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Monday, September 13, 2010

A Horror Plague Is Upon Us! --- Part One

1958 was the year horror and science-fiction caught fire. Never had so many monsters arrived at once. They were all over television as well as theatres, thanks to Screen Gems' issuance of fifty-two oldies Universal owned, a package they simply called Shock. Interest in these led to magazines (like Famous Monsters Of Filmland as of February 1958) serving as base command for followers still active as of 2010. Was all this good for an industry's public image? The Motion Picture Herald didn't think so. The alarming rate of horror's output moved editor Martin Quigley to recommend producers take a careful look and a long thought before over-committing themselves to this type of picture. Quigley's stance reflected old guard concerns (he was 41 that year), with the star community's Gary Cooper calling horror pics a fad that soon will pass. Quigley agreed the cycle would run its course, speculating as to whether this type of fare is not of potential danger to the young people who seem to be the most avid fans. Monsters were not unlike rock and roll for getting under an establishment's collective skin. Old hand at shlock-selling Arthur Mayer (he of NYC's famed Rialto Theatre) encouraged calm: We are playing to the so-called "beat generation" which rejects the established code of ethics and the mores of our daily life, though he was quick to add that their money folded as well as anyone's. With trade count of twenty-four horrors and seventeen sci-fi's on '58 release schedules through October, who was surprised when widely read The Saturday Evening Post and others like it turned lasers on the horror plague, as some exhibitors were now calling it?

Even producers most responsible for the glut knew things were getting out of hand. William Castle said frankly that the public is fed up with horror films now and wants to see "real ghost stories." Bill's forthcoming (and spook laden) House On Haunted Hill inspired the outburst, but where did American-International's Jim Nicholson come off knocking chillers done for same penury as he and partner Sam Arkoff's output? Few would take horror films seriously against carny background Castle and Nicholson/Arkoff built around them, product so debased as to be offered in pairs, revenue you'd  fumigate before depositing. Into this marketplace came Curse of The Demon and Revenge Of Frankenstein, the first a rare class chiller no one (least of all Columbia) knew quite how to market, and the second a hoped-for repeat of sock business its inspiration, Curse Of Frankenstein, had done the year before. How these two were handled reveals much about what happened when overkill of a faddish thing overwhelmed its public and left casualties on a Summer 1958 battlefield too crowded for anyone's profit or good.

Columbia took receipt of The Haunted (eventually Curse of The Demon) in late 1957. Evidence suggests there were two negatives delivered. One ran 95 minutes, the other 82. Either way, it was a scare picture that thinking folk could love, but who needed that? Columbia had ordered, and supplied financing for, a monster show they could pour into yet another of cyclers built for two (the company that made the exploitation combo what it is today ..., boasted trade ads). They could have maintained its original title and released 95 minutes to the carriage trade, but where was recent precedent suggesting this would work? We jump too easy to conclusion that Columbia execs were dumb as rocks, and that they hesitated not one moment in defiling a thriller now called classic, but I wonder if consideration, however brief, was given to releasing Curse complete and as a single. The property had been recognized for something special even before cameras rolled. Charles Bennett's spec script roused interest among leading men not otherwise disposed toward horror projects. Dick Powell, Robert Taylor, and Robert Cummings were said to have read The Haunted and been impressed. Bennett claimed later that it was nearly a go with Taylor. Attention from these names and ultimate getting of Dana Andrews was no small feat, as shocker themes were radioactive to a mainstream industry and would remain so for years longer. Columbia's decision to dump Curse Of The Demon was unfortunate, if slowly arrived at. Stills initially carried Night of The Demon as the film's title, then were sniped over (1957 copyrighted exchange photos even referred to it on back captions as The Haunted), while Curse Of The Demon's pressbook (a mere four pages) indicates 95 minutes of running time. Perplexing too for American audiences was fact that Curse's theatrical trailer included a portion from the longer version they'd not see.

Most histories for Curse/Night Of The Demon claimed British theatres got all those 95 minutes. It was historian Scott MacQueen who revealed the fallacy of that assumption in a lengthy article he wrote for Photon # 26 in 1975 (republished in SPFX # 10 in 2002). According to MacQueen, Night/Curse/The Haunted was prepared at 95 minutes in Great Britain, as indicated on the title page of the British Cutting Continuity, but in a different font below is typed the phrase "UK RELEASE VERSION" -- the 82 minute length. William K. Everson confirmed for MacQueen that UK audiences indeed saw the 82 minute cut in 1957-58, not a 95 minute one. MacQueen adds, however, that some Continental prints were of the longer version (specifically in Italy). For the American and UK public, there wouldn't be access to those 95 minutes until rediscovery of a single 35mm fine grain master in the late seventies. Certainly it was 82 minutes reviewers evaluated when Columbia brought Curse Of the Demon before the trade in early 1958. Variety and The Motion Picture Herald filed positive notices after February screenings, the Herald emphasizing that the name of Dana Andrews on the marquee of a theatre offering this attraction is indication and assurance that it is a mystery of higher grade than its title and the general level of contemporary fright films might suggest. Still, Curse was tied to exploitation tracks, and had to be sold accordingly. Columbia announced a March release and ran a trade ad pairing the film with a drug expose titled The True Story Of Lynn Stuart. The Shock-To-Shock Double Thrill Bill was an uneasy one ... within a few weeks, Curse Of The Demon disappeared off Boxoffice's release chart, while Harrison's Reports amended the film's March date to "Not Set" status. All this suggests that Curse's Spring release was aborted, and that indeed no actual playdates with The True Story Of Lynn Stuart were filled. I've looked for theatre ads featuring this combo, but have found none. If anyone has such a specimen, I'd love to have a look at it.

Curse Of The Demon's proposed combination with The True Story Of Lynn Stuart was the only time I've ever seen it positioned on the top half of a bill. Unlike a Touch Of Evil of doubtful lower berth placement, this one really was relegated to second position (sometimes fourth, as in the all-night "Yellow Coward Show" shown above) behind chillers we remember less well today. Demon's most frequent dates were in company of The Revenge Of Frankenstein, Columbia's well-touted sequel to the Warner handled Franken-success of 1957. Curse Of The Demon got not a fraction of the push Revenge was accorded, the latter enjoying a trade blitz promising Billion-Jolt business for a July release Columbia announced as part of its Block-Busting Super 7 (trade ad above). Curse Of The Demon's arrival had been postponed to selfsame July date, its placement distinctly not among Super 7's, fellow also-rans including Hammer imports The Camp On Blood Island and The Snorkel, both in black-and-white, but in the case of Blood Island at least, still a better revenue bet than Curse Of The Demon (and recipient of greater trade support). Columbia meanwhile needed a horror title to pair with Revenge Of Frankenstein. Then-prevailing business model called for top-tiered color shockers to be buttressed by monochromatic cousins assuring patron money's worth. Universal was currently burning up woods on technicolor-ed Horror of Dracula with bargain rack B/W The Thing That Couldn't Die, produced cheaply to give the vampire king a date to proms. Fox had done much the same with The Fly's erstwhile companion, Space Master X-7, a who-dat? no one would pay specifically to see. These were B sides to hit records, the kind you'd watch silent from rear of a pick-up or barely hear from horizontal position in back seats (indoor customers might split altogether after seeing color headliners they came for). What chance did Curse Of The Demon have in the face of realities like these?
Many thanks to Scott MacQueen for much info and data on the various versions of Curse/Night Of The Demon. His was the first in-depth coverage on the film (way back in 1975), and has remained a valuable resource for all that's been written since.

Part Two of Revenge Of Frankenstein/Curse Of The Demon is HERE. 


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

THE CURSE/NIGHT OF THE DEMON is one of my favorite films.

What it does that few other films do is erode the audience's disbelief by having the main character at first scoff at and then slowly realize the horror he has been laughing at is all too real.

I have had the very great pleasure of showing this film to audiences that laughed when Dana Andrews laughed and then found themselves face to face with the nightmare he faces.

If you have the dvd of this film (and a good big screen projection system such as I employ here as well as a first rate sound system) invite some friends over.

Charge them a fee of some kind as that way they will become a real audience not just a bunch of folk watching an old movie.

Then watch as this wonderful film does its stuff.

Your site is a Monday morning must for me.

8:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Reg --- "Curse Of The Demon" has worked with everyone I've ever shown it to. It's as sure-fire as any horror picture out there.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Reg Hartt said...

One time I had to substitute CURSE OF THE DEMON when a print of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD could not be shown.

I told the audience what had happened and promised a refund to anyone who felt the film failed to deliver.

No one asked for a refund.

Everyone had seen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD before.

They agreed CURSE scared the yell out of them more.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Taking a huge step down, quality-wise, from Curse of the Demon (a classic, no error), you've filled a gaping memory-hole that has nagged me, off and on, for half a century: I've never been able to remember the title of a horror movie about a disembodied head seeking to reunite with its body after 400 years. Your mention of The Thing That Couldn't Die sent me in curiosity to IMDB, and voila! -- that was it. And it all fits: I could well have seen it (twice, months apart) on a double bill with Horror of Dracula, which would certainly have overshadowed it. Can't say how TTTCD would look to me now that I'm no longer a timid 10-year-old cowering behind my popcorn box in the Stamm Theatre -- but it did make an impression.

3:45 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


Appropos of today's masthead: Looks like the "Jiggs" is up! (Sorry, couldn't resist -- there goes my standing in the neighborhood, I guess!)


6:51 AM  
Blogger MHF said...

I saw nearly all of the great sci-fi and horror films of the 1950's during their first release at wonderful old theaters like the Imperial or the Center in Charlotte, NC. There were shocks in abundance to be sure,but CURSE OF THE DEMON was the only one that ever actually scared me.

1:47 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

MHF, did you ever spend time at the Belvedere? Based on ads I remember, that must have been a Charlotte mecca for horror and sci-fi pics.

1:50 PM  
Blogger MHF said...

Hi John ... I never made it out to the Belvedere. My haunts were the now long gone Center which played the first run films from Universal-International and Columbia, and the also vanished Imperial where the probuct from 20th Century Fox, American-International, United Artist, Paramount, Allied Artists, Astor, etc. were to be seen.
The Carolina was the plush uptown showplace, and occasionally a genre title like HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (Yes... I threw a popcorn box at the Emergo skeleton)and THE FLY would play there.


2:33 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

The Thing That Couldn't Die screems for a proper dvd release..Even on the scratchy dvd-r I have of it,you can tell theres much more than meets the eye..Has nifty little cult following on IMDB

6:27 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

You need a caption contest for that Maltese Falcon bodice ripper art! "Look, sweetheart, take off all the clothes you want, but you got about as much chance with either of these two pretty boys as you do with the dingus there."

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Reg Hartt said...

In my teens in New Brunswick, Canada a friend and I would hitch rides to a town twenty miles away from our own town to see horror films as the theater in our town rarely showed them.

The memory of waiting in the cold and the dark on winter nights for a ride back has never left me.

Was it worth it?


These are things the kids today can never know and more's the pity.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Oscar Grillo said...

I prefer "Build My Gallows High". It's more scary.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Funny you should mention FAMOUS MONSTERS. was issue 38 that had DEMON on the cover. Although I must have had a lot of issues, this one and #37(20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH)are the ones that stick in my mind....that and a long article on Laird Cregar...thank you Forry!

9:35 AM  

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