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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

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 made me Google search first. Sure enough, hundreds had noticed it, so I’ll just be astonished at United Artists' brass for releasing such a blatant copy of another man’s work. Maybe a public’s short memory could be trusted to see the plagiarists through, as who would expect a cheap vampire movie to poach on Thornton Wilder? This but adds to fun, as fans at last have The Return Of Dracula on home shelves after years-long 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 came stateside in 1942 to settle accounts for tomb defilement back home. I never 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 (or a mistimed print?) that leaves us wondering if this Dracula has overcome his aversion to sunlight. Lederer is persuasive in the title role. I’m told he hated doing it. No one 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 Monster Kids had opportunity to assure Lederer that his 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 a company that offered Blood Of Dracula in the same year, 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. 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 absorbed into struggle of differentiating itself from other Draculas (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, by far a best and most saleable of 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 lucrative cycle for budget filmmakers, but television, especially color television, was sucking up leisure time once passable in theatres using modest likes of 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. Atmosphere of these British chillers are very much of a piece. See one and likely you’ll welcome more of thematic same. Their very modesty is what endears me to them. None reach beyond a low-budget grasp. Wonder how British players felt having Yank-imported lead men pulling fat out of fires for them. The Earth Dies Screaming had Willard Parker, a can-do sort known for a western TV series done in the US. Parker doesn’t look ashamed to be here, unlike headliners too clearly slumming in British sci-fi. Seeing The Earth Dies Screaming in crisply rendered widescreen amounts to happy rediscovery among former gray-market video dwellers 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 jaded viewer of coarsened tastes prefers it to self-conscious girl power endemic to current screens. Good ideas bungled are a hallmark of low-budget sci-fi filmmaking. Maybe that’s what keeps me keyed through 77 minute running times in hope they’ll get something right along the way. Lethargy comes aplenty, but The Leech Woman glows in ways mainstream 50’s shows seldom did. 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 regretting years they sat for cosmetic abuse. 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. Essential thrust of eternal youth yarns is that one should never seek to retard the aging process, and woe betide 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. Gee, are women 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 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. Lippert horror and science fiction distributed by 20th Fox 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 in order to have something for the many theatres 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 that public 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 entering the business. 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 had retired from producing. Witchcraft was among the final ones.

Lippert made no pretense at being a creative producer. The only times he watched rushes was to look for good stuff he could put in trailers. That enabled a lot of talent to put over their vision without his meddling, so long as budgets were adhered to and schedules kept. Lippert pics were done on the extreme cheap. A thing 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 hand out gimcracks they’d leave all over your floor? Trouble was one-sheets that promised the trinket, and kids demanding them at the window. For myself, I didn’t ask. Any eleven-year-old in North Wilkesboro could look at sparse attendance and know the score. By this time, a witch deflector could as readily deflect patronage, for results the Liberty was getting with such dispirited bills. 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. 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. Youth today would think us crazy for watching it. Some day I fully expect to be the only resident in my seniors facility still engaged by Withcraft (and The Earth Dies Screaming!).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow - - I wonder if Grant Williams realized how much distance he was traveling going from The Incredible Shrinking Man to Lippert's Leech Woman?

I was fascinated by your counts on the opening places for The Return Of Dracula (8,718) versus Some Like It Hot (20,602) - - I looked up a more recent "blockbuster" and saw this: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" opened in 3,858 theatres (boxofficemojo didn't say how many screens, though). I also saw (at allbusiness) that there were 37,185 screens in the USA in 1999.

I was trying to gauge what the ratio would be, screen-to-screen, for Return of Dracula opening today, (vs. Harry Potter!) but I couldn't find a total count for screens for 58/59 in order to do the math. But it still looks like a big number for Lippert's Dracula movie.

Now if it would only show up on TCM!

7:24 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Re: bookings--you've got to consider, though, that Harry Potter opens in 3800 theatres and sits there for a couple of months. Return of Dracula probably bounced around neighborhood theatres and drive-ins for one-week (or even one-weekend) engagements. I doubt there were more than a hundred prints, if that.

Which brings up a question that's been bugging me--with movies opening wide on 2000 or 3000 screens, what happens to all of the prints? I can't beleive that producers are paying for storage. Are they trashing them?

9:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

My guess is there were around three hundred prints of something like "Return Of Dracula", if that. They'd play certain territories, then move to others. Eventually, each exchange would get one or two for subsequent bookings, and these would remain in service for as long as the print held up. I found bookings for "Return Of Dracula" in our NC markets well into the mid-sixties.

As to recent 35mm prints, most are junked eventually from what I hear. Otherwise, you'd have huge storage expense, and to what purpose? As soon as new movies go to DVD, what theatre can use them? I'd imagine 35mm collectors have little trouble locating prints of contemporary titles they want. It's finding "Return Of Dracula" and others of like vintage in 35mm that presents the greater challenge!

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My brother and I saw RETURN OF DRACULA at the Forum Theatre in Akron in the mid-1960s; they booked 3 vintage horror films there on weekends. Oddly enough, although I saw TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, THE TINGLER, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER and WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST there, the only "tacked on color sequence" I can recall is RETURN OF DRACULA. I am pretty sure I'd remember if we saw the others with the colors intact, since my memory of RETURN OF DRACULA is so clear. In any case, the Lederer film has always been one of my "not quite A movie" sci-fi faves from the era, right up there with IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE.

11:37 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Always great hearing from Laughing Gravy. You really had it made getting 50's sci-fi pics into the sixties. Regular triple bills of vintage titles would have made for a lot of great Saturdays at the Liberty, but as it was, we got the first-runs and occasionally some of the mid-50's Universal-Internationals. Considering how many genre pictures were still being released during the first half of the sixties, that still made for a pretty full plate, so I can't complain in hindsight.

3:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of blatant rip-offs, RETURN OF DRACULA wasn't the only film of the period to appropriate the plot of SHADOW OF A DOUBT. That same year Universal produced its own scaled-down backlot remake and released it as STEP DOWN TO TERROR. The building used in the climax, with its long outdoor stairway, is still on the lot. You can glimpse it on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.

2:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Didn't know about that one, Joe. Thanks for alerting me to it. Your "Trailers From Hell" site is a gem, by the way. Handsome presentation and on-target commentary on trailers we love. Took me back to 35mm collecting days when we used to find these on cores in projection booths.

Here's my question to you that's plagued me for forty years --- was the Frankenstein TV Movieguide ever completed? We got part way through the alphabet and then C.o.F. ceased publication. I always wondered if Cal Beck had the balance of your reviews on file, but never had the chance to publish them. Those were the highlight of each issue for me. I actually picked up a lot of vocabulary from your commentaries when I was ten and eleven. It'd be great to get all the way through "Z" at long last. Were those latter letters covered and are they extant?

6:31 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

Ever get an answer from Dante on this? I loved CoF as well.

12:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Didn't get an answer, but hoping someday the rest of that alphabet will show up.

1:49 PM  

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