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Monday, July 31, 2017

Are Skulls That Scream Scary?

Another One That Came With A Free Funeral

If you worked in movies during the late fifties (or anytime), you almost certainly dreamed of the big score, racking up at pay-out end of a boom-bust industry. Most who toiled, however, were paid at minimum, as in scraps left after sharks swam. Actors especially took what could be got and knelt for a next short-term job, stars excepted of course, but how many of those were among thesping's horde? A minuscule percentage, said Guild warning to ones who'd aspire, them wanting to keep field to membership who could at least starve as a closed order. One who wanted more, thought he could get it via independent filmmaking, was Alex Nicol, who'd team with coffee and cake producer T. Frank Woods to do The Screaming Skull (C&C a term for "small-time, bush league," said Variety). One thing The Screaming Skull had was a keen title --- do skulls scream? --- I'd stay up for Dr. Evil's Charlotte broadcast on 6-18-65 to find out. Now, as if fifty-two years were mere blur, comes Blu-Ray release to confirm or deny if  The Screaming Skull is every bit the dog we suspected despite youth impressions made. 1958 was peak of take-what-you-could-get where plate held horror-sci-fi. At least producer T. Frank Woods was buoyant at the time. He'd announce The Screaming Head as follow-up to The Screaming Skull, then The Haunted Hot Rod, followed by War Of 1995. None of these happened, of course. If IMDB is to be believed, Woods produced but one more film, Angel Baby in 1961.

There was glut on the market, as in too many of the sort to reasonably see, and not time/money enough to make most offerings good. It was assumed that youth didn't care. They listened to rock and roll after all, that between junk consumed off television. Why apply undue effort to movies aimed for such a market? It was for posters to close the sale, reality known by ever-on-alert Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff, whose American-International stayed on troll for skulls that could scream loudest to teens. Nicol (who'd direct plus star) and Woods didn't start out to do a movie called The Screaming Skull. They thought more along line of remaking Rebecca, or any of pics where wives were gaslit by fortune hunter husbands. The gag was spent by close of the 40's, though trying it on horror terms was at least novel for that genre. I admire effort like The Screaming Skull for not laughing at itself, even where viewers later would. Makers like Nicol and Woods came earnest to the fray, their well-meaning a stamp of honor to forgive whatever deficiency in result. Yes, there was money as main object, but know too that The Screaming Skull was no sluff-off. Alex Nicol would go proud for remainder of a lifetime for having done it.

Now Jim and Sam were something different. Their having hooks in finished product was how The Screaming Skull became ... well, The Screaming Skull. Although he didn't claim credit, I'll bet Jim Nicholson dreamed up the title. It bespoke his credo as learned in fleapits where sale was had by hard sell alone, and more lurid the better. A woman undraped at the shoulders and menaced by a grinning skull was proven pitch since pulps did it a first thousand times, and what better place for a Tortured Ghost to Claim Vengeance than a Bride's Bedroom? AIP would even chance a free burial should patrons suffer Death By Fright from The Screaming Skull. A safe bet, as Jim/Sam had seen The Screaming Skull and knew how scary it wasn't. Foregone was fact they would pair it, scurvy mate in this instance Terror From The Year 5000, a "Hideous She-Thing," which might describe the pic, if pics went by gender. The Screaming Skull took $164K, which meant someone got profit, but who? Nicol and Woods were in for percentage, so said agreement w/ Jim/Sam, and we could wonder if that was handshake kind, or sort set down on paper. Either way, what money there was stayed in AIP pocket, per Nicholson/Arkoff norm.

They weren't crooks, but Jim and Sam paid first those guys that had to be paid first, like labs and franchisers who distributed, plus showmen who kept whatever they felt they had coming and to blazes with % negotiated with AIP. Exhibs loved Jim and Sam, so long as they let them have their cheap stuff for cheap, as in more cheap than majors. Arkoff resented all this but couldn't do much about it. An independent producer would realize a fee up front to help get his movie finished, but that was often the last money he'd see, unless AIP had compelling reason to pay him more later. In the case of Screaming Skull and most any farmed to Jim/Sam by free agents, a final check would be signed when time came for AIP to buy out rights so they could peddle the now-oldie to television. Until then, they'd claim product was still short of break-even, therefore no profit to split. Hard to altogether blame them, for Jim and Sam were just administering dosage routinely applied to them. This sort of thing was what made the movie business a hard business. The Screaming Skull and others of ilk would soon enough be tossed to blender of all-night drive-ins where ad art from cheapies not on the bill would be used to promote ones that were. At right is Prairieville, Illinois sampling: The Spider and Horrors Of The Black Museum (neither being shown) is wedged into pitch for The Screaming Skull, as if anyone would notice, let alone care. Of a likely $15 or $20 paid out for Skull booking, how much made way back to AIP, or back-of-line partners Alex Nicol and T. Frank Woods? Pennies, if that, I'd wager.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You do know that Peggy Webber is still with us, right? Her California Artists' Radio Theater (CART) is soldiering on; radio was always Peggy's first love.

11:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I read an interview with Peggy Webber that Tom Weaver did, but was not aware that she was active in radio, and nearly fifty years after "The Screaming Skull" --- fascinating stuff.

4:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Just in from Griff ---

Dear John:

Oh, now you've done it -- reminded me of a movie I haven't thought of in years, that used to play TV all the time. Boy, I wanna see a decent print of TERROR FROM THE YEAR 5000 before I pass.

-- Griff

4:21 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

As a kid watching "Creature Features" and other less ironic late-nite horrors, I divided the movies into two categories:

-- Fun horror: Old Universals dripping with Hollywood atmosphere; Hammers with their Technicolor period sheen; sci-fi with gloating superintelligences ("Primitive Earthlings!") and lots of effects; and deliberately transitory chills.

-- Depressing horror: Cheaply made scary stuff that unintentionally foreshadowed "Blair Witch Project" with oppressively real low-budget locations (like "The Screaming Skull's" under-furnished mansion and ill-tended grounds); nightmare deaths with blood and screaming; "post nuclear" wastelands full of desperate psychos; and the clumsy but effective substitution of unease and paranoia for thrills and chills. You could go to bed after a Universal or even most Hammers; after one of these you'd have to stay up and watch a bad melodrama to clear your impressionable little head.

Reader's Digest had a correspondent describing a Saturday matinee of the then-new "Night of the Living Dead". A houseful of kids ready to yell at Christopher Lee got a dark, fatalistic it-could-happen-right-here documentary. Of course it was pandering to RD's audience (complete with nostalgia for "good, clean" monster movies); for audiences craving genuine horror "Living Dead" was just the thing. But it wasn't what monster kids (this one, at least) craved.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

There is no question that neither THE SCREAMING SKULL nor TERROR FROM THE YEAR 5000 is very good nor very scary. But I have to give them some credit. When I was a 10 or 11 year-old Monster Kid, ravenous for anything in the monster line, those were the only two films I ever skipped the chance to see because the trailers scared me too much.

Those previews rattled me so much that I feared the actual, full-length movies might kill me. There I would be, wide-eyed with one of those "Looks like he was scared to death!" expressions on my face, frozen to my seat in the LeRose Theater. -- No thank you.

So I skipped both of them, only catching up with them on TV about 5 or 6 years later. Watching them then, eager to be frightened silly, I could only wonder...what the hell? Why did those trailers scare me so? Answer -- I have no idea.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Re: Trailers. When I ran William Castle's THE NIGHTWALKER in the 1970s I did not have a trailer. What I did was better. Universal gave me the 16mm print a couple of weeks before I was to0 screen it. Every night at every showing I ran the first few minutes up to the moment where Barbara Stanwyck first sees the nightwalker. As soon as his face hit the screen I turned off the projection lamp and let the scene play with just her screams and the music on the soundtrack. No picture. Needless to say when I finally ran the film it was a huge success both in terms of turnout and reception. It is still a favorite. I have never seen THE SCREAMING SKULL nor ever wanted to. Now I want to.

5:06 PM  

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