Halloween Harvest For 2007
There were at least thirty vintage horror and sci-fi DVD releases on the chart for this year. What follows is but a sampling of titles fans have long been requesting.
I had thought I’d impress everybody by announcing that The Return Of Dracula was largely lifted from Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, but better judgment suggested running both titles through a Google search first. Sure enough, hundreds noticed it before me, so I’ll limit remarks on that subject to expression of astonishment at United Artist’s brass for having released such a blatant copy of another man’s work. Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) being fifteen years old when The Return Of Dracula (1958) was released, a public’s short memory could be trusted to see the plagiarists through, and who’d have expected a cheap vampire movie to go poaching on Thornton Wilder? All of which just adds to the fun for us now, as DVD horror completists at long last have The Return Of Dracula on collecting shelves after a seeming eternity’s wait. Brand name monster intrusions into small-town America were not unknown. Dracula had visited our shores in the person of Count Alucard. Kharis the mummy made the trip in 1942 to settle accounts for tomb defilement back home. I never quite understood why Francis Lederer’s vampire king would be so intent on bunking in an upstairs room better suited to a sitcom adolescent. Dracula in suburbia is by definition an iffy proposition, his nocturnal prowlings difficult to confirm due to erratic day-for-night shooting (and a mistimed print?) that left me wondering if this Dracula had indeed overcome his aversion to sunlight. Lederer is persuasive in the title role. I’m told he hated doing it. After all, nobody in 1958 would have considered The Return Of Dracula a career advancement, but as the venerable actor made it into our present century (and attended a Cinecon!), I’d like to think at least a few Monster Kids had opportunity to reassure Lederer that his vampiric exertions had not been in vain. The Return Of Dracula plays like an American-International chiller done right. Effort here to stage a good thriller would have been deemed unnecessary by that company who’d (contemporaneously) offered Blood Of Dracula, a kind of screw-you to audience expectations that nevertheless exceeded The Return Of Dracula in terms of domestic rentals with $364,000 to the latter’s $258,000. Was AIP’s salesmanship the determining factor? Certainly they were better equipped to exploit cheapie horrors than convention bound UA (but how do we account for the fantastic 2.3 million Return Of Dracula earned in foreign territories?). AIP understood too well the complete lack of necessity for putting quality on the screen. Creative effort began and ended at the easel where one-sheets were designed. The Dracula sweepstakes of 1958 (covered previously) would culminate with Universal’s release of the Hammer film, Horror Of Dracula, arriving a month after The Return Of Dracula and consigned to a struggle of differentiating itself from previous efforts (as illustrated by one exhibitor’s ad shown here). Horror would become Universal’s one and only distribution of a Hammer film to crack one million in domestic rentals, it being considered by far the best and most saleable of the Dracula-themed contestants. Had he lived longer and observed greater moderation, would Dracula’s return have been in the person of Bela Lugosi? Lederer’s okay, but imagine the genuine article and what he might have done with this, and for comparison’s sake, consider the number of bookings The Return Of Dracula had (8,718) against those secured by a genuine blockbuster United Artists handled within the same year, Some Like It Hot (20,602). That as much as anything confirms how difficult it was for low-budget genre films to get an investment back, especially since most played on double bills and would thus have to share revenue with companion features.
The Earth Dies Screaming fared worse. 1964 was way late to be peddling black-and-white British sci-fi in domestic markets. This Robert Lippert production came at tail end for what had been a reliably profitable arrangement for low-budget filmmakers, but television, especially color television, was sucking up leisure time once passable in theatres showing modest pics like The Earth Dies Screaming, and those audiences weren’t coming back. Despite a negative cost of just $100,000, distributor 20th Century Fox took a loss of $14,000, this due to US rentals of only $93,000, surely a new low for science fiction handled by a major company. I was among those loyal in 1964. You could run Gandy Goose at the Liberty in those days and somebody would show up, as we weren’t much impacted by color TV until several years later. The Earth Dies Screaming was an especial thrill to see again on a newly released Midnight Movies DVD. It clocks at 62 taut minutes. Characters are besieged in a deserted village by alien invaders. That’s an old dodge among economy minded producers needing to confine action along limited and manageable locations. They did as much in 1954 with Target Earth, but that wasn’t nearly so good as The Earth Dies Screaming. Robots here are a lot more menacing, even if they are just men in metallic suits with helmets. Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher borrows from Village Of The Damned and the Quatermass series. The atmosphere of all these fine British chillers is very much of a piece. See one and it’s likely you’ll welcome more along similar lines. Their very modesty is what endears me to them. None reach beyond a low-budget grasp. Wonder how British players felt having (always!) American leading men pulling fat out of the fire for them. In The Earth Dies Screaming, it’s Willard Parker, a can-do sort best known for a western TV series he’d had in the US. Parker doesn’t look ashamed to be here, unlike Yank headliners too clearly slumming in small British sci-fi. Seeing The Earth Dies Screaming in crisply rendered widescreen amounts to happy rediscovery among former gray-market video dwellers too long deprived of this nifty little show.
While Susan Hayward flailed about with whiskey bottles and gas chambers, Coleen Gray was performing near Oscar-worthy feats of her own against aesthetic and budgetary odds few actresses could have overcome. They’ll not celebrate The Leech Woman as harbinger for female empowerment in movies, but this admittedly jaded viewer of coarsened tastes would prefer it all day to preening and self-conscious girl power hectoring we get on screens today. Good ideas bungled are a hallmark of low-budget sci-fi filmmaking. Maybe that’s what keeps me keyed throughout 77 minute running times in hopes they’ll get something right along the way. Lethargy here comes aplenty, but when The Leech Woman lights up, it’s aglow in ways mainstream 50’s shows seldom were. There’s a feel of cast and crew cutting loose in secure knowledge that only kids will be watching. Coleen Gray says they shot it in nine days. Make-up was primitive and torturous. Two hours to put on, two more to get off. It’s a wonder these people have any skin left. As a matter of fact, I’m told a lot of veterans have complexions like dried parchment --- real-life leech men and women doubtlessly regretting years they submitted to cosmetic transfigurations. Eternal youth themes have been underutilized in movies, possibly because the concept at least borders on fantasy, and most high-profile actresses seldom went there. Silent star Corinne Griffith did an interesting spin on reversing the age process in 1924’s Black Oxen. Those weirdly controversial goat gland treatments women sought in the twenties got movie mileage then, but little was heard of the discredited procedure afterward. The essential thrust of any such eternal youth tale is that one should never seek to retard the aging process, and woe betides those who try. There’s fun in watching Coleen Gray replenishing her unholy potion, going from vixen to crone and back again as she dips hands further in blood. Incidental truths oft unspoken in male/female relations are voiced here as well. Gee, are girls so disposable once they get old? is a question youngsters might well have asked in 1960 as they sat through The Leech Woman waiting for co-feature Brides Of Dracula to get underway, and to that, the film answers a resounding Yes.
Robert L. Lippert’s name was a banner flying over innumerable small budgeters from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties. This past year has been something of an inadvertent celebration of all things Lippert. VCI carries a line of loosely defined Film Noirs produced under his imprinteur, plus a series they call Noir Westerns (Little Big Horn with Lloyd Bridges?!?). Add to this a trio of Samuel Fuller starters, three he did that have been long out of circulation (I Killed Jesse James, The Baron Of Arizona, and The Steel Helmet). These are rewards of Kit Parker having purchased an extensive library of Lippert negatives, probably one of the last major independent groups to be scooped up for DVD exploitation. Horror and science fiction for 20th Fox distribution are surfacing as well. The Earth Dies Screaming was a Lippert film. So was Curse Of The Fly and Witchcraft, both just out on disc as well. Robert Lippert made movies to have something to put on all those theatre screens he owned. Exhibition was mother’s milk for this orphan boy (literally a foundling left on the doorstep) who pumped organs in silent houses and pinch hit for projectionists after deducing school was a waste of time. He traveled backwood exhibiting routes and met every showman worth knowing. Lippert had a better sense of shows people wanted than anyone before or since. Depending on who you listen to, he’s said to have invented dish night, popcorn in theatres, the multiplex, and Jack Nicholson. Lippert had no peer at laying out ads. His was the glad hand. A word is my bond man. The go-to for youngsters starting in the field. Even after seeing his name on 246 features, Lippert liked nothing more than day-to-day in the fifty-three houses (from a high of 183) he still operated in late career. He made ‘em, sold ‘em, then went back and made more, never losing sight of what ordinary folks were buying. Here’s a dapper Lippert, second from left, conferring with Debbie Reynolds on the set of I Love Melvin during an exhibitor’s confab at MGM in May 1952. Motion Picture Herald picked him (yet again) for Exhibitor Of The Month in August 1967. By then, he’d retired from producing. Witchcraft was among the final ones.
Lippert had no pretense toward being a creative producer. The only times he watched rushes was to look for good stuff he could put in trailers. It’s for this reason a lot of talent was able to put over their vision without meddling, so long as budgets were adhered to and schedules kept. Lippert pics were done on the extreme cheap. Shows like Witchcraft were either made for pennies, or not at all. Amazing you could still do a feature in 1964 for $104,000, yet this was Witchcraft’s negative cost, riding double with another Lippert called The Horror Of It All, which indeed it was. These represented an inglorious last stand for black-and-white combos before times and market conditions put paid to monochromatic filmmaking. Witchcraft grabbed $190,000 in domestic rentals, $131,000 foreign, for a worldwide $321,000. It managed $49,000 in profits during a year when virtually every other Fox release lost money. Gimmick selling was on its last legs. A so-called witch deflector was to come with receipt of your admission quarter, but most theatres passed (for fear kids would try swallowing them?). As far as down-and-out exhibs were concerned, the suckers were either coming in or they weren’t. Why go to the bother of purchasing, then handing out, silly gimcracks they’d leave all over your floor? Trouble was one-sheets that promised the trinket … and kids requesting them at the window. For myself, I didn’t ask. An eleven-year-old could look at that sparse attendance and know the score. By this time, a witch deflector might as easily deflect patrons, for results the Liberty was getting with these dispirited shows. Witchcraft was shot in Britain. I assume they got Eady money and talent for cheap. It’s Hammer lite, or rather, Hammer cramped. Lon Chaney’s in and out, mostly out, but foul tempered when he’s in. They must have shot his stuff in the afternoons, never a good idea with Lon in single-minded pursuit of his smuggled thermos. The way LC swung that walking stick, I feared for the welfare of fellow players. Hopeful supposition aroused by the Famous Monsters Of Filmland cover shown here were not to be fulfilled in Witchcraft, as nowhere in the film does Chaney preside over witch’s covens so accommodating as to provide near-naked subjects for presumed human sacrifice. In fact, little happens in Witchcraft. Kids today would think us crazy for watching it, the same way one might regard elderly men rhapsodizing over Hoot Gibson. Some day I fully expect to be the only resident in my seniors facility still watching Withcraft (and The Earth Dies Screaming!).