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! )

October 20, 2011

Countdown to Halloween: 13 Classic Fright Flicks

Have you noticed that big box retailers don't even wait for the end of October to start stocking Christmas goodies? One aisle over from the fake headstones, foam rubber bats and plastic skeletons at my local Target store is an advance guard of Christmas lights, ornaments and wreaths, waiting to take over and shove the Halloween stuff into the sale bins the moment the clock strikes midnight, November 1.

As much as I appreciate the winter holidays, they need to wait their turn. This is the season of big ol' full moons, howling dogs, leaves blowing in the wind, Halloween, and of course, horror movies. If Christmas can have twelve days, then I think it's only right that Halloween gets thirteen frightful nights. And what better way to celebrate than with a nice, cozy horror film each night?

So, for the next thirteen nights, I'll be using this blog to let you know what I'm watching. We all have our favorites that we like to dust off and pop in the DVD player this time of year -- use the comment box or send me a note about what you prefer to watch as the night wind whistles through the eaves and the dogs howl outside.

HAlloween MoVie rating:
Perfectly Ghoulish
In 1921 London, brilliant sculptor and wax museum proprietor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) learns to his delight that his wax figures of Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette have so impressed an influential art critic, that the critic intends to submit Igor's work to the Royal Academy of Art. His dreams are short-lived, however, as that very night his disgruntled business backer tells him that they're completely broke -- the public seems to prefer the morbid exhibits of Jack the Ripper and other notorious murderers at a rival museum. He tells the startled artist that the only way they can recover the money they've lost is to burn the museum down and claim the insurance. Igor tries to stop the desperate businessman from lighting the place up, but after a bitter struggle, he ends up dazed, watching his beloved figures melt in the conflagration.

Flash ahead 12 years, to 1933 New York. In the midst of a raucous New Year's celebration, the body of socialite model Joan Gale (Monica Bannister) is carted off to the morgue, an apparent suicide. Wisecracking, fast talking female reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) is desperate for a story, as her editor (Frank McHugh) keeps threatening to fire her if she doesn't come up with something newsworthy. On a visit to police headquarters, she gets a tip that Gale may have been murdered by her wealthy playboy boyfriend George Winton (Gavin Gordon). Things really look suspicious when Gale's body is reported missing by the morgue attendants. Florence has her scoop. Visiting Winton in lock-up, she begins to believe he's innocent. Then there's the fact that 8 other bodies have gone missing in the city in the last 18 months.

Winton is released for lack of evidence. In the meantime, Florence accompanies her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) to the new "London Wax Museum," where her fiance Ralph works as a sculptor. The museum is being readied for its grand opening. Nosy Florence slips into the building as Charlotte and Ralph talk. She takes a long look at the main attraction, an amazingly lifelike Joan of Arc, who also happens to look amazingly like the recently deceased Joan Gale. The museum is run by Igor, now bound to a wheelchair, with horribly burned hands and legs. He employs the bedraggled, drug-addicted Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), and Hugo, a sinister deaf-mute (Matthew Betz).

As Igor confronts Florence and shows her the door, he spots roommate Charlotte, who is the very embodiment of the cherished Marie Antoinette figure he lost in the London fire. Entranced with Charlotte, Igor is oblivious to Florence, who does some more snooping. She discovers Joan Gale's morgue tag near the Joan of Arc figure. As she grabs Charlotte to leave the museum, she blithely tells Igor, "So long Pops, see you in jail!"

Later that night at the museum opening, Florence enlists Winton to help her follow Darcy, who she suspects is somehow tied in with the morgue theft. Following him into a dark building, she finds a long box -- just the size to contain a body -- down in the cellar. She hides as a hideously scarred man in black comes down the cellar steps and starts dragging the box. The man hears footsteps and quickly steals away. She summons the police, some of whom take off after Darcy as he tries to run away, with the others accompanying Florence to the cellar to examine the contents of the box. They discover that it's filled with illegal liquor-- the building is home to a bootlegging operation, run by none other than Igor's old nefarious business partner. The police capture Darcy who apparently works for both the museum and the bootlegger.

As the police search and interrogate Darcy, they find the engraved watch of judge who had gone missing some time before. Florence has yet another scoop as Darcy, and his employer Igor, are now connected with a second disappearance. Desperate for a fix, Darcy gives it up, telling the police that the new wax museum is in reality a morgue itself, with the wax-covered bodies of Joan Gale, the judge, and others serving as "lifelike" attractions.

The crazed Igor promises Charlotte immortality.
Meanwhile, Charlotte, looking for fiance Ralph at the museum, instead finds creepy Igor. The old man, entranced with his "Marie Antoinette," gets up out of his wheelchair-- obviously not quite as crippled as he let on. He stalks her, then corners her, promising her immortality as an exhibit in his museum…

Directed by Warner Bros. master craftsman Michael Curtiz (who would later win an Oscar for Casablanca), Mystery of the Wax Museum is a lively, if somewhat jarring, mix of wise-cracking reporters, spooky wax figures (some portrayed by live, but very still, actors), and shadowy, expressionistic sets. Employing top talent in every department, it's a true mystery-thriller-horror classic of the 1930s.

Key player: Lionel Atwill, playing a literal two-faced villain in Mystery, fancied himself a sort of Jekyll and Hyde type. In a 1933 interview with Motion Picture magazine, he had this to say about his dual nature: "See, one side of my face is gentle and kind, incapable of anything but love of my fellow man. The other side, the other profile, is cruel and predatory and evil, incapable of anything but the lusts and dark passions. It all depends on which side of my face is turned toward you -- or the camera. It all depends on which side faces the moon at the ebb of the tide." (Paul Meehan, Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet, McFarland, 2011)

Frightful Factoid #1: Mystery was the last major studio movie to be released in the two-color Technicolor process (red and green dyes were combined to produce a limited color spectrum). Three-color Technicolor had already been introduced in 1932, and audiences were clearly not enamored with the more primitive technology. (Wikipedia, Mystery of the Wax Museum)

Frightful Factoid #2: After two-color Technicolor became defunct, many studios threw away the negatives of the obsolete films. Mystery was thought to be a casualty of this policy and a lost film until 1970, when a good 35mm print was found in Jack Warner's personal vault on the Warner Bros. lot. (Wikipedia)

October 13, 2011

Mr Movie Fiend: A Lost Film Noir Classic Comes Out of the Shadows

The Prowler (1951)

Corrupt cops have been a staple of crime and action movies for what seems like forever. From the rampant institutional corruption featured in such films as Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), and Cop Land (1997), to the more individualized, personal corruption (and sometimes, downright manic evil) in movies like Bad Lieutenant (1992), Unlawful Entry (1992) and The Departed (2006), it seems that audiences can never get enough of men in uniform doing bad things to good people. Movies provide a safe means for us to examine age-old questions about authority and its potential for abuse, and be entertained at the same time.

Colorful corrupt cops on the silver screen owe a debt of gratitude to the "film noir" crime dramas of the '40s and '50s. After the brutal reality of World War II, it was much harder to sell movie audiences on the carefully sanitized, fairy tale worlds that were mandated by the Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays code after one of its founders, Will H. Hays).  Among other things, the code dictated that authority figures, including clergy, politicians, judges, and police officers, should be treated with respect in movies (although they could occasionally be portrayed as villains as long as it was clear that the characters were the exception to the rule). Needless to say, this stricture seemed increasingly absurd to sophisticated postwar audiences, and many filmmakers found creative ways to get around and even subvert the code until its well-deserved demise in 1968.

Thankfully for audiences of the time (and classics enthusiasts of today), the filmmakers behind 1951's The Prowler thumbed their noses at the Hays code and moralistic conventions in a variety of ways. The "dirty linen" of amoral cops, oppressive marriages, extramarital affairs, and the ugliness and corrupting influence of money grubbing all get a thorough airing in this long-neglected film noir classic.

The great, rough-hewn "everyman" Van Heflin plays Webb Garwood, an L.A. beat cop called to an exclusive neighborhood to investigate a report of a peeping tom prowler at the house of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), the wife of a radio show host. From the get go, Webb seems inordinately interested with the luxury house and its beautiful occupant. He presses his partner about how much he thinks the house is worth, and who owns it. As the partner interviews the spooked housewife, Webb skulks around the perimeter of the house, suddenly showing up at the kitchen window and startling Susan as she's talking with Webb's partner. Webb looks like a peeping Tom himself as he checks out the pretty blonde.

Later, he makes a follow-up call without his partner. He explains to Susan that he was just passing by, and that "we're generally supposed to make check-up calls, especially where women are concerned … and when they're alone." Uh-huh. Susan's apparently so lonely and bored that this creepy excuse doesn't set off any alarm bells.

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.

October 2, 2011

Love Hurts... Especially When You're Dead

The Sweet Sound of Death (aka La llamada, 1965)

Whatever happened to serious romance in the movies? Of course social norms and attitudes change, sometimes quickly, but the concept of romantic love has been around for centuries, if not millennia. So then, how is it that we've gone from Casablanca (1942) and Now, Voyager (1942) to Bridesmaids (2011) and What's Your Number (2011) in a little over half a century? Are we all so cynical and blasé in the 21st century that romantic love can't be portrayed as anything other than a joke (and usually a gross one) in the movies? (Okay, in spite of my strong dislike of the Twilight series and all the other dreck in the "but vampires have feelings too!" subgenre, I will concede that it treats romance seriously… in a very lame sort of way. So lame, in fact, that it might be seen as some sort of subtle in-joke.)

Some might pin the decline and fall of romantic love on the youth revolts of the 1960s, which, in rejecting the norms and mores of the previous generation, elevated "free love" at the expense of romance. Hollywood got the ball rolling early in the decade by tearing down its own icons. Former glamor queens and romantic leads like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford became diabolic shrews and monsters in such cinematic treats as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Strait-Jacket (1964), and others. It wasn't enough for the new generation to reject the old-- it had to tear the seemingly glamorous mask off of the older generation and reveal the hideous, decaying monster underneath.

So, it's a bit odd to see a film from the freewheeling '60s with a couple of very attractive young leads that takes romantic love so seriously-- deadly serious, you might say. But then, The Sweet Sound of Death (La llamada) is a very odd, very weird little film. The lovers in this fateful drama are Pablo (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) and Domenique (Dyanik Zurakowska), two university students studying in Madrid. He is Spanish, she is French. After about a year together, they are very much in love. The university is on holiday, and she's getting ready to take a flight back to Brittany to visit her family. He pouts, but she reassures him it will only be for a week-- her clannish and traditional family insists on seeing her at certain times, no questions asked. Teasing her a little, he makes a big deal of how mysterious and fog-shrouded Brittany is, and how the people all seem to be ghosts and witches (if only he knew!).

They take a drive out in the country, and come upon an old, abandoned cemetery. She is drawn like a magnet to the place. As if sensing the future, Domenique becomes morbidly reflective. In the midst of weathered monuments and tombstones, the beautiful young woman tells Pablo that she's attracted to death-- "I've always thought it the state of perfection for all men… I think death is good to a person, and death is kind… I like its peace, and its mystery too."  It's a credit to Pablo that he doesn't run gibbering from the cemetery and this strange young woman, but then, she's almost ethereally beautiful.

Domenique makes her beau promise that "the first one who dies must come back from the beyond and prepare the other one for the hereafter." For love's sake, a very uncomfortable Pablo makes the pledge. Gotta love those weird, unearthly Breton women! Away from the malign influence of the creepy cemetery, their mood brightens, and they talk of wedding plans on the drive back to Madrid. Domenique takes her flight to Brittany.

Later that night, driving through the streets of Madrid, Pablo is hit with a very strange foreboding. The radio in his car cuts out, and he realizes he can't hear anything at all-- no street noise, no nothing. He pulls the car over-- the world is suddenly a cocoon of silence --  until he hears the roar of a jet plane coming closer and closer. There's a flash of light and the fearful sound of a crash… and then silence. This horrific sound is anything but sweet.

Domenique tries to convince Pablo that
death is good and kind.
His worst fears are confirmed when he calls the airline and finds out that his love's plane has crashed. There were two survivors, a man and a woman, but the information about their identities is still sketchy. The airline promises to get back with him as soon as the survivors are confirmed. Sick with worry, he waits for the call (la llamada). He gets a call, but not from the airline -- it's Domenique, and she's alive! They meet in their favorite park in Madrid and all is right with the world… for a short time. The first inkling that things are not as they seem occurs at a roadside inn as they dine. A little boy accidentally throws his toy airplane into the fireplace, and Domenique retrieves it easily from the roaring fire. Perplexed, Pablo crouches by the fire and tries to imitate his fiance's actions-- the fire is too hot, and he burns his finger.

Back at Domenique's favorite hangout, the cemetery, she tries to convince Pablo that she's really dead and has fulfilled her pledge to return and prepare him for the hereafter. He's having none of it, of course, since she's as real and tangible to him as anything in the surrounding world. The lovers return to Pablo's apartment. A telegram from the airline arrives, but Domenique convinces Pablo not to open it. Pablo takes a shower, talking of a leisurely trip to the country, but when he gets out, his fiance has mysteriously disappeared and the telegram has been burned.

Pablo visits the airline office in person and is told that Domenique's name is indeed on the list of those killed in the crash. He learns that a body identified as Domenique's has been shipped to Brittany for burial. An airline official is sympathetic, but Pablo is too upset to take up his offer to investigate further. He wanders back to their favorite park, where a young boy passes on a message from Domenique, who has just left. She must make a date in Brittany that "makes her sad."

Not quite believing his senses and not sure where to turn, he finally decides to look up a trusted mentor, a professor at his medical school.  Pablo describes his eerie experiences, and the sympathetic professor agrees to accompany him to Brittany to find Domenique and solve the mystery. Before the trip, the unusually open-minded academician admits that science doesn't hold all the answers: "If eternal life does exist, it's undoubtedly as real as the life we know as mortals, but as to its nature, the theologians have to be allowed the last word-- not science."

The professor approaches Domenique's
fog-shrouded ancestral home.
Pablo doesn't grasp quite how prescient the professor's words are until he meets with Domenique and her eccentric relatives at the forbidding old family estate (see the clip below).

Sweet Sound presents a very original take on love and ghosts. The ghosts in this Spanish production are not incorporeal phantasms floating down hallways or stairs, but instead are as solid and real as any of the living -- it's just that they inhabit a different, and darker, realm. Director Javier Setó cleverly inverts the world of the living and the dead with his camera work-- the daylight world of the living is washed out and relatively static, with close-ups here and there; but when Pablo ventures into the fog-shrouded, mystical world of Domenique's family estate, the camera becomes energized, frenetically circling the gaunt, gothic characters and seemingly exploring every nook and cranny of the spooky house.

Sweet Sound is devoid of overt shocks, but is long on atmosphere and tension that slowly builds to a fittingly eerie climax. The scene in which Pablo's auditory premonition of disaster suddenly takes over and washes out the mundane sounds of the city streets is unusual and well done. And of course, the house and its inhabitants are as creepy as anything in haunted house cinema (short of Robert Wise's The Haunting).

In spite of a so-so print and a not-so-meticulously dubbed soundtrack, The Sweet Sound of Death deserves a viewing. It's available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema, and shares a Troma DVD release with Paul Naschy's The Hanging Woman (1973).

Pablo sits down to dinner with Domenique's highly eccentric relatives: