“Squeal Of Death”: Tom Stern & Alex Winter’s ‘entree into Hollywood’

By on July 24, 2015

Yesterday, we read with interest in Variety that actor/filmmaker Alex Winter is developing the “definitive, authorized documentary on the extraordinary life and work of Frank Zappa,” which he will direct from his own script (and produce with Glen Zipper, with the Zappa Family Trust’s backing), and we were reminded of Squeal of Death, the comedic short film he made with Tom Stern, which first debuted on “Night Flight” back in the 80s, so we thought we’d take another look at it.

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Alex Winter has said about this film: “This was our NYU sophomore project. We got a ‘C’ in the class for not finishing it within the span of the semester, but two years later Tom and I had the movie done, and it was our entree into Hollywood.”

Alex Winter is probably still best known for his role as Bill S. Preston, Esq. in the 1989 film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its 1991 sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, as well as playing Marko in the 1987 cult classic The Lost Boys, and for co-writing, co-directing and starring in the 1993 film Freaked.

He’s also made a handful of excellent documentaries — his previous credits include Downloaded, Deep Web, and Smosh: The Movie, which premiered Wednesday and has a digital release Friday (that’s today, July 24).

Have a look at Downloaded here:

Have a look at Deep Web here:

Winter had moved to New York City in 1978 and began performing as an actor on and off Broadway. In 1983, he was accepted into the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, where he met fellow aspiring filmmaker Tom Stern.

The two hit it off and collaborated on a number of short 16mm films, including Squeal Of Death, their first.

The story itself is purposefully clichéd: from his cell on Death Row, a convict named Howie (Alex Winter) tells us how his rough childhood to the crimes that brought about his downfall. He tells us he was neglected and tormented by his father, mother and big sister, and ended up seeking refuge at the weekly cinema where he watches the same old gangster movie every time with Gumbly Weatly, a film hero he looks up to. One day Howie accidentally winds up with a gun and decides to take out his vengeance on the world. After a series of robberies he’s captured by an alert and persistent police officer and thrown in jail.

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It was seen by an executive at Columbia Pictures in 1986, and then filmmaker Sam Raimi responded enthusiastically. He and his partner Rob Tapert optioned an anthology comedy feature film script from Stern and Winter. The dynamic duo then came to Hollywood, of course, driving an old manual Dodge Champ across the country.

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If you look hard enough, you can find a copy “Squeal of Death” on VHS video with several other Stern and Winter collaborations, including Aisles of Doom, a short parody of horror films set in a convenience store.

Stern and Winter continued working on a number of short films, including this one, and music videos for bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Butthole Surfers. They also directed Impact Video Magazine for Night Flight producer Stuart Shapiro, a counter-culture arts magazine that featured short films, performances, and interviews with the likes of Butthole Surfers, painter Robert Williams, hip hop pioneers Public Enemy, robotic art collective Survival Research Labs, and comedian Bill Hicks.

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Stern and Winter also teamed up with writer Tim Burns on the The Idiot Box, which aired on MTV on Saturday nights, with Stern and Winter also co-starring and co-directing.

Immediately following “The Idiot Box”, Stern, Winter and Burns co-wrote the 1993 film Freaked with Stern and Winter also serving as co-directors. Freaked starred Winter, Randy Quaid, Keanu Reeves, Bobcat Goldthwait and Mr T.

The film gained a cult following and in 2013 played at Cinefamily in Los Angeles in celebration of the 20th anniversary of its release.

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Stern also co-wrote the screenplay to An American Werewolf in Paris, the sequel to the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London, with Burns and Anthony Waller. Stern and Burns also collaborated on The Chimp Channel and Monkey-ed Movies.

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Stern, meanwhile, has worked with Jimmy Kimmel’s production company Jackhole Productions on shows such as “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Man Show” (as segment director) and “Crank Yankers,” as director and supervising producer.

In addition, Stern appeared as an actor and worked as a writer for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s presidential parody, That’s My Bush! as co-executive producer, served as director and writer for The Andy Milonakis Show and was one of the creators and producers of the Comedy Central travel show parody “Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust.”

Have a look at his director’s reel:

In May 2008, Stern directed a music video for Russian metal band ANJ called “Gorbachev: Bigger and Russianer”. He’s posted it on his Vimeo page.

In July 2008, Stern directed the puppet show pilot Alligator Boots, hosted by Kanye West. In August 2008 Stern completed the rear projection content for Cheech & Chong’s Light Up America tour.

Meanwhile, while we wait for Winter’s Zappa documentary, which will feature previously unreleased video and audio recordings as well as concert footage, and Zappa interviews (it’s due in 2017 — have a look at the sneak peak above), we hope you’ve enjoyed another look at how Winter’s career started off, with Squeal of Death, which first aired, as we said, on “Night Flight,” back in the day.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.