Friday, November 11, 2011

Lions and Tigers and Hershells, Oh My! :: The Strange But True Story of Steve Sipek.

I, like a lot of you, probably, caught the news blurbs coming out of Ohio a couple of months ago, when the area around Zanesville became a tragic safari / killing field after the (to put it mildly) eccentric owner of an exotic animal refuge committed the most bizarre murder-suicide in history when he let all of his animals loose before killing himself. Some 49 animals were hunted down, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, a pair of grizzlies, three mountain lions, two wolves and a baboon.

This tragic and senseless tale also jogged a few memory cells, to another incident back in 2004, with the report of a pet tiger getting loose somewhere in Florida. At the time, I was ready to just write it off as another lunatic with a glamour pet until I heard this particular "lunatic" was a retired actor, who had appeared in a couple of Tarzan knock-offs. This, in turned, stirred up a few more memory cells. But, nah. It couldn't be him.

Could it?

Intrigued, I poked around the interwebs and found the story and an unfamiliar name: Steve Sipek. But then I saw some video of this guy after his tiger, Bobo, was killed, and, sure enough, it was him:

That's Steven Hawkes; Sipek's non de plume when working in film; one of my personal heroes in the world of off-off-offbeat B-movies.

Now, Sipek / Hawkes' story is a strange one, with biblical overtones that includes tales of floods and fire and lions. Born Stjepan Šipek in the little village of Igrišće, Croatia, Hawkes managed an end run around the Iron Curtain and migrated to the United States by way of Canada, where his beefy frame and chiseled features landed him the lead role in a couple of Spanish Tarzan movies. Well, technically, unofficial Tarzan movies because the producers couldn't afford the licensing fees, and so they changed the character's name to Zan.

The first film, Tarzan en la grata del oro (-- a/k/a King of the Jungle, a/k/a Tarzan's Greatest Challenge), was a plagued production. While shooting in South America, a flood destroyed most of the equipment and a lot of the completed footage. To salvage it, the scrambling production moved north for re-shoots and finished the film in the swamps of Florida.

Things got even screwier in the second film, Tarzan y el arco iris (-- a/k/a Tarzan and the Rainbow, a/k/a Tarzan and the Brown Prince), and a helluva lot more dangerous. Also shot in Florida, near Rainbow Springs, this film experience wound up scarring Hawkes for life. In a scene that called for he and his co-star, Kitty Swan (Kitty Svanholn), to be tied to stakes and tormented by savages, a special-effect went awry engulfing the set in flames. Being tied up, of course, the actors couldn't escape. And as the rest of the cast and crew panicked and fled to safety, leaving the actors to burn, as the legend goes, a lion named Sampson braved the flames, freed the actors by chewing through the ropes, and drug them to safety.

Sounds far fetched, I know, but, apparently, according to the script, the lion was supposed to free them in the exact same fashion and was trained to do so (-- without the inferno, obviously.) And after this selfless act, owing the animal his life, Hawkes decided, then and there, to spend the rest of his life caring for abused and disowned big cats.

However, despite Sampson's heroic efforts, both actors were burned badly. (Hawkes sustained burns on over 90% of his body. As for Swan, alas, there isn't a lot of info on her, but this accident effectively ended her film career so one can sadly extrapolate from there). Not wanting to deal with the authorities, the Spanish production company skipped the country, leaving its stars behind to recuperate. With mounting medical bills, then, and desperate for money, Hawkes soon found himself in the hands of Brad Grinter.

Now, Grinter was a part-time filmmaker but a full time nudist. Part of Florida's burgeoning exploitation scene in the early 1970s that thrived on nudie-cuties or horror films with explicit scenes of gore and bodily dismemberment, he had just finished his first feature, Flesh Feast, that contained the last screen appearance of Veronica Lake, a cloned Hitler, and some mutant maggots. But it was his next feature, when he teamed up with Hawkes, that resulted in the most gonzoidal classic of all time, Blood Freak, which includes the following:

A chain-smoking narrator (Grinter), with a nasty hacking cough, who waxes philosophically about stuff that's basically irrelevant to the film; a big, dopey leading man (Hawkes), who's half Arnold Schwarzenneger and half Elvis Presley, and who is seduced into a life of sin and drugs, eats some tainted turkey meat, and is destined to become the big screen's first were-turkey monster; meanwhile, a Bible-thumping, verse-misquoting vixen clad in a mod mini-skirt and her dope-smoking sister, with a thing for thick mascara, isn't sure she can marry a turkey monster -- but is more then willing to have sex with it.
Yeah, Blood Freak is just so incredibly audacious, yet taken so seriously that the mind can only boggle at the sheer magnitude of it. Watch as the actors keep flubbing and butchering their dialogue while they desperately try to not look at the camera, or crack a smile, and fail 90 percent of the time. Marvel at how the cameraman can't keep the action in frame -- or in focus. Plug your ears as the sound-man uses that the same scream, laugh (or gobble) and loops it in over and over and over...

Not making any of that up, folks. In fact, I'm kinda selling it short. For you see, Blood Freak claims to be the world's only giant turkey monster, anti-drug, pro-religion gore film ever made. And I'm here to tell you that it is all that AND a whole lot more. When it was released in 1972, the film barely made a blip on the radar but its notorious reputation and relative obscurity made it a must see for any lover of fermented cinematic cheese. Luckily, the fine folks at Something Weird Video finally got this thing out on DVD for the whole world to see and it's been warping minds ever since.

Some call it the missing link between the gorenagraphic films of Hershel Gordon Lewis and William Graefe and the fundamentalist whackadoodle films of Ron Ormond and Donald Thompson. Some call it blasphemous, some call it ludicrous, others call it awful. I call it something else: the greatest cinematically challenged movie ever made. Worst movie ever? Nay, one of the greatest movies of all time.

A delight for audiences everywhere, then, Blood Freak wasn't the most pleasant experience for Hawkes, though. Seems the production went bankrupt midway so he finished the film out of his own pocket. And what little profits he made were used to help finance his own private sanctuary for abused and abandoned big cats near Loxahatchee, Fla., where Hawkes lived in relative obscurity until one of his animals decided to go for an unsupervised stroll.

Other points of interest:

For a more comprehensive look at Blood Freak, check out my full review at 3B Theater.

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