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Backwoods A-Yo-Yo: Donn Davison And His Incredible Films

“I know that you think this is just a story. Well, it’s more than that. It’s a true story that happened ALMOST this way.”
— Moonshiner’s Woman (1968)

Duncan yo-yo champion. Spook show magician. Exploitation filmmaker. Brilliant promoter. Blink-or-you’ll-miss-him cameo actor. Adult theater manager. Successful producer. Pseudo-documentary huckster. That’s Donn Davison. Spell his name with a double “n.”

I’ve come across Donn Davison’s unmistakable name several times during the past five years. First, in the guise of a traveling spook show performer from the 1960s, hitting up “open-air” and hardtop theaters with garish, live action productions such as “The Horror Chamber Of Blood & Gore” and “Monster A-Go-Go.” Similar to other spookshow hosts of the time, Donn would tour the country with three feature films, a baby birth reel, and his brief stage show. He’d play small town drive-ins and any two-bit dump that would have him. Donn took a back seat in my head, his story blurring together with the dozens of other spook show mystics that transfixed me. But that name. I always remembered that name.

In 2001, Something Weird released the stellar Monsters Crash The Pajama Party Spook Show Spectacular DVD. A smorgasbord of Halloween cheapness, spook show tributes, and D.I.Y. fun, the disc contained a strange 3-D short titled Asylum Of The Insane, which featured some kids in monster masks and a skinny guy performing yo-yo tricks into the camera ala House Of Wax. Being particularly attracted to the mystery of random old footage (especially those that resembled actual home movies), I poured over Jim Ridenour’s excellent liner notes, in search of information on this short. I didn’t have to look far. There was that name again: Donn Davison, complete with a detailed background and filmography. Yep, that’s right — Mr. Davison actually churned out feature films, in addition to the Asylum short, which was actually inserted into “borrowed” prints of Dave Friedman’s She-Freak for use in Donn’s roadshow.

Soon after, I took in a film called Demented Death Farm Massacre. Not expecting much from the title, I smiled widely when the name Donn Davison materialized. Thirty seconds of research revealed that the film wasn’t straight-up Davison alone. As it turns out, this was a butchered version of Donn’s Honey Britches from 1971. Britches was acquired by Fred Olen Ray, who added inserts of John Carradine (among other things) and sold the results to Troma. DDFM was born. Despite the obvious drawbacks, I was completely taken by the original footage in the film. Borderline home-movie, this was the kind of no-budget abnormality that made my world go ‘round.

Attacking all of the juicy sources on my bookshelf, I began to piece together the fascinating life of my newest discovery. Surprisingly, very little has been written on Donn’s bursting-at-the-seams resume. In fact, if it wasn’t for the admirable work of Something Weird, Davison’s work might have been lost forever. From TV appearances in his hometown of Louisville, KY to spending six months in jail on obscenity charges for distributing an exploitation film called Obscenity, Obscenity, Donn’s numerous feats were anything but black and white. This is the kind of stuff that seems almost too good to be true for one lifetime, which is why his brief turn in the director’s chair yields such brilliant results. Results which could only actualize from a person that has little technical skill in their chosen craft, but draws from the trick bag of an eccentric life. Donn’s films are surreal, paste-up worlds unto their own — he created a trashy type of low-rung cinema verite without even knowing it.

While most vintage exploitation was conceived to shock and make money, I don’t get that feeling from Davison’s productions, at least not fully. Advised by director Ron Ormond (The Monster & The Stripper, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?) and partnered with friend Lee Jones (Invasion Of The Girl Snatchers), Donn set out on a path that desperately tries to sensationalize everyday lives, but does so with both feet planted firmly on earth. Seemingly seedy storylines are presented through family travelogues. Backwoods sleaze is scored by fairy tale LP cues. It’s this constant channeling of accepted exploitation elements through the eyes of someone’s dad’s literal home movies that solidify the enthusiasm and drive of the man behind the camera. Granted, I’m no expert on Donn and don’t claim to be. But I know heart when I see it. Donn’s stint of filmmaking proves that most anyone with the resources could make a feature back in the day. However, it takes something special for such zero-budget experiments to remain emotionally endearing. Especially over forty years later.

MOONSHINER’S WOMAN (1968, Something Weird DVD-R)

All interested parties start here. This is the quintessential Donn Davison motion picture. Part public service announcement, part family travelogue, part hilarious crime expose. All held together, (just barely) with cheap masking tape and a whole lot of narration.

Brad Jarvis (Davison) is the local kingpin of crime. Moonshinin’, selling drugs in high schools, running strip clubs, murdering, you name it. After killing an old moonshiner for squelching on his share of the profits, Jarvis and his goons abduct the old coot’s wife, Lorilee. Jarvis has big plans for her down at his gentleman’s club, but not before she models a few bikinis and he forces her into some PG love-making. Suddenly, Lorilee is one of the gang, taking a trip with Mitch, Jarvis’s right-hand magician hood, and indulging in pot and LSD. Mitch and Lorilee fall for each other, but Jarvis sees red! It all leads to bloody murder, deadly catfights, a magic coffin of flames, and the most awkward police shoot-out this side of…well, anything.

The straight ahead “plot” is quite deceiving. You’d probably expect a headlines-torn peep into the life of a gangster to be packed full of devious happenings. However, instead of action, we get the following: long games of pool, a day at the motorcycle races, incredible scenery of neon-filled 60s streets, syndicate meetings, and people fixing drinks. However, none of it ever caused me to get sleepy. There’s a humble narrator along for every step. He asks you questions, gives the characters advice, and generally tells you what’s going on at all times, even when it’s not occurring onscreen. Our man on the mic is helped out by a never-ending soundtrack of children’s fairy tale music and especially interesting moments where the entire soundtrack goes dead for a minute or so. Intentional? A result of print ravage? I’m not sure, but I like it. But don’t worry — there’s plenty to captivate your attention in addition to the sight-seeing. Try the he artsy, out-of-nowhere LSD sequence. Or even the plastic skeleton emerging from a fiery coffin.

On the technical side of the coin, Moonshiner’s Woman is a flailing, glorious mess. Mostly post-dubbed, both the characters’ and narrator’s speeches rarely match up with what’s actually happening. The photography is rough and grainy, nuanced by the over-exposed black and white film stock. The random, rushed feel of the entire film lends itself to some pretty inspired shots, purposefully or not. Just when you’re craving something really out of the ordinary, out pops a lengthy magician practice session, a sure-fire holdover from Donn’s spook days. Moonshiner’s Woman is a gem of bizarro cheapness that can never be planned on. It’s funny, surreal, and positively strange.

HONEY BRITCHES (1971, Something Weird DVD-R)

”I can’t understand why a sexy little board like you ever married that ol’ fart anyways.” If Moonshiner’s Woman is the trickled perfection of Donn Davison’s charms, then Honey Britches aka Shantytown Honeymoon is the completist’s treat. In other words, if you’re not wise to this stuff yet, then don’t expect a conversion with this film. But if you’re up for a cheap redneck jaw-dropper, no one’ll treat ya better.

Since this is the second and final film that Donn shot and produced entirely on his own, it’s pretty interesting to see the difference a couple of years can make. Or don’t make. While it certainly resembles more of an actual “movie” when compared to its older sibling (possibly due to the script by Davison’s wife, Barbara), Honey Britches barely oversteps its homemade boundaries — it’s a living comic book crafted with last week’s grocery change. Every unlikable-yet-magnetizing, character is an enormous caricature. The countryside of Alpharetta, Georgia gets plenty of leering screentime, save for a gritty little shack that looks much too authentic for a set. There’s that Davison allure at work again.

Four meatheads rob a jewelry store (we hear about it through an old AM radio and Davison’s voice) and run out of gas in the sticks. There’s Phillip (master of the dinner theater accent), his girlfriend Suzanne (a larger-than-life amazon), Kirk, (machismo slimeball), and his main squeeze, Karen (she’s personality-deficient with enormous hair). They decide to set up shop in a random hillbilly house so that the cops won’t catch on. Bug eyed biblical-ranter Harlon hocks moonshine to the locals in order to support his new bride, Reba Sue. When the crooks decide to stay on with Harlon and Reba Sue, sexual tension runs high, double crosses abound, and everybody shouts a lot. What happens next is inevitable. Dirty sex in a dirty shack, goopy blood and violence, a jealous catfight (similar to the one in Moonshiner’s Woman), endless chase scenes, and a climax that with both humor you and bum you out.

Honey Britches is soaked with so much erratic personality that it’s hard to draw comparisons. The small scale (no more than ten people appear on screen), the bizarre character traits (Harlon’s moment of clarity with a sunshine beam, the hilariously ridiculous treatment of all female characters), and the “untouched” locations do much to place this film on a tier of its own. Granted, films like H.G. Lewis’s This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! and Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers might sound technically similar, but neither fill their frames with such an insane amount of blast-off, bargain-counter fun.

How does Britches compare to its subsequent face-lift, Demented Death Farm Massacre? No contest. We get some additional footage and a much more sensible series of events, minus the lame John Carradine inserts. While the print of Death Farm is near angelic compared to the roughness of Britches, there’s no denying the power of original intention, especially in the case of Donn Davison.

BLOOD BEAST OF MONSTER MOUNTAIN (1976, Something Weird VHS)

Hot damn! Hold the phone! If Honey Britches calls in Mr. Sandman for the uninformed viewer, Mr. Davison has set the alarm. This ultra-obscure eye-popper is unbelievable.

In 1965, a film called The Legend Of McCollough’s Mountain aka The Demon Hunter was vomited onto the unknowing public. By the time 1976 rolled around, the legacy of a man named Bestoink Dooley and his investigative reporting on a monster from “Blood Mountain” was all but forgotten…unless you happened to be Donn Davison. Yearning to throw in his two cents on the Bigfoot sub-genre (and possibly needing a break from running the XXX Dragon Art Theater in LA), Donn acquired Demon Hunter and transformed it into the greatest weirdo Bigfoot films of all time. It’s got the tape and scissors aura of Moonshiner’s Woman, just less “serious” and heavier on the weird. We even get the kiddie library music and long bouts of silence to boot.

After a brief sasquatch-themed country song, we meet “Donn Davison: World Traveler, Lecturer, and Psychic Investigator.” Yes sir, Donn appears as himself, dressed in stately 70s chic while lecturing us on Bigfoot in a wood paneled basement. He’s dead serious too. Especially while interviewing a series of comatose “witnesses” in someone’s local park (including Pepper Thurston, the amazon woman from Honey Britches). Inserted between Donn’s hysterical asides are mismatched scenes from the ever-bizarre McCollough’s Mountain. Half comedy, half what-the-shit-is-this, the scenes from this film defy rational thinking. We follow the exploits of Bestoink Dooley (George Ellis, Harlon from Honey Britches) as he exercises, drives around in his little jalopy, eats cookies, and talks to scientists about the mysterious “bleeding” that’s been occurring on Monster mountain. Eventually, Bestoink meets up with Donn’s confused Yeti; a slow-moving man in a Chewbacca suit that flaps his arms like a hopped-up maniac…if only in ten second bursts. Donn also throws in a lengthy scene of apes frolicking in a zoo, complete with narration. Take heed and beware, ‘cause the Yeti rides loose “when the nightfall fell.”

My mind is running in dozens of directions, which is not so different from the manner in which Blood Beast itself plays out. This film is a laugh-riot blessing from parts unknown. The dubbed, effete cat-screams of Bigfoot’s first male victim? Donn’s peculiar knack for spouting off double-entendres (“These folks smelt a very foul smelling smell”)? The horrid/genius acting from McCollough’s Mountain? All absolutely hilarious. On the other hand, the whole of the film is trying to be passed off as something so authentic, that it’s impossible to fathom Donn’s true intentions. Did he actually think anyone would take this film seriously at the time, if ever? It’s that underlying “go get ‘em” attitude that propels the whole thing. In the end, I’m just happy that this film actually exists.

Information on Donn Davison’s film work is difficult to come by. The three films I’ve covered are the only movies of his that are currently available in any form. The facts concerning productions like Obscenity, Obscenity and The Wages Of Sin are so clouded that it’s uncertain whether or not other full-on Davison projects still exist. Donn also had ties to several other regional southern filmmakers, including J.G. “Pat” Patterson (Doctor Gore) and William Girdler (Three On A Meathook). That’s the cherry on top — not only have I discovered a special filmmaker, but there’s a chance that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Absorbing that additional mystery is one of the most wonderful things about discovering obscure filmmakers. In Donn’s case, the anticipation is killing me.

As the art form of the spook show evaporated and drive-ins closed up shop, the times began to step ahead of Donn Davison. His last hoorah was in the distribution game. He acquiring the Italian Exorcist rip-off, Beyond The Door, and released it in 1974 to fantastic drive-in returns. In the late 70s, he produced (and appeared in) a couple of pseudo-docu curiosities called Secrets Of The Gods and The Force Beyond. Neither film made much of a dent in America’s pocketbooks and both remain incredibly rare. Unfortunately, Donn wasn’t able to keep up with the change in climate. As video ruled the roost and multiplexes stole the passion, Mr. Davison found himself out of work and outdated. Broke and wallowing in the bottle, he passed away in 1998.

Despite the sad ending to such an incredible life, one thing’s for sure: there has never been another filmmaker like Donn Davison. His peculiar blend of homemade cut-and-paste weirdness, spook show sensationalism, and genuine heart remains wholly unique. My plunge into his work yielded some of the most enjoyable film-watching good times that I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. And there may be more on the way. If I can find them.

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