Exclusive Interview with Leslie Zemeckis about ‘Bound by Flesh’

Leslie Zemeckis headshot

With her documentary “Bound by Flesh,” Leslie Zemeckis has reopened a part of history many have either forgotten about or never knew about. It focuses on Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became stars in sideshows and were generally viewed as freaks of nature. Throughout their lives they were subjected to abuse by their handlers and kept out of public view in fear of losing their monetary value. But when they finally got their freedom, life became even worse for them as they didn’t know how to deal with the ways of show business, and they eventually lost everything and entered a life of poverty.

What’s great about Zemeckis’ documentary is how it forces you to look at the Hilton sisters as human beings as opposed to oddities to be gawked at. I got to talk with Zemeckis over the phone about “Bound by Flesh,” how she first became aware of Daisy and Violet, and of the research she did.

Bound By Flesh documentary poster

Ben Kenber: This is a fascinating documentary. I didn’t know about the Hilton sisters at all, and they suffered through quite a miserable existence. “Bound by Flesh” deals with them as “freaks,” but it also deals with them as human beings which I really liked. What they go through is not unusual for people who don’t know the ways of show business.

Leslie Zemeckis: Good, I like that.

BK: How did you first find out about the Hilton sisters?

LZ: When I was doing my first documentary, “Behind the Burly Q” about burlesque I had read someplace that they were in burlesque briefly, so that kind of intrigued me and I put a little bit about them in the first film. Then I read Dean Jensen’s biography about them (“The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins”), and just over time, while I was editing my other film, I kind of became obsessed by their story. But also taking into context of the time they lived and what the carnival was and what circus life and sideshows were, we don’t have that today. There’s really almost no animals even left in the circus, so we’re kind of bringing to light and exploring what that world was that they lived in.

BK: In regards to the historical footage that you were able to include in this documentary, how did you go about researching this subject?

LZ: Every which way I could. I did the research myself so that I’m familiar with the names and dates, and I knew that they were, in their day, photographed a lot. They were interviewed and they had done a lot of newsreels, so I actually went to a news real company in New York and I sorted through their files, and because I knew the names that they were involved with, I found some footage that hasn’t been seen since the 30’s. It probably never would’ve (been discovered) because it doesn’t have their names on that little 3 x 5 index card. I found that within 10 minutes of searching.

BK: On the surface and outside the fact that they were conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet really looked like normal people and very innocent in a sense.

LZ: Well they were. It was a double-edged sword by them being so protected and kept away from other people that they were innocent. But then when they were out on their own they didn’t have the skills to deal with people or their career or money really, and that’s why they were taken so badly advantage of.

BK: You find yourself rooting for the twins to get freedom from their handlers, but once they do get their freedom they are thrust into a world they don’t have any control over. They are not prepared for it at all.

LZ: Yeah, it was a little bit of a curse maybe to get their freedom.

BK: I got a big kick out of the logos because they look like they came out of a schlocky B-movie from the 50’s. Who designed the logos?

LZ: Well it was my idea because they were in B-movies like “Chained for Life” and their story, when you talk about it, is so headline; kept in chains and held captive and all that. So I wanted to add an element of that for fun, but there really is a deep story behind it and my editor Evan Finn designed all that because he’s brilliant.

BK: Regarding the sound clips, were they created for this documentary or was it a combination of archival footage and actors redoing them?

LZ: It was actors redoing them, but that was their (the twins’) words. In both “Behind the Burly Q” and then this, I wanted the sisters to tell the story. I want people to tell their story instead of me imposing on it for the audience, so I used their words. I didn’t write those words. Those were what the sisters said.

BK: It definitely felt like their words. Who were the most fun or most informative to talk to when it comes to your interview subjects?

LZ: Well I just thought it was a little amusing that I had James Taylor and Phillip Morris (laughs). We would just laugh about it. I mean where else are you going to find “characters” like this? But they were all very charismatic, knew their history and I loved and loved talking to them and they loved it too. They loved that era, they loved the sideshow and they love the circus.

BK: Was there anything that you wanted to include in this documentary that you were not able to for one reason or another?

LZ: No. I would’ve liked to of had more footage of them, but I am super happy with what I found. I wanted people to see their movement. I don’t believe there’s any footage of them performing live in vaudeville, but I was really pleased with what I did find.

BK: The Hilton sisters did appear in “Freaks” which is now considered a classic, but when it first came out it was treated as very controversial and off-putting. It’s interesting to see how people initially reacted to the movie when it was first released.

LZ: It’s a disturbing movie, but what’s funny is that the twins actually aren’t in it as much as you would think. But the film has value; it’s in the National Archives. It’s just a world that is no longer.

BK: Are there still any sideshows still performing today?

LZ: Not really. There’s so little “born freaks,” but to me I equate it, and it’s not PC of course to go stare at people, with watching reality TV. Everybody sits in their home and it’s okay to watch the Kardashians comment on their physicality, and I think we still have a form of the sideshow. It’s just changed to reality TV. All forms of entertainment just change. They stay but they change. We just now do it from our home.

BK: There’s something to be said for the twins living as long as they did because the lifespan of conjoined twins is not good.

LZ: Right and they were generally very healthy throughout their lives.

BK: The choice of music was interesting because some of it goes outside of the times the Hilton sisters went through. How did you go about choosing the music, or did you just leave that to your composer (Oliver Schnee)?

LZ: No, I don’t leave anything to anybody (laughs). It’s too much of my baby. I certainly didn’t compose it. He (Oliver Schnee) was brilliant, but I didn’t want it to feel like you’re just watching this period piece that has nothing to do with today. It’s still hip, they were hip, and I wanted the music to reflect that.

BK: Going back to the voice cues, those were done by Lea Thompson and Nancy Allen. How did you manage to get them involved in this documentary?

LZ: Well I knew them so I was familiar with their voices, and they both have a similar quality with each other which I felt would work with the sisters. They also have a very light, optimistic voice. I was so lucky to get them. They were similar enough that I thought they sounded like sisters.

 

A big thank you to Leslie for taking the time to talk with me about “Bound by Flesh” which opens us up to a part of history that has been forgotten for far too long. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

 

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‘Poltergeist III’ Shows Just How Unnecessary Certain Sequels Can Be

Poltergeist III poster

It’s only with an obscene amount of free time, combined with a morbid curiosity, which had me watching “Poltergeist III” on cable. My only real memories of it beforehand were a behind the scenes show detailing the special effects and Siskel & Ebert’s scathing review of it. By the time this sequel came out in 1988, the series had already worn out its welcome. I don’t remember anyone liking “Poltergeist II: The Other Side,” and it was said to have been one of 1986’s big losers at the box office. Nevertheless, the powers that be at MGM decided they could wring just a little more money out of this franchise with one more sequel.

Once again, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is at the center of the story which has her shipped off to Chicago to live with Aunt Pat (Nancy Allen) and her husband Bruce (Tom Skerritt) who manages the luxurious high rise building they reside in. However, it doesn’t take long before those evil spirits and Reverend Henry Kane find Carol Anne and start their nasty little tricks to get her to come to the other side.

Now I can’t help but wonder if Carol Anne’s parents just dumped her in Chicago so they could be rid of those evil spirits for good. What if this series continued on? Would Carol Anne have resided with a different family member in each successive sequel to where she would become the ultimate unwanted house guest? Just imagine what Aunt Pat’s conversations with the girl’s parents (played by Jo Beth Williams and Craig T. Nelson) were like. I mean, Pat at one point says all she heard was they were caught up in a land deal gone bad, but maybe it went more like this:

“Pat, we love our daughter, but this poltergeist problem is really just rubbing us the wrong way.”

“Oh come on, stop kidding around sis! Your daughter is being bothered by a poltergeist! You expect me to fall for that?”

“Oh yeah Pat? You think I’m joking?! C’mon! I dare you to let her stay with you! I double dare you!”

“Yeah right! So that the ghosts or spirits or whatever the hell they are can haunt me and my family?”

“What are you, chicken?”

“Pat, stop teasing me! You called me a chicken all the time when we were kids! I AM NO CHICKEN!!!”

“Alright, prove it!”

Now guess what happened after that…

Apparently, Carol Anne was told by her mommy and daddy she was to attend a school for “gifted children with emotional problems” in Chicago. Once there, she meets up with one of the dumbest psychiatrists in cinematic history, Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire). He’s the one who foolishly opens Pandora’s Box by getting Carol Anne to talk about her experiences from the first two movies. By doing so, a slimy hand bursts out of his desk and throws a coffee cup at him while an evil voice cackles away.

So, what’s Dr. Seaton’s explanation for this? He says Carol Anne is a manipulative child who has the power to create mass hysteria and perform mass hypnosis on people to make them think they see ghosts. What?! Are you serious?! People pay this guy money to say shit like that? Where’s this guy’s degree? Is he a legitimate psychiatrist, or is he like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can,” faking his lifestyle while forging checks?

The character of Dr. Seaton basically exists for the audience to despise him whenever he opens his mouth. His disbelief in all the strange and bizarre things happening in the building is excruciating to sit through, and you just want these evil spirits to strangle him to death so he’ll shut up. Seriously, it says a lot about a movie when you start siding with evil spirits against the humans.

In fact, this is the big problem with “Poltergeist III;” you don’t care much for the majority of these characters. They exist merely as clichés instead of living breathing human beings, and seeing them suffer becomes more fun than fearing for their safety which all but kills the suspense. You have the teenage guy Scott (Kipley Wentz) who’s slobbering over his girlfriend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle of all people), and they look like they’ve come out of a thousand movies from this genre. Then there are Pat and Bruce’s hopelessly self-absorbed and shallow friends who are too interested in their own needs to notice signs of evil spirits invading the building. And where exactly are the cops in all of this?

Looking back at the Siskel & Ebert review, the one major complaint they had about this sequel, which I am in total agreement with, was all the characters kept incessantly crying out for one another:

“CAROL ANNE!!! CAROL ANNE!!!”

“SCOTT!!! SCOOOOOOOOOT!!!”

“BRUCE!!! BRUCE!!!”

“CAROL ANNE!!! CAROL ANNE!!! CAROL ANNNNNNNE!”

I swear, Carol Anne’s name is mentioned as many times as Al Pacino used the F-word in “Scarface.” It didn’t take long for me to figure out what Kane was saying to his fellow evil spirits as well as their quick reply:

“We must bring her to the other side!”

“Yes Reverend, but we also got to get this screaming bitch to shut the hell up!”

Remember the bottomless pit that opens up in the garage? Those slimy hands reaching out to grab the main characters look like those rubber gloves you buy at the supermarket but with extra makeup applied to them. The overall budget for “Poltergeist III” was just under $10 million, but it looks like it cost a lot less. While the other “Poltergeist” movies have state of the art special effects, the filmmakers here get short served and have to work with whatever’s available. Yes, some of those mirror scenes are cool as characters pass by without their reflections showing up on them, but that’s just an old trick.

Directing “Poltergeist III” is Gary Sherman who made “Dead & Buried” which has since become a cult classic. He also made the superb exploitation feature “Vice Squad” which featured one of the scariest and most vicious pimps ever played by Wings Hauser. A lot of Sherman’s skill isn’t evident here, and even he admits this is his least favorite film of the ones he made. Perhaps the studio played around with the sequel more than he liked, and with a franchise like this you know he’s never going to get complete control over the final product.

My hat is off, however, to Skerritt and Allen who came out of this movie relatively unscathed. They overcome the ridiculous material and manage to keep a straight face as the movie becomes increasingly laughable and confusing as it heads towards its unnecessarily reshot climax which leaves the fate of certain characters up in the air.

Aside from O’Rourke, the only other cast member to appear here from the previous “Poltergeist” movies is Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina. I find it funny how she received both Saturn and Razzie Nominations for her work here. I for one can’t figure out if she’s good or bad in this movie, but her mystical dialogue gets a bit ponderous with her overzealous delivery of it.

Of course, the lasting significance of “Poltergeist III” is the fact it was O’Rourke’s last movie before her tragic death at far too young an age. Her loss is inadvertently emphasized in the film’s final scene in which she is substituted with a body double. Since she passed away during post-production, you know it’s not her being held by Allen. For what it’s worth, she is very good here despite the cruddy material, and the film was dedicated to her memory.

Who knows what would have happened if O’Rourke lived to see another “Poltergeist” sequel. With Carol Anne quickly growing up, it would have been a kick to see her turn into an Ellen Ripley type of character who is prepared to go to war with these evil spirits. While others will be horribly terrified by them, she’ll see it as just another day at the office. I can just see her talking with girls her age:

“You think you have it rough? I got sucked into another dimension by evil spirits when I was five! Going through puberty was a piece of cake compared to that! Stop. complaining about the run in your nylons!!!”

I wonder what the tagline was for “Poltergeist III.” The tagline for the first one was:

“They’re here.”

With “Poltergeist II,” it was:

“They’re back.”

I guess the tagline for the third film was:

“I’m screwed!”

* ½ out of * * * *