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Over recent years, thanks to the internet, DVD and genre magazines, countless long-lost movies have been rediscovered and introduced to a new generation of fans, eager to look back on a time before they were born when the world was a very different place. While the likes of Anchor Bay, Blue Underground and Code Red have unearthed some treasures and remastered them to high standards, there are still plenty of cult flicks that are yet to receive the respect they deserve.
Disciples of Death was a low budget thriller produced by a group of passionate young filmmakers in the early 1970s that, due to poor distribution, failed to achieve the same kind of success that many other independent films managed during that era. Later re-released as Enter the Devil, the movie was a collaboration between director Frank Q. Hobbs, producer Michael F. Cusack and writer David Cass. But, as fate would have it, the film eventually sank into obscurity.
David Cass looks back almost forty years later at the making of the lost classic that was Disciples of Death.
Having worked as a gunfighter in Old Tucson, Arizona when you were younger, how did you first become involved in the entertainment industry as an actor and stuntman during the early 1960s?
Directly after high school I went to work at Old Tucson – Robert Shelton had leased the place from the state of Arizona, to turn it into a tourist attraction. It was while working for Bob that I got my first taste of the motion picture industry, I worked as an extra in shows and hung out on the set. While working at Old Tucson I met Frank Dobbs, he was in the Army stationed near by and wanted to shoot a ‘home movie’ Western on weekends.
Bob was out of town and I was sort of in charge, of course I said yes. Frank did two movies that summer at O.T. Bob Shelton was the catalyst in my career (or many careers) of over forty years – I could stay and work for him at O.T. or be Hollywood Bound. I chose Hollywood. He introduced me to John Wayne when they were filming McLintock! at Old Tucson. God only knows what Bob told the Duke, but Duke gave me a small part in the show and I was bitten by the golden bug of show biz.
How would you describe your creative partnership with Frank?
We first met at O.T – a friendship was born, a kinsman ship for the film industry. Frank went back to Houston, Texas and I went to Hollywood. I appeared on several Gunsmoke and got to know the management – they were looking for a ‘bottle show’ (one they could contain at the studio in Studio City) to end the season with. Frank was in the news industry and dabbling in his home movies – I told him Gunsmoke was looking for a script; he knocked out a treatment, they liked it and hired him to write a script.
Our creative partnership was just that, creative and a partnership. Over the years we wrote and rewrote scripts together. One, Redemption, is out there right now, at a network as a possible movie for television. It would be a grand thing to have it made, a tribute to the true renaissance man of motion pictures, Frank Quinn Dobbs.
The story for Disciples of Death was allegedly inspired by a cult in New Mexico known as The Penitentes and you were approached by Frank to develop the screenplay together. Do you recall exactly how the script grew and how long did it take to complete?
Frank and Mike Cusack had a small production company in Houston (MFC Films); offices, a sound stage, etc. They were doing industrial films and local commercials. Frank came up with the idea, I believe Mike financed it – we all went down to the Big Bend area of Texas (Terlingua) because I had never been there before and Frank wanted me to see the location to get some ideas. It seems we knocked the first draft out in a matter of days on a typewriter, right there on location. I went back to California, the boys to Houston. We finessed the script, Frank came to California, cast the show with Irene and Joshua – the rest were Texas actors – and went down and shot it.
How supportive was Mike during the developing of the project and how did he come to work as the cinematographer as well?
Mike was there, part of the team – had ideas about character and story structure. He was a cameraman with their company (MFC Films), in fact they both did camera. Frank was a hell of a cameraman in his own right. The boys owned all the camera gear, it was 16mm, the final neg was sent to a lab in Pittsburgh that ‘blew it up’ to 35mm through a liquid gate process, something I know nothing about. Frank directed, Mike shoot.
Disciples of Death was produced during an era when independent filmmakers could shoot a film with a very small budget and have it played regularly at drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas. How difficult was it to raise a budget for your feature and how did you go about this?
As I previously stated, I believe Mike Cusack financed the project. He wanted to make movies; he put his money where his aspirations were.
The majority of the movie was shot around Terlingua, an old Texas mining town in Brewster County. How did you come to film here and how would you describe the experience?
Frank and Mike had made a VERY low budget film there a few years before. It is truly breathtaking country, you feel like you have stepped back in time – life slows down and it is very calm and quiet. We stayed right there in the complex we shot in, it was like summer camp every day.
Was it for budgetary reasons that many of the crew – yourself included – also appeared in front of the camera and did you write any of the roles with a specific person in mind?
Absolutely, it was for budgetary reasons – we all pitched in to get the baby made and the effort paid off. It was/is not a half bad little film in many respects. No roles were written for any one in mind, with the exception of John Martin, who played the sheriff. Frank and Mike knew him from work he had done for them in the past. However, I believe that Frank kept tweaking Jason Brooks to fit me – he would never admit it.
The film is known under a variety of titles, specifically Disciples of Death and Enter the Devil. Which of the titles that were used do you prefer?
Disciples of Death – Enter the Devil is too misleading, one expects to meet Lucifer himself. The movie isn’t about the Devil, it’s about a radical religious sect.
The movie was released just three years after the horror of the Manson Family came to light and the murder of Sharon Tate. Was your story inspired by this event in any way and do you feel that the murders had a profound effect on the horror genre?
The thought of that whole Manson/Tate affair never entered the creative process in writing Disciples. I do not know if those gruesome murders had any impact on the horror genre, either bad or good – I would like to believe that those fans who enjoy the horror genre have the intelligence to discern between fantasy and reality.
The distribution of the movie was plagued over the years due to several of the companies becoming bankrupt, forcing them to pass on the rights to other companies. Do you feel that had it been handled differently the movie could have been more successful and is it frustrating to think about how it was treated?
Frustrating, yes, it was a worthy effort by a lot of young folks who love the motion picture industry and threw a lot of sweat and blood into a project that they believed in and had a hell of a good time doing it. Mike needed to get his money back, probably grabbed at the first straw that came along. I do not know if he ever recouped the cost of the show. IF a company like A.I.P. had picked it up it would probably have been an entirely different history of Disciples.
Disciples of Death seems to borrow elements from various genres, specifically horror and westerns, yet refuses to be easily classified. What kind of film were you intending to make and, looking back on it now, how would you describe it?
An action/suspense story wrapped in the beauty of an innocent land.
Do you recall the first time you saw the movie with an audience and what kind of reaction did it receive?
There was a premier in Eagle Pass Tex, on the Mexican border. We all went, it was a grand time. The theatre was packed , as it was a really big deal in Eagle Pass – the audience loved the show – that was the only time I ever saw it on film, in fact I had not seen it in years until Frank gave me a VHS copy, which I do not know if I even still have.With the movie sinking into obscurity did either yourself or Frank see much profit and have you ever considered returning to the story for a sequel or remake?
Frank and I made only that which we made while shooting, minimal wages – we never received a dime for the screenplay or any royalties. I do not believe Mike has either.
Over the years the negatives became lost, resulting in home video releases being scarce and of poor quality. Is the movie likely to receive a remastered DVD release in the foreseeable future or is there not enough material?
I have no knowledge of any re-mastered release.
Do you feel that the movie has been largely ignored by critics over the years and would you say that it has developed a cult following?
Mainstream ignored the little gem – but it seems it has quite a following in an underground way, which is very nice and flatters this ol’ ego, to know that a younger generation knows about some you did thirty-some-odd years ago.