Image courtesy of Outpost Zeta
In the summer of 1983, Hollywood came to Huntsville. For a few months, the Rocket City provided a truly spectacular location for a genuinely international cast, supported by a sprawling production company. And to absolutely no one’s surprise, this confluence of energies failed to produce a decent movie.
The fact is, most movies are bad. For every memorable delight, there are dozens, even hundreds of movies that come and go unnoticed, richly deserving their anonymity. “What Waits Below” is one such project. Its single review on the Rotten Tomatoes website offers a fitting summation: “The story generates little interest.”
And yet, such movies are the bread and butter of the movie industry. In fact, our director for “What Waits Below,” Don Sharp, had 38 credits to his name when he died at age 90 in 2011. These included three epsiodes of “The Avengers,” and 11 features between 1963 and 1967, including “Curse of the Fly” and “The Face of Fu Manchu” with Christopher Lee.
The plot of “What Waits Below” centers around a race of cave-dwellers, known as Lemurians. Hunter Prime of the tribe was played by Jackson Bostwick, who played Captain Marvel on Saturday morning’s “SHAZAM!” from 1973 through 1974. The lead human actor was Robert Powell, probably best known for his title role in the miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” directed by the legendary Franco Zefferelli. Romantic interest Leslie Peterson was played by Lisa Blount, hot off her role as “the cynical, ambitious but insecure best friend to Debra Winger” in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
An especially interesting inclusion in the cast was veteran British actress Anne Heywood. It had been 16 years since Ms. Heywood achieved notoriety for her erotically adventuresome role in 1967’s “The Fox,” but I can attest, she remained throughly crush-worthy in 1983.
A few dozen Huntsvillians were slated to work on “Secrets of the Phantom Caverns,” as it was known during filming. This was huge. Since 1979, anybody with any showbiz interests at all had been hearing about “The Ravagers,” another movie shot in and around Huntsville. Now it was our turn to get in on the action.
“There won’t be a lot of money,” the recruiters told us, “but you’ll get tons of experience. This will give you a great start in the industry.” And so we signed up — for the experience, the promise of professional advancement and the princely sum of $300 a week.
When principal photography began, my friend Tim Pierce had been working with the art department for a month or so, building boulders and cave formations from cardboard boxes, chicken wire and sprayed-on foam insulation.
By the time I reported for work with my housemates Bill Sweikart and John Keel, an army of cast and crew had descended upon the cave entrance that was our first location. John immediately went to work with the camera crew, in what seemed to us a true glamour position – John would be the clapper, the lad who clapped the bottom half of the camera slate against the top half, giving a starting point to synchronize the film to the audio.
Bill and I drew a decidedly less glamorous duty. It fell our lot to bang pieces of 1X3 lumber together into frames, then use double-sided tape to stick onion skin paper onto them. We instantly began to grouse. We continued to grouse for the next six weeks, but the essential promises made to us would be kept.
We learned more than we ever had before or ever would again. Some of us are still in showbiz today, and all of us became far more informed consumers of cinema than any academic studies could make us. We would work harder than we ever had before. We would be low men on the totem pole and the tiniest of cogs in a big machine.
On one fateful night, we would even flirt with death.
But on that summer evening, as the night deepened, we watched as those stupid onion paper frames we had built were hoisted into place in front of the blue-white arc light of gigantic movie lamps, hissing, smoking and cooking moths right out of the air.
We were making a movie.
To be continued.