The Curious Case of Cannon's Lost Slasher ...
By JA Kerswell
Could there be a lost early 80s slasher lurking out there? That’s the tantalising possibility with LOVER'S LANE.
Obviously, not to be confused with the 1999 post-SCREAM slasher (starring a pre-fame Anna Farris), the announcement for LOVER’S LANE first appeared in Box Office Magazine in October of 1980 as an upcoming production from Cannon Films. This was a busy time for the Golan-Globus trash powerhouse, who had felt confident enough in the burgeoning success of their exploitation and horror library to take out six full pages advertising upcoming titles and boasting current successes. Featured titles included X-RAY (aka HOSPITAL MASSACRE), which was listed as to star Jill St. John (who was eventually replaced by Playboy playmate Barbi Benton). Also NEW YEAR’S EVIL (advertised here as for U.S. national release December 19, 1980 - just in time for, yes, New Year’s). Another page boasted of the box office success of Cannon’s then just released SCHIZOID - which was listed as grossing over $4 million in its first month of release (over $12 million in today’s money). The bottom half of that page announced a title called LOVER’S LANE featuring a silhouetted image of a man holding a knife looming over car with a necking couple inside. Given its company, it seems that this was going to be another slasher schlockbuster title for Cannon.
Some years ago, I had seen an almost identical advert from around the same time in an issue of Variety. It had, obviously, peaked my interest but I could find no additional information. But, after recently stumbling across this advert in Box Office Magazine (and subsequent listings repeatedly detailing it being prepped for a spring 1981 release), it reignited my interest and I decided to dig a little deeper.
One thing above all others is striking - its proposed star. Being from the UK, the name Wayne Newton meant little. However, I soon discovered he WAS a ‘name’ - and indeed, he had many: ‘The Midnight Idol’, ‘Mr. Las Vegas’ and ‘Mr. Entertainment’. Newton was one of the best-known entertainers in Las Vegas (by 1994 he had performed over 25,000 solo shows in the neon city). In 1980, he was in his early forties and enjoyed his last top 40 hit: Years (a cover of Barbara Mandrell’s country music No1 from the previous year). Mr. Las Vegas in a slasher? Whatever next? Liberace as the RHINESTONE RIPPER? Stranger things had happened. Indeed, only a few years later Frankie Avalon would chase teenage Donna Wilkes around with a hatchet in BLOOD SONG (1982). Jack Jones had battled a scythe-wielding killer in a hag mask in Pete Walker’s THE COMEBACK (1978). And even a pre-fame David Bowie was considered for a role in the 1969 proto-slasher THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR. So would Newton really have been such a strange choice playing against type? Newton had been a familiar face on the small screen since the 1960s. And he is still acting today, appearing as recently as SHARKNADO 4: The 4TH AWAKENS (2016) and PUPPY LOVE (2018).
The screenplay and story for LOVER’S LANE was credited to Hal Landers and Robert Benedict. Landers was also due to produce and is possibly best remembered as producer for the first two DEATH WISH movies (1974 and 1982 respectively). Fellow producer Bobby Roberts had also produced the first two DEATH WISH movies. I could find no other credits for Benedict. Emmet Alston was listed as director. Alston did direct Cannon’s NEW YEAR’S EVIL, but was also listed in Box Office Magazine as an early candidate for the then upcoming Cannon slasher X-RAY (which was eventually directed by Boaz Davidson). Alston’s next listed directorial credit wasn’t until 1986’s NINE DEATHS OF THE NINJA (he was also credited as the writer of HUNTER’s BLOOD the same year). Unsurprisingly, executive producers were listed as Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.
It was perhaps surprising, in a time when dates and locations were used as a, er, hook for many a slasher, that Lover’s Lane (and especially the urban legend of ‘The Hook’) had not already been utilised. In some small way it had, in the adaptation of real life events in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976). Indeed, the urban legend was so well ingrained into the North American consciousness that ahead-of-his-time director Armand Mastroianni had worked it into his neat proto post-modern film-within-a-film prologue in HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE (1980). A similar scene was played for straight in 1981’s FINAL EXAM. It was clear that Lover’s Lane was ripe for the cinematic plucking.
But what of the time when LOVER’S LANE was in pre-production? One of the common misconceptions about the slasher boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s was that it was just that - a sustained boom. Christian Williams in The Washington Post exclaimed: “This Autumn of 1980 will be remembered in Hollywood as the season when horror movies, those unspeakable celluloid things, cracked out of their pods en mase to gorge anew on the wallets of American filmgoers.” It was a veritable slasher gold rush and fertile ground for new fledgling slasher projects, but as with any boom it’s tricky to know when the cusp of it being over will be. Even as early as the release of TERROR TRAIN in October of that year, major studios - who measured the success of a picture against the joint HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) box office juggernaughts - expressed disappointment with their returns. Even genre barometer Roger Corman cancelled a horror film and said the market would be oversaturated by spring the following year. Williams exclaimed with some small amount of glee: “So it's a hello-goodbye to the biggest glut of nightmare movies in film history.” However, it wasn’t time to write off the subgenre just yet. Filmways said that a third of the 150 scripts they received each month were still for horror films. Avco-Embassy said the number of similar proposals was “uncountable”.
In November 1980, whilst the Washington Post declared the decline of the horror movie’s fortunes, it said that LOVER’S LANE (among others) would soon join the likes of FRIDAY THE 13TH and PROM NIGHT (also 1980) in “throbbing like abscessed teeth in the gaping maws of the nation's multiplex theaters”. Curiously, and perhaps hinting at production troubles, even as late as March 1981 LOVER’S LANE was still being announced (around the time it was originally due for release). The, ahem, ever reliable World Weekly News stated: “Las Vegas heartthrob Wayne Newton wants to be a movie superstar. The entertainer has signed on to play a nutsty murderer in ‘Lover’s Lane’” (although the same issue detailed how Faye Dunaway was supposedly being haunted by the vengeful ghost of Joan Crawford on the set of MOMMIE DEAREST. Perhaps she had seen the rushes!).
Whilst the advert for LOVER’S LANE in both Variety and Box Office Magazine offers the tantalising possibility that there is a real bone fide lost slasher it is worth considering their nature and purpose. They were trade adverts not really intended for the public and were a mixture of bragging, bravado and shopping for investors. Indeed, stars and directors often changed from those detailed in these ads - and, in many cases, the films never made it in front of the camera at all for lack of backing, change in a genre’s popularity or some other reason. Or, if they did, as in the case of THE SPACE VAMPIRES (slated here for a Christmas 1981 release) it was eventually made by Cannon as LIFEFORCE by Tobe Hooper and released in 1985. The advertising feature lists at least one other potential horror film that wasn’t made called HARVEST OF FEAR. However, for months Box Office Magazine repeatedly listed LOVER’S LANE as coming soon for a spring 1981 release. Then a double page advert in Variety ballyhooed it would have its world premiere at Cannes in May that year. Given Cannon was boasting of the financial success of SCHIZOID why would LOVER’S LANE not end up being produced?
Despite the murmurings that the teen slasher boom was almost over shortly after it started, independent producers still scrambled to make them in the hope that some of that blood-splattered gold would rub off. After all, they were relatively cheap to make and profit was still likely even without major studio pick ups. However, that led to another problem: a glut of independent productions and finite space in theatres. This meant that a good number of slashers sat on the shelf; some for a number of years. But, could it be possible that LOVER’S LANE was made but never released? Was LOVER’S LANE a real lost slasher?
The US copyright office does detail an entry for a 1981 screenplay for a film called LOVER’S LANE. However, the original story was by Richard D. Aldrich with an original screen play and story adaptation by Dan Stevens (with an aka of BITTER SWEET COMPULSION). So, a different film - but maybe another lost slasher?
Sadly, the truth is that reels of Cannon’s LOVER’S LANE celluloid are not lying waiting to be discovered in some long-forgotten, dusty corner. In truth, the cameras never rolled. The film fell through after NBC ran a story in 1980 that linked Newton to organised crime and spooked investors. This came to light after Newton sued the network in 1986 for defamation. The article confirmed that Newton had hoped to portray a psychotic killer in the film. Billy Fine - a Hollywood film distributor who had put out such films as I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) and PENITENTIARY II (1982) and was executive producer on NEW YEAR’S EVIL - testified in the case he couldn’t take the chance after the NBC broadcast and stated: “We had a very conservative group of investors, and image-wise we didn't want any problems or hassles, they wanted a clean deal.” Presumably the idea of Wayne Newton donning a fedora and carving up teens met with their approval whilst the whiff of alleged criminal activity frightened them off. Newton won the case and was awarded $19.2 million in damages (although that figure was later overturned at appeal).
In 1986, Fine said he now had his own money and would love to make the film with Newton. But by that time the slasher bandwagon had long left town and Lover’s Lane was safe from knife-wielding maniacs for a few years yet ...