CODED CLASSIC HORROR THEORY “The Uncanny & The Other”
“Scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness must be cut to an absolute minimum…”
“As a cultural index, the pre-Code horror film gave a freer rein to psychic turmoil and social disorientation because it possessed a unique freedom from censorship… the Hays Office admits that under the Code it is powerless to take a stand on the subject of ‘gruesomeness.‘(Thomas Doherty)
Horror films in particular have made for a fascinating case study in the evolving perceptions of queer presence; queer-horror filmmakers and actors were often forced to lean into the trope of the “predatory queer” or the “monstrous queer” to claim some sense of power through visibility and blatant expressions of sexuality.- Essential Queer Horror Films by Jordan Crucciola-2018
Though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, they were willing to pay for scripts that dealt with characters that were social outcasts and sexually nonnormative. The horror genre is perhaps the most iconic coded queer playground, which seems to have an affinity with homosexuality because of it’s apparatus of ‘otherizing’ and the inherent representation of difference. The horror genre crosses over boundaries that include transgressions between heterosexuality and queerness. The villain, fiend or monster plays around with a variety of elements that while usually separate, might merge male and female gender traits.
The horror film in particular, found it’s place asserting a queer presence on screen. The narratives often embraced tropes of the ‘predatory queer’ or the ‘monstrous queer’ in order to declare themselves visible while cinematic queers were elbowed out of the way. Filmmakers had to maneuver their vision in imaginative ways to subvert the structure laid out for them by the Code.
As Harry M. Benshoff explains in his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in the Horror Film, “Immediately before and during the years of World War II, Universal Studio’s horror films began to employ a more humanistic depiction of their monsters,” and the films of Val Lewton, like Cat People, reflected “a growing awareness of homosexuality, homosexual communities, and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society and the military.”So even though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, during the first true horror boom in American cinema, they were willing to pay for stories about social outcasts and sexually nonnormative figures. Horror fans thus found themselves awash in some of the genre’s most iconic queer-coded characters of all time.
On a Greek Island, Boris Karloff plays Gen. Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robsin’s Isle of the Dead 1945. Driven insane by the belief that Thea (Ellen Drew) who suffers from catalepsy is the embodiment of an evil vampiric force, is a demon called a vorvolaka. Lewton drew on collective fears, and all his work had an undercurrent of queer panic and a decipherable sign of homophobia.
The Vorvolaka has beset the island with plague. Thea- “Laws can be wrong, and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.”
The Pre-Code era was exploding with American horror films, that reflected the angst, social unrest and emotional distress that audiences were feeling. Personified in films that used graphic metaphors to act as catharsis, the images were often filled with rage, as Thomas Doherty calls it ‘the quality of gruesomeness, cruelty and vengefulness’. Think of the angry mobs with their flaming torches who hunt down the Frankenstein’s monster, eventually crucifying him like a sacrificial embodiment of their fury. James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1931 was a smash hit for Universal. Other studios were trying to ride the wave of the awakening genre of the horror picture. Paramount released director Rouben Mamoulian’s adaption of the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1886. The film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931 stars Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. During the period of Pre-Code, many horror films proposed grisly subject matter that would shock and mesmerize the audience. For example, actor/director Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks and Fay Wray.
In 1932 Michael Curtiz directed Doctor Xstarring Lionel Atwill who would become one of the leading mad scientists of the genre.
Michael Curtiz’s macabre horror/fantasy experiment of homosocial ‘men doing science’, crossing over into profane territories and embracing dreadful taboos!
All scenes below from Dr. X (1932)
Fay Wray as Atwill’s daughter who is the only woman surrounded by a group of scientific non conformists.
The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story of the Eastern European incubus was interpreted by Tod Browning in Dracula 1931, immortalized by Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi with his iconic cape and mesmerizing stare. While his nightly visitations were blood driven and cinematically sexual in nature, there is a very homoerotic element to his influence over Renfield (Dwight Frye) and his gaze of gorgeous David Manners as John Harker.
Robert Florey directed the macabre Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. And a film which has no connection to Poe’s story but in name, is one of the most transgressive, disturbing horror films rampant with vile taboos, such as necrophelia, incest, sadism, satanism and flaying a man alive, is the unorthodox The Black Cat (1934). The film stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, one of four pictures they would do together. A pair of enemies who have a score to settle, ghosts of a past war, and stolen love all taking place with the backdrop of a stylish Bauhaus set design and high constrast lighting.
Paramount released Murders in the Zoo (1933)with Lionel Atwill a sadistic owner of a zoo, who uses wild animals to ravage and kill off any of his wife’s (Kathleen Burke) suitors. Kathleen Burke is well known as the panther girl in Erle C. Kenton’s horrifically disturbing Island of Lost Souls 1932, an adaptation of master fantasy writer H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Incidentally, Welles, Laughton and wife Elsa Lanchester had been good friends earlier on, before the filming of Lost Souls. The film stars Charles Laughton as the unorthodox, depraved scientist who meddles with genetics and nature. He creates gruesome human/animals, torturing them with vivisection in his ‘house of pain.’ The film also stars Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law.
And in 1933 King Kong shows a giant ape grasping the half naked object of his affection with unmentionable connotations of bestiality between the ape and Fay Wray. With scenes of Wray writhing in his gigantic paws, he lusts after her, until his desire kills him. It’s almost like fastasy noir, the object of your desire, will ultimately kill you!
The 1930s and 1940s — Fear the Queer Monsters
Re-assessing the Hitchcock Touch; by Wieland Schwanebeck -As Rhona Berenstein asserts, the horror genre “provides a primary arena for sexualities and practices that fall outside the purview of patriarchal culture, and the subgeneric tropes of the unseen, the host and the haunted house.”
By the same token, Kendra Bean concludes that Mrs. Danvers is portrayed as “a wraith; a sexual predator who is out to make Mrs. de Winter her next victim.”
Queer characters in horror films during the early period, reveals similarities between Mrs. Danvers and the staging of earlier sapphic characters, such as Gloria Holdens’s well-known portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter 1936. Yet, similiar to the self discipline of Mrs. Danvers, Dracula’s Daughter remains a figure of primacy and pity as Ellis Hanson argues Dracula’s Daughter presents “the possibilities of a queer Gothic” early on in Hollywood history, “rich in all the paradox and sexual indeterminacy the word queer and the word Gothic imply.
There was a revival of the horror craze during the period of WWII. The Hollywood studios, both major and ‘Poverty Row” like Monogram and Republic realized that horror movies were a lucrative business. The studios began to revisit the genre looking for, not only fresh formulas, but they resurrected, the classic monsters, dropping them into new plots. They also envisioned uniting the gangster film with horror films, and this homogenizing, led to a ‘queering’ of the two styles, that demonstrated phallocentric ( guns, scientific penetration) and homoerotic themes and images into a sub-genre.
Public awareness of homosexuality reached a new height during these years, primarily due to the new set of social conditions wrought by war. Slowly , the love that dare not speak its name was being spoken, albeit in ways almost always obscurantist, punitive and homophobic. The linkage of homosexuality with violence and disease remained strong. Monsters in the Closet -Harry Benshoff
Rhona Berenstein in her insightful book Attack of the Leading Ladies, points out that films featuring the mad scientist trope operates with the homosocial principle which speaks of the homo eroticism of males working together in consort subverting science together, as a group of men who hide behind their objectification -the female object of their gaze, are in fact, figures of objectification themselves. They are simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic and homophobic in aspect; … potentially possessing an extra-normative commitment between the two men.
Mad doctor movies are homosocial in nature. The mad doctor movie is a subgenre that below the surface glorifies intimate male camararderie-and male homosexuality, and by the close of the picture, society, the prevailing culture must in turn annihilate, that which is repressed. But it is not exclusively a vehicle to express the homosexuality through homosocial interactions. There is a component not only of male bonding, a world without women, the thrust is a synthesis of misogyny and patriarchal tyranny and oppression of women. Homosocial relationships between men in these science horrors show the man’s desire for connection to other men, even one created by his own hand.
According to (Twitchell) in his Dreadful Pleasures, and Attack of the Leading Ladies (Rona Berenstein) Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein in all three Universal pictures, was at least performing bisexuality. Whale’s 1933 Frankenstein might give way to the homosocial realm of the mad scientist trope, of ‘homoerotic indulgence’ as these men exclude women from the pursuit of their fulfillment. Twitchell views the scientist’s fluid sexuality in order to examine the concept of a man controlling women’s primacy of giving birth. This might explain Dr. Frankenstein’s venture into unnatural reproduction. A process he wants to divert to himself without women’s exclusive right to motherhood. In the scene where he is as close to giving birth to a full grown man, he seems to display a sexual arousal, when his creation comes to life. Henry Frankenstein provokes nature and defies his heterosexuality. As Whale was an openly gay director in Hollywood, it can be pondered whether he knew exactly what he was suggesting. Thesiger’s sexually ambiguous, or okay, not so ambiguous Dr. Pretorius, the mad scientist who pressures Henry Frankenstein to revitalize his experiments and create a mate for the monster. Pretorius is the scientist who insists Henry continue his creative efforts in Bride of Frankenstein. Vitto Russo called Thesiger, “man who played the effete sissy… with much verve and wit.”
George Zucco like Lionel Atwill often portrayed the unorthodox scientist who flirted with taboos. He plays mad scientist Dr. Alfred Morris in The Mad Ghoul (1943) As a university chemistry professor, he exploits medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) with his experimental gas that transforms Ted into a malleable, yielding macabre ghoul, whom Morris directs to kill and remove the victims hearts using the serum to temporarily bring Ted back from his trance like death state. David Bruce’s character is represented as a ‘queer’ sort of young man. Not quite masculine and unable to get his girlfriend Evelyn Ankers to fall in love with him. As the Mad Ghoul he becomes a monstrous queer.
In 1932, director Tod Browning’s Dracula based on Bram Stoker’s story of a fiendish vampire who in a sexually implicit way, violates his victims by penetrating them with his fangs. The story pushed the boundaries of story telling, and there was an inherent subtext of ‘queer’ ravishment when he sucks the blood of Dwight Frye to make him his loyal servant.
In Jonathan Harker’s Journal, the protagonist recounts his impressions of his interaction with the vampire, Dracula “As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.”For (Noël Carroll) the entry in his diary conveys revulsion by the Count’s closeness and offensive presence, that causes him to become sickened.
But it also could be read that Harker’s ‘shudder’ is not about his revulsion, rather, an uncontrolled sexual response to the vampire’s looming over him which could be interpreted not just as hunger for his ‘blood’ but an expression of repressed sexual desire and the fear it causes.
Horror movies have always pushed the boundaries of normalcy, by virtue of the fact that these films are inhabited by ‘monsters’, something ‘queerly’ different. And it is natural to observe two diverging responses to the impact of the horror genre and often, it’s persecution of what is ‘different’ and the source of what causes our anxiety.
Dracula may appear as the image of a man, but the count is far from human. While monsters in classical horror films are based on systems of maleness, they are split from being actual men. Although there are physical interactions and suggestive contact with the heroine, there isn’t the foundation of heterosexuality, but something quite deviant, with in their aggressively erotic encounters and/or assaults. The understanding of sexuality and the most narrow identifications that are assigned to varying orientation in a large sense is not translatable for the deeper layers of the monster and their relationship to their victims. In Hollywood, horror films can be seen as heterosexuality being invaded by an abhorrent outside force, inherent in the underlying message could be racism, classism, sexism and gay panic. Though it can be interpreted as a landscape of heterosexuality that is in full power of it’s universal presence, horror films are perfect platforms that can illustrate the collapse of heterosexuality, and the subversion of sexuality.
The horror genre is a breeding ground for portrayals of the shattering of heterosexual power. This can be seen in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden as the sapphic vampire who lives in a New Village type artist’s den, it signals her outsider status from dometicity and normalcy.
In White Zombie (1932) Bela Lugosi plays the eerily menacing Legendre. He turns men into lifeless workers who run the sugar mill. Legendre also begins to turn the plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) into one of his zombies. What his motivation for his control over people is ambiguous, though there seems to be a sexual reasoning for both the beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Beaumont. The scene where Beaumont is nearly paralyzed, Legendre’s control over his male victim parallels the sexual entrapment of the movie’s heroine.
MAD LOVE (1935) I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?
Karl Freund’s Grand Guignol Mad Love (1935) shifts from gazing at the female to gazing at the male. Here the focus is on a Peter Lorre in his American screen debut as Dr. Gogol, who has an obsession with Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac an actress who works at Grand Guignol Theatre. To Gogol she is the typified defenseless heroine whom he tries to lure away from her husband Stephen (Colin Clive) using his knowledge of scientific alchemy.
Though Gogol tries to become Yvonne’s master, his Galatea, there are critics who read the struggle between the two men, not just as rivalry for Yvonne’s love, but Gogol’s desire for Stephen as well. Gogol is responsible for grafting new hands onto Stephen’s mangled body after a train crash. Mad Love could fit the criteria for the subgenre of the science/horror films where the male gaze is diverted from the female object toward other men, in this case what connected the two was the preservation of Stephen’s hands. Why then is it not possible that the focus could shift from Gogol’s attraction to Yvonne to the homosocial dynamics between Gogol as doctor and his subject Stephen.
Mad Lovepossesses some of the horror genre’s most tenacious performances of gender play. (Carol Clover) asks us to take a closer look at Freund’s film, it is less about the “suffering experienced by women, but at a deeper, more sustained level, it is dedicated to the unspeakable terrors endured by men.”
In similar fashion to Waldo Lydecker (Laura) and Hardy Cathcart’s (The Dark Corner) pathology of objectifying Laura and Mari, Gogol worships Yvonne – his Galatea, with a measure of scopophilia that lies within his gaze upon the perfection of female beauty. To control and possess it. The pleasure is aroused by the mere indulgence of looking at her.
Gogol pays 75 francs to purchase the wax statue of Galatea. The seller remarks “There’s queer people on the streets of Monmartre tonight.”
Gogol’s maid Francoise talking to the statue,“What ever made him bring you here. There’s never been any woman in this house except maybe me… “I prefer live ones to dead ones.”
A Time Magazine review of Mad Love in 1933 notes this queer appeal directly, even comparing Lorre’s acting skills to those of another homosexual coded actor: I find the comment about their faces rude and insulting to both Lorre and Laughton, both of whom I am a tremendous fan.
Mad Love’s insane doctor is feminized throughout the film… In fact, the same reporter who noted Gogol’s sadism argues for his feminine demeanor: “Lorre, perfectly cast, uses the technique popularized by Charles Laughton of suggesting the most unspeakable obsessions by the roll of a protuberant eyeball, an almost feminine mildness of tone, an occasional quiver of thick lips set flat in his cretinous ellipsoidal face. This reviewer came closer than any other to articulate the subtext of mad doctor movies. He seems on the verge of noting that Lorre, Like Laughton is an effeminate madman obsessed by unspeakable homosocial desire.– Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema by Rhona Berenstein
Frances Drake’s heroine masquerades as a wife who deludes herself into believing that her husband is more masculine than he really is. Gogol has a curious empathy with Stephen, whom he touches frequently and prolonged. Although Gogol pursues the heroine Yvonne, at the theater, forcing a kiss on her, his focus is primarily manipulating Stephen’s body, rejoining his hands and massaging them to stimulate life back into them. When he realizes that Stephens hands cannot be grafted back successfully to his wrists, he turns to another man, the hands of a knife thrower who was executed as a notorious murderer. Once Stephen recovers from the surgery, he can no longer continue as a concert pianist, but does develop the desire to throw sharp knives.
On the surface the plot of Mad Loveappears to be a heterosexual obsession, the most unspoken context is the connection between Gogol and Stephen. “As is true of Frankenstein’s labor of love in Whale’s first film, Gogol sews men’s body parts together and the result is a monster of sorts. (Berenstein)
In the film’s climax, Yvonne hides in Gogol’s bedroom, and pretends to be the wax statue of Galatea. When Gogol touches the statue, she lets out a scream. In a euphoric daze (as in the origianl story) he believes that he has the power to bring the statue of Galatea to life. Yvonne begs him to let her go as he tries to strangle her.
Stephen then rushes to his wife and holds her in his arms. With his eyes fixed on the offscreen space in which Gogol’s body lies, he croons: “My darling.” The homosocial desire is destroyed when Stephen murders Gogol who intones “each man kills the thing he loves”— echoing on the soundtrack.
In the film’s closing moments, the secret desire is finally spoken out loud…Has Stephen killed the man he loves. Given that the phrase that Gogol mutters was written originally by Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality scandalized the British social and legal system in 1895, reading the homosocial desire intoMad Love’s within the very last moments we are left to decipher the suspended cues. We are left with Stephen’s gazing at Gogol’s face and his knifed body as he lay dying, he speaks the words, ‘My darling” what the camera frames the two men sharing that moment in the closing scene.
The mad doctor narrative is particularly predisposed to homosocial impulses. “intense male homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” – Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick)
Sedgwick investigated early fantasy/horror novels, Shelley’s Frankenstein 1818, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886 and Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau 1895. In the beginning of the 1930s, these stories centered around mad doctors who delved into unorthodox, profane explorations, were all adapted to the screen. All of these nefarious or scientific, inquisitive men, cultivated secret experiments, challenging the laws of nature. What Sedgwick found was that the Gothic literary representations of men performing homosocial collaborations, were ‘not socially sanction and shunned.’
It was considered a necessary narrative element as well as a monstrous possibility that threatened to subvert the status quo. The combination of these two attitudes is expressed in homosocial narratives- male bonding is both horrifying and guaranteed, entailing the simultaneous introjection and expulsion of femininity. (Sedgwick)
James Whale was a gay auteur who often imbued his work intentionally or with the ‘intentional fallacy’ of a ‘queer’ sense of dark humor. This comical, campy absurdity, was always on the edge of his vision of horror and subtle profanity. In his picture The Invisible Man (1933)adapted from H.G. Wells story and starring Claude Rains, it was classified as a horror film by the Code.
Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains) the antihero, is a frenzied scientist, addicted to his formula as he seeks the ability to make himself invisible. His sanity begins to ‘vanish’ as his hunger for power, delusions of grandeur, and bursts of megalomania grow out of control. He plans on assassinating government officials, and he becomes more belligerent the longer he turns invisible. The idea that he displays radical ideas and runs around in the nude didn’t seem to arouse the censors, In 1933, a letter from James Wingate to Hays states, “highly fantastic and exotic [sic] vein, and presents no particular censorship difficulties.”
What’s interesting about the presentation of the story, is that the coded gay leitmotifs were paraded out, right under the Code’s noses, and didn’t stir any indignation for it’s ‘queer’ humor.
Gloria Stuart and Claude Rains in James Whale’s The Invisible Man 1933
The Invisible Man perpetrates campy assaults on all the ‘normal’ people in his way. With intervals of sardonic cackles and golden wit, and at the same time, a menacing reflection of light and shadow. Claude Rains is a concealed jester who makes folly of his victims.
“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and wreck, and kill.” –Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man)
Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin an outsider (a favorite of Jame’s Whale’s characters) who discovers the secret of invisibility which changes him from a mild yet arrogant scientist into a maniacal killer. The film bares much of Whale’s campy sense of humor, with Griffin’s comic shenanigans abound, until things turn dark and he becomes uncontrollably violent. “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, Murders of great men, Murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers around a signalman’s throat, that’s all.”
According to Gary Morris (Bright Lights Film Journal) ‘The film demands crypto-faggot reading in poignant scenes such as the one where he reassures his ex-girlfriend, who begs him to hide from the authorities: “the whole worlds my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.”
Though Griffin’s (Claude Rains) character is unseen at times, there are potent moments, when he is animated as he skips to the tune, “Here we go gathering nuts in May” flitting around like a fairy. It is suggested that The Invisible Man is a metaphor for the way homosexuals are seen/not seen by society – as “effeminate, dangerous when naked, seeking a male partner in “crime”, tending to idolize his fiance rather than love her, and becoming ‘visible’ only when shot by the police…monitored by doctors, and heard regretting his sin against God (i.e., made into a statistic by the three primary forces oppressing queers: the law, the medical establishment, and religious orthodoxy” (Sedgwick)
The Invisble Man [undressing] “They’ve asked for it, the country bumpkins. This will give them a bit of a shock, something to write home about. A nice bedtime story for the kids, too, if they want it”
“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
“Among contemporary filmmakers, Dante Tomaselli stands out as Roger Corman’s most direct heir, as his cheaply made cinematic tales of terror rely on stylized set pieces to produce creepy atmosphere.”
—André Loiselle, Theatricality in the Horror Film (Anthem Press)
“I’m on fire to transcribe my nightmares through cinema and music. After creating four films and four instrumental albums, I’m pregnant with The Doll, my next horror picture and it’s clawing at my insides. The upcoming horror shocker concerns a haunting at a family owned wax museum in Salem. Co-writer Michael Gingold and I recently completed the screenplay and had a couple of false start-ups, like all my films have had – but I’m very close now to securing the proper funding. As a cult filmmaker, I don’t go to Hollywood for my financing. I live in a world where independent films are funded through private investors. It’s an unstable realm for sure and I plan to get to the point where I can fund my own films as well as other independent filmmaker’s works. As with all my projects, I’m purchasing and acquiring some of the special fx and props before actual official pre-production. Right now I’m working with a sculptor, Jason Bakutis, on the the doll itself…An antique porcelain doll. Jason created the eerie ancient tribal mask that Jimmy, the lead character wore in my last film, Torture Chamber. My projects may take years to mount but I’ve learned that if my intentions are pure and I visualize the film and soundtrack enough the universe has no choice but to open the gate. It’s just a matter of alignment. Every one of my films has been a struggle to create and if I would have given up then there would be no DESECRATION, no HORROR, no SATAN’S PLAYGROUND or TORTURE CHAMBER. I see THE DOLL looming when my eyes are open…or shut. The film is always projected like slides in my inner eye. Not to mention, the sounds…I tend to plan my actual soundtracks before filming. I did it on every one of my films. The sound…first. Which I guess makes sense since I have sound-color synesthesia. When I was younger and the very loud school alarm would go off – I’d see little grey spirals, like mini tornadoes, every time. The sound induced the patterns, the visuals. One time I saw what looked like three giant dragonflies hovering over the side of my house. There was bombing going on in the neighborhood and the explosive sound produced these strange blobs of color. I thought they were real flying giant-sized insects and I remembering running in terror. The sound of rain…I don’t need to see rain, just hear it…and it’s involuntary…I see little fiber optic dots, floating specks of light.” —Dante Tomaselli
I first stumbled onto Dante Tomaselli’s work when I purchased a VHS copy of Desecration from one of the oldest video rental houses in Madison Wisconsin, known for their extensive collection in Indie, obscure and art house films. I was struck by the artwork on the cover and the story seemed fascinating to me since I’m a classic horror film nut who will always remain faithful to the sacred classical horror genre style from Mid 80’s all the way back to the Silent Era.
One of the many things that strikes me about Dante Tomaselli’s work– is the Nightmarish Beauty that feels vintage. The Hallucinatory, Religio/Horror style is how he manages to create a perfect sense of place in his film’s surroundings, that is not only otherworldly in ordinary spaces but also possess a throw back to earliest horror films without being derivative.
There is a reminiscent atmosphere of older films as if he’s found a conduit to the good old days and his own appreciation for the classical style of horror film-making in his own work and succeeds in adapting it with an original flare on screen. The effective and evocative sound design is also something that creates another layer to Tomaselli’s films. Even the sets are meticulous, Tomaselli has a grasp of how to set the scene that hints at another time period. This is also what makes Tomaselli’s films more frightening than most contemporary horrors. Satan’s Playground truly has the authentic feel of a late 70s early 80s classic horror film, I mean he used a wood paneled station-wagon in Satan’s Playground, it doesn’t get better than that! not to mention his eye for casting special actors that fit his characters perfectly. The same goes for all of his other three feature films, Desecration, Horror and Torture Chamber.
In particular I have come to adore Irma St. Paule who sadly passed away in 2007. Irma has presence. She added something special to Desecration 1999 as Grandma Matilda and as the wicked Mrs. Leeds she was superbly macabre in Satan’s Playground 2006.
Dante Tomaselli has tapped into his primal dark spot, his idand found a way to connect the dots to the outer world. Upon re-watching all four of his feature films, I became reacquainted with some of the elements that drew me to his work in the first place. Tomaselli within all four works has created one continuous nightmare realm. A Möbius Trip of time and space. A string of interconnected events, interchangeable, with their own symbology and iconography. One connected journey with thematic threads that weave a familiar tapestry– painting the entire picture as a unified message, and an alternate realm that is woven together with pieces from the same puzzle. Hallucinatory, non-linear, surrealist, nihilistic, visceral, east coast Americana Gothic, a 70s vibe with raw simplicity, transcendental & primal horrors. There is a definitive pattern, a cyclical nihilist fate where none of the characters manage to survive their journey, their ordeal. There are no real protagonists, just puppets in a modern Greek tragedy.
Sound in Dante Tomaselli’s masterful works are extremely key to the aura of his work. He painstakingly sculpts each soundscapes that breathe, lo-fi undertows, waves and tones that shade the atmosphere along with his dynamic color palate. The use of color and lighting is also reminiscent of great horror films of the 1970s & 80s, I might add.
Tomaselli also prolongs his character’s sense of ‘outsider-ship’ The Outsider theme is also continuous throughout his work, in particular the gangs of children, forgotten and disaffected children, angry, having suffered at the hands of abuse and torture, they band together with their collective angst, as in Horror and Torture Chamber. While society is trying to cure them, or figure them out, or repress their identities, or force salvation on them –they are caught up in their private hell again and again.
And there is a perfect sense of place that Dante Tomaselli establishes in all his films…
As in the old abandoned house filmed in the Pine Barrens featured in Satan’s Playground, the simple woods, a place of the natural world becomes an almost unreal hellish domain. A rustic limbo-land. And what I’ve come to realize, but I must give first credit to my partner Wendy who watched this chilling film with me together once again, this haunted Halloween month is that Mrs. Leeds (Irma St. Paule) and her demented kinfolk don’t even really live in that broken down abandoned place.
She gets the sense that the house really is empty, it’s uninhabited for real. She figured that they only appear when someone comes knocking at the door. Then the hellish realm opens up and they materialize, like phantoms, like demons. And you know what! –I believe she’s right.
Because getting to know Dante Tomaselli’s work, means realizing that there are dimensions, levels of hell here on Earth. The creepy Leeds clan are just like the elusive Jersey Devil himself, swooping in and out of the picture to take people out of this life! Even as poor Sean Bruno falls into the hole in the ground (much like Bobby in Desecration-again revisiting common themes) it’s like he is being sucked out of life and down into the bowels of hell, or falling into ‘nowhere’. And one of the most striking observations for me was Tomaselli’s use of Trees… trees representing the ‘natural world’. which Dante and I will discuss further into this post. There are trees uses as figures, as the embodiment of an elemental force in each of his four films.
From Matthew Edwards essay The New Throwback: The FIlms of Dante Tomaselli “…watching Poltergeist, how many people would feel comfortable keeping a doll of a clown in their room? In both Desecration and Horror, Tomaselli likewise uses familiar objects, or childhood toys, as a means of driving conflicting emotions.”
There are many moments of recurring iconography throughout Dante Tomaselli’s four timorous mind-blowing works of art. ‘The Devouring Mother Archetype”-Christie Sanford who is fantastic continued her demon mother entity in Desecration’s respective sequel Torture Chamber. In all four films, Sanford’s incarnation displays this rabid motherhood, not only with the symbol of a little boy trapped in a cage and the religio-horror aspect but her character Judy’s maniacal abduction of Paula’s (Ellen Sandweiss) baby, Anthony in Satan’s Playground, and then her violent Folie à deuxrelationship with the vicious Reverend Salo Jr. (Vincent Lamberti) and their treatment of Grace in Horror.
There is the re-appearances of the goat (a symbol of arcane Gods & supernatural significance), boils (damnation from hell) boy size cages, used in Desecration as the badly abused Bobby is imprisoned in one in his dreams, as is Jimmy in Torture Chamber. The torture rack used in Horroris brought back in Torture Chamber once again, illustrative of the themes of agony and punishment. There is a dark swirling, gaping black vortex, a circular menacing field that not only appears in Satan’s Playground out in the dark sky in the night time woods and we see it once again in Torture Chamber inside the castle structure. There are invisible bogs, holes to nowhere that Danny Lopes continues to get sucked down into, in Desecration and then again in Satan’s Playground. And of course there is Atmo Royce’s incredible artwork that Tomaselli commissioned specifically for his films, that are significant to each story. Even the puzzle that Grandma Matilda (Irma St. Paule) works on at the dining room table in Desecration has a story to tell, it also contains the grassy oubliette that Danny Lopes falls into.
Dante makes the lower-budget work to his advantage. Films with vast amounts of surplus funds wind up having no soul, yet Dante Tomaselli manages to convey what’s in his head by staying close to the art of intuitive style and not by using big money shocks. He is not restricted at all, but stays true to his vision.
I see Dante Tomaselli’s work as uniquely his own imaginary / hallucinatory vision. Dante’s collective works are like little filmic exorcisms, for childhood fears. Where the danger surrounds anyone who is young, and the adults become the monsters. Where religion becomes the monster, and where fanaticism, repression and abuse, drives people toward possession, damnation, and inevitably to Hell, or a hellish nightmare world where there is no escape nor salvation.
Yet on a very Americana landscape, with a truly east coast American Gothic narrative due to the fixation on suburban Catholicism, with Medieval emblems, Italian east coast Catholicism and the ordinary American family, the fixture of the church as in Desecration , Catholic idols and statuettes of the virgin Mary, all surrounding childhood fears, perversion of religion, fanaticism and madness. This all seems to manifested into these surreal nightmarish paroxysms on screen.
I also see amidst the imagery…agony, fixation, rage, desire, craving, cruelty, revenge, frenzy, hysteria and desolation, and outsider-ship as the proponents of the narratives, in Desecration (1999) Horror(2003), Satan’s Playground (2006) and ultimately Torture Chamber (2013).
There’s an authentic American angst about ours sins swallowing us up and spitting us out into Hell. In Dante Tomaselli’s dream world, there exhibits a charismatic starkness, which exposes us down to a raw nerve and makes us feel closer to what might be a more straightforward Hell, than the depictions from classical paintings and literature.
it will continue to brand Tomaselli a hallucinatory auteur and broaden his landscape a bit more, but does not scale back on the schadenfreude emotional shivers and psychic acrobatics that his earlier works cause the viewer to go through, definitely me for sure.
Dante Tomaselli was born October 29, 1969, in Paterson, New Jersey- is an Italian-American horror screenwriter, director, and electronic score composer. He studied filmmaking at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and then transferred to the New York School of Visual Arts, receiving a B.F.A. degree in Advertising there. His first film was a 23 minute short, called Desecration which was screened at a variety of horror and mainstream film festivals.
Later on, Dante Tomaselli expanded his screenplay Desecration into a feature length film and in 1999, the film premiered to a SRO audience at the prestigious Fantafestival in Rome, Italy.
The release ofDesecration(1999) on DVD by Image Entertainment was praised by reviewers for its unique vision for a independent horror production.
“I’m just this guy from New Jersey who has odd visions. I do have an obsession with replicating childhood nightmares, fears, anxieties. With my films, I’m trying to construct some kind of nightmare where we experience the protagonist’s damnation.”
It’s no wonder that he’s “just this guy from New Jersey with odd visions” and a life long supernatural / horror aficionado considering himself as a ‘supernaturalist, NOT a ‘satanist’, who also happens to be the cousin of film director Alfred Sole the director who brought us the edgy , cult Catholic themed horror favorite , Alice Sweet Alice (1976) which I loved the atmosphere of dread and that iconic clear mask of the killer, the yellow raincoat… The entire vibe is memorable.
Dante’s 2nd feature film, is Horror(2003) began it’s initial filming in January 2001 in Warwick upstate New York, which was Tomaselli’s first commercial success, and has maintained a wide release on DVD. Tomaselli also has a keen eye for casting the right people for her work. In an interesting & quite nostalgic maneuver the film cast celebrity mentalist/magician, Kreskin who maintained notoriety as ‘Amazing’ in the 1970s! Dante Tomaselli’s Horror was released on DVD in the United States and Canada by Elite Entertainment.
Tomaselli then made Satan’s Playground(2005), It stars 70’s and early-80’s cult-horror icons Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), Ellen Sandweiss (The Evil Dead), and Edwin Neal (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The film is set, and was filmed in, New Jersey’s infamous Pine Barrens Forest that truly has its own eerie mythology in real life.
In his fourth installment Dante Tomaselli released Torture Chamber (2013) yet another of his nightmarish journeys exploring the imaginations of Hell and damnation. Torture Chamber had its World Premier at Sitges 2012 Festival in Spain.
Dante Tomaselli’s work is being featured in an excellent edited volume released by the outstanding publishing company McFarland — FILM OUT OF BOUNDS. There’s a chapter (pg. 112-125) titled: The New Throwback: The Films of Dante Tomaselli.
The director/composer’s first audio CD of electronic horror music, ”Scream in the Dark” (2014) was released by Elite Entertainment & MVD Audio January 14, 2014. Its follow-up, ”The Doll” (2014) described as “a ghoulish experiment in fear,” was released on CD and Digital download by Elite Entertainment & MVD Audio April 15, 2014. Tomaselli’s third dark ambient album, “Nightmare” was distributed by the same label January 13, 2015. TuneCore released his fourth and most successful dark electronic album, “Witches” March 24, 2017. Rue Morgue Magazine awarded Witches five skulls, “A meticulously crafted work…Tomaselli takes us on his most lurid sonic journey to date.” Rock! Shock! Pop! added, “Pulsing John Carpenter-esque keyboard work…Dante Tomaselli releases his fourth album of spooky soundtrack inspired instrumental music.” Videoscope Magazine’s music critic, Tim Ferrante stated, “All of Witches’ 13 tracks are praiseworthy…Each cut ignites theater-of-the-mind wonderment, fear and the spiritual world by deeply boring into the psyche…Tomaselli has produced a fiendish and furtive album for fans of ‘mood music’ of a different kind.” Dante Tomaselli’s Witches was nominated for Rue Morgue magazine 2017 album of the year.
Stars Irma St. Paule ( 12 Monkeys 1995, Trees Lounge 1996, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her 2000) as Grandma Matilda, Christie Sanford (Horror 2003, Satan’s Playground 2006, Winter of Frozen Dreams 2009, Torture Chamber 2013) as Sister Madeline / Mary Rullo, Danny Lopes as Bobby Rullo, Salvatore Paul Piro (Joe’s Apartment 1996, Sleepers 1996, Night Falls on Manhattan 1996, The Sopranos (199), Find Me Guilty 2006, Satan’s Playground 2006) as Mr. Rullo, Vincent Lambertias Brother Nicolas, Maureen Tomaselli as Sister Rosemary, Gene Burke as Father O’Leary, Ruth Ray as Reverend Mother, Helen Palladino as Mrs. Cannizzaro the psychic, Nora Maher as Sister Rita, Mary Fassino as Sister Veronica.
Desecration is an eerie psychological chiller about a young 16 year old boy named Bobby Rullo played by Danny Lopes. It also stars Tomaselli regular Christie Sandfordas Sister Madeline/ Mary Rullo (Bobby’s mother) Sandford brings a certain ‘arresting presence’ to both characters.
The setting for Desecration is appropriately placed at St. Anthony’s Catholic Boarding School-St. Anthony is the Patron Saint of the Lost. And Desecration is the story of one lost boy’s journey through Hell! The film winds around a non-linear movement and flashbacks with soundscapes that are striking.
Bobby Rullo (Danny Lopes) is an outsider, a loner. He is emotionally scarred by his mother’s sudden death. Christie Sanford, simultaneously plays Sister Madeline and Bobby’s mother Mary. The two women it could be said are one in the same, both are Bobby’s tormentors.
16 year old Bobby Rullo suffers from a repressive and outright abusive Catholic childhood. He seems lost within the emotional turbulence since the unexpected death of his mother when he was five. 11 years later, at his Catholic boarding school, while playing with a radio controlled plane, it collides with Sister Madeline causing blunt force trauma to her head and killing her instantly on the grounds of the school. It is deemed an accident, but Bobby is failing school and he is told to pack his bags and go home. Bobby quietly utters- “Some people are blessed and others are just cursed.”
It is only after he inadvertently causes the death of the nun, that it unleashes a series of brutal and supernatural chain of events. As a premonition, at the opening of Desecration, during mass, sister Madeline can not get her candle to light, she runs out of the room seemingly afraid and ashamed, as the other nuns stare at her. There is an expression of shock and of dread on her face as she is not meant to be blessed, but as Bobby says, some people ‘are just cursed.’
Bobby begins his journey through Hell, where he sees visions of the dead nun and his dead mother. Bobby’s descent summons demons, and evokes powerful childhood nightmares and primal fears.
Desecration acts as a set piece for our childhood fears, and the overpowering influence of abuse, fanaticism and repression, which wreak havoc on our innocence. Desecration is in effect a film you experience from the inside out. You’re not supposed to make sense of it. There is no sense to one’s madness or one’s descent into a nether regions of Hell while the gates open wider. The dead sister Madeline who becomes more grotesque with time as she is book-ended by demon clowns who stand at the ‘gates’. She taunts Bobby with visions of her lurking about the grounds.
Bobby is also mistreated by Brother Nicolas (Vincent Lamberti who is quite intimidatingly sinister in this role and as Reverend Salo Jr. in Horror 2003 with his well chiseled fiendish grin) who manhandles him and slips him a Valium to relax, a queer thing to do as an elder figure of the church. Bobby asks him, “Can priests take Valium?” With a menacing tone he tells Bobby, “priests can do many things…”
Bobby becomes groggy, he begins to hallucinate, as he looks at the painting of a nun, it morphs into a blurry face like sister Madeline who appears to the Reverend Mother out on the grounds, faceless, then the painting of the nun becomes an unearthly skull. The use of Atmo Royce’s paintings is perfection, as a pinion to the surrealism of the film.
Bobby begins to hear the voice of a priest, “No description can be adequately revealed to the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked…” The sins of the mother, not the father are exacted on the children. The transformation of the nun painting becomes a skull as its final transformation, turns itself into a clown’s face.
Bobby wanders the halls in a daze, he gazes through the window of the classroom door and sees brother Nicolas’ eyes burn demonic as he turns to look at Bobby. Finally as he makes his way back to his room, lights a candle and says his prayers, he falls asleep and vines and dirt begin to envelop the room. The earth and the natural world are trying to swallow him up. He dreams of sister Madeline in her most frightening incarnation standing at the entrance of a gate, in between a set of demon clowns. Sister Madeline is now trapped in Hell and Hell is coming for Bobby. He is marked for damnation by the evils of the world.
Bobby has only one person he can trust and that is his dauntlessly pious Grandma Matilda who is wonderful in the role. Matilda’s devotion to her Catholic faith drives her forward to try and protect Bobby from his mother, her own daughter Mary who is haunting and terrorizing him from the grave. Grandma Matilda is part of the supernatural events that were triggered by his killing sister Madeline. Madeline is grotesque in death, but Bobby’s mother was an abusive monster in life, and how he processes the abuse he endured as a little boy is dreaming of her having locked him in a cage. Bobby’s father mentions how he’d come home and find his hands and feet tied to the playpen.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is where Grandma Matilda is putting together a strange puzzle that is an odd painting of trees in the woods, almost a primitive style artwork. There’s is one piece left to fill in and suddenly it becomes Bobby’s face as he is about to sink into a hole, another premonition of things to come. Grandma Matilda also discovers her daughters spirit in the house, “She’s a here(with an Italian accent, though Irma St. Paule is from the Ukraine, she does a wonderful job as an old world Italian Catholic) She’s a here!!!”
There is also a great sequence where Matilda wants to consult the psychic she plays Bingo with to help try and find Bobby who is missing. Mrs. Cannizzaro tells Matilda “I see a very deep hole” Matilda-“the hole in the puzzle” “Yes it is a puzzle”Matilda also asks if his mother Mary has him, Mrs. Cannizzaro is fearful of the energy she is picking up on, the psychic is afraid to proceed. Mrs. Cannizzaro tells Matilda “Your daughter is using him to escape”“Escape from what?”“From Hell!”
Bobby is run through a maze of physical persecutions and emotions. During biology class he sees the dead nun, drive up in a hearse and beckon to him to get in. Bobby hates confinement, he complains that there are no locks on his bedroom door at the school. We see a flashback or dream/nightmare sequences that he was kept in a large cage in his bedroom as a little boy. The room is filled out with creepy toys, clowns and an even creepier giant Humpty Dumpty doll and balloons and a hovering mother who reeks of inherent sadism and evil, as she is holding balloons and a bottle of formula while he is trapped in the cage crying.
It is a disturbing image as we see Bobby at 16 years old, lying in the fetal position in the cage, his mother splashing the baby formula all over him and cackling. When Bobby tells his Grandma that he had the worst dream about his mother again, and wants to know why there aren’t any photographs of her around the house. It is Bobby’s father who doesn’t want any pictures of his wife in the house! We hear Bobby’s father (Salvatore Paul Piro, who is fantastic as Bobby’s ill-tempered father) talk about his wife having had a breakdown after he was born and that “She was sick!”
While running in the woods, surrounded by trees, (trees which I’ve come to learn are very significant as a trope in all of Tomaselli’s films) he meets up with his friend Sean who suddenly falls into a hole. Bobby can hear unholy growling coming from the abyss. Or is it Bobby himself who has fallen in the hole?
There are moments of the right amount of gore, when sister Rita is looking through sister Madeline’s art portfolio, she sees the dead eyed nun outside the window, then the statue of the Virgin Mary falls off the shelf. Suddenly, sister Rita is attacked by a pair of shears, and she is literally stabbed to death, by these ordinary scissors that are animated by an unseen force, her wrists and limbs slashed and her throat stabbed. Perhaps this horrifying moment is as evocative as a moment from Lucio Fulci, yet Dante Tomaselli never cannibalizes other directors work, the mood is quite original and very much his vision. An abject sequence of fright that is startling, with each frame of Desecration a photo-play in classical horror. There is such a raw absence of adornment with Brendan Flynt’s cinematography which is alternatively balanced with the surrealism of the nightmarish sequences.
Desecration is not only Bobby’s journey through Hell, it encompasses everyone in his orbit. His grandma Matilda told him, “you were an angel Bobby” but is this enough to save him from being damned?
Written and directed by Dante Tomaselli, with music by Dante Tomaselli. Cinematography by Timothy Naylor, film editing Marcus Bonilla, Art direction by Maze Georges, production design by Jill Alexander, costume design by Nives Spaleta. And some amazing special effects, make up and evil pumpkin head puppetry by Monsters, Madmen and Mayhem Make-up Creations.
Horror stars Kreskin as Reverend Salo, Lizzy Mahon as Grace Salo, Danny Lopes (Desecration 1999, Satan’s Playground 2006, Torture Chamber 2013) as Luck, Vincent Lamberti (Desecration 1999) as Reverend Salo Jr., Christie Sanford (Desecration 1999, Satan’s Playground 2006, Torture Chamber 2013) as Mrs. Salo, Jessica Pagan as Marisa, Raine Brownas Amanda, Kevin Kenny as Kevin, Chris Farabaugh as Fred, and Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp 1983) as the Art Therapist.
Horror (2003), utilizes some of the same imagery as Desecration, in fact Danny Lopes plays one of the characters, a troubled delinquent teenage drug user named Luck.
Horror, is a visually striking masterpiece of well–horror, about a group of runaway teens who escape from a drug rehab facility. Luck (Danny Lopes) shoots and kills the guard and takes his gun and a huge bag of candy and magic mushrooms which the van of teenagers proceed to partake in on their way to the Salo farm. In another nightmarish odyssey the teens encounter demonic forces at the rural family farmhouse owned by two sadists who imprison their daughter Grace, inject her with drugs to keep her compliant. Reverend Salo Jr is a phony preacher and faith healer and possibly the pair are murderers who run an odd religious cult.
Like so many of the scenes in Horror, there is another powerful sequence where Grace is looking out her bedroom window at her father holding one of his fire and brimstone sermons in the snow, during the cold white light of day, while people with crutches and boils are gathered round in a circle. Her father looks up and points at her, and that singular moment sends shivers up my spine. Lamberti is absolutely menacing as Revernd Salo Jr. And while the scene takes place in broad daylight, there is a feeling of claustrophobic terror and dread because Grace is truly trapped.
There is a hint that they might have even abducted Grace (she finds a strange scrapbook of pictures, one with a little girls legs sticking out of a bag, I think that’s the impression I got), who are these people, are they the Salo’s victims and are these photos trophies?)
And are they keeping Grace drugged so that she will not remember her past before she was abducted. The opening scene illustrates a form of abduction, as she is knocked out and brought back into the house. I also consider the fact that her Grandfather who was a mentalist and could hypnotize people, bending their will to his might have played a part in her captivity. Did Reverend Salo Sr. brainwash her into believing that they were family? Grace seems to have a psychic connection to her Grandfather, but is that because he has imposed his will on her consciousness.
There are flashback sequences of the Amazing Kreskin performing his mentalist act, the presence of this nostalgic celebrity adds another vintage sensation that we’re watching an authentic older horror film from the 1970s decade.
From the starling opening of Horror, Grace is stringing Christmas lights up on the front of the quaint little house, when she is accidentally shocked by a live wire and burns her hand, and as she comes down the ladder, she is struck by a dark figure who puts her in a body bag, throws her over his shoulder and dumps her on a bed like a rag doll, while her mother (Christie Sanford) laughs with a streak of cruelty. Her abductor we come to learn is the Reverend Salo Jr. her own father. The scene is chilling and brutal in it’s old fashioned simplicity. Again, Dante Tomaselli manages to bring me back to that eerie & uncanny sensation you get when watching a good 70s horror flick.
My first impression of this sadistic couple and Salo Sr (Kreskin) was the name that instantly made me think of the nightmarish fascist torture film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) directed by Pasolini. I asked Dante if my association was correct and this is what Dante told me-“I was looking for a name that conjured depravity and Salo matched the vibration of the characters” (Reverend Salo – (Kreskin) and Reverend Salo Jr. – Vincent Lamberti)
After the opening where the pale and melancholy Grace (Lizzy Mahon) is attacked by her father and back inside the house and injected with a hypodermic to keep her submissive because she is acting up again (meaning –being independent of their will only by leaving the house and decorating for Christmas), eventually the teenagers who have escaped cross paths with Grace and the terrifying circumstances at the farmhouse intersect.
There is the presence of a black goat who is fixated on Grace, coming into the house and gazing at her. There is also a goat headed hooded figure in the woods that attacks one of the teenagers, yet another chilling scene.
The two disturbing narratives begin to integrate into one converging nightmare. The teens had escaped with the promise that Reverend Salo Jr would lead them and its the beginning of a new life, while handing out magic mushrooms in their shopping bag of goodies and a pamphlet from the Reverend with words that say- the End is near, Famine and the Anti-Christ.
While the teens are tripping out on hallucinatory drugs, we are getting images of the abuse Grace has been subjected to, and the collection of cult followers who are ravaged by boils and become almost zombie like. In fact, the teens, Luck Amanda, Marissa, Fred and Chris succumb to their own nightmare out in the woods, surrounded by violent visions, drug induced or supernatural forces at work both are simultaneously true.
Once in the farmhouse the violence continues, and Grace has a vision of the painting of her Grandfather Reverend Salo Sr (the amazing Kreskin) morphing into a frightening visage, as she discovers a hidden room in the attic with church candles and an Iron Maiden! Is she hallucinating from the drugs or was this where she was subjected to a medieval style torture –we see her being stretched on a rack, screaming in pain until she passes out. The rack will be seen once again in Torture Chamber (2013). The duplicity of religious fanaticism and hidden sadism and child abuse is ever present in Horror.
Again Atmo’s artwork plays a stunning visual role in the film. The painting in Grace’s room morphs into a savage visage of Grandfather Salo The Reverend Sr. The use of paintings that metamorphose into horrible versions of their former image puts me in mind of the Pilot episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, in the first installment the wicked and murderously greedy Roddy McDowallkills his wealthy uncle (George Macready) and is then plagued by the painting that keeps changing to show his uncle climbing out of his grave and pounding at the front door of the estate, coming back in death to claim his revenge on his murderous bastard nephew. It’s one of my favorite episodes of the series.
Horror is an atmospheric & disorienting chiller, another hallucinatory journey that coils around you like a snake head devouring it’s own tail–where it begins and where it ends is like any nightmare, where reality melts into horror and is as visually frightening as nightmare one can have.
Written and directed by Dante Tomaselli. Cinematography by Tim Naylor, Music by Dante Tomaselli, Bill Lacey and Kenneth Lampl. Film editing by Marcus Bonilla and Egon Kirincic, Art direction by Pete Zumba, Costume Design by Erika Goyzueta.
Stars Felissa Rose as Donna Bruno, Salvatore Paul Piro as Frank Bruno, Danny Lopes as Sean Bruno, Ellen Sandweiss (The Evil Dead 1981) as Paula, Irma St. Paule as Mrs. Leeds, Edwin Neal (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974) as Leeds boy, Christie Sanford as Judy Leeds, Ron Milkie as Officer Peters, Robert T. Zappalorti as cop/camper, Chris Farabaugh as stoner, Raine Brown as prostitute, Garth Johnson as Red Hooded man, Jesse Hodges as Lost Teen, Maureen Tomaselli as reporter, Emily Spectre as nurse, Paul LeRoy as truck drive/worshiper, Michael Ryan as the whipping boy and a slew of worshipers.
“SATAN’S PLAYGROUND is a supernatural shocker chronicling a family’s spine-tingling odyssey in New Jersey’s legendary Pine Barrens region. En route to a wilderness camping retreat, their car inexplicably breaks down. As darkness falls, panic sets in. Then the marooned family stumbles upon an ancient and seemingly abandoned house. And it is here that they meet the bizarre Mrs. Leeds who lives there with her equally unhinged children. Offering no assistance, she warns of a violent, unseen force lurking in the forbidding countryside. Soon, the family will encounter a supernatural evil older than the woods themselves. SATAN’S PLAYGROUND…a place where deadly myth becomes gruesome reality.”– review by LDMediaCorp
Satan’s Playground has the true feel of the late 70s early 80s, exuding an Americana Gothic atmosphere with the backwoods, the netherworld of the Pine Barrens that cinematographer Tim Naylor creates with Dante Tomaselli at the helm. The sense of isolation and dread taps into all those primal fears of strange and unmerciful families that are outliers in society who kill people as part of their family routine, as ordinary as doing the chores.
This theme as always worked in films like Tobe Hooper’s dark adult fairy tale about a cannibalistic family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), John Hough’s repressed, isolated murderous religious fanatics portrayed to the hilt by Rod Steiger and Yvonne De Carlo in American Gothic (1987), or even a cult favorite of mine, about a psychotic family of outliers in Spider Baby (1967)
Satan’s Playground is as dark as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale… and perhaps my favorite of Dante Tomaselli’s films.
What is so frightening is that families like The Leeds seem to be able to circumvent the law and social morays for long periods of time, as primitive as rabid animals who kill with a blood lust and not merely for survival. Added to this is the mythology of the Jersey Devil who has haunted our nightmares from the Pine Barrens for decades. He lurks and preys on random characters in the film, who are unlucky enough to be out in the woods, swooping down and slashing them to death or carrying them off to some hidden lair. The flapping of it’s wings are present in Satan’s Playground, while the hooded Satanists who are seen whipping their human sacrifice seem to be the least of the dangers in the story.
The story, chronicles another nightmare journey of a dysfunctional family who are headed through the Pine Barrens to enjoy a family camping trip. En route to the wilderness of the wooded nether regions Donna Bruno (Felissa Rose) her husband Frank who keeps falling asleep at the wheel (Salvatore Paul Piro) their autistic son Sean (Danny Lopes) Paula (Ellen Sandweiss) and her new born baby Anthony, break down when their wood paneled station wagon gets stuck in the mud.
Paula hears the flapping of wings, but it’s Sean who seems to have the hyper awareness that something isn’t quite right, he has a keener senses about his surroundings, trying to point toward the danger, with no one paying attention to him, because the other members of the family are too busy airing their frustrations. As darkness falls, panic sets in and the need to seek help sends each one out into the night.
As each one goes looking for help, they stumble upon an abandoned house, boarded up and in obvious decrepitude yet each family member knocks on the door looking to use a phone. Satan’s Playground has the feel of a macabre fairy tale of hapless victims wandering into dangerous spaces, at the mercy of an evil in its most pure form.
Mrs. Leeds (Irma St. Paule not the kindly Grandma she once played but in the role as a most wicked witch) opens the door.
Right from the moment we enter the strange house, the layout tells us there is something off kilter. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, the set design works incredibly well. It is here that each Bruno family member, one by one meets the otherworldly crone and the bizarre Leeds family. Mrs. Leeds boasts of her 13 children some who have died young, the rest worthless or developmentally disabled. She lives with her two unhinged children, the twisted Judy (Christie Sanford) who is mute and her son (Edwin Neal) who is also a violent psychopath.
Mrs. Leeds does fortunes to make money, or so she says. She offers no assistance and stalls while each Bruno keeps asking to use her phone. Mrs. Leeds warns of the violent unseen forces lurking in the forbidding countryside, not to mention the Satan worshipers. As she offers tea that is laced with some kind of drug, each one is knocked off by Judy who uses a large mallet or meat tenderizer. to brain her victims. Judy steals little Anthony, another childhood fear –of fiends coming in the night to steal children from their safe place. In Satan’s Playground there is no safe place.
The Bruno family comes face to face with inherent evil perhaps older than the woods, where they each face their own gruesome end. Does Mrs. Leeds even really exist in this world and is her 13th child, the Jersey Devil?
Written and directed by Dante Tomaselli. Music by Dante Tomaselli, Kenneth Lampl and Allison Piccioni. Cinematography by Tim Naylor, Art design by Ian Salter, Costume design by Lisa Faibish
Torture Chamber stars Vincent Pastore(‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero in The Sopranos 1999-2007) as Dr. Fiore, Christie Sanford as Mrs. Morgan, Lynn Lowry(The Crazies 1973, They Came from Within 1975) as Lisa Moreno, Ron Millkie as Dr. Thompson, Carmen LoPorto as Jimmy Morgan, Richard D. Busser as Father Mark Morgan, Ellie Pettit as Heather, Raine Brown as Hope, and Danny Lopes as Ralph.
from Out of Bounds: “… a restrictive moral, a kind of reactionary “medieval’ Christian vision du monde sneaks in. And is truly frightening.”
In Torture Chamber the story is revealed through a series of dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. Its about a metaphysical bond between a mother and her two sons.
There are Medieval emblems like Christian statues, the Iron Maiden in Horror and the Rack in both Horror and Torture Chamber.
From Horror Movies.ca “Torture Chamber is about a 13-year-old boy possessed by unspeakable evil. It’s probably the first serious independent horror film in a long time that’s in the vein of The Exorcist. The demon is called Baalberith, which, if you believe in demonology, tempts its host to blasphemy and murder,” he told the site. “Jimmy Morgan is a pyromaniac, horribly disfigured from experimentation with drugs. This Catholic boy’s family is crawling with religious fanatics. His mother believes he was sent from the Devil to set the world on fire. His older brother is a priest who tries to exorcise him. When Jimmy murders his own father, he burns him to death. Because of this, the troubled boy is sent to an Institution for disturbed youths. While there, Jimmy has a Charles Manson-like hold on the other kids from the burn unit. Together, they escape and Jimmy finds an old abandoned castle for shelter. That’s where the burned kids find a secret passage way that leads to a medieval, cobwebbed torture chamber.”
Jimmy is a young boy who is a burn victim, badly abused by his fanatical religion mother (Christie Sanford) who in order to drive out his evil, subjects him to exorcism by his older brother who is a priest. When Jimmy escapes from the institution with other children who are burn victims, he wreaks revenge on his persecutors who then become the persecuted. Jimmy and his companions are a band of outliers to are hell bent on torturing their victims. Lynn Lowry as Lisa Marino who experiences her nightmares in flashback is a treat to watch, I’ve been a fan of hers since I saw her performances in Romero’s The Crazies (1973), the outre bizarre Sugar Cookies (1973) co-starring cult favorite Mary Woronov and Cronenberg’s They Came From Within (1975).
Again, Dante Tomaselli’s film is non-linear, surrealist, nihilistic , hallucinatory, the soundscapes are footprints that lead you to the torture chamber. It’s a visceral and disturbing journey of a young boys retribution. A Gothic, transcendental horror as is Dante Tomaselli’s Desecration. Dante Tomaselli collection of films create a frightening world as he purges his scorn for religious fanaticism and hypocrisy.
Atmo Royce’s brilliant paintings from Torture Chamber (2013)
My conversation with Dante Tomaselli!
Joey – “I’ve seen TREES in all your films. They are a fabric of each film throughout each piece, trees seem to be very significant to you. Do they represent “a natural force”? and ‘elemental’ forces that go with the supernatural overtones…”
Dante Tomaselli- “Yes, I purposely place trees…woods in every single one of my films. I think trees are beautiful beings and I can stare at them endlessly. I do see these entities as sacred and elemental forces…rooted in the earth itself. Whenever I’m scouting woods locations for my films, I walk around in a trance and try to find the trees that seem to be calling out to me. The different personalities…textures…energies…Landscapes are real important to me…I like for the atmosphere to dominate. The Tree of Life twists…what gave life now takes it away. When I was growing up I would go deep into the woods and get myself lost. Where I lived in New Jersey there were endless woods in my backyard and I’d spend many hours out there alone with time just dissolving. I’d let my imagination run free and fantasize all kinds of sadistic and surreal landscapes and horror scenes. Sometimes on these excursions I feared I would disappear and never return. The trees were my refuge and represented safety and protection but at times, mainly in the dark, the same exact trees could be supremely frightening…their faces, energy…It’s chilling…a forest transformed into a place of evil…It goes against nature. That’s why that scene of evil woods in Wizard of Oz is so effective. You know, when I saw the trees come alive in The Evil Dead in theaters in 1983 when I was 13, it really pushed a button. And to have Ellen Sandweiss, who endured the ultimate scary trees… starring in one of my films – well…I’ve come full circle. For sure, in my independent movies I try to portray the woods as teeming with supernatural menace. In HORROR the woods were harboring the living dead or hypnotized souls…There are Satanists lurking in the Pine Barrens of Satan’s Playground, not to mention an invisible flying demon and…deadly quicksand. Torture Chamber’s abandoned castle was surrounded by whispering woods and there’s a burning gift leading to a glowing red hole to hell in the woods of Desecration.”
Joey- “Sound is one THE most significant enticements in your films. I’m wondering about the use of ARTWORK, not just Atmo’s incredible paintings but artwork as Symbolism. Desecration and Horror used his paintings. But there was also Irma’s puzzle in Desecration, in Torture Chamber there was the tribal MASK and even in Satan’s Playground there was the painting of the goat. I’m sure there are more hints of this, but these stand out. What is the greater gist of why these elements were so substantial in your work?”
Dante Tomaselli- “I like to paint with sound. I like glacial, pristine sounds mixed with low throbbing tones. The music is 50% of the film’s equation and even when I’m sculpting a song on an album like Scream in the Dark, where I was going for an amusement park Funhouse, dark ride vibe, I aways wanted the soundscapes to depict the vision that I experienced in my mind. I have to see something in order to score it. If I’m dry then there’s nothing at all but if the images are flowing then I’m fanatical about facilitating or scoring the vision. You can hear me cackling like a witch, that’s my own voice with no effects…in the first section of Dark Night of the Soul. To me, that track conjures the image of a violent storm cloud looming. It’s all about regret…guilt. Someone did something deeply wrong…and now there’s the fear of what’s coming next.
The paintings by artist Atmo Royce were commissioned by me. The images were straight from my screenplay, my imagination. I wanted a stern nun, a blurred nun, a skull nun and a clown nun. I wanted the images to have a Tarot card-like feel. They were to represent the desecration of religion…the hypocrisy, the flip side of faith where evil is cloaked in religion. Atmo Royce, who now lives in Germany also painted the changing preacher portraits for Horror which had a similar idea. I had an entirely different artist illustrate the changing pope portraits for Torture Chamber where Vincent Pastore is hallucinating while staring at a portrait of the pope in a homeless shelter. The painting by Mark Jones, commissioned by me, actually it’s pastel…it morphs into a grinning blood soaked character while we detect profane words on the crumbling walls. In all these cases, it’s about the Devil poking through. Evil winning.”
Joey- “Did you realize before hand or was it a natural progression to interweave identical symbols throughout each film. There are threads that connect all 4 films. There are sequences that re-haunt the next installment like one continuous dream. I will mention those in my piece, but I was curious if it evolved as each film opened up to you, or if this was something that was very purposeful before you even sat down to sketch out the framework of the films after Desecration?”
Dante Tomaselli- “I consciously set out to create an encompassing world of doom that is interchangeable from film to film; I see it as all one tapestry. I draw swirling mazes and I’m trying to construct a nightmare in which we experience the protagonist’s damnation. My films are never a celebration of violence. They’re really more about the sensitivity to violence. The confusion of being alive.”
“A Code Red Release – One of the most original horror films in recent years, Desecration is an eerily dazzling and genuinely frightening psychological chiller about a beyond the grave relationship between a teenage boy and his long dead mother. Bobby, a 16-year-old loner, has been emotionally damaged by his mother’s early death and a repressive Catholic upbringing. The boy accidentally causes a nun’s death, triggering a chain of supernatural events and violent mayhem that leads Bobby into Hell to confront his mother. Powerful childhood demons are exorcised and unleashed as the gates of Hell open in this gripping, hallucinatory film. First-time feature film writer/director Dante Tomaselli has created an incredibly atmospheric and terrorizing film that he has described as “being in the psychedelic fun house.” With its mist-shrouded ambience, photography and trance-like soundtrack, the film, almost subliminally, creates an unsettling mood that crawls beneath the skin. A sensational young talent, Tomaselli has taken the horror genre in a new and exciting direction.”
The remake of cousin Alfred Sole’s beloved 70s horror masterpiece ALICE SWEET ALICE remains in development for now Dante is more focused on his upcoming feature THE DOLL which is about a violent haunting at a family owned wax museum.
“I am planning an Alice, Sweet Alice re-imagining with my cousin (Alfred Sole). I am so completely focused on my next film, THE DOLL – which has a low budget ($500, 000)”
Hae Ree Choi is the illustrator on each of Dante Tomaselli’s albums!
I know my films reflect the fear of the end of the world or the end of my world.
I’d see multicolored streaks in the atmosphere. And I didn’t do drugs. Sometimes I could see sounds. They were different colors. I could taste color and touch sound.
I love performers from horror classics; I can’t help myself. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been given the opportunity to work with actors from landmark horror films. The trend needs to continue with me…and the possibilities are endless. Jamie Lee Curtis, can you hear me?
It’s ambient filmmaking…told through a series of dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. I was going for something completely out-there…not censoring myself…allowing my imagination to run wild.
I think I pulled the images from the dark pit of my childhood, my nightmares. Growing up, I had so many nightmares and was always wondering if what was happening was actually true. Or was it a dream? I didn’t use drugs. I know…that’s a shock. If anything, I was repressed and probably needed drugs to open me up. Everything I kept bottled up in the day would explode out of me at night. All of the negative debris of the day…it would all come popping up, so strongly in my nightmares.
I guess it has something to do with how I grew up, my background being Italian American and having two very religious grandmothers. But, really…I just think organized religion is a very scary thing. It gives me a feeling of paranoia. One group against another, thinking the other one is wrong and they are better, holier. Religion causes wars. It has a dark force that can’t be denied. Also, as you know, my cousin, Alfred Sole, directed “Alice, Sweet Alice,” the infamous Catholic slasher. I saw it at a very early age and it is forever embedded in my psyche.
In 1975, I was 5. In 83, I was 13. So, I got to see all these great horror movies, the golden age of true horror, while I was a little kid growing up. It was an incredible time to be a horror fanatic. I was like the boy in Romero’s Creepshow. My mother actually took me to see these 70’s, early 80’s movies because she knew how much I loved them. She enjoyed horror films too, actually. I’d cut out Ads from the newspaper, for movies like…It Lives Again, Prophecy, Phantasm, Invasion of The Body Snatchers and just…stare at them. I was in love with all of this stuff from early on.
I starting writing it right around the end of 1999, when there was all that end-of-the-world talk going on. I wanted to harness that feeling…that we all could be predestined for a horrible, violent death. The idea that the threat of violence can strike at any moment.
Thank You for sharing your thoughts with me, Happy Birthday Dante Tomaselli, I anxiously await your next wave of hallucinatory chills & your brilliant machinations come to life in vivid color!-May we find peace and transcendence through art, Love Joey
This Halloween season I’m covering those fierce women who graced the 1950s Science Fiction & Fantasy/Horror screen with their beauty, brawn and bravado! Like years past–I pay tribute to the Scream Queens of the 1930s & 1940s
We’ve arrived at the 1950s decade’s deliriously dynamic dames… Who had to deal with mad scientists, gigantism, alien invasions and much more menace & mayhem!
Of course I plan on doing the 1960s and 1970s in the next year–and you’ll notice that I am listing some of our Queen B’s future films & television appearances of a supernatural or science fiction nature, and even a few scattered exploitation films that fit the bill. Added are a few photos to fill out the framework of their contribution to the genre. I’ve included honorable mentions to those who starred in at least one film and perhaps a few science fiction & horror anthology shows on television.
And I guess I should be super clear about this, so no one gets their hackles standing on end, not one actress who wound up only getting an honorable mention, (be it one of your favorites and believe me their are a few of mine on that smaller list), by any means does it imply that I think they have a less substantial participation in the decade’s genre.
All these actresses have performed in other types of films-other genres and dramatic roles and enjoyed a full career that transcends the science fiction & horror films they appeared in.
Allied together they created the fabric of the 1950s decade, colored by their unique and valuable presence to ensure that science fiction & horror/fantasy will live on to entertain and enamor a whole new generation of fans and aficionados.
Collectively and Individually these women are fantastic , and I feel very passionate about having put this wonderful collection together as a tribute!
I can’t begin to describe the admiration I’ve developed over the past several years, by delving into Beverly Garland’s long impressive career as a popular cult actress. All I can think of saying– seems crude– but it’s what truly comes to mind… Beverly Garland kicks some serious ass!!!
From historian/writer Tom Weaver-“For most fans of 50s horror there are just no two ways about it. Beverly Garland is the exploitation film heroine of the period. A principal member of Roger Corman’s early stock company, she was the attractive, feisty leading lady in such Corman quickies as It Conquered the World, Gunslinger, Naked Paradise, and Not of this Earth. In between Corman assignments she braved the perils of the Amazon River on writer-director Curt Siodmak’s Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, and a less harrowing Hollywood backlot swamp in Fox’s the Alligator People. Her 1960s film work included Pretty Poison, The Mad Room and the multi-storied Twice Told Tales with Vincent Price. Overall, this list of titles is unmatched by any other ’50s genre actress.”
The diverse, dynamic and uniquely sexy Beverly Garland was born in Santa Cruz, California. She studied with dramatics teacher Anita Arliss, sister to Hollywood actor George Arliss. Garland also worked in radio actually appeared semi-clothed in various racy shorts, until she made her first feature debut supporting role in the taut noir thriller D.O.A (1949) starring Edmund O’Brien. Beverly started out doing small parts in science fiction/horror films such as The Neanderthal Man 1955and The Rocket Man 1954. But her cult/exploitation status was forged when she signed onto to work with legendary filmmaker Roger Corman, the first film takes place in Louisiana called Swamp Women. In 1983 Beverly Garland received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She worked right up until 2004 and sadly passed away in 2008.
There are so many credits Beverly Garland has under her belt, I can only list the few that are memorable for me, but here she is linked to her massive IMDb list of credits for you to peruse. One of the roles that stands out for me is her groundbreaking role in the late 1950s as Casey Jones a policewoman for NYC in the series called Decoy (1957) Garland finds herself in diverging & dangerous situations where she not only uses her sexy good looks but her smarts and her instincts to trap criminals from all walks of life. It’s a fabulous show and it shows not only how diverse Beverly Garland is but the show was a historical first for a woman starring in a dramatic television series.
Beverly Garland has performed in drama’s including a musical with Frank Sinatra directed by Charles Vidor The Joker is Wild (1957) Film Noir (The Miami Story 1954, New Orleans Uncensored 1955, Sudden Danger 1955, The Steel Jungle 1956, Chicago Confidential 1957, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Adventure, Exploitation, Westerns and Crime dramas & Thrillers like Pretty Poison 1968. For the purposes of The Last Drive In tribute to this magnetic actress, here are those performances in the genre I’m featuring both film & television series!
“The Memories of working with Roger Corman are pleasant because I got along with him very well. He was fun to be around and work with. We always did these films on a cheap budget, and people were always mad at Roger because he’d hardly feed us! And no matter what happened to you, your worked regardless… You could be dead and Roger would prop you up in a chair!”-Beverly Garland
From Beverly Garland’s Interview in “Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup” by Tom Weaver (McFarland 1988).
In The Mad Room (1969) her character was pregnant–so was she at the time, with her son James.
[referring to her 1950s Roger Corman cult films] “It’s funny today because it’s so ridiculous. But at the time, it was very serious! We were just actors doing our best, I think. None of us overacted. I’m not saying we weren’t good. We didn’t do it tongue-in-cheek. We really meant it. We gave our all. We were serious, good actors and we played it seriously.”-Beverly Garland
“Maybe I do come on strong, and people sense in me a strength and a positiveness . . . It’s really the way I look and act, not the way I am . . . Once you cut through the protective coating, I’m strictly molasses.”-Beverly Garland
Audrey Dalton– “I noticed you wrote a bit about Beverly Garland. She was such a dear friend of mine. She was in Pretty Poison with Noel Black who just passed away last year. Bev died years ago and even though she remained active in the Scarecrow and Mrs King for so long, she loved acting in “B” films the most.”
Waitress Nola Mason in The Neanderthal man 1954, Ludine in The Rocket Man 1954, Vera in Swamp Women 1956, Claire Anderson in It Conquered the World 1956, Dr. Andrea Romar in Curucu the Beast of the Amazon, Nadine Storey in Not of this Earth 1957, Joyce Webster in The Alligator People 1959, Ellen Winslow in Stark Fear 1962, as Alice Pyncheon in Twice-Told Tales (1963) Mrs. Stepanek in Pretty Poison 1968, Mrs. Racine in The Mad Room 1969, Science Fiction Theatre (TV Series) Katherine Kerston / Sally Torens– The Other Side of the Moon (1956) … Katherine Kerston– The Negative Man (1955) … Sally Torens, The Twilight Zone (TV Series) Maggie- The Four of Us Are Dying (1960) , Thriller (TV Series) Ruth Kenton– Knock Three-One-Two (1960)
Tom Weaver – “In your Corman movies you yourself generally played plucky, strong willed, sometimes two-fisted types.”
Beverly Garland- “I think that was really what the scripts called for. In most all the movies I did for Roger my character was kind of a tough person. Allison Hayes always played the beautiful, sophisticated “heavy” and I played the gutsy girl who wanted to manage it all, take things into her own hands. I never considered myself much of a passive kind of actress-I never was very comfortable in love scenes, never comfortable playing a sweet, lovable lady. Maybe if the script wasn’t written that way, then probably a lot of it I brought to the role myself. I felt I did that better than playing a passive part.”
Swamp Women (1956) An undercover policewoman helps three female convicts escape from prison so that they can lead her to a stash of stolen diamonds hidden in a swamp. Co-stars Marie Windsor, Carole Mathews, Mike Connors, Susan Cummings and Ed Nelson!
Also in Swamp Women 1956, Garland was expected to do her own stunts, even dropping out of a 20 foot tree. Roger Corman told her “When you’re killed you have to drop” Roger planted three guys underneath the tree to catch Beverly when she let’s go. “And when they killed me I just fell-dead weight on these three poor guys!” Roger told her “You’re really one of the best stuntwomen I have ever worked with.”
Even after breaking her ankle in Gunslinger 1956, Beverly was a trooper, she did all her fight scenes and worked to finish the film for Roger Corman, even though she couldn’t walk for weeks after that!
As Ellen Winslow, Garland takes a courageous role as a non-victim of abuse and assault, she pushes back head on against the grain instead of wilting from the trauma she prevails. The film showcases the gutsy quality Garland herself tried to portray in all her performances. in the darkly psychological Stark Fear (1962)A sadistic husband mentally tortures his wife, while eventually planning to murder her. Although no one believes her, she gets help from an unexpected source.
Beverly Garland recalls making Swamp Women co-starring Marie Windsor with Tom Weaver-“Swamp Women! Ooh that was a terrible thing! Roger put us up in this old abandoned hotel while we were on location in Louisiana- I mean it was really abandoned! Roger certainly had a way of doing things back in those days-I’m surprised the hotel had running water! I remember that we each had a room with an iron bed. Our first night there, I went to bed and I heard this tremendous crash! I went screaming into Marie Windsor’s room, and there she was with the bed on top of her-the whole bed had collapsed! Well, we started laughing because everything was so awful in this hotel. just incredibly terrible, and we became good friends.”
Carole Mathews, Marie Windsor and Beverly Garland in Swamp Women
Beverly Garland not only exuded a gutsy streak in every role she took, she shared the notable distinction of starring in one of Boris Karloff’s THRILLER episodes called Knock-Three-One-Two co-starring with the wonderful character actor Joe Maross who has a gambling problem and will be beaten to a pulp if he doesn’t pay his bookie. So he enlists the help of a psychopathic lady killer to murder his wife Beverly for her tightly held purse and large savings account!
Tom Weaver asks Beverly Garland if she enjoyed working on Twice-Told Tales (1963) — “Oh, I love it because I loved Vincent Price. He is the most wonderful sweet, adorable man! I don’t remember much about the movie, I just remember working with Vinnie and how wonderful he was.”
Tom Drake, Bill Elliott, and Beverly Garland in Sudden Danger (1955)
On working with Roger Corman on Gunslinger (1956) after Allison Hayes another seasoned actress and a bloomin’ trooper who broke her arm during filming. The working conditions were dismal but Beverly Garland isn’t a woman you can keep down. “I always wondered if Allison broke her arm just to get off the picture and out of the rain. It poured constantly. But what I adored about Roger was he never said, ‘This can’t be done.’ Pouring rain, trudging through the mud and heat, getting ptomaine poisoning, sick as a dog–didn’t matter. Never say die. Never say can’t Never say quit. I learned to be a trooper with Roger. I could kid him sarcastically about these conditions and laugh. That’s why we got along so well. On Gunslinger, I was supposed to run down the saloon stairs, jump on my horse and ride out of town. Now we never had stunt people in low-budget films. Riding, stunts, fights–we all did it ourselves and we all expected it, and we all just said it was marvelously grand. I told myself just to think tall. So my first take I thought tall and sailed right over the saddle and landed on the other side of the horse. The second take I twisted my ankle running down the stairs– a bad twist.”
About working with Roy del Ruth on The Alligator People–“He was sweetheart of a guy and a good director. The Alligator People was a fast picture, but he really tried to do something good with it. And I think that shows in the film. It’s not something that was just slapped together. It as such a ridiculous. story…).. I felt when I read the script and when I saw the film, which was a long time ago, that it ended very abruptly. It all happened too fast; it was kind of a cop out. But there really was no way to end it. What were they going to do-were they going to have us live happily ever after and raise baby alligators?”
On first seeing the cucumber creature that Paul Blaisdell designed for It Conquered the World–“I remember the first time I saw the It Conquered the World Monster. I went out to the caves where we’d be shooting and got my first look at the thing. I said to Roger, ‘That isn’t the monster…! That little thing over there is not the monster, is it?’ He smiled back at me , “Yeah, Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?’ I said, ‘Roger! I could bop that monster over the head with my handbag!’ This thing is no monster, it was a terrible ornament!’ He said, ‘Well don’t worry about it because we’re gonna show you, and then we’ll show the monster, back and forth.’ ‘Well, don’t ever show us together, because if you do everybody’ll know that I could step on this little creature! Eventually I think they did do some extra work on the monster: I think they resprayed it so it would look a little scarier, and made it a good bit taller. When we actually filmed, they shot it in shadow and never showed the two of us together.”
Beverly Garland as Clair talking on the radio to IT– “I hate your living guts for what you‘ve done to my husband and my world, and I’m going to kill you! Do you hear that? I’m going to kill you!”…) “So that’s what you look like, you’re ugly…) You think you’re gonna make a slave of the world… I’ll see you in hell first!“
Tom Weaver asks —“Do you ever look back on your B movies and feel that maybe you were too closely associated with them? That they might have kept you from bigger and better things?
Beverly Garland —“No, I really don’t think so. I think that it was my getting into television; Decoy represented a big turn in my life. Everybody did B movies, but at least they were movies, so it was okay. In the early days, we who did TV weren’t considered actors; we were just horrible people that were doing this ‘television’ which was so sickening, so awful, and which was certainly going to disappear off the face of the earth. Now, without TV, nobody would be working. No-bod-y. But I think that was where my black eye came from; I don’t think it came from the B movies at all.”
Tom Weaver-“Which of your many horror and science fiction roles did you consider your most challenging?”
Beverly Garland–“Pretty Poison. It was a small part, but it had so much to say that you understood why Tuesday Weld killed her mother. I worked hard to make that understood not a surface one, but tried to give you the lady above and beyond what you would see in a short time.”
The bewitchingly beautiful Audrey Dalton was born in Dublin, Ireland who maintains the most delicately embroidered lilt of Gaelic tones became an American actress of film in the heyday of Hollywood and the Golden Age of television. Knowing from early on that she wanted to be an actress while studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts was discovered by a Paramount Studio executive in London, thus beginning her notable career starring in classic drama, comedy, film noir, science fiction, campy cult classic horror and dramatic television hits!
Since then I’ve had the incredible honor of chatting with this very special lady whom I consider not only one of THE most ethereal beauties of the silver screen, Audrey Dalton is a versatile actress, and an extremely gracious and kind person.
Audrey Dalton’s made a monumental contribution to one of the biggest beloved 1950s ‘B’ Sci-Fi treasures and she deserves to be honored for her legacy as the heroine in distress, pursued by a giant bunny killing Mollusk “That monster was enormous!” –Audrey commented in her interview with USA Today.
Gail MacKenzie in The Monster that Challenged the World 1957, Baroness Maude Sardonicus in William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus 1961 Boris Karloff’s Thriller (1960-1962)- Norine Burton in The Prediction, Meg O’Danagh Wheeler in The Hollow Watcher and Nesta Roberts in Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook.
Barbara Rush appeared in director Martin Ritt’s turbulent suburban drama No Down Payment 1957 with ex-husband Jeffrey Hunter though they weren’t married to each other in the film.
Barbara Rush, Possesses a transcendent gracefulness. She moves with a poise like a dancer, a beautiful gazelle stirring in the gentle quiet spaces like silent woods. When I see Barbara Rush, I see beauty personified by elegance and decency. Barbara Rush will always remain in my eyes, one of the most gentle of souls on the screen, no matter what role she is inhabiting. She brings a certain kind of class that is not learned, it’s inherent.
She was born in Denver, Colorado in 1927 and began at University of California. Then she joined the University Players, taking acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse. Paramount scooped Barbara up and signed her to a contract in 1950. She debuted with The Goldbergs (1950) as Debby Sherman acting with Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg -a popular television program that follows the warm, human story of famous Jewish Bronx radio & TV family the Goldbergs, and their everyday problems. Co-starring David Opatoshu and Eduard Franz.
Before joining the Goldbergs she met the strikingly handsome actor Jeffrey Hunter who eventually became a hot commodity over at 20th Century Fox. Barbara Rush and Jeffrey Hunter fell in love and were married in December of 1950. They became Hollywood’s most gorgeous couple, and the camera seemed to adore them. Their son Christopher was born in 1952.
During her time at Paramount, Barbara Rush appeared in the science fiction catastrophic end of the world thriller directed by Rudolph Maté —When World’s Collide 1951 co-starring Richard Derr, Peter Hansen and John Hoyt.
As time went on Barbara Rush co-starred with some of the most desirable actors in Hollywood, James Mason, Monty Clift, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman , Richard Burton and Kirk Douglas. Her roles ran the gamut from disenchanted wives, scheming other women or pretty socialites
Though Barbara Rush is capable of a range of acting, the one great role of a lifetime never seemed to surface for her, though what ever she appeared in was elevated to a higher level because of her presence.
Television became a wonderful avenue for Barbara Rush’s talent, she appeared in guest parts in many popular tv series of the 1960s and 1970s. She also co-starred in tv movies. One enjoyable character she played was a guest villain on the 1966 television series Batman as femme fatale ‘Nora Clavicle” Barbara Rush also played Marsha Russell on the popular television drama Peyton Place 1968-69
Barbara Rush also turned to work on the stage. She garnered the Sarah Siddons Award for her starring role in Forty Carats. Making her Broadway debut in the one woman showcase, “A Woman of Independent Means” which also subsequently earned her the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award during its tour. Other showcases included “Private Lives”, “Same Time, Next Year”, “The Night of the Iguana” and “Steel Magnolias”.
Barbara Rush still possesses that transcendent beauty, poise and grace. She will always be someone special someone memorable.
Joey Q: Did you ever imagine Jack Arnold’s “It Came from Outer Space” (1953) with you (in that black dress by Rosemary Odell) aiming that laser beam would become so iconic, and leave such a lasting impression on fans and film historians after all these years?
Barbara Rush: A: I’d never think that anybody who saw it needed to see it again, but if it left an impression, that’s fine. I loved the chiffon dress. It was too weird that these people that came from other space were too frightening to look at, so they took the form of regular humans. What I thought was interesting that these creatures didn’t actually want to be there and weren’t vicious at all. They were just trying to fix their ship and get it together. I remember thinking that with a lot of science fiction films; we were so afraid these creatures, but they were just trying to get away and weren’t threatening at all.
Joey Q: Is there a role you would have liked to play — let’s say in a Gothic thriller? Or was there ever a script for one that you turned down that you regret now? Were there any other high quality A-picture science fiction film scripts sent to you after “When Worlds Collide” (1951) and “It Came from Outer Space” (1953)?
Barbara Rush A: I don’t remember anything that was given to me to do other than those two pictures. That was all just orders from the studio. The science fiction film I admired the most was the picture E. T. – I just love that film and it is my favourite, but I never thought it was something I wanted to be in myself.
Joey Q: “The Outer Limits” is one of the most extraordinary anthology television shows of the 1960s. It was clearly ahead of its time, beautifully crafted and though-provoking. You star as the tortured Leonora in the episode “The Forms of Things Unknown” which is perhaps one of THE finest of the series written by Joseph Stefano, all due to the cinematography, lighting, and particularly the ensemble acting. Do you have any lasting impressions or thoughts about that role and/or working with Vera Miles, Cedric Hardwicke, David McCallum, and Scott Marlowe?
Barbara Rush A: I loved doing that show and loved Vera Miles. She was just the most wonderful person to work with. She was so funny. There was a scene where she had to run after me in the forest in the rain. After that miserable experience she told me:”Barbara, I promise you I’ll never chase after you in the rain, in the forest, ever again.” I thought the episode was very interesting, though.
Joey Q: In that same high calibre of dramatic television series, were you ever approached by William Frye, Doug Benton, or Maxwell Shane from Boris Karloff’s “Thriller” series or by Alfred Hitchcock for his anthology series? You would have been extraordinary in either television program! These shows were remarkably well-written and directed and I’m certain there would have been a perfect role for your wonderful acting style. Did you ever receive a script or were you ever interested in appearing on either of those shows?
Barbara Rush A: Unfortunately they didn’t really seem to want me. They never got in touch with me about anything. I would have loved to work for Hitchcock – I liked his films.
Joey Q: It seems that the early 70’s found you a niche in the macabre. Perhaps this is because you are such a consummate actress and the contrast of your gentility works well with the darker subject matter. In 1971 you co-starred with Henry Darrow in a short piece on Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” – “Cool Air.” It was a Gothic romantic tale based on H.P. Lovecraft’s story about a woman who falls in love with a man who must remain in a refrigerated apartment dare something dreadful occur. Then, in 1972 you appeared in “The Eyes of Charles Sands” as Katherine Winslow co-starring Peter Haskell and Joan Bennett, a film about ESP and solving a murder. Then came “Moon of the Wolf” where you co-starred with David Janssen and Bradford Dillman, two very handsome leading men. Did you enjoy venturing into these uncanny story lines?
Barbara Rush A: I particularly enjoyed working with Bradford Dillman, who was a dear friend of mine. We more or less grew up together, in Santa Barbara. In one of these he played a werewolf and he’d have these hairy mittens as part of his costume and he’d come trampling in all the time – as a werewolf! I have a tendency to get very hysterical about how funny people can be, and he’d just make me crack up. We were shooting – I think in New Orleans or Mississippi, somewhere in the south – on location, so it was very hot. Poor Brad who had to walk around in those mittens.
Attended and graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara (1948). She graduated from the Pasadena Playhouse School for Performing Arts in Pasadena, California.
Is mentioned in the movie Shampoo (1975), when hairdresser Warren Beatty says “I do Barbara Rush’s hair”.
Was separated from second husband Warren Cowan in 1969 at the time she learned of first husband Jeffrey Hunter’s sudden death following brain surgery after falling down a flight of stairs.
Appears in No Down Payment (1957) with ex-husband Jeffrey Hunter, they both portraying married characters, but not married to each other.
She is one of five actors to have played “Special Guest Villains” on Batman (1966) who are still alive, the others being Julie Newmar, John Astin, Joan Collins and Glynis Johns.
“I can safely say that every movie role I was ever offered that had any real quality went to someone else.”-Barbara Rush
As Joyce Hendron in When Worlds Collide 1951, as Ellen Fields in It Came from Outer Space 1953 Night Gallery episode as Agatha Howard in ‘Cool Air’ released on December 8, 1971 based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft and The Outer Limits as Leonora Edmond in episode The Form of Things Unknown written by Joseph Stefano released on May 4, 1964, as Karen Lownes in Kraft Suspense Theatre tv series ‘In Darkness, Waiting (1965), as Nora Clavicle and The Ladies’ Crime Club Batman Series 1966, Moon of the Wolf (TV Movie) 1972 as Louise Rodanthe, as Katherine Winslow in The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), The Bionic Woman (TV Series) – Jaime’s Mother (1976) … Ann Sommers / Chris Stuart, 1979 Death Car on the Freeway (TV Movie) as Rosemary
I’ve written enough here at The Last Drive-In, to sort of feel more relaxed about letting it rip sometimes. I’m hoping you’ll indulge me a bit while I go off on a tiny rant… I hope that’s alright…
Michael Winner’s film was a failure at the box office. So what!
You will have undoubtedly read 9 out of 10 reviewers who will make too convenient a statement about The Sentinelbeing a Rosemary’s Baby rip off. In terms of how I experience this film there’s more too it than just a pat dismissal and a flip accusation of being derivative. I had first read Jeffrey Konvitz’s book when it was published in 1974, and then went to the movies to see his adapted screenplay The Sentinelduring it’s theatrical release– I was a ripe 15 year old who was captivated by the grotesque and eerie imagery. I also saw Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 as a double feature with The Mephisto Waltz 1971.
Perhaps there is a conscious connection or homage made by director Winner between the devilish residents of the infamous Bramford Arms with it’s history of murderers and deviants –the facade filmed of New York Cities Dakota with birds eye view of Central Park as Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into their house of Hades in Rosemary’s Baby 1968, perhaps my favorite film.
Alison Parker (Christina Raines) does come in contact with a similar Gothic building filled with oddball characters who wind up being the ghosts of murderers who once lived in the impressive Brownstone. I imagine the gateway to Hell would attract an evil ensemble of nasties. And to counterbalance Alison as the women-in-peril who must fight off the paranoia and heady mind games are the devil and his minions who toy with Alison in order to drive her mad enough to once again try commit suicide. Rosemary Woodhouse has a perseverance to keep her devils at bay and hold onto her precious baby even if he was to carry on his father’s legacy. Either way, it’s both buildings filled with eccentrics and the fog of paranoia that tie the two films together for me, but that’s where it ends.
As an amateur film buff and classic horror film aficionado I think I have some authority when weighing in on whether director Michael Winner’sThe Sentinel is just derivative dreck and/or dribble.
And I discovered that it’s not just the average chimer-in nudnik on IMBd who feel the need to review this film in such a simplistic way that making the comparison to Rosemary’s Baby feels like just a cop out to me.
It is even referred to as such in writer John Kenneth Muir’s entirely comprehensive book Horror Films of the 1970s– citing two film reviews during the time of The Sentinel’s theatrical release…
Look, as far back as it’s theatrical release and the critique was, to lump all ‘devil’ in the city, good vs. evil tropes with the 1968 seminal film by director Roman Polanski based on Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby.
“…a crude and obvious imitation of Rosemary’s Baby, but much creepier and more bizarre. The unnerving ending obliterates the memory of the rest of the film… makes good use of several past-their prime actors in small roles but attempts at psychological insight, subtlety or believability fall flat (it’s a horror story not a autobiographical story of Aimee Semple McPherson for crying out loud… believability.) The great special effects at the end justify the film’s faults however.” Darrell Moore. The Best, Worst and Most Unusual: Horror films, Crowne publishing 1983.
I say to that, we leave believability outside our un-conscious abject fear chamber that is our most hidden dread drenched mind when partaking in a little collective anxiety ridden purge, right Dr. Jung?
And if critic Darrell Moore is talking about Ava Gardner–a gorgeous 55 year old woman is NOT past her prime, I hate when sexism and agism rears it’s ugly head!, I’m heading toward the number, which continually amazes people, I read these kinds of misdirected comments all the time, some critic or person saying ‘she’ looks so good for her age-40ish!, does that imply that Ava and I should be embalmed already? Geesh, but in the words of Sophia Petrillo, I digress…
February 12, 1977 from The New York Times written by Richard Eder—“The confrontations are supposed to be terrifying but the most they offer is some mild creepiness… Mr. Winner has sweetened the mess with some nudity, a little masturbation and a dash of lesbianism.”
Interesting that the one bit of titillation Richard Eder manages to pluck out is the lesbianism. In fact that seems to be of most interest to many reviewers. Well, it’s 2016 and if a lesbian pops up in a film, it’s now about as outmoded and the shock obsolete as the landline and mullets… well I have seen people still sporting mullets.
And I’d like to say there’s more than just mild creepiness, there are absolute moments of mind jolting terror. The exquisite color palette and the eye for detail that supports the sense of mystery such as the fabulous Houdini poster in Michael’s apartment -a center piece in plain sight that one might miss though it is there to instruct us on our journey through the dark maze of the storyline
If anything, the film lies closer in relationship to Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) where another protagonist Trelkovsky portrayed by Polanski himself, is being mentally tortured by a group of people (Shelley Winters, Lila Kedrova and Jo Van Fleet) in his building that may or may not exist ultimately driving him to attempt suicide. The fact that our heroine Alison is driven to madness and suicide by her seemingly harmless yet strange and quirky neighbors, that are actually, unholy denizens of hell definitely evokes comparisons in my mind with Roman Polanski’s equally disturbing THE TENANT (1976).
The fact that the main protagonist is driven to madness and suicide by her seemingly harmless but, actually, unholy tenants brings forth comparisons with Roman Polanski’s equally unappetizing in THE TENANT (1976)
I’d even go as far as to compare directorMichael Winner and writer Jeffrey Konvitz’s film has something of a Alejandro Jodorowsky flavor to it, with the grotesque imagery and surreal processional. Or might have influenced the very hallucinatory Jacob’s Ladder (1990)that deals with a soul’s nightmarish journey through unfathomable realms of consciousness that conjures demons and angels alike.
With The Sentinel some people are fascinated, some are repulsed and some just think The Sentinel is truly a retread of Polanski/Castle’s superior masterpiece.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989)
First off, my impression of classical 70s horror is that it’s hard for that decade to be derivative when it started an entire trend of moody, pseudo-violent social commentary’s that had a limitless freedom to go down an adventurous road. If 70s horror took its cue from older decades and genres, perhaps a nod to Tod Browning, Val Lewton,French New Wave cinema and the surrealists like JeanRenoir and René Clément, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Federico Fellini. But please arm chair critics that spend time comparing a 70s horror gem to a a film without the constructive reasons to support it, or to even hold it up against a contemporary film by saying it lacks a good body count and special effects, I hope I don’t offend thee, but –please!!! You’re out of your element– stick with Saw and films like The Conjuring by James Wan… You don’t understand the 70s decade of horror and it’s unique contribution. Sorry to be so snotty here…
Now it’s even been compared to The Omen (1976) and The Exorcist (1973) as well. I suppose where ever the devil lurks, it’s automatically a Rosemary’s Baby, Exorcist, Omen rip-off. Well… the element of paranoia exists in the film as Alison Parker goes through a nightmarish journey through a maze of surreal events, while she devolves toward her ultimate fate. There are elements of minions from Hell that lurk and groups of diabolical characters that come in and out of Alison’s orbit. And like The Omen and The Exorcist, the film does open up in Italy with a sense of ancient religious underpinnings hinting at the inner workings of the church. It then brings us to a church in New York City where Monsignor Franchino and a colorful group of acolytes convene in a ceremony, with a quick cut to Alison posing in a post-modern sheer black flowing cape as if moving Martha Graham style, a dark looming allegorical winged bird or augury swathed in black like the angel of death.
The juxtaposition of the old and the modern is a nice touch. BUT… that’s where the comparison ends. The film has it’s own unique story. It has been blamed for being too simplistic a story. Okay fine. Perhaps, too many mainstream contemporary narratives have gotten so convoluted and disorienting that a simple plot is not enough. Then again, there’s the complaint that it’s predictable. Well, then don’t watch it, if the journey isn’t worth the end result. Plot holes is another gripe– Well, perhaps during that simplistic story, they weren’t paying attention. The film explains as much as it can, within the visual narrative. And that’s enough…
The Sentinel is perhaps one of the most engrossing, nightmarish, surreal a horror film as any of the 1970s… with it’s origin based on the story of the Garden of Eden and the angel Uriel who was entrusted to guard the entrance from the Devil. Alison Parker (Christina Raines) has been chosen by providence and by lot for her past transgressions, her two suicide attempts–now to be groomed by the secret order of the Catholic church to redeem her damned soul, taking the place of the blind priest Father Halliran and become the new Sentinel, Sister Theresa to guard over the gates of Hell in– Brooklyn Heights.
Dante Alighieri wrote his allegorical epic poem between 1306 and 1321. Virgil is the guide who takes the reader through the author’s examination of the afterlife, which travels through the Inferno (Hell), the Purgatorio (Purgatory), and the Paradiso (Heaven).-source wikipedia
The Sentinel 1977 is another extraordinary occult film whose ambiance benefits from being shot on location in Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan. 10 Montague Terrace in Brooklyn Heights with the Promenade off Remsen Street. The building is still there…
As writer Jack Hunter describes in his chapter Flesh Inferno from Inside Teradome: The Illustrated History of Freak Film he talked about Federico Fellini’s Sartyicon 1969and immediately The Sentinel floods into my mind- —“His vision of Petronius’ ancient Rome, Fellini willfully fills the screen with a succession of grotesqueries, images both beautiful and bestial, ghastly and gorgeous.”
Aesthetically, the scattered surrealism works, because it supports the religious mythology and dark fantasy of the oddball characters and the story. The moody camerawork by Richard C. Kratina and sense of realism within the disorienting story offered by set design Ed Stewart works to create a surreal atmosphere of anxiety and ambivalence. No one will believe that she isn’t just having another emotional crisis. The building reveals its dark origins, the entire film is decorated with dread and kitschy late-seventies embellishments filled with hallucinogenic moments of abject agony (a la Alejandro Jodorowsky and Federico Fellini Satyricon 1969, Juliet of the Spirits 1965) soul tormenting— ominous and sinister visions and flashbacks, profanity, debauchery, cannibilistic malevolent Milton’s Inferno and Dante’s Divine Comedy as archetype and the ‘fallen woman’ as fetish.
Dante’s Inferno is a weary journey emblazoned with fire and perdition… a landscape occupied by devil’s, lost souls and shades.
Divine Comedy opening verse—the plaque in the basement of the brownstone that Michael uncovers reads as follows
“THROUGH ME YOU GO INTO THE CITY OF GRIEF. THROUGH ME YOU GO INTO THE PAIN THAT IS ETERNAL. THROUGH ME YOU GO AMONG PEOPLE LOST… ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.
Now the hint that the brownstone is the gateway to Hell and she has been chosen as the next sentinel to guard over it, as a way of redemption for her past suicide attempt cutting her wrists in a graphically bloody scene while she’s wearing her Catholic girl short plaid skirt white blouse and penny loafers, Mary Janes or black and white saddle shoes. is chosen by a secretive and distant association of Catholic priests to be the next “sentinel” to the gateway to Hell, the idea of blinding these Sentinels is to prevent their eyes to fall upon evil horrors that might induce fear and influence them away from their guardianship. All sentinels had tried to kill themselves, now priests or nuns in the files. They didn’t exist until after their attempted suicides showing up as clergy. Raines’ father is a gnarled, bony old man and he is shown so scrawny as to be suffering from pernicious anemia and putrid bile, his cadaveric screeching mannerisms like a vicious desiccated old buzzard.
Both the operatives of good and the minions of evil, work to try and get her to either take up the mantle of guardian or try to kill herself and become another soul won over by the devil, thwarting the secretive group of the secret sect of the Vatican to protect the gates of Hell from re-opening, watching over her to keep her from being terrorized into another suicide attempt.
Writer Jeffrey Konvitz Produced and wrote the screenplay for the film Directed by Michael Winner (The Nightcomers 1971, The Mechanic 1972, Death Wish 1974) the film was scripted by Jeffrey Konvitz (Silent Night, Bloody Night 1972—-The Stone Killer (1973)) based on his 1974 novel which the film does an excellent job of paying tribute to. The story unfolds beautifully with twists and turns and an extremely creepy and campy bizarre ambience.
Composer Gil Melle created the resplendent orchestral vibe, majestic horn section,haunting woodwinds and resonant strings that cry out. Les Lazarowitz is credited as the sound recordist who creates a sonic landscape of terrifying wails, metallic splashes and waves of dark moody textures.
And Richard C. Kratina (camera work on Midnight Cowboy 1969) worked on the interesting camera angles and cinematography. Costumes and wardrobe by Peggy Farrell, Set Design –Ed Stewart. Film editors Bernard Gibble (The Man in the White Suit 1951) and Terence Rawlings (Our Mother’s House 1967, The Devils 1971, The Great Gatsby 1974, Alien 1979)
Someone on IMBd pointed out that Michael Winner’s audio commentary for the UK DVD spotlights the director regaling you with the tale of how Universal head honcho Ned Tanen rejected Martin Sheen and insisted on Chris Sarandon for the lead only to wonder who was “that awful Greek waiter.”
Director Michael Winner, Chris Sarandon and Christina Raines on the set of The Sentinel 1977 image courtesy of Horrorpedia.
Director Michael Winner caught a lot of flack when it was realized that he had used actual disfigured people who were born with physical disabilities instead of special effects to represent the demons rising up from the bowels of hell. Something that Tod Browning experienced when he released his film Freaks in 1932. Or consider director Erle C. Kenton’s characters adapted from the H.G. Wells story of Island of Lost Souls (1932). Why Tod Browning’s film Freakswas banned for over 30 years, when in retrospect Browning portrayed his ‘freaks’ as sympathetic heroes that we not only saw as very human but empathized with, the accusation that the film was exploitative seems unwarranted.
Dick Smith did the make up which interspersed the real life ‘freaks’ with the make up costumed damned souls from hell. There’s a man who has testicles for a beard, I’d like to know if he was that way real life or created to as one of the denizens to shock. One of the sideshow ‘devils’ also appeared in the Thomas Tryon adapted film directed by Robert Mulligan —the incredibly atmospheric The Other (1972)
With special make up designed by legendary Dick Smith who also worked on The Exorcist 1973and music by Gil Melle special effects by Albert Whitlock (The Birds 1963,Earthquake 1974, a few episodes of Star Trek,The Thing 1982, a few episodes of Star Trek) additional Make up by-Robert Laden—although people with real facial deformities were also utilized… -a whole crowd of real-life freaks and disabled extras as the denizens of hell. real-life freaks (some of whom are said to have also featured in Jack Cardiff’s THE MUTATIONS .
Without giving away a few secrets, I can say that the climax is riveting as the devils and damned start to pour out of Hell, unleashed by Chazen at their side.
As John Kenneth Muir aptly puts it, about the controversial use of real life people with actual deformities to plays Hellish monstrosities “it is no doubt the strongest in the film, “The idea of physical deformity (i.e.”evil”) is one of The Sentinel’s more powerful conceits.”
The Sentinel is one of the most definitive horror films of the 1970s decade. The cast of characters, and the story-line, the imagery and the intensity play out like a grim yet colorful nightmare, without shock value for the sake of just being graphically violent. I do have a bit of an uncomfortable time watching a certain scene with Beverly D’Angelo as Sandra who performs a sexual act on herself while Sylvia Miles goes to get the tea, in order to shock and upset Alison. I wish the scene had been more suggested and toned down, it still would have served its purpose. I understand that the idea was to be vulgar and offensive in order to express how profane these characters were to develop but it makes my skin crawl to watch it, as it’s only moments it seems to last forever until the look of ecstasy and climax washes over the beautiful actresses face. This is an extremely awkward moment for Alison and a very unusual welcome to the building to watch the couple fondle each other in their leotards and wild teased out coiffed hair.
Charles Chazen matter of fact tells Alison as he points with his own flamboyant style “This is where the lesbians live,”and exchanges like Alison asking Gerde “What do you do for a living?” She answers “We fondle each other.”
I suppose in 1977 even the allusion to the idea that lured and sexually explosive lesbians existed on screen was in itself a titillating and provocative notion, today the use of them as a ‘fetish taboo symbol” has lost its luster to shock and tantalize..
Christina Rainesplays a young model with an afflicted soul –Alison Parker. Her boyfriend is portrayed by Chris Sarandon as the smarmy mustachioed sketchy Lawyer who was marvelous as Leon -Sonny (Al Pachino’s) lover who wants a sex change so bad, Sonny’s willing to rob a bank for the money–it’s a true story also set in NYC of course I’m talking director Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Sarandon apparently was not happy with the film post production.
Then there’s José Ferrer as a “Priest of the Brotherhood”Arthur Kennedy as Monseigneur Franchino , the magnificent Ava Gardner in a short cameo is sophisticated and outré Vogue as Realtor Miss Logan who I believe to be literally an ‘outside’ agent in the true sense of the word, working for the secret Catholic society trying to strategically ensure that Alison will be in place and ready to take over as the Sentinel because on the appointed date Father Halliran (John Carradine) who is now fading psychically too weak to uphold his task as Guardian over the Gates of Hell will need a successor. John Carradine looks decrepit and spooky with his fixed gaze and staring off white eyeballs, and although he has a distinctive voice we all love, he has no dialogue in the film which works.
Burgess Meredith -Ebullient, mischievous and intellectually charming, a little impish, a dash of irresolute cynicism wavering between lyrical sentimentalism. He’s got this way of reaching in and grabbing the thinking person’s heart by the head and spinning it around in dazzling circles with his marvelously characteristic voice. A mellifluous tone which was used often to narrate throughout his career. Meredith has a solicitous tone and whimsical, mirthful manner.
And his puckish demeanor hasn’t been missed considering he’s actually played Old Nick at least three times as I have counted. In The Sentinel 1977, The Twilight Zone episode Printers Devil and Torture Garden 1967. He also played a malevolent character along side Eileen Heckert as Arnold and Roz Allardyce in Dan Curtis’ equally creepy Burnt Offerings (1976).
While in Freddie Francis’ production he is the more carnivalesque Dr. Diabolo–a facsimile of the devil given the severely theatrical make-up, goatee and surrounding flames… he is far more menacing in Michael Winner’s 70s non humorous gem he’s splendid as the spiffy little eccentric cultivated Charles Chazen.
Veteran supportive actor Martin Balsam the scatterbrained scholar, Professor Ruzinsky, who translates the Latin passages into English for Michael Lerman, Beverly D’Angelo plays Gerde’s girlfriend Sandra a mute pixie, the guttural Sylvia Miles (Murder Inc 1960,Naked City 1961-1963, Midnight Cowboy 1969) plays Gerde the guttural pythoness who adds that bit of titillation everyone seems to like to point out, as they are vulgarian Lesbian ballerinas lazing in their leotards.
And of course the uncomfortable scene where Beverly D’Angelo delightedly pleasures herself in front of Alison while Gerde is getting the tea. When she comes back with the tray and finds Alison getting up to scram -Gerde replies like a Diva “It’s very rude to drink and run” I particularly loved this description of the classic actress- “featuring predatory Teutonic lesbian Sylvia Miles.” I just adore both actresses!
Fred Stuthman who has appeared on more television and theatrical features than you can imagine plays Alison’s horrible, skeletal, degenerate father and an even more repulsive looking damned soul, blueish toned, white eyeballed phantasmagorical corpse.
Eli Wallach plays the sarcastic cynical New York City homicide Detective Gatz who has believed in the guilt of Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) who has some secrets and sins in his life meaning he might have killed his first wife. Jerry Orbach plays a director of commercials Alison is working on. Jeff Goldblum plays Jack a fashion photographer.Tom Berenger, the wonderful William Hickey plays the a professional safe cracker Perry that Michael (knowing his share of shady characters and criminals as he’s a defense lawyer) hires to break into the church and grab the files on Father Halliran , and Christopher Walken as Rizzo, Detective Gatz’s partner, who utters this telling line “She went to a party with eight dead murderers” and Deborah Raffin plays Alison’s best friend Jennifer. Hank Garrettplays Brenner the private investigator Michael hires to dig into the back story about Father Halliran and the involvement with the Catholic church.
Kate Harrington plays Mrs. Clark who was at Jezabel’s birthday party and appears in the mug shot that Gatz and Rizzo look at. She murdered her boyfriend violently. Then there’s the Clotkin sisters, Lillian and Emma played by Jane Hoffman and Elaine Shore murderous cannibals and hedonists. All the neighbors become menacing, and nothing is as it appears on the surface. The decorated apartments, wind up being revealed as vacant shells in disrepair.
Christina Raines (The Duelist 1977, Nashville 1975) plays an afflicted soul–Alison Parker a high fashion model in New York City who also does shampoo commercials, who lives with but can’t make a commitment to her boyfriend lawyer Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) She craves her independents and holds Michael’s proposal’s of marriage at bay. Soon after an argument with Michael about moving out on her own Alison gets word that her father has passed away at her family home in Baltimore, which triggers memories of her childhood trauma, leading to her first suicide attempt. After the funeral she returns to the city and finds an advertisement for a lovely Brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.
So goes to meet with the chic Realtor Miss Logan (the voluptuous Ava Gardner) unaware that she is being followed by a priest. She finds that the apartment is unbelievably reasonable for a New York rental which is owned by the Catholic church —She agrees to take the place from Miss Logan who obviously wants Alison to move in, dropping it’s price from $500 to $400 as if Alison heard it wrong the first time she complained that it was out of her price range — “I can’t afford $500.” Alison says, with which Miss Logan misses no time in saying ”$400 is not excessive.”
… The beautiful layout is in Brooklyn Heights right across the water from Manhattan, decorated with gorgeous Gothic furniture, high ceilings and ivy growing up the sides of the building and a blind priest Father Francis Matthew Halliran (John Carradine), who just sits and appears to be looking out the window on the top floor. Although the Brownstone was a steal, and furnished as well, somehow it managed to be lensed by Dick Kratina with a sense of eerie and dangerous foreboding.
Alison’s response to learning that occupant of the top floor is Father Halliran a blind priest “Blind? Then what does he look at?”
Once she moves in, she starts to meet very odd and mysterious tenants who begin to give her the pip and the whim whams. First she meets the droll little character in 4B Charles Chazen…
Alison’s sense of independence starts to deteriorate after a series of disturbing events. Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith — or the little dapper ‘devil’) is played to the hilt by wonderful character actor Burgess Meredith who runs rampant with his nifty asides and axioms, who has a sovereign reign over his legion of “devils.”
The door bell rings. The animated little puck like old man, which a yellow parakeet on his shoulder and tuxedo cat in his arms flashes his delightful smile at Alison…
“Chazen is the name Charles Chazen. I’m your neighbor in 4B and this is Mortimer. Um he’s from Brazil. And this on the other hand so to speak… this is Jezebel. Say hello to that nice lady Jezebel. (Meowww) That’s it darling. She’s got indigestion.” Alison introduces herself, “Well hi I’m Alison.” Charles Chazen-“Really, may we uh, (he enters her apartment) oh! what a lovely apartment. Absolutely lovely.” Alison-“I was wondering when I was going to meet my new neighbors.” Charles Chazin-“My, you’re so pretty. Haven’t I seen you before, on television? Now don’t tell me I know you’re in a ” Alison answers – “I’ve done some tv commercials.” Charles Chazen responds unenthusiastic– “Oh… really, I thought you were an actress…[…] Oh my dear your taste is impeccable. I wish you’d help me redecorate my poor place someday would you, hum?…Were you waiting to go out?” Alison- “I’m waiting for a friend.” Charles Chazen-“Ahh well, friendships often blossom into bliss as they say, and speaking of bliss Mortimer loves his belly rubbed would you..” Alison-“Do you know any of our neighbors” Charles Chazen-“Yes I know all of our neighbors and they’re very nice, except that priest who lives above me, he’s a… (waving his hands dismissively) well however he’s quiet most of the time.”
Charles Chazen leaves a picture in a gold frame on her fireplace mantle, leaving with her some mirthful advice, “remember you eat and drink in moderation my dear.”
Alison also meets the lesbians Gerde and Sandra…
As soon as she moves into the building her sleep is disturbed by loud footsteps and clanging sounds that make the chandelier swing back and forth. Alison meets the Realtor to find out more about the neighbors in her building, in particular the person occupying the floor above her, as their heavy footsteps and loud banging kept her up all night.
Alison goes to inquire about the tenants and the person who occupies the apartment above her telling Miss Logan about the noises that kept her up all night. Logan is shocked to hear about this as the only tenants in the building are supposed to be Alison and the blind priest, the only tenants who have inhabited the building for years. Alison is disturbed by this news and returns home to find that Mr.Chazen’s apartment is truly vacant and the dust tells the story that it’s been sorely neglected by time.
“My dear Miss Parker aside from the priest and now of course you, nobody has lived in that building for three years.”
Miss Logan and Alison take a cab back after having the conversation in the cafe about being kept up all night by someone making so much of a ruckus on the floor above her. Monsignor Franchino stands behind the blind priest his hand grasping a cobweb covered statue baring an insignia ring belonging to their secret sect, he tells Father Hilliran “I am here holy father I have come so that you may shed your burden in peace.” and Alison takes Miss Logan through the apartment building, showing her vacant furnished rooms that looked cob webbed and dust covered as if it has been neglected for years. Alison informs Miss Logan –“This is where the lesbians live.”- Miss Logan hands Alison the keys dropping them into her hands with a gesture of skepticism before she opens the door.- Miss Logan handing Alison the keys- “Be my guest.”
the continual shot of the stairs leading upward seem symbolic of spiritual ascension and the death journey of the soul as in the story of Jacobs Ladder.
As Alison and Miss Logan begin to walk around the room she tells her that the furniture was different in there before. “Oh come now Miss Parker these pieces have not been touched in years.” Miss insists that she has to get back to the office, but Alison takes her to 4B where Charles Chazin lives, staring out the window she sings to herself, “Happy Birthday dear Jezebel… believe it or not, I attended a birthday party here last night… for a cat.”Miss Logan smiles with a superior air“Sorry I missed it.”
Then Alison urges Miss Logan to let her into Father Halliran’s apartment as she wants to see the old priest, but she tells Alison that it would be highly improper. The priest is taken care of by The Diocesen Council of New York sees to his needs. Monsignor Franchino breathing a sigh of relief that Miss Logan hasn’t let Alison into the priests apartment.
We then see Alison on a commercial shoot where she has her first fainting spell, begins to suffer from severe migraines, begins looking pale as death.
Charles Chazen throws as sort of a welcoming party for Alison and introduces her to the rest of the odd tenants in the odd old building.
He invites Alison to the birthday party he is throwing for his black and white cat Jezebel, before he takes her inside to meet the guests, he blindfolds her with a red scarf. Jezebel is a perfectly delicious name for a devil’s cat. “Black and White cat… black and white cake…”-quoted by the murderess Mrs. Clark -Jezebel the tuxedo cat wears a pointed birthday hat with streamers at the top, very slick element to the quirkiness of the ghostly damned tenants.
Later on that night Alison hears more clamorous noises from the floor above her apartment which is supposed to be vacant. Alison starts to experience weird happenings in the apartment as well as her health starts to deteriorate as she begins getting striking headaches, looking paler, anemic and practically deathly.
Michael is becoming concerned for Alison’s safety and hires a private investigator James Brenner (Hank Garrett) to keep an eye on her.
We experience her past by way of flashback. Alison has a history of emotional distress, two suicide attempts, once as a teenager, after she saw her father’s sexual antics— a bacchanalian orgy— explicit menage a trios scene with assumed ladies of ill repute and then some time after Michael’s wife apparently committed suicide though detective Gatz (Eli Wallach) has been daunting him since it happened, believing Michael had something to do with her untimely death and it might turn out to be murder!
Alison’s strained relationship with her creepy philandering father who used to bring prostitutes home to the house and gallivant around the house with them, when Alison comes home from catholic school and finds them cavorting with cake and wine… In a protest to her religious schooling Alison’s father rips her silver crucifix from her neck and tosses it on the floor. She quickly runs to the bathroom and slices her wrists.
Since her past childhood trauma, her connection with religion and failed suicide attempts, she leaves her faith and the Catholic church behind.
Alison chases phantoms all through the building like Alice in Wonderland. It is more than mildly creepy as written, it is all out frightening as hell, and still is…
That night begins the first of horrifying visions that assault Alison’s world. Visions of her decrepit father who lurks and lunges in the shadows. Armed with a butcher knife and a flashlight she decides to go investigate the vacant apartment above her. When she sees him!
She is suddenly smack in the middle of a nightmarish sequence as she encounters the specter of her father, a ghoulish corpse, lensed with quick cuts to project an eerie type of movement by the phantom who spurts from behind the bedroom door of the apartment upstairs first hidden in shadow then walking quickly without an awareness of her presence at first, then he appears to come after her prompting her to slash at him with her knife, the blood sputtering out of the bluish corpse.
Slashing at her father’s ghost, she runs screaming out into the night blood splashed across her white slip, as people gather around her. Detective Gatz questions Michael the next day. Michael puffs on his Italian cigarette, “This isn’t police business”Detective Gatz “A girl running through the street at 4am saying she’s knifed her father, blood on her, that’s police business.” he shrugs staring out the window. He gives Michael Lerman a dig, making a comment an inappropriate hand gesture about his wife’s supposes suicide plunging off the Brooklyn Bridge. “The mistress of the bereaved husband took an overdose… but lived.”
Alison is resting at the hospital unable to respond for quite as she’s been drugged to keep her calm. Back at the police station Det. Gatz is discussing the case with Rizzo “She’s in the hospital blurbing about neighbors that don’t exist… except one, a priest, and he wouldn’t know if the building burnt down.”
Yet another theme has been developing that of paranoia and the protagonist experiencing alienation and disbelief by everyone surrounding her.
An un-credited Joe Hamer plays the detective who recognizes Anna Clark’s name. “It’s funny I know that name from somewhere.” Gatz tells him it’s one of the invisible neighbors. Cut to a book with crime history filled with murderers and a photograph headlining the infamous Anna Clark. Michael shows Alison the photo and ask if she’s seen that face before. “That’s Anna Clark she was at Charles Chazen’s birthday party.” Michael reads, “Mrs. Anna Clark convicted murderess, sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing March 27, 1949 for the murder of her lover and his wife.” Jennifer takes the book from Michael and continues reading “when he refused to leave his wife, she chopped them up in bed with an axe… charming.”
The quality in terms of how powerful The Sentinelholds up to a big production like The Omen or the vastly mimicked but never successfully redone William Peter Blatty /Director William Friedkin’s striking masterwork that isThe Exorcist, The Sentinel is a self contained little jewel that must be seen through a very warped kaleidoscope of horrors. It’s tropes of good vs evil, secret religions sects, and the devil in the city exists for sure, but it’s bursts of horrors from the Id and unsavory characters create a world inhabited by a different set of innocents, angels and demons.
Perhaps the most startling vision in the film aside from the climactic ending which as said I won’t reveal here, is the moment her cadaveric father lurks behind her bedroom door hidden at first by shadow, in an almost paused moment in time, as if appearing from another realm, his movements otherworldly and alien, as she recognizes this ghoulish apparition as her recently deceased bastard of a father. I know it still rattles me to this day. It’s a gruesome scene as she stabs at his face, glazed over whitened fish like eyeballs and deathly comatose stare she thrusts away slashing at him with a large butcher knife.
The night she sees the ghost of her father she also has a lucid vision of killing her recently deceased father by slicing into his face, cutting an eyeball (the surrealist short Un Chien Andalou 1929) and cutting his ghoulish blue nose off!
They find Brenner’s body dumped in a land fill, with the exact wounds described by Alison claiming she inflicted on her father. They also find Alison’s file and Michael’s name in Brenner’s office, connecting them to his murder.
She goes to Church and seeks out counsel from the priest who has been secretly trailing her the entire time. Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy) tells her that it’s time to ‘embrace Christ’ and that the lord has a purpose for her.
Alison goes to church and lights a candle and prays. Monsignor Franchino who has been secretly trailing her comes to her side, he tells her that it’s time to ’embrace Christ’, “You came to be heard.”
What winds up being revealed is that Alison really killed Brenner and not the apparition of her father, it was the private Brenner hired by Michael. Detective Gatz and Rizzo. (Wallach and Walken) make connections between Michael Lerman, his hysterical girlfriend and now two murders, seem to link them all together some how. During her waking nightmare, running out into the dark streets collapsing in her scant white nighty drenched in her own blood, holding the knife, she is now suspected of murder along with her boyfriend the sleazy attorney Michael Lerman.
Drawing attention to herself by screaming out in the streets all blood soaked leads police detective Gatz (Eli Wallach) and partner Rizzo (Christopher Walken) to investigate both Michael and Alison with certainty that it all somehow leads back to Michael Lerman’s first wife who supposedly killed herself. Detective Gatz has an eternal hate on for this hot-shot lawyer who once showed him up in court regarding the whole wife’s suicide. That case is really a motivating factor is Detective Gatz’s dogged approach to finding out whose blood was really on Christina and if Michael Lerman has anything to do with it. Alison is taken to the hospital that night.
While the police do some investigating from the descriptions and names of the party guests Alison gives them. The cops uncover that one of her ‘imagined’ party guests and supposed neighbor is Anna Clark , a murderess who went to the electric chair for chopping up her boyfriend and his wife with an axe.
Michael starts to believe that Alison is experiencing some kind of uncanny paranormal phenomena, when she returns home he begins to quiz her randomly pulling out books from the shelf of the vacant apartment 4B… As he shows her pages, she begins to fluently read Latin phrases though it appears to her as being written in English. Of course Michael is suspicious of Father Halliran mysterious blind priest on the top floor. When he tries to question him, there is no answer and the door is locked.
Back at the brownstone she shows Michael the vacant apartment, pulling select books off the bookcase, “The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendahl, Techniques of Torture by Illard.. you’ll like this one for variety, all the pages are the same.”Michael, “Alison there’s nothing strange about this book.”“What do you mean?”“All the pages are different.”“All the pages are the same… all of them!”“Alison either one of us is lying or one of us is seeing something that isn’t there now, tell me what do you see in this book” She slams the book closed… and insists “Latin, I see nothing but Latin, everything in there is Latin” Michael takes a pen out of his pocket and tells Alison to write down exactly what she sees. Michael points with his finger, words like “Though the Church and superstitious” Alison begins to write down what she sees-“TIBI SORTU…” etc. “Jesus Alison you really are seeing Latin.”
They try to get inside Father Halliran’s apartment, but the lock has been changed.
Michael then takes the translation to the dotty absent minded Professor Ruzinsky (Martin Balsam) “You know when you phoned I thought you had a serious problem something challenging. A few word more and I’ll have it Eldridge” Michael corrects him, “It’s Lerman, Michael Lerman”Ruzinsky agrees, “Yes, Eldridge Lerman… there we are, well, -‘to thee thy course by lot is given charge and strict watch that to this happy place no evil thing approach or enter it.’-“
“It’s been a long time Mr. Lawyer you take a high chance.”
“William O’Roarke Father Halliran William O’Roarke disappeared July 12, 1952 after attempted suicide. “Perry-(Hickey) says “They’re the same man. William O’Roarke became a priest named Halliran.”“Yes but why?” Perry shrugs-“I just open doors” Michael digs through each file expounding-“Before Halliran there was Father David Spinetti,who started life as Andrew Carter declared missing, Carter reappeared as Spinetti and died the day that Halliran started life as a priest. Before him Mary Thorne becomes Sister Mary Angelica. All of these people going back for years lived ordinary lives and then became priests or nuns. All of them sometime or another… attempted suicide…. […] if these files are right Father Matthew Halliran dies the same day that Alison Parker disappears and becomes Sister Theresa.” (insert sweeping Gil Melle style strings…)
So he hires offbeat character actor William Hickey as Perry the safe cracker and ace lock picker to break into the Diocese and lift the files on the quiet Father Halliran. Before becoming a priest, he too had tried to commit suicide, just like Alison. Michael also finds a file on Alison Parker who is next in line to become Sister Theresa who is due to take over– tomorrow!
This as writer John KennethMuir brings out how it begs the question about redemption, does Alison have free will? Was she chosen by God to be a servant or did her fall from grace, her suicide attempt cause her to owe her life to Christ?
Detective Gatz –“Rebecca and Malcolm Stinnet, Sandra (Narcotics Addict) Gerde Ingstrom, Emma and Lillian Clotkin, Anna Clark, all people the Parker girl said she met.”Rizzo-“All killers all dead. She went to a party with 8 dead murderers.” Gatz heartily replies- “Doesn’t everybody?”
Michael goes on to investigate further, rummaging around the old brownstone he finds a boarded up plague in the basement that tells the opening saga of Dantes Divine Comedy revealing that the building has been built over the portal to Hell and the lost souls who wander there. Michael finally goes up the stairs to confront Father Halliran strangling him to death then he himself is struck down by an unseen figure in the shadows who cracks him over the head with a religious statue.
When Alison returns home, she finds Michael there, who proceeds to explain that she has been daunted by ‘devils’ and that she is to be the next Sentinel.
And this is where I will leave off…
The ending is a grotesque morality pageant that might terrify or even offend certain people, but if you’re willing to investigate a rare 70s horror story with a dark atmosphere and a visual journey into darker realms… dare enter!
John Kenneth Muir Horror Films of the 1970s “Seventies films such as Frenzy (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) were also more explicit, and far more intense, than previous horror productions had been. This was a result of the “new freedom” in cinema to freely depict graphic violence and bloodletting and a shift to the paradigm of existential ‘realism’ over the romantic ‘supernatural.’” continuing Muir writes “Seizing on this spiritual doubt and vulnerability was another blockbuster movie trend of the 1970s, the religious horror film. The Exorcist (1973), Beyond the Door (1975), The Omen (1976), and The Sentinel (1977) and many more that found stark terror in the concept of that the Devil was real, and that mankind’s eternal would was in jeopardy from demonic possession and the Antichrist, among other iconic boogeyman”
A term used called it ‘savage cinema’ and was unique to the 70s although not much anymore since the rising of the ‘torture porn’ movement.
The climax has very disturbing imagery, not unlike a parade of oddities and gruesome atrocities you’d see in a Jodorworsky (El Topo 1970, Santa Sangre 1989 or nightmarishly gory visions of hell from Lucio Fulci.
Once again from Muir’s book he at least insightfully makes the connection between The Exorcist 1973 and The Omen 1976 by endowing the type of good vs evil films coming out of the 70s as they “set forth a conspiracy in the Church, a kind of possession by evil, the corruption of the innocent,and other common elements of 1970s Hollywood supernatural flicks. The Sentinel is not as powerful a film as either The Omen or The Exorcist, but it does feature some startling moments and is a solid horror film despite an overload of clichés. The film’s greatest power comes in its jolting, surprising revelations.”
This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying I’ll be standing watch all night long on Halloween, wishing you and yours a happy and healthy candy binge!
Aired December 11, 1973 as an ABC Movie of the Week
“Beware the seal of Kah-ub-set, for he who dares to remove it will open the gates of Hell.”
The Cat Creature was directed by horror film icon Curtis Harrington— Night Tide (1961), Queen of Blood (1966), Games (1967), How Awful About Allan (1970) tv movie, What’s the Matter with Helen (1971), Whoever Slew Auntie Roo (1972), The Killing Kind (1973), Killer Bees (1974) tv movie, The Dead Don’t Die (1975) tv movie also directed by Curtis Harrington, Ruby (1977), Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978) tv movie.
The Cat Creaturewas scripted by Robert Bloch based on a story by producers Douglas S. Cramer , Wilfred Lloyd Baumes and writer Bloch himself.
From Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood written by Curtis Harrington -he talks about how different television executives’ mind-set for tele-films are than major motion picture executives.
Director/writer Curtis Harrington master at ‘horror of personality’
“I found out just how different on a television movie called The Cat Creature. The script was written by Robert Bloch, based on an old story he’d published in Weird Tales. In fact, he was one of the horror writers I had discovered in the pages of Weird Tales during my teen years in Beaumont. It was a nice pulpy story about a girl who is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian cat goddess. In casting the actress to play the modern incarnation of this beautiful goddess, I got my first nasty taste of TV executive thinking. I discovered that this new set of black suits was always very involved in the casting of leading roles in the network TV drama. Unlike movie executives whose primary interest was ‘box office appeal’ they were concerned with something they called TVQ” This meant the ratings the stars other television appearances had received. The connection between a star’s suitability for a role meant absolutely nothing, and this was the case of The Cat Creature… […] I recalled that Egyptian women supposedly used henna to dye their black hair red, so we put a dark red wig on Meredith Baxter, and she agreed to darken her eyes with green contact lenses… […] Bloch had written an important supporting role, the proprietor of a magic shop, for a man. I suggested that he rewrite the role for a woman and that we try to get Gale Sondergaard for the part. Sondergaard was an actress I remembered vividly from my childhood. She had been memorable as the sinister Oriental [sic] woman in The Letter and in the title role of The Spider Woman, a Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes adventure in 1937…
“I had wanted the proprietress of the occult shop to be played as a lesbian to lend a bit of spice to the show. But Standards and Practices , the office of the network devoted to removing any element to a script that might offend Mrs. Grundy, sent a memo after that there must be ‘NO SUGGESTION WHATSOEVER THAT THIS CHARACTER IS A LESBIAN.’ However, my natural propensity toward subversion was given its due when Douglas Cramer allowed me to add a dwarf hooker to a scene in a cheap hotel where Stuart Whitman as the detective interview John Carradine, who plays the hotel clerk. The dwarf lady of the evening is shown seated on the counter in the hotel lobby. Swinging her short legs and batting her eyelashes, she says to Stuart, “How’s tricks, baby!” This was left in, and Cramer was very pleased when the incident was singled out for comment in a New York Times review of the show. It wasn’t the sort of thing they were used to seeing in the bland medium of television.”
An estate appraiser Frank Lucas (Kent Smith) comes to catalogue a private collection of Egyptian relic, the inventory at an estate –among the deceased’s possessions is an Egyptian mummy adorned with splendid regalia –wearing a large amulet around it’s neck and topped the golden head of the cat Goddess Bast.
Just to be clear as a person who worships cats–The story of The Cat Creature is a creation for a horror tele-play that has no foundation in historical fact. Bast was not a murderous cat nor an evil deity. Bast represents protection and is a sacred symbol of that protection toward cats… She is not a monster!
The uniting Egyptian cultures had deities that shared similar roles and usually the same imagery. In Upper Egypt, Sekhmet was the parallel warrior lioness deity. Often similar deities merged into one with the unification, but that did not occur with these deities having such strong roots in their cultures. Instead, these goddesses began to diverge. During the 22nd Dynasty (c. 945–715 BC), Bast had transformed from a lioness warrior deity into a major protector deity represented as a cat. Bastet, the name associated with this later identity, is the name commonly used by scholars today to refer to this deity.
Shortly after Lucas leaves, a thief Joe Sung played by Keye Luke steals the amulet, the mummy disappears setting off a series of uncanny events and several mysterious murders. Frank Lucas is found dead and Lt. Marco (Stuart Whitman) calls in Prof. Roger Edmonds (David Hedison) as an expert to help identify the missing amulet. Joe Sung tries to pawn this ancient amulet at The Sorcerers Shop an occult shop owned and run by Hester Black (Gale Sondergaard). After Black’s young salesgirl is murdered in the same fashion as Frank Lucas, she hires a new girl to work in her shop. Enter, Rena Carter (Meredith Baxter) who gets pulled into the mysterious happenings and begins a romance with Prof. Edmonds.
The strange killings show the victims all baring the marks of a giant cat attack, as if they’ve been clawed to death. Is it the resurrection of the Goddess Bast who is committing these murders?
This ABC Movie of the Week, showcases the actress whose popularity was rising at that time, Meredith Baxter, who plays the mysterious Rena Carter who may be somehow involved in these strange ritual killings. David Hedison plays Prof. Roger Edmonds an archeologist who is called upon by the detective on the case, Lt. Marco (Stuart Whitman) to assist him in solving the murders. Just a note… I am absolutely crazy about Stuart Whitman, down the road I plan on doing a feature on his work –his credits too long to mention, so see the link to IMBd, I also really want to do a feature on the incredibly mesmerizing actress of the 70sBarbara Parkinswho appears in another ABC Movie of the Week Snatched that I’ll be covering in just a bit…
Prof. Roger Edmonds-“Marco is on his way here to arrest you”
Rena Carter “What!”
Prof. Roger Edmonds-“Don’t you see Everything about you adds to Marcos’ suspicious no previous address no social security number A girl who covers her tracks A girl who stops at the shop not by accident but with deliberate purpose. Marcos thinks that you destroyed everyone who stood between you and that amulet.”
Another bonus of this creepy tele-film is that it co-stars the wonderful Gale Sondergaard. as Hester Black the occult shop owner.
In an interview actor David Hedison commented, “All in all, it was a very happy experience. Meredith was a joy to work with, and a fine human being. Stuart Whitman and I talked and laughed a lot about our early contract days at 20th Century Fox in the late 1950s and 1960s. And of course, Gale was a lovely woman and shared so many wonderful memories with me about her early films. And I should add that all the felines behaved beautifully–even in one of the more violent scenes with me at the end of the film. I managed to escape without a scratch!” –“One other memory was of the first screening of the film before it aired. There was a small invited audience at a screening room on the lot. My wife, Bridget, had not read the script or seen any of the shooting, and at one point when the Cat Creature suddenly jumps out to attack, she got such a fright she let out a scream- much to the delight of the producers and director”
From Television Fright Films of the 1970s by David Deal-“here he (Curtis Harrington) successfully recreates the moody thrillers of Val Lewton of the 1940s. Relying on creepy atmosphere and suspense.”
Deal points out one of the prevailing great elements of The Cat Creature, it’s fabulous casting of course Stuart Whitman who is a tremendous actor, his appearances go all the way back to the early uncredited 50s classics like When Worlds Collide (1951) and Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Whitman was nominated for an Academy Award for his startling performance in The Mark 1961, as a tormented man dealing with his repulsive impulse to molest children and his ultimate redemption. It was a risky role, that he inhabited with dignity and pathos. A prolific supportive actor and leading man he appeared in Cimarron Strip tv series from 1967-1968. One of my favorite films of his Shock Treatment (1964) was another powerfully nuanced portrayal of Dale Nelson an actor who is paid to infiltrate a mental hospital to expose a crazy psychiatrist Edwina Beighly played by the silky and sly Lauren Bacall. Stuart Whitman has appeared in stinkers too, like Night of the Lepus (1972) about giant mutant bunnies, eh not so much… in Jonathon Demme’s Crazy Mama 1975with Cloris Leachman, and a very slick Italian cop thriller called Shadows in an Empty Room aka Blazing Magnums (1976). And since we’re celebrating these ‘tele-fright’ films of the 70s let’s just mention his other supporting roles, he plays a psychic looking for a missing husband in Revenge! (1971) with Shelley Winters as a deranged mother who lost her daughter and The Woman Hunter (1972).
David Hedison of course was popular with horror fans for his campy over-the top performance as a altruistic scientist who loses his head over his discovery to transport matter in the fantastical classic Sci-Fi hit, The Fly 1958(which is part of my series to follow Keep Watching the Skies -coming up The Year is 1953) starred in the hit television show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964)
The supporting cameos are such a treat! Seeing Gale Sondergaard who is terrific as the occult shop owner Hester Black who while reading Professor Edmonds his tarot cards gets into a battle of the wills between skepticism and fanaticism. Sondergaard received the first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Anthony Adverse (1936) I adore her as Emily in the Abbott & Costello romantic comedy The Time of Their Lives (1946) even then she was open to the spirit world! Sondergaard was one of the unfortunate actors who were targeted by HUAC, brought before them she refused to testify and was blacklisted from the industry for over 20 years. She returned in 1969, and The Cat Creature was her first ‘tele-fright’ (as writer David Deal puts it) of the 1970s.
The Deputy Coroner (Milton Parsons) looks like a corpse himself, just one of the macabre details that Harrington likes to throw into his ‘horror of personality’ films and teleplays.
The busy working actor Kent Smith has appeared in so many film and television supportive roles. Best known by horror fans for his roles in Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat people (1944)
Here he plays Frank Lucas the cat creature’s first victim. Ironic isn’t it! His other tele-frights include director Curtis Harrington’s How Awful About Allan (1970) starring Anthony Perkins, Julie Harris and Joan Hackett. He was also in The Night Stalker (1972) and The Disappearance of Flight 412 (1974). One of my all time favorites, is the lovable, ubiquitous the theatrical acrobat likes of Burgess Meredith who could inhabit the role from vagabond to thespian at times quixotic poetic tongued –the sharp, and saturnine character actor John Carradine who plays the manager of a sleazy hotel clerk. Carradine can make the smallest part enormously unforgettable and has graced many a tele-fright– Crowhaven Farm (1970), The Night Strangler ((1973) and Death at Love House (1976) Next to Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, I have such a sweet tooth for John Carradine and he’s another icon I’d love to feature here at The Last Drive In.
From David Deal’s terrific Television Fright Films of the 1970s a movie of the week companion –“Charlie Chan’s number one son Keye Luke is the amulet thief in his only telefright appearance of the decade but most curious is Peter Lorre Jr. who appears as a dying pawn broker Lorre Jr. was really German born Eugene Weingand a notorious imposter who was once taken to court by Lorre for using his name. Lorre died before his case against Weingand was settled, allwoing the impersonation to continue. Relative newcomer but top billed Meredith Baxter was fresh off the Bridget Loves Bernie sitcom and would soon marry her co-star David Birney, where she would heifeenate her name and has become a fixture to television.”
Composer Leonard Rosenman is responsible for the score, he has won Oscars and Emmys for his compelling music, for instance Fantastic Voyage (1966), A Man Called Horse (1970) Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)Race with the Devil (1975), Bound for Glory (1976) and supplied the poignant music for the dark disturbing psychological mini-series starring Sally Field–Sybil (1976). He also added his music to other tele-fright films such as Vanished (1971) The Phantom of Hollywood (1974) and The Possessed (1977) starring wonderful supporting actress of the 1970s Joan Hackett.
Though I am a huge fan of the directors body of work, I have to look away from Harrington’s predilection to either kill off cats or make them look sinister in his films, so avoid The Killing Kind (1973)with Ann Southern or if you love rabbits lets not forget the poor bunnies in Whats The Matter With Helen (1971).
Also the sound the cat creature makes doesn’t sound anything like a growling menacing cat, it sounds like an old man who smokes too many cigars and needs to spit up his oatmeal and prunes.
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc and screenplay written by writer/director Collin Higgin’s whose credits include the cult film starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon and one of my personal favorite films–Harold and Maude (1971), he also penned the memorable feminist comedy classic Nine to Five (1980) starring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda.
Busy 70s television Canadian born actress –with the girl next door beauty –Belinda J. Montgomery plays Diane Shaw, whose mother has died, leaving her with the revelation that she is actually the daughter of Satan. Diane’s mother Alice Shaw (Diane Ladd) had carnal knowledge with the prince of darkness and Diane is the product of that unholy union. Alice was also friends and worshiped Satan with Lilith who befriends and lures our wayward devil waif into a web of suspense as she spirals toward her fate.
Naturally as the working formula would suggest Diane is then pursued by devil worshipers headed by Lilith Malone played by the grand lady herself, Shelley Winters. Of course there are elements that pay tribute to the far superior classic pre-occupation with devil cults and paranoia in the city Roman Polanski/William Castle’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) brought to life by the stunning performance by Mia Farrow, and the presence of such greats as Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly and Maurice Evans.
Shelley Winters having a Ruth Gordon/Minnie Castavet moment!!!
Feeling trapped by her destiny, she soon meets and falls in love with Steve Stone (another tele-fright favorite-Robert Foxworth). Steve asks Diane to marry him and so life is possibly good again? Well maybe not so much…
Lilith-“Dear, You mustn’t disappoint your mother’s old friends”
Alikhine-“You are your mother’s daughter!”
Lilith- “SHE WAS ONE OF US”
Mrs Stone (Martha Scott) “She got religion, and turned away”
Alikhine-“You are your father’s daughter!”
Diane –“NO! NO!”
Alikhine- “He is the evil one.”
Mrs Stone- “The all seeing… he is Lucifer”
First off, The Devil’s Daughteris still entertaining to watch, I adore Belinda J. Montgomery and I could watch Shelley Winters bring in her mail. She’s been lighting up the screen since she played the neurotic Jewish mother Faye Lapinsky in director Paul Mazursky’s sublime Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976)to watching her as Belle Rosen who swims under treacherous waters in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) , as she envision Ma’ Kate Barker in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970) or the tragic Helen Hill/Martin in Curtis Harrington’s gruesome horror of personality thriller What’s the Matter with Helen (1971) as the bellicose Mrs. Armstrong in Bernard Gerard’s The Mad Room (1969) as the vengeful and deranged mother in the tele-fright film Revenge! (1971) going back to the luckless love-sick and doomed Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun (1951), as the delightful singer Binky Gay in Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), the sympathetic Terry Stewart in William Castle’s Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) or the gutsy and classy torch singer –Joy Carroll alongside Frank Sinatra in the dazzling musical noir film Meet Danny Wilson (1951)…! there it is I just adore Shelley Winters!
Belinda J. Montgomery was one of the more prevalent actresses in the 70s teleplays, like Season Hubley who looked fresh scrubbed and awfully pretty but could play it all damaged and less than pure if you know what I mean.
The Devil’s Daughterplays like a dark comedy, with a surprisingly pessimistic or should I say fatalistic ending, not unlike it’s finer forerunner Rosemary’s Baby.
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc had started out his career working in television and has directed many popular contemporary television series link to IMBd to see his complete credits, in the late 60s and 1970s he worked on Rod Serling’s television horror anthology series from 1969-1973 Night Gallery.
If you’re familiar with the series you’ll recognize the painting of Satan that emblazon’s Lilith’s living room wall, could be a tout to the series that utilized artwork of art director Thomas J. Wright who painted all of the paintings used to introduce each story.
Szwarc directed a the ‘tele-fright’few Night of Terror (1972) and in 1973 directed the Lovely But Lethal episode of Columbo starring Vera Miles. Some of his notable theatrical releases – Bug (1975), Jaws 2 and the romantic fantasy Somewhere in Time (1980).
What makes The Devil’s Daughter the most interesting to watch are the familiar character actors that populate the film. The nefarious characters that are not quite they seem to be on the surface. Of course there’s the mentioned Diane Ladd as the profane mother who slept with the devil in the first place but in her waning years found religion but was executed by the cult for her transgression. There’s the wonderfully perspicacious Ian Wolfe whose presence always adds an extra depth to any story, here he plays Father MacHugh a kindly priest who while he doesn’t believe the gossip about Lilith would rather see Diane move out of Lilith’s house and live with a girl her own age. When Diane does decide to move in with a friend, Lilith blows her stack…
Fans of Dan Curtis’ cult television horror soap opera of the 1960s Dark Shadows will recognize Jonathan Frid as Lilith’s mute ‘chauffeur companion.’
Film star Joseph Cotten plays Judge Weatherby, Martha Scottas Mrs. Stone, Lucille Benson ( a quirky character actress who was great at playing batty old ladies) as Janet Poole and Thelma Carpenter as Margaret Poole curious twins, a pair that reminds me of the odd relationship between Sylvia Miles as Gerde Engstrom and Beverly D’Angelo as Sandra in Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977) which I am highlighting this Halloween month of October! The Poole sisters dress alike, Janet is white and Margaret is black, and they have cats with opposite colors.
The persnickety Abe Vigoda (the irascible Detective Fish from tv’s Barney Miller) plays Alikhine an expert in ancient art of dance, Robert Corthwaite (the fanatical scientist intent on idolizing the superiority of the super carrot in The Thing from Another World 1951) plays pastor Dixon.
Some of the dialogue is as campy and hilariously high brow as all get out–“You are promised in marriage to the Prince, the Demon of Endor.”
And much like the climax of Rosemary’s Babythere is the ensemble of Satanists seen in Lilith’s scrapbook of yesteryear, the cult standing around in living rooms in their robes posing for a the photograph.
Diane struggles to fight back her legacy as the Devil’s own daughter as she struggles with nightmares, manifests her inherited evil nature and wearing her ring with the strange insignia, mentally impels a young boy to walk out into traffic, nearly getting him run down by a car.
There’s a nice touch as she meets her roomate’s horse and they become frightened by her presence bucking and whinnying, a sign that they can see her evil essence. When Alikhine (Abe) leads the ‘ancient dance’ at the party Diane has an instinctual rhythm that guides her movements. Will Diane succumb to her legacy or will she use her power to fight her destiny? I won’t tell… “They actually refer to me as the Devil’s daughter.”-Diane
“Sally, Sally, Sally… We want you, we want you. It’s your spirit we want, your spirit we need… When will they come to set us free… there’s time enough we have all the time in the world.”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is one of the most remembered television horror films of the 1970s. It no doubt has left a lasting impression with so many of us. Enough so, that director Guillermo Del Toro remade it with more teeth and polished effects in 2010, renewing a whole revitalized generation of fans of the story and mood of the piece in all it’s palpitating unreality. That’s why it has maintained such a cult status all these years. The creepy atmosphere is partly credited to director John Newland who wasn’t a stranger to stories of the macabre and uncanny as he developed the late 50s series One Step Beyond. which dealt with real life experiences with the uncanny and the supernatural. He also had a hand in directing several of Boris Karloff’s anthology series that blended mystery, horror and noir in his 60s series Thriller.
I love the color palate by set designer James Cane–the purple and blue tones, the reds and pinks, the golds and browns, the lighting and set design is a rich visual set piece to work within the modern ‘things that go bump in the night’ trope.
Felix Silla, Tamara De Treaux & Patty Malone as the creatures: on the set of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Newland worked steadily through the 60s and 70s with Karloff on Thriller and then with Rod Serling on Night Gallery. In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, director Newland has such a grasp on what is eerie and spooky in the classical sense delivers an atmosphere that is rich with a wonderful color pallet. He produces a simple story with spine tingling chills, that are often missing today. Newland’s device works great often due to the lighting and the quick glimpses, as you just catch aspects of these little menaces, rather than have them appear for long periods of time on camera. Another creepy mechanism that I find startling is a device within the make-up developed by Michael Hancock (The Omega Man 1971, Deliverance 1972, Altered States 1980, Se7en 1995). where the creatures speak but their mouths do not move, it is as if the voices come from behind their faces.
It’s an odd effect, and though it lacks the virtual ‘teeth’ that Del Toro’s savage creatures have, I am filled with such nostalgic shivers for the old look of things. The kitschy decorating for instance. The creature masks also remind me of something you’d see in The Twlight Zone, episode ofEye of the Beholder, in the same way make up artist William Tuttle created masks where their mouths didn’t move when they spoke. The effect just works. The three little devil imps with their shriveled scowling faces and piercing eyes and creep-tastical voices are among the most iconic and remembered creatures from the 1970s.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Darkis “lit like a horror movie–pools of light glow amidst shrouds of darkness and mysterious shadows abound” “Even a darkened party scene is justified as reticence to reveal the house remodeling underway. The truth is fear of the dark is universal., especially when prune-face goblins tug at our bedclothes.”- David Deal: Television Fright Films of the 1970s.
Alex (Jim Hutton) and Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) inherit a eerie old Victorian house from Sally’s grandmother that holds a dangerous secret legacy, as it harbors the spirits of little devil imps who need to be set free by a designated person whose soul they aim to possess. Once Sally moves in to her grandparents garish and secretly ghoulish old house, Sally discovers these little creatures living down in the pits of hell behind the bricked up fireplace in the creepy, musty den. Like her grandfather before her, Sally is next in line to ‘set them free’ by being their chosen sacrifice. She now must convince her success driven husband Alex that she isn’t crazy or a hysterical, bored housewife. Alex refuses to listen to Sally’s pleas to leave the house, or that the strange happenings and sightings of antagonistic little demons are real and not born out of her imagination or a way for her to sabotage his budding career that takes him away a lot. The only person who not only believes Sally but has tried to warn her not to meddle in things she doesn’t understand, is William Demarest as cantankerous handyman Mr. Harris, who worked for Sally’s grandparents. He knows about the little evil gnomes bricked up behind the fireplace and tries to no avail to get Sally to leave the creepy den as is, “Some doors are better left unopened.”
Sally pushes on the bricks of the old fireplace, Mr. Harris the handy walks in, in his
sour-puss scowling manner-
Mr Harris-“It won’t work.! Sorry Miss I didn’t mean to make you jump”
Sally-“It’s alright… well why won’t it work? I mean surely all it needs to be is smashed open”
Mr. Harris- “those bricks are cemented 4 deep and reinforced with iron bars. There’s no way of opening it up.”
Sally-“now who’s idea was that?”
Mr.Harris-“Your grandmother had me do that twenty years ago.”
Mr. Harris-“Well, it, it was after, er (he stops and looks at the fireplace)
Mr. Harris- “I just can’t open it up.”
Sally-“Now Mr. Harris surely you’re not afraid of a little hard work, hhm?”
Mr. Harris-“Its not the work it’s just that some things are better left as they are”
Mr. Harris-“That’s for cleaning out ashes”
Sally-“it’s been bolted shut”
Mr. Harris-“By me, and that’s the way it should stay!”
Told by both Alex and cranky pants Harris to leave the fireplace alone, naturally she unbolts the ash pit, releasing the creatures who proceed to torment her, making it look like she is crazy, torturing her, gas-lighting her, as we here whispered tones of
“No don’t hurt her, not yet… “but I want to I want to…”
Oh there’s plenty of opportunity and time to torment, hurt and and drag Sally down to hell. Sally, it’s too much fun to drive her mad, messing with the lights whiles she’s taking a shower, then leaving the straight razor on the dark bathroom floor, poking out from behind curtains and bookcases, peaking out of the floral arrangement at the haute dinner party intended to impress Alex’s boss, placing a chord across the steps hoping she’ll fall down the long staircase. Sally sees these little menaces everywhere but no one else does. Alex doesn’t even believe that it’s mice, the place was fumigated right before they moved in. After Alex has a fit and fires Mr. Harris for filling his wife with dread, he finally reaches out to him wanting to hear about the history of the house.
Apparently, Mr. Harris tells Alex, that Sally’s grandfather was heard screaming in the study the night he disappeared presumably as he was being dragged down into the pits of hell. After that, the fireplace was bricked up and the ash pit bolted shut. The wicked little imps have been waiting all this time to be set free.
The simplistic story, everyone at one time has been afraid of the darkness and the unseen terror that it holds and the beauty of this enduring film which moves along in a very quick pace that doesn’t seem rushed, nor empty. Each scene while at times frustrates from the standpoint of stupid things you don’t do if you feel you’re in danger, like at the height of the danger drawing ever so near, just lie down on the bed and take a nap, okay you’ve been drugged with the sleeping pills slipped into your coffee by those little creeps. You will forever ask yourself, go to a hotel, why not just get out of the house. You feel like you want to scream at Sally, get the hell out… now for the love of Mike! And by the end, it tickles you to finally see her being dragged and daunted.
It’s hard to make out in the darkly lit scene but the goblins are climbing the stairs like a mountain.
Sally -“It’s was something like this little ferocious animal grabbed at my dress… Alex’s irritated voice scolds Sally like a child--“Look Sally you’ve got to stop this!!!”
I must admit, it’s too delicious to see these little nasty creatures bounding up the stairs, rigging them with a chord in order to cause one to trip, fall and break ones neck, and pop out of the luscious darkness wielding what is to them a giant a straight razor. These little evil imps inhabit our world view perfectly of those ‘things that go bump in the night.’
Kim Darby is plain and perfectly whiny within the horror version of Diary of a Mad Housewife, but that works to the films sense of go ahead drag her down the stairs already feeling, though I cheered for Carrie Snodgrass in the afore mentioned film of the 70s. ” Sally trips into a surreal world of gloom and although she never really gets a grip on things, she still shows some resolve.” Buying flashlights and candles instead of a room at a Hotel. sure Sally sure…
Alex and Sally experiencing martial woes and little devil imps in the suburbs!
As Sally puts it when having a heart to heart with her only friend Barbara- “Most of the time she feels like a reasonable adjunct to his getting ahead”
Barbara tells Sally that she knows exactly what’s it’s like to be “left by yourself to brood” ‘Making imaginary mountains out of imaginary mole hills”that’s exactly what her friend Barbara thinks the breaking of the ash tray by the side of the bed and the sounds of something lurking behind the kitchen garbage merely was…
This 70s tele-fright film could work as a horror story that embroiders the dismissal of women, their needs, their perceptions and their entire world into a adult fairy tale/nightmare. How a woman can become discounted when what she thinks and feels is chalked up to being merely her ‘imagination’ or emotional distress, and/or an unreasonable emotional dependency on her man who is trying to make it. Or… she is just plain exuding hysteria. Don’t Be afraid of the Dark consists of blunt hyperbole of the hysterical woman not in it’s undercurrent rather, right out in plain sight a contrast to the ‘shadows’ and goblins that lurk in the dark. Metaphor for women’s desire to be set free? I’ll leave that to scholars…
Kim Darby looks better than ever… no frowzy Sally here!
Actually I read that originally actor George Hamilton was cast as Alex. The chemistry would not have been as well suited as Hutton’s disbelieving soul. Hamilton is too sharp an actor for Darby’s frowzy simple girl next door style. William Demarest gives a well suited supportive performance as the cranky handyman Mr. Harris who knows all to well about the secrets of that bedeviled house with it’s ancient wicked creatures lurking about. It is Sally’s friend Joan played by Barbara Anderson who finally believes Sally isn’t going mad. At first she suspects that it is a mad housewife deal, sexual frustration, martial woes, and just plain hysteria. Anderson won an Emmy for her role on Ironside as Officer Eve Whifield.
Writer Nigel McKeand was sometime actor and was one of the demonic voices on the film. Prolific composer Billy Goldenberg (Columbo) is adept at both classical and pop music and has been in demand, providing music for film and television since the mid 60s. He tele-fright scores include Ritual of Evil (1970), Duel (1971), Terror on the Beach (1973), Reflections of Murder (1974), The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), The UFO Incident (1975) and One of My Wives is Missing (1976).
One of the great aspects that work in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the set direction by James Cane, the big old Victorian that creates the mood of a ‘chamber piece’ is so creepily garish with colors that clash, and a mix of neo-gothic, Louis VI and contemporary styles that even Sally decides to hire decorator Francisco Perez (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) whom the dastardly gnomes accidentally cause to fall down the steps killing him. Still, Alex doesn’t quite see that something is wrong with the house.
Even after Joan (Barbara Anderson) begins to believe Sally, the efforts made to protect her friend are sluggish and frustrating, just to make our skin crawl with anxiety as these wicked little things chant “we want you, we want you, we want you, we want you”, while Sally is destined to go the way of her grandfather. This special Movie of the Week chiller is brimming over with eerie atmosphere.