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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Halloween Harvest For 2008

It’s October again and time for accounting another year of horror film releases on DVD. The crop’s been down, owing partly to diminished disc sales overall, and known quantity chillers having been offered up in past seasons. We’ve pretty nearly dredged the lake. Universal sat out 2008 and so failed to deliver on Lionel Atwill "B’s" and more Paula the Ape-Girl pics some had hoped for, while Warners restricts its monsters to Best Buy shelves (but never those within driving distance of me). Sony/Columbia meanwhile secured eternal gratitude of fans by rejuvenating Hammer films I’d have sworn we’d never see. Two sets emerged this year, not all horror titles per se, but each as hotly anticipated, maybe more so, than fabled classics we’d previously digested and had easier access to all along. Sony’s offered pirates, Tong terrors, and psycho thrillers so long buried that some of us wondered if they’d ever really existed at all. Some were so obscure as to be hardly represented in monster magazines back in the day. A (The) burning question with any Hammer film is whether it’s truly complete. There’s so often footage someone claims to have seen among archive holdings or on some Euro TV broadcast. I came to The Stranglers Of Bombay with head abuzz over a snake and a mongoose, which sounds like an Aesop Fable but is actually a scene frequently missing from that 1959 release. Columbia distributed Stranglers as they had Hammer’s previous The Revenge Of Frankenstein, with advance ads, such as a color one above, closer in spirit to the film itself than jokey teasers that followed (also above) when The Stranglers Of Bombay went into theatres on a double with The Electronic Monster. Would thirteen-year-olds, surely the targeted audience, be intrigued by British colonialist management problems and rivalry among ranks as depicted in this black-and-white scope feature? I wonder what those few Moms and Dads venturing inside with youngsters thought. Not to worry, as most patrons were probable drop-offs for an afternoon’s distraction while parents engaged bridge games and/or golf matching. I was five and not yet a Liberty habitué, thus The Stranglers Of Bombay came my way but these forty-nine years later and was most satisfactory for all the wait, its snake and mongoose fulfilling hopes I’d harbored for at least half that long.

The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll is another coveted rarity. It was nowhere for decades, other than horridly cropped and dreadfully cut, these being adjectives I’d not lightly apply as Two Faces, known alternately as House Of Fright and Jekyll’s Inferno, fell victim to censor assault and distributor mayhem that made Von Stroheim’s mutilations look by comparison like objects they’d hung in the Louvre. Hammer saw potential with Jekyll’s beginnings. It was 1959 and the little company reeling from international successes The Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula felt emboldened toward greater prestige for its horror subjects, thus better writers courted and bigger stars induced. Their aim was good, but targets were invariably missed. Laurence Harvey was said to have considered Jekyll, but like Cary Grant’s supposed flirtation with Hammer’s later Phantom Of The Opera, it came to naught. Insensitive stateside handler Columbia took a look at the finished Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll and found it unsuitable for kiddies they catered to with horror films resolutely on mild setting. Hammer showed real boldness with this one, however. The finally complete (or nearly so … who knows?) Two Faces is several jumps randier than any of their stuff up to then, its language and near-nudity a welcome and thought-lost treat for Hammer cultists. As with most of their horrors I’m rediscovering, expectations are more than met. Sets no doubt smaller than they look (Chris Lee might better duck when he enters these rooms) are candy-boxes where background doorways exit into red or green pools of light and period frou-frou always engages the eye. Has any producer ever done as much with so little? I liked the long middle section more than a sluggish open and awkward end. My policy dictates that whatever is good in Hammer mitigates all that isn’t. Once done separating, you’ll generally have far more wheat than chaff. There are some who are less charitable, of course. They’d call me an apologist for hackneyed rubbish, an indiscriminate Hammer-head, if you will. Whatever merit lies in either argument, I’d submit The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll deserved not the beating it took. Columbia shunned a US release. American-International ended up with distribution and chopped off nearly a reel so as to head off censorial intervention here. They called the result House Of Fright and dumped it into a late Spring and Summer 1961 market dominated by Universal’s stronger Hammer offering Curse Of The Werewolf, AIP’s own larger efforts focused on hit-making Black Sunday and forthcoming Pit and The Pendulum. There were only 6,743 bookings for House Of Fright as compared with more than twice that (13,627) for Roger Corman’s Poe special. Domestic rentals tapped out at $261,000, way below averages AIP maintained on horror/sci-fi product that year.

Hammer wisely varied its program and got a hand in on flourishing genres other than horror. Somehow they’d manage tying it all with a gothic ribbon so that recognition of their name, whatever the content, assured fans of rougher play even in movies figured to be kid-friendly. Hammer tendered pirates minus sailing and the sea, but with cruelties to more than compensate. The Pirates Of Blood River and Devil-Ship Pirates seem to me in hindsight the same show I sat through twice. Both have Christopher Lee. He’s back-and-forth with a beard, eye-patch, and French accent. People who annoy him are likely to have their tongues cut out. I never knew a company so fascinated with cutting out tongues as Hammer. I still wonder at Christopher Lee being so taken for granted in his prime. Was it because only children were going to see him? That probably accounts for his roaring comeback in old age. The little ones who appreciated Chris grew up, overtook the industry, and cast him in their big pictures, a just and rightful third-act for a fine actor I never tire of. But as to Hammer pirates compared with rivals, how did chips (or doubloons) fall? Devil-Ship Pirates under-performed in the US upon Columbia’s 1964 release. There was only $120,000 in domestic rentals. That’s not a patch on what MGM realized selling Guy Williams in Captain Sindbad the previous year. That one did $1.7 million domestic. Business was generated then as now with saturation openings and drum beating on television. Columbia devoted greater energy to Jason and The Argonauts, also 1963,but seems to have done little for Hammer pirates other than cast them adrift on exhibition waters crowded with similar product. As to grown-up fare, particularly that spun off Psycho, Hammer was nothing if not prolific. I’m still not straight on the many they did or which is what. There’s buckets of these and all are twistier than a corkscrew. Consider the following titles and try sorting them out: Maniac, Paranoiac, Fanatic, Hysteria, Nightmare … let’s call the whole thing off! The one just released on DVD is Scream Of Fear. I separate it from others now because I won’t remember enough to do so next week. This has wheelchair-bound Susan Strasberg traversing patios and seashores to investigate possible murders, itself a device that can’t help slowing action. Scream Of Fear is also black-and-white. Bless Hammer, but they need color. Splashes of blood red might have contrasted better against seeming twin suspensers other British concerns turned out in the previous decade (Scream Of Fear is particularly akin to one I looked at recently, Chase A Crooked Shadow, with Richard Todd). Did Hammer favor monochrome for its thrillers in deference to Psycho?

One more horror on DVD needs mentioning, even if not strictly a Hammer. I say strictly because a civilian could easily mistake The Skull for one of theirs. It was actually a sincerest form of flattery on the part of a British firm called Amicus that figured enough money to be in gothic wells for imitators to draw upon. Gothic is the operative word for chillers as sedate in comparison with horrors today. It really was about atmosphere in lieu of violence and sex, even as companies like Amicus and Hammer appeared to push boundaries then in place. As with old Universals, creepy rooms and hallways were most of what you needed to get the job done. Actors like Lee and Peter Cushing supplied the rest. I’ll take The Skull as meditation upon excesses of collecting (in this case crime related artifacts) and how that obsession pushes Cushing to a brink, preferring to watch (and listen to) he and Lee shoot billiards and assess the problem than be faced with that titular relic biting heads off victims. You only get shocked (or repelled) once by any horror film. I went back primarily to enjoy Cushing lolling about his beautifully appointed library and bartering for that coveted skull. It was as much that way when I was twelve. What actors said and against what backgrounds they said it mattered most, not their dexterity with chopping instruments. Chillers seemed to me more congenial, and easier to digest, before they became so explicit. Certainly showmen found it so. One veteran told me of parental confidence withdrawn when things like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came through his doors. Drop-offs dropped off, even if teenaged (and driving licensed) thrill-seekers made up the shortfall. Consider this 1965 mob above waiting to see The Skull, then note tender age of most and the managing couple standing amongst them. He’s wearing shirt with tie, and I don’t doubt there’s a suit jacket hanging just inside the entrance to be donned as youngsters are seated. The self-same exhibitor who spoke of trust also maintained dress codes strictly enforced among theatre employees (Colonel Forehand required coat and tie for ushers at the Liberty. It drew lines of demarcation between them and shirt-sleeved rowdies in the audience). So what happened when pictures like The Skull morphed into Night Of The Living Dead, Hammer’s own (R-rated) The Vampire Lovers, and finally The Exorcist? Such (demographic) lines as this for horror movies would go away and not come back again.

There was a Classic Monster Movie Con in Kingsport, Tennessee last weekend. I was intent on going even as guests dropped out and travelers changed minds and stayed home. A bad economy and folks skittish to attend and spend suddenly jinxed an enterprise so promising three months before. I drove the two hours on Friday knowing all this and still I went. How many horror fests venture so close to these mountains of North Carolina? Ann wouldn’t join me because she had a gimp knee (her excuse anyway) and didn’t relish the prospect of middle-aged men walking around in Frankenstein masks. She says I ignore household matters but am vitally interested in what Boris Karloff might have said on some street corner back in August 1933, to which I reply, Well, what did he say? Anyhow, I drove past the Tennessee line and saw changing Autumn leaves we take for granted, plus a wide azure lake. The hotel in Kingsport was vast. There was a group in their twenties gathered out front, but I didn’t bother asking if they were there for the show, as they looked too healthy to be monster fans and were probably getting ready to go climb rocks somewhere. You needed a compass to navigate that lobby so I had to ask directions. Various captains of industry were doing the same for a conference also being held, so who could blame the front desk girl for regarding me askance when I inquired as to location of The Classic Monster Movie Con? It was noon or so upon entering the hall, and there I stood alone with a handful of dealers and dialogue from The Body Snatcher echoing from behind a curtain hung nearby. Sara Karloff’s was the first face I recognized. She was set up with merchandise from her Karloff Enterprises. I was pleased to spend the next several hours talking with her. Meager attendance at the show now worked to my selfish advantage as I asked and got answers to all my questions about Boris Karloff from his daughter. Turns out she never cared for his (or anyone else’s) horror movies. That much I knew from published interviews. Being a movie star just happened to be what her father did for a living. Beyond that, she made little inquiry growing up. How many of us followed Dad to work in the mornings after all? Sara did go see The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and Unconquered, both in 1947, as neither were monster roles and thus more palatable to her. The one time her father recommended she catch his act was the night before CBS ran How The Grinch Stole Christmas in December 1966. He knew that was something special and called to make sure she’d tune in. At one point in our conversation, I spoke of having recently watched Die, Monster, Die!, to which she simply asked Why? Not an unreasonable question if you grew up at any time other than the sixties. Sara must find fandom a baffling thing. Indeed, my spirited defense of Die, Monster, Die! only made me seem foolish. I tried to convey the miracle of Boris Karloff as I experienced him. Here was a man nearing eighty with emphysema who could barely walk, and he’s playing above-the-title leads in horror movies where he’s the scary guy. When was such a thing ever done before or since? Alas, I had to leave The Classic Monster Movie Con later that afternoon and so missed Son Of Frankenstein’s Donnie Dunagan the following day. More people came on Saturday and online discussion groups said the show was an overall success. The impressive poster for The Classic Monster Movie Con was designed by George Chastain, whose site, E-Gor's Chamber Of TV Horror Hosts, is an absolute must-see..)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice Post. Thanks for sharing this information with us.

5:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somebody introduced me to Sara Karloff here in Hollywood, a couple-years ago. Elegant, beautiful,aristocratic lady, as you doubtless know. I told her that her father and I shared the same b'day (Nov.23), so I felt a close kinship. She then informed me that it was also HER b'day! We fell on each-others' necks like long-lost cousins. Same Sagittarian, warped senses of humor, that only fellow Sag's understand (The rest of the world thinks we're nuts!) Then she says, get this, "You remind me of my father!" Gott um himmel! I nearly swooned! At that moment I felt like I been given handed an Oscar -- only 10 times better! R.J.

1:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Sara was great, RJ. Talking with her made the venture worthwhile for me. I really hope this show will be back next year, because they've got a beautiful hotel for it. This was the first monster show I'd been to since one in Arlington, VA. around 1992.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Vince said...

I'm a fan of your blog for a few years now and you are one of the best reasons to push me to create of own (sorry for my english). If you don't mind to watch what I am doing, I'll be very pleased! Thank you again for your work! Bye and see you soon!

4:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John: Ah, all the memories of the hayday of film festivals with their fascinating guests (and some not so fascinating) flood back after reading this!

Recently discovered your blog and I've really enjoyed it!

Bill/Theater Poster Exchange

6:48 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bill ... as in Tennessee?

10:39 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

"Do you suppose Burt ever watched George's show?"

Are you kidding? In Los Angeles, nearly EVERYBODY was watching! It came on at 8:30 pm Mondays on ABC, and according to VARIETY, it was outdrawing Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts - then the 3rd-most popular show in the nation. That's the main reason why, when From Here to Eternity premiered at the Hollywood Pantages, audience members started pointing and whispering "There's Superman!" during that scene.

If I were to caption that photo, I might have Burt saying, "You know that one where you rescued the crippled girl then flew her over the city... how did you DO that???"

12:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, I don't doubt a lot of people in Los Angeles were watching George's show, but with Burt Lancaster being a pretty busy actor at the time, and recently back from out-of-the-country location doing "His Majesty O'Keefe", I do wonder if he found time, or inclination, to tune in for "The Adventures Of Superman". I hope so, as I'm sure he'd have enjoyed it.

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is Bill over in Memphis, John, remembering all the Memphis Film Festivals at the Peabody Hotel and Rivermont. Fun days when they packed large rooms with dealers and attendees.

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent story

4:44 PM  

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