December 23, 2021

Holiday Greetings from Films From Beyond: 2nd Annual Sci-fi Edition

Films From Beyond Holiday Greetings Banner, 2021

Enjoy the holiday season, and we'll see you in 2022!

When Worlds Collide, 1951
When Santa upgraded his sleigh, the reindeer retired to Palm Springs.

This Island Earth, 1955
Holiday celebrations on Metaluna were disrupted when a fight broke out
over the merits of artificial versus real Christmas trees.

Forbidden Planet, 1956
Christmas on Altair IV was canceled when Santa and his reindeer were
vaporized trying to enter the defense perimeter.

"Hocus-Pocus and Frisby," episode of The Twilight Zone, 1962
"All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth!"

"The Zanti Misfits," episode of The Outer Limits, 1963
"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
not a creature was stirring... wait, what is that!?"

December 16, 2021

Less is Moore: The Man Who Wouldn't Die

Now Playing: 
The Man Who Wouldn't Die (TV movie; 1995)

Pros: Roger Moore and Nancy Allen are good as unlikely partners trying to stop a madman; Provides enough satisfying twists and turns
Cons: Flirts with campiness; Malcolm McDowell hams it up a little too much as the villain

This post is part of the “You Knew My Name: The Bond Not Bond Blogathon” hosted by bloggers extraordinaire Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews and Gabriela at Pale Writer. Participants were asked to pick one of the six actors who have played James Bond and write about a non-Bond film he starred in.

When I was a kid, James Bond was a big deal. Back in the original Sean Connery days, Bond was one of those rare pop culture phenomena that both kids and adults could get excited about. I remember being sorely disappointed that I couldn’t go with Mom and Dad to see Goldfinger and had to stay at home with a babysitter. (Editor’s note: this was in the ‘60s, when parents were quaintly concerned about impressionable young minds being exposed to adult subjects, and leaving your kids with a babysitter was not tantamount to child abuse.)

However, just a year later the dam of parental concern was pretty much broken, and I was allowed to see Thunderball at a matinee. In just the first couple of minutes, I was wide-eyed watching Bond sock a woman in the jaw (actually a man in disguise) and escape via a jet pack. My lifelong fascination with “Bond, James Bond” was sealed.

While my parents smoked and drank martinis and talked about the latest Bond movies at cocktail parties (editor’s note: everybody over the age of 21 smoked and drank back then), my friends and I collected James Bond trading cards and action figures. I even had a Thunderball action figure set and a Corgi diecast Aston Martin with a working ejector seat just like in Goldfinger.

Corgi 007 Aston Martin with working ejector seat
The coolest toy ever!

Being a starry-eyed Connery-Bond fan at the age of 10, it was a bit disconcerting to see Connery appearing in other movies, and not as James Bond. To my semi-formed mind, there was something not right about this. One of my friends saw Connery in The Hill, released the same year as Thunderball, which was a very serious adult drama about the mistreatment of British soldiers in a British-run military prison during WWII.

I didn’t get a chance to see it then (my parents had some limits after all), but I was amused watching my buddy recreating scenes from the film on the school playground, pretending to be Connery as an abused prisoner forced to do quick high step marching until he collapsed. Still, this just wasn’t right -- James Bond didn’t take abuse, he dished it out (but only to the highly deserving of course).

(By the way, I did eventually see The Hill, and I recommend it unreservedly. It’s a brutally realistic depiction of a very esoteric war subject. There are no false notes in the film, and the acting all around is superb.)

The Connery side ventures notwithstanding, the high point of the Connery-Bond years for me was when You Only Live Twice came to town in 1967. Humungous lines stretched around the block outside the theater. I didn’t experience anything else like it until years later, when the original Stars Wars debuted.

By the time Roger Moore stepped into 007’s shoes with Live and Let Die in 1973, I was a tad more mature and open minded about this new Bond who looked nothing like Sean Connery and had his own slyly humorous take on the character.

I was primed for Roger Moore as Bond because back in the ‘60s I had enjoyed a fair number of episodes of The Saint TV series, starring Moore as Simon Templar. The series, which ran from 1962 - 1969, was good practice for Moore in taking on the iconic Bond role. Templar is a sort of prototype James Bond, an international playboy and man of action who has a license to lie, cheat and steal for the greater good, so to speak.

But Roger had more to do in preparing to become 007 than just carrying over Simon Templar’s trademark arched eyebrow. In his memoir, Moore relates that the excitement of being tapped to succeed Connery wore off pretty quickly:

“I’d be the first to admit that I’d been living the good life in the previous year or so, while making The Persuaders [TV series with Tony Curtis] and being a movie mogul with Brut Films. That was brought home to me rather curtly when Harry [Saltzman, producer] called me one day.
‘Cubby [producer Albert R. Broccoli] thinks you need to lose a little weight.’
Okay, I thought. So I started a strict diet.
The phone rang again. ‘Cubby thinks you’re a little out of shape.’
So I started a fitness regime.
Again the phone rang, this time it was Cubby. ‘Harry thinks your hair’s too long.’
‘Why didn’t you just cast a thin, fit, bald fellow in the first place and avoid putting me through this hell?’ I replied.” [Roger Moore and Gareth Owen, My Word is My Bond, Collins, 2008, p. 173]

While some die-hard Connery fans were slow to warm up to the the especially dry humor Moore brought to the franchise, Moore continued 007’s winning ways on screen and at the box office, finally bowing out at the age of 58 (the oldest Bond to this day) with A View to a Kill in 1985.

Roger Moore and Jane Seymour in Live and Let Die, 1973
"Okay, okay, I'll go on your stupid diet -- now back off!"

During Moore’s Bond run there were high points (Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me) and low points (Moonraker, A View to a Kill), but after Roger turned in his license to kill, I was never able to muster up the same level of anticipation for a new Bond film.

But at least I was mature enough by then to appreciate James Bond actors in other roles. In the midst of his Bond career, Moore doubled down on the action-adventure genre by portraying military men and mercenaries in such pictures as The Wild Geese (1978), Escape to Athena (1979), North Sea Hijack (1980) and The Sea Wolves (1980). It’s as if James Bond, as he entered his 50s, decided to loan himself out to mercenary operations to keep sharp in between spy assignments.

After A View to a Kill, Moore went into semi-retirement, not appearing in any feature films or TV shows until 1990. By that point he was in his 60s, and through with being an action hero. He still did a handful of action movies, but only in a supporting capacity.

With The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, an ABC TV movie of the week that originally aired in May, 1995, Moore traded in action thrills for mystery thrills, and his character is far less cocky than the spies, playboys and mercenaries of his acting heyday.

Moore plays Thomas Grace, author of a bestselling series of mystery novels featuring Detective Inspector Fulbright. His last novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, pits Fulbright against master criminal Ian Morrisey, a character based on a real criminal, Bernard Drake (Malcolm McDowell). Drake was a genius sociopath who had killed a guard in trying to steal a legendary sword belonging to the royal family, and had been caught and sentenced to a maximum security prison.

In some exposition, we learn that Drake was supposedly killed in a fire at the prison, but in the midst of a sensational kidnapping and ransoming (and eventual murder) of an English Lord, Drake called Grace, taking responsibility for the crime and accusing the author of stealing from his life to create the character of Morissey.

Grace couldn’t get anyone to believe that Drake was still alive and up to his old tricks. Frustrated by police ineptitude, and alarmed by the supposed dead man who continued to hound him, Grace started a new life in America as a gossip columnist for a major city newspaper.

But Grace’s peace of mind doesn’t last long. In the film’s opening, Grace tags along with a crime reporter colleague (Eric McCormack of Will & Grace fame) to the scene of a murder. The police want to question Grace because someone put a copy of his last Inspector Fulbright novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, under the corpse’s body.

Within due course he’s approached by a fan, Jessie Gallardo (Nancy Allen), a student and waitress who also happens to be psychic. Jesse claims that when she read the novel, she was able to see into Grace’s future -- specifically a man who is in the process of systematically reenacting crimes in the book.

Roger Moore and Nancy Allen in The Man Who Wouldn't Die, 1995
Grace is shaken at first, but is soon stirred into action.

Grace is grumpily skeptical at first, but Jessie gets so many details right, including a spot-on description of Drake, that Grace is forced to concede that she is the real deal and that they need to join forces to foil the sinister plot. There’s only one problem: in another one of her visions, Jessie sees Drake shooting and killing Grace. In the meantime, the police are becoming increasingly suspicious of the columnist even as he’s protesting that it’s all the work of a man who is officially dead.

Even though there are explosions, chases and a megalomaniacal archvillain, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is far more Sherlock Holmes than James Bond (although through much of the first half Grace is rattled and unsure of his next move, unlike either iconic hero).

For a TV movie made in the ‘90s, The Man plays like a mystery-thriller from the ‘30s, with wisecracking newspaper reporters and plucky young heroines sleuthing around in the shadows, always getting to the bottom of mystery before the clueless police.

The vintage ‘30s feel is especially strong in the first half, with scenes set in the offices of Grace’s unnamed newspaper, and the Eric McCormack character taking on the duties of the cynical, wisecracking reporter. (Interestingly, when Jessie enters the picture, McCormack is shunted off to the background -- two’s company, three’s a crowd.)

The old-timey atmosphere is further reinforced by intermittent black and white dream sequences of Moore and McDowell playing Inspector Fulbright and Ian Morrisey from Grace’s novel, reflecting the actions that are playing out for real as part of Drake’s revenge. These scenes are done in high camp style, but fortunately don’t get too much in the way of the real-world suspense.

Roger Moore and Malcolm McDowell in The Man Who Wouldn't Die, 1995
Roger and Malcolm as Grace and Drake playing Fulbright and Morrisey. Got that?

The inclusion of the paranormal in the form of Jessie’s psychic visions is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it seems like a cheat: a device that in the beginning serves to alert Grace to the plot against him, and later, when the characters need to be put at risk for the sake of suspense, is conveniently turned off. At one point Jessie tells Grace that she can’t just conjure up her visions at will. Sure enough, that inability puts them, and the rest of the city, in danger.

On the other hand, Jessie’s second sight adds a needed element of uncanny wonder to the proceedings. The character would be far less interesting if she were just another generic young woman in peril drawn unwittingly into a sinister conspiracy. Her uncertainty about what some of the visions mean sets up the movie’s turnabout ending.

Nancy Allen was no stranger to thrillers when she made The Man Who Wouldn’t Die. One of her first film roles was in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. In the early ‘80s she appeared in two of De Palma's better-regarded thrillers, Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blowout (1981). Sci-fi fans will remember her for her portrayal of tough street cop Anne Lewis in the first three Robocop movies. In The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, her girl-next-door feistiness strikes just the right note in a role that someone else might have played too sexy or too enigmatic.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Die gave Roger Moore a chance to play a much gentler and more vulnerable sort of character (after all, aren’t most of us ready to settle down and stop cracking heads and blowing things up when we reach our 60s -- Liam Neeson and Sly Stallone excepted?). Roger’s less-is-more character starts off the movie anxious and indecisive, but Allen’s energy helps him regain his footing in time for the climactic battle with Drake.

As Drake/Morrisey, Malcolm McDowell serves up the ham in thick slices. Since his chilling portrayal of the glib sociopath Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971), he has had ample opportunity to call on his inner arch-villain, most notably as Caligula in the infamous movie of the same name (1979), and as Soran in Star Trek: Generations (1994).

Malcolm McDowell and Nancy Allen in The Man Who Wouldn't Die, 1995
"Who says my acting is over-the-top?"

But he is far from a one-note actor. Perhaps his greatest role of all is as the gentle and resourceful H.G. Wells in Time After Time (1979), who pursues Jack the Ripper (David Warner) into the future and must use all his wits to prevent a young woman (Mary Steenburgen) from becoming Jack’s next victim.

Director Bill Condon has an interesting, eclectic resume. In the ‘90s he directed a string of made-for-TV thrillers, including The Man Who Wouldn’t Die. In 1998 he helmed the masterful and poignant story of director James Whale’s last days, Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen and Brendon Fraser (he also wrote the screenplay based on the Christopher Bram novel). Since the turn of the century he’s been all over the place, directing the award-winning Dreamgirls (2006), two Twilight sagas, the live action Disney remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017), and most recently a cerebral thriller, The Good Liar (2019), with McKellen and Helen Mirren.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is a solid mystery-thriller that flirts with being camp, but is ultimately saved by a script with enough twists and turns to keep things interesting, and a good cast -- Moore and Allen especially -- who make their characters relatable and engaging.

Where to find it: Streaming 

November 23, 2021

Not so Good Cop, Very Bad Cop: Shield for Murder

Poster - Shield for Murder (1954)
Now Playing: 
Shield for Murder (1954)

Pros: Fine performances by Edmond O’Brien and Carolyn Jones; Memorable dialog.
Cons: O’Brien as an older, cynical cop is an unlikely boyfriend for the young and beautiful Marla English.

Barney Nolan (Edmond O’Brien) has been a cop for too long. As a former beat patrolman and now a detective, he’s seen it all, every nook and cranny of the seamy underside of life, and he wants out. Or is it that some rotten part of his soul has always been attracted to the city’s underbelly, and he’s finally had it seeing his own ugliness reflected back at him day after day? Whatever the reason, he’s so desperate to chuck it all, he’s willing to commit cold blooded murder and hide behind his detective’s shield to get away with it.

Nolan finds out through the grapevine that a bookie will be delivering a particularly rich payout -- $25,000 worth -- to his bosses on a certain evening. Nolan ambushes the man in a dark alley, shoots him in the back, relieves the body of the cash, then fires two shots in the air to attract attention. When Nolan’s colleagues arrive, including his partner on the detective squad, Mark Brewster (John Agar), he tells them that the bookie ran when he tried to arrest him, and he accidentally hit the man when he fired warning shots.

Barney Nolan (Edmond O'Brien) commits murder in Shield for Murder (1954)
"Whoa Barney, take it easy, that tickles!"

Brewster’s expression betrays his skepticism at Nolan’s sketchy story, but Nolan is his mentor, responsible for bringing him on the force, and Brewster wants to believe. Nolan’s boss, Captain Gunnarson (Emile Meyer), is exasperated -- the man has a history of shooting first and asking questions later -- but in the absence of any witnesses, he has no choice but to back his problematic detective.

It looks at first like Nolan is in the clear, but his problems have only started. The loot’s owner, mob boss Packy Reed (Hugh Sanders) has hired two goons to track down the money, and they’ve zeroed in on the obvious suspect, the last man to see the bookie alive. To add to the crooked cop’s troubles, there was a witness -- an elderly deaf mute who saw everything from his tenement apartment window. But worst of all, Nolan’s dogged partner can’t shake his doubts over Nolan’s account of the shooting.

Even as the web of reckoning draws tighter around the beleaguered cop, he has dreams for his blood money -- to buy a tract house in the suburbs and escape with his girlfriend Patty (Marla English) from the corruption and grime of the big city.

At first, Patty isn’t sure what to think as Nolan drags her from the sleazy lounge where she’s working to show her the new home that’s to be their picket-fenced salvation. He’s got it all figured out for the two of them, and no crime boss or suspicious police colleagues are going to stand in his way. There’s a very subtle shot of the couple standing at the entrance of the model home as Nolan fishes out the front door key from its hiding place. A wooden trellis is in the foreground, the slats making it seem as if the two are trapped behind the bars of a jail cell.

Patty is swept away at the prospect of living in a brand-spanking new home with all the modern conveniences. But before long she will come to realize the heavy price of that suburban dream.

Marla English and Edmond O'Brien, Shield for Murder, 1954
Patty and Barney dream of life in the suburbs with a Frigidaire and a console TV.

One of the film’s implausibilities is the odd couple of Barney and Patty. Even taking into account the tendency of people with low self-esteem to make bad dating choices, they are a particularly mismatched pair. She is young and attractive, with her whole life ahead of her. He is middle-aged, overweight, cynical and controlling. The disparity is all the more striking when later in the film, Patty is being interviewed by the handsome and upright Detective Brewster -- you can’t help but think “she picked Barney over this guy?!”

But Shield for Murder does reveal a hint of goodness in Nolan that hasn’t quite rotted away. In a telling scene, a uniformed cop brings a juvenile delinquent into the precinct. Nolan brusquely waves the cop off, telling him to “go home and beat your wife.”

Faced with a brash, sneering teenager who seems determined to ruin his life, Barney sentimentally tries to bond with him and scare him straight at the same time:

“See that detective over there? [Pointing to Brewster]. “You know what I told him? … I told him the next time he wants to rob a store, to come here and talk to me, cops know how it’s done. I also told him that if he got caught again, I’d personally see that he was locked up until he was old and grey. I’ll make you the same bargain. [Reaching into his wallet and giving the kid some cash] “Here, pay for those things [the stolen items] and take them home.”

As Nolan’s plans for a new life in suburbia start to go up in smoke, he struggles to maintain his facade of rough-edged goodness, and he retreats to a bar to nurse his anxieties. As he’s glowering over his drink, a lonely alcoholic woman (played to perfection by Carolyn Jones) sidles up to him with a unique pick-up angle:

“Do you know what’s wrong with mirrors in bars? Men always make hard eyes at themselves. [Pauses] Do you know there’s a people in the jungle that believes a mirror steals your spirit away? [Looking in the bar mirror] Maybe it’d do me some good, my mother always said I had too much spirit.”

She has it only half right. Barney freely sold his soul for the price of a tract home, and now he can’t look at himself in the mirror. She has the misfortune of seeing the real man beneath the smirk when Packy’s goons show up at the bar. Nolan loses it and furiously pistol whips the men to the horror of the patrons. (In another subtle but neat touch, after Nolan has beaten the goons and he gives one last look at Jones’ character, grinning comic theater masks are visible on the wall behind him, as if they've been watching the performance and are smiling in approval.)

Edmond O'Brien and Carolyn Jones, Shield for Murder, 1954
"Have you heard this one? A cop, a priest and Morticia Addams walk into a bar..."

When the jig is finally, irretrievably up and Nolan’s fellow cops are looking to arrest him for murder, he crashes into Patty’s apartment and desperately tries to get her to drop everything and run away with him. Self-pity and denial pour out:

“For sixteen years I’ve been a cop, Patty. For sixteen years I’ve been living in dirt, and take it from me, some of it’s bound to rub off on you. You get to hate people, everyone you meet. I’m sick of them, the racket boys, the strong arms, the stoolies, the hooligans… I’m through with them all! Maybe this jam will turn out for the best after all. Patty, you and I will go away, get a fresh start somewhere. I’ve got the money… [Pauses, realizing he’s admitting to having stolen the money] … I had some saved… hurry Patty, will ya?!”

Having dug a grave-sized hole for himself, Nolan figures there’s nothing to do but keep digging. Spiraling from a rough-edged cop who’s been at it too long to the poster’s tagline of “a dame-hungry killer-cop” running “berserk” is fascinating to watch, and Edmond O’Brien gives it his sweaty, scowling all.

Over the course of a 40+ year career, Edmond O’Brien made the most of his doughy, “everyman” image, earning a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as Oscar Muldoon in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and appearing in such diverse films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939; his film debut), 1984 (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

O’Brien was Mr. Film Noir in the decade between the mid ‘40s and mid ‘50s, appearing in several of the most highly regarded films in the genre including The Killers (1946; with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner), White Heat (1949; with James Cagney), and D.O.A. (1950; playing a nondescript accountant who solves his own murder). In Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), he also plays a cynical cop, but unlike Shield, his character gets to redeem himself.

Edmond O'Brien at the climax of Shield for Murder, 1954
Barney realizes too late that there's more to life than guns and money.

Although Shield for Murder was the last of O’Brien’s noirs, it was also a first for him  -- his first directing gig. O’Brien had become interested in behind-the-scenes work, and after Shield he formed a production company with his brother Liam, a playwright.

He explained in an interview, “Some [actors] don’t care about producing. All they’re interested in is acting, and that’s fine. But others, like [John] Wayne and [Burt] Lancaster have picked up enough technical knowledge and ideas on writing, directing and camera techniques to do a great job. They went out of their way to learn. So have I. My intention, eventually is to work myself out of acting.” [Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, McFarland, 2003, p. 500]

Despite his intentions (and thankfully for film posterity), O’Brien went on acting, and found only time to direct a couple of TV episodes in the late ‘50s, and one feature, Man-Trap, in the early ‘60s.

John Agar (Brewster) made his film debut in a minor role in John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), then quickly graduated to second leads opposite John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Shortly after Shield for Murder, Agar’s career took a turn into B sci-fi movie territory starting with Universal-International’s Revenge of the Creature in 1955, followed by Tarantula and The Mole People for the same studio in 1957. Even cheesier and cheaper movies quickly followed after that -- The Brain from Planet Planet Arous (‘57), Attack of the Puppet People (‘58) and Invisible Invaders (‘59) -- and the die was cast.

Shield for Murder was Marla English’s first credited film role. She made only a relative handful of movies, but ‘50s sci-fi aficionados affectionately remember her from the strange and surreal The She-Creature (1956).

Marla English and John Agar in Shield for Murder, 1954
"Come on Patty, I've got something Barney hasn't got -- a contract with Universal-International."

And then there’s Carolyn Jones. Ms. Jones is in only one scene, but it’s such a poignant one that she stands out among all the other cast members as the sad, lonely alcoholic who distracts Nolan, if only for a moment, from his descent into hell. Actors often overdo the word slurring and awkward gestures when trying to portray alcoholics. Jones hits all the right notes of a long-time drinker who has acclimated to the stuff and puts on a pretty good show, but ultimately can’t hide her quiet desperation. The two of them are trying to run away from themselves, but in different ways. 

Jones had a very active career in TV and movies from the early ‘50s through the early ‘80s, but she is best remembered as Morticia in The Addams Family (1964-66).

Shield for Murder is a solid, sometimes brutal noir, enhanced by fine performances from O’Brien and Jones, and featuring more than a few memorable lines of dialog courtesy of screenwriters Richard Alan Simmons and John C. Higgins.

Where to find it: YouTube | Amazon Prime  

November 12, 2021

Crooks vs. Creatures, Part 3: Creature from the Haunted Sea

Poster - Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
Now Playing:
Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

Pros: Robert Towne as an inept secret agent and Betsy Jones-Moreland as a glamorous gangster’s moll deliver some chuckles.
Cons: The rushed, ad hoc nature of the production is readily apparent.

This month I'm pleased to be participating in the Distraction Blogathon at Taking Up Room. Host Rebecca has invited fellow bloggers to write about a movie or list of movies that “have distractions in them, whether it’s a MacGuffin, red herring, dangling carrot or any other kind of hook.” (If you haven't already, click over to the blogathon page for many more cinematic variations on the theme.)

Back in 2020 I wrote about “Disguise, Distraction and Deletion in B-Movie Posters,” so distraction, at least as far as the marketing of films goes, is right up my alley. One of the prime exhibits in that post was the poster you see here for Roger Corman’s Creature from the Haunted Sea. Let’s just say there is nothing in the movie that even remotely resembles the owner of the giant clawed hand, which, for a kid back in 1961 trying to figure out what movie he should spend his hard-earned allowance on, was something of a distraction (I’m not saying I was that kid, and I’m not saying I wasn’t…)

But the distractions aren’t limited to just an exaggerated marketing campaign. Creature’s plot is full of distractions, charades and double crosses as an American mobster schemes to steal a fortune in gold from a group of corrupt Cuban military officers who looted the national treasury before fleeing Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Creature from the Haunted Sea is not only a good fit for the Distraction blogathon, it’s also a perfect fit for the third installment of my Crooks vs. Creatures series, featuring interesting mashups of crime, sci-fi and horror. Part One featured another Roger Corman produced low-budget shocker, Beast from Haunted Cave (with connections to Creature from the Haunted Sea we’ll get to later); Part Two looked at the offbeat, micro-budget saga of The Astounding She-Monster.

So this post is doubling as an entry in the Distraction blogathon and in my own Crooks vs. Creatures series. Somehow, I think Roger Corman, who never missed an opportunity to save time and money by reusing sets and doubling up on locations by shooting movies back-to-back, would understand.

Creature was the second time Roger had squeezed blood out of a stone as far as location shooting was concerned. In the late '50s, Roger, along with his brother Gene (also a producer), decided to dump their usual Southern California shooting locations for the exotic locale of Deadwood, South Dakota. To get the most out of the expense of transporting people and equipment halfway across the country, they made it a 2-for-1 deal, shooting two movies in quick succession with the same cast and crew. One was a conventional war picture, Ski Troop Attack (1959) and the other an oddball crime/sci-fi/horror mashup, Beast from Haunted Cave (1959). In Beast, a gang of crooks pull off a daring daylight bank job, only to encounter a mysterious monster in the woods when they try to make their getaway.

For Beast, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith dusted off a script he’d previously done for Corman, Naked Paradise (1957), and added a monster to give it maximum drive-in appeal. Both Naked Paradise and Beast feature an unwitting local outdoorsman who is hired by crooks to help guide them through rugged terrain and escape with their ill-gotten loot.

Lobby Card for Naked Paradise, 1957
In the beginning, Naked Paradise begat the Beast, and the Beast begat the Creature...

At the dawn of the ‘60s, Corman was at it again, this time locating to Puerto Rico to take advantage of “manufacturing” incentives that included film production. He simultaneously produced one war picture, Battle of Blood Island (1960), while producing and directing a sci-fi psychological drama, Last Woman on Earth (1960) on the island.

In his memoir, Roger recalled having such a blast shooting Last Woman that he impulsively decided to do another movie before pulling up stakes in Puerto Rico:

Last Woman was a two-week shoot. It was going so well and we were having such a good time that I decided to do another movie. I called Chuck Griffith in L.A. and woke him up. ‘Chuck, I need another comedy-horror film and you’ve got a week to write it,’ I said. … He was very sleepy and I wasn’t certain he understood completely the story line we discussed, but he agreed. I would use the same three leads from the first movie [Last Woman], plus pick up some local Puerto Rican actors. …

The story was truly insane: We are in the closing days of Batista’s Cuba in the 1950s and some of his generals are absconding with a chest full of gold and must get a boat to sail from Cuba in the middle of the night. The only man they can trust is an American gambler and gangster [Antony Carbone as Renzo Capetto]. He and his assistant [Robert Bean as Happy Jack Monahan] then plot to kill off the generals one by one, blaming a sea monster for the killings. The plan is to end up with all the gold. The trouble is there actually is a sea monster and it looks exactly like the one the gangster invented.” [Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1990, p. 71]

The three leads from Last Woman that Corman brought over to Creature were Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland and Robert Towne. If there is any saving grace to this hurried example of Corman’s ad hoc moviemaking, it’s the presence of Jones-Moreland and Towne.

Robert Towne’s participation as an actor is yet further testimony to Corman’s “efficiency.” Towne is one in a long list of celebrated filmmakers and actors who got their starts working for Roger. An award-winning screenwriter, producer and director, Towne penned such ‘70s classics as Shampoo and The Last Detail, and won a best original screenplay Oscar for Chinatown.

At the time of Last Woman and Creature, Towne was a young writer trying to get into the film business. Corman, always on the lookout for promising talent, commissioned him to write the script for Last Woman. Towne was taking too long, so Roger decided to hustle him off to Puerto Rico to finish the script on location, and make him do double-duty as an actor for good measure. [Corman and Jerome, p. 70]

Even setting aside the script writing duties, this was a tall order for any actor, not to mention a first-timer. Last Woman was an intense, post-apocalyptic psychological thriller that had Towne vying with Antony Carbone for the affections of the last woman on earth, Betsy Jones-Moreland. In stark contrast Creature from the Haunted Sea was a goofy sci-fi comic opera featuring a jury-rigged sea monster that would make a five year old snort in disbelief.

Corman had the Midas touch as far as converting rough but promising filmmaking talent into Hollywood gold. He’d throw his wet-behind the ears proteges straight into the deep end, and more often than not they’d start swimming laps instead of sinking. While Towne was never celebrated for his acting, when Roger threw him into the acting pool, he tread water very nicely (but he did cover his bets by adopting an alias, Edward Wain, for these first two acting credits).

In Creature, Towne plays U.S. agent XK150, aka Sparks Moran, who is assigned to infiltrate Capetto’s gang and keep tabs on the stolen gold. Creature immediately lays all of its comic cards on the table as it opens with a close-up shot of a shoe-shine boy/secret contact buffing Moran’s canvas sneakers as he stuffs a message from headquarters into the agent’s sock.

Robert Towne as Agent XK150 in Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
Robert Towne does a perfect Nicholas Cage imitation... before Cage was even born!

In another bit of business, Moran, who has gotten himself hired as one of Capetto’s deckhands, finds an out-of-the-way place on the boat to radio back to HQ. He uses a makeshift radio made out of parts disguised as hotdogs and pickles (!?), but has to eat one of the parts when another gang member stops by and comments on how tasty his lunch looks.

Towne plays it perfectly straight as he delivers such lines as, “It was dusk. I could tell because the sun was going down.” and “As a trained espionage agent I could tell she was attracted to me.”

Moran immediately falls hard for Capetto’s glamorous “moll,” Mary-Belle (Jones-Moreland). A single sneer from Mary-Belle drives the men wild with lust. Jones-Moreland is at her aloof best in a scene where she’s sunbathing on the boat while a Cuban general tries to flirt with her through his interpreter.

Interpreter: “The general says, ‘good morning you gorgeous, beautiful creature.’”
Mary-Belle: “Would you ask the general to remove himself from my presence?”
Interpreter (to the general): “She says, ‘good morning to you general!’”
[Then, after the interpreter has conveyed more of the clueless general’s salacious compliments…]
Mary-Belle: “Would you tell the general that I feel he would be most at home slowly barbecuing over a hot spit?”

Later, Jones-Moreland vamps it up as she sings the Creature from the Haunted Sea theme song in a sort of winking homage to the torch song numbers that were a staple of ‘40s hard-boiled crime thrillers.

Robert Towne and Betsy Moreland-Jones in Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
Sparks fly as Moran tries to convince Mary-Belle to run away with him.

Not everything in Creature is comedy gold, however (or even silver or bronze for that matter). One of Capetto’s men, Pete (Beach Dickerson), is a nitwit whose specialty is making animal noises (furnished by a sound library that seems to have been ripped from a Tarzan movie). The act gets old real fast, and audience patience wears dangerously thin when Pete discovers the love of his life -- a homely middle-aged woman who is one of the few inhabitants of the island where the boat has run aground. Unfortunately, the film wastes precious minutes running that unfunny relationship into the ground.

When Corman made his impulsive decision to extend the stay in beautiful Puerto Rico and make another movie, he naturally went to his go-to writer at the time, Charles B. Griffith. Griffith had already penned over a dozen movies for Corman, and was someone who could be relied upon to cook up a script in no time.

Corman wanted to do a comedy-horror picture because of the surprise success the duo had achieved earlier with two black comedies, A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Due to the insane schedule, Griffith had no choice but to once more recycle the Naked Paradise narrative of crooks hiring a guide to help them make off with their loot.

While Creature does have some inspired moments with Moran, Mary-Belle and the Cuban generals, there are too many dull stretches and sophomoric comic bits that would make a middle-school thespian blush with embarrassment. It kept the cast and crew basking in the tropical sun for another couple of weeks, and it looks like it was a blast to make, but it taxes the audience’s patience with its rushed script and in-your-face cheapness.

And then there’s the distraction of the Creature itself. It’s so ridiculous looking that the first time I saw the film, I thought it was one of Capetto’s men made up in a hastily improvised suit to scare the Cubans away for good. “Hasty” and “improvised” are the operative words for it, but for the purposes of Corman’s and Griffith’s cracked story, it’s supposed to be the “real” sea creature that coincidentally starts following the boat even as Capetto is plotting to bump off the Cubans and blame it on an imaginary monster.

Betsy Moreland-Jones, Anthony Carbone and Beach Dickerson in Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
The cast discuss their plans for an extended two-week stay in sunny Puerto Rico.

While Griffith was able to deliver a script at the last minute, Corman's former go-to monster-maker, Paul Blaisdell, was unavailable. Blaisdell had created imaginative (and inexpensive) monster suits and effects for several of Roger’s low-budget wonders of the ‘50s, including The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), Day the World Ended (1955), It Conquered the World (1956) and Not of This Earth (1957), but by the early '60s Blaisdell had become disillusioned with the film industry.

Instead, Roger tapped Beach Dickerson, the actor who played Pete, to work up a costume:

“Then Roger said to me, ‘We have to make a monster [that] can run on land and swim underwater.’ … I said, ‘What do you mean, we? Every time you say ‘we,’ you don’t do a thing.’ He said, ‘Beach, I know you can do it, so don’t worry about it.’ I said, ‘How much money are we talking about Roger?’ He said, ‘Well, for a monster that can run on land and swim underwater, I think a hundred and fifty dollars should be sufficient.’ ‘Including materials?’ ‘Of course including materials!’ Well, this kid -- Bobby Beam, another actor in the movie -- and I made a monster … and the thing held up. For one hundred and fifty dollars! …
[We] stole army helmets and stacked them to form its face. We draped its body in oilcloth, to give it a sleazy look, and we gave it fangs -- we cut out holes and pasted in the teeth. We got two tennis balls and a ping pong ball and cut them in two -- that was the monster’s eyes. Then we draped it in steel wool. That monster was seven and half feet tall -- we spent a fortune on steel wool. Those were the good old days.” [The Movie World of Roger Corman, J. Philip di Franco, ed., Chelsea House, 1979, p. 23]

It looks jaw-droppingly comical, which I suppose is fine for a movie that plays things strictly tongue-in-cheek. Except that Creature’s marketing at the time (exhibit A: the poster) gave no hint that the film was a comedy, unlike its predecessors, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors. It’s perhaps an indication that Corman wasn’t sure that Creature could stand on its own two comic feet like the other films. Over the years, it hasn’t garnered quite the same sort of cult reputation as its cousins.

Still, Creature does have Robert Towne’s dead-pan schtick and Betsy Jones-Moreland's diva act going for it. And that monster -- ya gotta admire the sheer audacity of that bug-eyed abomination!

The comical looking Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
"Darling, you look like a hundred and fifty bucks!"

Where to find it: You can cast your fishing line just about anywhere and hook the Creature; e.g., here and here.  

October 31, 2021

Happy Halloween from the House of the Frankensteins!

The House of the Frankensteins, Halloween 2021
from Films From Beyond and the House of the Frankensteins!

Here at Films From Beyond, we love the classic Universal Frankensteins, but we embrace all of Dr. Frankenstein’s creations regardless of race, creed, gender, age, national origin or studio of origin. Here are some of our favorite non-Universal Frankenstein monsters:

"Body of a boy! Mind of a monster! Soul of an unearthly thing!"

"The One...The Only KING OF MONSTERS as the new demon of the atomic age!"

"IT reaches from the grave to re-live the HORROR, the TERROR!"

"Now Frankenstein has created a beautiful woman with the soul of the Devil!"

"Only The Monster She Made Could Satisfy Her Strange Desires!"

October 22, 2021

Hammer's Journey to the Unknown

Hammer TV series Journey to the Unknown title screen
This post is part of The Third Annual Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, co-hosted by Barry at his Cinematic Catharsis blog and Gill at RealWeegieMidget Reviews. Don't forget to check their sites for many more reviews of thrilling works by Hammer Films and Amicus Productions.

Hammer Films will always be fondly remembered for its revival of the classic monsters starting in the late 1950s, and for launching Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into superstardom.

Less well known are the company’s forays into television, with the anthology series Journey to the Unknown leading the way in 1968, followed by Hammer House of Horror (1980) and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984).

House of Horror is probably most familiar to the casual fan, being available on both DVD and Blu-ray as well as several streaming channels. House of Mystery and Suspense is out of print, and doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere in the U.S. And then there’s Journey to the Unknown, which, as a complete series, never saw a good home video release.

That’s a shame, because in its 17 episode run, Journey to the Unknown presented a great mix of psychological suspense and supernatural horror in contemporary settings. Several of the episodes were based on stories by acclaimed writers, including Robert Bloch, Cornel Woolrich, Donald E. Westlake and Charles Beaumont (of Twilight Zone fame), and the talented casts were headed by name actors such as Joseph Cotten, Julie Harris, Vera Miles, Patty Duke and Roddy McDowall, among others.

The series was co-produced by Hammer and 20th Century Fox Television for broadcast in the U.S. on ABC-TV; it later aired in the UK on the ITV network. American actors were featured prominently in order to make it more attractive for the U.S. market (more on the production backstory later). 

Journey to the Unknown debuted on ABC on September 26, 1968, with the last episode airing in January of 1969. Wanting to get the most out of their investment, the network repackaged eight of the episodes into four TV movies (Journey into Darkness, Journey to the Unknown, Journey to Murder and Journey to Midnight), adding hosts Patrick McGoohan, Joan Crawford and Sebastian Cabot to introduce the segments. These aired between 1969 and 1971. 

Being a lifelong horror fan, I was fortunate to catch Journey to the Unknown when it originally aired. I was immediately intrigued by (or should I say spooked by) the show’s eerie title sequence, with its whistled theme music (composed by Harry Robinson) and nighttime shots of a rider-less roller coaster in an abandoned amusement park.

I recently revisited the series. Most of the episodes live up to the uncanny atmosphere of the title sequence, with only a couple of clunkers that are dead on delivery (inevitable even in the best anthology shows). The episode that made the biggest impression on me the first time around, and that still holds up very well, is "Poor Butterfly," with American Chad Everett headlining the cast.

“Poor Butterfly,” original airdate Jan. 9, 1969

Have you ever had a dream where you were a fish out of water, finding yourself in some unknown place with people you don’t know, maybe inappropriately dressed (or not dressed at all!), and clueless as to how you got there and where to go?

Such is Chad Everett’s situation in “Poor Butterfly” (except for the not dressed part). Steven Miller (Everett), a wealthy American working in London, gets an invitation to a formal costume party from a person he can’t remember ever meeting. After conferring with colleagues, his curiosity gets the better of him, and he sets out in his vintage 1929 Bugatti motorcar (!!) to the countryside location.

Miller gets lost on the winding country roads, and when he flags down a local man to inquire about the way to Measham house, he only gets an uncomprehending stare for his troubles. He finally locates a sign pointing the way, and when he rolls up in front of the country estate, he finds a number of other antique cars parked outside.

He walks into a bustling, elegant costume party, with most of the partygoers dressed in costumes from various periods of British history. American to the core, Miller changes into his Jesse James costume, further marking him as the proverbial fish out of water. The place seems to be suspended in time, with the antique cars filling the driveway, and partiers dancing the Charleston as if it was still the 1920s.

Chad Everett as Steven Miller, "Poor Butterfly," Journey to the Unknown, 1969
Dressed up as Jesse James, Steven is ready to steal some hearts.

Still mystified that he doesn’t know anyone, Miller tries to talk to the host, Sir Robert “Bobby” Sawyer (Edward Fox), who acts as if he knows the American. But talk is difficult in the tumult of the party, and Sawyer’s answers are evasive.

Another partier who seems to know Miller is an ethereal beauty, dressed in a butterfly costume, who catches Steven’s eye from across the room. As the group begins a round dance, she whispers to Miller that she hoped he would come. After the dance, when Miller asks her how she could anticipate the arrival of someone she doesn’t even know, she coyly explains that she was simply hoping he would come around to her during the dance.

The “poor butterfly,” Rose Parkington (Susan Brodick), cousin to Bobby and seemingly at home among the effete revelers, is nonetheless wistful in the midst of all the gaiety, and as vulnerable as the creature that her costume mimics.

She has a fiance, John, an eminent London surgeon who is too busy to make it to the party. Regardless, she attaches herself to the handsome American stranger as if he was her last chance at happiness.

The atmosphere turns darker and more threatening as Rose’s friends notice how much time she is spending with Steven. Costumed guests that seemed jovial and charming at the beginning turn menacing as Rose starts pleading with Steven to take her to London.

As a storm approaches, with thunder rumbling in the distance, Rose becomes increasingly anxious. Steven suspects he’s being used merely as a chauffeur to take Rose to her precious fiance, but in the face of her desperation he agrees to give her a ride. But first he has to get more gas from a reserve pump located a few miles from the estate.

Susan Brodick and Chad Everett in "Poor Butterfly," Journey to the Unknown, 1969
Rose is deathly afraid of storms.

As Miller is trying to unlock the gas pump, the storm hits full force, and he’s forced to wait it out in the car. Unaccountably, he has trouble again finding the house, but when he meets up again with the local villager who was so unhelpful, what he learns from the old man and his wife has him questioning his senses.

Masquerades in the movies have a high weirdness quotient. People in costumes and masks are figuratively not themselves, and each one is a potential mystery, possibly even a threat. Much of the cast in “Poor Butterfly” is credited not by their characters’ names, but by their costumes: Queen Victoria, Admiral Nelson, Friar Tuck, Aviator, Red Queen, and March Hare.

Add to this the disquieting idea that they seem to know all about you, but you know nothing about them, and you have the makings of a simmering nightmare. Steven and Rose stand out like sore thumbs, he in his old west costume, and she in her delicate butterfly costume.

As Steven complains about his being out of place, Rose shoots back, “Is it so important to know why you’re here? Can’t you just enjoy yourself?”

Except that Rose is clearly not enjoying herself, and has an agenda that is causing concern among the other guests, who slowly but surely tighten a disapproving web around her.

In a bit of foreshadowing, Steven comments on Rose’s costume: “Why the butterfly?... they’re such sad creatures, butterflies, especially the rare ones. You see them for a minute, then [snapping his fingers] they’re gone.”

Susan Brodick in "Poor Butterfly," Journey to the Unknown, 1969
Rose is an especially rare species of butterfly.

Little does he know that he won’t be able to help this poor butterfly. Based on a story by actor and writer William Abney, Jeremy Paul’s script masterfully intersperses the building suspense with poignant moments, culminating in a resolution that, even as it unravels the mystery, leaves a lingering feeling of dread.

Chad Everett is well cast, with his all-American accent and demeanor serving to set him distinctly apart from the cold, upper-crust gentility of the other party-goers. The same year that “Poor Butterfly” was broadcast, he began the role for which he’s best remembered, that of Dr. Joe Gannon in CBS’ long running series Medical Center (1969-76).

Susan Brodick (Rose) has only a relative smattering of acting credits, but after “Poor Butterfly” she managed to secure parts in two other Hammer horrors, Countess Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (both 1971).

Fans of action-adventure may appreciate the presence of Edward Fox as “Bobby” Sawyer and Bernard Lee as the crusty old villager. Fox was the stealthy assassin in The Day of the Jackal (1973) and specialized in playing military officers in dozens of films. James Bond fans know Lee as the original “M,” who gave orders to three different Bonds (Connery, Lazenby and Moore), finally wrapping up the role with Moonraker in 1981.

Bonus episode: "Matakitas is Coming," original airdate Nov. 28, 1968

Most people don’t normally associate libraries with murders and hauntings, but every relatively large library building has its share of lonely, shadowy corners that, under the right circumstances, can send a chill down the spine.

Besides Vera Miles, the star of "Matakitas is Coming" is a cavernous old library full of shadowy spaces, dusty statuary, and the malevolent spirit of at least one long-dead serial killer.

Miles plays June Wiley, a hard-working crime writer for a popular London magazine. Her colleagues, and even her fiance, wonder what a nice person like June is doing writing about grisly murders.

When a co-worker manages to reserve some precious time for June on the microfilm machine at the local library, she has to delay her date, telling her fiance that she’ll meet him later at the movie theater. (Yes Virginia, you used to have to crank through miles of microfilm to research old newspaper stories.) He jokes sourly that the only way to spend any time with her is to commit murder.

June is researching unusual murders of the past for an article, and one of the more horrifying examples she comes across is that of a librarian some forty odd years ago in the very building she’s using. It was the last in a series of ritual murders committed by the library’s own caretaker, an extremely sketchy chap by the name of Matakitas.

June discovers that Matakitas boasted at his trial that he murdered the women to provide brides for his master, the Devil, and that as a reward for his service, he’d receive a special diabolical dispensation. She’s so engrossed in her work that she forgets the time, and finds to her chagrin that the place is empty and she’s been locked inside.

Gay Hamilton and Vera Miles in "Matakitas is Coming," Journey to the Unknown, 1968
June discusses her library fines with the librarian.

She’s relieved to find that a young library clerk (Gay Hamilton) is also inside, but the woman is nervous, doesn’t have a key to get out, and is of little help. When June finds a phone and calls for help, she’s taken aback when the operator insists the number she is trying to call doesn’t exist. When she manages to get a hold of the police station, the duty officer berates her for making a crank call when she explains that her 1968 model car is parked outside the building she’s trapped in.

It begins to dawn on her that something’s not right, and, with a growing sense of dread, she asks the exasperated operator to tell her what the date is. Somehow, June is not only trapped in a spooky old library, she’s also trapped in the past. It’s September 19, 1927, the day when Matakitas murdered the librarian, and the exact time when he committed the heinous act is fast approaching.

"Matakitas is Coming" is the highest rated episode of the series on IMDb, and it’s easy to see why. It takes one of the stronger lead actors of the series, Vera Miles, places her into what ordinarily would be a nice, safe setting, a library, and proceeds to tighten a noose of diabolical evil around her.

However, If there is anyone who can meet the challenge of being trapped in a dark, foreboding building with supernatural evil afoot, it’s June Wiley. She is smart, resourceful, and loves a good mystery (although perhaps not under these particular circumstances).

In countless horror movies, the telephone is that everyday convenience that never works when it’s needed -- the line is always dead (or there’s no cell service). It’s a nice touch that while the library’s telephone seems to be in perfect working order, it might as well be dead, as the outside world of 1927 can’t understand what June Wiley from 1968 is trying to tell them.

Vera Miles on the phone in "Matakitas is Coming," Journey to the Unknown, 1968
June has a direct line to 1927.

Fully cognizant that she’s not in Kansas anymore, June becomes a psychic sleuth, sensing that the spirit of the murdered librarian is trying to communicate with her, first through a record playing by itself in a deserted room, then through books that are pushed one by one off the shelves by an unseen hand.

There’s a lot going on in just an hour-long episode -- ritual murders, devil worship, time travel, spooky sounds, unseen spirits, and clocks ticking toward apparent doom -- but the various elements combine like pieces in a big, eerie puzzle as the story, and June, wend their inexorable way to a fateful conclusion.

Vera Miles, with over 160 acting credits, was always a welcome and classy addition to any movie or TV show she starred in. Her greatest contribution to the horror genre was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where she played Lila Crane, sister to the unfortunate Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), and a dogged sleuth who solves the mystery of the Bates Motel. She reprised the role in Psycho II (1983).

Leon Lissek as the creepy Devil’s servant Matakitas makes the most of a brief flashback scene in which he lectures the court that is about to condemn him to death: “I did nothing but obey the commands of my mighty protector! My master has spoken and I… I am his instrument on earth!” In his perverse earnestness, he looks and sounds like a young Peter Lorre.

Matakitas: the Devil's wedding coordinator.

And then there’s the third star, the library. Interior shots of "Matakitas" were filmed at the City of Westminster’s Mayfair Library, a charming old world building located in the heart of London. The Library retired from show business with just the one credit, but remains a popular wedding venue (and not only for disciples of the Devil).

Behind-the-scenes: Hammer’s Journey to Unraveling Work Relationships

Hammer got the ball rolling on its first TV series in the spring of 1967 when Hammer co-founder James Carreras teamed up with counterparts at 20th Century Fox television to develop an hour-long horror series provisionally titled Fright Hour.

The ABC TV network agreed to broadcast the series in the U.S., and Fox appointed Joan Harrison, screenwriter, former assistant to Alfred Hitchcock, and the renowned producer of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to oversee the project as executive producer.

But the series ended up being costly to Hammer in more ways than one. According to Hammer historians Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, the series’ arduous post-production process “lead long-term supervising editor James Needs to quit, [and] it was also a contributory factor in Anthony Hinds’ later decision to resign his directorship.” [Hearn and Barnes, The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007, p. 125]

Although Hinds thought well of Harrison, he chafed at being “demoted” to a line producer:

“I was miserable in the role of producer with an all-powerful executive producer from ABC over me. I had been my own boss too long. Jim Carreras ‘sold’ me as a package to make the series. ABC in America decided that as I’d had no experience in television, they ought to send over a representative, who was Joan Harrison -- with whom I got on very well. But I found myself doing a production manager’s job because she had to take over, and I hated that. I hated being demoted. But I had to do it. I had to stay with it, all the way through, hating every minute of it.” [Chris Fellner, The Encyclopedia of Hammer Films, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, p. 224]

Where to find it: Watchable episodes are available on YouTube, and on DVD from specialists in rare TV. 

October 8, 2021

Films From Beyond’s 1st Annual F.R.I.G.H.T. Awards

The 2021 Films From Beyond F.R.I.G.H.T. Awards
It’s that time of year again, when monsters of all shapes, sizes and descriptions claw, bite, slash, stomp, strangle and create general mayhem in Halloween marathons on innumerable channels.

Here at Films From Beyond, we believe in a variety of approaches to horror, as long as they’re done the B movie way: creatively and imaginatively, with a modicum of resources that precludes self-indulgently throwing everything but the kitchen sink into a mega-budget box office rip-off.

Speaking of different approaches, it’s one thing to generate scares from very ambulatory vampires, werewolves or axe-wielding maniacs, and quite another to chill audiences with small, inanimate objects that spend most of the time collecting dust on some dark, forgotten shelf.

And we’re not talking dolls, puppets or ventriloquists' dummies. Those benighted things are right up there with clowns in the supposedly-cheery-but-downright-creepy-and-often-terrifying category. Just ask any fan of Dead of Night (1945), The Twilight Zone, Charles Band’s Full Moon productions, and/or the Annabelle series. They’ve become a horror genre unto themselves, and deserve their own post (or two).

Nope, we’re talking about assorted curios, bric-a-brac and gewgaws, no bigger than a bread box, that bide their time in cobwebbed attics, dank basements and dark closets, waiting for the unwary to help them unleash their evil into the world.

All the items profiled here are smaller than a bread box.
The Devil's bread box, straight from Hell's Kitchen (apologies to Gordon Ramsay).

To honor those intrepid filmmakers of yesteryear who took a chance and made effective horror movies about small inanimate objects, we’re instituting our first annual F.R.I.G.H.T. awards: the most Frightening Relics, Items, Gadgets, Heirlooms and Talismans in vintage B horror movies.

Winner: Mummified Animal Part Category. The Monkey’s Paw (1933)

W.W. Jacob’s short story, first published in 1902, is not only the definitive cautionary tale to be careful what you wish for, but it's also a masterful exercise in getting the reader’s own imagination working overtime to send shivers down the spine.

The story has been adapted many times on the stage, radio, film and TV. I hadn’t seen any of the film adaptations until I attended the Monster Bash convention in Mars, PA in 2019 (see my review of the convention here). One of the highlights of their film program was the 1933 RKO version, starring Ivan Simpson, Louise Carter, and C. Aubrey Smith. The film was considered lost until 2016, when a French-dubbed version surfaced. Thanks to film historian Tom Weaver, who secured a copy, Monster Bash was the first time the film had been shown anywhere since the discovery.

The film gets steadily darker and gloomier as the wishes play out, and, in an imaginative bit of business, with each unfortunate wish, one of the paw’s fingers curls up.

Lobby card, The Monkey's Paw, 1933
"I hope that's our GrubbyHub delivery!"

Poster, 13 Ghosts, 1960
Winner: Ghastly Ghost Goggles Category: 13 Ghosts (1960)

Producer-director William Castle was well into the gimmicky-showman phase of his career when 13 Ghosts debuted. Previously, he'd had buzzers installed in select theater seats for when The Tingler appeared onscreen, and a skeleton on a cable flew over theatergoers’ heads at special screenings of House on Haunted Hill.

In 13 Ghosts, Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods), a paleontologist who is having trouble making ends meet for his family, learns that he has inherited a creaky old house from his enigmatic uncle, Dr. Plato Zorba. The catch: the place comes with a collection of ghosts, which Zorba rounded up from all around the world.

They can only be seen with a special pair of goggles that the old man invented… and thus the gimmick, which Castle dubbed “Illusion-O.” In the film’s initial theatrical run, when Cyrus put on the strange goggles to view the ghosts haunting his house, a sub-title cued audiences to use the special ghost viewers that they were issued. According to Castle biographer John. W. Law,

“Eastmancolor was used to develop the process for including the ghosts in the film. While the feature was shot in black and white, the ghosts appeared in red and were shot on a blue background, so when the viewers put on the blue and red tinted glasses the ghosts appeared.” [John W. Law, Scare Tactic: The Life and Films of William Castle. Writers Club Press, 2000, p. 82]

Beyond Illusion-O, the film’s charm came from interspersing the creepier ghostly manifestations with a bit of comic relief.

Poster - The Mask, 1961
Winner: Ancient Hallucinogenic Ceremonial Mask Category: The Mask (1961)

A long time ago in a small, midwestern town far, far away, a local fast food joint advertised free 3D glasses with every purchase, to use for an upcoming TV broadcast of an obscure 3D horror movie. Yes, one of the scrawny nerds who dutifully made a purchase in anticipation of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was me.

While the 3D effect with cheap cardboard glasses and an old console TV was disappointing, I nevertheless became a big fan of The Mask (not to be confused with Jim Carrey’s 1994 fantasy-comedy). According to IMDb, The Mask was groundbreaking: the first Canadian horror film, the first Canadian 3D film, and the first to be widely distributed in the U.S.  It tells the tale of a respected psychiatrist, Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens), who is treating a disturbed young archaeologist. The man insists that an ancient ceremonial mask he has been examining has taken over his mind and is urging him to kill. The patient commits suicide, but not before mailing the mask to Barnes, who in turn finds himself falling under the spell of the accursed thing.

Like 13 Ghosts, the film’s mundane black and white world is periodically interrupted by spooky 3D sequences. When a sepulchral voice commands Barnes to “Put the mask on NOW!”, that’s the viewer’s cue to don the 3D glasses.

The 3D sequences are as weird and nightmarish as can be, as if H.P. Lovecraft, Salvador Dali and Tim Burton got together to design a bad LSD trip. According to lore, producer-director Julian Roffman initially hired renowned visual effects artist Slavko Vorkapich to design the scenes, but his concepts proved too expensive, so Hoffman did most of the work himself.

See my full review here.

Poster - Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, 1965
Winner: Stacked Deck of Infernal Tarot Cards Category: Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965)

The titular Doctor Shreck (the name means “terror” in German), played by Peter Cushing, joins five bored strangers in a train compartment. To pass the time, the Doctor offers to tell the mens’ fortunes using his deck of Tarot cards, which he calls his “house of horrors.”

The Death card pops up each time Shreck does a reading (which in actual Tarot practice is not necessarily a bad thing). The unfortunate travelers’ fates include meet-ups with werewolves, vampires, sentient killer vines, voodoo practitioners and disembodied hands.

This was the first anthology horror film produced under Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg’s Amicus Productions banner. The contributions of Hammer veterans Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and director Freddie Francis, along with a solid performance by an up-and-coming American actor, Donald Sutherland, went a long way to making the film a success. Many highly entertaining anthologies followed, including The House that Dripped Blood, Asylum, Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, among others.

At the time of its release, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was generally well-received on both sides of the Atlantic. The Times (London) called it an “[Un]critical pleasure. The writer, Mr. Milton Subotsky, has hit on a convenient formula. None of it is very original but at least each of the episodes is short enough not to pall. Mr. Freddie Francis directs with efficiency, which once or twice rises to real inspiration.” In the U.S., Variety found it “A usefully chilly package which will offer audiences mild shudders and quite a lot of amusement.” [ Bruce C. Hallenbeck, British Cult Cinema: The Amicus Anthology. Hemlock Books, 2014, p. 63]

That might seem like faint praise, but considering the establishment media’s disdain for all things horror at the time, they were practically rave reviews.

Poster - The Skull, 1965
Winner: Cursed Skull of a Notorious Evil-doer Category: The Skull (1965)

Messrs. Cushing, Lee and Francis also teamed up for Amicus’ The Skull, with Milton Subotsky contributing a script based on a story by Robert Bloch.

Dr. Christopher Maitland (Cushing), an avid collector of occult objects, is offered the skull of the infamous Marquis de Sade by a sketchy dealer (Patrick Wymark). He at first resists temptation, and is told by the skull’s previous owner, rival collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) that the thing is possessed by evil, and in turn can possess its owner.

Obsessed with the skull, Maitland goes to the dealer’s flat to buy it, but finds the man dead. As he tries to steal away with the skull he encounters a caretaker, a struggle ensues, and the man is accidentally killed. Maitland starts having nightmares, including one in which he is condemned in a surreal courtroom and forced to play Russian Roulette. In the meantime, the malignant skull grins evilly on a shelf in its new home.

Essayist Steven Thornton credits director Freddie Francis and Peter Cushing for making The Skull such an effective exercise in atmospheric evil:

“The contribution of Freddie Francis should not go without recognition. In its final reels, the shots from the skull’s point of view, filmed through an enlarged cranial mock-up, are what most viewers remember. Subtler, but just as impressive, are the mood-building tableaux of Cushing eyeing the skull distrustfully and of the gale of wind that opens doors and turns picture frames askew. … [W]hat other director could have extracted as much menace from an ordinary bookshelf loaded with ominous bric-a-brac?…

Peter Cushing … was right at home with such emotionally involving material. The change of expression when Maitland begins to feel the skull’s influence or when he observes the cross hanging from his wife’s neck are techniques right out of the actor’s playbook. … In addition, Cushing had to play his character sympathetically while still maintaining the touch of conceit that put Maitland on the pathway to Hell. This was unquestionably a demanding role, one that few genre actors of the period could have pulled off as convincingly.” [Steven Thorton, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head: The Skull” In Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Peter Cushing, Anthony Ambrogio, ed., Luminary Press, 2004, p.121]