Unsung Auteurs: Beverly & Ferd Sebastian

July 6, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Gator Bait co-directing (and husband and wife) team Beverly and Ferd Sebastian.

Husband-and-wife filmmaking teams are, to say the least, thin on the ground. And so, for that matter, are female filmmakers working in the genre and exploitation fields, with the likes of Barbara Peeters, Katt Shea, Stephanie Rothman, Amy Holden Jones and a few others standing tall as true pioneers and singular talents. All of which makes the near anonymity of Beverly and Ferd Sebastian a truly curious thing. With eleven cheap, exploitational, genre-heavy films ranging from the early 1970s through to the early 1990s to their credit, the duo boasts a considerable output, and a simple, profit-driven ethos similar to that of celebrated movie pioneer Roger Corman, yet they remain wholly, strangely Unsung Auteurs. That may be down to the cheapness of their films or their regionality (with the duo working far, far away from Hollywood in Texas and Florida), but either way, Beverly and Ferd Sebastian are deserving of a little more love.

Nineteen-year-old Ferdinand Sebastian met eighteen-year-old Beverly Cawthorne at a roller-skating rink in Houston, Texas, and got married ten days later. United in life, the pair then united creatively too, after working initially working separately in the world of TV commercials. Desperate to make a feature, Beverly and Ferd Sebastian scratched together $7,500 from their commercials work and stitched together their 1967 sex flick I Need A Man with a tiny cast and minimal crew. They followed it up with 1968’s far more ambitious The Love Clinic, a romantic comedy about a female urologist and a male obstetrician. Though both films turned a profit, they were actually and literally lost due to suspicious goings on at the film lab that produced, leaving the Sebastians robbed of both their profits and the actual films they’d made.

Ferd Sebastian

The talents of Beverly and Ferd Sebastian were noticed, however, by adult film producer David F. Freidman, who tapped the duo to put together the 1971 documentary Red, White & Blue, which followed Richard Nixon’s Commission On Obscenity. It was after this film, however, that Beverly and Ferd Sebastian really hit their stride with the creation of Sebastian International Pictures, and the roll-out of the exploitation flicks that would become their stock in trade. “We make redneck romper-stompers,” a particularly insightful Beverly told Newsweek in 1977, perfectly summing up the duo’s trashy, wonderfully low-rent aesthetic.

1972’s The Hitchhikers set the template for Sebastian International Pictures, which would eventually become a family affair, with many of Beverly and Ferd Sebastian’s relatives working both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. A grimy exercise in sex and violence, The Hitchhikers follows a group of girls who use their, um, feminine wiles to attract male drivers on the road and then rob them. With its cheeky, salacious, lurid tone and a very willing Misty Rowe in the lead role, The Hitchhikers did well for Beverly and Ferd Sebastian, who followed it up in 1973 with The Single Girls, a proto-slasher flick about a group of swingers at a Caribbean resort stalked by a mysterious killer.

Claudia Jennings in ‘Gator Bait.

Notable for taking Beverly and Ferd Sebastian into a decidedly more tropical setting and also for pre-dating the far more popular stalk-and-slash sex-and-horror exploitation flicks that would follow it, The Single Girls is also notable for its inclusion of famed cult actress and 1970 Playmate Of The Year Claudia Jennings, who had prior starred in 1972’s roller derby belter Unholy Rollers and the now forgotten 1971 post-Vietnam drama Jud. Beverly and Ferd Sebastian became friendly with the beautiful, talented actress and crafted a film specifically for her, which would end up becoming what could arguably be termed the duo’s key work.

A wonderfully tawdry, action-packed and highly entertaining wade in the kind of swamp first introduced to world audiences in the previous year’s groundbreaking hit Deliverance, 1973’s ‘Gator Bait stars Claudia Jennings as the brilliantly named Desiree Thibodeau, an enterprising Cajun woman who lives deep in the swamp, scratching together a living for her and her family by poaching and other slightly nefarious means. When Desiree runs afoul of the local corrupt law enforcement, she has to fight to survive, using her considerable wits and swamp skills. With Desiree something of a female Rambo, and the film filled with great action and typical 1970s madness (the ugly murder of Desiree’s younger sister, however, is the kind of unfortunate scene that decade threw up way too often), ‘Gator Bait is a hell of a lot of fun, and it helped turn Claudia Jennings into a true 1970s cult figure (with roles in exploitation classics like Moonshine County Express, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, Deathsport, Fast Company, and one of the best ever episodes of The Brady Bunch) up until her tragic death in a car accident in 1979.

Claudia Jennings and Clyde Ventura in ‘Gator Bait.

After the success of ‘Gator Bait, Beverly and Ferd Sebastian continued with a consistent output of exploitation flicks that always turned a profit, with the duo’s wham-bang vision clicking with drive-in and cinema audiences outside of America’s more cosmopolitan centres. They crafted a dune buggy heist actioner with 1975’s Flash And The Firecat; brought in bigger names like Stuart Whitman, Richard Jaeckel, Richard Lynch and John Ireland for 1979’s thriller Delta Fox; placed their son Tracy Sebastian in the savvy 1979 teen media flick On The Air Live With Captain Midnight; mixed horror and rock music with 1984’s Rocktober Blood; delivered a belated but inventive sequel to their key work with 1988’s ‘Gator Bait 2: Cajun Justice; and closed out their collective career with the 1993 biker flick Running Cool.

Beverly and Ferd Sebastian retired from the film business sometime after Running Cool, with Ferd becoming an ordained minister and Beverly becoming heavily involved in prison outreach and greyhound rescue programmes. Ferd Sebastian passed away in 2022 at the age of 88, leaving behind Beverly and a fascinating collection of wonderfully lurid exploitation flicks in desperate need of rediscovery.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Anthony Page, Julie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda Haines,Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly,Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.

Beverly Sebastian