Grant Cramer sits at his office desk. On the wall behind him hangs framed movie posters: Willy’s Wonderland (2021), which he produced, and a poster of The Stunt Man (1980) autographed by its director, Richard Rush, who was a mentor to him. Cramer’s career in show business spans 40 years and includes film and television acting, producing, and writing. His dirty blond hair is pulled back into a ponytail. He sports a beard, and he has that kind of smile that spreads throughout his entire face and crinkles his eyes. He’s generous with his time, and over the next hour, we talk horror, killer klowns, absurdity, acting, Hollywood politics, and living a life in the present with gratitude and passion.
Cramer’s first film role was in the 1980 psychological slasher New Year’s Evil. “I’ve always loved the Sam Raimi-type whacky horror: a little goofy, and a little bit tongue in cheek,” he says, describing New Year’s Evil as a film that fits in that vein. The film arrives in a special edition Blu-ray on April 12th this year from film distributor Kino Lorber, including a new 2K transfer and newly commissioned artwork. The disc has an audio commentary with director Emmett Alston and extras that include interviews with stars Kip Niven and Cramer. New Year’s Evil joins a long list of holiday slashers such as Black Christmas (1974), My Bloody Valentine (1981), and Halloween (1978). Now, New Year’s Evil isn’t as well-known as its bloody brethren, but it’s a damn fine thriller that actually says something. It’s a film about toxic masculinity and how it rots men’s sanities. In fact, for this reason alone, the film leans forward into important feminist issues our society is grappling with today. But the film is also supremely entertaining and silly enough to laugh between the sociological ruminations. It deserves a midnight toast.
New Year’s Evil was directed by Alston, who also co-wrote the script with Leonard Neubauer. The film stars Roz Kelly as Diane Sullivan—“D” to her friends, the “First Lady of Rock” to others, or “Blaze” to her diehard fans. There’s also Diane’s husband, Richard, (Niven), and Diane’s teenage son, Derek (Cramer). Diane is the host of a New Year’s Eve televised show, like the old Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (now with Ryan Seacrest), but Diane’s is more of a Punk Rockin’ New Year’s Eve show because… well, because it’s 1980, and we all looked like cadavers with eyeliner, black lipstick, and purple hair back in those days . The show is officially called Hollywood Hotline, and it’s a countdown of the year’s top New Wave hits as they count down toward the new year. There’s a bank of phones on stage, and the viewers call in with their pick for the top New Wave hit of the year.
Diane decides to get involved with her fans, and she takes a couple calls live and on camera. Apparently, there’s no delay. Big mistake. One fine fella she talks to is a killer in a phone booth somewhere in the dark streets of L.A., who speaks through a sort of Peter Frampton talk box (“Do you feel like we do?”). And the killer’s name (as he pronounces it) is “E-e-e-v-v-v-i-i-l-l-l.” He tells Diane—and the millions of people watching—that he is going to kill one person at midnight in each of the time zones. A woman will be murdered at 9:00 p.m. somewhere in L.A., another at 10:00 p.m., another at eleven o’clock, and one more at midnight Pacific Standard Time. Not a bad plot for a New Year’s slasher.
Horror movies are littered with madmen and psychos, and Derek Sullivan wins a gold star for his turn in the straitjacket. But it’s Cramer who created the character of Derek. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is Derek, sitting in a hotel room alone, cutting his mother’s red stockings with a switchblade and then tearing them with his teeth before pulling them over his head. Prior to this mental break, we see Derek as a doting son. Just before Diane takes the stage, Derek brings her a bouquet of roses, a symbol of his love for her. But she dismisses them and him. He proudly tells her he just landed an acting role in a TV series. She ignores him. She doesn’t see him—just like we can’t see his distorted face behind the stockings.
But if you’re going to portray unstable on the screen, you can’t play unstable—you have to be unstable. It’s Cramer, at the age of 17, who created this scene at his audition for the film. His acting teacher at the time, John Lehne, told him about creating a character, “You have to bring your backstory to it; you have to invest in it.” So, Cramer brought the props to the audition that would eventually make their way into the film. As it was originally written, the scene “didn’t have the switchblade. It didn’t have the stockings or the mother/Oedipal overtones,” Cramer explains. “I gave it that Oedipal backstory. I brought a straight-edge razor, lipstick, and red pantyhose. I took the razor and cut the pantyhose. These were supposed to be my mother’s items, you see.” Cramer modestly says he lucked out with his audition performance. “I didn’t have the skill level yet. I guess I just got lucky that I picked some things that worked for that character.”
And it did work. After the audition, there was a long silence in the room, and the producer of the film finally said, “You need to be committed. That was crazy.” Then he told the other actors waiting outside the room for their audition to go home. The actor’s job, as Cramer sees it, is to help the director and the writer to flesh out the character written on the page. Director Alston and writer Neubauer apparently agreed. A few days after the audition, Cramer received a revised script, and his performance with the red stockings and the straight razor was now written into the script.
Many might see New Year’s Evil as a deeply misogynist film. While Mr. Evil kills his female victims because, as he declares, women are “manipulative and deceitful and immoral and very, very selfish,” viewers must remember that Mr. Evil is insane. Yes, he’s a misogynist, but he’s not a celebratory hero whom we aspire to be. He is, in fact, a warning of what toxic masculinity can do to a man’s soul. Furthermore, his character’s name is “Evil.” “Evil” hates women and kills women, illustrating that hating women and killing women is evil. This admonishment is emphasized in Cramer’s portrayal of Derek: his gnawing and knifing of his mother’s hose shows he’s going down the same path as Mr. Evil. Clearly, on one level, New Year’s Evil takes a feminist stand against toxic masculinity.
Mr. Evil’s ultimate target is Diane, and Kelly plays her with just the right balance of the female fortitude of a punk rock queen and the vulnerability of a threatened, discombobulated victim. Perhaps Kelly was channeling a past character of hers. Like most from Cramer’s generation, The Fonz from Happy Days was the pinnacle of cool, and the only one who could match his swagger was his love interest Pinky Tuscadero, played by Kelly. Playing Diane’s son in New Year’s Evil was a challenge for Cramer because working in the loose confines of an acting class is nothing compared to the pressure of a new actor on set: hitting his marks, delivering his lines, and trying to fit in with veteran actors. But Kelly “was an absolute sweetheart and very helpful to me as a young actor,” Cramer says. He fondly remembers her support and her willingness to pay it forward to a new, struggling actor.
The challenge for Cramer, of course, was to take his winning audition and sustain a crazed Derek through several minutes of film. Cramer found some of Derek’s damaged psyche within himself. As Cramer sees it, Derek “was a little boy who was trying to get his mother’s attention, and I had a certain amount of that growing up. I had a movie star mom who I adored [prolific actress Terry Moore],” who often canceled dinner plans with Cramer when he was a child, leaving him crestfallen. On a smaller level, Cramer could relate to what Derek was going through. From that, he expanded it into a larger performance. “I may not be somebody who had anything other than some basic mommy issues to work out, but as an actor I can take those issues and lean into them to the point where things go the wrong way.” And things certainly do go the wrong way for Derek in the last scene of New Year’s Evil. Let’s leave it at that.
The dark, heavy moments in New Year’s Evil are balanced by the campy and the goofy, and there is so much to love here. During the “Hollywood Hotline” show, a punk band named Shadow sings (or screeches), “Shining like the light that hits the knife at the stroke of midnight.” It’s such a catchy tune that Shadow plays the same song five minutes after their first performance. On the floor in front of Shadow is a mosh pit, and it is the most gentle mosh pit in cinema history: the punkers slam into each other with the same vigor as zombies on Xanax. But then things really heat up. The music changes, and reaching the apex of mosh pit viciousness, the punk rockers slam dance to… blues music: 30… beats… per… minute… blues music. The absurdity is delicious.
But the absurdity soars much higher in Killer Klowns from[DA3] Outer Space (1998) and Willy’s Wonderland (2021). In Killer Klowns, Cramer plays Mike Tobacco, a small-town kid who, along with girlfriend Debbie (Suzanne Snyder), battles alien clowns who stun their victims and then wrap them in cotton candy cocoons to feast on later. In Willy’s Wonderland (which Cramer produced and has a quick cameo in as the villain responsible for all the mayhem), Nicolas Cage’s character battles Chuck E. Cheese-like animatronic puppets possessed by demons. But why or how does absurdity in horror movies work without it devolving into embarrassing idiocy that repels viewers?
“Approach absurdity as if it was the most serious thing in the world,” Cramer answers. “Both movies have a similar component: an absurd premise without a wink to the camera. With Willy’s, everybody played things very straight. Nick Cage approached the part with the same kind of focus of a serious actor. He was off at the aquarium in Atlanta looking at sharks to learn movements, and he was watching Prince videos before his pinball machine dance routine. He approached the film the same way he approached a much more serious project. When Beth Grant (Sheriff Lund) is pleading with Willy to stop [the mayhem], she’s doing it with every bit of her soul. I think that’s the kind of thing that sells absurdity and allows people to really go with it. I love taking an absurd premise and playing it as if it’s absolutely real, as if there’s nothing odd about it whatsoever.”
The popularity of Killer Klowns has grown over the years. When Cramer was first asked to appear at a convention, he was doubtful there were many fans of the film who would want his autograph, but years later, the number of Killer Klowns fans at conventions has exploded tenfold. There have been rumors of a sequel for years now. A script has been written by Cramer himself. The Chiodo Brothers who wrote, produced, and directed the original, are on board, and there is tremendous demand for a sequel, but the rights to the film and its sequel are being detained by MGM, who appears to have no interest in selling those rights to the Chiodo Brothers. Why?
“You know, studio executives all have their own strange reasons for doing things,” Cramer says. If there’s a demand and there’s a script, it seems like a no-brainer to make a sequel, and the plot is intriguing. Cramer would reprise the role of Mike from the first film, and he envisions the character as “now the town drunk who has PTKS (Post Traumatic Klown Syndrome). He’s been mumbling, ‘The clowns are coming back, the clowns are coming back,’ but everyone just thinks he’s a crazy nut.” A group of performance artists in clown makeup travel through town while at the same time, the killer klowns from outer space return and resume their murderous rampage. The townsfolk blame the strangers in town, and Mike comes to their aid, helping them battle the klowns. Mike becomes a sort of Van Helsing, “a cross between Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) from Back to the Future (1985) and Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) from Blade (1998),” Cramer explains. But Cramer is optimistic that the rights to a sequel will eventually be pulled from the logjam. “I’m personally still hoping that there might be an opportunity in the future when we can still get a sequel off the ground.”
Perhaps we’ll get a sequel to Willy’s Wonderland first. Cramer is the president of Landafar Entertainment, which is in talks to produce a second film. Landafar is also planning to produce a crime thriller called Good Son with Guy Pearce and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, another crime thriller called Seizure, and a Syrian war film about the Arab Spring. If that doesn’t keep Cramer busy enough, he’s also looking to direct a film based on the YA romance novel Chasing Windmills, written by Catherine Ryan Hyde.
As he outlines his plans, I recall that the killer in New Year’s Evil quotes some lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, wishing for death to “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” But art, I think, is the antidote to the heartache and shocks of the human life. I tell Cramer that his films mean something to me and to his fans, and that I’m happy he embraces his art. He thanks me and tells me my sentiment is the reason why he does conventions and agrees to interviews like this one. But he’s careful to not live too far into the future of his planned projects. We talk about the importance of living in the moment and just appreciating what is instead of what will be. He tells me he recently turned 60 years old, and his six-year-old son, his first child, has led him to the joy contained in the present “because as a kid,” he explains, “everything is going slowly because you’re in the moment and you’re absorbing everything for the first time, but as you get older, life starts to speed up, and a child forces you to slow down and see life through their eyes.” Having a son has helped Cramer figure out, in part, this strange path of life we’re all wandering down.
“Fatherhood is such an overwhelming gift to me,” he says, “that I look at life in terms of how can I stay healthy and how can I stay around for as long as possible for him.” And for us too, Mr. Cramer.