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Home · Articles · Movies · Features · ‘Fear’ itself

‘Fear’ itself

How the Norman noir ‘Stark Fear’ achieved B-movie immortality.

Rod Lott November 28th, 2012

Not even the black-and-white photography is stark in Stark Fear. There’s little to fear in it, too, except lines of dialogue like “You paunchy dog-eater!” and “Ain’t no such thing as rape.”

In other words, like so many B movies selling sizzle, the 1962 film promises more than it’s able to deliver. Neither particularly bad nor good, the movie nonetheless has a special something to keep it alive; on Sept. 25, it hit DVD again as part of Weird-Noir, a six-picture package from the exploitation-pic purveyors at Something Weird Video.

About a woman trapped in a marriage so abusive, it forever borders on fatal, Stark Fear tells a dark tale of cold, wounded hearts. Its strange heart beats hardest in the Sooner State, because it was shot almost entirely in Oklahoma City and Norman.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in December, the movie was the brainchild of two University of Oklahoma faculty members: Ned Hockman, the professor behind OU’s film program, would direct; Dwight V. Swain, a writer of science fiction who taught in the journalism school, would pen the screenplay.

Armed with a $150,000 budget, a 30-day schedule, and a crew of students and locals, Hockman and Swain set out to make their first feature film. It also would be their last.

Conjuring Fear
Neither man is alive today to talk about the experience. Swain died in 1992 at age 76, while Hockman passed away in 2009 at the age of 88.

Luckily, when Stark Fear made its long-delayed world television premiere on Oct. 8, 2005, on The OETA Movie Club, Hockman joined program host B.J. Wexler at the breaks to discuss its making.

He recalled a meeting with Norman advertising exec Joe E. Burke: “I said, ‘You know, Joe, one of these times, we oughta make a film, a major motion picture.’ He looked up at me and said, ‘You think we could do that?’ And I said, ‘I think we could.’ And I left.”

About three days later, Burke told Hockman, “Let’s do it,” and Burke-Hockman-Swank Productions was born.

Stark Fear exists only because the project they really wanted to do proved too costly: a biopic on 19th-century Cherokee Nation leader Elias Boudinot, who was assassinated in Indian Territory.

“We figured it out, and it was going to cost $500,000,” Hockman said. “It’s a costume [drama].”

A psychosexual love triangle playing out in modern day, however — that, they could handle.

Following a credit sequence laden with oil wells, downtown OKC can be seen at a distance from Interstate 35, then in close-up as its female lead shops for lingerie. Later scenes were lensed at a Norman golf course and an OU sorority house.

For their leading lady who prefers black lace, Swain found himself smitten by a “woman detective” he’d seen on a TV series, telling Hockman, “When she walks, she sort of ... wobbles. I think she’d be good for that.”

Presumably, the show was Decoy; the actress definitely was Beverly Garland, who had starred in several flicks for the legendary producer Roger Corman just a few years prior, including the sci-fi cheapies It Conquered the World and Not of This Earth. A meeting at her home in Hollywood made it happen.

“We were quite impressed with her and all of the great films she had done,” Hockman said. “She was ... an actor of A-1 quality and a wonderful personality. We didn’t hear a negative thought from that woman.”

Garland saved those thoughts for later. In a 2000 interview with Scary Monsters magazine, she expressed the dislike she and co-star Kenneth Tobey (1951’s The Thing from Another World) shared for the picture.

“We both agreed that this was the most awful film either of us had ever done,” said Garland.

Unmentioned on OETA’s broadcast (as are rumors of Hockman walking off the film before completion), her remarks run counter to those she made three years later, following a public screening of Stark Fear at Sooner Theatre in Norman.

“It wasn’t bad, was it? When I looked at it — I haven’t seen it in 40 years ... I remembered, what fun we really had!” said Garland, who died in 2008. “We really worked hard. It was hard! Acting can be just so joyful when you have fun with it.”

At least she had an opinion. As Hockman told Wexler of the original premiere in Norman, “I noticed that when we lined up afterward to shake hands ... we never could get anyone to say whether they liked the movie or hated the movie.”

Stark raving
Let’s be honest: More than Garland’s cult or its Okie setting, the arguably largest reason for Stark Fear’s longevity is an issue of rights — or lack thereof. For whatever reason, ownership is believed to have fallen into the public domain, freeing it from copyright restrictions. Because of that, anyone can release, screen, broadcast or distribute Stark Fear without having to license rights to do so.

Online, visitors to YouTube and elsewhere can stream the entire picture, provided they can put up with the shoddy quality of the uploaded print.

Still, instant, click-of-the-button access ensures a longer life for an indie film that didn’t exactly make a pop-culture impact.

“Public-domain films have a better chance of staying around than pictures owned by the majors, simply because any jake-leg distributor can put ’em out,” said John Wooley, author of last year’s Shot in Oklahoma: A Century of Sooner State Cinema. “As I recall, [Stark Fear] only became readily available in the past few years. As far as I know, it was never part of a TV package.”

Mike Vraney, founder and owner of the Seattle-based Something Weird Video, believes the film’s advantage in endurance is a game of numbers.

“My guess is there were probably more 16-mm film prints of Stark Fear struck for television and 35-mm for theatrical screenings than many other comparable movies,” he said.

Vraney admitted he hasn’t seen Stark Fear “in many years,” but considers himself a fan of Garland’s, frequently staying at the Holiday Inn that bears her name when he visits Los Angeles. Wooley has yet to tire of the movie, multiple viewings be damned.

“I still like Stark Fear a lot. Of course, it owes a great deal to Psycho ... but to me, it’s everything an independent film should be,” Wooley said. “I think we should be damned proud of this picture. Done by a bunch of Oklahomans against all odds, they created something personal and offbeat and compelling. I only wish they hadn’t been hosed by their distributor and could’ve made more pictures, as they planned.”

Hockman told Wexler he didn’t see a dime from the film.

“All the money in distribution was stolen from us,” he said. “How do you get your money out of Greece?” About as easily as explaining how some movies escape obscurity, decade after decade. Again, it’s not as if Hockman’s effort were in danger of landing on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

“I put Stark Fear on the Weird-Noir collection because I had room for one more black-and-white film,” Vraney said. “That’s all.” —Rod Lott

Hey! Read This:
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel Blu-ray review   
John Wooley's Shot in Oklahoma: A Century of Sooner State Cinema interview   
Not of This Earth DVD review   
Weird-Noir DVD review   

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