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Film: The Hustler

Local film actor Russell Hurley keeps his dream alive via 'The Vagrant'

By Jason Gargano · June 11th, 2008 · Movies
  Russell Hurley, producer of and actor in 'The Vagrant,' gives William Jones a close shave.
Raven Bull

Russell Hurley, producer of and actor in 'The Vagrant,' gives William Jones a close shave.

"Anything that you write bad about this is my fault," Russell Hurley says of his role as producer of The Vagrant. "Even if it didn't look like my fault, it was my fault."

There's no need for Hurley to be defensive. The Vagrant is pure B-movie mayhem, the type of sinister, blood-splattered spectacle that has been a late-night movie staple for decades. A Room With a View it's not, nor should it be held to the same stuffy standards.

The Vagrant's own director, Lou Vockell -- a Cincinnati-based filmmaker whose previous credits include Killer Sex Queens from Cyberspace and the Joe Bob Briggs-endorsed Planet of the Erotic Ape -- describes the film like this, playing up its supposedly "true story": "Hate, death, insanity and perversion are graphically and unrepentantly presented as we believe it truly happened. It would be surreal, if it weren't so disturbingly grim."

Despite Vockell's hyperbolic pimping of the genre's heightened tendencies, The Vagrant is actually more heist movie than gore-infested horror freakout.

Clearly influenced by such Quentin Tarantino fare as Reservoir Dogs and Grindhouse and a host of '70s exploitation and horror flicks, The Vagrant's simple story opens as a small crew hides out in an abandoned building until things cool down following a bank robbery. Not surprisingly, things don't go as planned.

Hurley plays Frankie, the gang's de facto leader who struggles to keep things together in the face of intra-crew squabbles and the mysterious presence of a drug-addled "vagrant" (played by Hurley's brother Randall Morris).

A native of tiny Buckeye Lake, Ohio, Hurley moved to Cincinnati in 2004 following stints in New York and Philadelphia, among other stops.

"I always wanted to be an actor but I never could seem to break into anything -- I couldn't get through the front door," Hurley says over beers at a downtown watering hole. "My first month down here I saw an ad in the paper for an open audition, and it said 'paid.' I did a lot of theater for free. I thought, 'I'd like to get paid just once."

The audition was for a small part in Vockell's The Stalking Hand. The role was eventually expanded to fit Hurely's outsized personality. They also ended up filming much of The Stalking Hand in the backyard of Hurley's home in Anderson Township -- a turnabout that highlighted his burgeoning talents as a wrangler of filmmaking necessities.

Hurley's experience on The Vagrant was similar: His role was eventually expanded as both an actor and first-time producer.

"After they cast me as the lead actor, the director quit because he was accepted into Frank Oz's puppet school out in Pennsylvania somewhere," he says. "So the whole thing fell apart."

After a period of limbo, Vockell took over The Vagrant's directorial reins -- another example of the fruits of Hurley's extended film-community network.

"If you need somebody, I can usually find them," Hurley says. "I'm a barber. The guys at work call me 'The Schmooze,' because I can schmooze anything from anybody."

Hurley, who has long supplemented his part-time acting gigs with full-time work as a barber, bought an old-school barbershop downtown soon after moving to Cincinnati. And he didn't hesitate to mine his familiarity with the area for The Vagrant -- it's almost entirely set in a decrepit abandoned building in Over-the-Rhine.

"One note to the people who are afraid to come downtown," he says, clearly annoyed by the neighborhood's notorious reputation, "in the whole time we were there, the biggest problem we had were on three separate occasions drunks staggered into the building and said, 'Hey, can I be in your movie.' That was it. I know stuff happens down there, but from what I've seen, if you're not looking to score dope or a hooker, you got nothing to worry about."

The Vagrant's screenwriter, Charlie Vargas, lives and works in Over-the-Rhine, which is the perfect locale for the story's gritty nature. Glimpses of the neighborhood's narrow, trash-strewn alleys and abandoned buildings abound, adding a layer of authenticity rarely achieved in such low-budget efforts.

Then there's the film's visual aesthetic. Sepia-toned and dirtied up ala the recent Grindhouse, The Vagrant's intimate, handheld camera work and disorienting stylistic flourishes evoke a long-lost home-video transmission from another era.

"If you go to Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, man, they get a lot of trash," Hurley says of likeminded B-movie fare. "Ours is good trash.

"The big difference between this and Grindhouse was $20 million," he says with only a slight hint of irony. "The difference between us and The Blair Witch Project was about $35,000. I've watched it (The Vagrant) about 35 times now, and generally I'm objective because I hate watching myself, but, hell, I thought it was better than The Blair Witch Project."

And what of the decision to go with the old-school grindhouse effect?

"The only argument was, 'Gee, nobody uses that," Hurley says. "And then all of the sudden one of our favorites comes out with a movie -- Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse! I personally think he's spying on our production meetings."

While he enjoys the camaraderie and craftiness inherent in such low-budget moviemaking, Hurley can't help but dream of what might be.

"It's fun like buying a $100,000,000 lottery ticket," he says. "It's fun thinking what could happen if one of these films breaks through."

Moments later his expectations are tempered.

"People ask me all the time if I want to break into pictures and be a big star and go to Hollywood?" he says. "Fuck no -- I want to be a big barber. I want people to walk by and have people go, "Hey, that barber, that's the guy that was in that movie. What was that movie? I don't remember, but he was scary."

THE VAGRANT screens at 7:15 p.m. Saturday as part of the Cincinnati Horror Festival, which runs from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. at Fairfield Community Arts Center (411 Wessel Drive, Fairfield). Buy tickets, check out screening times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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