to make, and didn’t have to answer to anybody.

“The people who care about me know what I’ve done,” he says. “I don’t need to impress a bunch of knuckleheads.” 


SCREENING: WW presents Unhinged at 9:45 pm Tuesday, Aug. 21, at the Hollywood Theatre. $5.

 
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