June 2, 2024

A Trip Down Monster Kid Memory Lane with Roger Corman

The great Roger Corman, master of the quick and cheap exploitation picture, producer and distributor of hundreds of films, and mentor to a whole generation of influential filmmakers and actors, passed away on May 9th of this year at the age of 98.

Roger Corman on the set of The Trip (1967; Wikimedia Commons)

Rather than duplicate a career summary that you can get in a thousand different places on the web, I thought I’d honor Roger by reminiscing about his influence on this particular Monster Kid growing up in the midwest in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

I’ve told this story before, so bear with me if it feels like a case of deja vu all over again. Living in central Iowa in the mid-‘60s was Monster Kid Heaven. On Friday nights, one of the Des Moines TV stations ran sci-fi movies, introducing me to such thrilling delights as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and the like (there were also duds like Teenage Monster or Giant from the Unknown, but being a resilient kid, I took the bad with good and was grateful that my ever-suffering parents allowed me to stay up to watch this stuff at all).

Then on Saturday nights, my local station presented Gravesend Manor, which was hosted by the wacky ensemble cast of Malcolm, the butler of the manor, his vampire buddy the Duke, cigar-chomping Esmeralda, and Claude, the mute, put-upon assistant. Gravesend Manor was the icing on the weekend monster cake, showing selections from the Shock Theater package featuring the classic Universal monsters, with a few non-horror mysteries and thrillers thrown in (it was always a letdown when the familiar monsters failed to make an appearance, but on the up-side, anticipation would then build for the next week).

To say the least, the one-two, Friday-Saturday punch of sci-fi thrills and Universal monster chills made a deep mark on my very impressionable mind. After all, here I am, decades upon decades later, and I’m still revisiting these films and posting about them.

Newspaper ad from The Courier-Journal, June 9, 1957, Page 78, via Newspapers.com

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Roger Corman (and to give credit where it’s due, frequent writing collaborator Charles B. Griffith) had crept into my young head and were occupying it every bit as much as my beloved Universal monsters. I’d be lying to say I was impressed with every Corman film that showed up on Friday nights. I wouldn’t become familiar with the term “production values” until much later, but I knew cheap when I saw it.

These weren’t what you'd call polished pictures, but they still made an impression. For instance, the giant mutated crabs of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), with their lidded googly eyes and frowny faces, look like live-action cartoons. But there’s something very un-cartoony about the premise of giant irradiated crabs not only consuming human beings, but absorbing their consciousness and using that ability to lure more unsuspecting human prey into their maws (or whatever it is crabs eat with).

Okay, so giant crabs throwing their voices like ventriloquists, imitating the people they just ate for lunch is ridiculous on its face, but also creepy as hell. And then there’s the other doom facing the scientists -- the island they’re stranded on is quickly breaking up and falling into the sea. Even though the idea is wacky in the extreme, it still somehow resonated.

“The Most Terrifying Horror Ever Loosed on a Shuddering Earth!”

“A horror film has got to have something in every single scene, so the audience never has a chance to sit back for more than a moment. These films are constructed very carefully -- you do have to give people a few moments to relax and then come back into it. My main goal in Crab Monsters was to integrate tension into each scene, leading to the horror conclusion.” -- Roger Corman, The Movie World of Roger Corman (edited by J. Philip di Franco, Chelsea House, 1979)

Speaking of approaching Doom, it was Roger Corman who introduced 10-year-old me to the Apocalyptic variety via Last Woman on Earth (1960), an ultra-cheap fantasy-melodrama featuring a fatal love triangle between end-of-the-world survivors Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone and future Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (who, in addition to writing, took acting gigs while he was still getting his feet wet in Hollywood).

I know, I know -- what in the world was a 10 year old boy doing watching something like that? Well, it was on one of those precious late-night creature shows, and in the olden days before video on demand, you took what they gave you and liked it.

“Liked” is maybe too strong a word in the case of Last Woman. Compared to all-out nuclear war resulting in a decimated earth filled with irradiated mutants, Last Woman’s apocalypse is almost gentle -- the trio had been scuba diving in Puerto Rico when a mysterious event depleted all the oxygen in the atmosphere just long enough to kill off everyone not breathing through some sort of gear. The film is a mostly slow-moving affair, with the survivors wandering around, bickering among themselves until the inevitable climactic blow-up.

This was a guaranteed snoozer for a prepubescent Monster Kid, with one exception. As the trio is walking through the streets of San Juan wondering what the hell happened, they encounter the body of a little girl lying like a large rag doll on the sidewalk. Needless to say, this got my attention, since one of the great unwritten rules of film violence is that adults are fair game, but kids and dogs are not. Disturbing as it was (especially as I wasn’t much older than the girl), this scene made the film Memorable, and automatically exempted it from the mental Dud pile.

“On an island of tropical splendor, these three must make their own world, their own new code of morals...”

A definite Dud (at least at the time) was the other film Corman made while shooting down in Puerto Rico, Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). (Roger wanted the most bang for his buck when he invested in location shooting, so he was always looking to get an additional movie out of the deal.)

Featuring the same acting trio as Last Woman, Corman’s Creature is a comedy-horror mash-up about an American gangster who agrees to transport the deposed officials of a Caribbean banana republic to a safe harbor, but secretly plans to relieve them of their lives and treasure while blaming everything on a made-up sea monster.

Some of the comedy bits are cringey even for a 10-year-old, and the monster is comically cheap-looking, literally made from random household items. But screenwriter Charles Griffith’s premise is clever and adult for a cheap drive-in flick, and there are some wry comic moments to reward those who can look past its faults (see my full review here).

“It’s alright, be calm everybody, the boat’s insured!”

Much more in line with my Monster Kid sensibilities was Day the World Ended (1955), which was set in a more traditional apocalyptic post-nuclear war landscape, featuring a band of quarreling survivors threatened by a single (and singular) irradiated mutant (others are hinted at, but the budget apparently could only bear the cost of one monster suit).

Marty the Mutant, as the creature would come to be affectionately dubbed, was the creation of Paul Blaisdell, an independent effects artist who was highly ingenious and economical, and the go-to guy for several of Corman’s 50’s creatures. (Paul also saved costs by wearing the suit himself.)

Marty is positively demonic-looking, with pointed bat-like ears, horns growing out of his head, and three eyes (you scoff, but are you absolutely sure radiation from a nuclear war wouldn’t produce a Marty or two?). Marty’s evil looks are interesting enough, but he’s also somewhat sympathetic, with a psychic connection to one of the normie survivors that puts him a grade above the typical ‘50s B monster.

“The Screen’s New High in Naked, Screaming Terror!”

But the ultimate Corman-Blaisdell creature collaboration was Beulah, the squat, fierce-looking Venusian vegetable monster from It Conquered the World (1956). Beulah didn't quite achieve the lofty goal of the title mainly because, for budgetary reasons, she tried the conquering thing all by herself.

Although she may not look it to the untrained eye, Beulah was the Corman-Blaisdell team’s highest-concept creature. Corman and Blaisdell reasoned that in such an alien environment as Venus’, vegetables rather than animals might have reached the highest stage of sentient being. That alone wasn’t groundbreaking, given that the humanoid alien in The Thing from Another World (1951) was supposed to be an ambulatory vegetable.

Blaisdell took it a step farther with the idea that any kind of humanoid would be crushed by Venus’ atmospheric pressure (not to mention melted by the heat, but we digress), so natural selection would favor some other form of body type. And so, the squat, conical would-be conqueror Beulah was born. Once again, Blaisdell wore the suit himself (which was more like a small parade float with moveable arms than a suit).

Like many such other slow-moving menaces, would-be victims had to almost throw themselves at the creature, but there’s no denying that Beulah is unique in the annals of B sci-fi. (For more on Beulah, click here.)

“The Most Terrifying Monster the Mind of Man Can Conceive!”

“The first day we were shooting [It Conquered the World], I took the creature out. Beverly Garland, the leading lady, went over and looked at the creature. Standing over it, she said, ‘So you’ve come to conquer the world, eh? Take that!' and she kicked it.” -- The Movie World of Roger Corman

(I love that these creatures have nicknames.While they don’t represent the height of creature effects even for the time, they are wackily idiosyncratic with their exaggerated, frowning monster faces, and a refreshing change from all the giant insects and various other enlarged monsters that proliferated during the decade.)

This post wouldn’t be complete without addressing one other solitary invader from the ‘50s Corman archive. A year after Beulah failed to conquer the world, Corman had another alien set up shop in Southern California. Although he was Not of This Earth, Paul Johnson (Paul Birch) could definitely pass for human by covering up his cloudy, all-white eyes with dark glasses. Lacking a creature like Beulah, Not of This Earth (1957) had to compensate with some other-worldly ideas.

Johnson, looking like the original Man in Black, is an alien from the planet Davana who has come to Earth in search of uncontaminated blood (it seems his people have been sickened with blood disease as the result of a nuclear war.) To aid in his mission, Johnson has a matter transporter and holographic communicator installed in a closet (!) of his comfortable ranch-style home.

Posing as a man with a mysterious blood disease, Johnson enlists the unwitting aid of a doctor and nurse (Beverly Garland) to receive regular blood transfusions. The stakes couldn’t be higher: if the transfusions work, Johnson’s home planet will invade and subjugate the earth for access to healthy human blood. If they don’t, the earth will be destroyed.

I confess I was not too impressed with the movie the first go-round. It was slow moving and talky, and the alien menace, despite the disturbing eyes, was just a doughy middle-aged man in black (Johnny Cash he was not). However, a couple of scenes kept me from falling asleep.

In the first, Johnson is perturbed by a vacuum cleaner salesman who shows up on his doorstep (played by Corman mainstay Dick Miller). Sensing an opportunity, the alien invites the man down to the cellar for a demonstration of the product. Blathering away as he tries to make a sale, Miller’s character belatedly senses something’s not right, takes a look at Johnson’s featureless eyes, does a double-take, then looks forlornly at the camera for a brief moment before being dispatched by the space vampire.

This was my introduction to breaking the fourth wall, and it's a perfect example of the black humor that peppered Corman’s films and made even pre-pubescent Monster Kids like me sit up and take notice.

“Look buddy, let me have five minutes of your time in your own cellar, and I’ll prove to you that this little baby can do what no other vacuum cleaner in the world can do!”

Another sit-up-and-take-notice moment comes later when Johnson has been exposed as an alien invader. Deciding that he’s done with the doctor, the alien dispatches a flying, umbrella-like creature that wraps itself around the victim’s head and, well, maybe it’s best not to use your imagination.

The creature is a creepy forerunner of Alien’s infamous face-hugger. While this and the Dick Miller bit weren’t quite enough to redeem the film for me that first time, subsequent viewings revealed a wryly subtle take on mid-century American paranoia and strange agents hiding in plain sight in sunny Suburbia.

Whether the film hooked viewers the first time, or, as in my case, required repeat viewing to appreciate, it certainly has had an outsized impact for an early Corman exploitation flick, having been remade twice (most famously in 1988 with Traci Lords in the Beverly Garland role).

The ultimate Roger Corman cheapie that rewards repeat viewings is of course The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which, appropriately enough, also enjoys the biggest cult reputation of all -- much of it due to its resurrection via a Broadway musical and a big budget remake.

This tale of a nerdy flower shop employee and his co-dependent relationship with a man-eating plant was made in a couple of days on a next-to-nothing budget. Full of ad-libbed dialog and seemingly ad-libbed sight gags, Little Shop is perhaps one of the unlikelier cult hits in cinematic history. Somehow, scenes that by themselves might seem sophomoric or forced -- like a duel to the death with dentist’s tools -- come together in a surreal package that has something for everyone (well, almost everyone).

It’s as if the super-accelerated production got the casts’ adrenaline going and brought out everyone’s best. There are physical bits and sight gags for Stooges fans and puns and malapropisms for the more verbally oriented (enough that it takes several viewings to fully take it all in). It’s hard not to like something about it.

Still, Little Shop was an unlikely attraction for a Monster Kid weaned on the more dignified Universal Monsters, but I was thrilled whenever it played on one of my creature features.

“Where a talking, man-eating plant gives Homicide something to think about!”

“If Bucket [A Bucket of Blood, 1960] and Little Shop, two of the cheapest films I ever directed myself, look like they were made on a bet, they pretty much were. In the middle of 1959, when AIP wanted me to make a horror film but had only $50,000 available I felt it was time to take a risk, do something fairly outrageous. I shot Bucket on only a few sets in five days. When the film worked well, I did Little Shop in two days on a leftover set just to beat my speed record.” -- Roger Corman (with Jim Jerome), How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1998, p. 62

Roger Corman inevitably graduated to bigger and better things, starting with the elegant Poe films he made with Vincent Price for American International Pictures. The man never stopped working, producing hundreds of films over the decades -- and as if that wasn’t enough, he somehow found time to do cameo appearances in some of his former mentees’ pictures.

But none of those achievements will ever fully eclipse the wonderfully quirky cheapies from the early years.They weren’t great films, but they invariably turned a profit, and Corman gained the kind of experience and smarts that money (especially bloated Hollywood budgets) can’t buy. But best of all, he created indelible memories for a whole generation of monster-loving kids.

May 14, 2024

Fate Opens The File on Thelma Jordon

Poster - The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)
Now Playing:
The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)

Pros: A good, mid-level effort that represents a sort of watershed in Barbara Stanwyck’s noir career; Features a relatable “everyman” in Wendell Corey
Cons: A head-slapper of an ending that manages to be both brutal and cloyingly sentimental

This post is part of the It’s in the Name of the Title Blogathon, hosted by two big names in movie blogging, Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews and Rebecca at Taking Up Room. Gill and Rebecca tasked their fellow bloggers with reviewing a movie in which a character’s name (first, last or full) appears in the title; for more contributions, see either or both of the hosts’ blogs.

Speaking of big names, there weren’t many that were bigger in the classic era of screen entertainment than Barbara Stanwyck. From the risque pre-Code talkies in which she played plucky women of questionable virtue, to TV dramas like The Big Valley where she portrayed tough-as-nails matriarchs, Stanwyck blazed her own distinctive cinematic trail, eventually garnering four Best Actress Academy Award nominations, an honorary Oscar, three primetime Emmys and a multitude of lifetime achievement awards, among other honors

A rundown of Stanwyck’s title roles alone demonstrates the depth and variety of her career: as Mexicali Rose (1929) she’s a “loose” woman who likes to use men; as Annie Oakley (1935) she can do anything a man can do, and better; as harried, working class Stella Dallas (1937), she would do anything to help her daughter get ahead in life; as The Mad Miss Manton (1938), she’s a fun-loving debutante who proves to be more adept at discovering clues than the police; as Martha Ivers (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946), she’s an intimidating business woman with a dark secret; and as Mrs.Carroll (The Two Mrs. Carrolls, 1947), she’s the new wife of a tortured artist who may or may not be utterly mad.

Stanwyck reached her noir femme-fatale peak as cold-as-ice Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944). But as the war years receded and America settled down into a dull but comfortable suburban existence, Stanwyck’s screen image shifted. The noir roles were still there, but she was just as likely to be on the receiving end of dark designs as not.

Screenshot - Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)
Fred was sorry that he wasn't double indemnified against laser death stares.

Only a year after her dicey stint as the second Mrs. Carroll, Stanwyck was again in peril in Sorry, Wrong Number, portraying an invalid, Leona Stevenson, who inadvertently overhears a murder plot from her bedroom phone.

The difference between calculating Phyllis Dietrichson and panicky, bed-ridden Leona couldn’t be more stark, yet when Thelma Jordon rolled around in 1949, Stanwyck’s crime drama roles -- both as the Femme Fatale and the Suffering Woman -- were starting to get on her nerves:

“‘My God, isn’t there a good comedy around?’ [Stanwyck] asked at the time. ‘I’m tired of suffering in films. And I’ve killed so many co-stars lately, I’m getting a power complex!” [Quoted in Dan Callahan’s biography, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, University Press of Mississippi, 2011, p.159]

As if to punctuate the grimness of the roles she was getting, Thelma Jordon is both a femme fatale and a sufferer. Thelma takes a long, circuitous route to get to both states of noir-ness (maybe too long and too circuitous; more on that later), and drags a noir Everyman in the form of Assistant District Attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) along for the ride.

Fate arranges for a “meet cute” between the duplicitous Thelma and her ostensible patsy, DA Marshall. One night at the District Attorney’s office, Cleve is downing shots and complaining about his depressing marital situation to his boss, Miles Scott (Paul Kelly). After Scott calls it a night and goes home, alluring Thelma shows up at the office asking for Scott, wanting to report an attempted burglary at her aunt’s house, where she is staying.

Now inebriated and not wanting to go home where his wealthy, domineering father-in-law is holding court at a dinner party, Cleve convinces Thelma to go out for drinks. Pretty soon Cleve, disenchanted with his hum-drum middle class life, falls hard for the alluring and mysterious Thelma.

Screenshot - Paul Kelly and Wendell Corey in The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)
Cleve: "I'm fed up. Ever heard that phrase? No, you wouldn't, you're not married."

It seems that a combination of alcohol and infatuation has painted a big P for Patsy on Cleve's forehead.

First, there’s Thelma's story about attempted burglaries at her aunt’s house that smells to high heaven. When asked why she didn’t just go to the police, Thelma responds with a laugher of an explanation that her aunt is afraid of uniformed cops. Then, having allowed Cleve to think that she was single, Thelma belatedly admits that she herself is married -- to a low-life crook and con man named Tony (Richard Rober).

The noir stuff soon hits the fan when, on the night that the pair are planning to go off together on a romantic trip, Thelma calls Cleve in a panic that her aunt has been shot. Cleve steals over to the house to help clean up the mess. Wanting desperately to believe that it’s Thelma’s no-good hubby Tony who has shown up unannounced and killed the old lady in an attempt to rob her, Cleve, with his extensive DA experience, frenetically barks orders at Thelma to set the scene to look like a garden-variety burglary gone wrong.

If Thelma is truly a cold-blooded murderer she’s an excellent actress, as she seems genuinely panicked, like an innocent bystander who realizes how much the circumstances make her look guilty. And despite the lovers’ best efforts at rearranging the crime scene, she most definitely looks guilty.

Screenshot - Wendell Corey and Barbara Stanwyck in The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)
Thelma: "I wish so much crime didn't take place after dark. It's so unnerving!"

When Thelma’s sketchy past becomes public, along with the news that Aunt Vera changed her will in Thelma’s favor, means, motive and opportunity line up against her. Combined with Vera’s butler’s testimony about Thelma’s furtive behavior on the night in question, DA Scott decides that a murder charge is a slam dunk.

With the ball in his court, Cleve goes to work, anonymously suggesting to Thelma’s lawyer (Stanley Ridges) that he hire the Chief District Attorney’s lawyer brother to work for the defense, forcing the DA to step down due to conflict of interest. Cleve gets the lead prosecutor assignment, and proceeds to do everything he can to throw the case.

Is he the dupe of a cold-blooded Phyllis Dietrichson type, or is it more complicated than that? And where was the shadowy Tony on that fateful night?

The File on Thelma Jordon invites the viewer to be an alternate juror on the case. We haven't witnessed the actual shooting, but we have seen Cleve’s and Thelma's hurried rearrangement of the crime scene. The circumstantial evidence -- like the convenient change to the will -- is strong, but there are seeds of doubt. Thelma’s distress on the night of the shooting seems genuine, which is uncharacteristic of a shrewd, heartless manipulator -- or was she just acting?

Stanwyck synthesizes Thelma’s contradictions over the course of the film, from wry bemusement at Cleve’s drunken advances, to smoldering passion, to panicked helplessness in the middle of the night, to tight-lipped stoicism after she’s been arrested, to an almost regal dignity as she leads a swarm of reporters and onlookers from the jail to the courtroom to hear the jury’s verdict.

Screenshot - Stanley Ridges and Barbara Stanwyck in The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)
You'd be confident too if you had both the defense and the prosecution on your side.

Thelma’s ultimate fate comes completely out of left field and it’s both shocking and cloyingly sentimental. It's the sort of ending guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of any blue-haired upholder of public morality. 

Fortunately, Thelma's ending hasn't erased fond memories of the film. Biographer Dan Callahan relates that at the American Film Institute’s fete of Stanwyck, in which she received a Lifetime Achievement Award, Walter Matthau singled out Barbara’s performance in Thelma Jordon:

“[P]articularly the way she sighed, ‘Maybe I am just a dame and didn’t know it.’ Matthau then went on to knock her co-star, Wendell Corey, an unprepossessing actor who was good when he was doing a menacing type in Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose (1956), but who was hard-pressed to hold his own as a leading man opposite Stanwyck.” [Callahan, p. 158]

While I’m hesitant to disagree with the great Walter Matthau, I think “unprepossessing” is just what the film calls for. Cleve is a post-war, suburban “everyman” who is fed up with domestic life and resents being dominated by his overbearing father-in-law. Cleve would be far less believable in the hands of a more charismatic leading man who could “hold his own” with Stanwyck. Men like Cleve don’t often score with sensual mystery women like Thelma, and it makes sense that he’s willing to endanger his family and career for her.

Thelma: "I'm no good for any man for any longer than a kiss!"

In the same year as Thelma Jordon, Corey lost Janet Leigh to Robert Mitchum in Holiday Affair. Corey was the epitome of the reliable but unexciting second male lead who loses out in romance to the charismatic star. At least he had Stanwyck all to himself for most of The File, even if it wasn’t entirely due to his animal magnetism.

The File on Thelma Jordon was directed by Robert Siodmak, who was one of a generation of filmmakers who got their start in Germany during the silent era, but fled to Hollywood as Hitler rose to power. In the 1940s he made a string of crime pictures that years later would come to be seen as some of the very best examples of film noir, including Phantom Lady (1942), Christmas Holiday (1944; with Deana Durbin and Gene Kelly), The Killers (1946; Burt Lancaster’s film debut and Ava Gardner’s first featured role), Cry of the City (1948; Victor Mature and Richard Conte), Criss Cross (1949, Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo), and of course The File on Thelma Jordon to round out the decade.

Besides having such an assured director in her corner, Thelma benefits from George Barnes’ standout cinematography. Many of Cleve’s and Thelma’s scenes together take place at night, with the play of light and shadow serving as a visual metaphor for the lovers' dark sides and conflicting emotions.

Thelma Jordon is not Barbara Stanwyck’s best title role, and it’s not the high point of director Siodmak’s noir career, but it is a solid crime thriller with a relatable everyman in the person of Wendell Corey and enough plot twists and turns to make things interesting. But be forewarned: the slap dash ending might induce cognitive whiplash.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD

The 2024 "It's in the Name of the Title" Blogathon

April 30, 2024

Your Prescription is Ready: Mad Doctor Meds, Hammer-style

When you watch lots of retro TV like I do, you become very familiar with the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and which of their overpriced prescription meds are the greatest cash cows. Every time I’m blitzed with drug commercials, I shake my head at the tongue-twisting brand names that seem to have originated straight out of Superman’s Bizarro universe, not to mention all the small print side effects which are way worse than the disease (if you can even figure out what the damned things are supposed to be treating).

As you might expect, in that parallel universe we all know and love where monsters are the norm and retailers and advertisers cater to their every whim, Big Pharma is there to exploit every monster malady… and there are a lot of them!

Publicity still - Veronica Carlson and Christopher Lee in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
With all those vegetarians and vegans walking around, it’s harder than ever for vampires to find the iron-rich blood necessary for a healthy undead existence. Taken with 10 pints of fresh blood, once-daily Corpusletrex ™ guarantees your nightly requirements of red corpuscles, iron and 13 additional vitamins and minerals.
  Common side effects: Red eye; general pallor; sensitivity to sunlight, silver crosses and wooden stakes; enlarged canine teeth; increased desire to wear black silk capes; constipation; living death. Don’t take if you’re allergic to Corpusletrex or any of its ingredients.
Screenshot - Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Let’s face it: in their rush to create new artificial life, mad doctors aren’t the most scrupulous or detail-oriented of medical professionals. They use any old body parts that they can get their hands on, and they stitch them together with the sort of carelessness that would make a bottom-of-the-class, first year medical student look like a virtuoso. If you’re the product of a mad scientist’s haste, don't despair. Daily applications of Suturetril ™ will lessen the redness and swelling around your sutures, and help to fight off infections caused by mad medical malpractice.
   Common side effects: Redness and swelling around sutured areas; skin discoloration and eruptions; rheumy eyes; poor muscle coordination; diarrhea; death.
Screenshot - The Reptile (1966)
It’s never a good thing when, as the result of a terrible, mystical curse, you periodically turn into a slavering, scaly human reptile that spits venom at innocent people, turning their skin purplish-black before causing them to expire in the most horrible way possible. Used as directed, Scalera ™ will smooth and soften scaly skin, fill-in cracks and wrinkles, and add a healthy, greenish glow to your complexion.
  Common side effects: Blackened, forked tongue; slurring of speech; bulging eyes; lowered body temperature; general clamminess; increased desire to bite people for no good reason; constipation; death. For external use only, not to be taken internally.
Screenshot - Oliver Reed in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Chasing after human prey night after night under the full moon can be exhausting and hard on your lungs. Used nightly, the Madvaire inhaler ™ can restore peak lung function and ensure that you never get winded when hunting down terrified victims.
  Common side effects: Excessive salivating; halitosis; sinusitis; elongated yellow teeth and bloody gums; swollen tongue; split ends; ringing in ears; explosive diarrhea; death. Not to be used as a rescue inhaler.
Screenshot - Jacqueline Pearce in The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Zombies have a hard time maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, mainly because blood has stopped circulating in their bodies. In combination with a healthy diet of human flesh, Oozemplic ™ can help prevent further rotting and restore enough vitality to allow even the most decomposed zombie to accomplish whatever mindless, slavish tasks are required. And it will keep those extra pounds off too!
  Common side effects: Oozing and discharges at the injection site; gangrenous flesh; cloudy, watery eyes; rotting teeth and bleeding gums, incontinence; death-in-life.

April 14, 2024

Day 3: Revenge of The 2nd Annual "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon

Banner - Films From Beyond's 2nd Annual "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon co-starring Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964)

We're back for the third and final day of The 2nd Annual "Favorite Stars in B Movies" blogathon! Before we cut and run, er, bring the blogathon to a close, many thanks are in order to all the talented bloggers who contributed posts, and everyone who helped spread the word about the event. The goal was to highlight modest, obscure films with big talent behind them. If just one person has discovered an intriguing film or performance that they've never heard of and want to see, then our work here is done.

If you haven't already, check out the great posts from Day 1 and Day 2.

Last call for bloggers: If you're running a little late with your post, don't sweat it! When it's ready use the comments below, email me at brschuck66@yahoo.com, or message me on X/Twitter @brschuck66 and I'll post it to this page.

And now for the last reel:

Christianne at Krell Laboratories examines the greylisting of Edward G. Robinson after his encounters with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early '50s.

Screenshot - Edward G. Robinson in Illegal (1955)

Dustin at Horror and Sons gets the chills watching Peter Cushing attempting to capture The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957)

Screenshot - Maureen Connell and Peter Cushing in The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957)

Barry at Cinematic Catharsis warns us about the dangers of close encounters with aliens and faded movie stars in his review of Without Warning (1980), starring Jack Palance and Martin Landau.

Screenshot - Martin Landau in Without Warning (1980)

Daffny at A Vintage Nerd explains that all the chicest party ghouls are dying to get into The Monster Club (1981; starring Vincent Price, John Carradine and Donald Pleasence).

Still - John Carradine and Vincent Price in The Monster Club (1981)

John at tales from the freakboy zone shines the spotlight on Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

DVD cover art - Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Michael at Maniacs and Monsters defends Raymond Burr against two counts of felony ham acting in his dual review of Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956) and Bride of the Gorilla (1951).

Screenshot - Raymond Burr in Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956)

Yours Truly at Films From Beyond trips over his own feet trying to keep up with Ginger Rogers and all the plot twists and turns in The Thirteenth Guest (1932).

Screenshot - Ginger Rogers and Lyle Talbot in The Thirteenth Guest (1932)

Joey at The Last Drive In sorts out which witch is which in her reviews of Ava Gardner in Tam Lin (1970) and Carroll Baker in Baba Yaga (1973): Part 1 | Part 2

Still - Ava Gardner in Tam Lin (1970)
Screenshot - Carroll Baker and Isabelle De Funès in Baba Yaga (1973)

Public domain image - Warner Bros. via Wikimedia Commons
Until next time...

April 13, 2024

Sleuthing with the B Movie Stars: Ginger Rogers in The Thirteenth Guest

Now Playing:
The Thirteenth Guest (1932)

Pros: Good, energetic cast seems to be having fun with the material; The mad killer has a highly unusual modus operandi.
Cons: Plot is bewilderingly complex and ultimately doesn't make much sense

This post is part of the second annual "Favorite Stars in B Movies" blogathon hosted by Yours Truly. You won't want to miss all the other great posts about the stars who lit up the Bs, right here on this site!

"Sure he [Fred Astaire] was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, ...backwards and in high heels." - Bob Thaves, Frank and Ernest (cartoon, 1982)

Ginger Rogers, the epitome of grace and beauty in some of Hollywood’s greatest, most beloved musicals, was apparently born to dance: "My mother told me I was dancing before I was born. She could feel my toes tapping wildly inside her for months." [Ginger Rogers, Ginger Rogers: My Story, 1991)

But in the Hollywood of the 1930s, desire and natural ability were not nearly enough -- to become a larger-than-life dancer on the big screen, you had to have the grit and determination of a Visigoth, and Rogers had that in spades.

Even though Rogers won a best actress Oscar for her dramatic portrayal of Kitty Foyle (1940), for better or worse (for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, for as long as there are fans who remember…) she will always be best known for tripping the light fantastic with Fred Astaire in ten films.

Interestingly, it was Ginger Rogers -- barely into her 20s and 12 years younger than her new dance partner -- who was the grizzled movie veteran when she and Astaire first paired up in Flying Down to Rio (1933). Rogers had over two dozen movies on her resume at the time, while Astaire was just getting started, having appeared in only one other.

Leading up to that breakout appearance, Rogers might have thought she was moving backwards in high heels as far as her movie career was concerned. For every small part in an A picture like 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933, there was seemingly an endless supply of roles (albeit some leading ones) in uninspired Bs like The Sap from Syracuse or Carnival Boat.

The Thirteenth Guest came a little over mid-way through Roger’s marathon run through the Bs in the early part of her career. But unlike The Sap from Syracuse and its ilk, The Thirteenth Guest has stayed around, kicked up its feet and made itself at home -- as in home video releases.

At first glance, it may not be exactly clear why The Thirteenth Guest made it all the way to home video while most of Rogers’ other Bs fell by the wayside. Produced at Monogram Pictures, one of the  “Poverty Row” studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age that specialized in churning out Bs, The Thirteenth Guest was based on a 1929 novel by noted crime author Armitage Trail (aka, Maurice R. Coons, best known for his novel Scarface, later turned into the hit 1932 movie with Paul Muni).

The Thirteenth Guest is highly reminiscent of 1927’s popular mystery-thriller The Cat and the Canary, which itself was based on a successful play from the early ‘20s. (The Cat and the Canary is supposed to have influenced James Whale’s brilliant dark comedy The Old Dark House, and both in turn influenced a whole generation of “old dark house” films.)

Guest and Cat rely on a familiar set-up: after the death of a wealthy patriarch, the potential heirs gather like vultures at the creepy old ancestral mansion to find out who is to inherit the fortune. When the guests start getting bumped off one-by-one, fear, loathing and suspicion erupt among the survivors.

Poster - The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The Cat and the Canary set the stage for the madness of The Thirteenth Guest.

Whereas The Cat and The Canary injected yet another soon-to-be cliche into the mix -- a homicidal maniac on the loose -- The Thirteenth Guest went with a more subtle (?) form of madness.

Guest tries to distinguish itself with about as complicated a plot as you could possibly cram into a 70 minute B picture. Thirteen years ago the patriarch of the Morgan family had invited thirteen of his closest friends, relatives and confidantes (including the family lawyer Barksdale) to his mansion for a dinner party, where he was to reveal the details of his will. It seems the bulk of his estate was to go to a mysterious, unnamed thirteenth guest, but the guest never showed up and the elderly Morgan died (or was murdered) before the person’s identity could be revealed.

In the film’s present day, Marie Morgan (Rogers), daughter of the deceased millionaire, has just turned 21, and for some reason is poking around the now deserted mansion. Although the house was long ago abandoned after the elder Morgan’s death, someone has turned the electricity back on, installed a working telephone, and set up the dining room exactly as it was thirteen years ago.

In classic old dark house fashion, a scream rips the night, whereupon the panicked cab driver who delivered Marie to the house takes off to summon the police. Police Captain Ryan (J. Farrell MacDonald) and his numbskull assistant Detective Grump (Paul Hurst) discover Marie’s dead body, seated at the dining table as if waiting for other guests to arrive.

Screenshot - Ginger Rogers and Lyle Talbot in The Thirteenth Guest (1932)
"She died waiting for the hors d'oeuvres to be served..."

Captain Ryan, who immediately realizes he needs more brain power on the case, calls in a brilliant, snarky playboy/private investigator, Phil Winston (Lyle Talbot) to help sort it all out. Marie’s brother Harold (James Eagles) identifies his sister’s body, but soon everyone is floored when Marie, very much alive, shows up at the scene of the murder.

What ensues next is a crazy, serpentine plot involving cryptic notes, a surgically altered double of Marie (the first dead body), the arrival of the rest of the guests who had attended the original dinner party, multiple people conspiring to get their hands on the will, more dead bodies neatly placed in the spots at the table that they had occupied thirteen years ago, and a masked, hooded killer who spies on people from a hidden room and electrocutes his victims with the normal-looking telephone that he has wired up to a switch.

Whew! You need a scorecard to keep track of it all (but then, I’m at that age where I sometimes lose the plot just watching TV commercials). Fortunately, Detective Grump is around to provide comic relief and reassure those of us who worry about losing it that there are always unfortunate souls in a sorrier state.

Grump is so oafish and inept that he seems outrageous even for a pre-code B movie, but at one point a character helpfully points out that he got his position through an influential family member. You will either cringe or smile in wry bemusement at Grump’s attempts at comic relief. Subtle he is not. In one scene, a telephone rings, and distracted, Grump picks up his revolver and puts it to his ear. In another that has to be seen to be believed, he tries to imitate a strange cry he heard emanating from the mansion for the benefit of Capt. Ryan and Winston:

Supplementing Grump’s antics is the usual assortment of ‘30s character cut-outs. The police captain is both out of his depth and constantly exasperated by the even greater incompetence of his subordinates. Winston, the playboy police consultant, has more smarts in his little finger than the entire police force, and wears a knowing smirk along with the chic suits he sports throughout the film. (A relative newcomer in 1932, Lyle Talbot would go on to become one of the most dependable and long-lasting character actors in Hollywood history, racking up hundreds of movie and TV appearances before retiring in the late ‘80s.)

And of course, no film like this would be complete without a wisecracking dame or two. In a great scene that sums up the less-than-stellar collective character of the Morgan family and its hangers-on (Marie excepted of course), Marjorie (Frances Rich), one of the original thirteen guests, blithely comments to Winston: “We’d all cut each other’s throats for a dime…” -- to which Marie’s brother responds, “Why a dime? I’d cut yours for the fun of it!” (No doubt, Depression-era audiences were amused by seeing how petty and cutthroat high society types could be.)

Screenshot - Lyle Talbot and Frances Rich in The Thirteenth Guest (1932)
"Let's raise a glass to all the little people who helped make this picture a success!"

At this juncture in her career, Rogers’ bright, engaging presence had earned her star billing in smaller films like this. In The Thirteenth Guest, she got the opportunity to play dual roles: as Lela, the unfortunate imposter who is the first victim of the masked killer, and as Marie, the innocent, good-hearted heiress who is the last intended victim.

Rogers breezes in and out of scenes with panache, wearing the latest ‘30s fashions and providing a beaming, blonde contrast to the rest of the sour, dark-haired women of the Morgan clan. But this is not a Ginger Rogers movie per se -- some of the cast members, including Talbot/Winston and Hurst/Grump have as much or more screen time. But of course Rogers is there at the climax to escape certain death, and to fall languorously into the arms of Winston at the end.

Screenshot - Lyle Talbot and Ginger Rogers in the final scene of The Thirteenth Guest (1932)
"You're alright even if you can't dance."

The Thirteenth Guest got a fairly positive reception in its day. Variety’s reviewer found the movie “vastly superior to many of the mystery themes produced by major companies during the past two years. Its story is even more complex, but it is so brought to the screen that it disentangles without befuddling entertainment qualities and confusing the audience to the point of distraction.” [Waly, Variety, September, 1932, p. 20] (The film proved popular enough to inspire another low-budget remake, The Mystery of the Thirteenth Guest, released in 1943.)

I can’t guarantee you won’t be befuddled -- I felt more like Grump than Winston at various points in the movie -- but if you can appreciate things like a masked madman electrocuting unsuspecting high society types and carefully placing their corpses at a decked-out dinner table, it’s an entertaining form of befuddlement. And of course, there’s the presence of future superstar Ginger Rogers to make you forget that it doesn’t make any sense.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD

Screenshot - The hooded madman spying on his next victim in The Thirteenth Guest
In the era before social media apps, intrepid madmen had to rely on secret rooms and peepholes to spy on their intended victims.

"The calls are coming from inside the house!" Oops, wrong movie.

Day 2: The Return of The 2nd Annual "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon

Banner - Films From Beyond's 2nd Annual "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon co-starring Dana Andrews in The Frozen Dead (1966)

Welcome back to Day 2 of the "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon! It seems like we've hardly started, and yet on Day 1 we were treated to stealthy ninjas, brawling lumberjacks, ladies at the court of Louis XV, two mad doctors (one male and one female), a poor man's James Bond, and twenty-something "teenagers" who can't get the adults to believe in the existence of a gooey, ravenous creature from outer space. Now that's entertainment!

This go-round promises to be equally rewarding, so let's get on with the show!

(Hey bloggers! You've got options for submitting your post: Use the comments below, email me at brschuck66@yahoo.com, or message me on X/Twitter @brschuck66.)

Screenshot - George Hamilton in The Power (1968)
Stick around, we're just getting warmed up!

Debbi at I Found it at the Movies enjoys the performance of fresh-faced Ray Milland in the "noir comedy thriller" Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937).

Publicity still - Ray Milland in Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

Rachel at Hamlette's Soliloquy finds the movie Paper Bullets (1941) guilty of murdering logic and reason, but acquits Alan Ladd on a technicality.

Screenshot - Alan Ladd in Paper Bullets (1941)

Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema rounds up the usual suspects, the three Roberts (Ryan, Mitchum and Young), in her investigation of Crossfire (1947).

Screenshot - Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum and Robert Young in Crossfire (1947)

Along with George Clooney and Laura Dern, Andrew at Maniacs and Monsters laments the release of Grizzly II: Revenge (1983) 37 years after it was first filmed.

Screenshot - George Clooney and Laura Dern in Grizzly II: Revenge (1983)

Ruth at Silver Screenings joins Loretta Young in finding Cause for Alarm! (1951) in the bright sunlight of Anytown, USA.

Still - Barry Sullivan and Loretta Young in Cause for Alarm! (1951)

Andrew at The Stop Button is alarmed as Dana Andrews takes the controls of a crippled airliner in yet another movie with an exclamation point in the title, Zero Hour! (1957).

Screenshot - Linda Darnell and Dana Andrews in Zero Hour! (1957)

Marianne at Make Mine Film Noir tags along with Gene Kelly as he explores the dark underbelly of postwar Germany in The Devil Makes Three (1952).

Screenshot - Pier Angeli and Gene Kelly in The Devil Makes Three (1952)

Rebecca at Taking Up Room declares open season on giant wascally wabbits in her review of Night of the Lepus (1972) with DeForest Kelley, Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh.

Poster - Night of the Lepus (1972)

We're not done yet! See us tomorrow for more great posts and the wrap-up!

April 12, 2024

Day 1: The 2nd Annual "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon

Banner - Films From Beyond's 2nd Annual "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon co-starring Charles Bronson in House of Wax (1953)

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small." -- Norma Desmond, Sunset Blvd. (1950)

"There are no small parts, only small actors." -- Konstantin Stanislavski

Welcome to the 2nd Annual "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon! It's time once again to celebrate big actors in small pictures... and B movies and second features and independent films and exploitation flicks and drive in fodder and...  Whatever you call them, these featured movies are "big" in spite of their modest budgets, if only because of the presence of a cherished actor or two.

And, to riff on Stanislavski, there are no small parts or small actors here, just intriguing performances in films that may not be prestigious or well-known, but are worthy of attention nonetheless.

We've got a great line-up of films from a wide variety of genres spanning six decades, so there should be something for just about everyone.

Reminder to bloggers: When your post is ready, use the comments below, email me at brschuck66@yahoo.com, or message me on X/Twitter @brschuck66.

Screenshot - Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Norma is ready for her close-up look at her favorite B movie stars -- are you?

Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews admires the smooth, martial-artsy moves of Franco Nero in Enter the Ninja (1981).

Screenshot - Franco Nero and Susan George in Enter the Ninja (1981)

George (Superman) Reeves and Ralph (Dick Tracy) Byrd are lumberjacks in Thunder in the Pines (1948), and they’re okay, says The Flashback Fanatic.

Screenshot - Ralph Byrd and George Reeves in Thunder in the Pines (1948)

Kristen at Hoofers and Honeys sings the praises of Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), the musical comedy that introduced Lucille Ball’s signature red hair to the world.

Screenshot - Lucille Ball in Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

Mike at Mike's Movie Room makes a case for medical and cinematic malpractice in his review of Veronica Lake’s last movie, Flesh Feast (1970).

Screenshot - Veronica Lake in Flesh Feast (1970)

Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-in would prefer not to be treated if the only doctor in the house is Vincent Price as The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).

Screenshot - Vincent Price and Terry-Thomas in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Frank at Smoke in the Library marvels at Ross Hagen's coolness under pressure as he battles an all-female army in Wonder Women (1973).

Screenshot - Ross Hagen and Nancy Kwan in Wonder Women (1973)

Kayla at Whimsically Classic consumes every sci-fi cliché in her path as she reviews Steve McQueen in The Blob (1958).

Screenshot from The Blob (1958)

Come back tomorrow for more B movie star gazing!

March 29, 2024

Ventriloquism for Dummies: Devil Doll (1964)

Poster - Devil Doll (1964)
Now Playing:
Devil Doll (1964)

Pros: Manages an uncanny atmosphere, especially in scenes in which Vorelli (the ventriloquist) and Hugo (the dummy) argue as they perform their stage act.
Cons: Skimpy production values; Yvonne Romain is somewhat wasted in a role where she is in a hypnotic trance or semi-conscious for much of the movie

This post about a man and his devilish dummy is part of The Mismatched Couples Blogathon hosted by the prolific and ever reliable bloggers Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry at Cinematic Catharsis.

According to Psych Times, pupaphobia, or fear of puppets, is a real anxiety that can be debilitating for adults as well as children. While most of us don’t break out in a cold sweat at the sight of a ventriloquist’s dummy or a marionette (or heaven forbid, a muppet), it’s not for the entertainment industry’s lack of trying. Marionettes are one thing, but ventriloquist’s dummies, with their larger size and moving heads, mouths and eyes, can evoke a sense of the uncanny in even the most rational adult.

In 1945, the mother (or should I say father?) of all creepy dummies, Hugo, appeared in the pioneering UK anthology horror film Dead of Night. Years later, Hugo inspired not one but two sentient dummy episodes on The Twilight Zone: “The Dummy” (S3, Ep. 3, 1962), featuring a ventriloquist (Cliff Robertson) whose dummy is the real brains of the act, and “Caesar and Me,” (S5, Ep. 22, 1964), which tells the tale of an alcoholic ventriloquist (Jackie Cooper) whose wooden sidekick convinces him to pull off a series of robberies. (Interestingly, the same dummy prop was used in both episodes.)

Composite screenshot - Two sentient dummy episodes on The Twilight Zone: "The Dummy" (1962) and "Caesar and Me" (1964)
I hope this dummy was smart enough to collect overtime from Mr. Serling.

Even before The Twilight Zone became a home for delinquent dummies, Alfred Hitchcock Presents got in on the act with the episode “And So Died Riabouchinska,” (S1, Ep. 20, 1956). Based on a Ray Bradbury short story , Riabouchinska flips the dummy script with an uncanny and beautiful female mannequin who cannot tell a lie -- and becomes a witness in a murder investigation involving her ventriloquist (Claude Rains).

And then there’s Magic (1976), about a sort of love triangle involving a man, his dummy, and the ravishing Ann-Margaret. (Magic’s box office didn’t do anyone associated with it any favors, but it has since acquired a minor cult reputation.)

Perhaps as much as any of the above listed movies or TV episodes, Devil Doll will put your pupaphobia to the test (or maybe jump start a bad case if you don’t already have it). The titular “doll” Hugo, like his Dead of Night namesake, is unsettlingly ugly in the classic evil dummy way. This particular Hugo ups the creepiness factor in his ability to walk around on his own with no strings or hands attached (courtesy of 4’ 1” Sadie Corrie, who wore a Hugo costume for those scenes).

His “master,” The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), is no less off-putting, but in an intense, Svengali-like way. Together they make an exceedingly creepy mismatched couple.

But they’re not the only odd pair in Devil Doll; the film is positively brimming with regrettable or unlikely relationships among abusers, abusees and those about to be abused. Let’s count:

1. Vorelli and Hugo. Vorelli, who has been selling out shows in the London theater district, has a dual act: hypnotizing volunteers on stage, and then closing with the dummy Hugo, who departs from the usual ventriloquist routine by getting up, walking up to the footlights, and addressing the audience on his own.

Vorelli has a sadistic streak. In an early scene, he hypnotizes a volunteer and convinces the poor blubbering man that he’s about to be executed. The ventriloquist part of his act is all about taunting Hugo that he’s just a dumb block of wood, while Vorelli can eat and drink wine and live life to the fullest. Hugo (or is it really Vorelli?) protests that he can drink wine too, and is thirsty. It’s a sad, depressing routine, but then, Hugo shuffling around the stage is a genuine showstopper. (Later, there’s an additional hint that Vorelli isn’t in complete control of his dummy when we see that he locks Hugo in a cage when he’s not performing.)

Screenshot - Bryant Haliday and Hugo in Devil Doll (1964)
Vorelli pours himself a glass of wine while Hugo wishes he had an esophagus.

2. Mark English and Marianne Horn. Mark (William Sylvester) is an American expat working as a reporter for a London tabloid. His editor wants him to get the scoop on the new sensation in town, The Great Vorelli. He enlists his girlfriend, the beautiful and wealthy Marianne (Yvonne Romain) to volunteer to be hypnotized at Vorelli’s next show in the hopes of exposing him as a charlatan.

Mark and Marianne are a mismatched couple -- he’s rough around the edges and pushy, and she’s somewhat passive and unsure of herself. At the theater Marianne gets cold feet about volunteering, but Mark, thinking about nothing but his story, goads her into it. Big mistake. Considering her elite status and how beautiful she is, she could do a lot better.

Screenshot - Yvonne Romain and Mark Sylvester in Devil Doll (1964)
"C'mon, don't be such a baby -- what's the worst that can happen?"

3. Vorelli and Marianne. Vorelli couldn’t have hoped for a better subject to fall into his hypnotic clutches. Using his sinister powers, he wrangles an invitation to a charity ball being hosted by Marianne’s wealthy aunt. At the ball, Vorelli solidifies his hypnotic power over Marianne, and she falls into a feverish semi-coma. When she comes out of it, she robotically professes her love for the hypnotist and tells Mark she plans to marry Vorelli.

Maybe this couple isn’t as mismatched as it seems -- he likes money and she’s got a lot of it. Except that once they’re married, her life won’t be worth a plugged nickel.

Screenshot - Yvonne Romain and Bryant Haliday in Devil Doll (1964)
Don't look him in the eyes...

4. Vorelli and Magda the buxom stage assistant. Poor Magda (Sandra Dorne) has hopelessly fallen for her boss, but his attentions are lasered in on the beautiful Marianne. In desperation, she threatens to turn him into the police if he doesn’t make an honest woman of her. Vorelli deals with the situation by telling Hugo that Magda is dishing dirt on him. Exit Magda.

But perhaps the biggest mismatch of all is the combination of hypnosis and ventriloquism in Vorelli’s act (I guess they don’t call him the Great Vorelli for nothing). Sure, hypnosis and ventriloquism have been mainstays of vaudeville for years, but it seems like combining the two could quickly go south -- like a tired Vorelli mixing up the routines and trying to stick his hand in a **ahem** inappropriate place on his volunteer’s person.

Screenshot - Sandra Dorne and Bryant Haliday in Devil Doll (1964)
Vorelli has another great talent: tuning out things he doesn't want to hear.

Producer Richard Gordon, whose credits include such B gems as The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958; both starring Boris Karloff), and cult sci-fi favorites like Fiend Without a Face (1958) and First Man Into Space (1959), was proud to have pioneered this odd mash-up:  

“One of the interesting things about Devil Doll is that it’s the first time that hypnotism and ventriloquism were brought together and incorporated into one film. Hypnotism in the movies goes back to the days of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1919]; and in 1926, Boris Karloff played a Caligari-like hypnotist in a picture called The Bells, in which he uses hypnosis to unmask Lionel Barrymore as a murderer. And Barrymore himself used hypnotism to solve the killings in Mark of the Vampire [1935]. But I don’t think it had ever been used in conjunction with ventriloquism before.” [Tom Weaver, The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon: A Book-Length Interview, BearManor Media, 2011, p. 111.]

Devil Doll’s script, by Ronald Kinnoch and Charles Vetter, was based on a story by Frederick E. Smith that had appeared in an English pulp magazine.

The film definitely lives up to (or down to, according to your taste) its pulp roots. There are a lot of close-ups of Vorelli mesmerizing his victims, and of Hugo’s pug-ugly face with only a slight movement of the eyes betraying that he’s anything other than a wooden prop. (Especially pulpy is a scene in which Vorelli, trying to mollify Magda, beds her, and we get a peek at the voluptuous assistant in her birthday suit.)

Screenshot - Bryant Haliday as the Great Vorelli stares intensely in Devil Doll (1964)
Seriously now, DON'T LOOK HIM IN THE EYES!

The frequent close-ups lend the film a sort of claustrophobic feeling, as if we the viewers are being hypnotized and can only see and obey Vorelli. Relying on close-ups also allowed Gordon to get the film in the can for something between $60 - $70 K, less than even the previous Karloff films or the sci-fi Bs:

“In making any low-budget movie, one tended to use closeups more frequently and more prominently than otherwise, because it helped to reduce production costs; you didn’t have to light and dress up a whole set in order to shoot a scene.” [Weaver, p. 112]

Of course, the real star of the show is Hugo, who is both animated and ambulatory. Dummies who could move on their own had been done before, but they tended to work in the shadows when no one was looking.

On the other hand, Devil Doll Hugo’s uncanny ability to walk is part of Vorelli’s stage act, so something else is going on beyond hallucinations or a disturbed ventriloquist investing his dummy with the other half of his split personality.

Screenshot - Hugo takes a stroll during the stage act in Devil Doll (1964)
The Dummy walks!

When, after the charity ball, Hugo visits Mark in the middle of night and cryptically implores him to “Help me. Find me in Berlin… 1948…” Mark takes the hint and travels to the German capital to look into Vorelli’s and Hugo’s past. Apparently Vorelli was no mere classically trained hypnotist or vaudevillian, but was also a dedicated student of Eastern occult arts. And it’s that occult knowledge, combined with hypnosis, that has Mark worried about Vorelli’s designs on Marianne.

Speaking of interesting pasts, Bryant Haliday had as much of an intriguing, if less sinister, career arc as the character he played. Initially interested in theology, he spent some time in a monastery, then took a detour to study international law at Harvard University.

At Harvard Haliday caught the acting bug, and guaranteed himself a wealth of experience by helping to establish the Brattle Theater company and the Cambridge Drama Festival. Then, branching out into films, he and a Harvard colleague co-founded Janus Films, the first American distributor of such international cinema luminaries as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni. (Haliday has been featured on the blog before -- see my review of another Richard Gordon / Bryant Haliday collaboration, The Projected Man.) 

Screenshot - Vorelli (Bryant Haliday) entertains Marianne (Yvonne Romain) in his lair: Devil Doll (1964)
Bryant Haliday gives his pitch to a potential Janus Films investor.

Also no stranger to the blog is Yvonne Romain (Marianne), who was last seen here providing the love interest for Oliver Reed in Hammer’s swashbuckler Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg, 1962). Romain's horror credits include a small role in Gordon's Corridors of Blood (1958), Circus of Horrors (1960; in which her disfigured face is restored by a scheming plastic surgeon played by Anton Diffring), and Curse of the Werewolf (1961; where she once again hooks up with the cursed Oliver Reed).

American William Sylvester’s notable genre appearances include Gorgo (1961; playing a sailor who helps his Captain capture a juvenile prehistoric monster), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; playing a NASA administrator trying to deal with the discovery of a mysterious monolith on the moon).

While Devil Doll is not the perfect cinematic ventriloquist’s act -- the emphasis on close-ups makes it seem more like a TV show than a movie, and it squanders Yvonne Romain by keeping her hypnotized and/or semi-conscious for much of the running time -- it does manage a few genuinely creepy moments.

Shots of Hugo staring (but maybe not quite blankly) out from between the bars of his cage, and close-ups of his small, stiff legs as he shuffles down a hallway in the dead of night, are enough to elicit an uncanny shudder or two. There is a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring Devil Doll out there, but I would take in this ventriloquist act without the hijinks.

Screenshot - Vorelli (Bryant Haliday) keeps his dummy locked up in a cage; Devil Doll (1964)
Hugo bides his time in solitary confinement

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD