Halloween Harvest 2009 --- Part One
It’s only natural for collectors to think more in terms of what they’re lacking than what’s been secured. With a hundred horror and sci-fi discs still on my shelves unwatched, why am I so impatient for Universal to get out a promised Mad Doctor Of Market Street along with four others of their backlog we know to be mostly dregs of the "Shock" lot (for the record, these are House Of Horrors, The Strange Case Of Dr. RX, The Mad Ghoul, and a lone Paramount, Murders In The Zoo)? There are plenty of good genre films yet to be accounted for. Universal owes us at least a batch of pre-48 Paramounts they own, including The Uninvited, Supernatural, Murder By The Clock, The Mad Doctor, plus others of their own depleted vault, while Paramount itself goes on ignoring Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors, Crack In The World, and oddities like The Space Children and Blood and Roses that we’d welcome. Trouble with these is profit motive driving negative owners and diminishing sales DVD’s have experienced over the last several years. We like to think money doesn’t matter when it’s art, but costs of generating software won’t be got back when retailers clear shelves of oldies and in some cases, discs altogether. Labors of love are still performed in arenas of publishing, however. I’m mesmerized by private efforts of longtime fans whose magazines abide even in these hard times. There’s an outfit called Diamond Comics Distributors that seemingly has a lock on whatever fan driven efforts make it to stores. Your mag will get scant distribution lest it reaches their sales threshold, and several have lately dipped below that. Direct subscribing will become sole means of survival for publications that used to be on Barnes and Noble racks (I’ll omit reference to "newsstands" as so few of them are left). My favorites Little Shoppe Of Horrors and Monsters From The Vault thrive online, as both maintain convenient sites for back issues and subscriptions. If you have any interest in classic horror, these two are a must. Slickness and class their editors have achieved are fulfillment of dreams we all had in Famous Monsters/Castle Of Frankenstein days, with research and writing of a caliber not to be surpassed elsewhere. Cover art regularly tops itself and each new issue is an event. When the Rod Taylors of a thousand years from now spin their sum of human knowledge tops, these contributor/historians will be recalled for getting history down while data was accessible and participants were still around to be interviewed.
Re that sum of knowledge thing, Greg Mank brings fifty or so years of it to his much expanded edition of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration, just out from McFarland Press and believe me, worth every dime of a $75 cover price. The Jefferson, NC publisher (mere miles from me) has lately gone with larger formats and better photo reproduction (color plates even), so books like this are deluxe in appearance and joys to peruse. Author Mank has been gathering Golden Age survivors and chatting them up since the seventies. His accumulated expertise just staggers me. I used to go around the schoolyard claiming monster mastery, but it’s a good thing this guy wasn’t among classmates, for he’d have whupped me to a frazzle. There’s so much I learned from these 685 (whoa!) pages, and yes, that’s long, but Mank’s a colorful wordsmith and sets a crisp pace throughout. He’s also irreverent and gossipy when situations warrant, as they often do when subjects are K and L. No wait. Make that L and K. Their billing reversal comes as Mank elevates horror’s forever underdog to deserved prominence, yet another bold caprice in a book filled with unexpected delights. It’s also scrupulously researched and accurate to a fault. And the stills! Here is a gallery for fans who think they’ve seen everything. Mank knows what’s been published before and avoids too familiar images we’ve seen over decades of inhaling monster lore. There are 240 black-and-white shots and ten color poster images. You’d want the book for these alone even if the text weren’t so wonderfully accomplished. The author renders no judgment as to which subject he prefers, as it should be. Who’d want to choose between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff? I’ll always take both, thank you.
From Hell It Came is prominent for being the one (surely there aren’t others) in which a tree uproots itself and goes about killing people. As with other monsters out of Allied Artists, this specimen takes forever making the scene (I’ve not forgotten The Giant Behemoth’s tardy arrival at nearly the end of his story). From Hell It Came is more than two-thirds done before tree walking gets underway. Everything to that point is grinding exposition played largely on a single set with actors I never saw before or would again. I bought the DVD from Warner’s Archive and kept looking for Jim Davis. He used to be on Dallas and was stopped from hanging a sheepherder by Big Jake. Where was Jim Davis? Turns out he headlined Monster From Green Hell, which I’ve always confused with From Hell It Came and probably always will. I even scanned a theatre ad from the former thinking it was the latter. To distinguish between 50’s monster shows done cheap and billed combo-style requires intellect and recall I aspire to, but likely will never have. There’s no good explaining why trees walk in From Hell It Came. Suffice to say some producer thought it was a good idea at the time. What is the lure of these barrel-bottomers? I sat watching From Hell It Came and could not imagine anyone else in the world doing the same, and yet there are kindred (lost) souls, most of whom saw it first at matinees or midnight television, seeking here to recapture innocence for having done so. The long-ago demand for cheap horrors was such that anyone could point a camera at rubber suits and get distributors to handle the finished result. Midwest moguls barely out of teens got Warner Bros. to ship Teenagers From Outer Space in 1959 (Thrill- Crazed Space Kids Blasting The Flesh Off Humans!) and as late as 1965, virtual amateurs sold 20th Fox on a more or less home movie called Horror Of Party Beach. A picture like From Hell It Came has its modern counterpart in 2009’s just-out Paranormal Activity, which proves again you don’t have to spend money to make chillers pay.
Warners has been slowly parceling out Allied Artists titles they own. Frankenstein –1970 showed up in their Karloff-Lugosi set to satisfy long-standing desires for access to Boris in a Cinemascope horror film, not a minor occasion as he did precious few in wide format. You’d think an expanded screen would confer stature upon Frankenstein –1970, but alas, it occupies basement quarters among what fans regard as King Karloff’s worst. They even cite his own performance as lazy and perfunctory. The actor undoubtedly knew by 1958 that a Body Snatcher emerges one out of a hundred such endeavors and that focus might better be aimed toward whether AA’s check would clear. Was Broadway and versatility of television a balm for time served on the likes of this, Voodoo Island, and others such? Theatres along lines as one in Bluefield, WV (above) traded on name recognition Karloff got for a past year’s constant exposure on Shock Theatres across the land, his old Universals now a TV late show mainstay. Implying he’s returned as The Original Monster in the First All-New Story of Frankenstein was mirrored by sleight-of-hand used in televised spots barking Karloff Is Back! (one of those is on the DVD). I won’t say I’ve waited since 1962 to see Frankenstein –1970 again, but it’s nice renewing contact, even with memories of Channel 13’s broadcast being snowy as reception we had from that distant (Asheville) channel. An exemplar of cut-rate shockers as folks outside fandom imagine them, Frankenstein ---1970 strikes a homer. Should I be asked to assemble the next chiller clip parade, it would play center ring. Karloff’s science goes atomic mad in observance of changing times. I’d bet he pulled out stops here in deference to 1958 kids dumber than ones his Universal and Columbia experiments used to engage. BK stops (just) short of outright spoofing, with crooked nose and back, plus legs so bowed as to occupy adjoining rooms he shuffles between. No way did he unwittingly overplay this. I’ll go detractors one better by saying it’s not acting at all, for Karloff hustling his patented menace in Frankenstein ---1970 shoots straight for balconies to give four-bit ticket buyers every cent of their allowance’s worth. "Bad" as it is, this may be his definitive stand as barnstorming purveyor of low-rent scares and proof Karloff knew well what his following was there to see.
Coming Next: More Halloween Harvest and You'll Find Out.