June 30, 2019

They Did the Bash, They Did the Monster Bash...

For a relatively serious sci-fi/horror fan, I’ve attended a meager handful of conventions over the years. My very first was a comics convention in New York City in the early ‘70s. I was in high school, still not driving, and a good friend and I took a Greyhound bus (?!) on our own to the Big Apple. (I still can’t believe my parents let that happen. On second thought, I wasn’t the most pleasant teenager -- perhaps they were hoping I wouldn’t return...)

The comic artist “gods” Bernie Wrightson (Swamp Thing) and Jim Steranko (Nick Fury) were guests of honor. I was heavily into comics and science fiction at the time (even editing a short-lived fanzine), but I was most impressed with the movies they screened at the con. I remember being blown away by Hammer’s Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit, 1967) and Karel Zeman’s wonderful, visually striking fantasy film The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962; sadly, almost completely forgotten today). [Editor's note: as of Feb. 2020, The Fabulous Baron is available in a beautiful three film set from Criterion, Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman.]

This was a watershed moment for me, as I would gradually wander away from comics and literary science fiction to renew a deep and abiding love of movies. I was the prototypical monster kid of the 1960s, watching every creature feature I could possibly dial in on the old black and white TV, and worshipping at the Church of the Universal Monster.

Poster - House of the Gorgon (2019)
The ‘70s was a time for discovering Hammer’s glorious reenvisionings of the classic monsters, and of course, falling in love (as only a nerdy young fan can) with the likes of Caroline Munro, Veronica Carlson, and Martine Beswick.

Speaking of Hammer’s scream queens, I was intrigued by this year’s program at Creepy Classics’ Monster Bash (Mars, PA, June 21 - 23, 2019). I had seen ads for the conference in Filmfax over the years, and its focus on classic horror and sci-fi, along with fascinating guests of honor (e.g., Julie Adams of Creature from the Black Lagoon fame, who passed away last year), had me itching to attend. But geography and life’s usual busyness prevented me from making plans -- until now.

This year’s Bash brought together two famous Hammer actresses, Veronica Carlson (Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) and Martine Beswick (One Million Years B.C., Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde), along with Dracula A.D. 1972 alum Christopher Neame to the U.S. premiere of low-budget auteur Joshua Kennedy’s Hammer homage House of the Gorgon (2019).

Kennedy, who started making feature-length films in his teens, has been friends with all three and managed with luck and pluck to get them (along with Caroline Munro, who unfortunately was unable to attend) to appear in the film.

Veronica Carlson at Monster Bash 2019
The still glamorous Veronica Carlson at her Q&A.
The screening room was jam-packed for the premiere on Saturday night. The organizers wisely arranged for a second showing the same night for late comers who weren’t able to squeeze in. Shot in a little over a week, House of the Gorgon is a deeply affectionate tribute to the inimitable Hammer style, with special emphasis on Hammer’s classic The Gorgon (1964) with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley.

House features not one but two Gorgon sisters, played with zest and sly humor by Munro and Beswick. Carlson, looking years younger than her age, plays the mother of a young woman (Georgina Dugdale) engaged to be married to the eccentric master of the house (Kennedy). Christopher Neame is also very effective as the glum, frightened village priest -- a character type that appeared numerous times in Hammer films.

While the digital photography and the variable acting among the less experienced cast members somewhat betray the film’s very low budget, it’s hard not to like such a meticulously and lovingly crafted tribute.

Martine Beswick at Monster Bash 2019
Martine Beswick receives flowers and applause.
The Gothic setting, the costumes, the formal, language, the ubiquitous tavern with baleful, superstitious locals, and of course the presence of the four Hammer veterans, had me smiling from the first frame.

Other horror film references, some subtle and some not-so-subtle, range from the paintings of past nefarious movie characters lining the mansion’s staircase, to the bust of veteran Hammer character actor Michael Ripper that turns up in the local tavern.

Aside from being a great tribute, the story holds up pretty well on its own. Kennedy also has a definite talent for setting up and lighting a very effective, atmospheric scene. One in particular, where the victim, taking a bath, sees her attacker upside down from her perspective and imbued with an otherworldly light, delivers an authentic shudder.

House of the Gorgon received a thunderous ovation from the appreciative audience, and I was rooted to the spot, almost as if I had been turned to stone, at the sight of the three Hammer legends on stage with their 20-something director.

Other Monster Bash Highlights:

In her Q&A, Beverly Washburn, veteran of innumerable films and TV shows (Star Trek OS, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and cult favorite Spider Baby among them), talked about her experiences on the set of Spider Baby. She described Lon Chaney Jr. as a darling. It was well known by that time that he was an alcoholic, but his drinking never affected the production. She confirmed that his tears during the famous soliloquy were real and heart-felt.

Beverly Washburn at Monster Bash 2019
Beverly Washburn with conference organizer Ron Adams.

Author Frank Dello Stritto gave a very funny and engaging talk on the history of Universal’s last great monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Frank is the author of a new novel, Carl Denham’s Giant Monsters, which picks up on the monster hunter’s life after the events of King Kong. Riffing on that theme and with tongue firmly in cheek, he expounded on what happened to various characters from the Creature movies after their encounters with the Gillman, using stills from the actors’ subsequent films.

Still - Whit Bissell in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)
According to Dello Stritto, Dr. Thompson, the character played by
Whit Bissell in Creature from the Black Lagoon, never completely
recovered from the wounds he received from the Gillman. Here he's
seen with his twin brother (driving).

Film historian Greg Mank, author of the new biography Laird Cregar: A Hollywood Tragedy, gave a very moving talk on the hugely talented and haunted actor
who almost literally was killed by type-casting and mistreatment by his studio. A respected veteran of mostly costume dramas, in 1944 Cregar became notorious for his effective and menacing role as Jack the Ripper in The Lodger. Unfortunately, it immediately became evident that the studio would henceforth typecast him in Gothic monster roles. Cregar was a very large man, and in his desperation to slim down to a more “matinee idol” appearance, he went on a crash diet that eventually led to a heart attack and death at a very young age. Mank also told a fascinating story of he and his wife years ago trying to find Cregar’s grave at Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery, with a series of misadventures leading them to half-believe Cregar’s spirit was playing tricks on them.

At 89 years of age, Ricou Browning is the last living classic Universal monster, having portrayed the Gillman in the underwater scenes in all three Creature movies. In his Q&A he addressed the recent controversy over a new book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, which asserts that Patrick was instrumental in creating the Creature costume, but was shunted aside and not given credit by Hollywood’s male patriarchy. Ricou asserted that during production of the first Creature film, he only saw Patrick twice, and only briefly each time. She appeared and watched for a short time while he was being fitted for the suit in Hollywood. Then on location, she put some finishing touches on the suit before Browning got in the water. Jack Kevan and Chris Mueller have been traditionally cited as the designers of the Creature suit.

Ricou Browning at Monster Bash 2019
Ricou Browning at the Q&A with his daughter (left) and
author Tom Weaver (far right).

For more information on future Monster Bashes and related events
, see the conference news page.

June 10, 2019

The Rad, Mad Art of the B-movie Poster

Movie posters have a lot of hard work to do: they have to catch the wandering eye, instantly convey something intriguing about the film to the potential movie goer, and accomplish all this with static 2D images and text in fixed dimensions.

Occasionally in the pursuit of mundane commerce, movie posters accomplish something else -- they become art. Sometimes, very valuable art. In 2017, a rare version of a poster for Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula fetched a record $525,800 at auction. Interestingly, 2 out of the 3 previous record holders were horror movie posters, including Lon Chaney’s lost film London After Midnight (1927; $478,000) and Boris Karloff’s The Mummy (1932; $453,000).

Which makes sense, as the best horror movies, springing as the do from enduring fables and folklore, stand the test of time much better than conventional dramas that reflect ever-changing social mores and fads. Like the movies themselves, the posters are still in high demand decades after they were issued.

I’m not a collector of physical posters (thankfully, or I might not have been able to retire when I did), but I look up poster images all the time for the blog. The ones below are some of my very favorite finds, posters (actually, half sheets) that, for me, approach the ideal intersection of commerce and art. (Or, if you think calling these posters art is too much of a stretch, think of it as design and technique that grabs your eyeballs and won’t let go…)

Without further ado, here is the first installment, in alphabetical order, of the Films From Beyond B-movie half-sheet Hall of Fame. (Click on an image to enlarge.)

Poster - 13 Ghosts (1960)
In William Castle's 13 Ghosts (1960), it's hard to keep track of all
the specters without a scorecard. I like the "Ghost-viewer" inset,
which advertises the special "Illusion-O" viewer that theater
audiences received. Looking through the red filter enhanced
the ghostly images, while the blue filter faded them out.

Poster - Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
This striking poster is distinguished by the heightened realism of the
ferocious dog and the counter-action of the puppet people. (1958)

Poster - The Brain Eaters (1958)
I haven't seen this movie in many years, but my guess is that nothing
like this appeared in it. Is the unfortunate woman a victim,
a monster, or both? Pretty grisly stuff for the '50s. (1958)

Poster - Donovan's Brain (1953)
This is brutal in its simplicity. Look away, lest you too
be driven to madness... and muuurrrrderrr! (1953)

Poster - It Came From Outer Space (1953)
I like this for a couple of things: the mix of light and shadow makes the
characters in the main part of the poster "pop" like a 3D image; and the
insets at the bottom depicting movie highlights are themselves mini 3D
screens with the action spilling out into the audience. (1953)

Poster - The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
The archaic mosaic snake overlaid on the photo-realistic monster
woman nicely captures the film's theme of modern characters
menaced by ancient evil. (1988)

Poster - The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Prince Prospero's face made up of writhing figures straight out
of Dante's Inferno is enough to make your skin crawl! (1964)

Monster on the Campus (1958)
The hideous hairy horror looms over a pair of terrified college students as
sensational headlines splash against a blood-red sky. Great stuff! (1958)

Poster - The Mummy (1959)
I love how the constable's flashlight beam pierces right through
the shambling mummy's bandages. Plus, it features cartoon
film highlights on the right edge. (1959)

Poster - Not of This Earth (1957)
The photo-realistic depiction of abject fear juxtaposed with a
cartoonish alien creature makes for a very arresting and
memorable image. (1957)

Poster - World Without End (1956)
This is one of the craziest posters from the '50s, with its combination
of abstract imagery and traditional art depicting film highlights.
What is that colossal cubist figure doing shoving a clock the size
of the earth at a needle-nosed spaceship? Who knows? (1956)