Lost SF film unearthed at Mission theater

It might be the wildest performance of “Russian Doll” actress and recent “Saturday Night Live” host Natasha Lyonne’s career. And on a recent Saturday night, hundreds of fans packed the house at San Francisco’s 480-seat historic Victoria Theatre for a chance to see it in the exact spot where it was filmed just over 13 years ago. 

It’s just after 7 p.m., and inside the balmy, 118-year-old auditorium, guests with neon hair in eyeball-print dresses and leather jackets take swigs of White Claw Surge obscured by brown paper bags as they settle into their seats. Near the screen, the underground horror production company Severin Films hawks Blu-Rays of B-movie titles like “The Beast in Heat” and “Mansion of the Living Dead.” Before the lights go down, a drag performer dressed in what I can only describe as Frankenstein eleganza works the crowd alongside costumed vampires and werewolves for a pre-screening musical number a la “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” People laugh, scream, and cheer them on.

“All About Evil,” a movie that was once lost to the public, is back in a big way. 

Filmed in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, the campy horror comedy follows timid librarian Deborah Tennis (Lyonne) on her crusade to save her family’s single-screen theater from redevelopment by churning out a series of low-budget horror movies to drive attendance – even if she has to terrorize the city of San Francisco to make the films happen. 

A Q&A with some of the cast and crew of “All About Evil” is held at the Victoria Theatre on June 11, 2022. 

Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE

Thomas Dekker (who as a child appeared in John Carpenter’s Bay Area-set remake of “Village of the Damned” and later starred in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) portrays the teenage fan who believes in Tennis most. Jade and Nikita Ramsey play a pair of evil twins straight out of “The Shining” who join her debaucherous guerrilla film crew. Local drag stars Martiny, Heklina and Putanesca appear as moviegoers, while Cassandra Peterson (better known as Elvira herself), longtime John Waters collaborator Mink Stole, Jack Donner (“Star Trek”), Ashley Fink (“Glee”) and Noah Segan (“Knives Out”) fill out the legendary cast. 

With a gritty, DIY feel, plenty of gore gags and inside jokes for fans of the genre, it’s a true love letter to the midnight movie. It could even be one of the best underground horror films to come out of the Bay Area.

But the feature length directorial debut of Joshua Grannell, also known as San Francisco drag icon Peaches Christ, never set out to become a cult hit. 

“It takes time for a film to find its audience, and I’m certainly of the mindset that you can’t really create a cult movie,” Grannell told SFGATE in a recent interview via Zoom. “Sometimes it has to creep and crawl its way out into the world. In many ways, I think that because this film was withheld, and because of the Internet, and so many fans talking about it… that’s developed a cult around it because people who have seen it really love it.”

And for years, the people who hadn’t were clamoring to find it. Now, thanks to a West Coast screening tour, a special edition Blu-Ray release and a streaming premiere on Shudder, they finally can.

Natasha Lyonne in "All About Evil." 

Natasha Lyonne in “All About Evil.” 

Severin Films

Cassandra Peterson and Thomas Dekker in "All About Evil."

Cassandra Peterson and Thomas Dekker in “All About Evil.”

Severin Films

Jade and Nikita Ramsey in "All About Evil."

Jade and Nikita Ramsey in “All About Evil.”

Severin Films

Heklina, Peaches Christ, Putanesca and Martiny in "All About Evil." 

Heklina, Peaches Christ, Putanesca and Martiny in “All About Evil.” 

Severin Films

Scenes from the San Francisco-based cult classic horror film—All About Evil. (Images courtesy of Severin Films)

The plot feels undeniably prescient as the Bay Area mourns the recent closures of Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema, the California Theatre and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. Elsewhere, the loss of the film program at SFMOMA and the murky future of repertory movie programming at the Castro Theatre signify a bleak time for the region’s indie film scene.

But Grannell, who once hosted the popular “Midnight Mass” series while working as a manager of the now-shuttered Bridge Theater in the Inner Richmond, said the slow disappearance of his favorite theaters was anxiety-inducing even back then. 

“The writing was on the wall when things like the AMC 1000 Van Ness opened in San Francisco. Even the Metreon,” Grannell said. “There was this overabundance of screens in the city after these multiplexes had already destroyed so many of the beautiful movie theaters that existed across the country. And I wrote this movie with the idea that sure, why not go to these drastic lengths to save the ones we have left in San Francisco?”

It’s “an even bigger battle in 2022,” he continued, one that he hopes the re-release of “All About Evil” will fiercely confront.

“It’s not even a fight for the neighborhood single screen movie theater experience. It’s fighting for movies [to be shown in theaters] at all,” Grannell said with an incredulous laugh. “It’s really wild. I think we’re going to win that battle, but how bizarre, that this is where we’re at.”

The marquee at the Victoria Theatre advertises a screening of "All About Evil" on June 11, 2022. 

The marquee at the Victoria Theatre advertises a screening of “All About Evil” on June 11, 2022. 

Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE

Filming in chaos

“All About Evil” was shot over the course of a month in the spring of 2009, mostly inside the Victoria Theatre. Other filming locations included the Presidio Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, Everett Middle School, the former Little Henry’s diner in the Tenderloin, the streets of the Sunset and Portola neighborhoods, and notably, the basement of The Armory, which at the time served as the headquarters for kink.com.   

Production came with its fair share of challenges. Just days prior to shooting, they lost their original filming location (the Bridge Theater).The crew scrambled, visiting at least eight different theaters around the city, including the Roxie and the Metro, until the late Anita Correa, who was then the co-owner of the Victoria, gave them the green light. 

“It was her who basically shuffled [the venue’s schedule] around and said, ‘The Victoria has always been a place for local artists. We’ll make this work. You need to make this movie, so come in and make it at the Victoria,’” Grannell said. “As stressful and terrifying as it was to find a new space, it turned out to be a blessing, overall.” 

Thomas Dekker and Joshua Grannell between takes during filming of "All About Evil." 

Thomas Dekker and Joshua Grannell between takes during filming of “All About Evil.” 

Severin Films

Darren Stein, the director of the 1999 dark teen comedy “Jawbreaker” and a friend of Grannell’s who produced “All About Evil,” was particularly drawn to the space. 

“The Victoria is high-goth goodness, with catacombs and secret chambers. It’s literally crumbling and terrifying,” he said. “It’s perfect for this movie.” 

Meanwhile, one of the stars of the film, Dekker, swears up and down that the venue is haunted. At one point during filming, some of the crew claimed to have seen a ghost in the booth and refused to go up to the balcony. On another occasion, smoke inexplicably appeared next to the wall and started to grow at an alarming rate.

Turns out, that was from an aging light fixture that had caught on fire. Grannell had to call the San Francisco Fire Department, and said there’s still a large patch near one of the exit doors from where a firefighter had to swing an axe into the wall to get to the source of the flame and extinguish it.

“I remember losing my mind, thinking, ‘Oh my God, this movie’s cursed,’” Grannell said. 

Filming of "All About Evil" on location in the Armory and the San Francisco Public Library. 

Filming of “All About Evil” on location in the Armory and the San Francisco Public Library. 

Severin Films

But nothing was more stressful than not having a lead actress a week before filming began. Grannell recalls telling cinematographer Tom Richmond that his dream choice was Lyonne, unaware that Richmond shot “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” a movie she had starred in a few years prior. 

Within moments, Richmond pulled out his cell phone and called Lyonne to pitch her the movie. Then he handed the phone over to a shocked Grannell.

“She totally, totally intimidated me,” Grannell said. “This is a woman who is a serious lover of film. She’s also maybe one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”

Natasha Lyonne behind the scenes of "All About Evil."

Natasha Lyonne behind the scenes of “All About Evil.”

Severin Films

They connected instantly when Grannell said he was inspired by the ‘60s-era exploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman. About a week after reading the script, she flew out to San Francisco. 

“When she showed up, it was all work, and she killed herself to try to put this movie together,” Grannell said. “Even when we weren’t shooting, she and I were on the phone. I would go to her hotel room. She was constantly wanting to work on what she was going to do and be prepared. I credit her with so much of the stuff that I love in the movie, and couldn’t imagine anyone else as Deborah.”

Bringing a movie back from the dead

Unfortunately, the timing of “All About Evil’s” release couldn’t have been worse. Despite a wildly successful premiere at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival that broke the record at the time for the fastest sellout at the Castro Theatre in the festival’s history, the independent film model “was basically tanked,” Grannell said. The film’s primary investor told him the offers from film distributors were comparable to robbery. 

Following the recession, “I think they were probably all trying to save their companies from going bankrupt, quite frankly,” he said. “It left us in a tough position.” 

At the time, they found a creative solution, striking a deal with Landmark Theaters to set out on their own theatrical release tour across the country, with every screening accompanied by a raucous stage show featuring the cast. After that, they self-distributed their own DVDs, and the movie was briefly licensed to NBC Universal and played on Chiller, a now-defunct cable channel that used to reach 40 million viewers. 

Peaches Christ, center, takes the stage during a cast and crew reunion of "All About Evil," held at the Victoria Theatre on June 11, 2022. 

Peaches Christ, center, takes the stage during a cast and crew reunion of “All About Evil,” held at the Victoria Theatre on June 11, 2022. 

Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE

“When that was all done, and those DVDs were sold out, that was it,” Grannell said. “And then the movie kind of disappeared.”

A decade later, Grannell took it upon himself to bring the film back from the dead for its milestone anniversary. He approached Sam Zimmerman, the head of horror streaming platform Shudder, who was immediately on board. And David Gregory, the co-founder of Severin Films, said he would put out a special edition Blu-Ray of the film. 

Everything, it seemed, was falling into place – until the pandemic hit. So Grannell stalled for two more years until he knew he could host a handful of theatrical events. 

It was certainly worth the wait. The film’s first screening in Los Angeles sold out, and it heads to the Hollywood Theatre in Portland later this month.

As for the screening in San Francisco? The giddy crowd beelined to the stage to get their Blu-Ray copies signed by the cast of the joyous, chaotic movie they had just witnessed. The energy in the theater seemed to speak for itself. 

“It’s the dream scenario,” Dekker said. 

“All About Evil” is on Shudder and is available for purchase on Blu-Ray on Severin Films’ website.