It Came From Price Hill

    Tim and Donna Lucas love and admire the kinds of movies that usually get no respect.
    If it wasn’t exactly a dark and stormy night when I made my way toward the Lucas home in East Price Hill, there was definitely a spooky quality to the evening. Fat gray clouds hung low in the sky and pelted my windshield with rain, but the slight tug of eeriness I felt probably had more to do with my destination—the home of Tim and Donna Lucas. The Lucases publish a monthly magazine called Video Watchdog,

    which offers reviews and commentary on horror, science fiction, fantasy, and cult films. Though I have browsed copies at Shake-It Records in Northside, until a friend told me she knew Tim and Donna, I didn’t realize the magazine was published in Cincinnati—and on the west side, only a few miles from my home. When I expressed my surprise, the friend said, “Do you know about their Bava book?”

    “What’s a Bava?” I said.

    So I called the Lucases to set up a meeting and find out. I spoke with Donna, who immediately exploded my expectation of a literary version of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. She was warm and personable, with a quick, infectious laugh. As I wove through the soggy, working-class neighborhood toward their home, I kept her laughter in mind.

    They met me at the door and struck me as, well, pretty traditional. I don’t know what I expected—fangs or Goth-dyed hair, maybe glowing red eyes or maniacal giggling. Stupid stuff, I know. They ushered me into a small living room decorated with framed movie posters and a few plastic Frankensteins. Donna, a tiny blonde with a smile as easy as her laugh, quickly established herself as the talker of the pair. Tim is tall, a bit remote at first in a shy, almost scholarly way. I knew from my research that he grew up in Norwood and suffered a number of tragedies early in life: His father died before he was born, and his mother struggled to raise him, often depending on others to take him in while she worked nights for the telephone company. When Tim was 14, his best friend committed suicide; he quit high school after his sophomore year, mostly because of problems at home.

    Donna’s upbringing in Western Hills was more conventional, and within 15 minutes she and I discovered our west side connection—the three degrees of separation linking all of us who grew up here. She dated a good friend of mine in high school, and through that connection, lo those many years ago, we may even have met, though neither of us can recall. With that connection in place and warmed by their personable greeting, I relaxed into my chair to find out more about them, Video Watchdog, and the acclaimed “Bava book” that had piqued my curiosity. Unlike the darkly cryptic (pardon the pun) haunted-house hosts who frequent classic horror stories, the Lucases obviously were eager to tell their tale.

    TIM AND DONNA met, fittingly, at the movies. In 1973, while still in high school, Donna worked at the Albee Theater on Fifth Street. One night a teenaged film reviewer from Queen’s Jester, a short-lived local entertainment publication, arrived and asked for the pass he’d reserved earlier that day. No one could find a pass, and with the manager unavailable, Donna told the reviewer to go on in. That night the Albee offered a double-feature: Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask and Theater of Blood, starring Vincent Price.

    “Which was perfect!” Donna says. They both laugh at the memory of their sweet and somewhat fumbling courtship. “He writes me a thank-you note at the box office, and so I wrote him a thank-you for his thank-you.” After a few phone calls, they finally agreed to meet. But before the relationship could blossom, it ended. Donna’s family planned to move to Pittsburgh and Tim continued to battle family problems. A year passed before they saw each other again, a meeting that would not have happened if Tim hadn’t acted on an impulse he still cannot fully explain. He was visiting his mother when out of the blue he decided to call Donna.

    “There was a lull in the conversation and I said, ‘Can I use your phone,’” he says. “I really don’t know what prompted me at that minute to do it, but I did it.” They agreed to meet—again, fittingly, at a theater, this time the long-departed Imperial Follies on McMicken. At the time, Donna was a student in UC’s DAAP program, though quickly running out of the funds necessary to stay enrolled. They met and three months later got married. Thirty-three years later, they’re still together, putting out a monthly magazine in a two-person operation that is as unlikely as it is successful.

    THOUGH HARDLY ANY of their neighbors know it, Tim is a respected star within the world of genre film criticism. In a recent article titled “Nerd’s Progress: The Life and Career of Tim Lucas,” the film industry Web site GreenCine calls him “a much-beloved figure on the horror film-movie buff website-forum axis.” The article heaps praise on Tim’s serious and seriously intelligent commentary on film genres upon which most critics heap scorn, or at best, indifference.

    Tim’s love for the genre started early, he says. His first movie experience in a theater occurred when he was around 3 years old. His grandmother took him to a double feature, planning only to see the second film on the bill. The first film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, was nearing the end. As Tim walked down the dark aisle, a huge spider filled the screen, menacing a tiny man. Tim screamed and raced back up the aisle. His grandmother comforted him, saying the spider was gone, but as they began walking back inside, the spider returned. Tim left for good.

    A few episodes of The Twilight Zone on television sparked a similar reaction, he recalls with a rueful grin. But by the time he was a little older, he was hooked. He became a devoted fan of local favorite The Cool Ghoul, who hosted Scream-In, an all-night slate of spooky flicks that appeared Saturday nights on WXIX-TV from 1969 into the early ’80s. In what now seems like a prophetic gesture, Tim and a friend bestowed upon the Ghoul, played by local actor Dick Von Hoene, a “fan club award.” In the photo taken with the Ghoul—wearing his thick smear of eye makeup and orange fright wig—Tim looks very serious.

    He retains that approach to the world of horror to this day. The lack of in-depth commentary about the genre led to his interest in writing about it. At the age of 15, he placed his first film review in a Chicago magazine called Cinefantastique. The byline led to others, and by the mid-1980s his Video Watchdog column in Video Times magazine had begun to attract a following. In it he examined the production quality of films transferred onto video, no matter the genre. With a craftsman’s eye for detail, he would decry poor color, shoddy pan-and-scan treatments, deleted lines and scenes, and weak framing, among other technical and aesthetic sins, in movies like Hercules with Steve Reeves or The President’s Analyst.

    When Video Times folded, Tim moved the column to the genre fanzine Gorezone, narrowing its scope to cover only horror, science fiction, fantasy, and cult films. In 1990, he and Donna decided to take the plunge and create a publication of their own, banking on the avid following Tim had generated over the years. They placed ads in The Big Reel magazine and Fangoria, which sparked an avalanche of responses. And thus, Video Watchdog was born. (There’s also a Web site, www.videowatchdog.com/home/home.html, where Tim has his Video WatchBlog.) Since then it has maintained its preeminence as required reading for hardcore genre film fans. Need proof? Check out the five consecutive Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards gracing the Lucases’ mantle. The Rondo is a small, gray, finely detailed resin rendering of the acromegalic head of Rondo Hattan, a not-too-famous but definitely recognizable character actor from the 1930s and ’40s. Tim has also won two Rondos for writer of the year. And in 2007, he won another for “the Bava book.”

    WHEN I ASK about it, Donna gets a copy and plops it in my lap—a 12-pound plop. Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark is the size of a dictionary at 1,128 pages, with more than 800,000 words and more than 1,000 pieces of four-color art, from stills to promotional posters. Turns out Bava was an Italian director of horror and other low-budget projects. A cult favorite, especially among serious filmgoers, such as directors Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton, Bava was known for his unique use of color and his ability to add subtle nuance to not-so-subtle stories.

    As for cineastic bona fides, Mario Bava features an introduction by none other than renowned director Martin Scorcese, who writes: “This book deserves a place on the bookshelves of all serious film lovers.” Not to be outdone in lavishing praise, GreenCine proclaims it “perhaps one of the most interesting, dedicated, thoroughly researched books ever published. And given Lucas’s commitment to accuracy, it’s probably one of the most detailed and least error-ridden books of modern times.”

    Tough to imagine a more positive review. The book certainly reaches far beyond “impressive.” It’s more like monumental. Tim spent an incredible 32 years writing and editing it, while Donna took nearly four years on design and layout.

    “I started it in April of ’75,” Tim says. “At the time there wasn’t anything in print to satisfy my own curiosity about him. His movies were so strange and so vivid that you’d see them and think, Oh, my God. And then you couldn’t see them again and you’d wonder if you ever saw them in the first place. And then you’d find other people who had the same feeling about them.”

    Tim says he didn’t focus on those other people as he wrote the book. “The world that exists now for this book did not exist when I started writing it,” he says. “When I started it, I didn’t give the reader much thought. I wanted to answer my own questions. The search came to be about itself. I’d send it to publishers, and they’d say, ‘I don’t think there’s much of a market for it.’”

    He put the project on hold a few times during those 32 years, focusing on the magazine as well as on articles for other magazines and two novels, which found homes with major national publishers; then he would read an article about Bava or learn some new detail or see a Bava film and suddenly the project would come alive again.

    “When the book came out, some people asked, ‘Why is Bava so important to get this kind of treatment?’” Tim says. “They say, ‘There are no books like this on John Ford or Clint Eastwood.’ My response is nobody cared enough about those people.”

    Tim, obviously, cared quite a bit. A book of this kind is a life’s work, one a lot of people aspire to create but few actually manage to accomplish. For his efforts, Tim won a Saturn Award for Special Achievement from The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, which he received on June 24 at the academy’s event in Los Angeles. Recognizing the best genre films and performances, the academy also bestows several special awards, this year honoring Tim along with Guillermo del Toro, who directed, among other films, the critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth, and Matt Reeves, director of the recent hit Cloverfield.

    MEANWHILE, DONNA HAS supplied the organizational, design, and computer savvy to keep the Lucases’ various projects moving along. Given their accomplishments, I wondered how only two people—a married couple—produce a monthly magazine and a huge book all by themselves.

    Answer: They work a lot—10-hour days are the norm. And they don’t go out much. In fact, Tim rarely goes out at all. Donna says Tim has been known to go a month without leaving the house. They have a gym in the basement, enough movies and music to entertain themselves for a lifetime, and there is always work to do.

    “We know the LaRosa’s delivery person well,” Donna says.

    “I feel like the house is a space station,” Tim says with a grin. “There’s no oxygen out there.”

    Though they work and live together, Donna says the situation is not a strain on the marriage. Tim’s space station reference doesn’t sound too far-out, actually. “We don’t see each other very often,” Donna says. “He’s in there writing and I’m out here filling orders and laying out the magazine. Most of the time I e-mail him and he e-mails me—‘What do you want to do for dinner?’ We have a little intercom and we can buzz each other.”

    Their day starts in early afternoon, when Donna prepares orders for mail pickup and Tim writes his blog. Donna takes care of the business end of things between working with the art and layout. Tim writes articles and his column, works with the handful of writers who contribute to the magazine. He usually watches at least one movie every day—eight movies being his personal record—scribbling notes on index cards as he watches. They get together for lunch late in the afternoon, for dinner around 10 o’clock at night, and then meet at three in the morning to watch What’s My Line on The Game Show Network. As the sun comes up, they head for bed.

    Such a lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and in the well-grounded realm of the west side it sounds almost bizarre, but the Lucases feel like they’re living their dream. No bosses, no rush hour traffic, just the two of them doing what they love to do. They recall visiting the home of the late Fred Clarke, editor of Cinefantastique, back in 1976 in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. They had come from a Wizard of Oz convention—Donna is a big fan of the Oz books and movie—and were struck by the freedom of Clarke’s lifestyle. He produced the magazine from his home, controlling all facets of its production.

    “It was really like a glimpse into our own future,” Donna recalls. “We said, ‘This is so cool.’ It was eye-opening to think this could be possible, but we never thought we could do that. I always thought I would write and illustrate for children and work at home, and I would marry an artist or a writer who would work at home. I didn’t think I’d be illustrating horror magazines.”

    I never would have thought anyone was doing it—and so well—right in the heart of Price Hill. But as I headed out the door, the rain having softened to a drizzle, it suddenly didn’t seem strange at all. The house did not explode into flames, and I didn’t flee in the nick of time, leaving behind a fiery mess. No doubt Tim and Donna were heading upstairs to get back to work, the lights in their windows casting a peaceful glow into the night.

    Illustration by Owen Richardson
    Originally published in the July 2008 issue.

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