December 24, 2011

A Special Holiday Message from Beyond Time and Space

Happy holidays, and may all your movie watching be very merry!

I wonder where he shops for his clothes?

December 21, 2011

Crackpot Science

Crack in the World (1965)

'50s and '60s sci-fi is well-known for its guilty pleasures, and Crack in the World is guiltier than most: guilty of jaw-droppingly bad science; guilty of perplexing character behavior; guilty of an ending that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. But then, let's also give it some credit. In some respects, the film was ahead of its time. The producers obviously realized that audiences wouldn't sit still for the same old invaders from outer space or giant radioactive creatures. Instead, man himself, in the form of an arrogant and heedless scientist, represents the ultimate threat to the earth. Crack's enviro-humanistic message hit theaters at a time when concern for the environment was just a seed some years away from flowering in the national consciousness. Crack also prefigures the public disaster mania that flooded theaters of the 1970s with epics like Airport (1970) and its numerous sequels, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and many others.

The film begins in a remote area of Africa (actually a remote area of Spain standing in for Africa), at the Project Inner Space base. A delegation of project backers headed by Sir Charles Eggerston (Alexander Knox), arrive to check in on the project. They're escorted by beautiful geologist Maggie Sorenson (Janette Scott), wife of project head and brilliant scientist Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews). In a facility miles below the surface (it looks more than a little bit like the technologically advanced lair of a James Bond super-villain), the delegation is briefed by Dr. Sorenson on the final phase of the project-- an audacious plan to shoot an atomic missile down into the depths of the earth in the hopes of breaking through and freeing magma from the earth's core to provide humanity with limitless geothermal energy.

Sorenson tells the group that the potential gains are well worth the small risk. He admits that a colleague on the project, Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore), is very concerned that such a concentrated nuclear explosion could exacerbate problems with small fissures in the earth's crust already created by atomic testing, with possibly catastrophic results. Conveniently, Rampion is in another part of the world studying a volcano, and is unable to make his case in person (we learn later that the devious senior scientist purposely invited the commission to visit while Rampion was away).

Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews) uses an early
version of Powerpoint to make his case for shooting
an atomic missile straight into the earth's core.
Sorenson emphasizes the revolutionary possibilities of limitless geothermal energy, and the delegation, no doubt with visions of limitless profit, gives Sorenson and his team the go ahead to shoot the missile. Rampion, learning of his mentor's duplicity, arranges an emergency meeting with Sir Charles to try to persuade him to call off the launch. He doesn't beat around the bush:
"Suppose the Macedo trench splits open under the ocean? A crack a thousand miles long, bringing superheated magma in contact with the ocean... Earthquakes, tidal waves, mass destruction on an apocalyptic scale!"
Sir Charles is persuaded, but too late. His call to the project as the countdown proceeds is put on hold. The missile shoots down the miles-long shaft, a tremendous explosion blows the missile tower to smithereens, and, lo and behold, a fountain of magma erupts from deep within the earth. Success! Humanity's energy needs are guaranteed for a thousand years!

The jubilation, however, is short-lived. As the project team admires the magma fountain that they've created, eagle-eyed Maggie spots a cloud of dust in the far distance kicked up by a panicked stampede of animals. They try to figure out what's spooked the herd, to no avail. In the underground facility, the seismographs record large earthquakes in the vicinity. Two African communities have been completely leveled with great loss of life. One has a long history of quakes, but the other-- no history at all. As news of other events comes in, the scientists realize that Rampion was right-- the quakes are taking place along the Mercado fault. It soon becomes evident that the explosion has caused a crack along the fault that is picking up speed and threatens to literally tear the earth apart.

Headquarters of Project Inner Space, or lair of a
James Bond super-villain? You make the call!
With the vindicated Dr. Rampion now in charge, the team attempts to stop the devastation with yet another atomic explosion on a volcanic island in the crack's path. Instead of stopping the crack's progression, the second explosion changes its course, with interesting and momentous results.

Crack in the World looks much more expensive than its relatively modest budget (estimated at $600,000 by IMDb, pretty meager for an effects-laden film even in 1965 dollars). The model work and pyrotechnics, interspersed with stock footage of volcanic eruptions and lava flows, is very impressive. Even with the somewhat ridiculous sight of an atomic-tipped missile hanging upside down from its gantry, ready to be launched into the earth's depths, I found myself thinking through the countdown sequence that, setting aside the fantastic premise, it had almost a documentary feel to it -- this is exactly how it would go if such a hare-brained scheme were attempted in real life. The success of the film's look and feel is no doubt due to the contributions of art director Eugene Lourie. Lourie had a long and successful career in art direction from the 1930s through the 1970s. He also directed some of the most memorable and influential "giant monster on the loose" sci-fi epics of the 1950s and '60s, including The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Giant Behemoth (1959), and Gorgo (1961) (and let's not forget The Colossus of New York, 1958, even if Eugene himself wanted to).

Maggie Sorenson (Janette Scott) tries one last time to
get her husband's attention before the world blows up.
Crack is less successful with the human side of the story. The film plays up the intertwined relationships among the three principal protagonists, Dr. Stephen Sorenson, wife Maggie, and professional and romantic rival Ted Rampion. Stephen is a complicated and confusing character. We see early on that he's being treated for a debilitating and possibly life-threatening mystery illness. And, we find out that the project's second-in-command and Sorenson's chief critic, Dr. Rampion, was once Maggie Sorenson's lover. The Sorensons have only been married for a short time, but Stephen is too wrapped up in his momentous project and too worried about his illness to treat his wife with even a modicum of affection or respect. She wants a baby and tries to get him interested, but he coldly rejects her. Later, he impugns her professional abilities and accuses her of still having feelings for Rampion. We're left wondering why he married her in the first place, and why he would torture himself by working so closely with her former lover. As the film races to its climax, Sorenson literally drives his beautiful wife into Rampion's arms. He comes off as more of a obsessed, petulant horse's ass than a tragic figure.

The zenith of Dana Andrews' acting career came in the 1940s, when he starred in such prestigious A-list productions as Laura (1944), A Walk in the Sun (1945), and the Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Later, as the A-list offers stopped coming in, he got work in some very good B pictures (Curse of the Demon, 1957; The Satan Bug, 1965), and some that were not so good (The Frozen Dead, 1966).

Square-jawed Kieron Moore's other sci-fi, fantasy and horror work includes Satellite in the Sky (1956), Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), Dr. Blood's Coffin (1961), and The Day of the Triffids (1962). His hard-to-place accent in Crack in the World would not lead you to believe he was an Irishman, born Kieron O'Hanrahan.

Janette Scott also starred in Day of the Triffids with Kieron. Other genre appearances include Hammer's Paranoiac (1963) and William Castle's regrettable remake of The Old Dark House (1963).

In spite of the exasperating and confusing behavior of the main characters and a ludicrous ending, Crack in the World is one of the better sci-fi spectacles of the '60s. Watch it for the rockets, the explosions, the earthquakes, the flowing lava, the train wrecks, and all manner of geologic mayhem. It's finally been released on DVD by Olive Films, and is available on Netflix (streaming or disc).

"Would it mean the end of the world, or a new life for all mankind?"

December 5, 2011

The Scarecrow Before Christmas

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

OK, I admit it. This time of the year is a bit hard for me, because my predilection for dark and sinister movies doesn't exactly fit in with the joyous spirit of the holidays. It's not that I can't do light holiday fare-- I've enjoyed White Christmas (1954) and Holiday Inn (1942) multiple times. But, this being a blog dedicated to horror, sci-fi and thrillers, I'd rather not dilute my brand too much by including them here. On occasion, the uncanny and the holidays do mix -- Dickens' A Christmas Carol being the most obvious example. Of course, every film and TV version of Dickens' classic has been reviewed countless times by actual professionals, so adding my two cents would be somewhat pointless. And film industry attempts to mix Christmas and horror have tended to be bottom-of-the-barrel slasher stuff (e.g., Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984; Santa Claws, 1996), which, fortunately for all of us, doesn't interest me in the slightest.

So, at the risk of going against the holiday grain, let's talk about scarecrows (or in this season of leftovers, let's think of it as Halloween leftovers). What is it about this leftover from our agricultural past that makes it so scary? While the scarecrow as a horror icon is not quite on par with the estimable vampire and zombie, there's no denying its staying (and scaring) power. As I browsed through the local Spirit Halloween store a couple of months ago, I was struck by all the scarecrow-themed masks, costumes and animated figures on display. Even as actual use of scarecrows out there has dwindled to next to nothing, public captivation with them lingers on. Someone (not me!) could perhaps write a treatise on residual animist beliefs that survive even in advanced technological societies, but what it all comes down to is the discomfort most of us have with things that are made to look human, but aren't. We know on a rational level that the scarecrow is only old clothes, burlap sacks and straw, but some tiny sliver of a much more primitive part of our brain wonders if there isn't something alive, possibly malevolent, hiding behind the dark cut-out holes that are supposed to be its eyes.

The 1981 CBS-TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow exploits this primal fear very effectively. So effectively, that it has stuck (like a pitchfork) in the brains of horror fans for decades, and has been released on video twice (most recently a very nice digitally restored version released by VCI Entertainment). The movie's supernatural horror is set in motion by a horror of a different kind-- small-town bigotry and fear that escalates into a murderous frenzy. In one of the great performances of his long career, Charles Durning plays Otis P. Hazilrigg, a priggish and officious postman who seems to think his uniform makes him the de facto leader and protector of the small rural town that he delivers mail to. In Dark Night's opening minutes, we find out that Otis is very concerned about the friendship of a developmentally disabled man, Bubba (Larry Drake), and a young girl, Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe). While we see the complete sweetness and innocence of the friendship between the child and the man-child, Otis conjures up something perverse and disturbing from the depths of his reptilian brain. Goaded on about the questionable relationship by one of his hayseed friends, Otis spits out his hatred for Bubba like a tinpot Gestapo making plans to rid his little corner of the world of rabble and filth:
He's a blight, like stinkweed and cutworm that you spray and spray to get rid of but [they] always keep coming back. … Something's gotta be done… but it has to be permanent!
Otis soon gets his chance when a tearful Bubba shows up at the Williams house with Marylee unconscious in his arms, crying "Bubba didn't do it!" With rumors swirling that the Williams girl is dead and Bubba is responsible, the arrogant postman quickly takes the law into his own hands and forms a posse with three of his redneck friends. Bubba stumbles home with the vigilantes in close pursuit. Bubba's mother (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon's older sister) knows of Otis' hatred for her son, and thinking quickly, encourages him to "play the hiding game." Unfortunately, Bubba's hiding place fools no one. Otis slowly walks up to a scarecrow in a nearby field, and gets close enough to see Bubba's red-rimmed, terrified eyes through the cutout holes in the burlap head. Guns at the ready, the men are nervous and hesitant about what to do. Even the normally resolute Otis seems unsure of himself and his plan to find a "permanent" solution to the problem of Bubba. But then, ironically, a crow flies up and caws, causing the nervous men to start firing. Poor innocent Bubba, hoisted on the scarecrow framework like a Christ figure, is riddled with bullet holes.

Bubba's hiding place is quickly discovered
by the crazed vigilantes.
After learning from the radio dispatcher that the little Williams girl is alive -- she had been attacked by a neighbor's dog, and Bubba had rescued her -- Otis calmly takes a pitchfork from a posse member's truck and sticks it in Bubba's hand. The resulting inquest is a total whitewash, with the presiding judge and most of the town siding with cocky Otis and his murderous stooges in their protestations that they were only defending themselves. Only the incorruptible district attorney Sam Willock (Tom Taylor) and Bubba's grieving mother seem to know what really happened. But the redneck posse's cockiness soon turns into confusion and then terror, as a supernatural agency begins to dispense severe justice in the wake of the town's failure to act.

One of the brilliant aspects of Dark Night is its slow buildup from Otis' and his crew's certainty that they have gotten away with murder, to inklings that all is not right, to abject terror as an unseen vigilante is stalking each of them in turn. Correspondingly, the movie literally gets darker and darker with each scene, starting with the innocent play of Bubba and Marylee shot in bright, glorious California daylight, and ending in the dead of night in a lonely field where the last perpetrator is held to account. The supporting cast of redneck vigilantes each gets a neat acting turn as they fall prey to the unstoppable avenging force. First, they each encounter the inanimate scarecrow that seems to pop up out of nowhere, standing in silent accusation. Then, fittingly, they meet their fates via the very farm implements that are their livelihood.

Otis the evil mailman (Charles Durning) encounters
justice from beyond the grave.
But the movie really belongs to Durning's Otis. His attempts to keep it all together as it becomes apparent that justice will be done by a force far beyond his control or understanding keep the viewer wondering what he will do next, and what further depredations he's capable of. Little touches that reveal the character's mindset -- like a glimpse of Otis' modest boarding room decorated with flags, war memorabilia, and a bust of Napoleon -- are unusual for a low-budget TV movie. To the bitter end, the sweating, panicked Otis refuses to believe in the supernatural, preferring to believe that the upstanding D.A. Willock is orchestrating the whole thing. In the DVD commentary, Director Frank De Fellita and writer J.D. Feigelson noted that Durning (who filled in for Strother Martin, who passed away before filming got started) was initially put off by his character's unremittingly evil nature. But apparently he revised his assessment of the character and the film when it unexpectedly became a cult hit.

Two other aspects of Dark Night propel it above and beyond the usual TV movie fare. Child actor Tonya Crowe is very effective as Bubba's best (and seemingly only) friend. In one chilling scene at a school Halloween party, she matter-of-factly tells the desperate Otis that Bubba told her what he did. "Bubba didn't tell you anything" the Otis exclaims. "Bubba's dead!" "I know," she says flatly, but with a burning malice in her eyes (see the clip below). To complement the great acting, Glenn Paxton's original score masterfully accents the growing darkness and suspense.

I do have one reservation with the movie. I have a hard time reconciling the live Bubba's gentleness with the remorseless supernatural avenging force, in spite of the horrific evil that was done to him. (Larry Drake would later very successfully play another gentle, developmentally disabled man, Benny Stulwicz, in NBC's hit series  L.A. Law). I prefer to interpret the dark happenings as the result of the psychic outrage of those who dearly loved Bubba -- his mother, Marylee, and the D.A. -- sparking a kind of ancient spirit that acts on Bubba's behalf, leading the perpetrators to just deserts partly of their own making. So call me a sentimentalist!

VCI Entertainment's DVD or Blu-ray release of this timeless classic should be right at the top of your holiday shopping list for that horror aficionado in your life.

A desperate Otis, trying to find out more about the implacable supernatural force pursuing him, gets no help from Bubba's young friend Marylee:

November 25, 2011

Mr Movie Fiend: A Pre-Wal-Mart Black Friday

Black Friday (1940)

One of the things I'm thankful for this time of year is a paid vacation day on the Friday after Thanksgiving. However, I usually don't do my patriotic duty on Black Friday and buy, buy, buy to try to single-handedly rescue the nation's retailers, and the economy itself, from the doldrums. Instead, I sleep in late, make myself a nice hot cup of coffee, and leisurely read about all the crazy things my fellow Americans have done in the early morning hours in desperate pursuit of cheap consumer goods. I used to get a chuckle out of the crazy Black Friday news, but lately it's become sad and downright pathological. For example, the top Google news search item this morning is headlined: Police to review videotape in Wal-Mart pepper spray incident
Los Angeles police detectives hope to retrieve video surveillance evidence from a Porter Ranch Wal-Mart store by early Friday afternoon to begin trying to identify a woman who shot pepper spray at other shoppers to get a Black Friday competitive edge. … The woman apparently sought to purchase an Xbox video game console and used the spray to clear out other shoppers. About 20 customers, including children, were hurt in the Thursday night incident, which police officials called 'shopping rage.'
Yikes! My advice to this woman and bargain shoppers everywhere is to relax --  instead of camping out in front of a big box store for hours on end and then macing your fellow shoppers to get your hands on the latest electronic gadget, put your feet up, eat a leisurely breakfast, and then take in a movie. There are some pretty good family-friendly movies showing at the nearby multiplexes, from Hugo, to The Muppets, to The Descendants for a somewhat older crowd. Don't worry, they'll make more X-Boxes, and there will always be sales.

Of course, there's also home and your handy DVD player for an even more relaxing movie experience (let's just hope you didn't score that DVD player or flat screen HDTV on some other Black Friday by muscling a poor little old lady out of the way). Maybe the ultimate relaxing experience is watching a classic film from an earlier, more innocent (and less consumer-crazed) era. I suppose given the time of year I should recommend something light and festive, but then, a 1940 film titled Black Friday is just too good to pass up.

Black Friday is not light, sentimental holiday fare, but it is an interesting mix of gangsters, horror and sci-fi. It also features the last pairing of horror greats Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff at Universal Studios, although it's a disappointing one-- they never share a scene together (more on that later). The film starts out with the somber Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff) handing over his scientific journal to a reporter on his way to an appointment with the electric chair. As the reporter examines the journal, we see Sovac's tale unfold in flashback.

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.

November 14, 2011

Evil in the Blood

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Evil seems like such a simple, straightforward concept, and yet, in this ferociously complex world of ours, it's about as easy to pin down as a glob of jello. I think it's safe to say that one person's evil is another's necessity: "You see officer, I just had to clobber him over the head before he could do the same to me-- he's the evil one, not me…" In the end, it comes down to that old standard refrain, "I know it when I see it…" (It also helps to clear up the ambiguity when the evil act is done by someone who doesn't look like you, doesn't speak your language, doesn't worship the way you do, and so on. Of course, when you do much the same thing, there's always a good reason for what you did. Yep, real easy to spot, this thing called evil… but I digress.)

A big attraction of classic horror movies is that they toss out the complexities of the real world for one in which good and evil are easily discerned, the rules are clearly laid out, and there's great entertainment in watching the protagonists deal with the palpable evil in their midst.

In The Creeping Flesh, evil is very real, even measurable -- in the words of the intrepid Victorian scientist Emmanuel Hildren (Peter Cushing), "evil is a disease." It's in the blood, and can be identified by simply examining a sample under a microscope. And yet, the evil of The Creeping Flesh refuses to be conquered by science, and instead turns Hildren's best laid plans into catastrophe.

The story is told in flashback, as Hildren relates his extraordinary discoveries to a young visiting doctor in what appears to be the older professor's well-appointed laboratory. It all starts when Hildren brings back an immense skeleton that he found buried in New Guinea. Flushed with excitement, he explains to his somewhat dim assistant Waterlow (George Benson) that the cranium of his find is larger and thus more advanced (a dubious proposition) than that of garden-variety Neanderthal man, but the skeleton was found in an far older rock layer. As his prim, sheltered daughter Penelope waits patiently for her father to come to breakfast, Hildren crows to his assistant that his skeleton will "revolutionize science" and perhaps earn him the prestigious Richter prize.

One of the last horror film pairings of the great
actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Hildren's excitement is interrupted by news from his half brother James (Christopher Lee), that his wife has died in the asylum that James runs. He travels out to the asylum to meet with his half-brother, and in the short visit, an intense sibling rivalry emerges. It seems that in typical Victorian fashion, Emmanuel has kept the mother's condition a secret from poor Penelope, leading her to believe that her mother died years ago. The cold, arrogant James uses the dire family secret as leverage, telling his subdued brother that the tables have turned, that he is now the respected man of science, and that he will be submitting his book on the origins of mental disease for the Richter prize. And as a parting shot, he tells the dispirited Emmanuel that he won't be subsidizing any more expeditions to New Guinea or anywhere else. As Emmanuel leaves the asylum, he witnesses an early (and horrific) form of electroshock performed on an unwilling patient who screams with pain-- apparently these cruel experiments are the basis for Jame's so-called breakthrough in curing mental illness.

Back at his estate, Hildren turns his attention once more to the enigmatic skeleton. The scientist spills some water on one of the skeleton's fingers, and watches in amazement as flesh forms quickly over the bone, ending in a giant, curved fingernail. The disquieting development reminds him of a legend he heard in New Guinea, of a race of evil giants who had been conquered, but who were destined to be revived by the tears of the gods -- rainwater -- to wreak havoc and evil on the world again. Curiosity overcoming fear, he takes a blood sample from the newly formed finger, and compares the cells with a sample of his own blood. The cells from the finger even look evil under the microscope -- black, spidery looking things that overwhelm normal cells when given the chance. The man of science promptly decides that the spider cells are exactly that -- the root of evil (!!?)

Goaded by James' arrogant claim of being on the fast track to scientific fame and fortune, Hildren feverishly works on a vaccine against evil using cells from the uncanny finger. Meanwhile, left to her own devices, Penelope breaks into her mother's locked room and discovers that the woman  -- a glamorous dance hall star -- had not died but instead had been declared insane and committed to her uncle's asylum. The befuddled Hildren interprets her natural reaction of shock and anger at his duplicity as a sign that she may have inherited her mother's insanity. Desperate, he injects her with the vaccine against evil (after having tested on just one aggressive monkey). When the monkey turns up dead on the floor of his laboratory, and Waterlow comments that it was fortunate that they didn't try the serum on a human being, Hildren's face turns white. In trying to rid the world of evil, he has unleashed it on his own family.

These blood cells certainly look evil.
Her blood infected with ancient evil, shy Penelope turns into a ravishing creature with wild, roving eyes who decides to don her mother's dancehall dress and go paint the town red (with blood). After clawing a rich creep's face in a tavern, she then slashes the throat of a lusty sailor who tries to force himself on her. Escaping from the angry mob, she runs straight into the arms of a huge brute who's escaped from her uncle's asylum. They run up to the second floor of an abandoned warehouse. As the escaped inmate watches the mob from a large open window, she hits him with a plank of wood, then gleefully mashes his hands with her heels as he desperately hangs onto the window sill. He falls to his death. The police grab her and, irony of ironies, rush her off to her uncle's grim asylum.

His niece's sudden turn for the worse arouses James' curiosity. He noses around Emmanuel's estate. Finding the skeleton and his brother's notes, he puts it all together and decides that the skeleton and its unusual properties might just be the capstone to his own research on insanity. On a dark and stormy night, he has a henchman steal the skeleton from his brother's lab. As the man hauls the huge thing out of the house, one of the skeletal hands dips momentarily into a pool of water. When Hildren discovers the theft, he realizes to his horror that someone has taken the monstrous thing into a driving rain, where, according to legend, it will be revived to spread evil across the world…   The film's ending is very reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but in the very best dramatic tradition, leaves a sliver of doubt in the careful viewer's mind.

Released in 1973, The Creeping Flesh looks and plays like classic Hammer costume horror from a decade earlier. The credits certainly have fooled many people into believing it's a Hammer production: Cushing and Lee, Freddie Francis directing, and Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper in a small role as a delivery man. Creeping Flesh was actually a co-production of modest Tigon Pictures and World Film Services. Although, Hammer deserves credit, if only in an unofficial, inspirational capacity-- Tigon specialized in recreating the Hammer look and feel in a number of low-budget horror films of the late '60s and early '70s, including Witchfinder General (1968; with Vincent Price), and The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971).

Creeping Flesh was one of the last pairings of Cushing and Lee in a horror film. Unfortunately, the two spend precious little screen time together. Lee, like in many films, knits his brows together and acts alternately arrogant and peeved. In contrast, Cushing's performance is a breathtaking roller coaster of emotions, from the initial excitement and joy of his archaeological discovery, to the depths of despair as he realizes what he has done to his only daughter. But comparing the two actors and their performances is comparing apples and oranges-- Lee was above all a physical actor, at his absolute best when bounding down cobwebbed stairs as a very robust, snarling Dracula, or swatting away tomb desecrators like flies as the enormous, intimidating Mummy. Cushing was the polar opposite -- the master of nuanced emotion. Even when playing villains like Victor Frankenstein, he still managed to lend a smidgeon of humanity to his characters. Cushing's Frankenstein betrays the very human exasperation of the A-type personality just wanting to be left alone to do his work. We've all known people like that (fortunately most real workaholics are not quite as destructive in pursuit of their passions as ol' Victor).

Her blood infected with ancient evil, formerly shy
Penelope decides to sow her wild oats.
The other superlative performance is Lorna Heilbron's. She begins the film as prim, proper Penelope, whose greatest desire is to get her absent-minded father to come to breakfast, and ends up as a wild-eyed, lascivious female animal on the prowl in the grimier parts of Victorian England. One minute, you're thinking of her as just another pleasant supporting character, and the next, she's absolutely commanding your attention, and you can't take your eyes off her. It's a shame there's not more of her work on DVD-- The Creeping Flesh is one of only a handful of films on Lorna's resume, the bulk of her work consisting of British television.

In certain respects, The Creeping Flesh was a doomed project, trying to emulate a style of horror that seemed dated even in the mid-1960s. In 1973, Bob Clark's groundbreaking Black Christmas (1974) was just a year away, and John Carpenter's icing on the slasher cake, Halloween (1978), was just another few years down the road. At the time it was released,  the film was a curious anachronism. Now, with the tiresome slasher genre at an ebb again, lovingly-crafted period pieces like The Creeping Flesh seem fresh and all the more entertaining.

Columbia Tristar released a very decent widescreen DVD print of The Creeping Flesh in 2004.

October 31, 2011

Countdown to Halloween: Roy Ashton, Monster Maker

HAlloween MoVie Rating:
Monsters created by Ashton
are not for the squeamish
Makeup artist Jack Pierce is responsible for creating some of the most enduring, iconic monsters in all of popular culture-- Universal's Frankenstein monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. After decades of exposure via television, videotape, and DVD, and with the monster likenesses on literally thousands (if not tens of thousands) of products, Pierce's concepts have become the de facto standard for what Frankenstein's monster, werewolves and ambulatory mummies are supposed to look like. Even kids who've never seen a single minute of any of the Universal classics know these monsters by sight.

Some years after Jack Pierce performed his last bit of wizardry for Universal, another extremely talented makeup artist and monster-maker extraordinaire appeared on the horror movie scene -- in the UK. Working strictly freelance, Roy Ashton helped Hammer Studios re-conceptualize and revitalize the look of all of the classic monsters.  In addition, he added more than a few terrifying creations of his own. Like Pierce and his iconic creations, it's hard to imagine Hammer's horror renaissance without the ghastly visages that sprang from the mind of this modest, unassuming artist.

Master Monster Maker Roy Ashton
I suppose you could say I was weaned on the old Universal black-and-white monsters, but the Hammer technicolor reboots of the classic horrors that I discovered in my teens cemented my love of cinematic horror. In contrast to the leisurely-paced, atmospheric Universal films, Hammer's products were manic and bloody and almost jumped off the screen and bit you in the neck. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were very worthy successors to Lugosi and Karloff, bringing energetic life to gothic horror at a time when audiences couldn't seem to get enough of atom age sci-fi mutants.

I had seen the name Roy Ashton in Hammer credits and in a handful of film magazine articles, but I only recently became fully aware of the man's contributions to Hammer horror iconography. A couple of years ago I was browsing one of my favorite used bookstores when I stumbled across an intriguing trade paperback, Greasepaint and Gore: The Hammer Monsters of Roy Ashton (Bruce Sachs and Russell Wall, Tomahawk Press, Sheffield, England, 1998). It was packed with production stills and drawings and all kinds of behind-the-scenes information from Hammer's golden era. I was hooked. One man's trade-in became my treasure.

I was amazed to find out just how many of the unforgettable creatures and frightful faces from Hammer films were the work of this one very talented man. The authors have very meticulously and lovingly documented Ashton's Hammer years through interviews, photos, and many of Ashton's original drawings. It's a fascinating account of a near-genius artist-craftsman working for one of the great, innovative film studios.

So, here's a suggestion for a Halloween night Hammer movie marathon featuring Roy Ashton's best, most terrifying creations (and as an added bonus, makeup "tips" from Greasepaint and Gore):

#4: The Mummy (1959)

After the successes of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), Hammer secured the rights to Universal's entire horror catalog. The Mummy was Hammer's third pairing of Cushing and Lee (why mess with success?). All of the familiar Universal characters and themes are in Hammer's re-make: the unearthing of Princess Ananka's tomb; an Egyptian fanatic determined to make the infidels pay for the desecrations; the resurrection of Kharis, Ananka's ill-fated lover; a modern woman who is the living image of Ananka, etc. In addition to giving the Mummy a much more intimidating physical presence, Lee -- in spite of makeup that obscured most of his features -- also managed to convey the sadness and tragedy of poor Kharis. You feel sorry for him even as he relentlessly mows down the tomb defilers.

Makeup Tip: Ashton made several trips to the British Museum to research mummies and mummification for the production. There was an actual mummy on display there, and he was able to examine it thoroughly and make numerous sketches. Christopher Lee remembered dealing with the final product: "It was very difficult wearing those bandages… I couldn't get out of them once they were on me. It would take too long to get out and get back in. …"  Roy came up with a kind of tunic with a zipper in the back that was easier to work with. The zipper was then concealed with wrappings that went over the shoulder and around the back. (Sachs and Wall, Greasepaint and Gore, Tomahawk Press, 1998)

The Mummy is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

For Hammer's one foray into lycanthropy, the studio decided to dispense with Universal's story and character and draw fresh inspiration from Guy Endore's 1933 novel, The Werewolf of Paris. Rather than the relatively contemporary setting of The Wolf Man (1940), Curse is set in 18th century Spain, where a cruel and capricious nobleman invites a penniless beggar into his house during his wedding party, then gets him drunk and humiliates him before mercilessly consigning him to the dungeon for life. Years later, when a housemaid resists the advances of the decadent old nobleman, she's thrown into the same dungeon with the now haggard, bestial, and mindless beggar. She is raped, and before dying, bears a child (Oliver Reed) who grows up to be handsome and vigorous and animalistic -- especially when the moon is bright.

Makeup Tip:  I remember as a kid being deeply impressed with the werewolf in this one (okay, maybe scared is a better word). This is the creation that Ashton himself was most proud of. Among other things, he made use of walnuts and candles to create the fearsome makeup:  "I made an appliance which fitted underneath his (Reed's) eyes and went right over the top of his head and over the ears. I pushed out his nostrils with a pair of candles. I used walnuts first of all. You cut a walnut in half, punch a hole through the shell, and stick it up the nostril. It's a bit uncomfortable. But if you take a candle and draw the wick out of it, then that leaves you with a sort of hollow cylinder. I cut sections off of that and stick them up the actor's nose and the warmth of the nose adjusts the shape of the candle to the shape of the nostrils. Then you can breathe easily…" (Ibid.)

The Curse of the Werewolf is available on The Hammer Horror Series DVD set.

In a remote Cornish village, someone is solving the local labor shortage with strange Voodoo rituals. For a full review, see my post at Mr Movie Fiend.

Makeup Tip: Ashton's effective makeup for the Voodoo-created zombies in Plague provided a terrifying template for George Romero and all the stumbling creatures that followed in the wake of Night of the Living Dead (1968). Here's his advice for creating animated corpses on a low budget:  "Rotting skins can be suggested through a mixture of rubber and paper, then a careful application of cosmetics. By crumpling up tissue paper, coloring it with Fuller's earth and then covering it with liquid latex, one can create a very effective specimen. Areas on the face on which to demonstrate crumbling scabs or splitting skins include: the forehead, the bridge of the nose, or chin as natural starting points. I would suggest building up an excess of material and then shred the latex slightly by gentle tearing." (Ibid.)

The Plague of the Zombies is available on DVD from Anchor Bay.

#1: The Reptile (1966)

The Reptile was filmed back-to-back with Plague of the Zombies using many of the same sets and crew members. The setting again is a small country village. Harry and Valerie Spalding (Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel) move into the family cottage when Harry's brother mysteriously dies. They receive a chilly reception from the villagers, who are terrified by a mysterious, venomous thing that seems to strike at will and turns the skin of its victims grotesquely black. An eccentric neighbor, Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman), and his beautiful but tormented daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce), seem to hold the key to the dark, murderous secret.

Makeup Tip: The Reptile was Ashton's last credited triumph for Hammer -- the uncertain nature of his freelance status, the short timeframes, low budgets and low pay finally motivated Roy to say goodbye to the studio. Many think he saved his best work for last. The Reptile is a truly frightening, repugnant female monster, and a fitting finish for the Halloween movie marathon countdown. Typically, Ashton did his homework:  "A lot of research went into the appearance of the Reptile. Again I consulted anatomical authorities, drew snakes many times and constructed a model adapting the plate-like build-up of reptilian scales to the bones of the human head. There is a clear similarity of the human head to the structure of a snake's skull. … To suggest the scales I took a discarded Boa Constrictor's skin and made a female cast of this in plaster. Into this I poured plastic and upon curing it gave me a perfect snake skin material with all the marvelous patterning intact. Sections of this I fitted wherever was appropriate in the head, the cheeks, the neck and so on, until the results took on a serpent-like appearance." (Ibid.)

The Reptile is available on DVD from Anchor Bay.

October 27, 2011

Countdown to Halloween: Girls Just Wanna Have Frightful Fun

HAlloween MoVie rating:
Directed to Older Children &
Nostalgic Adults -
emale Violence
The business of being evil in the movies has always been an equal-opportunity occupation. But being an out-and-out monster-- that's pretty much been a male preserve (at least where the gender of the monster can be determined). Pretty much, but not completely.

Today's female monsters tend to be Ann Rice & Twilight-inspired vampires or bio-engineered sci-fi creatures (e.g., Splice, 2009), with an assortment of anonymous female zombies thrown in for good measure. Yesteryear's feminine monstrosities included vampires (naturally), malevolent ghosts (e.g., The Uninvited, 1944) and the occasional shape shifter (e.g., Simone Simon in Cat People, 1942). They are a small, but interesting group.

Here then, just in time for Halloween, are three vintage films featuring frightful females upending gender roles and generally wreaking havoc:

Count Dracula is dead, dispatched with a stake through the heart by the relentless Prof. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Van Helsing confesses the deed to two bumbling constables who promptly cuff him and haul him off to jail as a murderer. The bodies of the Count and the mad Renfield are stored in the police station pending autopsy. A mysterious woman dressed in black shows up at the station and hypnotizes the officer guarding the bodies. The woman is next seen lighting a body on an immense pyre, exalting that now that Count Dracula is dead, she's "free to take my place in the bright world of the living." Her gaunt, corpse-like assistant Sandor (Irving Pichel) is not so sure.

Meanwhile, Van Helsing is having a hard time convincing Scotland Yard chief inspector Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery) and an old friend and former student, psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), that he is sane and vampires are real. If he can't, he'll be convicted of murder and go to the gallows. Medical and law enforcement authorities are still puzzling over victims -- first a man, then a woman -- who have been drained of blood and have curious puncture wounds over their jugular veins. Van Helsing realizes that there is still a vampire loose in London, and his work is not yet done.

Countess Zaleska wonders if she is forever
doomed to be a creature of the night.
Garth is highly skeptical of his mentor's obsession with vampires. He begins to warm up to the idea, however, when he encounters the exotic and beautiful Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) at a high society party. She latches onto the idea that the doctor can save her from a very bad condition that she can't reveal in very much detail, but is causing her great emotional pain. Garth's beautiful and lively assistant Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill) sees the Countess as nothing but bad news, and Garth and Janet almost part ways over the exotic mystery woman.

Garth begins to put two and two together, seeing that the beautiful Countess shuns mirrors, and hearing from Van Helsing that vampires loathe the things. And then there are the victims with bite marks on their necks. Modern psychiatry may not be up to the task of curing what ails the beautiful Countess, but she will go to great lengths to ensure Dr. Garth's cooperation…

Key player: Trained as an interpretive dancer and operetta singer, Gloria Holden reportedly detested the role of the Countess, even though she'd had virtually no movie experience at the time she was hired. Her exotic looks didn't get her very far in Hollywood, as she labored in a number of supporting parts before her last film, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, in 1952. (Tom Weaver, et. al., Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd. Ed., McFarland, 2007)

Dracula's Daughter is part of the Count's extended family on the Dracula: The Legacy Collection DVD set.

According to an old New Orleans legend, beautiful Marie Latour turned into a werewolf and killed her wealthy husband before disappearing forever. The Latour mansion is now a museum of the occult and headquarters for Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber), a noted scholar working to uncover the Latour mystery. The elder Morris summons his son, chemist Bob Morris (Stephen Crane), from Washington to share a major break in his research. A janitor working at the museum steals away to a local gypsy camp to tell the gypsy princess (Nina Foch) that Dr. Morris has found the secret grave of Madame Latour and is planning to write a book. The princess vows that he will never reveal the secrets he's discovered.

Dr. Morris discovers a devil doll -- an omen of death -- on his desk, but dismisses its significance. Later that night, he opens a secret door next to the fireplace and disappears into a dark passage. Peter the museum tour guide (John Abbott) hears screams and a wolf's howl coming from behind the fireplace, and races down the passageway to investigate. Later, son Bob and the Doctor's beautiful assistant Elsa (Osa Massen), along with a guard, discover Peter stumbling about the main room, mumbling incoherently, his mind seemingly gone. Elsa notices what looks like the Doctor's manuscript burning in the fireplace-- she saves what she can.

Dr. Morris appears to have been killed by a wild animal. The police are baffled, as they find human fingerprints at the scene, and wolf hairs under the dead man's fingernails. Meanwhile, Bob and Elsa (who are very fond of one another) use their scientific skills to try to preserve and read what they can from the burnt manuscript. The little that they can decipher refers to the burial practices of the local gypsies.

Bob, hoping that this little piece of information will help in solving the mystery of his father's death, visits a local mortician who works with the gypsies in laying their dead to rest. The mortician tells Bob he can't reveal any records of his clients, but while he's distracted, Bob steals into the mortuary basement to see what he can find. The Princess finds out about Bob's interest, and follows him into the basement. The clicking of her high heels suddenly turns into the soft padding of a wild animal's paws…

The Princess will stop at nothing, including using the dark arts of her ancestors, to prevent the Latour secret from being revealed.

Key player: Nina Foch (born Nina Consuelo Maud Fock) secured a Columbia contract at the ripe old age of 19 and debuted in 1944's The Return of the Vampire with Bela Lugosi. Although she spent most of her movie career doing B pictures, she thoroughly loved the craft of acting. She scored glowing reviews on Broadway in the late '40s, and earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in the star-studded film Executive Suite (1954). Later, the multi-talented Foch (she was also an accomplished pianist and artist) directed plays and taught acting at USC.

Cry of the Werewolf recently debuted on TCM. It doesn't appear to be available on DVD.

Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) lives with her "Aunt" Martha (Sara Haden) and "Cousin" Carol (Jan Wiley) in a mansion in an old residential part of London (she learns later that Martha and Carol aren't relatives at all and that she is the sole heir to the house -- make a note, this could be relevant later on). A series of attacks in a nearby park that seem to be the work of a wild animal have started to infect her mind. She has terrible nightmares, and after each horrible night, she finds that her slippers and nightdress are wet and muddy. Convinced that she's under the spell of an old family curse (of lycanthropy no less!), she breaks off her engagement with earnest barrister Barry Lanfield (Don Porter) and locks herself up in the old house.

A Scotland Yard inspector with a superstitious streak (Lloyd Corrigan) is firmly convinced a werewolf is to blame for the attacks -- in short order he falls victim to the shadowy thing. Level-headed Barry thinks there's a more human agency involved, and investigates on his own. Meanwhile, kindly Martha insists that Phyllis down a nice glass of warm milk before bed each night…

Key player: June Lockhart, born into an acting family, had already appeared in A pictures with Bette Davis (All This, and Heaven Too, 1940) and Gary Cooper (Sergeant York, 1941) before appearing in the quick and dirty B programmer She-Wolf. The very next year she became a huge hit in the Broadway comedy For Love or Money, racking up numerous theatre awards including a Tony. Of course, she's most fondly remembered by baby-boomers as the maternal head of the space-family Robinson on Irwin Allen's Lost in Space TV show.

She-Wolf of London is available on the two-disc The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection.

October 24, 2011

Countdown to Halloween: "I Want My Universal Mummy!"

HAlloween MoVie rating:
The Mummy Attacks-- Not
for the Faint of Heart
I know that as a classic horror film connoisseur I'm supposed to admire Universal's The Mummy (1932) and turn my nose up at all the so-called sequels that the studio cranked out in the 1940s. Boris Karloff's Im-Ho-Tep is the definitive Mummy, and by contrast, Kharis is just a B movie afterthought (and a crude one at that). When I was a kid and the original film popped up on the late show, I would invariably fall asleep in the middle of it, and at best, only wake up for the last 10 minutes or so of the climax. With subsequent showings, I stayed awake long enough each time to piece together the plot. I don't think I actually saw the whole thing through until I was an adult and got a DVD copy for my birthday (along with the other celebrated monsters in the Universal Classic Monsters collection).

The problem for me with the original Mummy (and one that's been noted by countless critics) is that it's not much more than a remake of Dracula with Egyptian trappings. Like Browning's / Lugosi's Dracula, it starts off with with a great, memorable scene ("The Mummy walks!"), and then immediately settles into a rather moribund drawing room affair, with Im-Ho-Tep, like the vampire Count, stalking a nubile young woman as various chivalrous men, including a Van Helsing-type character, try to prevent her from falling under the monster's spell. Not to mention, Im-Ho-Tep transmutes early on from a spectacular, frightening-looking monster complete with decaying, musty bandages into a fairly ordinary-looking wrinkly old man (albeit with haunting, creepy eyes). Edward Van Sloan and David Manners slip easily from their roles in the previous year's vampire film into this one, featuring a sort of ancient Egyptian vampire (or at least a soul-stealer).

"Now where did I leave those keys to the temple of Karnak?"
Things got a little more interesting (at least for the kids in the audience) as Im-Ho-Tep morphed into Kharis and shuffled around in The Mummy's Hand, Tomb, Ghost and lastly, Curse. Even at a scant 73 minutes, the original Mummy seemed to go on and on and on. None of the Kharis incarnations lasts more than 67 minutes, and predictably, they all move along at a good, crisp pace. Better yet, Kharis is a legitimate 3000-year-old monster:  swathed in dirt-caked bandages, his face a ruined mud mask, he holds out a claw-like hand as he shuffles relentlessly forward, ready to strangle the first thing that comes between him and his precious tanna leaves. No monster-loving kid would have gone for a series of B programmers about a dried up old man with bloodshot eyes.

As an added bonus, '40s Mummy fans were treated to a succession of great character actors -- George Zucco, Turhan Bey, John Carradine, Martin Koslek, and others -- trying to aid Kharis in his pursuit of the beloved Ananka and defend the old Egyptian faith (and letting Kharis and themselves down every time). Great filmmaking? I think not. Great entertainment? You bet! (...especially for hour-long, low-budget quickies designed for the bottom of a double bill).

The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, with all five Universal Mummy movies, trailers, and assorted extras, is like tanna leaves for a mummy maven. Check it out.

#11: The Mummy's Hand (1940)

If your life is so hectic that you can only fit one mummy movie into your Halloween viewing schedule, this is the one. Part comedy, part horror, Mummy's Hand retooled boring Im-Ho-Tep into honest-to-goodness monster Kharis, and threw tanna leaves into the mythos to boot. Affable adventurers Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jensen (Wallace Ford) enlist the aid of a stage magician, The Great Solvani (the great Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), in unearthing the ancient Egyptian tomb of Princess Ananka. They run afoul of the sinister Prof. Andoheb (George Zucco), who revives the mummified corpse of Ananka's lover Kharis (cowboy star Tom Tyler) to avenge the desecration.

Pharaonic Phactoid: This would be the last time that the mummy a.) had two good eyes (he emerges in Tomb a little worse for the wear from having been set on fire in Hand); and b.) would be portrayed at Universal by anyone other than Lon Chaney, Jr.

Key Kharis Kollaborator: George Zucco's film career began in England in the early '30s-- his American film debut was in After the Thin Man (1936). His career really took off when he appeared as Prof. Moriarity opposite Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). Although he appeared in numerous dramas and costumers, at the end of his career he was remembered almost exclusively for the sinister villains he portrayed in B thrillers and horror movies. One of Zucco's co-stars in the 1930s, John Howard, summed him up this way: "George was a strange fellow but awfully nice. Completely different from the characters he played. He wasn't the slightest bit menacing at all. He was a pussycat." (Tom Weaver, et. al., Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd. Ed., McFarland, 2007)

#10: The Mummy's Tomb (1942)

Dispensing with the comic elements of the previous picture, Tomb is all terror as Andoheb (Zucco) and Kharis (Lon Chaney, Jr.) somehow survive gunshots and fire, and after many years, pursue the tomb defilers Banning (Foran) and Jensen (Ford) to their comfortable homes in America. The aging and feeble Andoheb turns the vengeful dirty work over to a new agent of the old religion, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), who screws up his assignment big time (but not before causing the requisite Kharis-based carnage). Tomb's spare 60 minutes is still padded with archive footage from the previous film!

Key Kharis Kollaborator: Born in 1922 in Vienna, Austria, Turhan Bey's parents were very well-off -- his mother's family owned large glass factories and his father was a Turkish diplomat in Austria. He arrived in Hollywood knowing very little English, but by the early 1940s had secured a contract with Universal. By all accounts, Bey's off screen romancing eclipsed that of his big screen roles. After retiring from movies, he ended up back in Vienna as a freelance photographer for soft-core magazines like Penthouse. (?!!) He especially liked The Mummy's Tomb, telling an interviewer, "I guess it's my favorite because it was a part closest to my own nationality-- it was a young Egyptian who believed in something which we couldn't comprehend with our five senses…" (Ibid.)

#9: The Mummy's Ghost (1944)

Yet another high priest, Yousef Bey (John Carradine) travels to America to pick up where the last Bey left off. An idyllic college campus is disrupted in a big way as Kharis tries to reunite with his beloved Ananka, reincarnated in the form of a college co-ed of Egyptian background, Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames, filling in at the last moment for one-name bombshell Acquanetta when she fell on the first day of shooting and suffered a concussion). Yousef's own lust for the shapely Amina / Ananka proves his undoing.

Pharaonic Phactoid: In one scene, Lon Chaney got carried away and squeezed fellow actor Frank Reicher's throat so hard that he nearly fainted. According to director Reginald Le Borg, "Reicher was very nearly unconscious! … We massaged his neck and gave him some water. But the next day, when I saw him again, I spied a look at Reicher's neck, and you could see he had spots there, from the strangling!" (Ibid.)

Key Kharis Kollaborator: Around the same time as Mummy's Ghost, veteran B actor John Carradine portrayed a dapper Dracula in two Universal monster rallies-- House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). According to House of Frankenstein co-star Peter Coe, Carradine hammed up his small role so badly, his scenes had to be reshot. Coe read Carradine the riot act, John toned it down, and they became good friends. In spite of (or perhaps because of) John's affinity for ham, he went on to appear in literally hundreds of low-budget films and TV shows through the end of the '80s. (Ibid.)

#8: The Mummy's Curse (1944)

The last chapter of the Kharis saga takes place in the haunted bayous of Louisiana. For a scintillating synopsis and key facts about the production, see my post at Mr. Movie Fiend.

See also Films From Beyond on YouTube for an amazing clip from Mummy's Curse, as well clips from other films featured in this blog.

October 22, 2011

Countdown to Halloween: An Old, Dark Funhouse

HAlloween MoVie rating:
You'll never Guess the murderer
It's a dark and stormy night. The camera swoops down on the exterior of the forbidding Whyte mansion. Like a helicopter-borne peeping tom, it focuses on an upper story window. The storm shutters fly open, and a mysterious hand quickly pulls the shade, which reveals the main title, "Nat Levine presents One Frightened Night." (Even the title is ingratiating in a clumsy sort of way-- if my memory of basic grammar serves me right, a person can be frightened, but not a thing like a dark and stormy night… frightening, yes, but not frightened.) The camera pans to a series of windows and more hands pulling shades to reveal the credits. This is one of the more clever title sequences I've seen from this era, and an auspicious beginning. The film doesn't quite live up to its imaginative titles, but with a brisk 66 minute running time, there's no harm in giving it a chance.

Crotchety millionaire Jasper Whyte has chosen this stormy night to summon a motley (but upper crust) collection of relatives and his doctor and housemaid to the parlor for some important news. He's been unable to locate his long lost granddaughter, and he needs to do something with his millions before a new state inheritance tax takes effect at midnight. Years ago he disinherited his daughter because she dared to run away with a disreputable actor. She died, but he found out that she had a daughter. Remorseful, he tells the group that he's had his attorney searching for the granddaughter, to no avail. If she had been found, she'd have gotten every penny of his money. Instead, he's decided to give each of his remaining relatives and the doctor and housemaid a cool million to prevent the state tax man from getting his greedy mitts on it.

Naturally, everyone's ecstatic until the attorney shows up at the door with, lo and behold, the long lost granddaughter, an attractive blond by the name of Doris Waverly (Evalyn Knapp). Now the old man's ecstatic, and the rest of the crew are seriously bummed. The proud grandfather takes Doris upstairs to get away from the morose group and find out more about her. As they're talking, a second Doris (Mary Carlisle) shows up at the door-- she's part of a traveling vaudeville magician act (the Great Luvalle, played by the great Wallace "Wally" Ford), and what do you know, she just happened to be in the neighborhood and was curious about the grandfather she never met.

One frightened face.
Minutes later, the first Doris is found dead in a locked room with a cup of poisoned tea in her hand, and we're off to the "old dark house" races, with lots of lightning, thunder, lights going out, hands reaching out of secret passageways, grotesque masked figures, poison blow darts, bumbling police… the works. By now (1935), audiences were well-acquainted with all of the old dark house cliches from such films as The Bat (1926), The Cat and the Canary (1927), and of course, The Old Dark House (1932). This micro-budgeted affair takes all the hoary cliches and adds a very engaging cast, including Charley Grapewin as the irascible Jasper, Hedda Hopper (who in a few years would become the feared, powerful gossip columnist) as his money-grubbing niece, Regis Toomey as an insouciant playboy nephew, and wonderful, wisecracking Wallace Ford as the insecure vaudeville magician.

The best thing about Frightened Night (and a hallmark of '30s B movies) is the mile-a-minute dialog. The verbal barbs fly fast and furious in the movie's hour plus change running time, and seemingly every character dishes it out and gets it in return. One running joke has Ford constantly correcting the other characters when they address him by name-- "that's the Great Luvalle…" Even the bumbling Sheriff (Fred Kelsey) gets his digs in when someone exclaims, "Somebody tried to murder Mr. Luvalle!" "Maybe they saw his act," he says dryly.

One word of warning: this is not one of those classic titles that has been lovingly restored and remastered. The transfer to DVD (Alpha Video and Mill Creek) is just barely watchable, and the sound is terrible. But if you're a fan, something is better than nothing at all.

Key Player #1: Wallace Ford was one of the great character actors in B movies, with a career that spanned 4 decades, from the early '30s through the mid-1960s. In the '30s and '40s, he perfected the role of the hard-bitten yet genial, wisecracking yet self-deprecating, doughy-faced everyman who popped up in countless gangster films, dramas, comedies and thrillers. Born in England in 1898, his real name was Samuel Jones. He was abandoned by his mother and ended up with a farm couple in Canada who beat him and used him as slave labor. He ran away in his teens, eventually meeting up with an engaging itinerant farm laborer named Wallace Ford. When Ford was accidentally killed trying to jump a train, Jones adopted his beloved friend's name. Later, after gaining fame in Hollywood, Ford tracked down his natural mother in England. (Tom Weaver, Poverty Row Horrors! Monogram, PRC and Republic Horror Films of the Forties, McFarland, 1993)

Key player #2: Precocious Mary Carlisle was introduced to Hollywood at the age of 4, and was screen testing at Universal at the age of 14. She completed high school before breaking into movies as a bit player in the early 1930s. By the time she retired from acting in the early '40s, she was a veteran of dozens of B movies. In a Filmfax interview, she explained the unique nature of B's in a very matter-of-fact way:
There was little time for lighting and rehearsing. Everything was different [from working in an A picture]. On an A picture, a designer designs the wardrobe. At PRC, we'd go to wardrobe and pick out something that had already been worn two or three times on other pictures. It was the difference between buying a diamond at Tiffany's or a little unknown place; it was the difference between a Rolls-Royce and a Ford. We'd shoot a picture at PRC in anywhere from ten days to two weeks. They were quickie B's. (Weaver, Poverty Row Horrors! )