August 21, 2011

Grand Guignol Gimmickry

Chamber of Horrors (1966)

Movies have always been a volatile mix of art, craft, and dog-eat-dog commerce. As in any flourishing industry, clever people put in long hours to achieve just the right mix of innovation and marketing to distinguish their products and attract consumers. And, like most industries, it's often difficult to sort out the real innovation from the same old marketing hype. Sometimes, the synthesis of a new idea and clever marketing achieves great success -- for example, it's hard to imagine trying to capture the epic sweep of the great historical dramas of the '50s and '60s (or any current blockbuster for that matter) without anamorphic widescreen. (The Robe, released in 1953, had already begun pre-production for a standard shoot when Twentieth Century-Fox president Spyros Skouras ordered that it be done in the new CinemaScope process. The rest, as they say, is history, if not particularly compelling Biblical history.)

Sometimes, an innovation debuts to great fanfare, sputters out, then comes roaring back as the technology is refined and the kinks are worked out (yep, I'm talking about 3-D). 3-D caused a brief stir in the early to mid 1950s, with horror and sci-fi often leading the charge with titles like House of Wax (1953), Cat Women of the Moon (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Revenge of the Creature (1955; Revenge was the last 3-D feature to be released in that era). With inevitable improvements in the process and audience experience, 3-D has come back in a big way. After Avatar's record-breaking box office receipts, it wasn't long before every big effects blockbuster and animated movie was being released in 3-D. However, it remains to be seen if the technology will endure or simply die out the way its '50s ancestor did. (Indications are that audiences are increasingly resisting the higher ticket prices and opting for 2-D versions of their favorite blockbusters.)

And then there are the "innovations" that are somewhat less than earth-shattering or industry-changing, but are nonetheless amusing and quirky. In the movie biz, these lesser light-bulb moments have often emerged out of marketing and promotions. William Castle, the P.T. Barnum of B movies, gained a great deal of notoriety for his highly original and eccentric promotions. Castle got the ball rolling with 1958's Macabre, doling out $1,000 life insurance certificates covering "death by fright" to ticket holders. Other infamous Castle stunts/promotions include "Emergo," where an inflatable, glow-in-the-dark skeleton on a wire would fly out over the audience during showings of House on Haunted Hill (1959); "Percepto," whereby vibrating motors were attached under select theater seats and activated when The Tingler (1959) was set loose on the screen; and the "punishment poll" of 1961's Mr. Sardonicus, whereby audience members with glow-in-the-dark thumbs up or thumbs down cards would decide the fate of the title character at the film's climax.

Even by William Castle standards, Chamber of Horrors' promotional gimmick, the "Fear Flasher and Horror Horn," is cheesy. That's a shame, because without the gimmickry, Chamber is a very effective, well-designed, and well-acted costume horror-thriller. Like the previous year's Dark Intruder (1965; covered in this blog back in December, 2010), Chamber started out as a pilot for a suspense TV series entitled "House of Wax." However, executives deemed it "too intense" for television audiences, and it was expanded and the gimmicks added to recoup production costs as a theatrical release. I remember seeing it at a matinee with some elementary school buddies and feeling that we'd been thoroughly ripped off. After being warned by the somber narrator to cover our eyes and ears at each of the "Four Supreme Fright Points" when the Fear Flasher and Horror Horn went off, we were looking forward to seeing some good, ghastly stuff that we'd never be able to see on TV. Each "fright point" was a big cheat, however, with the gory action taking place off-camera (see the clip below). Bummer!

Madman Jason Cravatte is in a hurry to get married.
Seen with older, wiser, and more appreciative eyes, Chamber of Horrors stands up very well, even with the inane gimmick and a somewhat derivative plot. Chamber is set in late 19th century America, and features an early American serial killer in the form of suave but mad Jason Cravatte, the dreaded "Baltimore Strangler." It starts out in a very intense way with a macabre wedding tableau: Cravatte, his steel-blue eyes glittering, is standing in front of a shaking reverend, holding up what appears to be the fresh corpse of a young blonde. The terrified reverend has just started the ceremony, but protests that he can't possibly continue. Cravatte trains a revolver on the man, who decides he can continue after all. When he gets to the part where the bride-to-be must affirm her consent, we see an extreme close-up of her dead, staring eyes. Cravatte nods his head for her. With the wedding from hell wrapped up, the madman kisses his dead bride, compliments the reverend and tips him. The shaking minister makes a quick exit. Next, Cravatte carries his dead bride up to a second floor "honeymoon suite" where he carefully places her on the bed, tenderly wrapping one of her long blonde tresses around her throat. He celebrates with champagne.

The Fear Flasher/Horror Horn doesn't pop up to warn us about this scene, but perhaps it should have. In some ways it's the best scene in the movie, done to dark, disturbing perfection. (A comparably disquieting opening wedding scene comes from -- you guessed it--  a William Castle film, Homicidal, 1961. Homicidal's gimmick was a "Fright Break" before the climax in which terrified moviegoers could bail on the movie and supposedly get a refund.) Given the opening scene, with the suggestion of necrophilia on top of homicide, it's no wonder the TV execs nixed it as a pilot.

Cravatte must be mad indeed, for in letting the reverend go with a tip instead of a bullet, he's effectively led the police straight to his door. We're quickly introduced to Baltimore police sergeant Jim Albertson (Wayne Rogers of TV M*A*S*H fame), and amateur criminologists and wax museum proprietors Anthony Draco (Cesare Danova) and Harold Blount (Wilfrid Hyde-White). Draco and Blount have a cozy relationship with Sgt. Albertson, who happily turns evidence from solved murder cases over to the amateurs so they can build detailed and accurate displays for their museum (of course, the film is set in a time before 24-hour TV news, when the morbidly curious no doubt supplemented newspaper accounts of sensational murder cases with trips to the wax museum).

By being in the right place at the right time, our enterprising criminologists/museum owners get in on the ground floor of the bizarre Baltimore Strangler case. With some determined footwork, Draco and his cohorts track Cravatte to brothel where he is trying to replicate in great detail his wedding night crime with a spooked prostitute. Confronted by Sgt. Albertson, hands in the air, Cravatte blithely asks the confused woman to excuse him while he surrenders to the authorities. So far so good.

In an expressionistic courtroom scene back lit in deep red, we see frequent close-ups of Cravatte's mad eyes darting to and fro as the case is relentlessly presented against him. The judge sentences Cravatte to death, then praises Draco for his invaluable help in apprehending the murderer. Cut to a train transporting Cravatte and his law enforcement escort to prison. The official handcuffs the condemned man to one of the train's coupling wheels while he attends to some business.  Ever resourceful, Cravatte manages to grab an axe hanging nearby. He frantically tries to chop at the handcuff, to no avail. Finally, in desperation, he unscrews the wheel, and still clutching the axe, jumps from the train just as it's crossing a river. This is the first of the "Supreme Fright Points" -- we get the Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn moments before the drowning Cravatte struggles to sever his hand from the heavy wheel that's dragging him to the bottom of the river. A cloud of blood obscures the details of the gruesome act.

Having dragged the river and found the wheel with a decomposed hand, the authorities are eager to close the books on the Cravatte case, assuming his decomposed body washed out to sea. Cut to Cravatte lighting a cigar in a dark New Orleans alleyway. He's visiting an exotic part of town to be fitted with a special set of "tools" to take the place of his hand. It appears he's going to be doing some chopping and dicing, but he's definitely not auditioning for The Next Food Network Star!  At the same time he runs into a beautiful, working class "artist's model," Marie Champlain (Laura Devon) who evidently reminds him of his dead bride. Waving his hook-for-a-hand in her face, he tells her that she is going to help him with some plans, and that she'll be paid very well: "Now, you'll never be a lady, but only you and I will know the difference… My dear Marie, we have much to do… it takes time for a crawling caterpillar to become a true butterfly…"

The "master-criminal-wreaking-vengeance-on-the-people-who-captured-and-sentenced-him" plot is nothing new, but Cravatte executes his  plans with a delirious panache that is fun and a little chilling to watch. He uses his new beautiful butterfly to lure the imperious judge who sentenced him to death into a trap. "You're dead!" the judge sputters when confronted by the madman. "Yes I am… won't you join me?" Cravatte responds as he prepares to deliver his own demented form of justice (see the clip below).

The proposed TV pilot "House of Wax" became
"Chamber of Horrors" for theatrical release.
Another nice touch is that Draco and Blount feature Cravatte's bloody handiwork (e.g., the judge's dismembered body wrapped in butcher's paper) in their Wax Museum of horrors without at first realizing who is responsible. Of course, Cravatte's ultimate goal is to revenge himself upon Draco, the man primarily responsible for his capture. Good melodrama dictates that the two adversaries have their final showdown in the wax museum itself. Cravatte's fate in the museum climax is especially ironic.

Horror writer Ray Russell teamed up with TV writer Stephen Kandel on the story. Russell is most famous for his neo-gothic horror story Sardonicus, published in Playboy in 1961, and adapted for the screen by Russell himself for William Castle's Mr. Sardonicus (there's that Castle connection again!). Russell also contributed to the screenplays for Roger Corman's X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and The Premature Burial (1962). The prolific Kandel, already a TV veteran at this point, would go on to write and produce for such various and sundry shows as Batman, Star Trek, The Wild Wild West, Mission Impossible, Mannix, and MacGyver.

Patrick O'Neal, so smoothly evil in Chamber, alternated between movies and TV through nearly five decades of acting work. He was adaptable and competent, but never caught fire as a leading man. IMDb's mini-biography cites Chamber as "probably" his best known film (it's certainly one of his better performances).

Cesare Danova (Anthony Draco) is perhaps more interesting for his accomplishments outside of acting. There was apparently little he couldn't do: he was a fencing champion and world class rugby player in his teens, studied to be a doctor, spoke five languages, painted, collected antiques and rare books, won a top prize in archery, and piloted his own planes (whew!). In Chamber, he is the perfect "exotic" European foil for the cold, blue-eyed O'Neal.

The ravishing Laura Devon (Marie Champlain) appeared in a handful of films and did a fair amount of television in the 1960s before retiring from acting after her second marriage.

Don't let the cheesy Fear Flasher and Horror Horn deter you-- Chamber of Horrors is a solid horror-thriller with some stylish, inventive touches, great camerawork, and acting to match. It's available on a Warner Home Video double feature DVD along with another thriller from 1966, The Brides of Fu Manchu.

Cover your eyes and ears when Jason Cravette (Patrick O'Neal) goes to work on the unfortunate residents of Baltimore:

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