Alan Ormsby has been something of a jack-of-all-trades in the film industry: not only a highly successful and award-winning screenwriter but also director, actor, make-up effects technician and author. And although his career has taken him far from the world of the horror movie, it remains a genre for which he has fond feelings.
As a child, Ormsby grew up watching classic horror and fantasy films like King Kong and Disney’s Pinocchio and was fascinated by animation. His early ambition was to be a cartoonist and would hold strange garage shows for the local kids where he told stories and displayed illustrations on huge sheets of paper. After a while, Ormsby graduated to shooting these garage shows on 8mm film, and slowly his interests moved from cartoons to filmmaking and acting in particular.
In the late Sixties, he met Bob Clark whilst the two of them were attending the University of Miami. Clark was an aspiring playwright and Ormsby too was developing his writing skills. Before long the two of them were working together on plays, sometimes writing, sometimes directing, sometimes acting. It was the start of a working relationship that would last several years.
When Clark raised a pittance to make a low budget horror film which would become Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, he turned to Ormsby to help him. Although mainly written by Clark, Ormsby would rework elements of the screenplay enough to secure a co-writer credit. He also took the lead role in a cast that was mainly made up of friends and family (Ormsby’s wife Anya took the female lead). On top of this, he also provided the make-up effects for the film, which not only included the expected gore effects but also several zombies. These walking corpses looked surprisingly effective given the low budget and lack of time available.
Children… was successful enough to bring Clark and Ormsby to the attention of a Canadian production company who hired them to make another horror film. This time, Ormsby wrote the screenplay for a movie he called The Veteran. Unlike the jokey Children…, this was a dark, fairly low-key tale inspired by J.W. Jacobs’ classic story The Monkey’s Paw, transposed to 1970’s America. In Ormsby’s version of the tale, a soldier killed in Vietnam is wished back to life by his mother, only to return as a zombie in need of blood to live. The film was retitled several times – at one point known as The Night Andy Came Home, it eventually saw release as both Deathdream and Dead of Night in 1972.
In 1974, Ormsby worked with another Children… alumnus, Jeff Gillen, on Deranged, a fairly accurate retelling of the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein, the inspiration behind Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Although the Gein character was renamed Ezra Cobb, the film stuck mainly to the facts, told with a strong sense of gallows humour. A fine twitchy performance from Roberts Blossom and gore effects by a young Tom Savini (supervised by Ormsby) have made the film a cult classic over the last thirty years.
In 1975, Ormsby wrote a book called Movie Monsters: Monster Make-Up & Monster Shows To Put On, which gave kids instructions on mixing fake blood and horror make-up, plus details of how to run effective garage shows, much like those he used to run himself. He also created the doll Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces (a reference to Lon Chaney).
Also in 1975, Ormsby would provide the make-up for Ken Weiderhorn’s Nazi zombie film Shock Waves (aka Death Corps) (released 1977).
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Ormsby would work as a writer on a wide variety of films and TV shows. He won acclaim for his screenplay for My Bodyguard in 1980, and returned to horror a year later, writing Paul Schrader’s controversial remake of Cat People. He also worked again with Bob Clark on Porkys II: The Next Day in 1983.
For TV, he wrote science fiction film Almost Human (1987) and thrillers Indecency (1992), The Disappearance of Nora (1993) and Deadly Web (1996), the latter an early cyberstalking tale.
In 1991, Clark asked Ormsby to write and direct Popcorn, a modern horror film that he was producing. Unfortunately, there were a series of disagreements between Ormsby and studio executives, and he left the project (his screenplay is credited to Tod Hackett).
In 1996, he wrote crime thriller The Substitute, about a Vietnam vet who goes undercover as a teacher to root out gang violence. Amazingly, the film has spawned three sequels!
Ormsby’s work has slowed down in the last decade, suggesting that he is now enjoying retirement, though he still pops up for interviews about his early work.
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