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From Harry Potter to Hatchet – The World of John Carl Buechler

If someone as influential as Roger Corman refers to you as ‘the best in the business’ you know you’re doing something right. And Roger Corman should know; he has been responsible for nurturing some of the most established names in Hollywood, with Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese all starting out under his independent wing.

John Carl Buechler was a young wannabe artist when Corman hired him to run the effects department of New World Pictures, where he supervised the weird and wonderful creations on such schlock classics as Android and Sorceress. Like many children growing up in the 1950s, Buechler was raised on a diet of creature features and sci-fi B-movies, a passion that would fuel his work as an adult.

 ‘I was always interested in effects,’ explained Buechler. ‘Ever since I was three-years-old, I knew. I had seen the original King Kong on television and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. As a small child you really don’t know what a writer, or a director, or an effects man does. I just knew that I wanted to do that.’

Experimenting with latex and clay, Buechler’s obsession with special effects began to grow until he eventually reached out to a professional artist called Rick Baker. Despite only being two years older, Baker had already begun to make a name for himself in the industry at a time when prosthetic and creature effects had made significant advancements.

After a short apprenticeship under Baker, Buechler’s first project was a low budget film entitled The Thing in the Basement. Produced for approximately $3,000, the short piece allowed him to not only design the titular monster but also portray it under heavy makeup and latex. The Thing, which Fangoria claimed was becoming ‘something of an underground hit,’ would become the catalyst needed to kick-start Buechler’s career.

While his first professional gig would be a brief stint on the 1979 made-for-TV movie The Darker Side of Terror, Buechler’s breakthrough would come with the sci-fi series Jason of Star Command. Produced in the wake of the Star Wars phenomenon, during a time that would also see the likes of Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25thCentury, Jason would prove to be a modest success on the small screen.

‘It was really low budget, but it was kind of cool in a classic Dr. Who sort of way,’ he recalled. ‘After that I worked with Stan Winston on The Island and did the effects for a movie called The Mausoleum. The movie was awful but I got rave reviews for the effects and it helped my career greatly. It was during this period that I began a relationship with Roger Corman.’

Corman’s own career had started in the 1950s but it would be through a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations the following decade that he would cement his reputation as a master of independent filmmaking. But by the dawn of the 1970s his focus had turned to production, allowing a new generation of directors to create a slew of fantasy and exploitation pictures.

While his association with New World would allow Buechler to experiment with special effects it also gave him the opportunity to try his hand at directing, overseeing second unit photography on both Forbidden World and Deathstalker. Having already proved himself under Corman, Buechler soon attracted the attention of another independent producer, one who would soon come to dominate the B-movie scene of the 1980s…Charles Band.

The son of an independent filmmaker, Band grew up surrounded by the world of motion pictures and spent much of his childhood on film sets in Rome where his father was based. Embarking on his own career in the mid-1970s with a slew of X-rated pictures, Band’s early horror offerings included the underrated Mansion of the Doomed and the cult slasher Tourist Trap.

But it would be the formation of the appropriately-titled production company Empire Pictures that would finally bring Band the success he so desperately craved. Buechler would become one of the key figures of Empire, helping to create the effects for a variety of popular features that would include Ghoulies, Trancers and From Beyond.

Unlike many producers in the industry, Band had earned a reputation for allowing his filmmakers the freedom to experiment and explore their talents and before long Buechler began to express his desire to direct. Having spent the last few years working alongside an array of filmmakers he felt that he had studied the craft and having contributed to a segment of Empire’s anthology The Dungeonmaster was ready to make his first feature film.

Troll was my original story, which I had first brought to Roger Corman, then to Charles Band,’ said Buechler on how he came to make his directorial debut. ‘Roger passed on it but Charles saw the potential in it. My original vision was a little darker than the final version but the fact is we just didn’t have the budget to do it the way I had first envisioned it; big effects, a huge magical world, more like Legend or The Lord of the Rings.’

Set in an apartment block and focusing on the family of a man named Harry Potter, the movie told of a vicious troll who succeeds in casting a spell on Potter’s young daughter while an elderly witch next door attempts to defeat the evil creature before it can transform the residents of the building into more trolls.

While constrained by the limited resources and low budget, Troll proved to be a minor hit, although predictably the critical reaction would be somewhat mixed. ‘Troll takes its inspiration, if it can be called that, from those late, great bargain basement science fiction films that managed to be funny without trying,’ exclaimed the New York Times.

Troll may have failed to make the same impact on popular culture as other Empire offerings like Ghoulies or Re-Animator but it would prove to have something of an interesting legacy. In 1990 an Italian production called Goblin would be retitled Troll 2 in an attempt to capitalise on the minor success of Buechler’s movie, yet this unofficial sequel would soon be declared one of the worst films ever made.

A decade after the release of Troll a novel was published by a first-time author that would explore the world of magic and fantasy with a young hero called Harry Potter. While comparisons between the two stories were made, not only by Buechler but numerous critics, the series of Harry Potter books and subsequent film adaptations became a cultural phenomenon.

Despite the lukewarm reaction to Troll the movie found its way to the desk of a young executive at Paramount Pictures called Frank Mancusco, Jr. who was searching for a potential director to bring the latest instalment in the long-running Friday the 13th to fruition. With the long-awaited A Nightmare on Elm Street crossover Freddy vs. Jason seemingly trapped in development hell, the producers of the series wanted to bring Jason back to the big screen as soon as possible

‘There were all the usual concerns with the material. The script went through several rewrites,’ stated Buechler. I really wanted a more action-oriented horror film with more character-driven elements. I very much approved of the supernatural aspect and wanted to go even further with it. To me, the whole thing about what makes Jason scary is his ambiguity. The supernatural would be another terrific element to keep the viewers on edge.’

With series antagonist Jason Voorhees having become a horror icon of the 1980s, the producers wanted to introduce a hero that would prove to be more than a match. Takin inspiration from Stephen King’s Carrie, the final girl of Friday the 13thPart VII: The New Blood would display remarkable telekinetic powers, something that would allow Buechler to create a more action-packed finale.

But the demands of the script would require a stuntman who could portray Jason alongside elaborate pyrotechnics and dangerous set pieces. Enter Kane Hodder. Having been impressed by his fearless dedication during their work together on the set of Renny Harlin’s Prison, Buechler was determined to cast Hodder as the new Jason.

‘I insisted on Kane in the role of Jason,’ claimed Buechler. ‘Frank didn’t like him at first. He complained that he wasn’t physically big enough. I explained that I wanted to create a whole new look for Jason; a torn-up living dead ghost that inhabited a decomposing body. The makeup effects would bulk him up and they would also allow for chunks to be missing from his rotting frame.’

Buechler’s tenacity would ultimately pay off as Hodder would soon become a fan favourite and the definitive Jason for many viewers, portraying the role a further three times and showing dedication to the character unrivalled by other horror veterans. The New Blood, however, would continue the commercial decline the series had struggled with in recent years and while the movie was despised by critics the final act has since been praised by fans of the series.

Following his work on Friday the 13th Buechler continued to provide special effects for other horror franchises, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween before coming full circle by once again finding himself on the set of a Ghoulies movie, this time as the director.

Ghoulies Go to College was originally scheduled to go out theatrically with a huge campaign; unfortunately Vestron Pictures died a horrible death,’ said Buechler. ‘The company that funded Ghoulies 3 lost its line of credit from a certain bank. There was a huge legal battle and ultimately the original owners of Vestron won their case, but many movies were damaged in the process.’

During the 1990s Buechler would reunite with former employer Roger Corman on a variety of low budget projects that would include the Jurassic Park mockbuster Carnosaur and a made-for-TV remake of the Joe Dante cult hit Piranha, before returning to directing once again in 1998 with Watchers Reborn, a horror sequel based on a short story by author Dean R. Koontz.

Twenty years after its original release, Buechler became determined to bring his original elaborate vision for Troll to the screen as a lavish big budget remake, reuniting members of the cast and expanding on the world he had created in 1986. A more faithful adaptation of the pitch he had given to both Corman and Band, Buechler hoped to finally bring his long-gestating concept to life in all its fantastic glory.

‘I now have a huge budget to make my picture and the film will be a sweeping dark adventure story. We will see more of the magical world, not just as it is today but as it was long, long ago, when there was a great war between humans and the faery folk. We’ve just signed Noah Hathaway, whom you might recall as the original Harry Potter in the first film. He will be playing the role of the evil wizard Turok, in a time before he is cursed and becomes the troll. We are now in the process of attaching A-list talent to the film.’

While development on Troll remained ongoing Buechler turned his attention to directing a string of B-movies that failed to generate much interest within the horror community, including an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it would be on the set of a slasher movie directed by an unknown filmmaker called Adam Green that Buechler would be reunited with Kane Hodder.

Hatchet was an attempt to kick-start a new horror franchise, one that would return the genre to its blood-soaked days of the early 1980s, with an unstoppable killer dispatching of a group of young hapless victims, in all manner of gruesome ways. Hodder, once again hidden under heavy prosthetics, portrayed the demented Victor Crowley and with the help of Buechler’s gruesome special effects, gave horror fans the gore they had been craving.

‘Adam knew exactly what he wanted,’ explained Buechler. ‘He is smart, talented and articulate and one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met. The whole ’80s retro gore-fest was his idea and he wanted tons of gore. But not just gore; live action in-your-face latex and Karo blood splatter. None of this overly-used CGI stuff that often doesn’t work.’

Following the release of Hatchet Buechler continued to work on Troll but the project remained in development hell. After several years investing time and energy into the screenplay and financing the production ground to a halt. Buechler, meanwhile, continued to create special effects for other filmmakers, including Eric Weston’s creature feature Hyenas and the anthology Monsterpiece Theatre Volume 1.

On 18 March 2019, barely a month after the announcement that he had been battling prostate cancer, Buechler passed away at the age of sixty-six. The Hollywood Reporter, who described him as a ‘makeup master,’ paid tribute to Buechler in an obituary that listed the highlights of his long and influential career, while filmmakers and actors began to express their condolences for their former collaborator and friend, many of whom had launched their own careers on the same low budget movies as Buechler.

‘A much-beloved figure in the horror community,’ added Entertainment Weekly, while Dread Central’s touching article concluded with, ‘Thank you for the creatures you created and the worlds you brought to life.’ Although the name John Carl Buechler may have been unfamiliar to those outside of the horror community, monsters such as Ghoulies and Kane Hodder’s Jason Voorhees have become such a part of popular culture that his influence is undeniable. ‘I think it’s wonderful that there’s a new wave of filmmakers who love and respect the horror genre,’ said Buechler on the new generation of artists and filmmakers who have been inspired by his work. ‘Back when I started out we were inspired by the old Harryhausen films, the Hammer movies and the original Universal monsters. What goes around comes around.’

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