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Thursday, September 16, 2010

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

Controversy over showing the demon persists to this day, despite its being one of the most arresting of all monster images. Would Curse be a better film minus that visage? Not for me. Would Columbia have released the film stateside without its demon? Doubtful. Especially when a whole campaign was built around a face that yet defines memorable experience viewing Curse Of The Demon. He was a humble puppet at inception, later cover subject for multiple horror mags, and inspiration for artists and model makers since. Writers who've shunned the Demon are cowed to large extent by shared objection among personnel who gave us Curse. Writer Charles Bennett, director Jacques Tournear, and star Dana Andrews all scolded Columbia for imposing him --- who are we to part company with these? Demand for Curse Of The Demon posters speaks to ongoing preference, however. They've regularly sold for hundreds. A lobby card head shot of the hellspawn recently brought $567.63 at auction. Surely 1958 patrons were entitled to as much stimulation for entering theatres to see an otherwise unknown quantity (and British-made besides). Columbia had smarts enough to know you can't sell an exploitation picture without something to exploit. Toward that end, Curse's demon was made to order.

Revenge Of Frankenstein and Curse Of The Demon began charting on Boxoffice's July 14 Barometer page. The Barometer recorded performance of current attractions in the opening week of first-runs in twenty key cities monitored. Computation was in terms of percentage in relation to customary grosses as determined by theatre managers, with 100% representing "normal" business. How far your show got beyond that 100% was measure of its success. In the case of Revenge Of Frankenstein and Curse Of The Demon, numbers were 106%/105%, respectively, not too swift in comparison with other genre players that had been in the marketplace longer, but continued pacing high. Horror Of Dracula, a May release, was averaging 143% as of mid-July. Weeks to follow saw Revenge/Curse undone by MGM's combo of The Haunted Strangler and Fiend Without a Face (both at 110%), while Attack Of The 50-Foot Woman and War Of The Satellites arrived for latter July and clocked at 135%, Revenge/Curse's average creeping up to 107% during the week of July 28. Competition increased with summer progressing and more horrors making landfall. Worse came with August debut of chart-busting The Fly. Another fly forever buzzing (and siphoning off playdates) was American-International --- their August package was War Of The Colossal Beast and Attack Of The Puppet People at 116% for opening week. There was also baited hook of Allied Artists' Frankenstein --- 1970, which had not Revenge's color, but compensated with presence of Shock Theatre stalwart Boris Karloff back in castle environs. How could Columbia and its Revenge/Curse combo prevail in the face of such opposition?

One problem was oversaturation of famous monsters, for which both Revenge Of Frankenstein and rival Horror Of Dracula suffered. There had been Curse Of Frankenstein for the summer before, and AIP's opportunist I Was a Teenage Frankenstein behind that. The latter was paired with Blood Of Dracula and they played from November 1957 release into 1958. Then there was Return Of Dracula and Frankenstein --- 1970 to clog Spring and Summer 1958 schedules. Harrison's Reports complained over all this, pointing out rightly that customers wouldn't spot differences among the lot and might skip one thinking they'd seen it already. Horror Of Dracula broke from the pack for being a really exceptional chiller and cracked a million in rentals, but Revenge Of Frankenstein frankly disappointed many for whom expectations were not met. This was nearly a year into the old Frankensteins on television and fans wondered why this monster looked so different from Universal's patented design. Exhibitors said Revenge was nowhere near as good as the first one (Curse Of Frankenstein) ... the kids came right out and told us (there was) nothing scary, so it seems if you can't scare their pants off, it's no good. Columbia had a monster on its hands more pathetic than frightening, Peter Cushing's handiwork perhaps saddest of all his creations. More important, this was not a Frankenstein that youth patrons would care to go home and recreate on their sketchpads and school notebooks. No coincidence, then, that Columbia relied on Curse's Christopher Lee image to adorn at least one Revenge trade ad, along with using footage of his monster for the film's theatrical trailer.

The Fly was shaping up as the summer's big horror winner, with $1.3 million in domestic rentals and $929,000 foreign. The Revenge Of Frankenstein/Curse Of The Demon tandem separated as subsequent runs found each keeping company with other Columbia season releases. The Camp On Blood Island was an import from Hammer brimming with exploitation angles and had reached 132% on Boxoffice's barometer. Curse Of The Demon would support this one in a number of late Summer/Fall bookings, while Revenge Of Frankenstein bunked with The Snorkel, a B/W suspense thriller from Hammer that Columbia was also distributing. The company's TV division, Screen Gems, let little grass grow under features played out in theatres. Curse Of The Demon was announced for syndication on September 25, 1963 as part of SG's sci-fi package called simply "X", a mélange of fifteen recent titles including Battle In Outer Space, The Giant Claw, Mothra (only a year old at the time), and The Tingler. I recall struggle to bring in a Saturday morning signal off Raleigh's Channel 5 during a visit to Statesville cousins during summer 1965, my first exposure to Curse Of The Demon. The picture held for six or so initial minutes, turning gradually to snow as the demon gathered up Professor Harrington. It was years before I had another run at Curse. As for Revenge Of Frankenstein, there would be announcement to TV in September 1962 with a strong group of seventy-three Columbia features the likes of Bell, Book, and Candle, From Here To Eternity, The Lineup, and Ride Lonesome. Revenge was ubiquitous on the tube, thanks to this being a heavily bought package, but broadcasts were primarily black-and-white, at least through most of the sixties. About the only way to see Revenge in color outside very infrequent 60's theatre bookings was via Columbia's 8mm highlight reel which was offered first in 1964, its color availability both a surprise and beyond means of boy collectors like myself (a skyward $12.95).

In the wake of Monday's Part One post, I was delighted to receive a first-hand Curse Of The Demon screening report from Bill Littman in Baltimore. His 1958 Demon experience was, to say the least, an unusual one. Here's the story in Bill's words:

I saw the combo at the New Essex; the little theater where you could request movies. I know, 'cause I'm the one who requested it (DEMON). [I'd seen COTD mentioned in World Famous Creatures] I told the NE owners, a wonderful old married couple who would allow you free refills of popcorn (!), I liked Westerns too and since almost (?) nobody in town was running DEMON, I wanted to do something about it. Also GUNMAN'S WALK was 1. one I'd missed and 2. was in CinemaScope. (always a must!) I figure looking back, that they must have gone through the local exchange, gotten a deal on the combo & short (a Three Stooge comedy) and ran it for maybe two days (Fri. & Sat.) and made their dollar back. The newspaper never ran ads for the NE and by Sunday the double bill was gone and "I knew I was never gonna see it again" and it haunted me for days afterward. Didn't see it again 'til it was on TV in the early '60's. I WISH I had saved that little triple fold, yellow-tinted "now showing--coming soon" handout we got. I also went alone to see that combo, a rare occurrence since nobody else could make it. I was ticked off 'cause I'd gone to the trouble to ask the old folks who ran the New Essex to try & get it. (a 12-year-old doesn't count the fact everybody's sick with colds as a reason for missing a horror movie! Actually, I got sick a couple of days later--that'll teach me!). It was probably in late October; around the time I saw THE BLOB & I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE. I know it was before Thanksgiving. DEMON always meant a lot to me because I had to do all the work to get to see it! I had to walk 3 miles to that theater and it was the smallest in town, but that was the place where, in '55, I saw the sepiatone double bill of BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS & THEM! (and a lot of great stuff after that). I've never been able to find a photo of the theater as it was. I guess nobody thought it was worth taking a picture of. Amazingly enough, the building has outlived my other two theaters. Today it's a union hall.
Imagine a theatre where you could request movies. This is such a neat story, and I do thank Bill Littman for allowing me to post it. What any of us wouldn't give to have had a Curse Of The Demon encounter like that!


Blogger Christopher said...

interesting to contemplate that a generation of moviegoing youngsters with know idea of what a Frankenstein looks like would only know of Chris Lee's Curse of Frankenstein.for a little while..before Shock Theater put an end to that once and for all in '58

6:22 PM  
Blogger oneders63 said...

That's such a great memory from Bill Littman about "Curse of the Demon". I'm sad to report that Bill has just passed away at his home in Baltimore. He was an amazing film enthusiast with a mind like a steel trap. I swear he could remember every movie he ever saw, and the theatre where he saw it, and probably the name of the projectionist, too. He was a wonderful friend to so many people, and we shared many afternoons of terrific movies and tasty meals. We had so much more to see and do. Sadly, there just wasn't enough time. Rest in peace, Bill. We'll all miss you.

10:55 PM  

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