It was a very Prince Charles thing to do, and I don’t mean having your wife bumped off once she’s furnished you with a couple of heirs. I'm talking of course about the Prince Charles Cinema, described by people in the know as "the most depraved and beautiful movie theatre in London." They have a reputation for supporting cult cinema, and for putting on extraordinary events, and this counted as both - at the beginning of April 2022, they staged an entire weekend of films featuring Alex Winter, a man best known for playing William S. Preston Esq. in the Bill and Ted series. And they had him fly over to give talks before or after every single one.
The Belated Birthday Girl and I aren't particularly rabid fans of the actor, but we know a good film binge when we see one. So we picked one film from each day of the weekend to see - one was my choice, one was hers, and the third we hadn't seen before. It wasn't until a day or so before the event that we realised that we'd effectively committed ourselves to spending the weekend in the company of one guy, and, well...
...what if he turned out to be a dick?
Winter's first appearance in the festival was a meet and greet on the Thursday night, and we weren't really interested in that. So our first encounter with him was on the Friday when he gave an introduction to Freaked, where he was wryly amusing about the film's tortured history. There's a reasonable chance that you don't know Freaked, unless you hung around the grungier shelves of your local video shop back in 1993 (so yeah, this one was my choice). By then, Winter had made the first two Bill and Teds, and was also collaborating with Tom Stern (a pal since their film school days) on a sketch show for MTV called The Idiot Box. The latter was successful enough for Stern and Winter to be offered the chance to direct their first movie, only for 20th Century Fox to bury it once they saw what they'd ended up with: a film that had a similar level of daftness to Bill and Ted, but with a much less commercial edge. Winter plays Ricky Coogan, a Hollywood actor who shills for the evil EES corporation (Everything Except Shoes): he’s been sent to Santa Flan to help with the promotion of their most toxic product yet. By sheer coincidence, on the way there he encounters a freakshow where all the freaks are normal people who’ve been mutated by the same product. Pretty soon Ricky is one of them, and itching to get back to his normal life.
Nobody really does big stupid makeup effects any more, do they? Part of the joy of Freaked is that it’s full of them, the pinnacle probably being the way that the film’s most bankable star - Winter's old mate Keanu Reeves - is completely hidden by fur in his role as Ortiz The Dog Boy. (He’s also uncredited, which is a whole other story.) But the main pleasure is in its sheer balls-to-the-wall daftness, and a script full of perfectly quotable lines. (“So many milkmen on one route. No wonder they fight.”) You could tell that the audience at this screening was full of people who’d only ever heard the sound of their own laughter when they’d watched this film in the past: it's a movie that completely takes flight when watched with a crowd, and it was nice to finally get the chance to do that.
Saturday night’s film - The Lost Boys - was a much more popular proposition, and Winter's introduction took the form of a Q&A hosted by Paul Davis, author of the film's making-of book. As Winter tells it, it all started in 1985 when he'd just come back from London after his first role in a movie, playing a Hispanic hoodlum in Death Wish 3. ("I did it for the money, which shows you how desperate I was - it's a Cannon film, they've got no money.") Working for Michael Winner was a pretty dispiriting experience, but it got his face noticed by casting directors, and soon Joel Schumacher had him pegged as the 'satanic cherub' in his gang of hot boy vampires. This shoot sounds like it was much more fun: the four Lost Boys quickly became a proper gang offscreen as well as on, with Winter acting as the 'den dad' to Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, the youngest and most easily led members of the cast.
Back in the old days of the Film Unlimited talkboards, I hated Joel Schumacher with the intensity of a thousand suns. Rewatching The Lost Boys for the first time since its release, I'm struggling to remember what my problem was with him. Let's face it, after this year, you can't even accuse Schumacher of having made the worst ever Batman movie. This film, at least, has a solid grasp of its wobbly tone, straddling the line between teen romp and horror with surprising aplomb, and managing to stay just camp enough (which is where his Batman films fell down). Winter isn't really in it much, and is very conspicuously the fourth vampire in the set of four, but in what turns out to be an ensemble piece (despite Kiefer Sutherland being so front and centre in all the publicity) he's a perfectly fine fit.
The Lost Boys screening is responsible for the one slightly uncomfortable moment in the whole weekend, as during the Q&A a creepy bloke at the back of the audience asks Winter "are there any heterosexual actors in Hollywood? Could you be heterosexual?" Assuming it's a tangential reference to some of the recent stories about his being abused as a child actor, it’s a shitty thing to ask. It’s good to see that Winter doesn’t lose any of his cool or charm, but shuts that question down straight away. Besides, apart from his recent comeback as William S. Preston Esq., he doesn’t really act these days – he's been quietly making a name for himself over the last decade or so as a documentary director. His most recent work is Zappa, which had the misfortune to be completed just as the pandemic hit, meaning that our weekend finished with one of the first ever theatrical screenings it’s had in the UK. (Though it had a decent run on home video last year, and is still currently viewable on the BBC iPlayer.)
Frank Zappa's one of those people I've admired from a distance rather than actually loved: at one point in this documentary he gets a little grumpy about the section of his audience who bought Valley Girl and nothing else, and yes, that's me. I've also read his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, which always felt like it was trying a little too hard to alienate the casual reader with tales of his dickish behaviour. Winter's version of the story feels a bit more balanced, suggesting that most of the clashes he had with people were down to his perfectionism and ridiculously tough work ethic. (That and the groupies, perhaps.) Bolstered with huge amounts of previously unseen material from Zappa's archives - Winter ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money to restore it - it's a detailed run through all the phases of the man's life: the teenage rock 'n' roller, the hippy satirist, the serious composer, the anti-censorship activist, and the Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism for the newly formed Czech Republic (which came in handy for me on Twitter one day after the screening). Apart from the odd classical composition, there's only one song of his you get to hear from beginning to end - the 1978 live version of Watermelon In Easter Hay that runs over the end credits - but if you were looking for a explanation as to why people put up with Zappa's attitude, it's as good a one as any.
And to answer that question that's been hanging over the whole weekend: no, Alex Winter didn't turn out to be a dick at all. He was hugely generous with his time, participating in every single screening over the festival (frequently with his 12-year-old son in tow, on his first trip outside the US), as well as a couple of longer interview sessions (you can listen to one of them here). Despite all of the stories you hear about Death Wish 3 - and Winter apparently told a fairly gruesome one before its Prince Charles screening, concerning Michael Winner's approach to filming rape scenes - I ended up liking the guy so much that I recorded the film when it turned up on ITV3 a few days later. I'm probably going to regret that when I eventually get around to watching it, but there you go.