Halloween Spotlight: ABC NBC & CBS Movies of the Week–the year is 1973 🎃 13 Fearful Tele-Frights!!

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From TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen by Lorna Jowett & Stacey Abbott

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1-The Cat Creature 1973

Aired December 11, 1973 as an ABC Movie of the Week

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“Beware the seal of Kah-ub-set, for he who dares to remove it will open the gates of Hell.”

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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 Creature was 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.

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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…

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“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.”

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The Cat Creature was written by prolific horror-writer icon Robert Bloch, (Psycho (1960), Strait-Jacket (1964), The Night Walker (1964) a few episodes based on Bloch’s stories were used in Boris Karloff‘s anthology television serie ThrillerThe Weird Tailor 1961,  The Grim Reaper 1961, The Hungry Glass, The Cheaters, The Psychopath (1966), The Deadly Bees (1966), Torture Garden (1967) The House that Dripped Blood (1971), Asylum (1972) Bloch wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery, Circle of Fear and Star Trek.)

The story of The Cat Creature

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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!

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From Wikipedia–Bastet was a goddess in ancient Egyptian religion, worshiped as early as the 2nd Dynasty (2890 BC). As Bast, she was the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt, the Nile River delta region, before the unification of the cultures of ancient Egypt. Her name is also translated as Baast, Ubaste, and Baset.[1] In Greek mythology, she is also known as Ailuros.

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.[2] 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.

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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 70s Barbara Parkins who appears in another ABC Movie of the Week Snatched that I’ll be covering in just a bit…

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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.

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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 1975 with 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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

2-The Devil’s Daughter 1973

Satan Has Returned For Her!

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Aired January 9, 1973 ABC Movie of the Week

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.

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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.

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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…

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Lilith-“Dear, You mustn’t disappoint your mother’s old friends”

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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 Daughter is 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 Daughter plays like a dark comedy, with a surprisingly pessimistic or should I say fatalistic ending, not unlike it’s finer forerunner Rosemary’s Baby.

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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.

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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.’

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Film star Joseph Cotten plays Judge Weatherby, Martha Scott as 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.

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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.”

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And much like the climax of Rosemary’s Baby there 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.

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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.

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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

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3-Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark 1973

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Aired October 10, 1973 ABC Movie of the Week

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“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.” 

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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.

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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.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) Directed by John Newland
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Directed by John Newland

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 of Eye 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 Dark is “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.

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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.”

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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.”
Sally-“Why?”
Mr. Harris-“Well, it, it was after, er (he stops and looks at the fireplace)
Sally-“after what?”
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”

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Sally-“Whats this?”
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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s hard to make out in the darkly lit scene but the goblins are climbing the stairs like a mountain.

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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.’

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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…

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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”

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Felix Silla, who played one of the creatures also played Cousin It in The Addams Family.

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4-Dying Room Only 1973

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Aired September 18, 1973 ABC Movie of the Week –

Directed by Philip Leacock with a screenplay by Richard Masterson. (I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man) This iconic writer/visionary has too many credits to list them all, link to IMBd to see the breadth of this genius’ work.

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She’s Alone. No One Believes Her. And There’s No Way Out!

While driving across the desert Bob and Jean Mitchell (Dabney Coleman and Cloris Leachman) stop at a desolate roadside diner late one night. When Bob goes to the gent’s room, he doesn’t return, just vanishes completely! The locals including Ned Beatty as Tom King, the wonderful Louise Latham as Vi and Ron Feinberg as Lou McDermott  all appearing unfriendly and downright menacing. The worst of all being diner owner Jim Cutler who considers people like Jean and Bob ‘moron city folk’ (Ross Martin who does sinister really well!)

 

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Jean “You must have seen where my husband went”
Jim Cutler-“Are you telling me I did?”
Jean “He was sitting right there at that table. Right there.”
Jim Cutler-“And I was right there at that griddle, with my back turned how would I know where he went. Maybe he got sore at ya and just lit out. Cause your husband ain’t here ain’t no fault of mine.”

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One of the most underrated character actresses Louise Latham!

These uncooperative folks deny even seeing her husband at all. Then as the paranoia and panic builds someone drives off with her car, stranding her there and now are coming after her. Jean goes to the sheriff played by recognizable character actor Dana Elcar but she has no proof of a crime and tries to get him to believe her protect her from the danger she is in and of course find Bob.

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This familiar theme of the missing husband had been seen in tele-fright flicks such as Honeymoon with a Stranger 1969 starring Janet Leigh, and And No One Could Save Her 1973 starring Lee Remick.

Richard Matheson’s teleplay, from his short story strikes that universal chord of paranoia, alienation, helplessness and abject fear stuck in the middle nowhere, working like a claustrophobic stage play Dying Room Only puts our heroine in an environment surrounded by hostility with authority figures who don’t believe you all while stuck in the middle of a lonely unforgiving desert.

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Cloris Leachman is one of THE most talented comedic actresses, just brings to mind her iconic role as Mary Tyler Moore’s narcissistic and fashionable friend Phyllis Lindstrom from 1970-1977 and her outre brilliant performance as Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974).

Ross Martin best known for Artemus Gordon of popular television series The Wild, Wild West, and as Garland Humphrey ‘Red’ Lynch Blake Edwards striking suspense thriller Experiment in Terror 1962, and his pretentious art critic Dale Kingston in Suitable for Framing on Columbo’s 1971 episode co-starring Kim Hunter. Ross is just superb as a menacing figure, showing up in another tele-fright film Skyway to Death, before his death of a heart attack in 1981.

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Ned Beatty is another marvelous character actor who’s creepy statement to Jean is chilling a complete departure from the cowering victimized Bobby out of his element in Deliverance 1972 who goes through his own ordeal with local hostile types here plays a slovenly cretin, Jean asks for change to use the pay phone, Jim Cutler (Ross Martin) tells her he’s fresh out and Tom (Beatty)- looks straight at her, jingles coins in his pocket and walks over to the pinball machine to play a few rounds. One of his more menacing lines–“The only thing I’m gonna regret, lady, is that I’ll only have ten minutes alone with you before I kill you.”

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Dabney Coleman has few lines like this for instance– “These two men happen to be jerks and this… is a dump.” Not quite Bette Davis…

Dana Elcar appears to be a well-meaning but powerless sheriff… Is he part of the conspiracy?

From David Deal’s Television Fright Films of the 1970s –“This story of frustration has the feel of dream logic at first as Jean’s world suddenly turns into a series of unexplainable roadblocks.

Dying Room Only is a film that pushes the trope of paranoia and no-one will believe me. Director Philip Leacock who keeps the film tautly wound, especially during the first half. Leacock worked on many popular television shows of the 1960s. His tele-fright films in the 1970s include When Michael Calls (1972), and Killer on Board (1977).

Composer Charles Fox was twice nominated for Oscars The Other Side of the Mountain, Foul Play, and won two Emmy’s both for Love American Style. Among his credits are Barbarella 1968, The Green Slime 1968, The Drowning Pool 1975. I just learned that he wrote Killing Me Softly with His Song with lyrics by Norman Gimbel in collaboration with Lori Lieberman in 1972, made famous by amazing songstress Roberta Flack, who gives the most stunning rendition.

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5-Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

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 If there are devils, there must also be gods. I don’t know. I have no thoughts…

Aired on February 13, 1973, as the CBS Movie of the Week

With a teleplay by Ron Austin and Him Buchanan -and music by Mort Stevens who worked on many Boris Karloff’s anthology series Thriller… Horror at 37,00 Feet is directed by David Lowell Rich 

Television Fright Films of the 1970s by David Deal– “Horror at 37,000 Feet is either a meditation on the inherent savagery of the human race on the primal fears and ancient behaviors that tether us to the past, no matter how far we advance with our technology or just a silly horror movie.”

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Alan O’ Neill –“You know I think I’m gonna put some black stone on the floor here around the altar”
Sheila O’Neill-“Very nice if you’re planning to use it as a bar”
Alan O’Neill -(laughs) “That’s a little nasty”

Architect Alan O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) appropriates the remains of a cursed abbey from his wife’s familial state in England, loads them onto a plane with the intention of flying them to America and using them in their home. During all this time it also happens to be the night of the summer solstice and I might add, a full moon. A foreboding glowing moon that shines over Heathrow Airport. Once the stones and pieces of the abbey are stowed away safely in the cargo hold, ten passengers board the red-eye flight.

Buddy Ebsen as millionaire Glenn Farlee, Tammy Grimes as Mrs. Pinder, Lynn Loring as Manya Kovalik, Jane Merrow as Alan O’Neill’s wife Sheila, France Nuyen as model Annalik, William Shatner as faithless minister Paul Kovalik, Paul Winfield as Dr. Enkalla, H.M Wynant as Frank Driscoll, a little girl Jodi played by Mia Bendixsen who is flying alone with her doll. And then there’s the crew Chuck Connors as Captain Ernie Slade, Will Hutchins as cowboy Steve Holcolm, Darleen Carr as flight attendant Margo, and Russell Johnson as Jim Hawley.

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Once everyone settles in, the spirits of the long dead druids break free in the cargo hold and threaten to take over the plane in order to claim their human sacrifice. The tension among the passengers starts to unfold as they try to figure out what the menace is, and what it wants.

Horror at 37,00 Feet is the only credit for V.X. Appleton whose story the film was based on. It was Emmy winning director David Lowell Rich’s first supernatural film for television but he would go on to make the cult favorite Satan’s School for Girls, Runaway! (1973) and another frightening flight film called SST-Death Flight (1977). Rich also made Madame X (1966) with Lana Turner and Eye of the Cat (1969) with Michael Sarrazin, Gayle Hunnicutt and Eleanor Parker and lots of felines…

People might make a comparison with some of the elements of Horror at 37,000 Feet and Cruise Into Terror 1978 on a rival network. While the basic framework, passengers board a cursed ship daunted by supernatural powers, Horror at 37,000 Feet just has a campier, creepier more atmospheric mood and sensational theatrics because of it’s cast. In that film, the passengers of a boat are threatened by the son of Satan. Horror at 37,000 Feet utilizes a more nuanced menace, the spirits of ancient druids, which is a totally more unique narrative, as they howl and cause an eerie frosty freezing burning cold throughout the cabin of the airplane as they hunger for their sacrifice. Barry Thomas in charge of the sound department creates some authentically chilling aural scares as the wailing, groaning old ones, and the supernatural static that encircles them…

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The ensemble of this horror film might not be too proud of it but it is quite a diverse cast indeed. Tammy Grimes is deliciously eerie in her unbounded knowledge of ancient cults, Lynn Loring as usual is perfectly intense and tightly wound. It’s all so outlandish and campy. Jane Merrow from Hands of the Ripper (1971) plays architect O’Neill’s wife, Sheila. Among the other great actors is millionaire Glen Farlee played by Buddy Ebsen, a Mrs. Pinder Tammy Grimes, who seems too in sync with all things supernatural and sort of sympatico with the druid mythology. There’s a man of god, who has fallen and is having a crisis of faith- drowning himself in alcohol and self pity. Who else could play that without breaking a sweat by the brilliant to happily hammy master most likely hand picked just to re-visit his role as the tormented man on a plane William Shatner as Paul Klovalik… Shatner is not at all a stranger to being terrorized on a plane by strange creatures–if we just think back to a decade before on The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet that aired 10 years before in 1963. Shatner played Bob Wilson crazed by his visions of a monster on the wing of the plane, daunted by a gremlin who is tearing the wing and tinkering with the engine of a plane when no one, not even his wife will believe him much to the fate of the flight.

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A film like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) , creates a world of tension as the variety of personalities each respond to the crisis in their own way, not to compare this Movie of the Week with the masterpiece of cinema, Horror at 37,000 Feet is itself an ensemble morality play as much as it is a supernatural story. The tensions, conflicts and personal dynamics are tested by the imminent danger and the doomed fate they are faced with.

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Alan (Thinnes)  “Are you beyond fear or are you just drunk?”

Paul (Shatner)  –“Both but if I were you I’d worry more about your fellow passengers than what ever it is you brought on board”

Things start to go wrong as soon as the flight leaves London as the plane is being mysteriously suspended in mid air going around and around in circles. The mysterious and uncanny entity smashes out of it’s crate in the cargo hold and freezes Mrs Pinder’s dog Damon. The cold then begins to manifest itself inside the cabin. A green boiling oozing Lovecraftian kind of menace reveals itself.

When Captain Slade and Hawley investigate, Hawley is quick-frozen like a bag of organic cauliflower. The evil power rips through the carpeted floor of the plane and an ugly greenish brown ooze bubbles and smokes as ancient unintelligible voices chant. That is how the malevolent entity shows its presence.

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Co-Pilot Jim Hawley “Look at this there’s something like moss on the bulk head.”

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An evil unspeakable horror that you cannot really see. From the old school of less is more, and it’s what you don’t see that creates more dread. It’s more creepy and effective that way. Sheila O’Neill (Jane Merrow), whose family built the abbey passes out and speaks Latin and hears voices that torment her, calling her name, which prompts Mrs. Pinder to explain a bit about what’s going on.

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Paul- “Do you remember what you said when you fainted? (he speaks a Latin phrase)
Sheila “Yes I heard that, one of the voices what does it mean?”
Alan – “Well do you know or don’t ya?”
Paul “It’s from a Black mass…”
Alan “a prayer… to the devil?”
Manya-“or to that thing back there!”
Alan “My wife is imagining things that’s all


Manya “She’s hearing voices… Paul says she was reciting a black mass”
Paul –“I was probably wrong I was a worse scholar than I was a priest”
Mrs.Pinder “It was a man’s voice wasn’t it?”
Sheila -a crazed look in her eyes-“Yes”
Mrs. Pinder “Do you know who that was my dear… ? In 1407 Lord Compton the owner of the land in which the Abbey stood, your ancestor was burned at the stake for heresy and murder. He worshiped the Druid gods. Offered human sacrifices. Members of your own family.”

It seems the abbey was built on a sacred grove of the druids who had performed human sacrifices. Every hundred years at the solstice, the spirits of the ancient druids come back demanding their sacrifice. Mrs. Pinder asserts that it’s Sheila they want. The panic sets in as everyone jumps to wild conclusions for self preservation’s sake, They decide to make a pseudo Sheila, attaching her fingernail clippings and strands of her hair to the little Jodi’s creepy doll. They paint it’s lips red with Sheila’s lipstick. It’s a grotesque site. They try offering that to the spirits who are drawing nearer, only being held off by a fire the passengers have lit, and their safe space is growing smaller with each hour. They try to substitute the doll for Sheila as their sacrifice. The druids aren’t buying it!

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Glen Farlee (Buddy Ebsen) has a soliloquy “Maybe she’s right. What other explanation could there be. Everything’s gone crazy!”  The plan doesn’t work so the group decides to light a fire on the plane to keep the evil spirits away, and soon the fire burns out and all looks grim. Of course Shatner stands out in this film as the faithless, pessimistic, nihilist defrocked priest Paul Klovalik as he drinks heavily and tries to shut off the chaos surrounding him, feeling helpless and hopeless. “The closer to heaven, the more discordant” and generally dismisses the rest of the passengers bitterly as fools and barbarians.

 

Paul Kovalik: “You don’t need a priest, Mr. Farlee. You need a parachute….
I’m going to open a bottle of it right now. It might not make me happy. But it will amuse me to think of all of you back here worrying about your lives… as though they were of some importance.”

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Shatner certainly isn’t playing this kind of guy, that’s for sure!

At the end Paul Klovalik does find a flicker of faith left and rises to the occasion. But will the ancient old ones, the druids get what they want?

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6-The Invasion of Carol Enders 1973

Her task is clear, to find an confront her own murderer!

Aired November 5, 1973, ABC Movie of the Week.

From David Deal’s book Television Fright Films of the 1970s-“Producer-director Dan Curtis had his hand on several intimate productions in the early 1970s, which were shot on videotape in Canada. The Invasion of Carol Enders is one of these. Carol Enders (Meredith Baxter) and her fiance Adam Reston Christopher Connelly are attacked while spooning in lover’s lane and Carol is seriously injured when she attempts to escape. Meanwhile, Diana Bernard (Sally Kemp) the wife of a doctor, is fatally injured in an automobile accident. Both patients are sent to the same hospital. and Carol makes a miraculous recovery just as Diana dies. Upon Awakening, Carol claims in very convincing terms to be Diana. When the police determine that Diana was murdered, Carol/Diana leaves the hospital to find the killer. This mild-mannered story of possession will not appeal to those with a fancy for the macabre. It plays more like a soap opera mystery that happens to have a kernel of the supernatural driving the action.”

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The story is by Merwin Gerard whose list of credits include tele-fright films, The Screaming Woman (1972) starring the great Olivia de Havilland, The Victim (1972) and She Cried Murder (1973) The story was adapted by Gene Raser Kearney. Kearney wrote several Night Gallery episodes for Rod Serling and my cult favorite Games (1967) starring Simone Signoret and Katherine Ross, directed by Curtis Harrington and Night of the Lepus (1972)Giant killer bunnies, ehh not so much…

Meredith Baxter was in the midst of her breakthrough television series Bridget Loves Bernie in 1972 when she did this film. She also appeared in Ben in 1972 and the other film I covered directed by Harrington, The Cat Creature. Her most famous roles aside from tele-films were of course as Nancy on the thoughtful nighttime drama Family 1976-1980 starring Sada Thompson and Kristy McNichol then she went on to play Elyse on Family Ties in the 80s.

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Peyton Place alumnus the handsome Christopher Connelly plays Adam Reston and familiar character actor Charles Adiman plays Dr. Peter Bernard both are good at playing the perplexed husband routine. Connelly’s Adam Reston even helps the police in their investigation, playing an important part in solving the mystery. Dan Curtis favorite John Karlen plays Diana’s ex-husband David Hastings, the number one suspect in her death. George DiCenzo plays Dr. Palmer and Sally Kemp is Diana Bernard.

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Carol-“I knew Diana, probably better than anyone. She was hard on you David, a lot harder than you deserved.”

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Dan Curtis has executive producer credit on this film. and an un-credited nod for direction because several snippets of footage–including Diana’s car crash are taken from his tele-fright The Norliss Tapes, which aired the same year. Some sources list the film as having aired on March 8 1974, some claim it was released in 1973. I’m choosing to include it in my feature here as a 1973 release.

Director Burt Brinkerhoff was an actor, mainly on television in the 50s and 60s and this was his first film as director. He would go on to make the horror film Dogs, and yet another television adaptation of Frankenstein in 1987.

The film plays more like a murder mystery/thriller, but you cannot escape the supernatural narrative that exists, references to India where  the air was “thick with the spirits of the dead, it was like incense.”

The Possession of Joel Delaney came out in 1972 and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud came out in 1975, Audrey Rose came out in 1977. The subject of reincarnation was threaded throughout the 1970s as an appealing and uncanny, almost taboo trend.

Continue reading “Halloween Spotlight: ABC NBC & CBS Movies of the Week–the year is 1973 🎃 13 Fearful Tele-Frights!!”

MonsterGirl’s Halloween 🎃 2015 special feature! the Heroines, Scream Queens & Sirens of 30s Horror Cinema!

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Horror cinema was at it’s spooky peak in the 1930s~ the era gave birth to some of the most iconic figures of the genre as well as highlighted some of the most beautiful & beloved heroines to ever light up the scream, oops I mean screen!!!!

We all love the corrupted, diabolical, fiendish and menacing men of the 30s who dominated the horror screen- the spectres of evil, the anti-heroes who put those heroines in harms way, women in peril, –Boris, & Bela, Chaney and March… From Frankenstein, to Dracula, from The Black Cat (1934), or wicked Wax Museums to that fella who kept changing his mind…Jekyll or was it Hyde? From the Mummy to that guy you could see right through, thank you Mr. Rains!

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Gloria Stuart The Invisible Man

Last year I featured Scream Queens of 40s Classic Horror! This Halloween 🎃 – I felt like paying homage to the lovely ladies of 30s Classic Horror, who squealed up a storm on those stormy dreadful nights, shadowed by sinister figures, besieged by beasts, and taunted with terror in those fabulous frisson filled fright flicks… but lest not forget that after the screaming stops, those gals show some grand gumption! And… In an era when censorship & conservative framework tried to set the stage for these dark tales, quite often what smoldered underneath the finely veiled surface was a boiling pot of sensuality and provocative suggestion that I find more appealing than most contemporary forays into Modern horror- the lost art of the classical horror genre will always remain Queen… !

Let’s drink a toast to that notion!

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The Scream Queens, Sirens & Heroines of 1930s Classic Horror are here for you to runs your eyes over! Let’s give ’em a really big hand, just not a hairy one okay! From A-Z

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A British beauty with red hair who according to Gregory Mank in his Women in Horror Films, 1930s, left England for Hollywood and an MGM contract. She is the consummate gutsy heroine, the anti-damsel Irena Borotyn In Tod Browning’s campy Mark of the Vampire (1935) co-starring with Bela Lugosi as Count Mora (His birthday is coming up on October 20th!) Lionel Atwill and the always cheeky Lionel Barrymore… Later in 1958 she would co-star with Boris Karloff in the ever-atmospheric The Haunted Strangler.

Mark of the Vampire is a moody graveyard chiller scripted by Bernard Schubert & Guy Endore (The Raven, Mad Love (1935) & The Devil Doll (1936) and the terrific noir thriller Tomorrow is Another Day (1951) with sexy Steve Cochran & one of my favs Ruth Roman!)

The film is a Tod Browning’s re-take of his silent Lon Chaney Sr. classic London After Midnight (1927).

The story goes like this: Sir Karell Borotin (Holmes Herbert) is murdered, left drained of his blood, Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) believes it’s the work of vampires. Lionel Atwill once again plays well as the inquiring but skeptical police Inspector Neumann.

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Irena (Elizabeth Allan) and Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore) hatch an intricate plot to trap the murderers!

Once Sir Karell’s daughter Irena ( our heroine Elizabeth Allan) is assailed, left with strange bite marks on her neck, the case becomes active again. Neumann consults Professor Zelin the leading expert on Vampires. This horror whodunit, includes frightened locals who believe that Count Mora (Bela in iconic cape and saturnine mannerism) and his creepy daughter Luna  (Carroll Borland) who trails after him through crypt and foggy woods, are behind the strange going’s on. But is all what it seems?

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Elizabeth Allan (below center) and Carroll Borland as Luna in Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935)
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Elizabeth Allan and Carroll Borland Mark of the Vampire (1935)

The Phantom Fiend (1932)

Directed by the ever interesting director Maurice Elvey (Mr. Wu 1919, The Sign of Four, 1923, The Clairvoyant 1935, The Man in the Mirror 1936, The Obsessed 1952) Elizabeth Allan stars as Daisy Bunting the beautiful but mesmerized by the strange yet sensual and seemingly tragic brooding figure- boarder Ivor Novello as Michel Angeloff in The Phantom Fiend! A remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s first film about Jack the Ripper… The Lodger (1927) starring Novello once again.

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Ivor Novello is the strange & disturbing Michel Angeloff. Elizabeth Allan is the daughter of the landlords who rent a room to this mysterious fellow who might just be a serial killer. Daisy Bunyon falls captivated by this tormented and intense young man…
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A.W. Baskcomb plays Daisy’s (Elizabeth Allan)father George Bunting and Jack Hawkins is Joe Martin the regular guy in love with Daisy
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Michel Angeloff (Ivor Novello) to Daisy Bunting (Elizabeth Allan) “Stay away from me… don’t ever be alone with me…{…} -You trust me, no matter whatever I’ve done?”

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934)

There is a murderer loose in London who writes the police before he strikes with a sword cane, he signs his name X. It happens that his latest crime occurs on the same night that the Drayton Diamond is stolen. Robert Montgomery as charming as ever, is Nick Revel the jewel thief responsible for the diamond heist, but he’s not a crazed murderer. The co-incidence of the two crimes have put him in a fix as he’s now unable to unload the gem until the police solve the murders.

Elizabeth Allan is the lovely Jane Frensham, Sir Christopher Marche’s (Ralph Forbes) fiancé and Police Commissioner Sir Herbert Frensham’s daughter. Sir Christopher is arrested for the X murders, and Nick and Jane band together, fall madly in love and try to figure out a way to help the police find the real killer!

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HEATHER ANGEL

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Heather Angel is a British actress who started out on stage at the Old Vic theatre but left for Hollywood and became known for the Bulldog Drummond series. While not appearing in lead roles, she did land parts in successful films such as Kitty Foyle, Pride and Prejudice (1940), Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943) and Lifeboat (1944). IMDb notes -Angel tested for the part of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), the role was given to Olivia de Havilland.

Heather Angel possessed a sublime beauty and truly deserved to be leading lady rather than relegated to supporting roles and guilty but pleasurable B movie status.

The L.A times noted about her death in 1986 at age 77 “Fox and Universal ignored her classic training and used her in such low- budget features as “Charlie Chans Greatest Case and “Springtime for Henry.”

Her performances in Berkeley Square and The Mystery of Edwin Drood were critically acclaimed… More gruesome than the story-lines involving her roles in Edwin Drood, Hound of the Baskervillles or Lifeboat put together is the fact that she witnessed her husband, stage and film directer Robert B. Sinclair’s vicious stabbing murder by an intruder in their California home in 1970.

Heather Grace Angel was born in Oxford, England, on February 9, 1909.
Heather Angel in Berkeley Square (1933) Image courtesy Dr Macro

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1932)

Heather Angel is Beryl Stapleton in this lost (found negatives and soundtracks were found and donated to the British Film Institute archives) adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holme’s thriller Originally serialised in The Strand magazine between 1901 and 1902.

In this first filmed talkie of Doyle’s more horror oriented story it calls for the great detective to investigating the death of Sir Charles Baskerville and solve the strange killing that takes place on the moors, feared that there is a supernatural force, a monstrous dog like fiend that is menacing the Baskerville family ripping the throats from it’s victims. The remaining heir Sir Henry is now threatened by the curse.

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Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)

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Douglass Montgomery as Neville Landless and Heather Angel as Rosa Bud in the intensely superior rare gem The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)

Mystery of Edwin Drood (played by David Manners) is a dark and nightmarish Gothic tale of mad obsession, drug addiction and heartless murder! Heather Angel plays the beautiful and kindly young student at a Victorian finishing school, Rosa Bud engaged to John Jasper’s nephew Edwin Drood. The opium chasing, choir master John Jasper (Claude Rains) becomes driven to mad fixation over Rosa, who is quite aware of his intense gaze, she becomes frightened and repulsed by him.

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The brooding & malevolent Rains frequents a bizarre opium den run by a menacing crone (Zeffie Tilbury), a creepy & outre moody whisper in the melody of this Gothic horror/suspense tale!

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Valerie Hobson plays twin sister Helena Landless, the hapless Neville’s sister. (We’ll get to one of my favorites, the exquisite Valerie Hobson in just a bit…) When Neville and Helena arrive at the school, both Edwin and he vie for Rosa’s affections. When Edwin vanishes, naturally Neville is the one suspected in his mysterious disappearance.

OLGA BACLANOVA

Olga Baclanova

Though I’ll always be distracted by Baclanova’s icy performance as the vicious Cleopatra in Tod Browning’s masterpiece Freaks which blew the doors off social morays and became a cultural profane cult film, Baclanova started out as a singer with the Moscow Art Theater. Appearing in several silent films, she eventually co-starred as Duchess Josiana with Conrad Veidt as the tragic Gwynplaine, in another off-beat artistic masterpiece based on the Victor Hugo story The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Freaks (1932)

Tod Browning produced & directed this eternally disturbing & joyful portrait of behind the scenes melodrama and at times the Gothic violence of carnival life… based on the story ‘Spurs’ by Tod Robbins. It’s also been known as Nature’s Mistress and The Monster Show.

It was essential for Browning to attain realism. He hired actual circus freaks to bring to life this quirky Grand Guignol, beautifully grotesque & macabre tale of greed, betrayal and loyalty.

Cleopatra (Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor) plan to swindle the owner of the circus Hans, (Harry Earles starring with wife Frieda as Daisy) out of his ‘small’ fortune by poisoning him on their wedding night. The close family of side show performers exact a poetic yet monstrous revenge! The film also features many memorable circus folk. Siamese conjoined twins Daisy & Violet Hilton, also saluted in American Horror Story (Sarah Paulson another incredible actress, doing a dual role) Schlitze the pinhead and more!

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Anyone riveted to the television screen to watch Jessica Lange’s mind blowing performance as Elsa Mars in American Horror Story’s: Freak Show (2014) will not only recognize her superb nod to Marlene Dietrich, but much reverence paid toward the Tod Browning’s classic and Baclanova’s cunning coldness.

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( BTW as much as I adore Frances McDormand, Lange should have walked away with the Emmy this year! I’ve rarely seen a performance that balances like a tight rope walker, the subtle choreography between gut wrenching pathos & ruthless sinister vitriol. Her rendition of Bowie’s song Life on Mars…will be a Film Score Freak feature this Halloween season! No I can’t wait… here’s a peak! it fits the mood of this post…)

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Baclanova and Earles

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“You Freaks!!!!”
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Gooba Gabba… I guess she isn’t one of us after all!

here she is as the evil Countess/duchess luring poor Gwynplain into her clutches The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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Continue reading “MonsterGirl’s Halloween 🎃 2015 special feature! the Heroines, Scream Queens & Sirens of 30s Horror Cinema!”

Sunday Nite Surreal- Eye of the Devil (1966) The Grapes of Death!

“Catherine it’s our belief in something… that makes that thing… for a moment, or forever-DIVINE…” -Phillippe de Montfaucon

EYE OF THE DEVIL (1966)

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Directed by J. Lee Thompson’s  (Blonde Sinner 1956, Tiger Bay 1959, Cape Fear 1962, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud 1975) the outre surreptitious  Eye of the Devil (1966) is an atmospheric smorgasbord of uncanny & haunting images encircled by the air of clandestine and provocative underlying forcefulness. With ease the film pulls you into an esoteric world of ancient rites and beliefs and primal fears and urges to prevail against or more aptly in honor of the pagan notion of the rule & reign of the old ways, and the dominant elementals. It’s a bit of a cryptic occult meditation on reverence, immortality, sacrifice and reaping what you sow.

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Niven urbane and resolute in his stature as Patriarch of the French family who comes home to the ancestral chateau to tend to the vineyards, (the past season’s crop has suffered) and take his rightful place during the rites of the ceremonial harvest. Phillipe must not only observe the deadly family secrets that have survived for centuries but more horrifying than that, it must continue to be passed down to his children.

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Philippe’s Aunt The Countess Estell “ Christian Caray is a very wicked boy and his sister Odile is no better”

Eye of the Devil, works so well to capture our ideologies by the throat partly because of the convincing performances by the enormously talented cast who inhabit this secret world, Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Flora Robson (Beast in the Cellar 1970 ) as Phillipe’s Great Aunt the Countess Estell, Donald Pleasence as a malefic cleric Pere Dominic with shaved head and solemnity, David Hemmings, Sharon Tate, and Emlyn Williams.

Both Sharon Tate and David Hemmings play two beautiful yet sinister figures lurking about. David Hemmings went on to do Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Blow Up (1966) and Sharon Tate whose first movie this was, went on to do Roman Polanski’s originally called Dance with The Vampires, now called The Fearless Vampire Killers, a comedic romp through the classical vampire story, though a little numb possessed a few hilarious moments. 

The film is an adaptation of Philip Lorain’s novel Day of the Arrow

Once again absolutely stunning visual frames from cinematographer Erwin Hillier

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Erwin Hillier combined with J. Lee Thompson’s directing style is tense and well focused gaze creating a closed world of authentic dis-ease. Beautifully photographed with slight suggestions of The Wicker Man. There is an intoxicating ambiance perfectly underscored by the simplistic yet alluring music by composer Gary McFarland. Hillier’s close ups capture fertile images of evil & arcane sensuality.

David Niven is the marquis Philippe de Montfaucon who is the owner of a historic Vineyard. When a dry season hits the harvest he is summoned to the castle Bellenac. Deborah Kerr plays his wife-Catherine de Montfaucon who is told to remain in Paris with the children, but she follows him anyway. And for her troubled she is assailed in the woods by very ominous figures in hoods which makes for a very potent scene… which does not cease even up to the end’s shocking climactic conclusion.

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The opening frames are quick cuts which utilize the sound of a speeding train, cut away frames between reveal shots of a sharp arrow, we hear the train sirens, a lavish cocktail party in high society, an old world looking bearded man on the train, the arrow is raised- it pierces the heart of a white dove, the woods are filled with hazy black hooded figures, eerie and ominous they stand by the trees. A cross of branches is set on fire. Close up on Sharon Tate then close up on Hemmings then the screen goes black and the credits roll…..

It’s a post modern and riveting way to open a film about an esoteric narrative …the film’s title is set against the speeding train it’s windows like eyes themselves staring back at us.

When Phillippe the Marquis arrive in Bellenac the villagers all seem to revere him, lifted their hats to him, heads downward, humbled and proud. He meets up with the cleric Pere Dominic (Donald Pleasence) the mood and furnishings give one the idea of an Orthodox Christian sect.

Some thought he would not return to Bellenac the butler knew he would return… Phillippe asks how about you father?

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“Ive never doubted the path you have chosen” Phillippe-“What makes you think I’ve chosen it?”

Pere Dominic-“You came back didn’t you”

The priest places an elaborate amulet on the table. Phillippe picks up the amulet Dominic tells him “I think you have chosen it Phillippe my son.”

Family friend Jean-Claude Ibert (Edward Mulhare) sits by the fireplace in Paris talking about Phillippe’s trip back to Bellenac. Catherine tells him the first time she was there after their wedding she says it was the most frightening place almost as though they were back in the Middle Ages. Jean-Claude tells her that Phillippe had always been obsessed with the place as if he was trying to solve it’s diabolical secret.

Once at the castle Philippe seems distant as if he is following a mysterious compulsion guided by the pervading force of a cult that recognizes ancient pagan rituals, and perhaps sacrificing his own life in order to save the vineyard. Catherine can do nothing to change her somnolent husband’s mind to leave and come back with her and the children to Paris.

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Both Sharon Tate as the luminous Odile de Caray and David Hemmings as the impish Christian de Caray play two beautiful yet other-worldy and sinister figures lurking about with bow and arrows. Turning toads into doves, and is fixated on the children.

Odile mesmerizes both Jacques and Antoinette She asks if they believe in magic, then she demonstrates her powers by changing a frog on a lily pad into a dove. Could she be using the art of hypnosis to create an illusion?

Catherine does not want her brother Christian killing anymore doves on the property and isn’t happy to see her influence over her children. It begins to rain. But Odile tells her that they are not life giving clouds and that it will pass quickly. Catherine asks why she is at Bellenac. Odile tells her that she and her brother come there often… Then Christian appears and shoots an arrow into a tree right next to Catherine. The siblings wander through the landscape like other-worldly minions.

Phillippe begins to pull away consciously from his wife and children, he tells her to take them and leave. She pleads with him to come home with her and that she can help him. In a sense it’s all begun and even if she tries to make a fuss afterwards, no one will either believe her or come forward to help her.

She says he must be mad, that he’s dying for nothing, walk away from this stupid evil.

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“I’m dying for what I believe.”

“No one can help me, not even you. You don’t understand you could never understand”

He is preparing for a glorious pilgrimage of the soul. He is beyond being reached. He is prepared for the festival of ‘The Thirteen Days” or rather The Thirteen Dancers…

Alain de Montfaucon (Emlyn Williams) tells Catherine that he expects to be a living God, and that Pere Dominic is more than part of it… He is all of it. He is a Pagan. And Bellenac is… A Fortress of Heresy…

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IMDb fun fact:

Originally Kim Novak was cast in the role of Catherine de Montfaucon. Filming began in the fall of 1965 in France. Near every scene had been filmed when Kim Novak fell from a horse and wasn’t able to complete her scenes. Deborah Kerr was hired to take over and every scene that featured Miss Novak had to be re-shot with her replacement.

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The film’s opening credits read-Introducing Sharon Tate
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J. Lee Thompson on the set with Sharon Tate

HAVE A SO-REAL SUNDAY NITE- FROM YOUR EVERLOVIN’ MONSTERGIRL!

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A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943

This post is a feature…As part of the CLASSIC MOVIE HISTORY PROJECT BLOGATHON hosted by the fantastic gang over at- Movies Silently, Silver Screenings & Once Upon a Screen– Visit these wonderful blogs during this historic event and fill your head with a collection of fascinating movie memories.

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From Dreams of Darkness-Fantasy and the films of Val Lewton by J.P. Telotte:
“{The audience} will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of… if you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want. We’re great ones for dark patches.” – Val Lewton

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Jane Randolph as Alice Moore in Val Lewton’s Cat People 1942 directed by Jacques Tourneur
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A scene from Bedlam (1946) directed by Mark Robson 

During the 1940s Val Lewton and his ‘Lewton Unit’ used the essential vision of fantastic darkness to recreate a very unique style of horror/fantasy genre, one which challenged Hollywood’s notion of the tangible monsters Universal studios had been manufacturing. Lewton, while working at RKO Studios, produced an exquisite, remarkable and limited collection of films that came face to face with a ‘nightworld.’ Lewton used our most deepest darkest psychological and innate fears that dwell within the lattice of shadows of our dreams and secret wish-fulfillment.

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“Our formula is simple. A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fade out” -Val Lewton

Lewton worked at MGM between 1926 and 1932 and then served eight years under David Selznick. He had published nine novels and a number of short stories. In addition he produced regular radio show versions of MGM films. He also had ties in the industry as his aunt was the the very influential silent actress Alla Nazimova.

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the great stage and silent screen actress Alla Nazimova-Val Lewton’s very influential aunt…

But Lewton had left his mark with Selznick and in 1940 rival company RKO was interested in hiring him..It was actually Selznick who negotiated Lewton’s contract.

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“My task is to initiate a programme of horror pictures to be made at the comparatively low cost of 125,000 each. Which should compete successfully with Universal horror films. Which cost anywhere from 300,000 to a million dollars. I feel I can do this quite easily and the Universal people spend a lot of money on their horror product. But not much on brains or imagination.”-Val Lewton

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Lewton put together a team of collaborators with whom he would work closely. He chose Mark Robson to edit. Robert Wise and Lewton worked together on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. DeWitt Bodeen had worked him during his time with David O’ Selznick was to write the first screenplay for Cat People.. His old friend Jacques Tourneur whom he became friends with while working on A Tale of Two Cities. was brought on board to direct. He chose Nicholas Musuraca as his director of photography and Roy Webb to compose the musical scores.They all worked on countless RKO films. It was Lewton’s intention to create quality pictures though he was constrained with a low budget. Jacques Tourneur had said that Lewton was an idealist who had his head up in the clouds who would come up with impossible ideas. However for Tourneur his feet were planted firmly on the ground, yet somehow they complemented each other perfectly, Tourneur claims it was a very happy time in his life, and that Lewton’s gift to him was the filmic poetry that he was able to carry with him forever.

Jacques Tourneur is perhaps one of my favorite directors, with his use of shadow and and all together dreamy lens of the world, he’s responsible for one of THE best classic horror films Curse of the Demon & film noir tour de force Out of the Past. 

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Jacques Tourneur directs Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past 1947
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Jacques Tourneur’s moody horror with Niall MacGinnis and cat Curse of the Demon 1957
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Part of the Lewton Unit- image from the documentary The Man in the Shadows from top left Roy Webb composer, Val Lewton, Nicholas Musuraca Cinematographer, Mark Robson editing/directing, DeWitt Bodeen writing and Robert Wise-director.

“Horror is created in the mind of the spectator. It’s necessary to suggest things. In all my films you never saw what caused the horror. I saw people screaming in the theater when there was a young girl in a swimming pool, but you never saw the black leopard. The lights blaze up at the end. And there’s Simone Simon. Something has definitely happened. -Jacques Tourneur

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Jacques Tourneur looking over the film sketches
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Jacques Tourneur on location for Berlin Express 1948

“Lewton gave us something quite different than what’s known as Hollywood craftsmanship you can say that he presented us with a parallel world in which everything feels both real and a little unreal-familiar but strange. The characters and the viewer slip into a mysterious, troubling gray zone. Where real life and dream life come face to face. And where beauty and destruction merge. Lewton and Tourneur really created a new kind of cinematic beauty”-from The Man in the Shadows Val Lewton documentary

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the golden boy from Bedlam

Learning from his last employer Selznick he made sure to supervise absolutely every aspect of the film’s production, from casting, set design, costumes, the direction, and editing. He even rewrote every script himself without taking credit or under a pseudonym. In this way he developed his own visual style of storytelling, having prepared each detail before shooting.

“My feelings are generated, however by more than my gratitude for that first opportunity. They come from the warm and highly stimulating creative experience I had working with Val. He taught me so much about directing and filmmaking in general…Val Lewton was one of that fairly rare species, a truly creative producer. As such, he was able to achieve an outstanding reputation for the high quality, unusual and interesting “B” pictures he produced at RKO Studios starting in the early 1940s” – Robert Wise, March 1994

Robert Wise behind the camera
Robert Wise behind the camera
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Robert Wise, Mark Robson & Val Lewton

“I remember him staying up until all hours of the night working on screenplays. He enjoyed having his hand in the writing. I used to that that he went out of his way to pick inept writers so that he’d have to redo their work. He used to write on a Royal typewriter;he used only two fingers but he was very fast. He’d talk out the different parts as he wrote them and, since my bed was just on the other side of the wall, I’d fall asleep listening.”Nina Lewton Druckman from the Reality of Terror by Joel Siegel

Robert Wise was part of the Lewton Unit, one of my favorite directors who would go onto direct some of the most outstanding films in a variety of genres, from musicals like West Side Story 1961, Sound of Music 1965, to Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People 1944 and The Body Snatcher 1945, noir masterpieces, Born To Kill 1947, The Set Up 1949 and The House of Telegraph Hill 1950, I Want to Live! 1958, Odds Against Tomorrow 1959,to sci fi and Gothic ghost story masterpieces Day the Earth Stood Still 1951, The Haunting 1963 and The Andromeda Strain 1971.

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Michael Rennie and Gort in Robert Wise’s Sci-Fi masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
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Robert Wise’s boxing noir The Set-Up 1949

Lewton drove himself very hard trying to achieve something beautiful of quality. He and his team were given a very small budget, a cast of veritable unknowns, and evocative titles that were sensationalist and lurid in nature and did not truly represent an accurate account of the narrative. There were no gruesome fiends nor even evidence of malevolent forces at work in his ordinary everyday environments. Yet RKO’s studio head Charles Koerner  dictated such titles as Cat People 1942, Curse of the Cat People 1944, Bedlam 1946, Isle of the Dead 1946, The Body Snatcher 1945, I Walked With A Zombie, The Ghost Ship and The Leopard Man in 1943 and The Seventh Victim.

“If you want to get out now, Lewton told Bodeen, I won’t hold it against you”

The sensationalistic titles lead viewers to expect corporeal horrors, grotesquery and accustomed chills. As critic Manny Farber points out that while Lewton got nicknamed the “sultan of shudders” or the “Chillmaster” they were missing the point entirely. Lewton’s films were purposefully inhabited by the average, the bland, the pedestrian all, so as to populate his world with normal characters. People you’d see on the streets, or doing menial jobs. And amidst this population of ‘normal’ stirred interesting pulp stories that were unorthodox, otherworldly and often grim. Themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which someone believes they are an animal as in Cat People or the pervasive fear of the Vorvolakas, an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks it’s victim’s blood in Isle of the Dead. Even when dealing with dreadful English asylums and the sacrilege of body snatching.

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Boris Karloff and Val Lewton on the set of Bedlam

By the way… Bedlam 1946 is perhaps my favorite of the Lewton series. I’ll be doing a follow up to this piece and with an aim at covering the magnificent piece of filmic art that is Bedlam. I’ll also include the remaining films I love, Isle of the DeadThe Body Snatcher and his first Cat People.

Films with subversive themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which a person believes himself to be an animal as in Cat People or the pervasive fear of the Vorvolakas is an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks it’s victim’s blood in Isle of the Dead.

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Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead 1946

One of the things I love about Lewton’s films is that he used many either lesser known actors or those who never quite attained stardom yet lived on the fringe. Wonderful character actors such as Ian Wolfe & Edith Barrett (whom I both adore) actor/director Abner Biberman, Theresa Harris, Edith Atwater Sir Lancelot former calypso singer from Trinidad, the unusual beauty of Elizabeth Russell who was a former fashion model. The portly Billy House who played Lord Mortimer in Bedlam had been a star of vaudeville or Skelton Knaggs (Terror By Night, House of Dracula) British actor worked on the stage. The handsome Richard Dix ,Tom Conway, James Bell, Anna Lee, Evelyn Brent, Helene Thimig, Dewey Robinson and Ben Bard.

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Billy House as Lord Mortimer in Bedlam
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The marvelous Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
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Skelton Knaggs as the mute Finn in The Ghost Ship
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Kate Drain Lawson as Señora Delgado in The Leopard Man
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Edith Barrett and Richard Dix in The Ghost Ship
Anna Lee in Bedlam
Anna Lee in Bedlam
Helene Thimig in Isle of the dead
Helene Thimig in Isle of the Dead
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Julia Dean and old Mrs Farren in The Curse of the Cat People

These characters seems to transcend their positions in the background and add layers of depth and a quiet simplicity or realism that made the storytelling more rich. They possessed a certain unique expressiveness that at times eclipsed the lead actors.

RKO known for their capacity to release films that were of the fantastic and original, initially who hired Lewton to organize and run their ‘B’-Film unit. RKO had a reputation for ingenuity and artistic innovation, paying careful attention to the shaping of the narratives. What he endowed them with was his deep understanding of the subtle patterns and symbols that lie within our dreams, psyche and fantasy world. Lewton satisfied the audience’s desire for horror yet what he delivered was swathed in a strange and poetically beautiful style.

At his disposal he had some of the best writers who knew how to tap into this process. Writers like DeWitt Bodeen, Donald Henderson Clarke, Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray art director Albert D’Agostino (Notorious 1946, Out of the Past 1947, The Thing from Another World 1951) cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca & J. Roy Hunt (Crossfire 1947, Might Joe Young 1949) and directors Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past 1947,Curse of the Demon 1957), Mark Robson and Robert Wise all contributed and helped shape the vision that became the Lewton film.

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Nicholas Musuraca and Jacques Tourneur

And while Val Lewton didn’t direct any of the eleven films he produced for RKO, (in two cases only taking screen credit for his contributions as writer), it’s rather irrelevant in terms of authorship -as collaboratively infused with talent of vision these films possess a distinct frame of reference that lead you into the fantasy realm or genre with an artistic unorthodoxy like no other. Director Jacques Tourneur directed the first three Lewton films produced by the Lewton Unit. He gave Lewton the soubriquet “The Dreamer.”

Joel Siegel from his 1973 book Val Lewton tells us, “His production unit would make only horror movies with budgets limited to $150,000 per picture. The films were to be ‘programmers’ slated for placement on double features in less than key theaters, with a running time not to exceed 75 minutes. {Production Chief Charles Koerner’s office was to dictate the titles of these films, based upon a system of market pre-testing.”

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Mark Robson and Val Lewton

Lewton hid much of the story in his shadow-plays and this allowed his crew to work the landscape by creating symbolism, key sounds (natural ordinary sounds become ominous premonitions and are fatalistic in tone), haunting textures, abstract shadow and a sense of dark absences. Within the more focused frames of the films are incidental point of view shots that fill in the spaces with a rich texture of realism within the fable-like quality, relying on shadow and suggestion to deliver the desired effect.

Lewton himself would usually write a rough draft, an idea adapted from a property to be filmed. Then using his grand ability to visualize a formula, manipulate the structures of conventionality so that he could compose a landscape and narrative that would best articulate his observations. Tourneur emphasized Lewton’s “structure, construction, progression of high points, low points” in the narrative. Director Mark Robson suggested that Lewton had already ‘thought everything out’ in such detail so as not to miss a thing. Jessie Ponitz, Lewton’s secretary relates, “the last draft was always his.”

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Lewton at his typewriter

Lewton’s brilliance and vision are partly due to his understanding of how psychoanalytic symbolism, myth, dreams and archetypes influence our intimate fear of what lies invisible to the eye. The Lewton Unit embraced the collective nightmares of the human experience, bringing our dream-work into the cold light of daily life bounded to the material world. He presents us with irrational unseen forces, in particular those that lurk in our subconsciousness or dream world. His films transport his protagonists by contrasting them from the open, sense of security from daylight- immersing them into the dark regions of shadows, and the black patches of uncertainty. They do not confront conventional monsters, vampires, ghouls and malevolent spirits of the classic Universal plots- but actually come face to face with their own internal nightmares. A mechanism that emerges from the shadows of the mind. We see these images of fantasy and it triggers our most basic and personal need to belong to that which is created, however disturbing those visions are, these fantasy/horror films possess an enigmatic kind of darkness. His characters never ran away from the darkness and dread that was so pervasive they actually ran head on into it, in order to demystify it and lead themselves & us to understand it a little better.

PSYCHE OR SOUL- THE LEGACY OF THE FANTASTICAL

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Jean Brooks as the mysterious Jacqueline in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim

Lewton and his associates understood the principles of fantasy, and utilized them in the complex visual structures they created in their series of films. In writing about Lewton’s use of fantasy, J.P. Telotte informs us that these films “are not mere horror stories or exercises in terror, yet ‘redeem’ or reunite us with a repressed side of the human experience.” And this is what makes Lewton’s fantastical work so unique.

As in his book America in the Dark, Thomson implies that unlike the films that consist of vampires, werewolves, and other alien presences “The Fantasy genre {…} draw fundamentally on a realm of darkness and psychic imagery for it’s existence. Such films typically evoke a dreamlike environment or nightworld in which, as if it were our own sleep, we can pleasurably and profitably immerse ourselves. {…} I wish to call attention to their ability to reveal how we also might come ‘to life with the dark’ finding an important, even life enhancing meaning in the fantastic’s dream realm. {…}”

The Body Snatcher
The Body Snatcher 1945
A Palladist The 7th Victim
a Palladist from The Seventh Victim

Lewton’s fantasy reworks our perspective to let us ‘see’ the dark spaces even within the light. As Todorov writes in The Fantastic 1975, fantasy evokes an ‘indirect vision’ that allows us to see what is usually not visible in the ordinary world. Lewton uses this ‘indirect vision’ to transgress and transcend normal perception. Lewton’s works suggest a disparity between the expected and reality. From this disparity, the greatest threats come from the most ordinary occurrences, objects, and the commonplace.  He populates his films with figures of authority who interpret their world incorrectly, harshly or inharmonious. The sudden revelation of the ordinary frightens and disorients the viewer in unexpected ways, forcing them to be more reflexive, to show the menace in the every day. As Carl Jung believed, fantasy precedes our normal sense of reality- “The psyche creates reality everyday. The only expression I can use for this activity is fantasy.”

Drawing on the psychologist James Hillman who specialized in archetypes, Lewton’s films evoke a dream-like nightmarish world in contrast to the realm of truth. The style of these films are often lensed as seductive and mysterious journeys, where the audience can escape the ordinary for a while. They seduce us by taking a path which follows our hidden desires within the psyche.

This is the proper aim at fantasy, as James Hillman explains; it should challenge our normal “literal perspective, its identity with material life,” since that perspective is usually “stuck in coagulations of physical realities. This perspective of reality needs to break down and fall apart, to be skinned live and sensitized, or blackened by melancholic frustration.”

Isle of the Dead-Karloff
Isle of the Dead 1946

This fantasy forces us to look at our own limitations of vision, and how difficult it is to describe the structure of something that has no’ structure’ It’s easy for the grey areas of fantasy to ‘lapse’ into absence and dissolve from a narrative field of a nightworld/dreamscape using the device of voice-over narrative or subjective camera. Lewton’s images make us ask are we seeing what’s really there, or are we merely informed by the dark spaces both inside the film and tapping into our individual and collective psyches. As Telotte cites Rosemary Jackson– 

“Objects are not readily appropriated through the look; things slide away from the powerful eye/I which seeks to possess them, thus becoming distorted, disintegrated, partial and lapsing into invisibility.”

Val Lewton had a special insight and grasp of formulas and mythic structures so that he could envision within the complex narratives, the presence of the most significant archetypal patterns. Lewton said “If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want! We’re great ones for dark patches.” What those ‘dark patches’ suggest is something innate in all of us, a dark region within the ‘self’ that gets lost, or hidden away, or even denied as we go about our daily lives doing ordinary things in the guise of normalcy.

DARK PATCHES AND THE ABSENCE OF KNOWING

The Seventh Victim

In a Lewton film there is a sense of ‘Lack’ as an absence in the lives and environments seems to be at the core substance of these films. This play of absence and presence operates as a structural principle in Lewton’s films. For the benefit of this post I will point particularly to I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man  and The Seventh Victim, the prior both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur. In his two films that ‘lack’ translates into a disturbing landscape of openness in the narrative style.

The everyday, whether it be modern urban city streets, islands in the Caribbean or the nineteenth century, there is an attentive eye for detail that weaves a texture of daily life that the Lewton unit worked so hard to achieve. Be it the costumes, the architecture and the general look of the place during it’s particular time period. So much research went into developing the landscape of reality with a distinct verisimilitude. By looking at books, paintings and photographs they would try to capture the perfect light and shadow of the piece.

Although I won’t be covering Bedlam in this piece, the film is a perfect example of how The ‘Lewton Unit’ employed this research approach prior to filming. Several shot compositions were based on William Hogarth’s illustrations. Much emphasis was placed on ‘context’ as Lewton characters can so evidently be characterized by their station in life or occupations living in the seemingly natural world that is commonplace. Writer DeWitt Bodeen notes that Lewton “always insisted that all his characters have special occupations or professions and be shown working their jobs.”

Lewton’s films are populated with a texture of normalcy, people living in a visibly conspicuous and commonplace field of reality so that when the presence of the mysterious, and irrationality poke through it shatters the veil of normalcy and settles down to become abnormal and disturbing for the protagonist and us the viewer. These characters must journey through a field that is rife with coded messages, where they are not believed by the people around them.

Telotte explains, “What results is a subtle dialectic between ‘substance and lack’, presence and absence, replacing that of the more traditional horror films, where in the ‘self’ as the audience’s surrogate, is opposed by a threatening otherness in the shape of a monster or murderous apparition. The tension is no less. Though it’s source is different it is more disturbingly lodged in the individual  and the way in which he perceives and conceives of his world.”

The Body Snatcher Karloff

Like the protagonists, we are laid bare with our vulnerability to the abnormal. The threat comes as an external challenge to our lives, exposing our human weakness and fears and forces us to see life in an unsettling way. Everything falls out of harmony that which is usually so ordinary. And the sense of ‘otherness’ fills the screen and taps into our own psyche as the formidable shadows move about with an anima. The dark patches set themselves outward as props, while strange sounds and eerie low key lighting color the screen’s canvas as dark and mysterious.

Psychoanalyst Hillman refers to a ‘vesperal’ motion that leads us into the darker regions of the self and the human psyche with it’s ‘fantasizing impulse.’ Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (you can read an earlier feature I did on this film-click on the link) is a more conventional initiation story focusing on the nature of innocence and ‘otherness’ and how it often challenges our rational perspectives of the world because it evokes the ‘unknowing.’

All of Lewton’s films are structured with a careful eye on the sequential narrative. Val Letwon referred to scenes heightened by shadows as signifier of something foreboding he called them “horror spots.” These “horror spots’ were carefully spaced through out his films in sequential scenes, as if each frame were its own visual narrative. Many potent moments though brief partly due to the limited time constraints yet remain with you forever.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE

These scenes were preceded by scenes of an alternating tone designated to bring relief to the audience, utilizing some form of imagery that could be very beautiful or lyrical. Joel Siegel talks about this approach as “fragmented, mosaic-like structure” of the films, with their dependence on a “series of tiny, precise vignettes which do not so much tell the story as sketch in its borders and possibilities. For film historian Robin Wood in his “Return to the Repressed,” Lewton’s series of films is distinct for their “often illogical poetic structure.” 

Early Lewton films display a narrative style which recalls Jean-Paul Sartre’s prescription for fantasy storytelling: “In order to achieve the fantastic, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to portray extraordinary things. The strangest event will enter into the order of the universe if it is alone in a world governed by laws.”

Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett in I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Lewton films do not simply strip the world of the laws which Sartre describes, as many horror films do, rather they manipulate the context within which even the most commonplace actions are perceived. In I Walked With a Zombie, the players are often viewed through a veil of elaborate shadows cast by wooden lattice, brush and thicket, Very sensual images and very flowing. The eye for detail… every frame is so well thought out. And while we as spectators have truly seen nothing tangible, there is that ‘lack’ reinforced by structural repetition. Drawing us in depends on our ability to fantasize and tap into the deep-rooted fears that we unconsciously embrace. This portrayal of Lewton’s mysterious yet mundane environment becomes utterly frightening. Lewton explained how this process reveals the viewer’s participation in that which he sees, establishing that given these kinds of visual narratives man himself “will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of.”

Robin Wood’s The American Nightmare chapter of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.–
It is built on elaborate set of apparently clear cut structural oppositions : Canada-West Indies, white-black, light–darkness, life-death, science-black magic, Christianity -Voodoo, conscious -unconscious, , etc–and it proceeds  systematically to blur all of them. JEssica is both living and dead.; Mrs. Rand mixes medicine, Christianity and voodoo, the figurehead is both St. Sebastian and a black slave, the black-white opposition is poetically undercut in a complex patterning of dresses and voodoo patches; the motivation of all the characters is called into question; the messenger-zombie Carrefour can’t be kept out of the white domain.”

Lewton’s work absolutely inspired and trained Robert Wise to scare the hell out us with his adaption of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting in 1963, when in reality we never see a malevolent presence. Wise’s use of absence and presence, sequential stages of darkness and shadow, odd angles, and the process of what we ‘don’t see’ became one of the greatest ghost stories on film and I would dare to say one of the best films ever made. Wise learned this film philosophy from his time working as part of the Lewton Unit, whose contribution to film rippled outward for decades.

Robert Wise The Haunting Julie Harris
Julie Harris climbs the menacing spiral staircase in Robert Wise’s masterpiece of Gothic ghost storytelling The Haunting 1963

Lewton’s most accomplished manoeuvre was making the audience think much more about his material than it warranted. Some of his devices were the usual ones of hiding information… he hid much more of his story than any other filmmaker and forced his crew to create drama almost abstractly with symbolic sounds, textures and the like which made the audience hyper-conscious of sensitive craftsmanship… He imperiled his characters in situations that didn’t call for outsized melodrama and permitted the use of  journalistic camera. {…}Je would use a spray-shot technique that usually consisted of oozing suggestive shadows across a wall, or watching the heroines’ terror on a lonely walk {…} The shorthand allowed Lewton to ditch the laughable aspect of improbable events and give the remaining bits of material the strange authenticity of a daguerreotype.” Manny Farber criticquoted from 1951 in Jeremy Dyson’s book Bright Darkness

There is an overall unsettling revelatory pattern to each of the Lewton narratives. While I’m only covering the 4 contributions Lewton made during the year 1943, all of his 9 fantasy/horror films isolate the commonplace through the story, the patterns, the symbolism of innocence, and the rigidity of authority. In his films our roots in proven reason and sanity are given a different value. This contrasting shadowplay create the ultimate texture and environment of fantasy/horror.

A SYMPHONY OF DARK PATCHES :

Continue reading “A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943”

Heroines & Scream Queens of Classic Horror: the 1940s! A Halloween treat!

Evelyn Ankers
promo shot for The Wolf Man- Evelyn Ankers

THE WOMEN OF CLASSIC HORROR: THE 1940S!

You could say that Evelyn Ankers is still the reigning queen of classical 1940s horror fare turned out by studios like RKO, Universal and Monogram. But there were a host of femme screamtales that populated the silver screen with their unique beauty, quirky style and/or set of lungs ready to wail, faint or generally add some great tone and tinge to the eerie atmosphere when ever the mad scientist or monster was afoot. Some were even monstrous themselves…

For this upcoming Halloween I thought I’d show just a little love to those fabulous ladies who forged a little niche for themselves as the earliest scream queens & screen icons.

ELSA LANCHESTER 1902-1986

I’m including Elsa Lanchester because any time I can talk about this deliriously delightful actress I’m gonna do it. Now I know she was the screaming hissing undead bride in the 30s but consider this… in the 40s she co-starred in two seminal thrillers that bordered on shear horror as Mrs Oates in The Spiral Staircase 1945 and a favorite of mine as one of Ida Lupino’s batty sisters Emily Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941

I plan on venturing back to the pre-code thirties soon, so I’ll talk about The Bride of Frankenstein, as well as Gloria Holden (Dracula’s Daughter, Frances Dade (Dracula) and Kathleen Burke (Island of Lost Souls) Gloria Stuart and Fay Wray and so many more wonderful actresses of that golden era…

Elsa Lanchester in The Spiral Staircase
Elsa Lanchester as Mrs.Oates in director Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase 1945
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The Sisters Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941 starring Elsa Lanchester, Ida Lupino and the wonderful Edith Barrett (right)

ANNE NAGEL  1915-1956

Anne Nagel
the playfully pretty Anne Nagel
Anne Nagel & Lon Chaney Man Made Monster Promo photo
Anne Nagel & Lon Chaney Jr in a promo shot for Man Made Monster
Anne Nagel, Lon Chaney & Lionel Atwill Man Made Monster
Anne Nagel strapped to the slab and at the mercy of the ever mad Lionel Atwill. Here comes the glowing Lon Chaney Jr! in his electric rubber suit in Man Made Monster!

The depraved mad scientist Lionel Atwill working with electro biology pins gorgeous red headed Anne Nagel playing June Lawrence, to his operating slab in Man Made Monster 1941. Lon Chaney Jr. comes hulking in all aglow as the ‘Electrical Man’ which was his debut for Universal. He carries Anne Nagel through the countryside all lit up like a lightning bug in rubber armor. Man Made Monster isn’t the only horror shocker that she displayed her tresses & distresses. She also played a night club singer named Sunny Rogers also co-starring our other 40’s horror heroine icon Anne Gwynne in the Karloff/Lugosi pairing Black Friday in 1940.

She played the weeping Mrs.William Saunders, the wife of Lionel Atwill’s first victim in Mad Doctor of Market Street 1942. And then of course she played mad scientist Dr Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco’s) daughter Lenora in The Mad Monster 1942. Dr Cameron has succeeded with his serum in turning men into hairy wolf like neanderthal monsters whom he unleashes on the men who ruined his career.

Anne Nagel and Lionel Atwill Mad Doctor of Market Street
Anne Nagel and Lionel Atwill Mad Doctor of Market Street

Poor Anne had a very tragic life… Considered that sad girl who was always hysterical. Once Universal dropped her she fell into the Poverty Row limbo of bit parts. Her brief marriage to Ross Alexander ended when he shot himself in the barn in 1937, and Anne became a quiet alcoholic until her death from cancer in 1966

Anne Nagel Lon Chaney Lobby Card

Lon Chaney Jr and Anne Nagel Man Made Monster

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Dr Cameron’s daughter Lenora (Anne Nagel) discovers the wolf-like man in his laboratory in The Mad Monster
Hairy beast The Mad Monster
Glenn Strange as Petro the Hairy man in The Mad Monster 1942

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the sultry Anne Nagel and Bela Lugosi in Black Friday 1940 photo courtesy Dr Macro

MARTHA VICKERS- 1925-1971

Martha Vickers
the beauty of Martha Vickers

Martha was in noir favorites The Big Sleep 1946 & Alimony 1949. This beauty played an uncredited Margareta ‘Vazec’s Daughter’along side Ilona Massey as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein and the marvelous older beauty Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva the gypsy! in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man 1943. Then she played heroine Dorothy Coleman in Captive Wild Woman 1943 and Miss McLean in The Mummy’s Ghost 1944.

Originally Martha MacVickar she started modeling for photographer William Mortenson.David O Selznick contracted the starlet but Universal took over and put in her bit parts as the victim in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and in other ‘B’ guilty pleasures like Captive Wild Woman & The Mummy’s Ghost. She was also the pin-up girl for WWII magazines.

Martha also starred in other noir features such as Ruthless 1948 and The Big Bluff 1955. She was Mickey Rooney’s third wife.

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Martha Vickers and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep photo courtesy of Dr Macro
Martha Vickers and Lon Chaney in Frankenstein Meets the wolf man
Martha Vickers and Lon Chaney in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Martha Vickers and John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman
Martha Vickers and John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman
Martha VIckers
I just can’t resist Vicker’s sex appeal here she is again… Wow!

FAY HELM  1909-2003

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Fay Helm as Nurse Strand with John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman

Fay Helm played Ann Terry in one of my favorite unsung noir/thriller gems Phantom Lady 1944 where it was all about the ‘hat’ and she co-starred as Nurse Strand along side John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman. Fay played Mrs. Duval in the Inner Sanctum mystery Calling Dr. Death with Lon Chaney Jr. 1943

Ella Raines and Fay Helm in Phantom Lady
Ella Raines and Fay Helm in Phantom Lady

Fay Helm plays Jenny Williams in Curt Siodmak’s timeless story directed by George Waggner for Universal and starring son of a thousand faces Lon Chaney Jr in his most iconic role Larry Talbot as The Wolf Man 1941

Fay as Jenny Williams: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Fay was in Night Monster 1942. Directed by Ford Beebe the film starred Bela Lugosi as a butler to Lionel Atwill a pompous doctor who falls prey to frighting nocturnal visitations. I particularly love the atmosphere of this little chiller with it’s swampy surroundings and it’s metaphysical storyline.

Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey) a psychologist is called to the mysterious Ingston Mansion, to evaluate the sanity of Margaret Ingston, played by our horror heroine Fay Helm daughter of Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) a recluse who invites the doctors to his eerie mansion who left him in a wheelchair.

Fay gives a terrific performance surrounded by all the ghoulish goings on! She went on to co-star with Bela Lugosi and Jack Haley in the screwball scary comedy One Body Too Many (1944)

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Night Monster
Fay Helm in Night Monster
Fay Helm with Bela the gypsy in The Wolf Man
Fay Helm with Bela the gypsy in The Wolf Man

LOUISE CURRIE 1913-2013

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Louise Currie and Bela Lugosi in The Ape Man

Ape Man Bela and Louise Currie

Ape Man and Louise stairs

Bela Lugosi as half ape half man, really needed a shave badly in The Ape Man 1943, and Louise Currie and her wonder whip might have been the gorgeous blonde dish to make him go for the Barbasol. One of the most delicious parts of the film was it’s racy climax as Emil Van Horn in a spectacle of a gorilla suit rankles the cage bars longing for Currie’s character, Billie Mason the tall blonde beauty. As Bela skulks around the laboratory and Currie snaps her whip in those high heels. The film’s heroine was a classy dame referred to as Monogram’s own Katharine Hepburn! She had a great affection for fellow actor Bela Lugosi and said that she enjoyed making Poverty Row films more than her bit part in Citizen Kane! And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that she appeared in several serials, from both Universal & Republic like The Green Hornet and Captain Marvel.

Tom Weaver in his book Poverty Row HORRORS! described The Ape Man as “a Golden Turkey of the most beloved kind.”

Louise Currie followed up with another sensational title for Monogram as Stella Saunders in Voodoo Man 1944 which again features Lugosi as Dr. Richard Marlowe who blends voodoo with hypnosis in an attempt to bring back his dead wife. The film also co-stars George Zucco as a voodoo high priest and the ubiquitous John Carradine as Toby a bongo playing half-wit “Don’t hurt her Grego, she’s a pretty one!”

Voodoo Man
Pat McKee as Grego, Louise Currie, John Carradine and Bela Lugosi in Monogram’s Voodoo Man 1944
Voodoo Man
the outrageous Voodoo Man 1944

Continue reading “Heroines & Scream Queens of Classic Horror: the 1940s! A Halloween treat!”

Backstory: What ever happened to William Castle’s baby?

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bill from Spine Tingler
Photo of the great William Castle -courtesy of Spine Tingler

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Castle in NYC street with Polanski

“The film is frightening because it forces us to examine the kinds and bases of belief. We confront the idea that the Christian myth is certainly no more believable that its mirror image, and possibly less so. And beyond this, we are also forced to realize that our mode of believing in Christianity is quite different from the one with which we perceive ‘real’ things In other words, while Polanski’s film is determinedly realistic, it is at the same time a challenge to realism, locating the ordinary world of plausible social interaction within a wider and more primitive universe of magic, sorcery and supernatural forces.”Hollywood Hex, -Makita Brottman

Rosemarys-Baby

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Rosemary’s Baby is my favorite film. I plan on doing one of my long winded major features on this masterpiece in it’s entirety but for the sake of celebrating William Castle this week, I’d like to strictly focus on his contribution to an iconic tour de force that would not have been filmed if not for him. Rosemary’s Baby premiered in June 1968.

billboard for the film

color of Polanski and Castle
Roman Polanski on William Castle: “He was an excellent technician who understands filmmakers’ problems and doesn’t have the usual worries other producers have. He made a constant effort to make me happy in my work. I can’t think of a better producer.”

polanski, castle and Farrow happy

After many years of William Castle slaving over B movies and programmers like The Whistler and The Crime Doctor, he found his niche in horror. He saw Henri-Georges Clouzot le Diabolique in 1955 and it lit a fire in his belly to create his own Gothic creepy storytelling that would lure the audience under it’s spell. Thus sung Macabre in 1958. While certainly not Diabolique, Macabre put Castle on the path toward creating engaging & frightening landscapes that would entertain millions!

That same year, thanks to his very successful House on Haunted Hill and his 12 foot plastic glow in the dark skeleton deemed ‘Emergo’ that flew over theatre audiences, he was now dubbed the ‘King of Gimmicks.’ Castle went on to chill us with The TIngler in ’59, 13 Ghosts in ’60, Homicidal and Mr Sardonicus in ’61, Strait-Jacket in ’64, and I Saw What You Did in ’65 both landing Joan Crawford at the helm.

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William Castle’s Homicidal ’61starring Jean Arless (Joan Marshall)

With all the ballyhoo and commercial success, Bill was craving respect. He thought he’d find that admiration in Rosemary’s Baby, a novel by Ira Levin (A Kiss Before Dying, The StepFord Wives, Boys From Brazil) about an unassuming pretty little housewife chosen by a coven of New York City witches to be the mother of Lucifer’s only begotten son and heir.

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What is remarkable about the film is the realism. It is so careful to remain dedicated to the naturalistic tone of Levin’s novel showing us a set of ordinary characters in an apparently common world. Then they gradually become introduced to extraordinary elements of dark forces, both magic and fantasy that begin to overwhelm the narrative. We as spectators are now caught up in Rosemary’s plight and her utter sense of powerlessness. This story is less about witches and more about paranoia and the lack of control over our own bodies and destiny. However explained in supernatural terms, it’s still about losing trust with those closest to us, the people we depend on to protect us from harm. We watch as Rosemary’s world turns upside down.

Rosemarys-Baby-paranoia

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I saw Rosemary’s Baby during it’s theatrical release in New York in June 1968. It was billed as a double feature with The Mephisto Waltz. We won’t get into how either really enlightened or truly nutty, depending on your perspective, my mom was for taking her 6 year old little girl to see two very intense horror pictures dealing with adult and subversive themes.

I was an extremely mature child and the film not only didn’t traumatize me, it opened up a world of desire for me to see as many intellectual horror stories without fear of nightmares. Although I must admit when I used to watch Robert Wise’s The Haunting in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon, I did manage to lock the basement door and shove the large gold (the color of Archie Bunker’s favorite chair) love seat in front of it to keep any boogeyman from coming up the basement stairs into the den when I was alone in the house.

I also just saw Rosemary’s Baby remastered on the big screen at the Film Forum a few weeks ago. I have to admit, that as soon as Christopher Komeda’s music starts playing and the birds eye view of the Dakota emerges on screen the electricity started flowing up my legs, this time not my usual RLS, I began weeping. Not only is Rosemary’s Baby my favorite film, I recognize the confluence of perfectionism in each and every scene that makes it a flawless masterpiece, from the vibrant performances to the exquisite storytelling. Every detail is magical and I don’t mean devilish, I mean artfully.

Castavets at Terry's fall

Something else wonderful happened during the screening that day. Amidst all the other film geeks like myself, and aside from the audible pleasure the audience let out when the magnificent Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer walk on screen where we all laughed and silently cheered for their strolling entrance as the iconic quirky and eccentric devil worshiping senior citizens. When Bill Castle did his Hitchcock walk on by the phone booth, I realized that it wasn’t only me smacking my partner Wendy’s knee with childhood excitement, “There’s Bill, there he is!!! We both chuckled with glee to see his wide warming grin. Suddenly we heard others in the crowd stirring and murmuring “there he is, that’s Bill Castle!!!” Amidst all the appurtenances Rosemary’s Baby has to offer, so many of us fans were thrilled to catch sight of Mr.Castle with his fat cigar standing by the phone booth. We were collectively excited to see the man who had entertained us all these years. It was heart warming. I did tear up.

Bill outside phone book color shot

Mia back of Bill's head phone booth

rosemary in booth sees Bill

I recognize Roman Polanski as the auteur that he is, but that is not what I want to dwell on here. I want to stress that Rosemary’s Baby would not have been made if it weren’t for William Castle, and his perseverance, passion and eye for intellectual property. William Castle acknowledged that The Lady From Shanghai was a work of art because of Orson Welles‘ direction, however, it was Castle who first discovered and purchased the rights to If I Should Die Before I Wake, only to have Orson Welles turn around and pitch it to Harry Cohn as his own idea.

It was Rosemary’s Baby that Bill chose to elevate his status from B movie maker to respected filmmaker in a very fickle industry. Let’s pay tribute to one certain fact: Rosemary’s Baby would not be the film it is after 45 years without William Castle’s imprint on it.

B&W Bill at Booth

In Bill’s memoirs Step Right Up, I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America (which is a fantastic read for any enthusiast about the golden age of Hollywood and just a darn good bit of story telling) describes how William Castle’s literary agent Marvin Birdt, the person who found the script and insisted Bill read the galleys immediately. Castle looked at the title and dismissed it saying “Its probably some story about an unwed mother… cheap exploitation. Who the hell wants to make a picture like that?” 

rosemary'sbaby book cover

Bill Castle thought the film just wasn’t for him at the point. It was 1968 and the film industry wasn’t really embracing horror films anymore. He was so overwhelmed with the lousy books and manuscripts that were piling up that he just couldn’t fathom wasting any time with yet another piece of junk. But, it took him all of three hours to finish the story, as he said, ‘bathed in sweat and shaking.’ Castle saw the magnitude of Ira Levin’s story when it was still in unpublished manuscript form: “I made up my mind when I read the novel Rosemary’s Baby that it was the greatest novel that would translate into a screenplay that I had ever read. That just lent itself to a brilliant movie. And I loved the property and I brought the property because I wanted to prove to the industry my fellow peers that I could do something really brilliant.” (Step Right Up, 2010) He told Ellen, his wife, that it was one of the most powerful books he’d ever read, and that it would be an incredible picture to make. When Ellen finished reading it, she told him “it’s disturbing… frightening and brilliant.”(SRU, 2010) But Ellen also warned that he’d have trouble with the Church.

Bill and Ellen
William Castle and the love of his life, his beautiful wife Ellen courtesy of Spine Tingler

Catholic Condemnation clip

Castle’s agent Birdt tormented him about other studios and directors interested in the story and making offers. Later, Castle had found out that the book had actually been offered to Alfred Hitchcock first. One wonders what it might have looked like if Hitch had been behind the camera, storyboarding Levin’s work.

Bill Castle was worried that he was going to lose the picture, but where was he going to get the quarter of a million Birdt demanded to finance the rights to the film? He asked Birdt to offer one hundred thousand dollars up front and then fifty thousand if the book became a bestseller with five percent of one hundred percent of the net profits. His agent wasn’t very encouraged that they’d accept the offer. The waiting to hear back was excruciating, but Castle did get the rights to Rosemary’s Baby. Now he had to come up with the money!

In Step Right UpBill describes how Robert Evans, in charge of Paramount Pictures, called to check in, not sure William Castle could handle such a serious motion picture.But, Charles Bluhdorn, owner of Paramount, wanted to meet with Castle personally to discuss the picture, saying “I have big plans for Paramount, and they include you.” Castle found Bluhdorn’s persona magnetic. He told him that Bob Evens had informed him about Castle’ obtaining Rosemary’s Baby.“Would you like to make the picture for us?” Of course, Castle told him, yes.

bob evans on phone
head of Paramount Robert Evans

“Your services as producer, how much would you want?” Bill Castle corrected Bluhdorn by adding the word ‘director’… trying to avoid negotiating with this man without his lawyer. Bluhdorn wasn’t having any of that. He told Castle that he would not negotiate with lawyers on the making of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s either between Castle and him, or Donnenfeld and Castle’s attorney. Castle decided he had the ego to take on this financial genius and told him he’d negotiate with him directly. But first, Bill asked him if he had read the story. Bluhdorn had not. Bill thought that worked to his advantage as the story was intensely disturbing so the less Bluhdorn knew about the story the better.

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Robert Evans and Roman Polanski

When Bill Castle finally blurted out that he’d want to produce and direct, Bluhdorn laughed at him called him a ‘big ridiculous clown.’ He tried to offer Bill only one hundred fifty thousand for the film plus thirty percent of the profits. Bill told him no way. It was a hard bargaining session. Bluhdorn didn’t know what he was dealing for and Bill did, Bluhdorn was also dropping the phony niceties and getting close to bowing out of any deal. “If I walk through that door, Rosemary’s Baby is finished at Paramount. No one -and I mean no one- will renegotiate!” Castle finally composed his inner panic and came back at the austere blowhard with an offer of two hundred fifty thousand and fifty percent of the profits. It was a deal. (Step Right Up, 2010) 

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Bill Castle courtesy of Spine Tingler

Producer Evans In Conference

Bill’s daughter, Terry Castle remembers, “He had to do whatever he could and it was his time. Mom and dad mortgaged the house and they bought the rights for a substantial amount of money.” (Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story)

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Bill’s wonderful daughter Terry Castle founder of Dark Castle Entertainment

With that he asked Castle’s age and if he’d heard of director Roman Polanski, or seen any of his pictures. Castle had seen Repulsion and Knife in the Water. Bluhdorn sung Polanski’s praises calling him a genius. He impressed upon Castle that with the director’s youth and Castle’s experience as producer, they could both learn from each other. Bill Castle started to find his fire, “Look Mr. Bluhdorn, the reason I bought Rosemary’s Baby with my own money was to direct the film… It’s going to be an important motion picture and I’m not going to miss the opportunity of directing.” (Step Right Up, 2010)

Bluhdorn told him that Polanski directs Rosemary’s Baby or no deal, and asked Bill to at least meet the young director. Castle says “I had made up my mind to hate him on sight… and that he wasn’t going to direct the picture I said absolutely no way. I bought the picture, I bought the book. I own it, I’m going to direct it..{…} I worked all my life to get something worth while on the screen and so at first sight I hated him.” He’d sent Polanski the galleys to read and if after meeting him he decides he doesn’t want him directing the movie then fine. Bill Castle says in his memoirs that while Bluhdorn was a tough negotiator he was at least an honorable and fair man whose handshake was better than a written contract.

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Castle and Polanski courtesy of Spine Tingler

In Step Right Up, 2010 Castle describes his first impression of Roman Polanski was that he was a little cocky vain narcissist who liked to look at himself in the mirror a lot. Bill asked if he liked the story, “I like it very much… It will make a great picture.” Polanski spoke in his Polish accent. “You would like to direct Rosemary?” Bill asked. “That’s why I’m here. Nobody will be able to direct it as well as Roman Polanski.” And Bill Castle’ felt that Ira Levin’s book was perfect for the screen, needing absolutely no changes whatsoever in adapting it. This was something he felt passionately about. He posed the question to Polanski. “The book is perfect… no changes must be made” Bill says that Polanski was so intense about this that it was quite jarring. “It’s one of the few books I have read that must be translated faithfully to the cinema.” (Step Right Up, 2010)

And having read Levin’s book, I can tell you that reading each line of every page is exactly like watching the story unfold on screen. It is the most faithful adaptation I’ve ever read, more like reading the script after the fact.

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Then Castle posed a trick question to Polanski to see what his vision was for filming the narrative, suggesting to him that the camera should not only move around a lot but use strange shots to tell the story. Polanski was empowered by his convictions and told Bill,“No, I don’t Mr. Castle. Actors tell story… like peeping through the keyhole of life. I do not like crazy tricks with camera… must be honest.” That was exactly how Bill Castle saw the film being made. When Polanski told Bill to start calling him Roman, Bill couldn’t help but start to like this man who truly did share a special vision for a very special story. Polanski went on to tell him, “Bill, we can make a wonderful picture together. I have been looking for a long time for a Rosemary’s Baby. To work with you would be my privilege.” (Step Right Up, 2010)

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Terry Castle, Bill’s daughter, remembers: “Polanski came over to the house and he was this young wild guy, just this incredibly wily dynamic man with this very thick accent talking about cameras and light he was just incredibly dynamic himself and my dad totally got him. He wanted to get Rosemary’s Baby made and he wanted to produce it… and yet he wanted to direct it. But I think once he met Roman Polanski I think he understood he could bring something incredibly special to the project. And I think it was okay for dad to give that up to him because I think he saw the brilliance in this man. […] Even though he wasn’t going to be directing it at least his name was going to be on it as a William Castle production and he was making for the first time in his life an important studio film.” (Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story)

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Left tor right, William Castle, Mia Farrow, and Robert Evans during the production of ROSEMARY'S BABY, 1968.

Bill with Mia and John on the set of Rosemary's Baby

The last thing Bill Castle needed to know was who he’d pick to write the screenplay and why. Polanski told Bill he would do it himself because he would stick strictly to the book. They spent the rest of the time discussing the film, Bill finding Polanski brilliant and extremely open. He immediately called Bluhdorn and told him that he was right Polanski was the only one who could direct Rosemary’s BabyBill Castle had the wisdom and grace to understand that Polanski would make a great film, but to be fair to Bill Castle. it’s also only after his careful facilitation and thoughtful know-how that helped bring Ira Levin’s story to life.

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Polanski and Farrow and Cassavetes in hall color

Polanski kept his word, he wrote the screenplay and adhered strictly to the book as promised. Polanski asked Bill to help him find a house by the beach to work and that he’d send his fiance over to help him look for one. On a Sunday morning Sharon Tate was standing at Bill Castle’s door. They found the perfect beach house for the couple, owned by Brian Aherne who was in Europe.

Polanski wanted to use Richard Sylbert to do the set design for the film. Sylbert had just finished working on Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Roman Polanski thought his work was brilliant. Polanski suggested Tuesday Weld in the lead as Rosemary. Bill agreed that she was a fine actress but said, “I think the role was written for Mia Farrow” Polanski watched her in several episodes of Peyton Place and didn’t agree. He thought Tuesday Weld would be better. Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Hartman, and Joanna Pettet were also considered for the part. Evans asked about the casting of Rosemary, which they both gave their choices.Evans told them that he didn’t think Mia Farrow was available because she was working with George Cukor, he’d check with Zanuck at Fox and in the meantime try and get a reading with Weld.

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Tuesday Weld

Now the buzz was all over Hollywood and every actress in town felt they would be just perfect for the lead role, but Polanski was still stubborn about Tuesday Weld. When Zanuck called Bill and told him the Cukor picture fell through, and Mia was available. Bill set up a meeting with Mia and Polanski over lunch and Polanski wound up being completely mesmerized by her. He finally agreed she would play Rosemary. The rest is history.

Roman Polanski actually developed a wonderful working relationship with Mia Farrow on the set. She didn’t bring any preconceived motivations to her role as Rosemary Woodhouse. Supposedly he had some difficulties with Catherine Deneuve on the set of Repulsion, but he found Mia very amenable to work with. Mia followed Polanski’s directions very well, which might explain some of her childlike and innocent air to her performance of the blithe and charming Rosemary.

Continue reading “Backstory: What ever happened to William Castle’s baby?”

EDGAR G.ULMER’S: THE BLACK CAT (1934) “ARE WE BOTH NOT… THE LIVING DEAD?”

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“The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.”

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THE BLACK CAT (1934)

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THE BLACK CAT (1934) U.S. (Universal) runs 65 minutes B&W, was the studio’s highest grossing picture in 1934. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movies. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and written for the screen by Ulmer and Peter Ruric.
Also titled: House of Doom; The Vanishing Body (the alternative British title was used in it’s re-release in 1953 as a double bill with The Missing Head an alternative title for the “Inner Sanctum’s” offering Strange Confession.

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Tod Browning’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi
Boris Karloff  in Jame's Whales Frankenstein
Boris Karloff in Jame’s Whales Frankenstein 1931

With the success that Universal Studios garnered from Tod Browning’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1931 starring Hungarian born actor Bela Lugosi, and the equally sensational popularity of Mary Shelley’s adapted Frankenstein 1931 directed by James Whale starring Boris Karloff, it would seem only natural for the studio to harness the cult popularity of these two stars, creating horror vehicles to pair them together in. This is the first of the collaboration between Boris and Bela. Also both stars were equally billed in terms of their leading roles. In Lew Landers The Raven 1935, Lugosi dominated as Dr. Richard Vollin and in Lambert Hillyer’s The Invisible Ray 1936, the emphasis was more on Karloff’s complex character Dr. Janos Rukh. The Black Cat was a huge success for Universal and opened up the flood gates for seven more films featuring the collaboration of Karloff and Lugosi; Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Black Friday (1940), and You’ll Find Out (1940).

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Edgar Allan Poe

Although The Black Cat 1934 claims in it’s opening credits that the film is ‘suggested’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s story from 1843 the film bares no resemblance to his short story, nor did Poe ever pen a single word about Satanism in all his volumes of the curiously macabre. The film does evoke the spirit of Poe’s fixation with morbid beauty, the preservation or perseverance of love after death, the suggestive ambiance, conflation of beauty and death and the unconscious dread of the uncanny. The architectural lines seem to also evoke the nihilistic sensibilities of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s ‘No Exit’ or a Kafka-esque fantasy of entrapment, with a mood set forth of futility and hopelessness.

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“Don’t pretend, Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl.”-Werdegast

Poelzig and his women in death

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‘the beast’ or the wickedest man in the world Aleister Crowley

Karloff’s character Poelzig is actually based on the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. Ulmer and Ruric were inspired by an odd news story circulating in the world press shortly before the making of the film. Stranger than fiction, it seems a naive young couple who were visiting a remote home of a magician, became entangled in the occult rituals involving an unfortunate animal sacrifice, a victimized black cat named Mischette. The magician was Aleister Crowley, and the isolated location was his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily. The press got wind of this when Crowley accused one of his writer friends Nina Hamnett of libel in a London Court. Hamnett had mentioned Crowley in her 1932 autobiography Laughing Torso.

The passage that incited Crowley’s vengeful wrath was Hamnett’s description of his days at the Abbey of Thelema “He was supposed to practice Black Magic there, and one day a baby was said to have disappeared mysteriously, There was also a goat there. This all pointed to Black Magic, so people said, and the inhabitants of the village were frightened of him.” Crowley became known in the public’s perception as ‘the wickedest man in the world.” It was from this story that the seed of sensationalism gave rise to the idea for The Black Cat which emerged as a tale of savagery and horror for Ulmer.

So, in actuality the title has nothing to do with Poe’s short story at all, as it merely alludes to Dr.Vitus Werdegast’s (Lugosi) all-consuming fear and dread of cats. A more faithful adaption would be The Living Dead (1934) directed by Thomas Bentley, and Tales of Terror (1962). The Black Cat (1941) starring Basil Rathbone was more of an old dark house mystery.

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Roger Corman directs Peter Lorre in Tales of Terror 1962

This mysterious and decadent tale was directed by Austrian born Auteur Edgar G.Ulmer’s who was part of the vast succession of émigrés of high-art who came to America, Ulmer passed away in 1972.

It is one of the darkest films of the 30s.The Black Cat is an effusive, atmospheric and brutal masterpiece of decadent horror among some of Ulmer’s other interesting contributions (People on Sunday 1930, Bluebeard 1944, film noir classic Detour 1945, and the wonderfully lyrical science fiction fantasy The Man From Planet X 1951).

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Influenced by the German Expressionist movement, the film lays out a sinister territory, strange and foreboding, unsavory and dangerous, clandestine and provocative. Ulmer worked for Fritz Lang in the early days living in Germany involved on films including Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). He also worked with F.W. Murnau on Sunrise (1927) Ulmer also worked with Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch in the 20s and Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnermann and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan,who was responsible for Metropolis’ miniature sky-scapes and vast edifices.

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On the set of The Black Cat
Boris and Bela in Edgar Ulmers The Black Cat
Boris and Bela on the set of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat

The Black Cat is considered to be Ulmer’s best film, though his career did start to maneuver it’s way downward into poverty row’s fabulous cinematic gutter toiling in low budget features, after beginning an affair with a script girl named Shirley Castle Alexander who was married at the time to one of Carl Laemmle’s favorite nephews. At the time Laemmle was head of Universal Studios, and so Ulmer was essentially blackballed by the mogul from Hollywood. Another factor might have been Ulmer’s unwillingness to sacrifice aesthetic sensibilities over commercial profits.

Ulmer and Shirley got married and wound up moving to New York City spending many of his years working on low-budget films. He began this part of his career by making bargain-basement westerns under the pseudonym John Warner directing a series of cheap ethnic-market movies incorporating groups like Ukrainian,Yiddish and African Americans, before he moved onto the more stylish low budget thrillers.

Edgar Ulmer in the directors seat

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Edgar G. Ulmer

The Strange Woman poster

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By the 1940s Ulmer wound up back in Hollywood but had already resigned himself to making poverty row productions. All of which I find thoroughly enjoyable, such as his Bluebeard (1944) starring the ubiquitous John Carradine, Strange Illusion (1945) and film noir cult classic Detour (1945) starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage who’s battered and desolate characters actually fit the noir cannon with an authentic realism despite the anemic budget. I also love The Strange Woman (1946) and another great film noir  Ruthless (1948) with Zachary Scott.

Ulmer still remained a very productive director with PRC, even if it was one of Hollywood’s bastard children. Studio head Leon Fromkess never gave Ulmer enough money to fund his pictures, Ulmer wanted to produce high art films and first class effects as his origin had come from a place where he was such a ”visual artist as well as a filmmaker. The one good by-product of the deal was that it gave him creative license to run with what ever vision he had for a working project of his.

Boris and Bela on the staircase

Director Ulmer also doubled as set designer on The Black Cat to create a work of visual stateliness, beautifully stylish and elaborate with its collection of modernist set pieces, working with the art direction and set design of Charles D. Hall and cinematographer John J. Mescall’s (The Bride of Frankenstein) vision of the striking, uniquely cold and Futuristic Modern Gothic art deco ‘castle fortress’ and it’s interior shots creating the arresting landscape of luxury belonging to the enigmatic Poelzig’s (Karloff) inner-sanctum.

The eclectically sharp and angular camerawork establishes a stylish Machine Age imagery and eerie symmetrical aestheticism. Mescall’s camerawork creates a very non-Hollywood and non-stereotypical horror film, filled with a sense of melancholy responsiveness from the heavily influenced authentic Eastern European films of the period. There’s also a quality of cinematic eroticism with Mescall’s use of muting the focus within the shot to create an added emphasis on suggestive sexuality, as the camera dances through various scenes.

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Boris High Priest

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Poelzig down the spiral stairs

The stark use of light and shadow, the well defined contrast of light and dark with it’s cold black spaces and diffuse whites constructing margins that pay homage to the expressionistic lighting used by German Expressionists film makers of the 1920s and early 30s. The atmosphere is oppressive as well as claustrophobic with an added air of perversity that effervesces within the elegant framework.

Ulmer co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Ruric (who used the pseudonym Paul Cain for his hard edged detective novelettes for pulp magazines, with screenplays such asGrand Central Murder 1942 and Mademoiselle Fifi 1944). Their script for The Black Cat deals with a deadly game of chess, ailurophobia (fear of cats) rather taboo and provocative subjects such as war crimes, ‘Satan Worship’, human sacrifice, being flayed alive, drug addiction and the underlying perverse fetishism of necrophilia.

Heinz Roemheld’s blustering classical score, with the pervasive use of work from classical composers, all set the stage for a mélange of sadism, decadence, erotic symbolism, torture and hedonist themes of pleasure pain and death. The underscoring of this deliberate use of slow, solemn and imposing classical music emphasizes the atmosphere of entrapment and hopelessness.

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Boris Karloff as the imposing Hjalmar Poelzig

Karloff’s character, Hjalmar Poelzig’s morbid and unwholesome preservation of his deceased wife whom he stole from Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), having manipulated Werdegast’s wife into marrying him telling her that her husband died in the war, ultimately murdering her and then forcibly marrying Werdegast’s daughter is all very salacious material. Werdegast’s wife’s body is kept in a state of suspended animation like a sleeping doll which is visually shocking and gruesome. He tells Werdegast that his daughter too is deceased but in actuality she is Poelzig’s new young bride. a drugged sexual slave. The film possesses so many strange and disturbing elements. The allusion to incest, sacrificial orgies and the heightened presence of music drawing heavily from Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B and Schumann’s Quintet in E Flat Major, op.44, Tschaikowsky and most notably for me, Beethoven’s movement no.7, a personal favorite of mine.

The film was made just prior to the strictly enforced production guidelines of The Hayes Commission that policed all the sin and immorality on the silver screen. Allegedly there were various edits to the production that Universal insisted upon, but the film still bares a very deviant and erotically depraved tenor to the narrative’s mise en scéne.

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When Universal executives both Carl Laemmle Jr and Sr. screened the film they were horrified by Ulmer’s rough cut, they insisted that he edit the film and so they hacked it up and toned it down. And actually Bela Lugosi himself was unsettled at the thought of his protagonist showing lusty desires for the very young American girl Joan. Ulmer reluctantly went back and edited some of the harsher scenes out, including the infamous ‘skinning’ sequence, A comparison to the original script from the final version shows that many of the most disturbing elements, including a more unabashed orgy at the black mass, were quickly snipped away and scenes which were more violent and containing more suggestive elements were exorcized like the devil.

But in a subtle victory of wile, Ulmer added a few more scenes showing Karloff taking Lugosi through his historical dungeon artifacts of the encased suspended beautiful women in glass, the posed dead bodies in perpetual lifelike form as if by taxidermy, collecting them as his fetish, the idea of possessing them eternally as an ‘object’ in a state of death, the theme of necrophilia must have slipped by the Laemmles.

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Poelzig’s women in glass cases preserved. The imagery is reminiscent of Poe’s fixation with death and beauty, and the conflation of the two

The subject of contemporary Satanism had only been dealt with on the screen once before by Lugosi in his supporting role in the long forgotten and believed to be lost The Devil Worshipper (1920 German) Die Teufelsanbete.

Universal’s marketing department downplayed the aspect of Satanism in the picture, nervous that the idea of devil worship might not be acceptable to the public theater goer as entertainment. So in actuality the original version must have really pushed the boundaries farther and been even more sinister. British censors found the film so offensive and unacceptable that the British print of the film, entitled House of Doom replaces any reference to black magic, using less disturbing references to ‘sun worshipper’, (silly) which essentially obliterates the entire transgressive significance and it’s impact.

Carl Laemmle had given Ulmer a free reign on the story’s content, but kept a close eye on the director in other respects. Ulmer had not been given the larger budgets that either Dracula or Frankenstein had been endowed with. He was also given a very short span of time to shoot the film, a mere fifteen days. This did not deter or side track Ulmer at all who was used to working with small budgets, and knew how to construct a film that looks as elegant as any largely budgeted project. He began imagining the story, scrapping many scripts that Universal had been collecting. Any pretext associating the picture with Poe’s short story was cast to the wind. And so he created an entirely new vision. At the core, the film works thematically as a revenge piece. But of course there is so much more bewitching the film’s narrative.

Gustav Meyrink novelist The Golem Prague Jew
Prague Jew Gustav Meyrink novelist The Golem
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Paul Wegener in the adaptation of Czech writer Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem

In the 1960s Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Ulmer in ‘The Devil Made Me Do It‘ who recalled another theme that influenced The Black Cat. He had been in Prague… and met novelist Gustav Meyrink the man who wrote The Golem as a novel. Like Kafka, Mayrink was a Prague jew who was tied up with the mysticism of the Talmud. They had a lot of discussions, contemplating a play based upon the Fortress Doumont which was a French fortress the Germans had destroyed with their shelling during World War I. There were some survivors who didn’t come out for years. The commander who ultimately went insane three years later was brought back to Paris, driven mad because he had literally walked on a mountain of bodies and bones. “The commander was a strange Euripides figure.Ulmer told Bogdanovich. (Euripides being an archetypal figure as a representational mythical hero, an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. Also Euripides voluntarily exiled himself, rather than be executed like his colleague Socrates who was put to death for his perceived dangerously intellectual influence.)

Much of the ambiance of this historic incident is reflected in Bela Lugosi’s dialogue in The Black Cat.

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Vitus Werdegast– “I can still sense death in the air.”

“And that hill yonder, where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on it’s very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world.” – Vitus Werdegast

Within The Black Cat is there an aesthetic tension between Expressionist Caligarism and The New Objectivity movement or Neue Sachlichkeit, which begin in Habsburg Central Europe at the dawn of the Nazi era? The New Objectivity espoused a new attitude of public life in Weimar Germany with it’s art, literature, music and architecture created to adapt to the changing mood of the culture. It was characterized by a practical engagement with the world, which was regarded by Germans to be an inherently American style or the cult of objectivity, functionalism, usefulness, essentially- Americanism. While the film injects a modern wholesome American couple into the plot, they are mired down in the decaying ghosts of the past atrocities and sins perpetrated not only on the land, but by presence of the vengeful and malignant atmosphere. An atmosphere represented within the framework of a very Caligarian milieu. This creates a friction or contrast by injecting the fresh American presence into the plot, surrounding them within an environment of an arcane and non-naturalist landscape.

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The Expressionist Caligarism was started by director Robert Wiene who’s surreal masterpiece Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Das Cabinett des Dr. Caligari will always be remembered as the iconic ultra-expressionist watershed moment of the genre. ‘Caligarism’ Painters turned set designers Walter Röhring and Walter Reimann were responsible for the brilliant expressionist style which influenced other films with both the ornamental patterns transfixed in the dysmorphic repertoire of shapes and configurations that permeated the set designs for 20s science fiction films like Andrew Andrejew’s AELITA – Queen of Mars 1924.

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AELITA- Queen of Mars 1924

The use of the color black or more accurately, the absence of light, can also been seen as part of the symbolism in The Black Cat: We are the voyeurs to this claustrophobic madness, as spectators we see the horror as highlighted by the stark blackness of the clothes, the black trees which are filmed in silhouette against a blackened sky. Poelzig is often silhouetted in distinctive blackness. This use of the color black or again more accurately in lighting it with the absence of any color or ‘light’, is used thematically as a way of installing a sadistic marker of the imagery.

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Cast of Characters:

  • Boris Karloff is Hjalmar Poelzig
  • Bela Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast
  • David Manners is Peter Alison
  • Julie Bishop is Joan Alison (as Jacqueline Wells)
  • Egon Brecher is The Majordomo to Poelzig
  • Harry Cording is Thamal Werdegast’s faithful servant
  • Lucille Lund is Karen Werdegast
  • Henry Armetta is Police Sergeant
  • Albert Conti is Police Lieutenant
  • John Carradine plays the Organist (uncredited)

Boris Karloff plays Haljmar Poelzig who is perhaps one of his most impressively darker characterizations. His all black attire, strangely androgynous hair style, and exaggerated use of make-up accentuates his features giving him the appearance of extreme and austere wickedness. Karloff’s eyebrows arch, his eyes flare and the use of his black lipstick make him almost deathly. Jack Pierce (The Man Who Laughs 1928, Dracula 1931,Frankenstein 1931 White Zombie 1932, The Mummy 1932 Bride of Frankenstein 1935 ) was responsible for the subtle yet dramatic make-up.

Karloff’s voice, his wonderfully lilting voice is typically modulated within the drift of his dialogue. He is remarkable as the incarnation of profane evil, with his icy cold reserve and detachment from the world.

Both protagonists are enigmatic, Karloff’s Poelzig’s utter malevolence and Lugosi’s hero Dr. Vitus Werdegast who is sympathetic yet also damaged, callous and obsessed by his lust for revenge, make both these disparate figures, magnetic archetypes that are equally compelling.

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Boris and Bela in a high stakes chess match, a game of death

The film takes place in Hungary, starting out with scurrying masses boarding the grandeur of the Orient Express. The Allison’s are on their way to Budapest,Visegrad for their honeymoon. American Newlyweds Peter a mystery writer and his new bride Joan Allison board the opulent train. David Manners who plays spare hero Peter Allison had portrayed Jonathan Harker in 1931’s Dracula opposite Lugosi, and again appeared as the leading man with Karloff in The Mummy 1932. Jacqueline Wells plays Joan. At first the young love birds have their compartment all to themselves until Dr. Vitus Werdegast, psychiatrist and veteran of World War I, a captive who has just been released from a prisoner of war camp after 15 years imprisonment, (Ulmer himself was a refugee of Hitler) enters the compartment due to a mix up needing a place to sleep. He tells the young couple that he is on his way to visit an ‘old friend.’

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Vitus Werdegast -“So you are going to Visegrad”
Peter Allison- “Yes to (sounds like) Gaermbish by bus.”
Vitus Werdegast– “Gaermbish is very beautiful, I too am going very near there.”
Peter Allison– “for sport?”
Vitus Werdegast (raising his eyebrows, looking down and speaking more to himself) perhaps… I go to visit an ‘old friend'” (spoken with a dark unpinning of hatred)

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While Joan and Peter fall asleep the gentle yet peculiar Werdegast becomes fixated on her, stroking her hair while her husband Peter who is now awake watches silently for a moment. Werdegast explains that his wife and daughter were left behind when he was sent away to prison.

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Vitus Werdegast- “I beg your indulgence my friend. Eighteen years ago I left a girl, so like your lovely wife… To go to war. Kaiser and country you know… (serious look, deeper inflection) She was my wife. Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? (Peter quietly nods ‘no’) It is a prison below Amsk. Many men have gone there… Few have returned. (taking in a deep breath) I have returned. After fifteen years… I have returned.”

Out in the rain let's share a ride

On their way

Bus Crash

Joan injured in crash

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When the honeymooners get off the train, it is pouring rain… they agree to share a bus ride with Werdegast , but there is a storm and the desolate rain soaked roads are treacherous, causing the bus to crash. The bus driver dies, and Joan is injured in the wreck. Needing to seek shelter Dr. Werdegast recommends that they join him at his friend’s home, the Castle Poelzig, so he can take care of the young bride.Werdegast treats Joan’s injury, injecting her with a powerful hallucinogen called hyoscine.

The name Poelzig is an homage to Hans Poelzig set designer/architect of the 1920s who’s version of Der Golem was stunning. Real life Poelzig was responsible for the astonishing Prague set that underpinned the mythic mood of The Golem.

In Hans Poelzig’s own words, “The effect of architecture is magical.” And he meant that literally as he believed that every building was a living thing, had it’s own musical rhythm and a mystical sound that could be ‘heard’ by the those who were initiated into the world of magic. Though a very private man it was known that Poelzig dabbled in magical arts, holding spiritualist seances with his wife at their home and using their daughter as a medium.

According to Poelzig’s biographer, Theodor Heuss, his library was “filled with the works of mystics, the occult sciences and astrology”  he was in the pursuit of the mysteries of eternal forms that he erected and revered through his sacred work constructing his grand style architectural designs as his ‘magic’ medium. Poelzig also found cinema to be an environment for his magical sensibilities, jotting in his notebook “Film… the magic of form-the form of magic… Devil’s Mass…” 

hans poelzig
Architect Engineer Hans Poelzig who indulged in the magical arts and believed that buildings had a soul…

Poelzig intrigued a lot of people with his mysterious persona. Director Max Reinhardt hired Engineer Hans Poelzig to build sets for his theatrical stages. Ulmer was one of the architect’s junior assistants who later worked on the set of The Golem as a silhouette cutter for Paul Wegeners monumental production. Ulmer had studied architecture in Vienna and so carried that knowledge with him which sheds light on his sense of set design.

Hans Poelzig had a grand imagination, a creative fortitude and a host of eccentricities, one of which was to be at times a very overpowering presence and domineering personality.

Architect Engineer Hans Poelzig

This left an impression on Ulmer, who took those memories from Germany to Hollywood and created a cinematic resurrection of designer Hans Poelzig’s persona in the image of Karloff’s shadowy devil worshiper Hjalmar Poelzig, creating the shades, shadows and the template for Ulmer’s mystical engineer sadist of The Black Cat’s.

F.W. Murnau’s Faust 1926 too, definitely bears it’s influence on Ulmer who worked as a crew member on the film. Faust, in terms of cinema of the Satanic, was a major studio production who’s main protagonist was the Devil and who was a complex character, and not merely a vehicle for a simple horror themed picture, it sprung from a confluence of intellectualism and metaphysical ponderings.

Murnau's Faust 7
Murnau’s Faust (1926)

DEVILS OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION IN CLASSICAL FILM

Stefan Eggeler-illustrations for Gustav Meyrink-Walpurgisnacht-(1922)
Stefan Eggeler-illustrations for Gustav Meyrink-Walpurgisnacht-(1922)
Dante's Inferno
Dante’s Inferno

The Black Cat does seem to be one of the earliest illustrations of the Satantic cult film. While the era of Silent Film had a slew of films that dealt with the devil and black magic, (Dante’s Inferno 1911,The Student of Prague 1913, Henrik Galeen’s The Golem 1914 Thomas Edison’s The Magic Skin 1915, The Black Crook 1916, The Devil’s Toy 1916,The Devil’s Bondswoman 1916, Conscience 1917, Murnau’s Satanas 1919, Der Golem 1920,The Devil Worshipper 1920, Dreyer’s Leaves of Satan’s Book 1920, and 1921’s Häxan, Nosferatu 1922. The Sorrows of Satan 1926 and  F.W. Murnau’s Faust 1926 ) After the economic crash of 1929 these very recognized landmark films seem to disappear.The 30s had The Black Cat 1934 and The Student of Prague (1935), both these films might be the protracted essence of the Satanic Expressionism of 20s German cinema.