In Search of Newark’s Great Lost Grindhouse Auteur: The Vaughn Christion Story, from Silent Death (1983) to Key of Brown (2013) . . . and Beyond!

 

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Cinema does not get more Newark than this, from the opening credits to Vaughn Christion’s 2013 film Key of Brown. Here’s a local filmmaker whose career dates back several decades, including the lost horror flick Silent Death (1983), the martial-arts drama The Wrong Disciple (1991), the heist movie Heaven (1997), and the lurid, pulpy thriller Key of Brown—a body of work that makes him not only the king of Newarksploitation, but by my reckoning, the longest-active Newark filmmaker, period.

And yet, when I went in search of information about Christion or his Newark-based production company, Reina, I found very little: few reviews of his films, not much in the way of biographical information, and no interviews. This seemed . . . well, just wrong. Especially in an era of online cult-movie communities that have brought renewed attention and shed deeply-researched light on previously obscure and elusive films and directors, supporting an entire distributional infrastructure where Vinegar Syndrome and Code Red and Distribpix and Bleeding Skull, among others, can recover and restore lost and esoteric works, and where the valorization and even fetishization of the cheap, the tacky, the grimy, and the lost (or the paracinematic, as Jeffrey Sconce theorized it in a great scholarly article) means there are cults around everyone from Doris Wishman and Andy Milligan to Fred Olen Ray and Don Dohler, AND—I swear, this sentence ends soon—where the highlighting of regional cinemas in such books as Stephen Thrower’s brilliant, gargantuan Nightmare USA seems poised to hail a Newark filmmaker, the question remains: where in the hell is the appreciation of Vaughn Christion’s work?

Well, it’s here, at least. I appreciate it. I’ve been watching, researching, and digging Christion’s work for a while now—that which I can find, at least—and I wanted to do right by him in a post. Without much info to work with, though, I felt like I needed input from the man himself; fortunately, after some digging around, we made contact, and met up at Rutgers University-Newark for a pretty lengthy interview.

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Vaughn Christion is a charming, insightful guy who was generous enough to share his memories and thoughts for the below account, and I’m grateful. Before digging in, a quick montage from his work over the course of three decades:

From this, you can probably tell whether or not you’re interested in what follows.

Vaughn Christion was born in Bellville, New Jersey, in 1958, and grew up largely in the West/Central section of neighboring Newark. His parents owned a Laundromat, and he has fond memories of growing up in the 1960s, though some of the defining historical ruptures of Newark history played out across his childhood. He remembers vividly the uprising of 1967, for instance, though his father quickly sent him down to his extended family in Alabama to avoid the violence (nearly all of which, it bears repeating, was inflicted by the state against black Newarkers, despite media narratives that falsely claimed the opposite—if he had been a little older and running free, “I probably would have been killed by the national guard,” he jokes, but with a serious undercurrent). Growing up against the disillusioning aftermath of ’67, when Black Power devolved into the corrupt mayoral regimes of Kenneth Gibson and then Sharpe James, cultivated a certain cynicism; Christion sees Newark as a factory: “the government puts money in one end, money comes out the other… Newark is simply there to generate a certain amount of income for a certain people.”

As a teenager, then, he didn’t partake of the then-pervasive cult of personality around Amiri Baraka. But his adolescence also coincided with something of a golden age in grindhouse film: the 1970s boom in kung fu, blaxploitation, and horror that saturated downtown urban theaters. Christion’s tastes were eclectic, but as he recounts, the Shafts, Superflys, Coffys, etc. were what bookers sent to Newark, “that’s what was here”–though also, “we got a lot of kung fu, Sonny Chiba, Bruce Lee,” and adolescent Vaughn and his friends loved it, also going nearly weekly to the Chinatown theaters in New York City to see the latest Shaw Brothers productions.

But for all that, it was Billy Jack in the early Seventies that first alerted him to the idea of independent film. Christion had an interest in visual culture dating back to childhood, when his uncle gave him a still camera; a little later, he graduated to a Super-8 camera, purchased at a pawnshop on Broad Street. “We were ambitious—we made action movies,” he recalls. The goal was to emulate what he was watching: kung fu, black exploitation. Christion and his friends, including Doyle Taylor, who would become a longtime collaborator, put serious effort into these early works, researching how to film bullet hits and even renting guns in New York for the shoots after first talking to the state police (!!!). Once they even shot a scene on the Rutgers-Newark campus, off the old High Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.).

Running at 15-20 minutes, with “half a storyline,” Christion made “a bunch” of these films around the mid-to-late 1970s, though the only titles he can recall are Awesome Evil and Spirit of an Angel. Copies may still exist somewhere, he hints, and if so, they surely constitute an amazing archive of DIY Newark film culture. My fingers are assuredly crossed.

In the late 1970s, Christion worked at the Paramount Theater (and also nearby Adams Theater, owned by the same family) in downtown Newark, rotating positions from usher to projectionist (was it a union job? If so, “they didn’t tell me,” he jokes). A thousand-seat, large-balcony, high-ceilinged movie palace—I am wary of nostalgia (particularly for a moment I didn’t even experience), and yet here I succumb:

Christion cautioned me: don’t get too nostalgic for those 35mm memories. At the Paramount and elsewhere, projectionists sometimes mixed the reels up; occasionally the film caught fire, sprockets broke, reel changes could be “a nightmare.” Point taken, but still, I walk past this, the vestigial wreckage of a lost film culture, almost daily, and can’t help swooning:

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Working at the Paramount, Christion and his friends Doyle Taylor and Thomas Kirk asked the general manager what it would take to get a film shown there. His answer: something feature-length in 35mm, that was basically it. So Christion and friends embarked on a feature film, with Taylor and Kirk writing the script and Christion directing. “We had no clue what we were getting into,” he recalls, but they shot on a 16mm Beaulieu camera, sending it to Interformat in California to be blown up to 35.

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Silent Death resulted, in 1983. “Good to his word,” the manager booked it for a week. As recounted in a Temple of Schlock post (from which the above image comes), the film generated only one known review, Rick Sullivan in Gore Gazette, who described it as

An almost unwatchable slasher/black exploitation/police drama about a masked assailant who is carving up members of an organized crime ring with a straight razor,” Sullivan wrote. “Two inept detectives are assigned to the case, and what follows is the most inept film I have ever seen. That is a strong statement, but SILENT truly makes other hack directors like Andy Milligan and Larry Buchanan look like Stanley Kubrick and Werner Herzog with its static, constantly out of focus camera, inaudible sound and cheesy looking orange blood.” Sullivan also described it as “a 69-minute sub-Z abomination” and “the ROBOT MONSTER of the 1980’s!

It’s an assessment Christion doesn’t dispute: “a really bad movie,” he sheepishly explains. While he wasn’t initially thrilled to discover the Gore Gazette takedown, he now laughs, “it was an accurate review, I wouldn’t argue with it.”

In his own summary of Silent Death, Christion says it’s about “a woman who is seeking revenge against a group of businessmen who killed her family when she was a child, and she goes a little psychotic and puts on masks and terrorizes them”; there’s a couple of detectives trying to solve the case, one falls in love with her, “and that’s how it goes.”

Silent Death took about a year to make, “flying by the seat of our pants.” Christion and team were largely based in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with an office in Hersch Tower. Elizabeth constituted ground zero of the film—even the local mayor got involved, appearing in a bit role as a gangster in the climactic gunfight!—but Christion shot “all over” the region, picking up shots in Nutley, East Orange, and Newark too. I had assumed it would have been a guerrilla style shoot, but they had permits in Elizabeth; in Newark, the rule was, “you could shoot anywhere in a public space—you needed insurance—but as long as you didn’t drop a tripod on the ground, you could shoot” without permits.

Christion doesn’t recall the budget of Silent Death; “I have no . . .” he trails off. Suffice it to say, the budget was low. Chalking it up as a “learning curve,” he accepts its quick slide into obscurity stoically. It “didn’t make much money,” and after its weeklong run in Newark, it apparently got a few days in a small 42nd Street theater in NYC, and then effectively disappeared, though Christion alludes to a very limited VHS release, apparently centered on north Jersey mom-and-pops rental shops.

Does that mean there are copies floating out there somewhere? Christion’s official position: “I’m not going to say whether or not a copy exists.” But he says it with a smile, and Vinegar Syndrome, Code Red, Bleeding Skull, et al. should take note, since I am certain that I am far from alone in desperately wanting to see Silent Death. Ahem, Mr. Christion.

I dug around for more coverage of the film, but brief 1983 references in Variety (listed in the second image among recent films emphasizing “horror buzzwords”) and the Asbury Park Press (improbably listed between John Sayles’ Baby, It’s You and Tootsie in the “good year for films in Jersey”!) were all I could find—shared here:

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After Silent Death, it took nearly a decade for Christion’s next feature film to appear. “Life,” he says with a shrug, explaining everything and nothing.

The Wrong Disciple, shot in 16mm around East Orange and Newark, cost about $25,000. A nine-day shoot, it relied on a nonprofessional cast, led by Nina Brewton in her only acting role to date.

“A fun film to make,” though “not our greatest work,” Christion says, but I think he underrates it. The Wrong Disciple opens as kitchen-sink drama: to marry or not? (“we don’t make love as often as we should,” complains a frustrated boyfriend). Brewton’s Nikki says no, she’s too independent to be pinned down right now.

 

From these romantic woes, it evolves into a story of trauma, revenge, and martial arts. Off the bat, I’ll concede right away that The Wrong Disciple works best on a wavelength that may or may not have been deliberate, but it does work. The narrative is a bit, well, gestural, the sound can have foley issues, you could nitpick about the sometimes affectless acting, but The Wrong Disciple achieves a riveting ambience in its very desolateness, with a blankness that rivals Lower East Side no-wave underground films of a decade earlier. It comes in closer to Charlie Ahearn’s Deadly Art of Survival than its own contemporaries like the formulaic Cynthia Rothrock flicks that dotted late-night cable schedules of 1991.

Witness the autumnal New Jersey, then bleary nighttime emptiness, of the lengthy walking scenes that punctuate The Wrong Disciple. You could call this filler (at 72 minutes, the film was still too short to play theaters as a feature). If you’re approaching the film from a certain angle, it is. And yet this taps into some atavistic impulse that animated early silent cinema before the feature, what Joseph Losey invoked in one of his most powerfully primal titles, Figures in a Landscape—that scopophilic compulsion to watch bodies in motion across space. You could call this boring, and fair enough; me, I could watch Nina Brewton walk around north Jersey (Central Ave. in Orange, Christion clarifies) for eternity:

Or the use of empty space. I’ve always, since well before I could pontificate about Ozu like a wanker, found it tremendously effective to let a set breathe, and Christion gives us unadorned spaces that speak and resonate, both of the characters who inhabit them and of themselves too:

Of course, some requisite asskicking is delivered, with sex, violence, and other genre tropes. In the way it refuses to quite congeal, or collapse into emotional legibility, The Wrong Disciple can stick with you, if you’re open to it.

Some Newark shooting took place on 8th street, 12th street, and the School of the Arts on Broad by Symphony Hall; some rapid, blurry exterior shots again work surprisingly well to establish mood, and the city gets an end-credit acknowledgment.

Alas, it didn’t get real theatrical distribution, though it played a few festivals—here’s a Variety listing from NYC:

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By 1991, video was the main game, and while The Wrong Disciple received “very fragmented” distribution, skewed again toward local shops, it repaid its investors (there was one main investor, and several smaller ones)—though of the filmmaking crew themselves, Christion sighs, “we might not have made any money on it.”

And then . . . more time. More life. Christion’s film career has been nothing if not patient, and while it took until 1997 for Heaven to appear, this time he took the plunge to 35mm, with a larger budget that he describes as “less than a million, more than a hundred thousand.”

 

Heaven was Christion’s first original script, albeit based on a dream Doyle Taylor had and remembered only in fragment: “two people in a rain-soaked parking lot after committing a robbery.” From that, he spun a story of a financially faltering club (the titular Heaven) and a drug heist gone awry, with violent complications ensuing, including a loopy third-act twist involving the CIA, Central America, and some other left-field swerves.

Shooting in 35mm required a whole new approach, to new problems, from dollies the size of a car to trucker unions under whose radar super-low-budget films can fly, but not this kind of equipment. Locations proved “a nightmare,” and “you’re not gonna get ten pages a day”—though he still aimed for 6-7. I’ve always loved the way certain filmmakers seem to conceptualize their labor as that of working through formal problems—Lumet and Soderbergh especially come to mind here—and Christion echoes a little of this when he comments, “filmmaking is problem-solving.”

This time, a 30-day shoot included Wayne, some interiors in Newark, the use of nearby Kean University for a pool and the opening gunfight, and a hotel in Union, who let the crew put up the awning for the film’s club. With some jump-cut editing, nightclub scenes bathed in neo-noir blue, and a great exploding-disco-ball climax, Heaven has the sleek, Eternal Nighttime feel of a late-80s Crown International flick like Night Club (I mean that as praise!).

As Christion’s most polished film to date, it scored some theatrical exhibition, playing a week in Newark at the site of the old Newark Drive-In and the Loew’s that’s now Shaquille O’Neal’s Cityplex, as well as playing the Amboy Multiplex and a few days in NYC. It did alright on video, too—but alas, because its budget was higher than usual, it still lost money. Ever philosophical, Christion sighs, “If you’re in independent movies to make money, you’re in the wrong business.” At least it had a happy postscript: star Roxann Blackman married Doyle Taylor, and they moved to California.

I like Heaven, but it’s not as personal, or as idiosyncratic, as The Wrong Disciple. Christion traded some of his raw DIY spirit for the crossover bid, and if it doesn’t linger with you in the same haunting, elusive way, it’s still a tough, spirited North Jersey drug-heist B-movie. While men nominally occupy the narrative center, it’s clear by this point that Christion’s real cinematic impulse is toward badass women (the aftereffects of an adolescence spent watching Pam Grier, one might speculate), and Heaven delivers that again, with a particularly nicely shot poolside chase scene (courtesy Kean University). Alas, since its VHS release it has yet to resurface on DVD.

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I found a 1998 listing in Variety for a forthcoming project, Strive for Mastery, but it never arrived. Intended as a martial arts film, Christion says of it, “I wrote the script, read the script, threw the script away.” As he puts it, “I don’t claim to be a writer, but I write.”

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Instead, he took some “money gigs,” shooting music videos in genres ranging from pop to rap to easy listening. I don’t have a comprehensive list, but one example, Jill Criscuolo’s “Insane,” was partly shot in Times Square (with, alas, what begins as a cameo from the Naked Cowboy, and then he sticks around). Well, everybody’s gotta pay the bills somehow.

 

In the early 21st century, Christion saw the idea of an internet series as a liberating format, one that allowed filmmakers to play with duration and distribution. Unfortunately, 2008 proved a little early for what would indeed become an emerging movement, and Wildflower, his foray into the format, fell between the cracks. The half-hour pilot (“Parlor Tricks”), available on Amazon, was shot in six days with military vet Lyn Hill in the lead—no Newark in this, but Plainfield and the Broadway Dance Center in NYC as main locations.

The plot follows her character Lacy as she tries to party with her friends on her 21st birthday, but gets intercepted by a scout to audition for a role . . . and possibly learn the lethal “sharp kick” from The Master! Okay, it’s hokum, but it’s fun hokum, and while Christion undeniably shoots women from the position of the male gaze, he also affords his female characters agency without judgment; they’re sexually active and desirous of men without being punished for it, and without any of the moralism that has marked exploitation films from the 1930s through the grindhouse era and beyond.

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There are also some strange framing decisions, and a few cutaways to feet that recall Doris Wishman in her prime, so we’re back to the more ragged, adventurous style here!

Christion pitched Wildflower around to places like HBO, but to no avail; he had more episodes planned, but Amazon’s terms of distribution weren’t great, and the rest have yet to materialize (some of the episode plots may yet resurface as features, though). It was his first digital effort, and while many bemoan the digitality of contemporary cinema, Christion rejects a simple narrative of decline, recounting the sheer labor and expenditure of working on film: lab processing, syncing it up, cutting a workprint, taking it to the negative cutter, answer prints and a second answer print for color-timing; grease-penciling each fade, titles and credits taking two weeks and costing three thousand dollars, and release prints that had about 65% of the visual quality of the workprint. On digital, the time and costs evaporate; “I hear people complain, and I just think, you guys have no idea.” Sure, film is better visually and texturally–“If I could, I would”—but shooting digitally really does democratize the process and make it more palatable for low-budget filmmakers, Christion contends.

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Christion’s next feature, Key of Brown (2013), drew on a more recent inspiration than the classic Seventies action flicks (indeed, for the record, Christion is hardly anchored in ye olden times; during our conversation he reflected his voracious cinephilia, mentioning everything from The Hateful Eight to Upstream Color to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin): in this case, Hard Candy, the unnerving young-Ellen-Page psychosexual thriller. More precisely, the film’s formal challenge of a single house as set—Christion had access to a house in Newark, and wanted to see what he could do with it. After a false start in 2011 involving a lead actress who dropped out into the shoot, a reboot with fortuitously chosen Verina Banks took place from late 2011 into early 2012, with about eighteen days of shooting spread across 3-4 months.

Banks makes for a ferocious lead, playing Bernadette Lawson, a sometime-prostitute who finds herself in a bind after killing a john in self-defense and coming into possession of his drug stash, the kilo of brown heroin alluded to in the title. Key of Brown is pure, unadulterated pulp, in the best way; it opens with a rough sex scene and from there just goes: Bernadette calls her ex, who took a fall for her once when she was pregnant, which resulted in a prison term for him; she miscarried and fell into hooking, but makes no apologies, and in an embodiment of Christion’s value system, he rolls with it, accepting that as a necessity rather than casting judgment. They try to sell off the heroin, the deal goes bad, and we get everything from serial killers to crooked cops en route to a predictable, if satisfying, ending.

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Christion plays the claustrophobia well, with an effective setbound intensity broken only for occasional exterior pickup shots of Newark…

…and a closing scene set, I’m pretty sure, in the same driveway as a scene from The Wrong Disciple:

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compare:

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Christion is mostly happy with Key of Brown—“I got 75% of what I wanted” aesthetically, he says. It premiered theatrically at Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth, and has done modest business on DVD; “hasn’t made a lot of money, but didn’t cost much to make.”

It’s got an of-the-moment political sensibility (“cop tased by unarmed black man, now that’s a switch,” one character jokes), and I can’t help linking it to other Newark cultural productions of the same moment, such as Cornell Amir Garvin’s A Hustler by Nature, which I picked up at Source of Knowledge Bookstore on Broad Street, also from 2013, as a sort of Newark Pulp movement (side note: really interesting 2008 New York Times article on bookstores in Newark here, worth reading!).

Indeed, for that matter, Christion is part of a Newark filmmaking community that gets far too little attention, locally or elsewhere. He met Verina Banks on the set of a Shaheed Shaheed shoot at which he was helping out, and says that many local film people volunteer for one another, and then reciprocate the favors. He told me about Living with No Regrets, another Newark film (unrecognized as such by IMDB), and even clued me into DIY screenings of local work at the Robert Treat Hotel, which can be surprisingly lucrative for enterprising filmmakers working outside of the oligopolistic theatrical system.

All of this is fascinating, both for me personally as someone interested in Newark film history and for anyone engaged with regional and independent cinemas that have yet to receive much attention. I closed by asking Christion about his current projects, of which there are two. Yaku and the Undefeated returns to his central concerns: strong women, martial arts, etc. Bitch Lover, on the other hand . . . well, he promises it’s not what it sounds like. You can read both scripts at Amazon; they’re rough around the edges and deeply DIY, but again, great source material for anyone interested in this sort of filmmaking.

Ultimately, Vaughn Christion isn’t shooting masterpieces, nor is that his agenda. He’s an independent B-moviemaker who might be said to represent Newark’s tough, resilient spirit. His films aren’t for everyone; they’re for people who appreciate low-budget, sometimes cheesy, rough-hewn flicks whose appeal rests less on their polish than their grit. But within that framework, he’s a committed artist—you don’t devote yourself to this pursuit for essentially four decades without a real passion. And again, no one, to the best of my knowledge, has been making films in Newark this long, persisting against widespread indifference, budgetary and distributional obstacles, and changing film technology to keep the old grindhouse flame burning. For all this and more, Vaughn Christion, I salute you!

 

 

 

 

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