November 24, 2020

10 Year Blog Anniversary: Special Thanksgiving Edition

So here I am, 10 years after clicking the “Publish” button for the first time on this site, and I’m still writing about my creaky old movies. Admittedly, I went on some extended hiatuses here and there to clear my head and keep the blog from becoming a rote thing I did out of habit instead of affection. But I’m happy that I kept going with it and I’m proud of some of the writing I’ve done on the site (and on occasion, other people’s blogs). As long as I continue to have fun, I'll keep at it.

Titles from The March of Time newsreel, circa 1940s (?)
Some days it feels like I started blogging in the era of newsreels.

This being the Thanksgiving season, I thought I would devote this post to all the B-movie-related things for which I’m thankful. First, I’m thankful that I’ve had the time, opportunity, and technology to share my sketchy tastes in movies with a wider audience than just my ever-suffering family and friends. Over the years, I’ve also extended my musings to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and most recently, Instagram. It’s all in good fun, and so far (knock on wood) I’ve not allowed the social media blob to absorb all of my time and energy.

And, not to get too mushy or anything, but if you’re reading this and you’re not a bot, I’m very grateful for your attention. There’s a limitless universe of options out there, and that you took a moment or two to stop by means a lot. Uh-oh, I’m starting to tear up. Better get on with it...

The Top 10 B-movie-related Things I’m Thankful For

Darby O’Gill and the Little People

My earliest movie memory is getting into my pajamas (so I’d be ready for bed when we got home) and jumping into the car to go see Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) at the drive-in.

Little did my parents suspect that a Disney kids’ movie would feature the scariest thing I’d seen yet in my young life -- the wailing, spectral banshee that shows up towards the end of the film. When the banshee appeared, I ducked down under the dashboard, shut my eyes and clapped my hands over my ears. Little did I or my parents know at the time, but instead of putting me off ghosts and monsters forever, that early shot of adrenaline hooked me on scary stuff for life.

For another account of a memorable drive-in experience, see my post on Castle of Blood.

Still of the banshee from Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959)
When the banshee wails, your bladder fails.

Gravesend Manor

A few years later, I was able to feed my scary movie addiction via Gravesend Manor, central Iowa’s hosted horror movie show (circa the mid ‘60s) that boasted a great ensemble cast of Malcolm the butler, The Duke, Claude and Esmeralda. The show was broadcast Saturday nights after the local news, and was my introduction to the classic Universal monsters, among other frightful fare.

A classmate’s father worked at the local TV station, and he got me a signed photo of Malcolm, The Duke and Esmarelda, a treasure that I still have to this day.

For more on Gravesend Manor and a clip from the show, see my review of Secret of the Blue Room.

Publicity still of horror hosts The Duke, Malcolm and Esmeralda, Gravesend Manor, circa mid-'60s
Saturday nights at Gravesend Manor. Oh the horror... the horror!

Hoolihan and Big Chuck

Eventually we moved and I had to say goodbye to my beloved Gravesend Manor. Fortunately, a new late night show with an off-the-wall cast filled the hole in my monster-loving heart.

From 1966 to 1979, The Hoolihan and Big Chuck Show featured Bob “Hoolihan” Wells (a former TV weatherman) and “Big” Chuck Schodowski introducing cheesy movies and performing even cheesier skits on Friday nights for WJKW-TV in Cleveland, Ohio.

They made constant fun of Parma, Ohio (much like Svengoolie’s affectionate jabs at Berwyn), and did parodies of such shows as Ben Casey (aka Ben Crazy).

It was at this point that my “late to bed, late to rise” lifestyle was cemented. Sure, my grades suffered, but the knowledge of horror and sci-fi movie trivia that I gained was well worth it.

For more reminiscences of late night horror hosts and their shows, see my post on "Shocking Scenes from ‘50s Sci-fi".

The Cleveland Press TV Guide featuring Hoolihan and Big Chuck on the cover (circa 1974)
Be prepared to cover your ears!

Universal Monster Rallies

Staying up way past my bedtime to see a scary movie was exciting enough, but it was an extra-special treat when the Gravesend Manor crew or Hoolihan and Big Chuck introduced one of the Universal monster “rally” pictures from the mid to late ‘40s.

Kids are generally not into the “less is more” philosophy, and I was no exception. I loved Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and I was in kid heaven when House of Frankenstein threw Dracula into the mix. And lo, these many years later, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is still a perennial Halloween favorite at my house.

For The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon back in 2013, I contributed a post on “What Might Have Been: The Universal Monster Rally You Never Saw.”

Poster - Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948

Karloff and Lugosi

Related to the monster rallies and the “more is more” philosophy, the pairing of two (or more) horror legends in the same movie was always something to keep an eye out for when browsing the TV guide. The first time I saw Boris and Bela together was probably in The Black Cat (or it could have been The Raven).

As a kid, it was enough just to see the two greats together in one film. After repeated viewings, The Black Cat (1934) stands out as one of the greatest dark, subtly depraved psychological horror films of all time. Fortunately, I completely missed the subtexts in the first few viewings, so I wasn’t too scarred from it.

Back in 2016 I wrote about The Black Cat for the “5 Movies on an Island” blogathon. See also descriptions of Karloff and Lugosi as mad scientists in “The Best Laid Plans of Not-so-nice Madmen”.

Publicity still, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in The Black Cat, 1934
"Are you still fuming over not getting the Frankenstein role?"

Cushing and Lee

While we’re on the subject of legendary pairings, perhaps the greatest in all of horror movie history is Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, which began with Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957.

With his imposing physical stature, Lee would portray three of the classic monsters for Hammer, the Frankenstein monster, Dracula and the Mummy, while Cushing had a lot of work to do alternating between chasing down vampires as Van Helsing and scrambling for body parts as Baron Frankenstein.

I discovered the Hammer films a bit later in junior high, and their combination of technicolor blood and heaving bosoms was just the right fit for the new adolescent me.

For a “revisionist” take on a Cushing and Lee collaboration that doesn’t get a lot of love from fans, see my review of Dracula 1972 A.D.

Publicity still, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, 1973
"Hey Christopher, let me treat you to a stake after we call it a wrap."

Hammer scream queens

During my adolescence, I kept falling in love/lust with the leading lady of each new Hammer film I saw. First it was Hazel Court from The Curse of Frankenstein, then Yvonne Furneaux from The Mummy, and Veronica Carlson from Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Barbara Shelley from The Gorgon and Martine Beswick from Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and… you get the picture.

My biggest cartoon-style eye-popping double-take came when I first saw Caroline Munro in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (yes I know, not a Hammer film). Not surprisingly, around the same time period she was causing eyeballs to pop via such Hammer productions as Dracula A.D. 1972 and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.

In the summer of 2019 I attended Creepy Classics’ Monster Bash conference in Mars, PA, which featured the premiere of House of Gorgon, independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy’s low-budget love letter to the classic Hammer horror films. The film starred Caroline Munro, Veronica Carlson, Martine Beswick and Christopher Neame (Johnny Alucard in Dracula 1972 A.D.). Veronica and Martine, both exceedingly glamorous and gracious, were on hand to meet fans and talk about the film and their careers (as was Christopher, who related some amusing stories about filming Dracula; Caroline unfortunately was not able to attend). Read all about it here.

Veronica Carlson and Martine Beswick at their Monster Bash Q&As.

Roger Corman

Besides the Universal and Hammer horrors, a mainstay of all those late night shows were the audaciously cheap films of the King of the B’s, Roger Corman. Corman was a genius at filming as quickly and cheaply as possible: getting freebies from local businesses, reusing locations and sets, and calling on a stable of actors who were ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Over the years, Corman’s early sci-fi quickies have become beloved nostalgic icons: A Bucket of BloodThe Little Shop of Horrors, Not of This Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters -- every fan has his/her favorite. The combination of bent humor and shocking scenes that snuck up on you was like nothing else coming out of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

But Roger’s greatest contribution is the long list of Hollywood luminaries who got their starts working on his nothing-budget pictures: Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Martin Scorcese, Jack Nicholson, and James Cameron, to name just a few.

For the blog’s third anniversary, I reviewed a “Roger Corman Sci-fi Triple Feature” DVD set.

Cover art, Shout Factory's Roger Corman Sci-Fi Triple Feature DVD set

Vincent Price

If the only horror movies Vincent Price had ever made were just the Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman, he would still rank among the all-time horror greats.

But fortunately, he lent his sinister sophistication to a whole slew of horror vehicles. Price was an avid art collector, connoisseur and gourmet cook when he wasn't in front of the cameras. His horror roles were a sort of funhouse mirror reflection of his real-life interests. He was a sculptor in House of Wax, a nobleman in The Masque of the Red Death, a doctor in The Abominable Dr. Phibes and a Shakespearean actor in Theater of Blood. He may have been mad as a hatter in most of those roles, but he was always smooth and refined to a fault.

Back in January, I wrote about Price’s singular life and career and one of his lesser known, underrated films, Diary of a Madman.

Vincent Price in Diary of a Madman, 1963
Vincent Price life lesson #1: Beware of mad sculptors bearing gifts.

Val Lewton

Like Roger Corman, producer Val Lewton had a gift for making successful low-budget movies while mentoring talented novices. The list of graduates of Lewton’s “on the job” film school rivals Corman’s, with such distinguished directors as Mark Robson, Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise having learned their craft directing such budget classics as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Body Snatcher, and The Seventh Victim.

But where Corman’s films were in-your-face cheesy and exploitive (and lucrative), Lewton’s B’s were understated, atmospheric and cerebral (and more popular with critics). There is a time and a place for both approaches, but today’s low-budget horror filmmakers could especially benefit from taking a page or two from Lewton’s less-is-more, what-you-don’t-see-can-be-scarier-than-what-you-do-see book.

See my post on Lewton protege Jacques Tourneur’s greatest horror film, Curse of the Demon.

Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Henry Daniell in The Body Snatcher, 1945
The Body Snatcher (1945) was Lewton's 9th credit as a producer.

To wrap things up, I hereby bestow upon myself this beautiful certificate, suitable for framing, recognizing 10 selfless years of service to the blogging community. Congratulations!

Certificate of appreciation, 10 years of blogging

November 12, 2020

The Hidden Horrors of War

Poster, Seven Thunders (1957)

Now Playing:
Seven Thunders (aka The Beasts of Marseilles, 1957)

Pros: Deftly mixes suspense, romance, personal tragedy and comic relief; Dr. Martout is particularly fascinating as a cool, calculating monster.
Cons: Some may lament the emphasis on romance at the expense of action.

In my post on the ‘70s cult horror classic Tourist Trap, I examined the relatively rare species of serial killer that, instead of stalking his/her prey, sits tight in his lair, waiting for the unwary victim to come to him.

The UK World War II drama Seven Thunders features an even rarer version of this spider-waiting-for-his-fly-type killer -- one who plies his quiet, deadly trade surrounded by the chaos, destruction and death of war. I’ll get to that particular spider soon enough, but first an outline of the film’s more conventional war drama plot.

Two escaped British POWs, Dave and Jim (Stephen Boyd and Tony Wright), have been led by a member of the French resistance to a hideout in a crumbling tenement in the heart of Marseille’s Old Port slum district.

It’s the best they can do for the moment, as the occupying Germans are reluctant to send search parties into an area that, in the words of one German officer, is a “rabbit warren” of secret tunnels and connecting rooms teeming with cutthroats, thieves and deserters.

When Dave’s contact tells him it may be a month or more before safe passage can be secured for them, he’s not happy, but has no choice but to sit and wait.

While Jim seems reconciled with the situation, sitting around does not come naturally for Dave, and he paces the dilapidated flat like a caged tiger. He soon risks exposure when he spies a drunken German soldier about to assault a young woman, Lise (Anna Gaylor). He tackles the soldier and whisks the girl off into the night before the would-be assailant can rouse his comrades.

There will be some hell to pay later, but in the meantime, the brawny Brit and the petite street urchin naturally fall for each other. At first, after a night of passion, Dave thinks he’s been taken when he wakes and finds his pocket money and Lise are gone. He’s relieved when she breezes into the flat with a basket filled with goodies, including a single rare expensive hen’s egg, which she merrily plops into Dave’s hand.

Anna Gaylor and Stephen Boyd in Seven Thunders, 1957
Dave and Lise share a rare quiet moment

Even as the two soldiers’ lives are put on hold waiting for the resistance to show up and smuggle them out of the country, life, love and tragedy swirls all around them.

Lise has decided that she loves Dave and that he loves her, despite his protestations that he has a fiance back home. She is all instinct and heart, as guileless and childlike as they come. Dave calls her a “little animal,” as much out of affection as exasperation.

Jim finds respite in the company of upstairs neighbor Mme. Abou (Kathleen Harrison), a bawdy, earthy fellow Brit who is married to a French dockworker no one ever sees. In spite of circumstances, she sings at the top of her voice while she cleans and never misses an opportunity for a spot of tea with friends.

Outside of the hideout, life is grimmer. Emile Blanchard (Eugene Deckers) can barely put food on the table for his family, and supplements his income by steering desperate people to Dr. Martout (James Robertson Justice), who is rumored to be in charge of a network that can help unfortunate souls escape to neutral countries.

The film even conjures up some sympathy for one of the German occupiers, private Triebel (James Kenney), a timid young man who is constantly being needled by his older, rougher compatriots. They take Triebel to a brothel on his birthday, where the young virgin cowers like a deer in the headlights. Later, when Triebel’s unit is mobilized to “clean out” the Old Port of all its undesirables, he will try to prove his manhood with tragic consequences.

James Kenney as Private Triebel, Seven Thunders, 1957
Pvt. Triebel faces his greatest wartime challenge: two very friendly ladies.

The various characters’ stories wind through the film and intersect much like the labyrinth of secret tunnels underneath the Old Port. Many lives crash into each toward the climax, when the Germans decide that enough is enough and send in the storm troops.

The “Seven Thunders” of the title refers to the massive detonations the Germans resort to when they realize the futility and danger of searching house to house. This is based on a real incident in early 1943 when the Germans, aided by Vichy French police, evacuated the residents and then proceeded to blow up large portions of the old city in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of an ungovernable populace.

Amidst the chaos of the brutal occupation, a quieter, more personal form of horror is at work in the person of Dr. Matout. Rather than being a savior for poor souls desperate to escape from the Nazis, Matout is the human embodiment of the corpulent spider beckoning hapless flies into his parlor.

Matout is based on a real-life monster, Marcel Petiot. Petiot, a French sociopath who was in trouble throughout his life for crimes large and small, somehow managed to earn a medical degree, and even successfully ran for public office. When the war and the German occupation came along, he concocted his greatest and deadliest scam.

Accomplices steered people wanted by the Nazis or the Vichy government to Petiot, who, for a price, would supposedly help them escape to a safe haven in South America. Instead, Petiot injected them with cyanide (with a cover story that it was a required inoculation), then took their valuables and dumped the bodies. After the war, Petiot was convicted of 26 counts of murder and executed, although indications are that he murdered many more than that.

As portrayed by James Robertson Justice, the Petiot-inspired Dr. Martout is an elegant, if somewhat rotund, member of the upper class. He is a smooth talker who exudes calm, competent authority.

In the course of luring dozens of unwary people to their deaths, Matout has worked out a failsafe scheme. In his initial consultation, he advises that any currency the client takes with him can be traced, and to convert it into gold bars and jewelry (all the better for Martout to sell on the black market while the client dissolves in a bath of quicklime).

As Martout shows one desperate client out the door after the consultation, he reassures him that all his troubles “will soon be over.” Suave and urbane to the end, Martout dispatches his victims with a glass of poisoned brandy instead of an injection, while cruelly telling them what’s really going to happen as the poison takes effect.

James Robertson Justice and George Coulouris in Seven Thunders, 1957
Dr. Martout treats his client to a very special brandy from his private reserve.
The brandy may continue to age, but the client won't.

As with the other colorful characters inhabiting the Old Port, the paths of the POWs and Martout are destined to cross. The Germans are systematically clearing out the old city. The French resistance hasn’t shown up yet. The Brits desperately need a plan B. Martout is known to run an escape network. Everything is set for a nail-biting climax.

Seven Thunders is the “Rear Window” of war dramas. Holed up for who knows how long in a run-down apartment, Dave and Jim are ready to explode with impatience. They both find supportive female companionship, but there’s little else they can do except to sit and watch as the frenetic life of the city plays out all around them -- at least until the Nazis decide that the solution to their slum problem is to blow it up.

Seven Thunders came along shortly after Stephen Boyd’s break-out role as an Irish spy in the war picture The Man Who Never Was (1955). As a result of that performance, Boyd was signed by 20th Century Fox with high hopes of major stardom. He appeared in a string of big budget A pictures throughout the late 50s and 60s: Ben-Hur, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Oscar, and Fantastic Voyage, among others.

By 1970 the big pictures had dried up and Boyd was doing a lot of B’s in Europe. Tragically, Boyd died of a heart attack in 1977, cutting short a diverse and very underrated career.

The “little animal” Anna Gaylor had plenty of energy and vivaciousness to spare, racking up nearly 140 movie and TV credits in the following decades, appearing as recently as 2018.

James Robertson Justice was already a film veteran prior to his stint as the sinister Martout, and with his regal appearance and booming voice, would continue to be in high demand until his retirement in 1972. According to his IMDb bio, Justice was just the sort of renaissance man he appeared to be on film, acquiring a Ph.d., working as a journalist, and becoming an expert race car driver and falconer.

With its exotic setting, poignant drama and solid performances, it’s a shame that Seven Thunders hasn’t gotten more attention over the years -- it seems to have been buried in the huge pile of war pictures that UK and US studios churned out like sausages during the period. Granted, it lacks impressive battle scenes, but it juggles suspense, romance, personal tragedy and even a bit of comic relief exceedingly well, and is well worth seeking out.

Tony Wright, Stephen Boyd and Anna Gaylor in Seven Thunders, 1957
Strolling through the Old Port of Marseille can be hazardous to your health,
especially when buildings are blowing up all around you.

Where to find it:
For the moment, there's a decent print streaming on YouTube.