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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Did We Like Silly With Shrieks?

Faces --- Frightened Faces --- Adorn a Typical Universal Combo Chiller Ad

When Fun Ranked Even With Fright

I'd like knowing just what sort of expectation young people brought to so-called "horror" combos during the early 40's. I say young people for guessing that this was overwhelmingly the age group attending such programs. What appeal could they have had for older patronage? Horror Island in particular seems juvenile to a fault, with comedy far outdistancing what might pass for "thrills." My using quotes around the word isn't as much shorthand for disapproval as recognition that a show like Horror Island gave value and very likely pleased in 1941, as did co-feature Man-Made Monster. Some claim viewership wanted scares and were denied them. I'm not so sure. Maybe it was laughs with light chills they preferred, otherwise why hire, let alone bill prominently, Leo Carrillo, Walter Catlett, Fuzzy Knight? These names certainly weren't used because folks didn't enjoy them. Then-censorship held the line in any event --- we can see most of punches pulled in Man-Made Monster. How many would opt for bad dreams a result of too intense movies? Maybe steady nerves were valued more in 1941, so ticket buyers liked preserving theirs. "It's fun to be scared" was a pitch in hundreds of spook show ads. Why spoil fun by truly frightening your crowd?

... and What a Shock Staple This Was Through a Syndicated Era

A Naval Honor Guard for Man-Made Monster? Seeing Is Believing!

I'd propose The Lodger and a few of the Sherlock Holmes as most unsettling of early-to-mid-40's thrillers, and most don't think of these as genre staples. Were it not for the title, Horror Island would be less than obscure. Many a late show sitter found to dismay that this was in fact porridge of "Fortune Hunters" (never a promising premise for shocks), a "Phantom Madman" (not around enough, let alone seen, to be perceived as mad or even a threat), and comics tag-teaming through sixty minutes run-time. The length was pertinent to 1941 bookers, both features done and out in less than two hours. Horror Island and Man-Made Monster amounted to a double feature minus onus of less shows per day, thus lost admissions. Customers wouldn't know they were rooked until wrap, then exit, back to sidewalks ("This way to the Grand Egress," said Barnumesque showmen). Ads spoke Beware the loudest for ones naive enough to pay heed. Collectors value posters for watered-down horror above most of what came out in that era. Lon Chaney in weird make-up and carrying partially unclad Anne Nagel was vaguely like what went on in Man-Made Monster, but only vaguely. Horror Island at least had atmosphere to back up shadowy faces of its cast in ads. Again it was settings and how they were photographed that made these films effective. Yes, a dark castle could be scary in itself, however dissipated it was by a Fuzzy Knight in frenzied retreat from terrors that don't materialize. In the end, perhaps we'd rather look at print lure like ads here than the features themselves (the one at right took up one-third-of-a-page in Memphis Tennessee's Press-Scimeter dated April 25, 1941). Horror Island and Man-Made Monster are available in splendid transfers with a DVD "Classic Horror" group from Universal.


Blogger Dr. OTR said...

I have them both on DVD; I remember them vaguely, as reasonably entertaining though of course not frightening. I remember Walter Tetley having a cameo in Horror Island (long before he voiced Mr Peabody's boy Sherman on Rocky and Bullwinkle) -- he's the kid who throws a package to the guys on the boat, if memory serves.

3:00 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers spook shows and segues to Richard Bojarski:

The ad is fun, but I would have been as disappointed as you were, if I'd paid a dime to see those two. It would have been like the spook show I went to that promised a prize if I survived the double feature, only to find that there weren't two movies but one, and that was "Francis in the Haunted House." The only prize merited for sitting through that one would have been for staying awake. As it was, I survived but did not get a prize, nor did I get to see a pretty girl menaced by a gorilla.

I suppose Dick Bojarski was just indulging in his own brand of hyperbole when he described "Night Monster" as "the most frightening movie ever made." There were many things we should have found scary that afternoon, such as what secrets might have been hidden in his basement or why we never actually saw Dick's mother, but "Night Monster" was not one of them.

At least "Flesh Eaters" delivered the goods.

4:38 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Speaking as a squeamish kid (and squeamish adult), I preferred my horrors to be defanged by a little comedy and safe distance. At the same time, I wanted to get in on the monster mania. It would appear I was far from alone. As you observe, the winning formula seemed to be a few good shrieks but nothing to seriously haunt your walk home (or for my generation, bedtime after a late-night movie, itself diluted by a comic host).

The Universal monsters were, of course, gore-free and circumspect about implying it (especially after slipping from A-picture status). More significantly, they usually prowled what were fairy tale settings for American kids, clearly artificial and safely distant from our own backyards. Even the "modern day" ones tended to favor reassuringly exotic locales. Sometimes an upper-class backdrop was enough to provide safe distance. Dracula wouldn't bother with housing tracts devoid of great musty estates.

For my money the real scares came later, as sci-fi unleashed its terrors in plausible cities and towns, while lower-budget horrors capitalized on the genuine creepiness of real, familiar-looking locations (made creepier by the lack of background music). I quickly tuned out of late-night movies where the undead lurked in places I walked through every day. And of course "Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits" pointedly set most of their eerieness in what was once regarded as safe territory. I feared them more than I feared Frankenstein's monster.

In time a more hardened public accepted and even craved genuine fear and terror, be it fantasy mayhem made graphic or horrific portrayals of real-world evil. But I'm sticking to my unscary scares.

SPOILER: I liked "Horror Island", which felt like it was shot during lunch breaks on a marginally bigger B. The cartoon-obvious booby trap at the end must have set off laughs well before the actual payoff. That it was coin-operated was icing on the cake.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Dennis69 said...

I remember Horror Island as having one of the biggest bloopers in Universal Horror History. As the cast enter the castle after they land on the island, you can clearly see one of the stage hands holding a light pointed at the cast as he walks back slowly as they enter.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Phil Smoot said...

I'm among those that love "Man Made Monster" -- It delivers Lionel Atwill as a mad doctor and Lon Chaney Jr turning into a glowing monster. Great! I'm ready to watch it again just by talking about it.

But, "Horror Island" ? Whew. No classic horror stars and not-so-funny.

I recorded 20th Century Fox "The Gorilla" from TCM's recent 16 Lionel Atwill movie marathon day.
Lionel with Bela Lugosi at a major studio in a horror comedy with Patsy Kelly.
What could be not-funny with that combination at a major studio?
Answer: The Ritz Brothers.
Three of them, each not funny and each horribly irritating. Never have I longed so much for The Three Stooges to be there.

Anyone that does not like Moe, Larry, and Curly even in their prime era (when "The Gorilla" was made), might get a lesson in how bad "comedy" can be when you're given the Three Ritz Brothers. Whoever thought these guys were funny really needs a lesson in the true art of Stoogedom.

Comedy horror can be great. It can be awful. At least Universal Pictures did not burden "Horror Island" with anything nearly as bad as Fox puttin' on the Ritz times 3.

11:26 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

As a Monster Kid of Social Security age, I treasure the memories of those Saturday midnight airings of all the Shock! movie package. Well, maybe not so much the outright ringers like THE SPY RING and REPORTED MISSING, but stuff like HORROR ISLAND, THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX (not as good as HORROR ISLAND) and THE CAT CREEPS (not as good as THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX!)... well, I loved 'em all! Clunky comedy relief, creepy old dark house sets and lots of character actors, that's all I needed. I'm with Phil. I listed MAN MADE MONSTER among my faves, a goodie that, like MAD GHOUL and the first and third Ape Girl movies, actually delivered a monster.

Yeah, I've got that DVD too and it, along with all the Karloff Columbias, has been screened many times.

7:47 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The Ritz Brothers hated "The Gorilla" and made no secret of it, staging a noisy walkout that forced Darryl Zanuck to take charge personally. It's the Ritzes at their least typical and least amusing, and you shouldn't judge the trio by this one. (Just as you shouldn't judge Bela Lugosi by "Genius at Work"!) Unfortunately "The Gorilla" is the only Ritz Brothers feature in the public domain, so it's the most widely available.

6:08 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

As a public service: Sunday, September 16, is Ritz Brothers night on TCM!

7:11 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Every up and coming comedian of the '40s thought Harry Ritz was the funniest person in the world -- Jerry Lewis, Jack Carter, Mel Brooks, the list goes on. I have a feeling they were better onstage than on film or TV. A little too much energy for the screen, but probably a knockout in person.

And as for "comedy relief" -- my daughter preferred the later "Mr. Moto" movies where "funny" seems to be as important as mystery. Kids, am I right?

11:14 AM  

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