SHOOTING STAR

A LEADING MAN'S MURDER BEDEVILS RONNIE CRAMER.

Denver filmmaker Ronnie Cramer is worried. "I'm not going to wind up looking like Ed Wood, am I?" he asks.

Comparisons to the late Wood, a cross-dresser and anti-auteur who's the subject of a new biopic called, appropriately, Ed Wood, are a real concern for Cramer ("Framed!" October 27, 1993). After all, Cramer's direction of the 1992 underground cult favorite Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend established him as a comer among the same Z-movie aficionados who've embraced Wood's bizarre oeuvre. Moreover, Cramer's ill-fated Hitler sequel has run into a thoroughly Woodian roadblock--the tragic death of his star in the middle of production.

The performer in question was Scott Marcus, who acted under the stage name Andren Scott. Cramer had lost track of Marcus following the completion of the first Hitler opus, a film that pseudonymous movie critic Joe Bob Briggs had named the best drive-in movie of 1992 (Cramer and Marcus also received best-director and best-actor nominations from Briggs). But in early 1994--after Cramer decided that the money he might earn from a sequel outweighed the mild embarrassment he would feel making one--the actor resurfaced and agreed to reprise his role as Marcus Templeton, a flabby schmoe who in two weeks spent his life's savings on call girls.

Coming up with a plot for a new Hitler wasn't easy, especially since the Templeton figure was apparently slain (by Cramer's wife, Sarah, making a cameo appearance) at the conclusion of the first film. In an effort to solve this quandary, Cramer came up with what he felt was a unique solution.

"I was going to make it a mad-scientist-brain-movie kind of thing," he says. "In the script, there's this woman scientist who takes the character's brain out and brings it to this really crummy laboratory. She puts electrodes into his brain that are hooked up to this viewing screen and keeps it in a sink. The brain can't see anything, but it can sense and it can talk. At one point it asks the scientist, `Am I in a sink?' and she says, `We prefer to call it a regeneration chamber.'

"Now, the most absurd part of the story is that this scientist is trying to fuse [Templeton's] brain with a part of Hitler's brain and use it to take over the world. See, she thought she couldn't control Hitler's brain, but she could control the other brain. But the problem was, she'd tell the brain, `Picture armies' or whatever, and all the brain would be thinking about was naked women."

Once the script was completed, Cramer got together with Marcus and staged the scenes that were to appear on the viewing screen as flashbacks. Many of them focus on two running gags--impotence (even in the presence of a nude female companion, Templeton has difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection) and incontinence (at one point, the character wets a bed he's sharing with a prostitute).

These secondary sequences went well, but before Cramer could record the brain's dialogue or film the laboratory bits that made up the majority of the picture, disaster struck. Early on the morning of March 25 of this year, Scott Marcus, who was working as a clerk at a Denver-area 7-Eleven, was shot and killed during a robbery. The still-unsolved murder was devastating to Marcus's family, and also to Cramer, who over time had become quite friendly with Marcus. "I really liked the guy," he says.

In the meantime, Cramer was left with random footage that didn't add up to much of anything, as well as what he calls "really mixed feelings about the film. I didn't want to finish it. But then I'd think, `All [Marcus] ever talked about was being in the movies.' And this was the last movie he could ever be in."

Cramer, then, was in roughly the same position as Ed Wood prior to the making of 1959's Plan 9 From Outer Space. Wood tried to promote Plan 9 as a Bela Lugosi film in spite of the fact that Lugosi died before filming had even gotten under way. He overcame this seemingly insurmountable obstacle by supplementing a few minutes of Lugosi footage from 1956 with material featuring a younger, taller stand-in who attempted (unsuccessfully, for the most part) to disguise his identity by holding a cape over his face.

In many ways, Cramer was in a far better position than Wood; all he needed to do was hire an actor to imitate Marcus's voice for the brain sequences. But Cramer, who admits to being depressed by the actor's death and the passing of several other family members and friends during the same period of time, says, "I wasn't interested in doing that."

Unfortunately, he couldn't simply shelve the footage--the film was being financed by a trio of outside producers. When asked if the three put pressure on him to complete the flick, Cramer dodges the question and refuses to reveal their whereabouts. Why is he so skittish? "I don't think there's anything I'd want them to say about me in my hometown newspaper," he grumbles.

Whatever the reason, Cramer sat down with the film he had on hand months after Marcus died and fit it into a new scenario that has nothing to do with his original scientist/brain concept. The result--an hour-long piece he calls The Hitler Tapes--finds a scantily clad woman (played by actress Karen Zackzkowski, in scenes shot after Marcus's death) listening to cassettes and viewing videotapes of Templeton's sexual misadventures. Intercut with these restructured flashback segments are plenty of images of buxom females, plus a number of abbreviated, music-video-style performances by Alarming Trends, Cramer's rock band. Tapes concludes with a dedication to Marcus.

Cramer doesn't know what he should do next. He realizes that profits could be gleaned if he marketed Tapes through Scorched Earth, the nationally recognized mail-order video company he owns and operates, but he isn't ready to do that just yet. In fact, the murder and the events that followed have soured him on filmmaking in general. He's just completed a comic-book version of the first Hitler (for an Illinois company that plans to make it available to the public in the next several months), and he says he'd rather work on another project like it than get behind a camera again. But he concedes that before he gets started on something new, he needs to decide whether to give the public a chance to see The Hitler Tapes.

"It is a real moral dilemma," he explains. "I know that they wouldn't have any trouble with it in Hollywood, but I feel really weird about it. I'm torn between trying to be respectful and trying to do what [Marcus] would want. Which was to be in more movies.

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