“I made movies I wanted to watch myself. I didn’t care what anyone thought. Instead of writing for somebody else, I happily found [my films] in WalMart and Family Video — finally ending their natural lives in a Dollar Tree, after thinking I would sell them from a card table at a con myself. A lot of people are discovering my Wild Eye films that way, I’ve found, at Dollar Tree.”
— Screenwriter John Oak Dalton to B&S About Movies
Muncie, Indiana-born filmmaker John Oak Dalton is a screenwriter and director that’s drifted down the waters, under the girders of the Monongahela’s Smithfield Street Bridge that we don’t mention enough, here, at B&S About Movies. As a screenwriter, we’ve primarily reviewed Dalton’s work with the oft-reviewed Mark Polonia by way of the films Black Mass (2005), Amityville Death House (2015), Amityville Island (2020), Shark Encounters of the Third Kind (2020), and, most recently, the absolutely bonkers, Noah’s Shark (2021).
Oak Dalton’s later travels with Polonia Entertainment began in 1987 when he became the first scriptwriter to win a David Letterman Telecommunications Scholarship from Ball State University. By 1999, Dalton sold his first screenplay to the direct-to-DVD market and numerous screenplays over the next 20 years to various indie-genre directors. He made his screenwriting debut for director Jon McBride (be sure to check out our “Exploring” feature on Jon) with Among Us (2004).
One of those genre-directors Oak Dalton works with often is fellow Dayton, Ohio-based Henrique Couto, noted for directing the well-received Babysitter Massacre (2013). Oak Dalton wrote Couto’s equally well-received horror-indie Haunted House on Sorority Row (2014), as well as the western-drama Calamity Jane’s Revenge (2015). Couto most recently directed Ouija Room (2019; written by Dan Wilder) (both Tubi-linked). Dalton’s also written for Joe Sherlock, who’s been at since 1999 with 28 films of his own. Coming soon from the pair is Things 666 (2022). In our talking with John, we’ve come to learn that Joe Sherlock grew up on a steady diet of Don Dohler (Fiend) and Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), and whatever was on late-night cable, so Sherlock’s films just might be what your streaming platform, ordered (and you may want to check out his 2014 writing-directing effort, Drifter, on Tubi).
The Girl in the Crawlspace
After writing twelve screenplays for others, John Oak Dalton decided to make his thirteen writing effort — a twisted, psychological horror set in a small town — his first directing effort. Assisting John — in their seventh overall collaboration — as a producer and cinematographer, is Henrique Couto (which he also accomplishes in Scarecrow Country).
A perfectly-metered, realistic Joni Durian (Babysitter Massacre, Haunted House on Sorority Row, Calamity Jane’s Revenge, Scarecrow Country) is Kristen: the psychiatrist wife of Johnny, a failing screenwriter (an on-the-spot John Bradley Hambrick of Henrique Couto’s Ouija Room). Their marriage failing — due to each other’s infidelity — they’ve returned to Kristen’s rural Indiana roots. While she’s quickly set up a new psychiatry practice, a bitter, L.A.-pining Johnny battles his alcoholism as he argues with his agent on the latest sequel to the popular Sorority Graveyard franchise. As the story unfolds, we come to learn of Kristen’s wanting to return home: she wants to write a book about her hometown’s dark past regarding a local serial killer. When Kristen begins sessions with Jill (a well-tempered Erin R. Ryan, who also appears in several films connected to Oak Dalton), a homeless local teen, they come to discover she’s an escaped victim of an infamous child serial killer.
While I am not privy to have seen all of John Oak Dalton’s twenty-one writing efforts, and while I certainly respect the retro-SOV efforts of his frequent collaborator in Mark Polonia, based on the films I have viewed, I can tell you the reason why (even though each may have the expected, indie-filmmaking shortfalls) a film like John’s most recent effort, Noah’s Shark, works. It is the result of Oak Dalton’s creative, what-the-hell-why-not plotting and clever character exchanges.
Needless to say: As with most of the indie-streamer I’ve reviewed: most reviewers haven’t been kind to John’s directing debut, as streamers seem to be coming into this small town-with-quirky-residents-and-even-dark-secrets tale expecting the Coen’s brothers Fargo. Oh, how many times must I say, “Don’t do that,” as we are dealing with filmmakers up-against-the-budget? (You’re just not “getting it” and never will, so que sera sera, bitch.) Even with the comes-with-the-territory budgetary issues: The Girl in the Crawlspace is above the fray of most of the indie-streamers I’ve watched (via the with-ads Tubi platform) as Henrique Couto has delivered us a well-shot film.
As I mentioned with Oak Dalton’s joint-Polonia resume: the script is the thing. Here, as with the Coen’s ode to small town, Midwestern mayhem: we have an expertly crafted, multi-layered script rife with complex characters. Each have something to communicate beyond a major studio bayos ‘n bayhem romp rife with clunky one-liners and screams of “Look Out!” and urges to “Run!” as the San Andreas cracks and CGI buildings fall. It’s inherently obvious Oak Dalton’s script for Crawlspace comes from a place of erudition: his love of films, fan fiction, and other geek-driven pursuits shines through with the banter of his humorously engaging, community-center D&D-style gaming group that quickly reconnects the writing-unfocused Johnny to his nerdy, fantasy-game loving college days: Johnny is John Oak Dalton. Unlike most small town-dom scripts, ones where everyone comes across as hicks and oafy buffons, Oak Dalton has lived this life; he loves his roots and treats all of his characters with respect.
If The Girl in the Crawlspace was shot as an A-List feature film with center-of-the-radar actors — such as Clint Eastwood’s murder-mystery thrillers Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) Mystic River (2003) — you’d be singing the film’s praises courtesy of its story. So take off the snobby indie-streamer glasses and take your time to watch this well-written, multi-layered mystery that comes in at a quick 70 minutes.
John Oak Dalton is back with his second directing effort from his own screenplay about an Amish-populated, Indiana small-town where Winnie (a thespian-solid Chelsi Kern), a librarian, is gifted the diary of Joey Gibbs: gay and bullied, he committed suicide by driving his car into Hour Glass Lake. She comes into possession of the book when his mother passes and her daughter donates her brother’s collection of sci-fi novels. Once opened, the diary revives a blood thirsty scarecrow from the town’s dark past that kills members of Joey’s old basketball team.
As with Oak Dalton’s previous small town opus: the plot is multilayered with fully-arched characters. As in those larger-studio films we’ve cross-referenced: the once-teen-and-now prominent folk on the town’s counsel (one is the lovable town drunk, one runs a classic car dealership, the other a bar-club that once hosted The Dead Milkmen under his dad’s tutelage) were responsible for Joey’s death and cover up. While we may get the familiar plot twists that brings everyone’s sins of the past full circle, we also — refreshingly, unlike most horror indie-streamers — get a tale that’s not about the blood: this is a story about real people, their small town tales, and the quirks and mystery that follow suit.
One of those refreshing elements is the engaging subplot — that more than likely comes from Oak Dalton’s erudition — is Zoe (Rachael Redolfi): the agoraphobic, “old school” underground comic book artist sister of Winnie. Her reluctant fame for creating the Fantomah series leaves her at odds with her agent: she wants Zoe think bigger. Zoe wants to continue self-disturbing as a Xerox’d ‘zine. Oh, and Zoe’s creations “talk” to her and lead to solving the mystery.
Again, there’s those naysayers looking for a John Carpenter joint that moan about the film being “familiar” because the film centers around a revenge-driven scarecrow — stirred to life by a homemade Ouija board (the same one that opened Henrique Couto’s Ouija Room; it’s only a recycled prop and neither film is a sequel-prequel to the other). Speaking of props and set design, again, as with Crawlspace: the production-set design is solid and above-the-fray of most budget-conscious streamers. And it comes in at another tight 70 minutes.
For me, John Oak Dalton’s two directing efforts of Midwestern-bred horror are everything Don Coscarelli’s California-based mayhem (well, we are basing that on the fact the film shot at Oakland’s famed Dunsmuir Mansion) could have been. Think of a Phantasm with rich, character back stories (and flashbacks) of Mike and Jody’s parents, of how Jody, Reggie, and Tommy came to form their high school band, and how Jody ended up on the road with the Rolling Stones. (Say, a scene with Jody backstage at a gig pushing an amp and his Aunt Belle calls to tell of his parents’ car accident. In fact, the novel gets into Tommy’s “suicide”: his body is discovered in a basement: he jammed a knife-in-the-slats of an unfinished wall and thrust himself upon it.)
Well, those Oak Dalton-styled back stories — and scenes — existed, but were ultimately deleted from Coscarell’s final film (either shot, then cut; or cut from the script prior to filming). In the ultra-rare novelization by Don’s mother, romance novelist Kate Coscarelli, we learn such tidbits as the town where The Tall Man began his slave cultivation operation was known as China Grove. (Of course, if you watched the later-issued DVD outtakes to the film, you know there was more to Jody’s and Mike’s lives.) In the novelization, we learn that, after their death, the brothers inherited their parents’ small-town bank. The film-undeveloped sisters of Suzy and Sally (remember, they were kidnapped by The Tallman’s dwarfs) not only owned an antique shop (inherited from their convalescent-homed mother, Mrs. Glunter): Suzy and Jody became a couple as result of her working at the bank. There’s additional family drama with Jody: instead of taking on the family business, he goes on the road with the Rolling Stones and expresses his frustration having to remain in China Grove to take care of Mike.
Remember the one-scene Mrytle the maid: she’s more fleshed out in the novel. The old psychic lady in the wheelchair: her name is Mrs. Starr — and she speaks and discusses her granddaughter’s disappearance (and her name is Sarah; remember she opened the door to the “Space Gate Room,” then screamed). Then there’s the brothers’ doting Aunt Belle — who sees her war-casualty son in Mike. There’s Mr. Norby, the bank’s new manager at odds with Jody’s involvement with the bank. Then there ol’ Sheriff Wade who gave the roustabout Jody, Reggie, and Tommy hard times as teens — but he now leaves Jody alone via a bank loan blackmail gag (thus why the ‘Cuda always races around town without consequence); Jody even cracks a joke about “repossessing” Reggie’s ice cream truck (and Sally works at the ice cream shop). We also learn about the mysterious murder of Charlie Hathaway, the previous owner of Morningside.
Now, imagine a rebooted Phantasm with all of those twisty character elements. That’s what John Oak Dalton brings to the screen with these two films: real people with real lives and real problems that invest your interest. He gives reason beyond the screams.
So, Don, if you’re reading this: reboot Phantasm and give John a crack at the screenplay.
“I made Crawlspace after going a while without being offered any screenplays, or any I wanted to write, so I thought I would write a movie I wanted, make it at my house, and then sell it on a card table at conventions. Nobody was more surprised than me when it got picked up for distribution and ended up in Family Video, WalMart, and more.
“Literally, the day we sent the deliverables on Crawlspace, I was asked what I had next, which was nothing: I had intended on just making [Crawlspace]. So I started writing Scarecrow Country that very day in January 2019, we shot it in March 2019, and it screened October 2019 at a dusk-to-dawn horror festival in Iowa City.”
— John Oak Dalton to B&S About Movies about the connection between his two directing efforts
You can follow John Oak Dalton at his official blog — where, in his entry “Talking in Our Bed for a Week,” he goes into detail on his mutual, recent three-picture deal through Wild Eye Entertainment with Mark Polonia. You can also learn more about John’s wares courtesy of his recent August interview with Richard Gary at the Indie Horror Films blogspot.
You can learn more about Henrique Couto and his films at his official website.
You can also delve into the twisted world of Joe Sherlock at his official site, Skullface Astronaut.
If you’re fan of ’80s-era shot-on-video films and you’re burnt out on the genre’s classics (many which we’ve reviewed at B&S About Movies, so check out our SOV tag), John Oak Datlon, Henrique Couto, and Joe Sherlock, as well as Mark Polonia, are doing a great job at keeping the era alive and viable with today’s technology-driven, shot-on-digital streamers.