Queen of Hollywood Blvd., which won the Best First Feature prize at this past weekend’s Boston Underground Film Festival, is Orson Oblowitz’s debut as a writer/director, but filmmaking has always been in his blood. He’s the son of No Wave/genre director Michael Oblowitz and actress Rosemary Hochschild, whom he cast in the lead of his compelling mix of film noir and horror atmospheres (and who named him after Orson Welles).
Hochschild plays Queen Mary, the owner of an LA strip club whose 60th birthday is marred by the appearance of a mobster who informs her of an old debt, and that her son (played by Oblowitz himself) has been abducted to assure she pays. “She ends up having to run a gauntlet through all these violent men who demand things from her,” Oblowitz says. “She becomes more and more abused, but at the same time, it’s about how she overcomes a series of male antagonists along the way.”
As such, Queen of Hollywood Blvd. fits comfortably alongside other current thrillers about female survival strategies in male-dominated environments (Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Cold Hell, Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge). The difference is its casting of a woman of a certain age as its protagonist, which fits into the themes Oblowitz aimed to explore. “I wanted to tell the story of a woman trying to hold onto her ideals in a changing world,” he explains. “The ‘monster’ is a sort of gentrification, and that’s why I used Hollywood as the backdrop. It probably has one of the largest homeless communities in the world, and at the same time, they’re knocking everything down and building these giant high-rises that no one can afford to live in.
“The same thing is going on in New York, where I’m from,” he continues. “I grew up in Tribeca, and we obviously got moved very quickly. This woman is all about, ‘I want to hold onto the past,’ but the future is tormenting her, and you see this in each of her interactions with these men she comes across. They’re saying, ‘It’s time to move on,’ and her response is, ‘This is my slice of the pie I’ve created for myself, and I’m not going anywhere.’ So her age was an important element. Also, I love older, bad-ass actors—the George C. Scotts and the Ben Gazzaras and Robert Mitchums—so we based her character on them.”
Oblowitz also got to cast veteran bad-ass Michael Parks in his last onscreen role before the actor died last May. “You’ll see a side of him in this movie that you didn’t get to see a lot,” Oblowitz says. “He plays a very sensitive guy who is one of the few people who show a softer side to Queen Mary, and helps her. It’s not a giant role; I wish there could be more. He was very sick at the time we shot.”
Oblowitz’s father is also in Queen of Hollywood Blvd. as Uncle Charlie, making it a true family affair. “There’s a level to the film where I call it an expensive home movie, and there’s a scene where I used a whole bunch of actual 16mm and Super-8 films of when my mom and I were younger. I wrote Queen for her, and it’s part of a bigger universe of scripts I’ve written. Queen Mary has a supporting role in another of those, and that character just stuck in my mind, and I ran with her. There was no one else but my mom to play her; she has a very distinct sound to her voice that I couldn’t get out of my head when I was writing it.”
While the film’s narrative is pure modern noir, Oblowitz takes many stylistic cues from the fright genre. “It has the approach of a horror film in the way it creates tension, using score and sound and slow camera movements to build to big shocks and scares and violence,” he explains. “I wanted to show how horrific the world around Queen Mary is. It’s also very inspired by Dario Argento and Suspiria, and the colors he used there.”
Another of Oblowitz’s favorite shockmeisters is Nekromantik and Der Todesking bad boy Jörg Buttgereit, and he was even able to track down Buttgereit’s regular composer Hermann Kopp to score his movie. “Der Todesking is one of the heaviest, strongest films that deals with death, and Queen of Hollywood Blvd. is all about a confrontation with mortality, with ‘What’s my place in the world?’ and at the moment of death, how do you accept it? I had listened to a new record of Hermann’s called Nekronology, and there was a song I wanted to license. So I hit up the vinyl people who had pressed it, and they put me in touch with him. He’s in Spain, and he asked, ‘Can I see the film first?’ I sent it to him, and he sent me back eight tracks! He said, ‘I was obsessed, I haven’t felt this way in a long time. This to me is my follow-up to Der Todesking. I feel the same way about this score that I felt then, and here you go.’ It was unbelievable. It’s all viola and drum machine, and it’s a haunting score. I felt so honored that he did that.”
Queen of Hollywood Blvd. will continue to play festivals (next up is the Mammoth Lakes Film Fest in California) before seeing general release later this year via the newly formed Dark Star Pictures. Oblowitz—who has already wrapped his second feature, the home-invasion horror Hell Is Where the Home Is with Fairuza Balk—hopes it will find an audience receptive to its unique heroine and the references he’s woven through it. “Sam Fuller is one of my idols,” he says, “and his widow, Krista Fuller, has a decent role in the film. And then we have a music track that Bobby Beausoleil, from the Manson family, did for Lucifer Rising in there. We’re trying to figure out these niches Queen fits into. It’s a film for a certain type of movie lover, and a certain type of genre lover.”