Friday, June 8, 2012

Dope Island: Remembering the REAL Men in Black...the Ohio-made one

By Charles Cassady, Jr.

MEN IN BLACK III is now in theaters as the standard operational summer-blockbuster-related-to-a-comic-book sequel. If its release is at least partially responsible for the followup to G.I. JOE - THE RISE OF COBRA being bumped to 2013, then Agent J and Agent K really have done a service to humanity, in one sense. In another sense this unnecessary sequel's existence gives us an excuse to reprint this most amazing fun fact: The very first THE MEN IN BLACK? It was actually made in Ohio - in Columbus, set in Cleveland, with key scenes shot in Sandusky.

No, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones had nothing to do with it. THE MEN IN BLACK (note the pronoun) is completely unrelated to the Columbia Pictures cash cow. Directed by Ohio State University alumnus Bradley Lee this low-budget 16mm indie feature from the early 1990s hearkened back to the original paranormal-urban-legend mythology, in which MIBs are mysterious, threatening quasi-official characters who try to intimidate flying-saucer witnesses. Such are the odd diction, movements and demeanor of the MIBs, according to the lore, that they could well seem to be extraterrestrial creatures/robots clumsily masquerading as human.

THE MEN IN BLACK reached screens (well, one screen anyway, in an extremely limited Mansfield run) in 1992, with a sober plot about unstable Cleveland psychiatrist Dr. Conrad O'Brien seeing a UFO (a cheapie video effect) hover over Lake Erie. Subsequently he is harassed by three weird men in black suits and dark glasses, a la the Blues Brothers, except they move and talk in jerky, vaguely machine-like fashion and tend to disappear (and reappear) in poor Dr. O’Brien’s increasingly stressful life. The strangers may be government agents, aliens - or possibly just figments of the O'Brien's off-his-medication imagination.

Naturally, there are no great visual showstoppers or Rick Baker creature f/x, but the three MIBs are pretty creepy characters, as they relentless and rather pointlessly (this just makes them all the more compelling) torment O’Brien to his doom. The climax happens at the top of Perry's Column on Put-In Bay, and I can't say I've ever seen that before or since.

Although an okay little piece of suspense and Kafkaesque ambiguity, THE MEN IN BLACK failed to find distribution; producer Walt Burbach wound up peddling the movie on tape with his own line of martial-arts instructional VHS cassettes.

Apart from some puzzled phone calls from friends about it, the filmmakers didn't ride any coattails from the Columbia Pictures hit, although the Ohio picture did have a strange epilogue. Excerpts from THE MEN IN BLACK turned up as gags in an equally obscure comedy called FILMS THAT SUCK: THE MOVIES OF READ RIDLEY, shot in the Nashville area and completed in 1999.

I never got to see FILMS THAT SUCK, but I understand that director Marvin Baker's comedy concerned the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine sending an ace reporter to the US boondocks to hype an unknown genius director, who turns out to be an Ed Wood-type incompetent. Rather than fabricate silly film clips for which the fictional Ridley was responsible, the FILMS THAT SUCK filmmakers culled excerpts from actual productions that hadn't broken through to the mainstream (one later did get some major attention, in fact, the cult documentary DANCING OUTLAW). The idea that there was another MEN IN BLACK that wasn't MEN IN BLACK tickled their funnybone, so THE MEN IN BLACK made the cut - even though it didn't really suck.

That's the story, such as it is, of the other THE MEN IN BLACK, the one with Ohio roots. For a time there back in the day, one of the few places you could rent it up here was the late, great B-Ware Video in Lakewood, and it appears that a public library in Dayton may once have had the VHS (I’m sure to the puzzlement of patrons who wanted their Will Smith fix). I can’t even find a description of THE MEN IN BLACK in any meaningful way on the internet. This may be it, you lucky readers.

For that matter, FILMS THAT SUCK has a little more online coverage, but not all that much. Doesn’t seem to be on Amazon, even.

So okay, while studios try to assess whether MEN IN BLACK III is a bomb or not just because it only made, like $200 million in its first week, whereas some other piece-of-crap comic-book sequel did considerably more, a moment of silence, please, for the likes of Bradley Lee and Walt Burbach, those struggling unknowns who do lots of celluloid in total anonymity, and, for my money, sometimes accomplish feats of cinema just as entertaining as the soulless, megabucks corporate product. I, for one, will never forget the MIB leader’s funny-scary recitations: “You-have-become-a-nuisance-to-us-Doctor-Conrad-O’Brien…”


  1. Thank you for remembering our flick! Jeff K.

  2. Quite the novelty back in Mansfield, Ohio as most of the filming took place there. The film also premiered at the local regional theatre venue. That is as far as it went. Doug Wertz- aka Dr. Conrad O'Brien

  3. The bulk of the film was actually shot in Mansfield Ohio. Not Columbus. There are pick up shots in various locations including Cleveland to give the illusion that Conrad O"Brien was an actual Cleveland based psychiatrist.

  4. The Men In Black has a Facebook page. Quite a bit of nostalgic material was saved, scanned and posted there.


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