November 18, 2022

The Growing Juvenile Delinquency Problem: Village of the Giants

Poster - Village of the Giants (1965)
Now Playing:
Village of the Giants (1965)

Pros: Interesting cast made up of former child stars, future stars and sons and daughters of acting royalty; Striking images; Catchy music
Cons: Variable special effects and abrupt changes in mood and tone make for a head-scratching experience

Movie blogger Rebecca Deniston at Taking Up Room has done it again with her Fake Teenager Festivus, an opportunity for the blogging community to celebrate all those egregious instances of 20-something-plus actors portraying teenagers in movies and TV.

As she points out in her call for submissions, employing older actors as teenagers has long been a filmmaking tradition for a number of reasons, not the least of which are those pesky child labor laws that limit the number of hours a real teenager can work. And then there’s the need to hire a tutor for the little darlin’s schooling if the production is a particularly long one and commuting is impractical. What a bummer!

Another consideration is the actor’s competence. Like any complex skill, acting requires patience, perseverance, and time to perfect. In many cases, it takes a more mature professional to credibly portray an angst-ridden teenager.

But it’s something of a tight-rope act. Go too far, and you risk turning your “teenager” into an unintentional parody. I was curious about how far filmmakers have pushed the envelope, so I googled “Older actors who have played teenagers in movies.”

Since it’s such a fun topic there are plenty of lists out there, but the most comprehensive one I found was on IMDb with 186 (count ‘em!) entries. According to the list, the all-time age disparity record-holder is O.Z. Whitehead, who was 51 (?!) when he played a school boy in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Other notorious cases are there, like 30-year-old Olivia Newton-John playing 17-year-old Sandy in Grease.

O.Z. Whitehead, the oldest movie teenager ever!
(Seen here in The Grapes of Wrath, 1940)

While mid-to-late 20s is pretty old to be playing a teen, there are 33 actors and actresses on the list who were 30 or older when they were asked to channel their inner teenager. Yikes!

There are no 30+ actors pretending to be teenagers in Village of the Giants, but it does boast several 20-somethings. I chose Village for several reasons:

  1. My specialty on this blog is looking at plucky low- or no-budget genre movies that strive to overcome their limitations (or at least thumb their noses at them);
  2. It features an intriguing cast, including two childhood heroes of mine, Disney child star Tommy Kirk and Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman fame; Beau Bridges, son of Lloyd and brother of Jeff; and Ron Howard, who at the time was still making cute as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show;
  3. Village was written and directed by Mr. B.I.G. himself, Bert I. Gordon, who famously made do with limited budgets and modest special effects in his obsessive quest to make pictures about REALLY BIG people and animals. 

In the spirit of the original Festivus, I plan to air my grievances against this movie (but not in an overly derogatory manner, as this would violate the rules), and demonstrate feats of mental strength in analyzing plot and character development (dinner and the Festivus pole are not included). If you decide to perform your own feat of mental toughness by sticking with this post to the bitter end, just be aware that there will be a quiz. 

Where to begin? First of all, Village of the Giants is a cinematic examination of the tendency of even freedom-loving societies to succumb to authoritarianism in the face of extreme power differentials and high levels of inequality. It also highlights the difficulty in a high-tech society of ensuring that inventors are suitably rewarded while at the same time the benefits of new technologies are fairly distributed. Lastly, it examines the age-old generation gap, and the balancing act that a healthy society must perform between encouraging the enthusiasm of youth and respecting the wisdom of maturity. But more on that later.

Before I get into the airing of grievances, I will try to sum up the plot as succinctly as I know how to.* On the outskirts of Hainesville, Anywhere, USA, a group of spaced-out juvenile delinquents** run their car into a mudslide, and after celebrating the occasion by dancing sensuously in the mud, they hike into the nearby town.

Meanwhile, the town’s child prodigy, “Genius” (Ron Howard) accidentally creates a compound in his basement lab that can grow animals to enormous size, which he not-so-creatively dubs “Goo.” When Genius’ big sister Nancy (Charla Doherty) and her boyfriend Mike (Tommy Kirk) watch a cat and then two ducks accidentally eat the Goo and grow into giants, they immediately recognize the money-making potential, not to mention the implications for the world’s food supply.

Lobby card - Genius' basement lab from Village of the Giants (1965)
Opie, er, um Genius patiently explains the amazing properties of Goo.

A little while later, anybody who’s anybody under the age of 20 (wink, wink) has converged on the local dance club to rock out, including Mike and Nancy, Mike’s friend Horsey (Johnny Crawford), and the delinquent gang led by Fred (Beau Bridges).

Everyone is freaked out when the two giant ducks crash the party and “dance” alongside the kids. Mike dopily spills the beans that the ducks are his, and hints to another delinquent (Harry, played by Kevin O'Neal) that they’re the result of a “million dollar” secret food additive. Harry reports back to Fred, who tasks his girlfriend Jean (Tisha Stirling) with pumping Mike for information, while he tries his charms on Nancy.

The delinquents fail to pry any more information out of Mike or Nancy, but later that night, they sneak over to Nancy’s house and one of the gang (Pete, played by Tim Rooney) breaks into the basement lab. He manages to grab the Goo, but not before setting off a burglar alarm of Genius’ that, among other things, shoots fireworks into the sky.

Mike, Nancy, Horsey and other assorted good kids race over to Nancy’s to confront the delinquents, but in the ensuing altercation Fred and the gang make off with the Goo. The gang retreats to their makeshift hideout in an abandoned downtown theater, where they argue over what to do with the stuff. Peer pressure being what it is, they all succumb to curiosity and eat the Goo, turning into 30-foot-tall giants. (The girls, demonstrating that even delinquents have limits, modestly cover themselves as they quickly outgrow their clothes.)

They fashion toga-like costumes for themselves out of theater curtains, and decide to make a huge impression at yet another teen party at the local park. One of the giant girls grabs Horsey, and he holds on for dear life to her makeshift top straps as she dances around. When Mike objects, Fred sends him crashing into the bushes with one sweep of his hand.

Soon, the sheriff (Joe Turkel) and his deputy show up and demand that the overgrown teens vacate the park. (Somehow, none of the partygoers or the sheriff seem particularly alarmed at the presence of a group of giant delinquents, as if they were more a nuisance than a threat to life and limb.)

Lobby card - The gang of teenaged giants in Village of the Giants (1965)
The giant teens look down on the puny citizens of Hainesville with disdain.

The next day the sheriff confronts the overgrown youths at their theater lair and tells them to get out of Dodge (er, Hainesville). But they’ve got an ace up their giant toga sleeves: they’ve kidnapped the sheriff’s young daughter and are holding her hostage. Fred announces that it’s a new regime -- adults are out and giant teens are in.

He issues a list of demands, including a 9 pm curfew for adults, public speech must be pre-approved by the group, a work party of adults is to be formed to bring the group food, all communication with the outside world must be suspended, and all guns and ammo are to be rounded up and delivered to the theater. Uh-oh. As they say, power tends to corrupt, and being a giant corrupts absolutely.

Will Mike, Nancy and friends rescue the sheriff’s daughter and overthrow Fred’s tyrannical regime? Will Genius come up with an antidote to the Goo to save humanity from the threat of petulant 30-foot somethings with hormonal attitudes? These are monumental questions.

And now for the airing of grievances…

Extraneous dance numbers. At the risk of sounding like one of the dour town elders from Footloose, there is a lot of dancing in Village of the Giants. I mean… a … lot … The bad teens dance in slow motion in the semi-psychedelic titles sequence, then there’s the sensual mud dancing, then there’s the big party at the dance club with everyone, including the two giant ducks, shimmying to the tunes of the Beau Brummels ***, then there’s a close-up of a go-go dancer (Toni Basil as “Red”), then there’s a reprise of the giants dancing in slo-mo in the park, and then there’s Red dancing in front of Fred and the boys to distract them while some of the good kids try to rescue the sheriff’s daughter… whew! I get it that this is a youth picture, but most of these scenes could have been cut down to size.

On the upside: The slow-motion dancing with the kids decked out in make-shift togas is almost hypnotic, the theme-music has a nice beat, and the Beau Brummels dance club song isn’t bad either.

Lobby card - The giant teens dance in Village of the Giants (1965)
There is sooo much dancing! So very, very much...

Shifting tone and mood. IMDb lists Village as first and foremost a comedy, but this is not your ‘60s era light fantasy-comedy like The Shaggy Dog or The Absent Minded Professor. Village’s tone veers wildly from light (e.g., cute little Ronnie Howard patiently explaining his experiments using polysyllabic chemical compound names) to dark (kidnapping the sheriff’s daughter with an implied threat of violence) to light again, causing whiplash of the brain. The worst instance is showing the giant ducks happily dancing and flapping their wings at the dance club (cute!), and then in the next scene displaying their giant plucked carcasses on a barbecue spit as the teens gather round to munch on them. Oh the humanity!

Lobby card - The giant ducks from Village of the Giants (1965)
Little do they know that they will soon be guests of honor at a community barbecue.

Variable special effects. As mentioned above, filmmaker Bert I. Gordon’s reach for all things BIG in his movies often exceeded his grasp. Gordon reached for the sky in Village, featuring, in addition to the giant teenagers, a giant cat, dog, two ducks and a big-ass spider. In his autobiography, Gordon described a number of techniques he used on Village, including traveling mattes, rear projection, and wide angle shots from a low angle to force the perspective. [Bert I. Gordon, The Amazing Colossal Worlds of Mr. B.I.G.: An Autobiographical Journey, 2009, pp. 72-85]

Unmentioned is the film’s cheesiest and most laughable effect: A pair of 10 foot tall legs, complete with simulated hair, constructed for a scene in which some of the town’s teenagers, riding around on motorcycles and in hotrods, try to lasso and trip up Fred as he steps outside. The legs, which look like they’re made out of paper mache, don’t move at all during the way-too-long scene, making them unintentionally comical (at least I think it’s unintentional).

Another pseudo-effect is filming the giant teens in sloowwww-moootion, emphasizing their ponderous size, while intercutting with shots of the town’s normal-sized citizens scurrying around at normal speed. This makes the normies look like Keystone Kops tripping over each other. It's funny in an odd sort of way.

On the upside: The shots of a panicked Johnny Crawford dangling from the giant girl as she swirls around are memorable (if you're into that sort of thing). Mr. B.I.G. apparently liked this effect a lot, as it’s prominently featured on the original poster.

Still - The teens lasso Fred from their hot rods in Village of the Giants (1965)
Fred's giant legs are down for the count after the Hainesville Hot Rod Rodeo.

And now for the Festivus feat of mental strength and acuity…

It’s your turn! From the cast list, can you guess who was an actual teenager at the time and who was not?

  • Mike - Tommy Kirk
  • Nancy - Charla Doherty
  • Horsey - Johnny Crawford
  • Fred - Beau Bridges
  • Rick - Robert Random
  • Merrie - Joy Harmon
  • Jean - Tisha Sterling (daughter of Ann Sothern)
  • Pete - Tim Rooney (son of Mickey Rooney)

I dare you to witness the far-out grooviness on display here:

Where to find it: The MST3K version is available on multiple streaming platforms; For a rad Blu-ray copy, try here.

* In other words, not very succinct.
**Juvenile delinquency is not so much a thing anymore, since today’s pressure to cultivate and protect one’s social media image means that a teenager (or pre-teen for that matter) can scarcely put down his/her smart phone long enough to get into trouble.
***The Beau Brummels was a San Francisco rock band formed in 1964. When Village was released in 1965 they were red hot, with smash hit singles Laugh, Laugh and Just a Little debuting that year.

November 13, 2022

Film Noir's Most Wanted: Raymond Burr

Years before Raymond Burr became a good guy defending the innocent as Perry Mason and fighting crime as Ironside, he gave new meaning to the word heavy in a string of crime pictures and film noirs from the late ‘40s through the mid-’50s.

Canadian by birth, Burr was born in 1917 in New Westminster, British Columbia. When still a young boy, his mother moved the family to Vallejo, California. Raymond was sent to military school, where he was mercilessly teased because of his weight. At 17 he quit school to join Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which gave him the opportunity to work a variety of jobs.

Burr soon gravitated to acting, working summer stock in Toronto, traveling to Europe for a stint at a UK repertory company and a singing gig at a Paris nightclub (!?), then heading back to California for more acting work at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Raymond Burr, one of film noir's leading villains

With that experience under his belt, Burr decided to try his luck on Broadway. By 1943, good reviews for his performance in the play The Duke in Darkness attracted the attention of Hollywood, and he soon had a contract with RKO.

After the war, Burr’s film debut was in an RKO comedy, Without Reservations (1946). But the physically imposing, intense-looking actor was quickly destined for villain roles, appearing as the bad guy in three 1947 films: San Quentin (as an escaped convict), Code of the West (as a typical western black hat), and Desperate (as a revenge-seeking mobster). A new (dark) star was born.

The star of Desperate, Steve Brodie, took credit for starting Burr down the villainous path:

“Ray was… testing for a biblical part, so I suggested his name to the producer, Michael Kraike, for our picture.” … Kraike liked the idea, and for the next decade villain roles were about the only parts Raymond Burr played.” [Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, “Raymond Burr,” in Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, McFarland, 2003, pp. 70-1.]

Those who only know Raymond Burr as the unflappable defense lawyer Perry Mason might be surprised at how flappable and violent he could be in these early roles. If anything, Burr was heftier than in his later Perry Mason days, an intimidating brick wall of a man in a bulky suit and fedora and wearing a permanent scowl for good measure -- the perfect noir antagonist.

Anyone doing villain roles in Hollywood during this period would have been hard pressed to avoid the kinds of crime pictures that came to be known as film noir. In her book Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, Karen Burroughs Hannsberry counts nine noirs on Burr’s resume. IMDb lists 21 noirs and near-noirs to his credit.

Without further ado, here’s a “rap sheet” of some of Burr’s more notable film noir appearances:

Poster - Desperate (1947)
As Walt Radak in Desperate (1947)

Wanted for:
Grand larceny
Transportation of stolen goods
Attempted murder

Case file summary: Steven Randall (Steve Brodie), a hard-up truck driver, needs work fast because his wife is expecting a baby. He signs up for a driving gig with an old childhood acquaintance, Walt Radak, but soon learns that he’ll be transporting stolen goods. Randall is coerced into going through with the job, but at the staging area, he manages to get the attention of a nearby policeman.

In the resulting shoot-out, the policeman is killed, and Walt’s kid brother Al (Larry Nunn) is charged with murder. Al is sentenced to death, and Randall flees town with his pregnant wife to avoid Radak’s wrath. The gang leader relentlessly tracks down the frightened couple, determined to kill Randall at the same time that his brother is executed in prison.

Walt Radak [to Randall]: “In fifteen minutes they're going to throw the switch on Al, and you're going with him... both of you at the same time. It's not very much to do for my own brother, but it's something. It's all I can do now, I guess. Guess Al's already had his last dinner. You might as well have yours too.” [IMDb

Raymond Burr as Walt Radak in Desperate (1947)

Poster - Raw Deal (1948)
As Rick Coyle in Raw Deal (1948)

Wanted for:
Aiding and abetting
Aggravated assault

Case file summary: Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe), is serving time in prison for a botched robbery masterminded by his boss, Rick Coyle (Burr). Coyle, fearing Sullivan will rat him out, arranges for Joe to escape, but sets him up to be shot during the attempt.

Against the odds, Sullivan makes good on the escape with his girl Pat (Claire Trevor) and his lawyer’s assistant Ann (Marsha Hunt), in tow. Learning of his boss’ attempted double cross, Sullivan decides to go after Coyle for the $50,000 he’s owed.

Coyle: “He [Sullivan] was screaming he wanted out. When a man screams, I don’t like it. He might scream loud enough for the D.A. to hear. I don’t want to hurt the D.A.’s ears. He’s sensitive.” [Hannsberry, p. 72]

Raymond Burr in Raw Deal (1948)

Poster - Pitfall (1948)
As J.B. MacDonald in Pitfall (1948)

Wanted for:
Conspiracy to commit murder

Case file summary: The humdrum middle-class life of married insurance investigator John Forbes (Dick Powell) takes a sharp turn into danger when he meets beautiful and alluring Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), girlfriend of convicted embezzler Bill Smiley (Byron Barr). Originally intending to retrieve stolen items from Mona for his company, he falls hard for her instead.

Complications ensue when J.B. MacDonald (Burr), an unbalanced private eye working for the insurance company, becomes obsessed with Mona and wants her for himself. He stalks Mona, and plans to set up Smiley, who is soon to be released from prison, to eliminate his competition for Mona’s affections.

 MacDonald: “She probably doesn't appeal to you but for me, she's just what I told the doctor to order.” [IMDB]

Publicity Still - Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr in Pitfall (1948)

Poster - His Kind of Woman (1951)
As Nick Ferraro in His Kind of Woman (1951)

Wanted for:
Conspiracy to commit murder
Assault with a deadly weapon

Case file summary: Crime boss Nick Ferraro (Burr) has been deported to his native Italy, but plots to return to the States. Ferraro has his henchmen offer down-on-his-luck gambler Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) $50K to stay at a toney Mexican resort, where he plans to kill Milner and assume his identity.

En route to Mexico, Milner meets wealthy heiress Lenore Brent (Rosalind Russell), who wows him with her beauty and vivaciousness. At the resort, the initially clueless Milner encounters a cast of eccentric characters, including has-been actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), any one of whom may or may not be in on the dastardly plot.

Ferraro: “I want him [Milner] to be fully conscious. I don't like to shoot a corpse. I want to see the expression on his face when he knows it's coming.” [IMDb]

Still - Robert Mitchum and Raymond Burr in His Kind of Woman (1951)

Poster - The Blue Gardenia (1953)
As Harry Prebble in The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Wanted for:

Case file summary: When Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) learns that her fiancé stationed overseas has fallen in love with someone else, she goes on a blind rebound date at the Blue Gardenia nightclub with Harry Prebble (Burr), a cheesecake photographer and professional lounge lizard. Harry gets Norah drunk on multiple cocktails, and takes her back to his apartment with less than honorable intentions.

Norah fends Harry off with a fireplace poker and flees back to her apartment. Waking up the next morning with no clear memory of the previous night’s events, she is shocked to discover that Harry is dead, and the police are looking for a mystery woman who just happens to be her. Norah realizes her only hope is to enlist the aid of a newspaper columnist, Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), who has dubbed the mystery suspect “The Blue Gardenia murderess.”

Harry Prebble: “These aren't really drinks. They're trade-winds across cool lagoons. They're the Southern Cross above coral reefs. They're a lovely maiden bathing at the foot of a waterfall.” [IMDb]

Still - Anne Baxter and Raymond Burr in The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Bonus Burr: Two Gorilla-noirs

Poster - Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

Written and directed by Curt Siodmak, creator of The Wolf Man, this entertainingly cheesy B features Burr as Barney Chavez, the manager of a remote South American plantation. Barney is in lust with beautiful Dina Van Gelder (Barbara Payton), wife of the plantation’s owner. Barney kills his boss to get to his wife, but his crime is witnessed by a local witch-woman (Gisela Werbisek), who puts the curse of the “Sukara” on him, whereby he turns into a rampaging gorilla by night. Is Barney truly a were-gorilla, or is it all in his head? The local police commissioner (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and doctor (Tom Conway) are on the case.

 Police Commissioner Taro (narrating): “This is Jungle - lush, green, alive with incredible growth - as young as day, as old as time. … Isn't it beautiful? But I have also learned that beauty can be venomous, deadly, something terrifying, something of prehistoric ages when monstrous superstitions ruled the minds of men … something that has haunted the world for millions of years rose out of that verdant labyrinth.” [IMDb]

Stills - Barbara Payton and Raymond Burr in Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

Poster - Gorilla at Large (1954)
Gorilla at Large (1954)

This simian pot-boiler, filmed in 3-D, features Burr as Cy Miller, owner of a carnival called “The Garden of Evil.” The main act features a beautiful trapeze artist, Laverne Miller (Anne Bancroft), who teases Goliath, a killer gorilla, as she swings dangerously close above his head. Cy comes up with the idea of having carnival barker Joey Matthews (Cameron Mitchell) dress up in a gorilla suit and catch Laverne each night as she falls from the trapeze. Soon, various carnies are turning up dead -- could it be Goliath, or someone dressed in the gorilla suit? Detective Sgt. Garrison (Lee J. Cobb) has to sort out the mystery amidst a love quadrangle consisting of Cy, Laverne, Joey and Joey’s fiancée Audrey (Charlotte Austin).

Sgt. Garrison: “You've always been this alert, Shaughnessy?”
Shaughnessy: “Always on my toes!”
Sgt. Garrison: “Well, get off 'em. You're a cop, not a ballet dancer.” [IMDb

Lobby card - Gorilla at Large (1954)

October 28, 2022

Who's minding the asylum?: Alone in the Dark

Poster - Alone in the Dark, 1982
Now Playing:
Alone in the Dark (1982)

Pros: Great cast led by Donald Pleasence, Jack Palance and Martin Landau; Good building of tension; Lots of sly black humor
Cons: Casting two familiar actors in the maniac roles somewhat undermines the characters’ menace

Even though the end of October is my busiest time during my favorite season, when I saw that fellow bloggers Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry from Cinematic Catharsis were hosting a Donald Pleasence blogathon, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.

I first encountered Mr. Pleasence when my parents took me to see The Great Escape at the fancy cinema in the big city. In this great WWII epic set in a German prisoner of war camp, Pleasence plays Blythe, an unassuming little man that no one would look twice at -- except that he is a master forger, and the men planning their escape from the camp need his help creating ID papers. Ironically, he was very prepared for the role. During the war Pleasence was a crew member on an RAF bomber that was shot down over France, and he spent time in just such a camp.

For my next encounter, I stood in a long line at the local downtown theater to see You Only Live Twice (naturally, this was before the era of multiplexes). Pleasence’s turn as the Bond super villain Blofeld is memorable. Blofeld, his face hidden behind a screen, strokes his beautiful Persian cat as he orders his minions around in a quest for world domination. Later on, the reveal of his scarred face is worthy of a horror film, and You Only Live Twice immediately became my new favorite movie (not that I needed any excuse to like James Bond movies at that age).

Somehow, this diminutive, soft-spoken, professorial-looking man could play the most endearing, gentle person in one film and then make your blood run cold the next. Speaking of blood running cold, while Pleasence was by no means a horror specialist, he made his fair share of horror films, enough for at least a couple of Halloween film festivals.

Donald Pleasence as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, 1967
Blofeld suddenly realized that in his haste
to blackmail world leaders, he forgot
to pick up more kitty litter.

One of his earliest and best horror roles was as the slimy Mr. Hare in The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), the creepiest retelling of the infamous Burke and Hare story that you’ve never heard of (see my review here). In the early ‘60s, guest shots on such spooky TV series as One Step Beyond, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits indicated his potential for creepy roles.

By the early ‘70s, the horror roles became more numerous. Pleasence played an inspector in the claustrophobic cult horror Death Line (aka Raw Meat, 1972), then a mad doctor in The Freakmakers (aka The Mutations, 1974). Along the way were memorable appearances in the anthology fright fests Tales that Witness Madness (1973) and From Beyond the Grave (1974). Whether he was playing good guys or villains, he always lent an aura of class to these low-budget films.

Pleasence is perhaps best remembered for his role as Dr. Loomis, Michael Myer’s attending psychiatrist and grim adversary in the Halloween film franchise. Although horror movies traditionally have portrayed psychiatrists as hopelessly naïve and easily duped by the depraved psychopaths they’re treating, Loomis is famously clear-eyed and adamant in the original Halloween: “I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil.”

A few years after uttering that severe judgment, Pleasence would play yet another psychiatrist in a horror film, only this time his character, Dr. Leo Bain, would be the complete opposite of Loomis -- idealistic and naïve to a deadly fault.

Like many slasher films, Alone in the Dark (1982) operates in a Dirty Harry kind of world where do-gooders who believe criminals can be reformed and lunatics can be cured (or at least controlled) are setting themselves up to be lambs to the slaughter.

The slaughterers in this case are a quartet of psychos who occupy the third floor of an institution run by Dr. Bain. Bain doesn’t like the loaded term “asylum,” preferring to call his institution “The Haven.”

Donald Pleasence as Dr. Bain in Alone in the Dark, 1982
The New Age psychiatrist in his natural habitat.

Bain’s Haven is home to all kinds of crazies, er, um ill people, but the boys on the third floor are psychopaths with a history of murder and mayhem. “Fatty” Elster (Erland van Lidth) is an obese child molester. John “The Bleeder” Skaggs (Phillip Clark), who doesn’t like to show his face, is a strangler who gets severe nosebleeds when he kills. Byron “Preacher” Sutcliff (Martin Landau) is a former minister who believes he’s on a mission from God, and has a tendency to burn down churches with people inside them. The leader of the group, Hawkes (Jack Palance), is a grizzled war veteran with a severe case of homicidal post-traumatic stress disorder.

As Bain is giving a tour to his newest staff doctor, Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz), he explains that the state authorities were at first nervous about Bain keeping these dangerous inmates, but let it go when he installed electric sensor-operated steel shutters that allow the men to roam the floor, but are activated if they try to leave their confines. Later, the third floor orderly Ray Curtis (Brent Jennings) confides to Potter that all that separates him (and the outside world) from these men is electricity. He also warns the new doctor that Hawkes is convinced that Potter killed his predecessor, Dr. Merton, who left The Haven to take another position.

Potter brushes off Curtis’ warning about Hawkes, chalking it up to a typical inmate’s delusion. But, unlike the smugly confident Dr. Potter, we know just where this is heading -- the power is going to go off, the third floor inmates will escape, and there will be hell to pay.

Jack Palance as Col. Hawkes in Alone in the Dark, 1982
"DR. POTTER!! ... Happy...trails..."

Coming out in 1982, Alone in the Dark rode the wave of slasher films that followed in the wake of the surprise hits Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). Slashers seemed like a natural fit for a Zeitgeist molded by Vietnam, Watergate, oil shortages, stagflation and rising crime, where trust in authorities and a society that could keep us safe and secure was at an all-time low. Slasher films taught us that no place was safe, not small towns, big cities, summer camps, sorority houses… zip, zero, zilch. Even Reagan’s “Morning in America” couldn’t tamp down these exceedingly dark films.

Alone in the Dark is a classic artifact of its time, and a relentless indictment of it: authorities are incompetent and clueless, and society is just one power blackout away from savage chaos.

Exhibit #1 in the list of indictments is Dr. Bain. Bain is the ultimate touchy-feely, new-agey intellectual who doesn’t seem to be living on the same planet as the rest of humanity. He tells Potter that the Haven’s inmates aren’t patients, but rather “voyagers taking a journey into the innermost reaches of the psyche.”

Bain values the voyagers’ welfare to the point that he is oblivious to the dangers they pose to the outside world. He indulges the firebug “Preacher” by giving him matches, which the man promptly uses to light his coat on fire and swing it wildly around.

Later, after Hawkes & crew have made their escape and are racking up a body count, Bain frets that the men are “still disturbed by their escape,” and their violence is “a cry of pain.” In another bit of black humor, Bain tries to phone Potter’s home, but the line has been cut. He argues with the operator, who can’t convince him the line is out. When she ends the call with a sarcastic remark, Bain mutters to himself “Now she’s got a serious problem!” In playing the part absolutely straight, Pleasence manages to elicit a bit of sympathy for a character that is otherwise dangerously out-of-touch.

More deserving of sympathy is Dr. Potter, whose decision to take a new job at the Haven turns out to be the worst of his life. Moving your family to a new place is hard enough without the homicidal inmates at your new workplace deciding that you’ve killed their beloved doctor, and then being set free by a freak power blackout to stalk you and your loved ones.

Bain and Potter on the grounds of The Haven, Alone in the Dark, 1982
Bain and Potter discuss the wisdom of giving matches to pyromaniacs.

Even before that particular sh*t hits the fan, Potter is stressed after his tour of the facilities and observance of Dr. Bain’s decidedly unique methods for handling the residents. His wife Nell (Deborah Hedwall) is skeptical, flippantly asking “Why can’t you just get an office and treat neurotics like a normal person?”

To add insult to injury, Potter's neurotic, needy sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allen) is visiting for the week, and, dressed in a punk outfit and pink hair, she insists on dragging her brother and sister-in-law to a punk rock concert headlined by The Sick F*cks (a real band, it turns out). The only member of the family who seems unaffected by all the turmoil is the Potter’s young daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward), who calls her parents by their first names and has the grating self-confidence of a precocious pre-teen.

It’s while the group is at the concert that the power goes out. Potter is grateful for the reprieve from the musical stylings of the Sick F*cks, but little does he know that the outage has set in motion a chain of events that will end up with he and his family holed up in their house, trying to dodge crossbow arrows and hunting knife blades wielded by another band of truly sick f*cks.

Living in our current age of anxiety, it’s easy to forget that there have been other periods when popular opinion held that we were well and truly screwed. In addition to Dr. Bain’s questionable authority -- it’s tempting to think that he’s not a real doctor, but one of the inmates running the asylum -- Alone in the Dark depicts a world that is ready to crumble into chaos at a moment’s notice.

The blackout turns the quiet little town into a seething mass of rioters and looters. When Hawkes and his band arrive in town in their stolen car, they’re completely in their element. Hawkes looks around at the cars on fire and the broken store windows and beams with satisfaction, like a victorious general surveying the battlefield. As the inmates join a crowd of looters at the sporting goods store and help themselves to all kinds of knives and weapons, they’re barely noticed in all the confusion.

The maniacs loot the local sporting goods store, Alone in the Dark, 1982
The boys help themselves to sale items at the local sporting goods store.

It’s probably no coincidence that the two most colorful Haven escapees are an ex-military man and an ex-preacher. Along with Bain representing medical science, Hawkes and Sutcliff are highly dubious representatives of their respective institutions. Alone in the Dark suggests that not only are the inmates running the asylum, they’re threatening to run the whole world.

But Bain, Hawkes and Sutcliff aren’t the film’s only digs at contemporary society. At one point, as the Potters are trying to deal with the consequences of the blackout, an announcer on the radio playing in the background reads a press release from the local nuclear power station denying any responsibility for the power outage (corporate speak for “we’re as guilty as hell, but just try to prove it!”). That's Toni's cue to be “helpful” once again and drag sister-in-law Nell to a huge protest at the plant.

She only manages to get Nell and herself jailed for disturbing the peace. And through parental miscommunication, Lyla is home alone. Uh-oh!

Alone in the Dark does a masterful job of ratcheting up the tension, slowly at first, with the “something’s not quite right here” tour of The Haven, to the maniacs casing the Potter’s home (the Preacher pretends to be a telegram messenger, and Fatty poses as Lyla’s babysitter), to the all-out assault on the family at the climax.

Martin Landau, Erland van Lidth and Jack Palance in Alone in the Dark, 1982
The boys enjoy a ride around town.

Along the way, in addition to the sly commentary, it also has fun with slasher tropes (or should I say, plot elements that were soon to become tropes in the ‘80s). There’s the classic clueless babysitter who, after making sure the kid is asleep, invites her boyfriend over to fool around. The writers set up a clever bit of misdirection when she hears strange sounds, and insists that the boyfriend check out the bedroom closet.

The stellar, high-profile cast, especially Jack Palance and Martin Landau, is the film’s biggest asset and at the same time its biggest weakness. Palance, no matter the role, always looked like he was ready to explode at any moment, and is a perfect fit for the hand-grenade-without-a-pin that is Hawkes. And when Landau breaks into his wide-eyed, evil-Joker smile, he sends chills up the spine.

But the atmosphere of dread that Alone in the Dark takes pains to cultivate is undercut by making the characters a little too familiar, what with their background stories and recognizable faces. By contrast, the unseen killer in the original Friday the 13th is a complete surprise at the end, and Halloween’s Michael Myers is an evil enigma, a “shape” behind a rubber mask.

This was not the only horror film Palance and Landau would make together. A couple of years earlier, the two appeared in Without Warning (1980), a low-budget sci-fi/horror film featuring a Predator-like alien hunting humans in the woods.

Martin Landau puts on his best maniacal smiley face in Alone in the Dark, 1982
"Heeeerrrrrrrrrrre's Byron!"

Both would go on to score dark horse supporting actor Oscar wins, Palance for City Slickers (1991) and Martin Landau for Ed Wood (1994). And of course, Donald Pleasence would become a fixture as Loomis in one of the most successful horror film franchises of all time.

Alone in the Dark was writer-director Jack Sholder’s first feature, and it’s quite a debut. In the next few years he made two more minor cult favorites, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) and The Hidden (1987), then settled into directing TV movies and episodes.

When I found out about the blogathon and was perusing Donald Pleasence’s IMDb resume for a good Halloween choice (excluding the Halloween movies, which others have written about extensively), Alone in the Dark jumped out at me because I had no recollection of ever seeing it or even reading about it. I’m not a big fan of slasher movies, but I’m at least aware of the classics and some of the also-rans in the genre, so stumbling across an unknown (to me) horror film starring not only Donald, but Jack and Martin as well was a Pleasence surprise (sorry, I couldn't help myself).

Usually in these cases, the reason I’ve never heard of a film is because it’s so bad even bad movie lovers have steered clear over the years. Since Alone in the Dark is very good, it remains a mystery how it evaded my attention all this time. Thanks to Gill and Barry and their Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasence blogathon for indirectly steering me to this great find!

The Potters react with horror as the maniacs surround the house - Alone in the Dark, 1982
Alone in the Dark is a good reminder that it pays to be prepared for emergencies
like power blackouts and/or homicidal maniacs invading your home.

Where to find it: DVD/Blu-ray | Streaming

The Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasence Blogathon

October 14, 2022

Zombie Dearest: A Selective Look at Pre-Romero Zombie Movies

I’ve said it on this blog before and I’ll say it again: I’m not a big fan of the endless hordes of plague-spawned zombies that have shambled their way across movie and TV screens ever since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead opened up the flood gates. For me, modern zombies are too abstract a threat, too numerous, and too interchangeable to be all that interesting after you’ve seen a handful of these shows.

I get it that apocalyptic zombies are just there to get the survivalist drama going, whereby we learn something about ourselves -- the good, the bad and ugly -- through characters desperately trying to get by in a desolate and dangerous world. But for me, the relentless survivalist thing with hardly a glimmer of hope gets awfully old awfully fast.

In contrast to the bleakness of a zombified world, I prefer my horrors to be more up close and personal and not quite so earth shattering. With more traditional horror, you can have your monsters and beat them too. When it comes to creating zombies, Voodoo practitioners and mad doctors are a lot more tangible and colorful than viruses or experimental gasses. And they make great foils in the eternal struggle of good vs. evil -- defeating a living, breathing mad person is so much more satisfying.

Zombies in the Great Depression

Poster - White Zombie, 1932
Voodoo-style zombies got their start in Hollywood around the same time that Dracula and Frankenstein debuted for Universal Pictures. In fact, it was Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, as the enigmatic and aptly named “Murder” Legendre, who conjured up the first cinematic zombies in White Zombie (1932).

Legendre is the sinister foreman on a Haitian plantation owned by Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Legendre is worth his weight in gold to Beaumont, as he is able to create zombies out of the local population who are absolutely obedient and work for nothing (Jeff Bezos, take note). When Beaumont meets Neil and Madeline (John Harron and Madge Bellamy), an attractive young couple who are engaged to be married, he invites them to stay at his mansion and have the ceremony there.

Of course, the creepy old rich guy has designs on the beautiful girl, and he has his Voodoo-master henchman Legendre turn Madeline into a zombie so that he can have her for himself. Beaumont quickly realizes his mistake, as zombies are not exactly the life of the party, and orders Legendre to restore Madeline to life. When Legendre refuses, it becomes apparent who really runs the show (hint: it’s the guy with the platoon of zombies under his control). Legendre seems to be riding high, but Neil and a local missionary, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), may have something to say about that.

Although not well-received at the time, over the years White Zombie’s reputation has returned from the dead to be regarded as an example of the triumph of creepy atmosphere and moody black and white cinematography over stilted acting. According to Bela Jr., the film was a personal favorite of his father’s. But it was also an early indicator of bad career decisions that would haunt Lugosi throughout his life -- for years afterward he regretted taking a paltry sum upfront instead of a cut of the robust box office receipts. 

Still - Frederick Peters and Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, 1932
"Stick with me kid and you'll go places!"

Zombies go to war

While it was no Night of the Living Dead, White Zombie inspired more than a few imitators. Next out of the gate was Revolt of the Zombies (1936), which was not so much an imitation as a follow-up to White Zombie made by the same producers and director. Set shortly after World War I, Revolt switches locales from Haiti to the exotic temples of Cambodia, where an expedition sent by the Allied Command is rummaging around, looking for the arcane “Secret of the Zombies” (shades of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark!).

One of the eggheads attached to the expedition, Armand (Dean Jagger), stumbles upon the secret of making zombies, and uses his newfound power to intimidate the only female member of the group, Claire Duval (Dorothy Stone), who loves another.

The outbreak of World War II couldn’t stop the advance of zombies in the B movie units of Hollywood. Initially, the movie villains exploiting zombies shifted from evil plantation owners and Voodoo followers to Nazi operatives using their arcane knowledge to subvert the allied cause.

Poster - King of the Zombies, 1941
Monogram Pictures, King of the “Poverty Row” studios specializing in B programmers, made near-identical twin zombie pictures in the early ‘40s. King of the Zombies (1941) and Revenge of the Zombies (1943) share so many plot points and themes (and two cast members), that they’re easy to get confused with one another:

✔ Both feature suave doctors who turn out to be Nazi spies using Voodoo and zombies to further their sinister aims (Dr. Sangre in King, played by Henry Viktor, and Dr. Von Altermann in Revenge, played by John Carradine).

✔ Both doctors have beautiful wives who walk around in a catatonic state (I’ll leave it to you to guess why).

✔ Instead of just one rock-jawed protagonist, the films opt for a tag-team bro duo who for much of the time are maddeningly clueless to all the creepy stuff happening in front of their noses (Dick Purcell and John Archer in King; Robert Lowery and Mauritz Hugo in Revenge).

✔ Both feature an attractive female second lead for romantic subplot purposes (Sangre’s niece played by Joan Woodbury and Von Altermann’s secretary played by Gale Storm).

✔ Both Doctors’ households are run by Madame Sul-Te-Wan, who, according to IMBDb, was the first African-American actress to secure a contract with a major studio.

Poster - Revenge of the Zombies, 1943
✔ And then there is the dubious comic relief of bug-eyed Manton Moreland, who plays a superstitious valet in both. Monogram could still get away with such stereotyped characters in the ‘40s. Manton’s routines were so popular that he was a regular go-to character actor for the studio, appearing in a recurring role in their Charlie Chan series (and often getting favorable billing). Even though Moreland jumps at every shadow that crosses his path, to be fair, he is far more perceptive than his obtuse bosses, who couldn’t sense danger if it walked up and slapped ‘em silly.

The biggest distinction between the two films, such as it is, is the scope of the villains’ ambitions. In King, Sangre, partnering with the Voodoo priestess played by Madame Sul-Te-Wan, attempts Voodoo soul transference (!?) on a Navy admiral he has captured in order to extract defense secrets. (This being 1941, shortly before the U.S. entered the war, the government Sangre is working for is unnamed...wink, wink.)

A couple of years later, with the U.S. fully immersed in the fight against the Germans and Japanese, Revenge ups the ante considerably, making Von Altermann into a mad Nazi doctor intent on creating an army of zombies to turn the tide of the war.

Will the dense protagonists get wise in time to foil the nefarious plots? Will the more handsome of the pair get the girl? Will Manton Moreland’s belief in zombies be vindicated? Take a wild guess.

Lobby card - Revenge of the Zombies, 1943

War-weary zombies

As the global conflict ground on, movie-makers scaled back the war themes in their B programmers in deference to audiences who simply wanted to forget their troubles for a couple of hours at the theater.

Auteur B movie producer Val Lewton wisely set his 1943 film I Walked with a Zombie on a fictional Caribbean island, and borrowed liberally from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in telling the atmospheric tale of a young nurse (Frances Dee), who begins to believe that the expressionless, sleep-walking wife of her wealthy employer (Tom Conway) is really a zombie.

Lewton carries on the tradition of having a beautiful wife under a zombie spell, but also includes one of the creepiest male zombies ever for good measure. And thankfully, there’s not a whiff of war or spies or mad Nazi doctors.

Darby Jones' zombie scared the snot of me when I first saw I Walked with a Zombie.

Lewton’s film is dark, moody, beautifully photographed, and includes some genuinely suspenseful moments. On the other end of the scale is producer Sam Katzman’s Voodoo Man (1944), which is as gloriously cheesy as Lewton’s film is somber and serious.

Voodoo Man has the distinction of being the first self-aware, meta-zombie movie in Hollywood history. Tod Andrews plays Ralph Dawson, a screenwriter working for Banner Pictures (the actual name of Katzman’s production company). The studio boss S.K. (uh-huh) summons Ralph to his office to assign him a horror script based on a ripped-from-the-headlines story of women who have mysteriously gone missing in the area. Ralph reminds him that he’s taking time off to get married and go on his honeymoon.

The hapless scenarist runs out of gas on the way to his fianceé’s house, and by chance is picked up by Sally (Louise Curry), who just happens to be the maid of honor and is headed to the house as well.

After they turn off on a detour in the middle of nowhere, Sally’s car dies. Ralph spots a nearby mansion, but is rebuffed at the door by a servant. When he gets back to the car, Sally is nowhere to be found. It seems that Ralph has stumbled into the missing girl mystery that S.K. wanted him to exploit.

Poster - Voodoo Man, 1944

At the center of the conspiracy is Dr. Richard Marlowe (Bela Lugosi), whose beautiful wife (Ellen Hall) is dead, but still able to walk around (you didn’t think they’d leave out the beautiful zombified wife, did you?). He needs healthy young women in order to transfer their life essences to his wife and restore her to the living. Marlowe is aided in his mad plan by Nicholas (George Zucco), the local gas station owner and Voodoo witch doctor (now there’s a unique skill set!), who identifies likely candidates and officiates at the transference ceremonies. John Carradine is on hand as half of a duo of mentally-challenged henchmen who do the actual kidnapping (a big comedown from his stint as the Nazi doctor in Revenge).

The ceremony is a marvel of B movie cheese, and it alone is worth looking up Voodoo Man. As master of ceremonies, the normally professorial-looking Zucco sports a feathered headdress, facial paint and a classic magician’s robe with stars and crosses. His dignity takes a further hit when he’s given lines like: “Ramboona is all powerful!” (All powerful, yes, but apparently Ramboona helps those who help themselves to unwary young women.)

Lugosi’s outfit is more restrained, but he gets the best lines of all as he facilitates the soul/life force transference. He summons up his best halting Dracula voice as he intones over and over, “Mind…to…mind, soul from body…to…body, emotion…to…emotion, life…to…death…” In the background, John Carradine's idiot henchman bangs on bongo drums (!?) with a vacant, almost zombie-like look on his face.

There’s not a chance of suspense in something this silly, but there is one notable scene in which Carradine releases several young women, the product of previous failed experiments, from their cells in the basement. Dressed in their long-flowing ceremonial robes and staring ahead, lifeless, yet still ambulatory, they’re reminiscent of Dracula’s brides.

The self-awareness comes full circle at the end, when Dawson delivers a script titled "Voodoo Man" based on his experiences, and he suggests to S.K. that Bela Lugosi play the lead (cue the laugh track).

Years later, Sam Katzman would try his hand with yet another zombie movie, The Zombies of Mora Tau (1957). That one is about a group of zombie sailors guarding a sunken treasure. Despite the unique nautical angle, Mora Tau is deadly dull compared to the madcap antics of Voodoo Man.

Lobby card - Voodoo Man, 1944

Zombies in the big city

In an era of total war, traditional movie monsters seemed lame and innocuous in comparison. So B movie makers embraced the lameness by increasingly mixing broad comedy with horror, often bringing together established comedic teams with horror icons. The result was pictures like Spooks Run Wild (1941) and Ghosts on the Loose (1943), in which Bela Lugosi serves as a foil for the comic pranks of the East Side Kids.

Poster - Zombies on Broadway, 1945
Several years before Universal decided to team up their stable of classic monsters with Abbott and Costello, RKO Radio Pictures jumped on the bandwagon by making a sort of sequel to the classic I Walked with a Zombie -- only this time featuring their own comic duo.

In Zombies on Broadway, two inept press agents, Jerry Miles and Walt Strager (Wally Brown and Alan Carney) are ordered by their gangster boss (Sheldon Leonard) to find a real living-dead zombie to appear at the opening of his new night club, The Zombie Hut. They travel to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian (the same fictional locale as the Lewton film), where a certain Dr. Renault (Bela Lugosi) has supposedly become an expert in creating zombies.

Needing help to find the elusive doctor, the boys team up with a beautiful nightclub singer, Jean La Dance (Anne Jeffreys), who in exchange wants a ride back to New York. Plans go awry when Jean is kidnapped by one of Renault’s zombies (Darby Jones, in the identical make-up he wore in I Walked with a Zombie), and Walt is zombified (but only temporarily) by the mad doctor.

By this point Lugosi, whose glory days were far behind him, was used to being upstaged by low-rent comedy acts in horror cheapies that exploited his name recognition. But just a few years later, Lugosi would have the last laugh (and the last big boost of his career) with yet another horror comedy, reprising his cherished Dracula role to wide acclaim in Universal’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). RKO, in recycling characters and locales from I Walked with a Zombie and bringing in Lugosi to share in the fun, provided a sort of dress rehearsal for Bela’s last big break at Universal.

Lobby card - Zombies on Broadway, 1945


As the Atomic Age dawned and the Cold War set in, supernatural zombies shuffled off the stage to make way for irradiated giant monsters and alien invaders. But you can’t keep the living dead down for long. Inevitably, zombies made a spectacular comeback via the imagination of an unassuming low-budget filmmaker named George Romero, and they’ve been overwhelming the earth ever since, powered by strange viruses instead of Voodoo.

Romero could scarcely imagine the endless zombie plagues that would be unleashed by Night of the Living Dead. But the old-time zombies are still around, waiting patiently on DVD and streaming sites for that special, nostalgic viewer to summon them.