February 28, 2019

How to Make a Monster: FFB’s Low Budget Creature Effects Awards

Now that the slow, rolling train wreck that was this year’s Academy Awards is finally over, the Governors or whatever they call themselves must be breathing a heavy sigh of relief. Profiles in courage they were not. First, to address the show’s declining viewership, they tried to introduce a new “Popular Film” category. They backed down when social media exploded with derision. Next, they picked popular comedic actor Kevin Hart to host. The social media warriors immediately dug up dirt to prove that he was a normal human being who makes mistakes, and he was gone. Finally, adding insult to injury, they proposed offloading the cinematography and editing awards from the live show to a few seconds of tape, and once again they backed down after a tidal wave of indignation (rightly so, of course).

“Ladies and gentlemen, by technical knockout in the third round, your winner and new world champion, Social Mediaaaaa!!!!!!”

"I don't think I can last another round -- those tweets are so mean!"
I do feel sorry for the Academy. It’s an impossible task to try to please everyone -- fans, critics, industry types, the show’s advertisers, etc. IMHO, their biggest challenge is the growing chasm between the big budget, big effects, big box office movies that are loved the world over, and the smaller, character-driven dramas that dominate the major awards but that relatively few people see.

Lumping something like Roma or Green Book with Black Panther in one Best Picture category is like comparing apples and elephants. Ultimately, I think the Best Picture category needs to diversify, but instead of “Popular” (which focuses too much on marketing and box office), they should go in the direction of the Golden Globes, with possibly three best pictures in such major genres as Action, Drama, and Comedy/Musical.

Even with the current status quo, the popular big effects movies do have their own sort of best picture award -- Best Visual Effects. (Interestingly, the Academy delivered something of a rebuff to comic books and sci-fi this year, as the award went to the docudrama First Man. Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong was nominated in various technical categories, but was shut out of the major awards. In spite of some initial positive press, a fact-based movie about white men with crew cuts flying phallic-like rockets to the moon was/is distinctly out of step with current Hollywood culture. On the other hand, it seems the effects artists voting in this category rightly acknowledged that recreating authentic spaceflight on the big screen has its own set of challenges, perhaps even greater in some ways than creating a complete fantasy world.)

Obviously, this is a collective, not an individual’s award. A veritable army of highly talented artists and technicians, backed by big bucks, labors months on end to bring fantasy worlds and action heroics to life.

Before CGI helped sci-fi and fantasy action dominate the movie market, filmmakers with ambitious visions still had quite an array of tools on hand, from mechanical props and foam rubber appliances, to stop motion photography, mattes and optical printers. But they could scarcely imagine how computers would transform the business to the point that anything someone could dream up could be vividly and realistically depicted on the screen. Or how much money would flow into sci-fi and comic book adaptations -- genres that in their time were often disreputable and threadbare.

Of course, this blog specializes in just those disreputable and threadbare movies of old that against all odds, still have a fan base to this very day. In the spirit of the recently concluded film awards season, I’d like to honor the special effects maestros who didn’t have wads of cash or supercomputers to work with, but still managed to create some of the more memorably weird creatures of ‘50s sci-fi with the equivalent of chewing gum and baling wire (and lots of foam rubber).

Without further ado, here are my nominees for Outstanding Achievement in 1950s Low Budget Sci-fi Creature Effects:

Nominee: Paul Blaisdell
Film: It Conquered the World (1956)
Creature: Beulah, the Venusian vegetable monster

Paul Blaisdell was the premier wizard of low budget effects in the ‘50s, responsible for some of the weirdest, most imaginative monsters of the pre-CGI era. He was a sort of one man effects shop, designing and fashioning props, mechanical creatures and monster suits, and then operating and/or wearing them on camera.

He worked so cheaply and reliably that he was the go to monster maker for Roger Corman and American International Pictures, creating such unforgettable menaces as Marty the Mutant from Day the World Ended (1955) and the surrealistic She-Creature (1956).

Still, Beverly Garland with Beulah, It Conquered the World (1956)
"I wonder if I still have that recipe for Venusian vegetable soup?"
Perhaps his most outlandish creation is the titular monster of It Conquered the World, which he affectionately dubbed “Beulah.” The film is about a Venusian creature that establishes radio contact with an earth scientist (Lee Van Cleef), who, believing the advanced alien intends to bring peace and prosperity to the world, unwittingly helps it to establish mind control over key government people in order to subjugate the planet.

In his biography Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker (McFarland, 1997), author Randy Palmer relates that, in developing the concept of the Venusian menace, Blaisdell, director Roger Corman and American International Pictures president Jim Nicholson all agreed that a creature from Venus’s particular environment and gravity “should naturally be built low to the ground.” But Blaisdell took the conception even farther, and Palmer quotes him at length:
At that time the belief about the physiognomy of Venus was that it was hot, humid and conducive to plant life but not too well suited to animal life. If anybody would care to think it out, there is a kind of vegetation we have right here on earth that you wouldn’t particularly feel like fooling around with… something that grows in the darkness and dampness, something that might grow on the planet Venus. Something that might, in lieu of animal life, develop an intelligence of its own. … It would move like a perambulating plant, but it would not move very far. When it wanted to conduct direct action, it would send out small creatures which it would give birth to, and they would do its dirty work. (p. 65)
The result looks like nothing else from ‘50s sci-fi. Purportedly, when actress Beverly Garland first set eyes on the creature, she responded with a sarcastic “That conquered the world?!”  The press also got in on the action, referring to it as the “cucumber” from space.

However, “Beulah” got its revenge on the set.
According to the script, Garland’s character uses a Winchester rifle to fill the monster full of lead in between lines of dialogue, but ends up perishing in its lethal grasp. To help Blaisdell play the scene, Corman stationed two prop men below the camera lens who would help maneuver the costume’s monstrous arms into the frame. The first take was ruined when one of them misjudged the target and smacked Garland square in the chest with those oversized pincers. (Palmer, pp. 70-71)
Beulah is truly a one-of-a-kind monster next to all the rubber-suited humanoids and giant insects and dinosaurs that rampaged across drive-in screens in the '50s. After you get over your initial instinct to snicker, her distinctive WTF! ugliness commands attention. She reputedly was director Roger Corman’s favorite of all of Blaisdell’s creations.

Nominees: K.L. Ruppel and Baron Florenz von Nordhoff
Film: Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Creatures: The brain creatures

This category would not be complete without a stop-motion animated monster, and Fiend Without a Face delivers a ghastly gaggle of repulsive animated creatures that make your skin crawl even as another part of your brain is marveling at how ridiculous they are.

At a military nuclear research facility in Canada, Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) has his hands full when several local townspeople die under mysterious circumstances and people start blaming the facility. At the same time, the facility experiences inexplicable power drains on the nuclear reactor. It seems a local scientist is hijacking the facility’s power in order to conduct experiments on turning thought into material form. What could go wrong?

Still, a brain creature from Fiend Without a Face (1958)
The brain creatures dial up the suspense in Fiend Without a Face.
 The terrifying mind-into-matter creatures were the brainchildren (pun intended) of German effects specialists K.L. Ruppel and Baron Florenz von Nordhoff. The duo managed to pull off some amazing stop motion effects using the SFX equivalent of a low rent Frankenstein’s laboratory. In his book Cheap Tricks and Class Acts (McFarland, 1996), John “J.J.” Johnson quoted from an old Fangoria magazine interview with the film’s producer John Croydon:
The entire maze [Ruppel’s studio] was a mixture of an aircraft control panel and a computer. Each button controlled a selsyn motor, used primarily for the activation of aircraft rudders and flaps on an early motion-control principle, refined years later by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. To these were attached wires which, in turn, activated a single movement of a fiend: to raise the head, to make it stand on its tail, to fasten its feelers beneath the wooden boards barricading the windows, to pick up and withdraw a hammer left on the sill. Ruppel had carefully timed the movements of the fiends to coincide with the camera shutter. The creature models were linked up with the camera in such a way that a single small movement of a fiend was photographed on two frames of film. … It was a long laborious process, taking three weeks to accomplish, but once this footage was combined with live-action through rear projection and blue-backing traveling mattes, the results were fantastically realistic. (pp. 72-73)
The beauty of the brain creatures is that when you first see them -- naked brains with insect-like antennae and spinal cord tails -- you want to guffaw. But when they wrap their tails around the necks of the horrified victims, they suddenly aren’t so ridiculous. This alone makes Fiend Without a Face one of the more memorable minor classics of the ‘50s.

Nominee: Richard Cassarino
Film: The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Creature: The reptilian Sun Demon

Although The Hideous Sun Demon had an ultra-low budget somewhat south of $50,000, it boasts one of the coolest (and yes, most hideous) creature masks in a decade that swarmed with all manner of foam rubber horrors.

Still, Robert Clarke as the Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
"Do you want pepperoni or mushrooms on your pizza?"
The Sun Demon was born when B actor extraordinaire Robert Clarke, noting the box office success of the cheap-as-dirt The Astounding She-Monster (1957) he had recently starred in, decided that he could do just as well producing his own monster movie.

He had the idea to do a sci-fi variant on the classic Jekyll and Hyde story, but instead of a serum, it’s accidental exposure to radiation that turns the mild mannered scientist into a ravening monster. Another story kicker is that as a result of chromosomal damage to his body, the protagonist only changes into a monster when exposed to the sun.

In an interview with Tom Weaver (Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers, McFarland, 1988), Clarke revealed that he had thrown in $5000 of his own money to get the project started. To keep costs down, he recruited non-professional actors, used students from nearby U.S.C. as crew members, and shot the film on weekends. He also got a screamin’ deal on the monster mask and suit (although at the time it seemed like a huge cost):
For us it was a major expense -- five hundred bucks is what it cost. I went to see Jack Kevan, the fellow who did Creature from the Black Lagoon, and he said, ‘To make what you want, I would charge you at least $2,000.’ He was not overpricing it, but luckily I found this fellow Richard Cassarino, who was a film buff and sometimes-actor. … The suit was made on the base of a skin diving wetsuit, and it was hotter than blue blazes! It was so hot that my perspiration ran down my body and [laughs] into my trunk area, shall we say, and during the fight we got so much energy going that one of the still shots shows me standing up there with this wet appearance -- it looks like I couldn’t make it to the men’s room... (p. 86)
Although overall the film looks as cheap as its budget and the acting is variable at best, the hideous, reptilian Sun Demon looks way, way cooler and scarier than its $500 cost would suggest.

Nominees: Herman Townsley and Howard Weeks
Film: The Angry Red Planet (1959)
Creature: The Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab

The rat-bat-spider-crab monster is featured prominently on the poster for The Angry Red Planet (1959)
When I first saw Angry Red Planet at about the age of 9 or 10, I was mesmerized by it. It had everything a sci-fi fan could want: a needle-nosed spaceship, wisecracking astronauts, a beautiful red-haired scientist-astronaut (Nora Hayden), a weird, glowing red Martian landscape (thanks to Cinemagic!), and monsters galore. There was a gelatinous blob with a huge rotating eye, a three-eyed Martian, and best of all, the unique Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab that towered over the terrified space travelers.

This hybrid horror was designed by effects supervisor Herman Townsley and brought to fruition by model maker Howard Weeks. It required a lot of finesse and “fly by the seat of your pants” ingenuity to pull off the ambitious creature sequence. In his biography of director Ib Melchior (Ib Melchior: Man of Imagination, Midnight Marquee Press, 2000) Robert Skotak notes how tricky it was to make the lightweight Rat-Bat-Spider puppet convincing for the big screen:
Known for his invisible wire work, Townsley had solved the problem of visible strings on the batrat puppet by casting the critter in the lightest weight resin known, allowing him to use superfine wires coated with a patented acid he’d developed, which eliminated the metallic reflections. Even the the whole thing, -- complete with monkey fur -- hardly weighed a couple of ounces, Townsley had faced knotty physics problems in working out the delicate weight-to-support ratios… Howard Weeks, who had created the effects for the low budget The Man from Planet X in the early ‘50s, employed a double ‘flying T’ rig to operate the creature, but, unfortunately, found the nearly weightless marionette had a bouncy quality that was difficult to eliminate in only one or two takes… He hired marionette maestro Bob Baker to help operate it. (pp. 110-111)
It’s a good thing that the crew found a way to make it all work within the limited budget, as it’s the most memorable scene in the film. And befitting his status as the lead attraction, Rat-Bat-Spidey is featured prominently on most versions of the film’s poster.

Nominee: Jack Kevan
Film: The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)
Creature: A Poor Man’s Creature from the Black Lagoon

Like the Hideous Sun Demon, this nomination is all about the suit. While Robert Clarke found Jack Kevan to be a little too pricey for his production, the producers of The Monster of Piedras Blancas scored a coup in enlisting Kevan to work up their creature suit. Kevan had not only been involved in helping to create The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), he also lent his talents to such sci-fi classics as It Came from Outer Space (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Still, the Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy..."
The Piedras Blancas creature was partially built, Frankenstein-like, from other body parts. The Metaluna Mutant of This Island Earth (1955) contributed his feet and torso, and the huge claws came from The Mole People (1956).

Even with borrowed body parts, the monster has its own distinctive, gruesome look. The producers, perhaps feeling that a cool suit by itself wouldn’t bring audiences flocking to the drive-in, upped the gore factor considerably -- the monster likes nothing better than to decapitate its meals before eating them.

In his survey of American sci-fi films of the 1950s and early ‘60s Keep Watching the Skies (McFarland, 1982), Bill Warren compared the Piedras Blancas monster with its obvious inspiration, The Creature from the Black Lagoon:
Certainly the design … isn’t as interesting or as logical as those for the 1950s Universal monsters, although it is well-constructed. … The Monster … is in the ‘diplovertubron’ family, and was ‘created at the bottom of the sea.’ An amphibious ‘mutation of the reptilian family,’ he deserves comparison with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gill-Man. And on the basis of reasonableness, the Monster doesn’t measure up to the Gill-Man. The Creature, of course, is unlikely, but has an overall logic: to protect against the water, the eyes are shielded and glassy; it has a mouth like a frog, and no nose at all; there are highly visible gills; the hands and feet are webbed. While it plays hob with any know ideas of adaptability to the water, it has its own logic, and is such a plausible design that creators of amphibious monsters, whether for comic books, film or TV, have to work hard to make their monsters not look like the Gill-Man. It’s that persuasive and logical. (pp. 319-320)
Again, like the Hideous Sun Demon, the film suffers from cheap production values, but in the end is redeemed by an ultra-cool member of the Gill-Man family.

And the winner is:

"I only have eyes for you." Paul Blaisdell with his creation.
Paul Blaisdell for his freakish, yet endearing creation Beulah. She is both an imaginative suit and a mechanical contrivance. Some may disparage Beulah for her cartoonish appearance, but she is the result of Blaisdell’s thoughtfulness about what sort of a creature might evolve on a planet with extreme atmospheric pressures and gravity.

Ib Melchior, the director of The Angry Red Planet, was also an advocate of not just creating fearsome-looking monsters, but making them plausible:
To me, if you design a creature that lives in a world that is bathed under two suns, and you design a creature with huge eyes -- it’s nonsense. Its eyes would be tiny. … It seems most people just design these monsters which don’t bear any relationship to where they come from. Same thing if you design a creature that comes from a planet with 10 times the Earth’s gravity and you give it long, spindly legs. You don’t do that. They would be squat. This is what I object to in monster design, that there is no relationship between what they [look like] and their environment. (Skotak, p. 114)
There’s no record that Ib ever saw Beulah, but I think he would have approved.

February 8, 2019

There's a Blood-sucker Born Every Minute

Poster - Vampire Circus (1972)
Now Playing: Vampire Circus (1972)

Pros: Adds youthful vitality and a mod visual style to Hammer's standard vampire treatment.
Cons: Too ambitious for its short run time; Some characters and plot lines are not adequately developed.

Living in southern Nevada, I’ve been lucky to see several magnificent Cirque du Soleil shows based in Las Vegas, including Cirque’s first permanently-located show Mystere, established on the Strip in 1993. From rather humble beginnings as a troupe of street performers hailing from Quebec, Canada, Cirque du Soleil has become a worldwide phenomenon, staging daring visual feasts of sophisticated sets, inventive costumes and awe-inspiring talent.

Cirque du Soleil showcases some of the most extraordinary, gifted acrobats in the world. Their agility, power and grace seem beyond human. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to another world as they perform amidst Cirque’s wild, surrealistic sets.

In simpler times, more conventional circuses elicited a similar sense of awe and wonder from audiences. Before screens and digital effects completely captured our imaginations, we could still be enthralled by a real, solid, living, breathing fantasy world plopped down in the middle of our dull, prosaic lives.

Since wonder and awe are occasionally companions to fear, writers and filmmakers have occasionally pulled back the circus tent flap to explore its dark side. Ray Bradbury’s classic 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, about a carnival headed by the sinister Mr. Dark, was originally written up as a movie treatment that failed to gain studio backing. (It would later be made into a 1983 movie starring Jonathan Pryce.)

The 1960s saw a number of films featuring circuses as a backdrop to murder and mayhem, including Circus of Horrors (1960; with Anton Diffring), Circus of Fear (1966; with Christopher Lee), and Berserk (1966; with Joan Crawford).

And then, early in the 1970s, Hammer’s Vampire Circus came to town. While neither Cushing or Lee appear in the film, it makes up for its lack of star power with a copious amount of action and blood crammed into an 87 minute run time.

Robert Tayman as Count Mitterhaus in Vampire Circus (1972)
It's curtains for the Count.
Even before the titles roll, the film gets right to it. A little girl is lured by a woman into a castle and killed by the resident vampire Count (Robert Tayman). In celebration, the Count makes love to his new best friend Anna (Domini Blythe), wife of the village schoolmaster. Finally at their wits’ end, the villagers, led by the cuckolded schoolmaster (Laurence Payne), work up the courage to storm the castle, stake the Count, and set fire to everything. With his dying breath, the Count manages to curse the impudent villagers and their children, vowing that their blood will bring him renewed life. Acolyte Anna manages to drag the Count’s staked corpse to the safety of a crypt below the castle as the rest of it burns. After all that, the titles finally roll.

Fast forward 15 years, and the village is the grip of a mysterious plague, with a multitude of corpses being hauled off in handcarts. The village elders -- the Burgermeister, the schoolmaster and the local doctor among them -- debate whether the plague is supernatural or merely natural in origin. The Count’s curse is definitely in the back of their minds despite the passage of time. Supernatural in origin or not, the state authorities have decided to quarantine the village by force of arms to prevent the contagion from spreading.

Cue the “Circus of Nights,” which rolls into town in spite of the quarantine. The villagers wonder how the circus got through, but are eager for the distraction from their grim problems. An enigmatic gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri) heads up the troupe consisting of a sinister dwarf in clown makeup (Skip Martin), a mute strongman (David Prowse), acrobats, dancers, and an assortment of wild animals including a chimpanzee, a tiger, and a black leopard.

The Circus of Nights stages its first performance for the village in Vampire Circus (1972)
Cirque du Soleil it's not, but the villagers don't seem to mind
At first the townspeople are entranced by the circus, especially a young acrobat couple who seem able to magically transform themselves into bats as they effortlessly leap into the air. But as bad things start to happen to the townspeople and their children, the Count’s dying curse hovers over the town like a funeral shroud.

For a film with such a limited budget and minimal sets, there’s more going on than in most three-ring circuses. It’s hard to keep track of everyone and everything without a scorecard: There’s the demonic Count who prefers the blood of young children; his main squeeze, the schoolmaster’s wife; the schoolmaster who leads the rebellion; the grieving father who’s lost his daughter to the vampire; the foppish Burgermeister (Thorley Walters) who welcomes the sinister circus to his village; his daughter, who has a thing for a handsome circus performer who seems to be mysteriously linked to the fearsome panther; the devilish dwarf, who is able to lead all the villagers around by the nose; the mysterious gypsy woman and her silent strongman; the seemingly innocent acrobat couple with amazing shapeshifting powers; the village doctor, who runs off mid-film to evade the quarantine and seek help in the capital city; the doctor’s son Anton (John Moulder-Brown), who is enamored of the schoolmaster’s daughter Dora (Lynne Frederick) , and who together become the prime targets of the Count’s revenge… Got all that?

Skip Martin as Michael in Vampire Circus (1972)
"Abra-abra-cadabra. I want to reach out and grab ya!"
And then there are the inevitable instances of peculiar horror movie logic (or should I say gaps in logic), the foremost being, why in the world would a village with a history of vampire attacks on its children, and in the throes of a mysterious plague, welcome an unknown, sketchy band of circus performers with open arms? Suspension of disbelief is tested mightily when the villagers and their children assemble to watch the circus’ first performance, consisting of a nude woman in body paint, made up to look animalistic, being “tamed” by her human master in a very erotic dance. Instead of being outraged and getting the children the heck out of there, the adults (we’re talking a nineteenth century setting here) look only vaguely disturbed and even applaud, if somewhat half-heartedly.

Even stranger, when the burgermeister’s daughter Rosa (Christine Paul) becomes infatuated with a handsome young circus member Emil (Anthony Higgins), the mother, after some feeble protests, cheerfully gives her blessing for the young woman to run away with the stranger. While this could be seen as another instance of the mysterious power the circus has over the town, in the context of the scene it just seems ridiculous.

Lala Ward as a vampire acrobat in Vampire Circus (1972)
"Tell me, does this blood clash with my lipstick?"
Another nagging question is why it takes 15 years for the Count’s curse to be fulfilled. Was it to allow the children of the rebellious villagers enough time to grow up to be attractive young adults, suitable for a Hammer film? And was the plague also part of the curse, or just a coincidence? Despite seeming to be a big deal at the beginning, the plague is hastily written off and isn’t much of a factor for the rest of the film.

On the upside, Vampire Circus takes some long standing Hammer conventions -- the 19th century central European setting, the depraved vampire Count, the bevy of beautiful vampire victims and accomplices -- and adds a good deal of vitality to them. The “Circus of Nights” is a nice touch, becoming a sort of surreal play within a play. Its resident vampires are some of the most physical of the Hammer repertoire, adding acrobatic leaps and shapeshifting powers to the usual evil licentiousness.

The Circus’ sideshow attraction, the Mirror of Life, is another interesting addition to all the weirdness. At first it appears to be nothing more than the standard set of funhouse mirrors. But the last and biggest mirror turns out to be a portal through which the vampires can lure victims to their doom.

Thorley Walters and Robert Tayman in Vampire Circus (1972)
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the most evil of them all?"
By the time Vampire Circus was released in 1972, Hammer’s patented mix of Gothic castles, technicolor blood and heaving bosoms was looking increasingly quaint next to all the LSD trips, biker gangs and swinging stewardesses that were filling up drive-in screens at the time.

While the studio went down fighting with their tried-and-true style for such films as Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974) and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974), they also tried staying relevant by updating their most precious commodity, Dracula. The results were Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973; both with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), and the highly weird horror/martial arts mash-up The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974; with Peter Cushing but minus Lee).

Adrienne Corri and Anthony Higgins in Vampire Circus (1972)
"Now this won't hurt a bit..."
In spite of the Gothic setting, Vampire Circus was another valiant attempt to keep up with the times. Underneath the period costumes and sets was a classic youth rebellion flick, with the (mostly) youthful and sensual circus vampires riding into town, upsetting good order and the authorities and luring the even younger town residents into depravity and death.

Ironically, Sir James Carreras, co-founder and then chairman of Hammer Films (and father of the film’s producer, Michael Carreras) reacted to the project with a good deal of skepticism, predicting that “If shot as scripted, 50 percent will end up on the cutting room floor,” and adding, “What’s happened to the great vampire/Dracula subjects we used to make without all the unnecessary gore and sick-making material?” (as related in The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, Titan Books, 2007). He’d no doubt forgotten that many critics had leveled almost identical protests against Hammer’s game changing technicolor horrors, The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, years before.

Now, many years later, Vampire Circus stacks up as an eccentric curiosity next to today’s horror output, except perhaps for the fixation on children as victims -- few genre filmmakers of any era have wanted to go down that path. Still, for all its faults and lack of real scares, it’s nonetheless an interesting, stylish film bordering on the surreal.

Where to find it: As of the date of this post, Vampire Circus is available through Amazon Prime.

January 11, 2019

Lost in the Twilight Zone: Lesser Known Episodes, Part Two

Rod Serling presenting "The Howling Man," (1960) an episode of The Twilight Zone
Host Rod Serling introduces "The Howling Man"
In Part One, I saluted Rod Serling’s classic series for still going strong nearly 60 years after its initial air date. I looked at two episodes from the first season, that, while not usually celebrated as among the best of the series, are still to my mind minor classics and exemplify the uncanny, macabre mood for which The Twilight Zone is so well known.

One of them, “Elegy,” I don’t remember ever seeing before I stumbled upon it last year while perusing Netflix’s episode menu. “Elegy’s” peculiar premise and characteristic twist ending was the work of Charles Beaumont, whose 22 Twilight Zone scripts greatly contributed to the series’ dark, eerie feel.

In Part Two, I’ve picked two more Beaumont-authored episodes from the second season. They’re not in the same fan favorite league as “Eye of the Beholder” or “The Invaders” from season two, but they are wild and bizarre and very repeat-watchable.

This 5th episode of season 2 starts off like a conventional ghost story, with the pale, shaken protagonist, David Ellington (H.M. Wynant) speaking directly to the camera, relating what he admits is an unbelievable tale that happened to him years ago. He had been on a walking tour of central Europe shortly after WWI and had gotten caught in a fierce storm. In a neat segue, Ellington turns around to look out the window at a storm brewing outside.

In flashback, we see Ellington, soaked to the skin, stumbling toward a sprawling old hermitage. Banging on the door with his hands, he manages to summon a grim, bearded man with a long cloak and old-fashioned lantern who looks like a refugee from the set of The Ten Commandments. The man at first gruffly tells Ellington that they don’t admit visitors, but then takes pity on the distressed traveler and takes him to see the head man, Brother Jerome (John Carradine). As they walk through the corridors, Ellington is startled to hear an eerie howl, half animal and half human-sounding.

Jerome, with his long white hair and beard, shepherd’s staff and Biblical-era garments, looks like God himself. But Jerome has no mercy on the weary traveler -- when Ellington asks for shelter and food, Jerome insists that he leave immediately. Ellington, chilled and sick, turns to leave, stumbles a few paces, then falls to the floor in a faint.

H.M. Wynant and Robin Hughes in The Twilight Zone episode "The Howling Man," (1960)
The Howling Man is definitely going to trash
Jerome and his hermitage on Yelp.
After recovering from his blackout, Ellington follows the unearthly howls to a barred cell in the deep recesses of the hermitage. He’s startled to find a handsome prisoner in tattered rags who begs for Ellington’s help, claiming that Jerome and the brothers are all mad as hatters. He tells a harrowing tale of being captured by Jerome and held prisoner for simply kissing a girl in the local village square.

Ellington, not sure what to believe, confronts Jerome about the secret prisoner. At first denying he even exists, Jerome relents and tells the whole truth about the man they are holding. The story is even more fantastic than the prisoner’s. Ellington, his mind swirling, makes a fateful decision.

This Twilight Zone fairy tale has great fun with its gothic mix of lightning, thunder, weird howls, and dark, candle-lit sets. Veteran B movie actor John Carradine, with his deep, resonant voice and antique costume, is perfect as brother Jerome. He looks ready to lead the Israelites to the promised land. This was Carradine’s only appearance on the original show.

This too was H.M. Wynant’s (Ellington) only appearance on the series. His character is shaky, nervous and uncertain throughout. The camera emphasizes his chaotic state, at times in extreme close-up where we can see every drop of sweat on his forehead, and at other times in long shot, where his character seems to be swallowed up in the gloomy halls of the old hermitage. Incredibly, Wynant, who started his TV/film career in 1955 on the live Studio 57 show and has done just about every series you can think of, is still acting today, with a credit (on IMDb) for 2018!

English actor Robin Hughes, who looks like a poor man’s Errol Flynn, does a great job as the impassioned, persuasive prisoner. His job is all the harder, as he has to deliver his best lines from behind the bars of his cell. He also has a fun transformation scene towards the end that is reminiscent of Henry Hull’s in The Werewolf of London (1935). Hughes is the star of one of my favorite “forgotten” horror films of the ‘50s, The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958) 

Underneath the High-Gothic hokiness, there is a modern psychoanalytic fable starring Ellington as humanity’s Ego, Brother Jerome as the Superego, and the prisoner as the Id. Whether in real life or in The Twilight Zone, you unleash him at your peril.

SPOILER ALERT: This episode is difficult to discuss in much depth without revealing important plot points. Proceed with caution.

“Shadow Play” adds a vicious twist to the age-old idea that life is all a dream. In the messed up head of Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver), life is a recurring nightmare in which the world and the people around him are merely set pieces in the strange, dark drama he must go through again and again.

The episode opens with a close-up of Grant in profile, seemingly sitting by himself in the darkness. As the camera pans back, the rest of the set suddenly lights up to reveal a courtroom. The jury is just returning from their deliberations. Grant is on trial for murder, but as the jury foreman declares him guilty of first degree murder, he stares off into space, chin in hand, oblivious.

At the judge’s repeated commands to stand up for sentencing, he wearily rises. As the judge imposes the ultimate penalty of death by electrocution, he at firsts laughs, then explodes in rage: “Not again, I won’t die again!” Before the guards can rush him out of the courtroom, he yells to a press reporter: “Tell the District Attorney he’s prosecuting himself, everybody in this building, … everybody in the world!”

On death row, Grant acts as if he’s seen it all before. When an old con (William Edmondson) in an adjoining cell advises him to stop imagining what the execution is going to be like, Grant, as if in a trance, describes the final minutes in great detail, from the colors of the doors and the execution room, to the feel of the electric chair seat, to the musty smell of the hood as they pull it over his head.

In a neat bit of gallows humor, just as Grant gets to the pulling of the switch, the scene jump cuts to the District Attorney’s home, where his wife has opened up the oven to check on two steaming steaks.

Grant’s bizarre behavior has wormed its way into the heads of the reporter, Paul Carson (Wright King), and the DA, Henry Ritchie (Harry Townes). Paul shows up at Ritchie’s house on the night of the execution, liquored up and clearly weirded out. His interviews with Grant have him doubting his own reality. He convinces the reluctant Ritchie to make a last minute visit to death row to talk to Grant himself.

Upon arriving, Ritchie is surprised to find out that Grant is expecting him. Ritchie gets more and more uncomfortable as Grant seems to know what he’s going to say before he says it. Grant sticks to his mad story that he is dreaming his own execution “night after night after night.” As Ritchie leaves, a desperate Grant chillingly calls after him, “I’m telling the truth Mr. Ritchie! Please, let me live and I’ll keep you alive, I’ll dream you every night, just like this…”

When Ritchie gets home, he finds a small but unnerving change to his reality -- one that Grant had predicted -- that leaves him speechless and very spooked.

With Beaumont’s clever script, you get two tortured souls for the price of one -- Grant, caught in an endless loop of nightmares, and Ritchie, who slowly comes to the chilling realization that his own comfortable world can be wiped out in the blink of an eye.

"Last meal? Hmmm, I can't decide between the mystery
meatloaf or the Spam sandwich..."
Grant’s nightmare worlds are built from scraps of memory. Another nice touch is that, even in the depths of the nightmare, Grant is fully aware of how rickety and superficial it is: the DA is an old teacher from grammar school, the clergyman who visits him before the execution is a pastor who died years before.

And, having no real world experience with courtrooms or death houses, the particulars of his tortured dreams are filled with cliches from prison movies he’s seen. He muses, “I got tried and sentenced the same day -- it doesn’t work like that. It’s like a movie. Real death houses aren’t like that, but I’ve never been in a real death house…. That’s my impression of it.”

But, in spite of the banal absurdity of it all, the horror is no less real. Or perhaps, it’s all the more horrible because it’s so absurd. Dennis Weaver’s performance is a gem. He deftly rides his character’s emotional roller-coaster from all-out panic to quiet desperation and back again.

By this point Weaver had already established some TV fame with his role of Chester on Gunsmoke, and of course would go on to even greater glory as McCloud in the 70s. But credit The Twilight Zone for really putting his talents to good use.

Weaver is ably supported by the other cast members, especially William Edmondson as Jiggs, another prison movie cliche pulled straight out of Grant’s mind. Jiggs is the grizzled death row veteran who at first tries to take the new guy under his wing, but as Grant continues to insist that the prison, the cells and everyone around him are figments of his nightmares, Jiggs snorts in derision at the madman.

Yet another plus for “Shadow Play” is the capable direction of John Brahm. The German born director was no stranger to strange films and TV. Before diving headlong into TV in the mid ‘50s, Brahm had helmed two well regarded thrillers, The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945), both starring the quietly menacing Laird Cregar. Brahm had an very productive TV career, directing episodes for all the usual suspects -- Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, The Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Man From Uncle, among others -- as well as 12 episodes of The Twilight Zone.

To my mind “Shadow Play” is the best of the Brahm lot, for its clever, mind-bending script and great performance by Dennis Weaver.