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Monday, June 17, 2019

Dark and Darkest at the Drive-In

Poe, Will You Ever Be Avenged?

Is it my skewed perception, or were there designer horror films during the late 50/early 60’s? I speak of Hammers, the AIP Poes, much of what Mario Bava did in Europe. They scored on looks same as Universal in a previous era, and were hardly more explicit despite what critics and some parents accused. I’m watching castle-set Poes again and marveling at result got by Roger Corman and crew, harried as they were, hemmed by budgets not a lot higher than what enabled teenaged cavemen and Viking women/sea serpents. To say “designer” is to credit the man who foraged “flats,” which I understand to be false walls one could manipulate into fore or backgrounds, and depending on who’s doing it, make a palace look haunted or enable Usher abode to serve as “monster” of the piece. Daniel Haller was that man for AIP, and I wonder why greater glory didn’t come his way for jobs so impeccably done, and at such savings. There is an issue of Video Watchdog (#138) where Haller joins a round table with Roger Corman and Joe Dante to discuss the Poe series, as in-depth as there is on chillers that yet await rightful due. Consult this VW for decorating tips from House Beautiful that was 60’s AIP.

For films that thrived at drive-ins, the Poes did not sit easily beneath stars. I climbed a summer ’65 Matterhorn of getting transport to outdoor triple-serve of of The Haunted Palace, Brides of Dracula, and Curse of the Werewolf at the Starlite (plowed over, converted to a grocery store now shuttered). Palace was being beamed as we drove in, a spider in credits at slow pursuit of a butterfly as Starlite night fought to rid the sky of sun. We could barely detect action on the screen, so dark was the film’s setting and action. I kept hoping for lighter scenes lest our grown-up driver declare the outing a bust and make for a closest exit. The Haunted Palace was thus viewed in a state of tension quite apart from that infused by the story, my attention focused more on the inattention, or worse, impatience, of companions trying to see what was going on. For an interminable first half, we might as well have been listening to a radio drama. This rushed back as I watched the Blu-Ray, lit proper and projected in a pitch-black room. So much for charmed nights at the drive-in … they were never that for me. I read how Hollywood began over-lighting movies in the 50’s to compensate for dim-out on outdoor screens. Was this indeed policy as implemented by the studios? If so, Roger Corman ignored or never got the memo.

The Poes were generally style over substance. Those who ran them in bunches saw bumps repeat in each, as in, must housing always burn? --- and how subject to fire were stone-built castles? AIP paired House of Usher with The Pit and the Pendulum for a ’64 reissue. To look at both was to see a same story twice. But never mind. Sheer numbing repetition can sometimes be a friend. They look stunning in scope with Vincent Price to up-prop airier support casts. Usher and Pit begin identical, a fiancé (Usher) or brother (Pit) has come in search of his affianced (Usher) or sister (Pit). He must barge past a servant whose presence further slows an already languid pace. Price makes a “shock” entrance to stinger music. Both young men (Mark Damon, John Kerr) are asked repeatedly to leave, both by Price and castle help. Burial alive is a principal theme. Was Corman and staff enough spooked by prospect of premature internment to so beat the theme like a rug? Maybe it was Poe to blame. His stories as adapted by AIP were less scary than plain morbid. That appealed to me as a youngster, which maybe suggests I shouldn’t have been permitted to see these things. Did the Poes cast baleful influence? Couldn’t say with certainty, but neighbor boys did dig a hole in the woods with a board over it that read “Preamature” Burial, into which victims were cast. Corman and AIP had at least these community incidents to answer for.

House of Usher was AIP’s first to crack the carriage trade. Grown-ups actually went to see it (including my parents on first-run, itself an anomaly). Stench of saucermen and killing shrews would be cleansed by Poe as source, Price as star. Who knows, percentage terms AIP set might even be collected from showmen now that the company was moving to a higher bracket. Success was no flash in pans, for it was 1963 and The Haunted Palace before dip set in. Comedy had by then snuck into the series, making it harder to play straight afterward. Vincent Price was inclined toward humor anyway, so likely saw The Raven and ultimate Goldfoot-ing as progress. Latter has him strapping Frankie Avalon, or was it Dwayne Hickman?, to the familiar Pit/Pendulum device. Hold on, though, because Price could still apply himself where need arose, as with assured capture of dual personalities in The Haunted Palace (good guy VP inherits titular digs from warlock grandad, then is possessed by malevolent spirit of same). I thought in 1963 he deserved Academy recognition for the work, a conviction renewed this week (what did Gregory Peck have that Vince didn’t?).

Every state has tourist sites. Ours is the Biltmore House in Asheville. They made parts of The Swan there, also others since. You can walk through it and picture Vincent Price as a tour guide. I’d like to think there were prior tenants buried alive in a crypt below and we might descend with torches to locate them, but a sixty-dollar admission can go but so far. To think hurry-up sets by Daniel Haller approached real-world grandeur like this … illusion-making seldom got better than with the Poes. But perhaps I’m too generous. As with most of what is seen early in life, sentiment overcomes reason. The Poes were flowers to bloom beautiful, then die wilted, at least until Blu-Ray rescued them. They argue best the necessity of seeing widescreen films on a wide screen. Something cheerful just occurs to me … the Poes, in fact most scope shows, might never go begging again. TV sets long ago adapted to wide (could I purchase a square screen even if I wanted one?). Scope-as-shot seems mostly to turn up that way, only caveat an occasional crop to 1.85 (is that still HBO policy?), or an ancient transfer, like with TCM when they inflict us with The Big Fisherman or a Fox that hasn’t been fixed (Bernadine). Cue then, my oft-repeated mantra that the Golden Age for classics was not the chop-shop 60’s or 70’s, but right now.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

We are in a golden age though many don't know it. Those AIP Poe pictures are great one at a time but see two or more in a row the use of stock footage sucks the energy out of them.The rules was: why spend a dime when you can save a nickel?

First run then and now was where it counted. Wally Wood's rule of comic art is don't draw what you can trace, don't trace what you can paste. That same rule applies to making movies with next to no money.

Still, I love those films. They were made by people who knew what they were doing and who did it well. Richard Matheson wrote the screenplays for many of them. Charles Beaumont did some. These men were great writers. All the director had to do was follow their lead which Steven Spielberg did with Matheson's DUEL.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

The Starlite was our first and most long-lasting drive-in. It helped that it was almost exactly between Bellefonte and Dead Center (all right, then: State College) and not a prime candidate for housing or retail when Ozoners died out. It mainly languished until such time a flea market took over the spot. Fleas didn't buy much, so it is again a ghostly former drive-in.

You reveal your movie addiction by admitting going to the drive-in to see movies not tongue wrestle. I know guys who would never go to a hard top by themselves, let alone a drive-in. But I did--it was the only place to see movies that would not show up in town.

11:52 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I was eleven when our carload ventured to the Starlite for "The Haunted Palace." It was always a struggle finding an adult who would carry us out, but as you say, much of what they ran were things that would never turn up again downtown.

Did not realize until years later that most drive-in screens were hollow, with considerable storage space. The early 80's owner, not many years before the lot was razed, permitted me to go in and take what I wanted. It was like entering Tut's tomb. Much good stuff inside. Gone are those days.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

In Toronto we had a three theaters that played these films. All of them are gone now. They were The Alhambra, The Downtown and The Imperial. I first saw THE CONQUEROR WORM (WITCHFINDER GENERAL) on a sold out Midnite show at The Alhambra. When it ended the terrified audience ran for the exits. I later saw it as part of a Midnite Horrorthon. I told the friend I had with me, "When THE CONQUEROR WORM ends everyone will run in horror for the exits." They did.

Seeing these films alone at home or with a few friends where they talk all the way through it just can't compare with seeing them with thousands in a theater.

8:24 AM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

The best hours of my childhood were spent watching these Poe tales on the big screen.

12:08 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

The beginnings of drive-in shows were always pale washouts, especially up north where they were only open in the summer. Can't wait for full dark when you have to get through two, if not three, features and it may dip to 50 degrees before it's over.

The Poe movies do seem an odd choice--no real monsters and a brooding, rather than action, atmosphere. I always wondered if the original drive-in audiences saw them more as background for social (and other) interactions rather than the focus of the evening. Also, were more daylight scenes written into Ligeia as a response to drive in complaints?

2:39 PM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

I was a bit young to catch up with those films on initial release. I booked HOUSE OF USHER and THE RAVEN in 16mm in High Scholl and they went over fairly well. THE RAVEN played second and since it was a comedy the stock footage of burning rafters got a big laugh in THE RAVEN.

12:17 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

Vicious PATHECOLOR FILM PRINTS faded red within the year released...!

2:49 PM  

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