Eric Stanze is the most successful filmmaker in St. Louis. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Jun 19, 2002 at 4:00 am
Naked woman on a gravel road.

A stunning shot: the soft, round beauty of the woman contrasting with the coarse, gray stone.

Enter a pickup truck driven by a Missouri farmer in a baseball cap. He stops, gets out. Ties her feet to the back bumper, returns to the cab. He starts it up and drives.

The screams of the woman don't slow him down.

For a moment, there's a suggestion that relief will come. The camera will turn onto the Missouri landscape, the images will fade. Cut to the next scene.

But this is an Eric Stanze picture. The truck stops, and the farmer walks back to where the naked woman is now torn flesh, ribbons of blood. He takes a sack from the truck bed, labeled "salt."

She writhes as he throws the salt onto her open wounds, first by the handful, then turning the bag over and dumping its contents on her.

The scene still isn't over.

The farmer returns to the wheel, drives up the road a ways and then turns back around. The scene concludes, finally, when he runs over her head. Eric Stanze didn't write the gravel-road scene in Ice From the Sun thinking it would stand out. But when he was on location in the Missouri summer heat, Angela Zimmerly lying on the ground as the crew waited for the light, the forceful impact of those images suddenly became apparent to the young director: "I remember looking at the cast and crew and saying, 'This is going to be the scene that gets buzzed about the most.' And it has."

In the mainstream press, Jami Bernard of the New York Post describes the scene, then opines, "It makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like The Sound of Music." Stephen Holden in the New York Times ends his review with a mention of the scene and says nothing more, as if commentary need not be applied to images so gruesome and gratuitous.

But out there on a Missouri backroad, with the sudden realization of what the New York critics, the Webster Film Series crowd or his parents, for that matter, might think about dragging a naked woman down a gravel road -- or what they'd hazard to imagine about the man who concocted that event -- Stanze briefly heard the outraged voices in his head. Then, undeterred, he shot the scene.

There's plenty more where that came from in the ultra-low-budget horror epic Ice From the Sun. The story line is nebulous at best -- something about the Presence, who kills the shit out of people until he's reminded that he has a heart, so he blows up -- but whereas Stanze films are weak on plot and dialogue deficient, his images pack a wallop.

A head explodes, with blood spurting fulsomely from the neck stump. A suicide lies in a bath tainted with her own blood. A man is given a drug that causes him to suffocate on his own tongue, which protrudes massively from his mouth as he collapses into death throes.

A naked man and woman walk on all fours like chained dogs, a priest leading them. They heel as he sits down to an enormous stack of Hodak's chicken in the abandoned Shady Oak movie theater. Meanwhile, in the wings lingers an enormous eyeball with legs.

Then there's the scene in which a man lies strapped to a medical table with a particularly gruesome contraption hooked to his mouth -- like something in a Nine Inch Nails video. The leathery apparatus releases worms into his mouth, which he swallows. After the worms move into his stomach and wreak excruciating pain on his insides, he can't take it anymore. He breaks his bonds and grabs a scalpel, then cuts himself open. The scene ends with his death, a close-up of the worms in his outstretched palm.

Stanze makes movies for a living. He has his own production company, Wicked Pixel Cinema, with which he makes the films "close to his heart," such as Ice From the Sun and Scrapbook. For his New York distributor, Sub Rosa Studios -- which specializes in B-movies, underground films, fetish and porno -- Stanze runs Sub Rosa Extreme, producing five small-budget quickies per year.

Lots of folks make movies in St. Louis. But even though those movies get made, they don't get seen. Rarely does a locally produced film land a distributor, which is what it takes to truly market a product.

Call Stanze's films schlock, horror, prurient and adolescent -- or, better yet, "a furiously pointless punk-gore loogie," which is how Michael Atkinson described Ice for the Village Voice -- but unlike the work of every other would-be director in St. Louis, his films have an audience. People buy them and ask for Stanze by name. His notoriety is international.

Stanze is a good-looking guy with a square jaw and sharp cheekbones. At age 30 he keeps his hair down-to-the-skull short, although in his teens he was known for spikes on top with a blond mullet down his back. He keeps fit on a diet of coffee. His voice is distinctly low, even grave, over the phone. Stanze is short in stature, but he doesn't exhibit the Napoleonic gestures of a Martin Scorsese.

He admits to his flaws as a director and screenwriter but prides himself as a microbudget producer who can get every dollar onto the screen. And he makes a product that finds its way onto DVD players and VCRs around the world.

"I believe I'm the only director in St. Louis currently making my living making movies," he says frankly, seated on a drab sofa in his South City apartment. "There are other guys who are not directors who operate on the more technical side: They're gaffers and directors of photography or something along those lines. Guaranteed, their income is way, way above what I get, but as far as directing movies -- producing and directing feature-length fiction movies that are released to a global audience -- I don't think there's anybody else in St. Louis doing that."

On his walls are movie posters -- Day of the Dead and Martin -- by one of his heroes, zombie-movie king George Romero. Stanze also has posters from his own early work, "The Scare Game" and "The Fine Art." Although those films are Stanze's juvenilia -- made in his teens for himself -- they've found an audience as well.

"My opinion is that the process of making a movie finishes with the release to the public," he says, the steel of a determined filmmaker emerging in his voice. "If you don't finish your movie to a point where it's acceptable for release and you don't give it up to the audience to either be embraced or crucified, you have not completed the process and you are not a real director. Releasing your product to the public is the final stage. If you can't make that final stage, then you haven't made a movie."

He doesn't try to deliver that product to St. Louis, however. Stanze treasures his anonymity locally, even as he enjoys cult status internationally.

"My product is not embraced by the local mentality," he says without complaint. "My product is a little bit beyond what most people in St. Louis would tolerate. I don't really feel like going through the effort of publicizing myself locally. I already have a global audience, and I'm pretty sure St. Louis will hate me when they see my work. Why go through the effort of screening it locally?"

So when the St. Louis International Film Festival offered to screen Scrapbook for its St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, Stanze told them thanks, but no thanks. He doesn't need the grief.

Chris Clark, SLIFF's sagacious programmer, reports that the prospect of screening Scrapbook for the showcase created controversy within the organization. Scrapbook is an intense, raw portrayal of a serial killer and one of his victims.

"To some people, Scrapbook is a couple notches above a snuff film, which is very scary," says Clark. "By rights we should honor Stanze as a St. Louis filmmaker, but upon viewing the material it is not the taste of most. I don't mind stuff like that. I've been desensitized over time. But other people who have seen it were completely mortified to even see the film. It was even worse for them to learn it was made locally."

Clark agrees, however, that Stanze, arguably, is the most successful filmmaker in St. Louis.

"It's certainly underground and certainly not for everyone," says Clark. "But he has this cult following, and in magazines such as Fangoria [the horror-movie monthly] he's a stud. And he's a St. Louis boy and we should be proud.

"But on closer examination: What is art? What is not? All those things pop up. That was going to be the heart of the discussion. Should we be proud of this guy, and should these films be made? There's certainly a market for it, and he deserves recognition, but at the same time I don't think he really wants it."

Vicki Woods, director of the Webster Film Series, hasn't developed an appreciation for Stanze's Scrapbook: "I didn't finish watching it. It's a very disturbing film."

Although women are often the heroines of Stanze's films, and the victim Clara eventually gets revenge on serial killer Leonard in Scrapbook, Woods notes that everything "leading up to her escape is debasing toward women."

She questions Stanze's stark approach to the film: "We want our violence spoonfed to us. We want music. We want close-ups. It was too raw. There's no backstory. There isn't much to the plot."

Stanze isn't surprised by the criticism. "It's Webster. What do you expect?" says the Jefferson College grad.

Why would Stanze suffer local outrage and further piss off his parents -- his mother once asked him to use a pseudonym -- when he can keep a low profile and make movies with his friends? Stanze may play it wild and taboo-busting in his films, but in town he plays it safe.

He has surrounded himself with an extraordinarily loyal crew. Since he hauled the family's Super-8 out of the closet to make a movie after seeing Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, Stanze has drawn an entourage around him. They are willing to suffer terrible conditions, lousy dialogue and gallons of sticky stage blood and give up their weekends to make movies with Stanze for no pay. "I ask for long hours," says the director. "I ask them to put up with uncomfortable conditions. When they're on the set, I expect them to shut up and do their job and not whine and complain about not having this and not having that. I've been doing this for 10 years now. I would not feel right about doing that if I didn't suffer a little on my own."

Stanze has passed up lucrative job offers from Hollywood to stay with his team and go the underground route. "I got a job offer from a fairly prominent production company in LA that was cranking out movies for the home-video market and for cable," he says, "movies that had million-dollar budgets, $2 million budgets, somewhere in there. I had a job offer to be an editor on those features. It would pay me decent and get my name on a whole lot of hiring product that would have been shown on cable and gotten a much higher saturation than the video rental.

"But I wouldn't be directing," says Stanze, who won't give up control to anybody on his projects. "I wouldn't be anywhere close to being in charge of anything. I would be assigned, and, most importantly, I wouldn't be working with the people I'm working with in St. Louis."

After he gathered his team and told them of the offer, they advised him to go for the Hollywood gold. "I thought about it for about an hour and decided I'd rather stay here," Stanze says. "I didn't realize until recently how much of an impact it had on them.

"When you sacrifice like that and show your team that you're willing to scrape by to get these movies made, that influences them a lot and inspires them to be dedicated to the process."

The team that works with him most consistently is a combination of fellow misfits who grew up with him in Jefferson County -- Windsor High and Jefferson College alums -- Webster University malcontents and Way Out Club punkers.

DJ Vivona -- the Presence in Ice, along with roles in several Wicked Pixel shorts -- performed in competitive drama meets with Stanze at Windsor High. The two alternated playing the crazy characters in The Zoo Story and Ordinary People.

Jason Christ, who chokes on his tongue in Ice and will direct Savage Harvest 2: October Blood for Sub Rosa Extreme, remembers walking in the rain to see the Jefferson College premiere of "The Scare Game" because "I was blown away that anybody was making a movie in Jefferson County." Christ was stopped at the door, however, because at the time he was underage.

Ramona Midgett is ripped in half by a demon in Savage Harvest and spent about an hour-and-a-half in bathwater in Stanze's apartment, shooting the suicide scene in Ice From the Sun. She's also an alum of Windsor High and Jefferson College, where she played Joan in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. She says she'd work with Stanze again in a phone call: "I consider Eric a great friend."

Ramona is married to David Midgett of local punk band the Ded Bugs, for whom Stanze has made music videos. Brian McClelland of local band Hotel Faux Pas has compiled the soundtracks to Stanze's pictures. Ice From the Sun includes songs by another local band, Johnny Magnet.

Jeremy Wallace reminisces fondly about the days when, to keep themselves going while making a movie, he and Stanze slugged extra-strong coffee to wash down No-Doz and teaspoonfuls of Folgers Instant. They trudged around Imperial with a Super-8 when they were teenagers.

Wallace is now directing The Undertow for Sub Rosa Extreme and has worked as Stanze's producer on both Ice and Scrapbook. He also directed one of the dumbest movies ever made, The Christmas Season Massacre. Christmas tells the story of a serial killer who wears one shoe, a pirate's eye patch and a red bandana. Stanze has a cameo in the film as Boomer, who drinks tequila and takes a very long piss before he dies.

Just about everybody dies in Christmas, but none of them soon enough.

After checking the lights inside a small cinder-block shack at the end of a rutted road near Old Mines, Missouri -- horror country -- Stanze has a few words to say about violence in films: "Everybody who complains loudest about violent movies, violent TV, violent videos, are the ones most worried about their own parenting. Kids don't shoot each other because of violent movies. Kids shoot each other because of bad parenting."

On location for The Undertow, two parents, John and Katrina Specht, smear mud on their ten-year-old son, John. They cover his T-shirt, arms and pants. Young John doesn't look too happy about it, but once it's done he's on his feet, smiling. "I feel better now," he says.

Stepdad John, who's handling the mic today, has already prepared little John and fellow cast member Ed Belt for the upcoming scene.

This is Belt's property. He's anxious to get the shooting done so he can mow the tall grass around the trailer, but, he says, "They want it like this for the movie." Belt is a gray-haired, wiry 52-year-old. He plays the mayor, who trains his mentally challenged inbred son, "the Boy," to kill those who would infiltrate and corrupt his small backwoods Missouri town. Stanze refers to The Undertow as "Deliverance meets Freddy Krueger."

"He's been in movies before," stepdad John assures Belt. "He's a pro. You can say anything. You can use the F-word. He's heard it before."

A pillowcase adorned with cutesy cartoon animals is put over little John's head. The one-eyed hood is an important part of the Boy's costume. The Specht family, Belt, director Wallace and Stanze, who's working the camera, huddle together in the cinderblock shed in 90-degree heat. Katrina, who's been killed in numerous ways in Stanze films, coaxes her son to have a good time.

Wallace calls, "Action." Belt, in Western shirt and cowboy hat, paces back and forth in front of the boy, who cowers in a muddy corner of the floor, clutching a doll.

"What the hell you doing playing with that doll?" Belt barks. "I should have never let your mother give you that doll. I didn't raise you to be a pussy. I raised you to kill people. What the hell are you, retarded?"

And so on, take after take, as Stanze tries a variety of camera angles. With each take, little John loosens up and plays the scene with greater agitation. With each take, the small crew sweats more.

"That's a wrap for John," Wallace says when the boy's shoot is over. Everyone standing around the shack applauds. Little John smiles happily before taking off for a shower.

By 3 p.m., after shooting another interior scene with the Boy fully grown into a 6-foot-4 killer, cast and crew are feasting inside the trailer on Mrs. Belt's homemade mostaccioli, green salad and three different desserts.

Next week they're shooting on one of the nearby rivers, and Stanze is teased about his fear of various water creatures: snakes, piranha, sharks. Stanze admits that after seeing Jaws, even though he lived in Jefferson County, he developed a fear of man-eaters.

The B-movie is alive and well and living on DVD. Sub Rosa Studios distributes movies with titles such as Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula, Attack of the 40-Foot Tall Incredibly Shrinking Woman and Hell Cats in High Heels. Fetish films are popular as well. There is such a movie as Face Sitter 3.

The synopses of Sub Rosa films can be more fun than the movies themselves, such as this teaser for Virtual Voodoo: "... a weird lightning storm rolls in and strikes the office, causing an odd power surge in Rebecca's computer. The computer seems OK, so she keeps working. She innocently enough imports a picture of herself and starts playing around with the size of her breast. To her amazement, her breast suddenly expands and bursts through her bra and through her shirt. Gradually she realizes that the program now has strange powers."

Stanze is one of Sub Rosa's stars. He appears in interviews on the Web site, and for the bottom-line-attentive president of Sub Rosa, Ron Bonk, Stanze delivers the product for the 15- to 35-year-old males who make up the underground-film demographic. A bestseller for Sub Rosa is in the range of 5,000 units.

"There's a lot of people making movies at a low-budget level, this ultra-low-budget level," says Bonk, contacted by phone in his Syracuse, New York office. "He's one of the few that have shown a talent for being able to actually direct a film. Anyone can pick up a camcorder and shoot. His skill in putting together a story line and making it interesting and shooting it well -- and he doesn't just shoot it well, he's an excellent director. "

Bonk recruited Stanze for the Sub Rosa Extreme division after watching Scrapbook. Bonk didn't hesitate at the chance to distribute a realistic depiction of a serial killer and his victim, he says, "a movie that's so disturbing that people say they have to turn it off or get depressed about it -- if it has that big an effect on a person, you can't turn down a movie like that.

"There's movies that come in that are just revolting, but they really don't have any talent behind them. This movie had both things going for it. I had to distribute that movie. I was honored."

With Sub Rosa Extreme, Bonk says, he was looking for "some more harder-core type horror. When I say harder-core, like a little more gruesome in terms of the gore and the storylines as opposed to the standard Friday the 13th movie that Hollywood is churning out. Stuff maybe a little more reminiscent of European horror movies: Up the ante of the gore, up the ante in terms of the subject matter, the areas that they'll go into, that really pulls no punches."

Few filmmakers display the gore as vividly as Stanze. When a chainsaw or an ax sinks into a victim, Stanze never demurely pans away. You see the blood splatter and the meat fly.

Stanze has gained renown for his effects with blood and dismemberment. He was recently hired to produce special effects for a movie with a bigger budget than his own, Defiance, a Western filmed locally. Stanze complains that though he was requested to accentuate the blood-spurting head explosions, the Defiance filmmakers really weren't ready for his degree of excess. All day long he kept hearing, "A little less blood, please, Eric," -- something you'll never hear on a Stanze set.

Stanze managed to cause a media storm last summer after he threw some fake body parts into his back-alley Dumpster. The St. Louis Police Department called in the medical examiner to investigate, and the story was international news.

Stanze has his reasons for flesh-ripping mayhem. "I've heard some people describe my whole body of work, and talk about how 'Eric likes the gore,'" he says. "But what it really is, if I'm trying to convey an emotion, and if that emotion involves something violent, then I simply want the audience to see what's happening and not be confused. I think if you cut away from the gore it almost comes off as coy or smart-ass, and that annoys me.

"Also, if you cut away from the gore the audience is left trying to figure out what happened. If we didn't show worms coming out of the guy's stomach in Ice From the Sun, you're simply sitting there going, 'What?'"

Instead, you're left sitting there going, "Yeeeeeaaaach."

"It's not that I like to see blood thrown all over the place," Stanze explains, "it's just that I think violence is a very emotional thing. Just like sexuality, just like nudity in a movie -- anything that is typically controversial is in there because who wants to go see a movie about a guy's boring life who's doing the same boring thing that we do every day? We want to see something different or exciting or something that makes you think or something that pulls some kind of an emotion from you.

"That's why I gravitate toward these moments, and I want to show them as effectively as possible, so they typically end up being graphic."

In Scrapbook, serial killer Leonard kidnaps Clara. On the wall of her torture room are the words "I AM WINNING," scrawled in an earlier victim's blood. Leonard brutally rapes Clara and, when he's finished, pees on her.

Leonard stuffs Clara into a plastic garbage can, pours milk over her, duct-tapes the lid closed and leaves her in the Missouri summer sun.

When Clara attempts an escape, Leonard chops a few of her toes off with an ax.

In a particularly disquieting scene, he orders Clara to lick his flaccid penis. Fear and disgust are evident in her eyes. He tells her to lie on her back and open her legs, and she does. Leonard mounts her, even attempts to kiss her as lovers would kiss. She turns her head, sick with horror and humiliation. He rubs himself against her for a while but fails to become hard. He rises in a rage, blames her for his impotence. He throws her over a chair and grabs a wine bottle. He thrusts the wine bottle inside her and fucks her with it. As she passes out, blood flows from between her legs.

The camera turns away from nothing.

If Ice From the Sun is Stanze's phantasmagoric epic symphony; Scrapbook is his grim, spare chamber piece. A grossly disturbing film, Scrapbook's images stay with you for days.

Although Stanze can't resist basic horror elements -- a mangled torso popping up out of nowhere, the toe-chopping -- Scrapbook does not provide a comforting distance from its subject matter. Rather, it annihilates that remove. A documentary approach makes this portrayal of a serial killer all too real. Neither the sex nor the violence titillates.

Emily Haack became part of the entourage through Tommy Biondo, who'd been working on Stanze productions since he was a teenager. Biondo's the one who gives himself the deworming in Ice, who directed and performed in his own short film "Satisfaction," in which he is strangled to death after some S/M activity goes too far. "His hobby was learning about serial killers," says Haack about her former boyfriend, Biondo.

After the completion of Ice, Stanze and company were exhausted. Two weeks of the filming were spent in Macon, Missouri, where on the first day the cistern went dry in the house Stanze had secured for the company. No water in the heat of summer. Meanwhile, on location in a pasture, a bull wreaked havoc on one set. The Macon residents suspected the filmmakers of being Satan worshipers. When the company moved to another location in rural Illinois, the local kids threw rocks at them.

Biondo suggested his Scrapbook script as Wicked Pixel's next project. It wasn't exactly lighter fare, but it demanded less from the volunteer crew. Stanze was hesitant at first, but Wallace convinced him that Scrapbook could be something unique.

Biondo chose various modi operandi from an array of serial killers to create the character of Leonard. He developed Clara from elements of Haack's personality. "The character of Clara was very close to me," says Haack.

Stanze, however, first tried to deter Haack from playing the part. "My first step was to try to make Emily decline the role," he says. "I tried very hard to make her say no, because the worst thing in the world would be if we started shooting, we were halfway through the schedule and she found herself in a place she didn't want to be."

Haack stayed with the project: "I was gung-ho from day one. It was really something close to me. The first day of shooting was when we shot the first rape scene. It exorcised a lot of demons. It was hard for both of us."

That scene was at the conclusion of the first rape, when Clara curls into a ball, in shock, bleeding, as Leonard pees on her.

Within the framework of Biondo's skeletal script, the actors based their speaking parts on improvisation. For the final scene, in which Clara turns the tables on her tormentor, Biondo was told to remain in character and do what Haack told him. Leonard ends up duct-taped to a cot, where Clara repeatedly plunges a steak knife into the soles of his feet.

"It was very cathartic," Haack recalls. "I was sad when it was done, since it was such an intense experience. I remember feeling very sad, like, 'What am I going to do on the weekends now?' I got into such a rhythm, and it was so intense. Everybody was putting in 110 percent.

"A lot of weight was lifted off of me mentally, and kind of spiritually, because of what I'd gone through. I've definitely been different since then, in a good way."

After a stint in Los Angeles, where she got some extras roles on a few television shows, Haack is back in St. Louis to work with Stanze and his team. "They're like my best friends and second family. I'd trust my life with Eric," she says. In The Undertow, she plays "one of the six friends that gets slaughtered by the main bad guy."

Haack is proud of Scrapbook, as is Stanze, who thinks it's his best directing work to date. However, he didn't believe the film would ever reach an audience.

"At the time we premiered it for the cast and crew, there was no critical response," he recalls. "We still thought we were either going to sell ten copies and it was going to go away or we thought we were going to be hunted down with torches and pitchforks and burned at the stake."

At the conclusion of that private screening, says Stanze, "I looked around at everybody, and they were stunned at the end of the movie. I could see those wheels turning in everybody's head, [and they were] thinking, 'Should have used a pseudonym. Should have used a pseudonym.'"

Biondo, who came up with the concept, wrote the screenplay and turned in a disturbingly bold and accurate performance, never saw the completed product.

As Scrapbook was being shown to cast and crew, Biondo was filming a video for a day camp in Minnesota. While shooting, he tripped and fell. Biondo landed on his head as he was trying to protect the camera.

"I was packaging up a couple of copies of the movie to ship to him so he could finally see this," Stanze recalls. "I packaged up the copies, but before I was able to put them in the mail to him I got word that he was in an accident and that he was taken to the hospital with head injuries. Shortly after that, I was informed that he passed away."

Scrapbook continues to sell through both Wicked Pixel and Sub Rosa and continues to receive strong reviews, as well as strong condemnation.

More than any other Stanze film, it elicits questions more disturbing than the film itself: Who watches this? And why?

Stanze doesn't shy from such questions or the assumptions implicit behind them. He responds emphatically by e-mail with what could be termed the Wicked Pixel Manifesto:

"I believe our main audience is the collective that is sick of the Hollywood mainstream film. There is so much opportunity in the making of any movie, and Hollywood tends to waste this. Hollywood has a big head but only uses about 4 percent of the brain. When I make a movie, it may not be as slick -- it may not even be as well-written or directed sometimes -- but our movies will be viewed because they are unique and challenging. Our movies make use of many opportunities that Hollywood passes on. I also think that the violence and sexual content helps vent some pressures that build up in people who are sick of our politically correct society. Today, in our nonconfrontational, timid American culture, watching something we are constantly being told not to watch is very refreshing.

"I have not yet heard of anyone who saw Scrapbook and 'enjoyed' it. Most of the reviews written on Scrapbook point to the maturity and honesty of the movie. Keep this in mind: When people rob and kill and then blame video games or movies, yes, their specific act was inspired by the entertainment industry. But take away the entertainment industry and they'll be inspired by something else, like the evening news. Sick people are sick BEFORE they watch a violent movie. If you can bring me one single shred of evidence that a nonviolent, healthy person was made unhealthy and violent by simply watching a movie, I'll stop making violent movies right now, 'cause I guarantee such evidence does not exist."

The implacable Stanze gets visibly flustered when he talks about I Spit on Your Corpse, I Piss on Your Grave. "This is not my best work," he says, reluctantly handing over the videocassette.

Haack is not nearly so reticent. The star of Scrapbook and Spit/Piss is one of the sweetest-faced, sweetest-voiced girls anyone would ever want to meet. She sports flamboyant tattoos on her arms and has cut her hair in a style of post-punk glory.

"Sean, the guy who gets it with the broom handle at the end," Haack giggles over the phone, "the first time I met him was that morning on the set. It was pretty funny. We all met at Eric's place: 'Hi. I'm going to be butt-raping you later.' It was pretty cool."

Spit/Piss was Stanze's first project for Sub Rosa Extreme. He'd written a script and sent it to Haack, who moved to Los Angeles after the completion of Scrapbook. Haack liked Stanze's first script, thinking, "This girl kicks ass."

Then the French got involved. Stanze -- like Clint Eastwood, like Jerry Lewis, like Woody Allen -- has a following in France, and French investors offered to increase the Spit/Piss budget if the filmmaker would agree to a few insertions.

Haack says her first response, after Stanze e-mailed her the additions, was to laugh really, really hard. Then, she figured, "Cool. Let's do it. I'm down with that. I don't really care. I'll do most things if they're in the story. I got really excited about it."

Stanze and his crew, however, resisted the French investors' proposed necrophilia scene.

There are limits.

Blame it on the French. Or thank them, depending on your sensibility.

In the 72-minute running time of Spit/Piss, Sandy (Haack) eviscerates her prison-escapee boyfriend (Stanze acting under the pseudonym "Scot Spookytooth"), then tortures the three men he intended to torture, all handcuffed conveniently in a basement.

One man is forced to defecate in front of her, then eat his own shit before she takes an ax to him. She shoots another man's balls off, then takes her final victim upstairs.

Sandy lays the naked man on the bed, handcuffs his hands behind his back. She moves to a corner of the room and begins to fondle a broom handle, running it along her cheek, over her breasts, around her vagina. She pushes it inside her and masturbates.

After pleasuring herself, Sandy places a condom over the broom handle, which can be interpreted as French irony. She climbs onto the bed and thrusts the broom handle up the man's ass. He screams in pain as she pushes it inside him harder and harder.

There are gruesome sound effects. Sandy pulls out the now-blood-soaked broom handle and throws it to the side of the room. She plunges a steak knife into the back of her victim's neck, killing him.

Stanze is not yet ready to go the route of the directors he reveres, who were first denigrated in their hometowns only to become local heroes when they received a modicum of mainstream respectability.

Pittsburgh shows pride for George Romero now. Stanze lived in the Steel City in his middle-school years and recalls Romero's "huge following, which is so different from this place, because there is no way the St. Louis population would embrace gory zombie movies the way Pittsburgh did. Pittsburgh held it up as a matter of civic pride: 'We are the home of George Romero and all the zombie movies.'

"Those people turned out in giant crowds if he was auditioning for zombie movies. Crowds of people would go by and drool and slobber. St. Louis would never put up with that."

St. Louis, in Stanze's estimation, wouldn't have put up with Sam Raimi, either, who, before going mainstream with A Simple Plan, For the Love of the Game and this summer's Spider-Man, made the masterfully horrifying The Evil Dead in his hometown, Detroit.

For that matter, Baltimore -- which is St. Louis on a bay -- would have sooner exiled John Waters than admit any affiliation with the maker of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. After the success of Hairspray, however, Waters made the cover of Baltimore's city magazine, cozying up to respectable hometown-boy-made-good Barry Levinson.

For now, Stanze works within the secure comfort of his team and avoids the local pitchforks.

He shows evidence of civic pride, however, and hints at the desire for local acceptance and recognition. Stanze is writing a new script for Wicked Pixel, Tempest of the Dawn, he says, "and it's huge. One hundred times bigger than Ice From the Sun. I can't do it with the money we have currently. I have a line on some sources of financing, but if we don't get one guy stepping forward we can't get it done. It's gigantic.

"Not only am I excited by the screenplay -- and I'm never excited about my screenplays; when I finish them I feel like I'm finishing a chore -- writing this screenplay has been fun, I've actually been enjoying it. But the project has evolved to a point where I can bring in a lot of St. Louis people to really show off their talents in one big movie. If it got the financing I have to go after, it would be very high-profile, much more high-profile than the stuff I produced in the past. We simply can't do it unless we have a budget level that would allow it to get major cable airplay.

"Tempest is one of those big ones. It would be really good for me. It would be really good for this city if I get it made."