An exploitation film can be defined as any film that exploits a particular subject matter, whether said matter is lurid, controversial or otherwise. These films would run the gambit from blacksploitation to borderline torture "porn", usually with a shoe-string budget and under-preforming actors. They gained significant popularity in the 1970s, though their exact origins are debatable.
These films were notable for their often obscene levels of depravity and violence, to the degree that entire subgenres were defined based on the type of violence. Cannibalism, torture, "splatter" and even slasher films could be defined as part of the Exploitation film "genre". Even more famous films like "Night of the Living Dead" and Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy could be considered Exploitation. Women were the most common subject matter for these films to utilize. Sex was often the easiest way to sell a movie, and many would spice the genre with other aspects, such as so-called "Rape/Revenge" films. Said sub-genre requires little explanation.
While many of these films have gained a cult following, many have fallen to the wayside. Forgotten beneath their contemporaries, these films practically vanished from the public eye, often finding themselves dumped into the bargain bins of dingy video stores.
Campground Slaughter was one such film.
Produced by Alan Rickwalder in 1975, Campground Slaughter was an early slasher film with the premise that a group of promiscuous teens camped near the site of a serial murder many decades prior. The plot itself was fairly standard and was only notable at the time for ending with the death of the main protagonist, named Maria, in exceptionally brutal fashion. What is notable, however, are the rumors and stories surrounding the production.
Alan Rickwalder's production company, Rickwalder Films, was based out of Akron, Ohio. Rickwalder was notably cheap and went so far as to purchase a car-park, scheduled for demolition, as his primary sound-stage. The company had been in existence since the 1940s, where Rickwalder's father received commissions by the United States government to produce war-propaganda and anti-drug films, similar in vein to the famous "Reefer Madness". From there, it moved to producing science fiction during the 1950s, then back to anti-drug films throughout the 60s. As would be expected from their track-record, Rickwalder Films jumped at the opportunity to cash-in on newest cinematic craze.
Rickwalder himself was often described as a jovial man. Slightly overweight, with large glasses and an unkempt beard, one could be mistaken for thinking him a vagrant. Instead, he was a rather well-off individual with a family, children, and even several other income properties to his name. Of particular note was his obsession with supernatural films. He went on record multiple times stating his desire to make his own, but budgetary restraints kept him from creating his "vision".
Campground Slaughter went into pre-production in early March of 1975. The script, penned by Joseph Ester, was re-written several times at Rickwalder's request. He stated that the film needed to, quote: "Really push what movies could get away with". Scenes with more nudity, sex and violence were added, to the point that several had to be cut to meet the production budget. The actors were underpaid college students, most of which were attending the nearby University of Akron. Among them was Anne Connoly, an ichthyology major who auditioned for the starring role of "Maria" at the behest of her friends, several of whom had signed on as unpaid extras.
The film's production began without incident. Indoor scenes were shot in the car-park, with sets built to emulate a high-school, old-timey shop, etc. It is notable that Rickwalder fired his previous director during this time and began taking on nearly all management duties. Workers noted that he seemed distant and utterly focused on his work. Even his family began to notice a change in him, as his once amiable personality transformed to one of aloofness and isolation. He would often spend hours, even days at a time, locked away in his editing room.
The first documented incident was a conflict with one of the actors, Jack Manderly, during the filming of a school scene. Rickwalder criticized the man's performance intensely. The two argued back and forth for hours, with the director claiming that Manderly "lacked dedication to his work." In the end, Jack left the production and was quickly written out of the script to ensure shooting would continue as planned.
It was at this point that staff began to complain of technical problems on set. Electronic devices would frequently malfunction, tools would go missing, and Rickwalder was noted to become even more reclusive. In one instance, a janitor claimed that he caught a glimpse of the Director's notes, and that they were scrawled with incoherent rambling and several symbols he described as "kinda like an eye, but with a bunch of circles around it." The janitor stated that, after this occurred, Rickwalder fired him for an unrelated incident that the janitor claimed "never happened."
The symbol in question was also found in several locations around the set, usually squirreled away on equipment or behind props. Actors claimed they would occasionally catch glimpses of the eye-like symbols and that, afterwards, would experience terrible migraines. Lethargy and a myriad of other health problems were claimed to follow observation of these symbols, but these reports cannot be adequately confirmed.
Filming of the outdoor scenes began in late March, 1975. By this point, much of the original crew had left the production, citing a menagerie of stresses. The most significant of these stresses was Rickwalder himself. He was often described as sullen, temperamental, and "looking like he hadn't slept in weeks." His habits pursued him through the filming of these scenes, where he would often put the actors through deliberately stressful scenarios. He claimed these were to "get the right performances." In one instance, when the scene called for Maria to nearly fall into a ravine, Rickwalder forced Miss Connoly to actually dangle over a ravine for five minutes to get the right "emotional tone".
In another incident, staff claimed that someone broke into the set during the night, leaving a black, tar-like substance on most of the equipment. Rickwalder was blamed, but he claimed no knowledge of the incident. Staff even claimed to see, during filming, unidentified movement in the surrounding brush. When someone would investigate, there would of course be nothing there. Records of events during this time are somewhat scarce, however, and most evidence can only be gleamed through eyewitness testimony.
One such witness was Joseph Ester himself, who had stayed throughout the entire production. He stated that while Rickwalder would lock himself away in the editing room, he'd periodically forget to secure it when he returned home. It was on one such occasion that Ester snuck inside to see what his co-worker was actually doing.
He claimed that the room was in shambles, with papers and film reels scattered about in a frenzy of disorganization. The equipment was damaged beyond repair, save for a single film projector pointed at the blank, white wall. On the desk were at least a dozen papers, each scrawled with unintelligible nonsense. Ester noted that almost every one had an eye, with several circles, drawn on them. He flicked the projector on, in spite of his own trepidation, and watched Rickwalder's work. The movie played just as they filmed it, but he said that an overwhelming sense of despair filled him as it went on.
Ester claimed that as he watched, he became aware of something moving in the backgrounds of the sets. A dark, feminine form that would appear for seconds at a time, and every appearance brought with it a dread that he found difficulty describing. Occasionally, he stated that he saw flickers of the symbol, as though Rickwalder had cut them into the film deliberately. As the victims were killed off, however, Ester said that the appearance of the killer was different from the actor they'd hired. The actor they'd hired was tall and stocky, with a fairly generic outfit of a trenchcoat and mask. They decided never to explicitly show the killer until the final scene, but it was supposed to be one of Maria's friends, her boyfriend.
Yet, every glimpse of the killer in the film showed a sleek, feminine body. He couldn't tell if she was even wearing clothes. It had long, black hair that obscured any facial features, but he said that he saw glimpses of its face occasionally. He refused to describe it further.
As the film built up to the final scene, where the killer was meant to sneak up on Maria, Ester said that something brushed against him just as the actress screamed. He turned to find that the room was absolutely empty. He was still totally alone.
After that point, Ester left the production and moved to Seattle, claiming he had found "other work".
Similar incidents continued until the final scene was to be filmed. This was the most effects heavy scene, so Rickwalder saw fit to film it last to save time and money. The killer was to finally confront Maria and a conflict was to ensure, ending when Maria is overwhelmed and stabbed to death. Connoly thought the scene went too far, but when Rickwalder threatened to kick her off the project, she decided to go along with it. The conflict went as expected; the killer lunged at Maria, who fought and kicked at him. This went on for several minutes until Maria was fatally wounded. The killer stood and began to remove his mask, but just as he did, one of the set's lighting fixtures collapsed onto the two actors.
The actor portraying the killer was terribly injured and rushed to a nearby hospital, where he later died. Connoly suffered similar injuries, including multiple crushed bones and electrical burns. The attending physician was initially unwilling to speak, but eventually stated that the electrical burns, quote: "Looked like human hand-prints." Miss Connoly survived her initial injuries, but later died of complications during surgery.
The production was wrapped and Rickwalder planned to re cut the film to not include the final scene. Many of the staff quit the company and the actors returned to their daily lives. Rickwalder, however, did not. His wife claimed he became obsessed with the film, that she would find him in their basement, still trying to cut together a coherent story. She would later file for divorce and move to Arizona, leaving Rickwalder alone to his work. The film did eventually release, but only to one obscure theater in town. No reviews were ever published of the event and no records are available to determine the exact audience response. Only one individual came forward, a Miss Justine Caldwell, to provide an account of the screening. She claimed that Rickwalder was present at the screening and that he looked even more haggard than usual. His eyes were sunken, his hair was disheveled, his clothes soaked with sweat and crumbs. She said that she thought she saw scratches on his arms, but she wasn't completely sure. No one from the film's crew, cast or otherwise attended the screening.
Campground Slaughter played in exactly the manner the script described. The teens discussed the camping trip at school, met with their families, etc. However, she said many people began to get uncomfortable during the screening, shifting in their seats and looking around. She said that something could be seen moving behind the sets, usually in windows or in dark corners. There would be brief flashes of the symbol occasionally, but Miss Caldwell claimed they occurred so quickly they didn't register until much later.
The unknown individual's appearances increased as the film continued. Comparing Miss Caldwell and Mr. Ester's statements, it seemed that the cuts of the movie were quite similar. Even still, the manner in which the victims died began to deviate over the course of the feature. The script called for one teen to be hacked to death with an ax, yet the film showed them being flayed alive. Another was supposed to be strangled; she was decapitated and eaten by an unseen entity. Miss Caldwell stated that people began to cry out in the front rows, saying that someone touched them. A few even screamed.
Just as Miss Caldwell claimed she was about to leave, the final scene began. Maria stumbled through the woods, panting and screaming as the killer stalked her. The confrontation concluded when the killer caught up to Maria in a small clearing. This clearing was never used on set, nor is it mentioned in any version of the script. It was stated that Maria then looked straight at the camera, crying, and begged for someone to help her. Miss Caldwell claimed that she didn't just look at the camera, though. She said that Maria looked directly at the audience.
The killer stepped forward, and, with a long serrated knife, gutted Maria on-screen in intense detail. The projector began to malfunction, causing the picture to wobble back and forth on the screen as the killer stood and stared at the camera intensely. Miss Caldwell said that the killer resembled a woman, about average height and build. She was totally naked, with a head of unkempt black hair. She said her body looked decayed, with black slime emerging from cracked porcelain-like skin. The woman stood there, staring at the camera for nearly thirty seconds, before the film finally ended.
The movie was a flop in every sense of the word. Most of the attendees requested refunds and the theater refused to ever show any of Rickwalder's work again. The man disappeared into his humble, two-story home, and was not heard from again for nearly eight weeks.
Eventually, neighbors complained of a terrible smell coming from the house and police were asked to investigate. After obtaining the proper warrants, the officers forced their way inside to find the house in shambles. Black fluid was spread across the walls and floors, dripping from the ceiling in clumps. The officers found it flowing from the faucets, the kitchen sink, even the air-conditioning with no obvious source. "Scratching" noises from the basement drew them further into the home, where they found Rickwalder, collapsed on the floor.
The basement had been converted into a small editing room, with mountains of film and paperwork scattered among the desks and projectors. The words "HER" had been written across the walls and floors. Incoherent notes from Rickwalder about "his muse" were found, along with thousands of drawings of a decayed woman. The man's body was in a state of black putrefaction, with markings indicating he committed suicide by slitting his wrists. Strangely, though, an autopsy later determined that his remains should have still been relatively intact, as he appeared to have only died a few days prior. A nearly pristine note was found clutched in his hand. The coroner stated that it said:
"I wanted inspiration. I wanted to make real horror. I never should have let her in. I never should have let her take them.
I found a new scene in the movie yesterday.
I was in it."
Campground Slaughter has since become a lost film; only one copy remains in existence. It has since disappeared from police archives, though there have been reports of it appearing in film collections across the country. Said reports are obviously untrue, as no version of the film exists other than the Rickwalder cut. Film buffs, at least those that know of its existence, have offered upwards of six figures for a genuine copy.
However, in spite of all the hearsay and rumors, one thing can be conclusively stated about these events. Every actor, each one that "died" on-screen, would pass away in the years after the film first screened. Jessica Pickman, for instance, played the main character's best friend. Three months after the film finished, she was struck by a drunk driver on her way home from class. As the EMTs attempted to revive her, it was claimed that she stared at the other side of the road and asked "What is that woman doing here?".
There were no women present at the time.
Written by CrtlAltDelete