Thursday, June 18, 2015

John Ashley - How a Faded Teen Idol Helped to Shape the Face of Exploitation Cinema in the 1970s (and Beyond)



Life is full of those moments where sometimes you can’t believe it when you learn that the person involved with ‘X’ was also the same person who used to be known for ‘Y’ all those years ago. Life is also full of stories about someone being in the right place at the right time to have a major impact on something that no one would have ever thought that they would have had anything to do with, let alone have any impact on. In the case of the late John Ashley, you have one man for whom both of these things are true. Sadly, while he’s known to some in genre, he should probably be more widely recognized by many than he currently is.


For most of the people in genre fandom who actually know who John Ashley was, he’s best known for having starred in one low budget horror or exploitation film after another churned out largely during the 1970’s exploitation boom. They remember him as that one lone American or one of the few Americans in a number of drive-in films done down in the Philippians for release on the American market. But his connection to film and television existed before that point, and his post-Philippians era career was also filled with some surprisingly well known household names.

A young John Ashley first saw his name on the screen in 1957 with a one-off bit part on the short lived Men of Annapolis television show, landed in part due to being recommended for the role after being spotted on a set by John Wayne, and then on the big screen with Dragstrip Girl in which he starred alongside such notables as Frank Gorshin. From that point forward, with a few exceptions along the way, his major roles would be along the lines of his part in Dragstrip Girl. This would more or less ensure that he would regularly be cast as the handsome troublemaker in juvenile delinquent films or television shows set around car and youth culture.
 
His looks were certainly appealing enough for the female teen audiences of the time, and he did possess serviceable talents as both an actor and as a singer. The latter allowing him a recording career with songs like Little Lou and The Cry of the Wild Goose.

At one point Ashley seemed ready to have it all. His early hard work certainly looked like it was paying off. He had become romantically involved with another notable Hollywood name, and life was seemingly setting him up to live the Hollywood dream. But while some of those who ran the studios thought that he did in fact have that “It” factor, he could never seem to move up past that next level, falling prey instead to Hollywood’s typecasting curse seemed determined to keep him in teen idol mode.

Fast forward to the year 1967- Ashley hadn’t released a record in six years, his marriage to Deborah Walley (the Gidget of the movies) had quickly soured and ended in divorce, and his acting career was stuck in a miserable rut. His television roles were fewer and minor, and mostly inconsequential one-off spots. Even worse, the now 33 year old Ashley was still primarily finding work on the big screen in juvenile delinquent films and beach movies, playing characters far younger than he was in real life and being cast to play second, third, or fourth banana behind stars like Frankie Avalon. The careers in acting and music that had both looked so promising to Ashley and those who knew him just ten years earlier were now starting to look like dead ends.
Enter: A change a venue.

Ashley needed to get away, to have a change of scenery for a bit. He had taken a small role in a quick and cheaply made film shot in the Philippines titled Manila, Open City. Based on a true story, the film looked at the difficulties, such as being the victim of suspicion and animosity from her husband's government, of a young woman married to a Japanese diplomat during World War II. The film itself was a minor blip on the movie landscape, and Ashley wasn’t even playing the lead. However, the role did allow him to meet the film’s writer/director Eddie Romero. It was a meeting, and an eventual film partnership, that would change Ashley’s life. It was also a meeting that over the next ten-plus years would have an immeasurable impact on the movie industry in the Philippines and on American genre films, shaping the look and feel of the drive-in and exploitation theater films as well as one major studio film release.

Romero had been a mainstay in the movie industry of the Philippines. He had a long list of films under his belt at that point, including films like The Raiders of Leyte Gulf, Lost Battalion, and Cavalry Command that had been made for the English speaking markets. However, success in those English speaking markets was elusive. Then along came John Ashley and the films Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Brides of Blood.
 
Now, success is a relative thing. We’re obviously not talking The Godfather levels of success and money here. But Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Brides of Blood both drew an audience into the exploitation theaters (what everyone calls grindhouse theaters these days) and into drive-ins, and their runs, combined with their low budgets, spelled moneymaking success. It was enough of a success that Ashley went back to work with Romero on the follow-up films Beast of the Yellow Night and Beast of Blood as both an actor and a producer. Again, the budgets were low and the films were cheesy, but they found a loyal audience in the American exploitation theaters and drive-ins thanks in large part to the exotic look that the Philippines gave the productions and the over the top nature/anything goes attitude (both in front of and behind the cameras) of the films.

These films also made enough noise that some in the American low budget film industry took notice. Their success, combined with their insanely low budgets and an economy that stretched an American dollar farther than just about anywhere else, allowed Ashley to talk American low budget king Roger Corman into ditching his chosen location for shooting The Big Doll House, moving the entire thing to the Philippines, and making Ashley an Executive Producer on the film.

In this deal, and the many deals to come, Ashley’s presence was a key factor. He understood the American film industry, and he was fast learning the ways of the Philippines. It made him the perfect middleman for deals; especially for the films that he would produce with Romero. It was also in this way that he helped open the floodgates for the exploitation film invasion of the Philippines.
 
Corman and others found the Philippines to be a perfect location for churning out their low budget films in the action, horror, fantasy, women in prison, and blacksploitation genres. Again, you could stretch an American dollar insanely far in the Philippines while using the look of the jungle locations to create an exotic feel to the films that simply would not be there if filmed in backwoods America or in Canada. If a film didn’t require the specific trappings of an American location shoot, the Philippines fast became a favorite place for low budget studio exploitation filmmaking.

Additionally, once Romero and Ashley had American filmmakers coming into the country, the government was more than happy to officially make it clear that they wanted to open their doors to film crews. Imelda Marcos (yes, that Imelda Marcos) wanted the Philippines to be known as a place where people came to make movies, to make art, and as a result you had some rather interesting deals being brokered, including the use of the military in films for very little cost. For filmmakers like Brian Trenchard-Smith, known for big, slick looking films on small budgets, that’s the type of deal they would find irresistible.

Some of the things the Philippines allowed filmmakers to do back then also bordered on exploitation; in real life rather than simply just as a genre. One of the things that made filming there so cheap was the fact that their film industry wasn’t as regulated as America’s. When you watch some of these films, you look on at some of the stunts in amazement. You wonder how in various shots they were able to hide the padding or fall mattresses (they couldn’t afford airbags) used to protect stuntman falling 20 or 30 feet to the ground. You occasionally notice the realistic nature of the wounds on the guy on the ground that was just thrown through a window, thinking that the low budget FX guy did an amazing job with the makeup resources available. The fight scenes involving the locals might not have been the best choreographed fights ever seen on film, but they had a brutal look to them that, like the stunts, mimicked real life with a gritty, savage look on film. The thing is, they weren’t actually mimicking anything, but rather it was often actually the real thing being captured on film.

In the Philippines, to quote Brian Trenchard-Smith, they viewed the stuntmen as breakables. Most of the stuntmen in the Philippines had no real form of formal training whatsoever, and they apparently didn’t care to find and then import expensive “how-to” books. Many of them didn’t know about the protective measures used by American, English, and Australian stuntmen for gags involving falls from low heights. They didn’t even know what sugar glass was, using instead actual glass windows in scenes involving people being thrown through them since they honestly thought that was how the Americans and others did it. Punches and kicks to stuntmen and extras were often real, causing real bruises, bleeding, and bone breaks. The people doing all of this worked for dollars a day with just a small crew rather than demanding thousands or even hundreds of thousands and having a full safety crew on hand for the filming of the stunts.

The use of realism didn’t end with the stunts either. There were films where the onscreen dead bodies being cut into were actual dead bodies, and only sometimes animal bodies. There were also films were the dead human bodies in the background were in fact dead human bodies.

Those are the extreme examples however. The daily savings to film crews came from nixing the usual perks that the stars in American productions would get. There were no trailers, there were no private rooms in nice hotels, and there was no catering. American actors would put up with the less than amazing conditions for the simple fact that there were no real stars in these films. For the most part, you had unknown actors and actresses looking for a big break, actors on the decline, or actors like Christopher Mitchum and Patrick Wayne who were struggling to find any film success of their own while under their famous Hollywood fathers’ shadows. Additionally, with very few exceptions, no one from these films went on to become huge stars in any measurable way.
The stream of films that came out of this period are all well known to the hardcore genre fans and to the newer fans jumping in on the “grindhouse” revival of the last decade. Films like The Twilight People, Night of the Cobra Woman, Women in Cages, Black Mama White Mama, Beyond Atlantis, The Hot Box, Master Samurai, Cleopatra Wong, The One Armed Executioner, Vampire Hookers, The Woman Hunt, Savage Sisters, Up from the Depths, The Black Dragon, Cosa Nostra Asia, Warriors of the Apocalypse, The Big Bird Cage, Savage!, For Y'ur Height Only, Sudden Death, TNT Jackson, Cover Girl Models, Hollywood Boulevard (parts of it at least), Firecracker, and a host of other staples of the drive-in were churned out by crew after crew going down to the Philippines or by directors heading down and using the local crews for filming. And there in the thick of it, directly involved or somewhere on the edges, you could often find Ashley.

Ashley had truly found a new home in the Philippines. His professional relationship with Eddie Romero had become a strong friendship, he was living the highlife in the swankiest parts of the Philippines, he had a string of local girlfriends for companionship, and his professional life, as far as he was concerned, was better than ever. He would in later years talk about how acting was never his goal, it was something he essentially fell into, but producing and doing behind the scenes work was something he loved. While he did act in a number of the films that came out of the Philippines, the fact was that he spent most of his time behind the scenes producing and networking. It proved to be a very productive decade for him.

It was Ashley’s decade-long presence in the Philippines, obviously also combined with the buzz created by the film activity that was in large part helped by Ashley, that played a substantial part in bringing the Philippines the largest film production that it had ever seen as well as scoring him the biggest Associate Producer credit of his career to that point. It wasn’t a genre film in the way most people think of the word, but it’s a film that even people who have never seen it know quite well. That film was Apocalypse Now.
Apocalypse Now also turned out to be Ashley’s swan song in the Philippines. While changes in the Philippines where only beginning to be noticed by many outsiders, the changes, both in their film industry and in the world of politics, could be seen coming a mile away by those on the ground there. The changing landscape made Ashley finally return to America. Once back in America he began building on the prior ten-plus years of his life to become a producer in Hollywood. However, even in the land of big budget, he didn’t entirely leave genre behind.

While the two biggest names on his post-Philippines resume as producer and executive producer were not genre, The A-Team, for which he also did the opening theme narration, and Walker, Texas Ranger, he still dipped his toes into the genre pool more than a few times over the years. He played with adventure in short lived shows like The Quest and Raven, returned to horror for a quick, one episode job on Werewolf, an early buzz hit for the then fledgling Fox Network, and played with science fiction in the much loved Something is Out There TV miniseries, the best forgotten Something is Out There ongoing series, and one of the more unusual versions of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

In later years he would be asked why he did so much genre material. His answer was that he couldn’t turn the material down because that was the kind of thing he enjoyed and he always had a ball working on it. They were the type of movies that he himself loved watching.

In 1997, on the New York set of Scar City, Ashley died of a heart attack. He was 63.
 
When people look back at the genre boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s, a lot of well known names get thrown around. Roger Corman is certainly a name that deserves discussion, Jack Hill is an oft mentioned name, and Charles Band is hard to leave out of conversations about 1980’s genre. But John Ashley isn’t as discussed as he maybe should be. Without John Ashley, the face of genre looks different, possibly radically different. Without John Ashley you don’t have the Philippines’ exploitation explosion as we know it.

Now, you could argue against giving him his due credit by saying that he simply lucked into being the right person in the right place at the right time. That’s certainly not entirely untrue, but it’s not much of an argument.

History and science give credit to people who lucked into discoveries in their chosen fields, sometimes purely as an accident, and we do it because the people we recognize had the smarts to realize what they had in their hands when fate dropped it on them. Conversely, a lot of other people have been dropped into right place and/or right time situations and totally failed to fully capitalize on their good fortunes. Ashley was smart enough to both see the potential in what he had and to make it work for him. The results were a number of the films that we as genre fans know and love that would later inspired still more films by other filmmakers who came along in later decades.

Now, this isn’t saying that we wouldn’t have had certain things in some way, shape, or form without Ashley. Without Ashley and the Philippines, would we have had Corman doing exploitation films? Of course we would. He was doing them well before and long after his time in the Philippines. But the Philippines allowed him to make more films, and bigger films for less money, than he would have otherwise been making in that time period. When you take some of those films as they were away from genre history, you potentially create some large changes, and even a few holes, in genre in more ways than one.
Blacksploitation icon Pam Grier had her first starring role, and only her second film role, in Jack Hill’s Big Doll House, a movie filmed in the Philippines for Corman. As a matter of fact, 7 of her next 10 films were made either in the Philippines or specifically with Jack Hill. Two of those films, two of the films done with Jack Hill, were Coffy and Foxy Brown. Now, would Grier have made it as a star without appearing in the films done in the Philippines? Of course she would have, but her start as a lead would have likely been later and her earlier iconic roles might be missing. Change the start of her career, you change her career’s overall path and maybe even the level of her status as an icon.

Could Corman and the others have found the Philippines without Ashley? Yeah, eventually they may have, but the nature of the political climate, the forces of history, created a built in, finite shelf life for American studios to do what they did there. The later the start, the shorter the time that they would have had and the less impactful the Philippine genre explosion would have ultimately been.

How about Apocalypse Now? That was a major studio effort. It absolutely would have been filmed without Ashley and Eddie Romero, maybe even in the Philippines, but it was certainly the activity in the Philippines by the low budget studios and the deals they were cutting that drew the larger studio’s attention to the Philippines when planning Apocalypse Now. Take that activity away, take away the deals that Ashley and Romero could so easily cut for them in-country, and you at least delay the film’s start date; maybe even send it elsewhere. We still get Apocalypse Now, but as anybody who knows the history of that film can tell you, the filming was chaos. Changing the where, when, or the how of the filming gives you a totally different end product. Taking away the use of the Pilipino military also takes some of the scale away from the film. There are some who might even make the argument that the chaotic production would have totally collapsed, killing the film entirely, had it not been filmed when and where it was and without the deals that Ashley and Romero were able to cut for them.

And then there’s the whole “dead bodies” thing that we won’t even get into here…  

Take John Ashley out of the Philippines, take him out of that film environment, whether behind the scenes or in front of the camera, and you remove a part of genre film history, the Filipino genre explosion, so loved by many that it has been the subject of countless magazine articles, several books, and even a few documentaries. John Ashley wasn’t a Roger Corman, Charles Band, or Lloyd Kaufman insofar as the length of time he contributed to low budget, b-movie, genre cinema or even with regards the level of wider recognition that the films that he had an active hand in have achieved, but he was an important part of genre film history. Without him, a large number of films in various genre geeks’ collections no longer exist or exist in radically altered forms, and the films that came later that were in some part inspired by those films also cease to exist or are radically changed. For what he did contribute, he deserves to be recognized and remembered a little better by the genre community.

Jerry Chandler is a b-movie fanatic. Some might call it a sad commentary on his life that he’s seen films like The Alien Factor far more times than films Citizen Kane, but he’s okay with it.

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