BRIDES OF HORROR – Scream Queens of the 1960s! 🎃 Part 1

This special The Last Drive in Halloween Feature will conclude with Part 4 and it’s primary focus exclusively on the great Barbara Steele!

‘through the complex changes in society surrounding traditional female roles using the ambivalence of the horror genre’ – Claudia Bunce

The 1960s were plagued by controversy and convulsed with violence. Horror cinema with the exception of Hammer Studio and European filmmakers’ colorful pageantry of Gothic tales, and the colorful dreamlike poetry of Mario Bava, mainly transitioned from classical themes. In the 1950s, B-horror movie narratives were concerned with outside hostile forces, alien invasions, and fear of nuclear war, but the new decade began to explore more interior horror that originated in the home and within ourselves. And many of these movies stand out as women-centric protagonists…

“Widely interpreted as a pivotal moment in the horror genre. Suggestive that monstrosity must be defined as inherent to the bourgeois family structure rather than an arcane social aberration: the crimes of Norman Bates can be read as the consequence of the sexually active mother, not unlike Marian Crane. The film is profoundly subversive.” – source unknown

After Riccardo Freda abandoned Black Sunday, the project went to cinematographer Mario Bava and became his directorial debut. The film was the start of the director’s momentous contribution to the genre with his masterful grasp of mise en scené composition, allegorical visual symbolism imagery, and the bold use of expressionist color, vivid tones and spectrum of light. Bava directed Kill, Baby Kill! 1966 featuring a ghostly little blonde girl (actually a boy actor) with a white ball that is the creepy harbinger of a series of violent deaths.

Mario Bava unleashed on us his very dark-hearted black & white Black Sunday in 1960 with jolting scenes of death and a new horror goddess, the provocative, wide-eyed- Barbara Steele. During the decade of the 60s, Steele’s ascendance within the genre was part of a broader trend in horror cinema that echoed the real world. Her strong presence and instinct to captivate our gaze, stood head to head with male horror stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing during that period of horror cinema. Barbara Steele inhabited the haunted screen with such a formidable primacy, there’s no disputing she is the ultimate scream queen.

The Italian movie industry of the 1960s saw a wave of Italian gothic chillers. Bava’s Blood and Black Lace 1964 is best remembered as the first ‘Giallo’ a particularly savage trademark of murder mysteries.

Riccardo Freda directed The Horrible Dr. Hichcock 1962 and The Ghost 1963, Margheriti’s beautifully orchestrated, eerily atmospheric ghost story Castle of Blood and Ciano’s Nightmare Castle 1965. All starring Barbara Steele.

Roger Corman established himself as a successful director. Of course, maverick filmmaker Corman showered us with some of the best campy low budget sci-fi / horror films of the 1950s, and in the 60s we were reintroduced to the splendid Poe adaptations in a series of vivid films of glorious terror and dread, with Daniel Haller’s gorgeous hallucinogenic art direction. These films are a series of Gothic masterpieces, – House of Usher 1960, Pit and the Pendulum 1961 and Masque of the Red Death 1964, featuring Hazel Court, another icon of 60s horror, who would command the screen with her fiery sensuality, flexing her bloodlust to offer herself up as Satan’s bride in Red Death.

Corman established himself as a successful director with his landscapes as Rodrick Usher says are a ‘feverish and deranged mind’ with his colorful more substantial yet still low-budget homages to Poe’s series of horror tales. With screenplays by Richard Matheson and cinematography by Floyd Crosby. Reaching its artistic peak with Masque of the Red Death. Many of the women in his Poe series feature a more incendiary female character. The horror genre especially from the 60s forward would prove to have more provocative roles for women since the femme fatale reigned during the time of film noir.

Instead of the restrained earlier decades, the 60s held up a mirror to the decade’s social turbulence and reflected back to us, with subversive storytelling, its edgy gore, and taboo-breaking narratives that fed a whole new audience who were hungry for more realistic and challenging scenarios. A new vanguard of filmmakers shattered traditional boundaries that restrained on-screen violence and sexuality.

Women’s roles in classical horror films of the 1930s & 40s (to my memory for now), with the exception of Elsa Lanchester as the Bride, and Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter, initiated most of the leading ladies and supporting actresses, as easily fainting from fright, who screamed with hollow innocence, projecting reductive nuances of helplessness.

Still, there were established directors such as Alfred Hitchcock who caught wind of the changes, inspired by Clouzot’s le Diabolique 1955 and impressed by William Castle’s popular run of low-budget horror formula (albeit with its use of gimmickry).

Psycho 1960 would be set in safe and secure American suburbia instead of the imposing castles of Europe. The clean-cut serial killer would eclipse the caped swarthy vampire as the screen’s new boogeyman. Yet Marion’s ascendancy is as much a major element of the narrative as Norman Bates’ psychopathy!

Hitchcock offered us the bold cautionary, The Birds, a film Fellini referred to as “an apocalyptic poem” featuring a beautiful woman perceived as a she-devil that ushered in the natural world’s revolt.

FROM BARBARA CREED THE MONSTROUS FEMININE:

“Melanie Daniels in The Birds is a single woman in her thirties drifting – who must go through a trial by fire which she suffers, is humiliated and lectured to lower her defenses. She is an outsider who is being shown how social behavior becomes physically agonizing.”

The stark black & white Psycho 1960 based on a real-life serial killer, Ed Gein, pushed the boundaries of the Production Code with its shocking scenes of murder and inflected frames of Janet Leigh’s bra and slip. Leigh’s 30-minute on-screen persona of the immoral Marion Crane was a diverging representation of the traditional leading lady.

The decade also signaled a multitude of black & white psychological thrillers. Hammer split off some of its focus on the gory period pieces- translations of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy, and jumped on the Psycho bandwagon with films like Scream of Fear 1961, Maniac 1963, Nightmare 1964, Hysteria 1965, Die! Die! My Darling! 1965 starring Tallulah Bankhead as the menacing Mrs. Trafoil, not a Medieval crone but a modern-day unleashed psychopath. And, The Nanny 1965 with Bette Davis, coming off of her pair of shockers by director Robert Aldrich, plays a sinister governess terrorizing young William Dix.

After Baby Jane, the industry was rife with menacing Hollywood starlets. I’ll be writing about the shattering of the myth of Hag Cinema, down the road. Robert Aldrich set in motion a trend of psychological horror films after he paired Bette Davis and Joan Crawford together in what is considered campy, outrageous at times, sickening – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962. It was a watershed moment for the genre.

Crawford and Davis in particular in Aldrich’s films made the bold and courageous decision to act under harsh white lights, in grotesque makeup, and willing to immerse themselves into a character -eccentric, cringingly childish, and utterly sadistic.

After Baby Jane, Aldrich followed up with Davis, de Havilland, and Agnes Moorehead in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte 1964. Crawford worked with William Castle on Strait-Jacket 1964, and Geraldine Page played a greedy murderess in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? Co-starring Ruth Gordon. Shelley Winters appeared as the maniacal villainess in the fable-like Who Slew Auntie Roo? 1969 and Winters, Debbie Reynolds, and Moorehead in 1971 topped it off with Harrington’s What’s the Matter with Helen? A personal favorite of mine.

The second wave of the feminist movement and its emergence and impact began with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, giving 50s suburban housewives a different vision of domestic enslavement and began to disassemble the myth of that decade’s family values. The quaint and complacent sentiment of post-WW2 comfortability became subverted by empowered women who broke free and found new independence reigniting the Monstrous Feminine giving permission to women as represented more freely in film, with more prominent parts, especially fostered in… the horror genre.

The 60s subverted the expectations surrounding the traditional housewife roles. Witches could be well-bred housewives like Janet Blair in Burn Witch Burn 1962 or a malevolent ingénue, Sharon Tate in Eye of the Devil 1966.

“The housewife witches of Burn, Witch, Burn and Season of the Witch use witchcraft to escape the confines of the domestic sphere and subvert their husbands’ patriarchal power. Then there is the cult leader witch of Eye of the Devil who uses her femininity to intimidate traditional societal gender roles” – Claudia Bunce

Significant films like Robert Wises’ The Haunting 1963, which were suggestive of lesbianism and repressed sexuality, stars two very significant central female characters, Julie Harris and Claire Bloom who give intensely complex and reflexive performances. Bloom as the stylish and extraordinarily self-composed Theo is a truly independent woman who lives life on her own terms. There isn’t anyone who wouldn’t shiver while at the mercy of the malevolent forces of Hill House. Director Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (The French title Les Yeux sans Visage) 1960 has perhaps one of the most graphic scenes of horror, a gruesome fairytale with its medical experimentation with facial transplantation and a lead actress, Edith Scob with her macabre blank mask who floats around the halls like a lost princess swallowed up inside a night terror. The film also stars a stoic Alida Valli, a strong ally to the twisted plastic surgeon in search of a new face for his daughter.

Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, became a screenplay by William Archibald, The Innocents 1961’ lead actress Deborah Kerr lies wide open with her distillation of a woman tortured by her sexual paranoia. Dressed in classical clothes, unlike Deneuve’s role in Repulsion, where her character Carol’s neurosis is flayed and hung out naked on display.

And most significantly, the female-centric role of Mia Farrow as the allegorical heroine Rosemary Woodhouse, hunted down by a coven of upper west side devil worshipers in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby 1968. Farrow’s performance is a striking denunciation of control over women’s bodies, a slow burn of paranoia, and a strong instinct for survival.

“but when he (Guy Woodhouse) took control of her reproductive functions, he asserted his dominance over her in the darkest way possible.

Assertion of dominance reinforced his masculinity and the traditional role that men had in relationships. Guy’s taking control assuages the fear of women gaining too much independence.” – From Jenna Labbie damsels in Distress Analyzing gender in horror movies of the 1960s and 70s

Polanski’s earlier released Repulsion 1965 strayed from Hitchcock’s black humor drizzled about in Psycho. Repulsion rather has a sense of nightmarish realism and a protagonist, Catherine Deneuve who goes down a rabbit hole of repressive seizures.

Repulsion is an extremely disturbing contemplation on the destructive forces of loneliness, isolation, and paranoia seen through the lens of a sexually repressed young woman, Carol who suffers a homicidal breakdown while her sister and married lover leave her alone for a long weekend. An exit from the cheeky dark humor of Hitchcock’s Psycho, Repulsion brushes the screen with strokes of Carol’s existential misery.

Michael Powell’s groundbreaking shocker Peeping Tom is a hauntingly twisted mood piece about serial killer Karl Bohm who films his victims in the last moments of their death to capture their fear. It features two very strong female leads, Anna Massey and Maxine Audley.

Mexican fright flicks abound with atmospheric gems like The Curse of the Crying Woman 1963, The Brainiac 1961, and The Witch’s Mirror 1962, featuring strong female-centric characters played by Rosita Arenas and Rita Macedo. And in Jack Hill’s oddball black comedy Spider Baby 1967 benefitted from the quirky presence of both Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner as two bizarre, homicidal sisters.

Luana Anders features significantly in the genre, highlighted in Coppola’s Dementia 13 as the independent yet ruthless Louise Halloran and as prostitute Sylvia in Robert Altman’s psycho-sexual thriller That Cold Day in the Park 1969. The film stars one of my favorite underrated actors, Sandy Dennis who gives a stunning performance as the disturbed Francis Austen, who holds Michael Burns hostage.

George Romero broke ground with the brutal realism of Night of the Living Dead 1968 which has not so indirect social relevance. 60s horror films were breaking away from Hollywood and being forged by gutsy independent filmmakers with smaller budgets, and an imaginative longing to experiment with diversity, artistic style, and a divergent way to visualize and process gender roles outside traditional cultural norms.

Barbara Shelley

The Queen of Hammer

Ryan Gilbey, in her obituary in The Guardian, praises Shelley’s acting in the Hammer films, considering that she had “a grounded, rational quality that instantly conferred gravitas on whatever lunatic occurrences were unfolding around her.”

The world lost Barbara Shelley in January 2021 at the age of 88. With hair like paprika, Barbara Shelley was born Barbara Kowin. A glamorous gothic leading lady was considered the ‘Queen of Hammer’ during the studio’s golden age of Gothic horror. A classical beauty, with an air of elegance and self-assuredness, she has co-starred with other Hammer royalty Christoper Lee and Peter Cushing. Shelley was an actress with such integrity and beauty that she transcended the horror genre.

The London-based production company was founded in 1934 by William Hinds and James Carrera who made a string of hit Gothic horror films from the mid-1950s until the 1970s. Inspired by classic horror characters like Baron Victor Frankenstein, Count Dracula, and the Mummy and appeared in 104 films and television series until 2000. She was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company between 1975 and 1977.

From Wiki-
{Hammer reintroduced to audiences by filming them in vivid colour for the first time. Hammer also produced science fiction, thrillers, film noir and comedies, as well as, in later years, television series. During its most successful years, Hammer dominated the horror film market, enjoying worldwide distribution and considerable financial success.}

“Hammer was like a family, a very talented family… with a wonderful atmosphere on the set and a wonderful sense of humour”

“When I first started doing Hammer, all the so-called classic actors looked down on the horror film. All the other things I did, nobody remembers those. But for the horror films, I’m very grateful to them because they built me a fan base, and I’m very touched that people will come and ask for my autograph. If you went to see a [Hammer] film in the cinema, the gasps were interspersed with giggles because people were giggling at themselves for being frightened, they were frightening themselves, and this is what made Hammer very special.”

With her success as a teenage model, she made her minor film debut in Hammer’s motion picture Mantrap in 1952 directed by Terence Fisher and starring Paul Henreid and Lois Maxwell.

Shelley took her screen name from Italian actor Walter Chiari who saw something in the actress and suggested that she use the last name as a tribute to his favorite English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She wound up living in Rome for four years and appeared in nine Italian-speaking films.

She returned to the UK in 1957, starring that year for British Lion Film in her first starring role within the horror genre as Leonora Johnson née Brandt in Cat Girl (1957), directed by Alfred Shaughnessy who set out to borrow from Jacques Tourneur’s superior, and innovative Cat People (1942.) Leonora Johnson returns to her ancestral home that is beset with the family curse, that she will be possessed by the spirit of a leopard. The film was a collaboration between American International Pictures and the British Anglo-Amalgamated.

Her first starring vehicle was Cat Girl (1957), Alfred Shaughnessy’s offbeat variation of Jacques Tourneur’s influential Cat People (1942), and A.I.P.’s first co-production with the UK’s Anglo-Amalgamated. The following year she made her first major appearance in a film for Hammer The Camp on Blood Island.

In 1958, she co-starred as a woman in peril at the hands of mad scientist Callistratus (Donald Wolfit). In Blood of the Vampire, Shelley is the picture of fainting beauty chained to the wall, a garish period piece in line with the days of Universal’s classic horrors though scattered with gory scenes satiated by fake blood and understated cleavage.

In 1880 Transylvania Dr. Calistratus is brought back to life by his one-eyed hunchback assistant Carl after he’d been executed as a vampire. At the same time, Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is on trial for killing one of his patients whom he tried to save with a blood transfusion. He is found guilty and sentenced to life. Barbara Shelley plays fiancee Madeleine, set on finding the truth behind the incriminating letter allegedly proving his guilt, forged by Calistratus.

He is brought to prison for the criminally insane by the mad doctor’s hunchback Carl. John is put in a cell, a menacing place guarded by vicious dogs, where Calastratus experiments and tortures his human subjects. In order to prove John’s innocence Madeleine poses as Calastratus’ housekeeper who winds up chained to a wall and strapped to an operating table!

Shelley was against her body being exploited or appearing in any nude scenes while being menaced by Wolfit. She warded off this endeavor by producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman by writing the word “STOP” on her chest. She threatened to sue the studio if it even used a body double.

“I had one or two dissertations on horror sent to me by students, and all the discussion ever seems to be concerned with is exploitation and the licking of blood and a scene of people making love, and it’s not right. It annoys me intensely because my career was not built on exploitation and sex. It was built on working very hard.”

In 1960, she is marvelous in the heartbreaking role of the tragic mother Anthea Zellerby who has given birth to an unfeeling monstrous alien boy who has uncanny dangerous powers along with the rest of the children of Midwich. All the mothers in Midwich have conceived during a strange blackout where they wind up giving birth to a breed of malevolent telepathic sociopaths.

Shelley’s character is earnest in the role of a woman torn between motherhood and sheer terror in director Wolf Rilla’s incredibly unsettling moody classic blend of science fiction and horror-Village of the Damned (1960) based on John Wyndham’s science fiction novel The Midwich Cuckoos. The film co-stars George Sanders as Shelley’s altruistic husband Gordon, who seeks to understand the menacing children with their freaky white hair and piercing eyes and his creepy son David played by Martin Stephans. These dangerous little progeny can get inside people’s minds and make them do anything they want, as in making Shelley’s character stick her hand in a pot of boiling water. The screenplay written by Stirling Sillipant is quite a disturbing potboiler it total.

She went on to star in John Gilling’s turn-of-the-century old dark house mystery Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Some of the outstanding pictures that put her upon the thrown as the reigning Queen of those splendid years of Gothic horror are Dracula: Prince of Darkness 1966, Rasputin the Mad Monk 1966 with Christopher Lee, and The Gorgon 1964 with Peter Cushing. The monstrous Gorgon is portrayed by Prudence Hyman.

“She really was Hammer’s number one leading lady and the Technicolor queen of Hammer.
“On-screen she could be quietly evil. She goes from statuesque beauty to just animalistic wildness… She adored Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and loved working with them, that was very dear to her.”-Agent, Thomas Bowington

What truly established Barbara Shelley’s esteemed reputation as the First Lady of British horror in the mid-1960s is her collaboration with Terence Fisher. Leaving behind the more exploitative persona of the luscious heroine with inviting bosoms Shelley portrayed the sympathetic character of Carla Hoffman in Fisher’s mood piece The Gorgon. Carla is the assistant to Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing), and a tortured soul possessed by an ancient evil spirit with serpents for hair and the ability to turn whoever gazes upon her to stone, and Shelley conveys the bleakness of a woman who is held captive by her monstrous alter ego.

Before Shelley turns into a blood-sucking bride of Dracula, she plays her first woman transformed into a monster in The Gorgon (1964). She told the studio “I wouldn’t need any makeup… just a green face and the headdress of real snakes.” Shelley absolutely let down when she saw what the special effects department conjured up, “They came up with these terrible sorts of rubber snakes dancing around and it just looked awful. It wasn’t frightening at all.” She had said that it was “probably the biggest regret I’ve had in any film I ever made.”

She was absolutely dejected when they chose to substitute Prudence Hyman in the part of the Gorgon, “They came up with these terrible sorts of rubber snakes dancing around, and it just looked awful. It wasn’t frightening at all.” She called it “probably the biggest regret I’ve had in any film I ever made” though she admired the look of the picture, noting that “every shot … resembles a Rembrandt painting.”

In Dracula: Prince of Darkness 1966, Christopher Lee resurrects the count from Horrors of Dracula 1958. Shelley plays Helen the heroine whom we empathize with as she is trapped by her circumstances, when her stubborn husband Alan (who dismisses Helen’s panic) and his brother Charles, both refuse to leave the creepy unwelcoming Castle Dracula after stumbling onto the unattended mausoleum.

They want to stay and partake in a meal laid out for them, but Helen is justifiably spooked by its strange undercurrent. “Everything about this place is evil”.

Once Christopher Lee’s resurrection, Helen goes through a diverging transformation from the archetypal repressed female to an unrestrained raptorial vampiress liberated from her proper English breeding, in high contrast to her tight up swung hair in a provincial hat, was now wide open with unwound flowing hair and unequivocal breastage. Shelley loved how distinct her character’s trajectory was in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. From inhibited, startled gentlewoman to the monstrous feminine as one of Dracula’s brides. When she appears at Karlsbad Castle, telling Suzan Farmer, “nothing’s wrong” through hungry red lips and baring fangs. “Come sister, You don’t need Charles…” she tempts, with inviting arms outstretched to the innocent Suzan Farmer as Diana. Shelley’s virtuous woman who reveals to her Diana that she is now a vampire is lauded by Gilbey in The Guardian as having “traumatized and tantalized” viewers.

Shelley’s scream in Dracula is actually dubbed by fellow actress Suzan Farmer (Die Monster Die! 1965 with Boris Karloff) who appeared with her in Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin The Mad Monk.

In a terrifying scene perhaps inspiring Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, has Helen tapping on the window in the middle of the night. “Please let me in,” she pleads. “It’s cold out here. So cold. Everything’s all right now.”

She was delighted by one of her most potent scenes -as when she contends with her adversaries – monks who lie her on a table and hammer a stake through her undead heart.

Shelley told Mark Gatiss in his 2010 documentary series A History of Horror, “The scene that I’m most proud of is when she is staked that’s absolute evil when she’s struggling and then suddenly she’s staked and there is tremendous serenity. And I think that is one of my best moments in the film.”

“… and then suddenly she’s staked, and there is tremendous serenity. And I think that is one of my best moments on film.”

“Christopher Lee, who was an eloquent Gothic figure of pure evil in 1958’s first adaptation of Stoker’s vampire, had now evolved into a hissing fiend. But Shelley had this to say about the actor -“He brought dignity and veritas. It’s a difficult thing to bring to a fantasy like a vampire. And that is just Chris’ appearance and his personality. He did all that. He used to walk onto the sent and I’d say to him it’s an extraordinary performance, cause we know each other so well and you could hypnotize me. But it was brilliant because he completely dominated the film without a word. Talk about silent movies!”

Shot at the same time was another Hammer horror, Rasputin the Mad Monk with Christopher Lee has dialogue in a more colorful, lurid role, as the mad mesmerist in contrast to his silent, blood-eyed fiend. Shelley falls under the spell of Rasputin. While not willing to do a nude scene in Blood of the Vampire, she was however up to laying bare a seduction scene with Christoper Lee. “That scene was in the script when I read it. The scenes I refused to do was when they would suddenly say to me ‘Oh, you take your clothes off here’ The answer to that was always no” – From an interview with Fangoria Magazine 2010.

One of her beloved roles is her last Hammer feature in Roy Ward Baker’s adaption of writer Nigel Kneale’s (The Quatermass Experiment 1955, First Men in the Moon 1964, The Witches 1966, The Stone Tape 1972 TV movie) Quatermass and the Pit 1967.

In Quatermass and the Pit, Shelley portrays scientist Barbara Judd who along with paleontologist Doctor Roney (James Donald) and a team of scientists discover an ancient alien race whose spacecraft is found buried in the underground station at Hobbs End during an expansion of London’s Underground transport system. Shelley develops a psychic link to the aliens and is taken over by the inhabitants of the alien spacecraft.

She is subjected to images of green gooey decomposing locust-like alien carcasses that in the process of being removed from the tunnels cause her brain to succumb to the electromagnetic influence of the spacecraft, causing her to writhe in pain. She is so totally reasonable as an actress that she brings credibility to her character. Shelly had claimed that director Roy Ward Baker was her favorite of all the filmmakers she worked with.

The way he felt about her goes like this. He told Bizarre Magazine in a 1974 interview that he was ‘mad about her. “Mad in the sense of love,” he said. “We used to waltz about the set together, a great love affair. It puzzles me about her. She should be much bigger than she is, but I don’t think she really cares whether she is a star or not. She can act, God, she can act!”

In The Avengers 1961 image: Studio Canal

Barbara Shelley would eventually do guest appearances on popular television shows including the British television series Doctor Who playing Sorasta in the episode “Planet Of Fire,” starring Peter Davison as the fifth incarnation of Doctor Who. She would also appear on The Saint, The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and Route 66. Later she would play Hester Samuels in “EastEnders.”

Shelley’s final role in horror films was in the old dark house mystery Ghost Story 1974 directed by Stephen Weeks co-starring Marianne Faithful.

Her final role on screen was in the Uncle Silas mini-series in 1989. A sinister character brought to life on screen by Derrick De Marney in 1947 with Jean Simmons in the role of Caroline.

Although Shelley ultimately felt framed in within the horror genre by the late 1960s, retiring two decades later, she always embraced her devoted fanbase and left behind a substantial legacy. “I realized that my work had been appreciated and that I had – through those horror films – actually reached a far bigger audience than I would ever have done if I’d stuck to the theater.”

The actress was modest about her achievements but happy with her legacy, as she conveyed with typical aplomb to Marcus Hearn: “There’s a lovely saying – we’re given memories so we can have roses in winter. When I look back over my various rose gardens, I’m only sorry I didn’t enjoy them more”.

“No one told me I was beautiful. They said I was photogenic but no one said I was beautiful. If they had I would have had a lot more fun!”

In an interview with the Express newspaper in 2009, she said she was told at a convention by female fans that they loved her for her strong roles. “Which I thought was a brilliant thing to have said about one. I never thought of it in that way. The fact that I’m still getting mail from my horror fan base really touches me.”

TRIVIA

While making the 1961 TV film, A Story of David, she met Hollywood star Jeff Chandler and they began a relationship. Chandler died suddenly the following year. Shelley is later reported to have said that he had been the love of her life

So convincing was Shelley’s violently realistic struggle against the stake, she swallowed one of her stuck-on fangs.

With no spares at the ready and a tight shooting schedule, it is reported that she kept drinking salt water until she puked it up.

After the scene in Dracula: Prince of Darkness where she struggles with the monks at the end with her demise, it was so physically demanding on Shelley, that she suffered from chronic back pain.

Barbara Shelley would recall how she and Lee, prided themselves on being “un-corpseable”, and would compete to make one another laugh during takes.

Cat Girl 1957, Blood of the Vampire 1958, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED 1960 THE GORGON 1964,  DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS 1966, RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK 1966, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT 1967

Continue reading “BRIDES OF HORROR – Scream Queens of the 1960s! 🎃 Part 1”

THE BEACH PARTY BLOGATHON- CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) & Night Tide (1961) : Gills-A LOVE STORY!!!

THE BEACH PARTY BLOGATHON hosted by the fabulous Speakeasy & Silver Screenings

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CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) directed by Jack Arnold

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There have been sympathetic monsters that elicit our understanding, who cause you to care about them and their ordeal whether they’re the focus of a rampaging mob of villagers with flaming torches and pick axes or scientists armed with spear guns at the ready as surrogate penises –okay maybe I didn’t think about that surrogate penis thing when I was 9, but I see it so clearly now!!!!

Back in the day of the musty cool matinee theatre’s air smelling of buttered popcorn and old leather shoes, you could slink down in your good ‘n plenty and Milk Dud encrusted red velvet seat and wish that the monster would not only get away… but that just maybe he’d get the girl– instead of the self righteous hyper-science macho hero who objectifies everything! After all, the creature is not the one invading their territory, he’s prevailed in that environment for ions, before these macho nerds came along!

As a little monstergirl I used to think, and still do… just leave the ‘Gill Man’ alone!

We can sympathize with monsters, like Victor Frankenstein’s creation, & The Gill Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. We can find our involvement (at least I can), as one viewed with empathy toward the monster’s predicament. embedded in the narrative is a simultaneous pathos, that permits these monsters to express human desires, and then make sure that those desires are thwarted, frustrated and ultimately destroyed.

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Richard Carlson Julie Adams Richard Denning and Whit Bissell as Dr. Edward Thompson study the fossil of an amphibian man found near the Amazon.
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The crew catches something in their net… and whatever it was… has ripped a giant Gill Man size hole in it leaving behind a claw!

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?” Friedrich Nietzsche

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Mr. ‘It’s mine all mine” and Kay and Mr. “But think of the contribution to science!” looking at the poor trapped Gill Man-a lonely prisoner of scientific hubris and egocentric men.
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The creature trapped in a bamboo cage… floats, quietly thinking deep thoughts–while the three look on pondering what to do with him..

‘The Outsider Narrative” can be seen so clearly in Jack Arnold’s horror/sci-fi hybrid Creature From The Black Lagoon. Film monsters like The Gill Man form vivid memories for us, as they become icons laying the groundwork for the classic experience of good horror, sci-fi and fantasy with memorable story telling and anti-heroes that we ‘outliers’ grew to identify with and feel a fondness for.

As David Skal points out in The Monster Show, he poses that films like Creature From the Black Lagoon …are the “most vivid formative memories of a large section of the {American} population…{…} and that for so many of these narratives they seem to function as “mass cultural rituals.”

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Creature From The Black Lagoon is quite a perfect film, as it works on so many different levels of examining human nature and nature as human.

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When belligerent scientists and their relentless pursuit of expanding control over the natural world invade a unique creature’s habitat, forcing their domination of him- naturally he’s compelled to fight back.

In the midst of this evolves a sort of a skewed Romeo and Juliet. The Gill Man never intends to threaten Julie Adam’s character Kay Lawrence, he seemingly wants to make her his love object and maybe just maybe (idealizing of course while I imbue the ‘creature’ with a higher consciousness) the Gill Man seeks to free Kay from the dangerous men she is surrounded by. An amphibious knight in scaly armor, a rugged green scaly Adonis with limpid eyes and full lips.

The arrival of the expedition creates chaos and swampy mayhem due to the intrusion of the two opportunistic men who tote phallic harpoons around and fight with each other over questions of ethics, how to conduct scientific research and naturally who will conquer Kay– acting like spoiled children-the both. Only the Gill Man sees her beauty from a place of primal hunger and desires her above all else, perhaps with a innate sense of possessing her, but without all the cocky male posturing.

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THE LOVABLE HUGGABLE GILL MAN!! 
“I promise to keep my claws trimmed and never come to bed with cold clammy feet!”

“Yes, yes,” said the Beast, “my heart is good, but still I am a monster.” –Among mankind,” says Beauty, “there are many that deserve that name more than you, and I prefer you, just as you are, to those, who, under a human form, hide a treacherous, corrupt, and ungrateful heart.”
Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont

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“What freedom men and women could have, were they not constantly tricked and trapped and enslaved and tortured by their sexuality! The only drawback in that freedom is that without it one would not be a human. One would be a monster.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“When is a monster not a monster? Oh, when you love it.”
Caitlyn Siehl, Literary Sexts: A Collection of Short & Sexy Love Poems

In trying to capture the amphibian man he is driven out of his home in the mysterious upper Amazon by these otherizing anthropologists. And so the Gill Man–being shot at by spears and besieged by sweaty men in bourgeois khakis and unfashionable swim trunks blech! –must defend his realm.

He who is just lazing around, dreaming through the sun’s rays which sparkle upon the surface of the water amongst the little fishes and coral… bothering no one. Suddenly surrounded by intruders with weapons and nets, poison and cages.

But wait, one of them is leggy and soft and looks divine in her one piece bathing suit designed by Rosemary Odell... (Brute Force 1947, It Came from Outer Space 1953, This Island Earth 1955, To Kill a Mockingbird 1962) and what a pair of eyes!

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The Gill Man goes on a mission to get the girl and so endures his attackers because he has fallen for the simple beauty of Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams.)

Though his world has become disordered, the presence of the beautiful Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) it has awakened his sexual desire.

The film stars Richard Carlson as David Reed and Richard Denning as Mark Williams. The two men who invade The Gill Man’s quiet life and argue about what should be done with the subject of their research findings, to exploit, or study, or bring back to the states to gain notoriety and get paid lots of clams!, without an ethical thought in their curly scientific brains, forcing themselves on the creature and making him an object of entrapment & exhibition.

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“I think I love you so what am I so afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for I think I love you isn’t that what life is made of? Though it worries me to say that I’ve never felt this way”— Insert music from The Partridge Family –
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“There’s just something about an Aqua Velva Gill Man!”

The Gill Man watches from below the surface, as Kay Lawrence casually smokes a cigarette, taking long sensual puffs and throwing the butts upon the lagoon like trinkets for him to worship. He feels compelled to reach out for her but decides to be a voyeur for a bit longer.

Later the Gill Man sees Kay on the beach, the camera catches a notable deep sigh when he lays those deep green eyes on her. He moves closer. She lets out the obligatory monster movie scream queen shriek, that siren squeal, you know the kind, with the carefully place hands cupping the face in shock.

One of the men from the expedition takes a machete and tries to attack the creature, and he gets killed for his efforts. Dave and Mark hear Kay scream and approach just in time for the knock out powder they’ve placed in the lagoon to finally take effect and subdue the creature who is now out cold. He falls flat on his green gilled face down in the sand.

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Kay passes out. the Gill Man places her down gently on the sand...
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Mark (Richard Denning) can’t wait to beat the fish guts out of the creature!

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David (Carslon) has to intervene before Mark (Denning) bashes the creatures head in “Stop you’ll kill him!…”

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Once Williams (Denning) sees that the Gill Man has fallen down, he says “Got him!” then begins brutally smashing at him with his rifle, until David (Carlson) tells him to stop before he kills him. They throw a net over the unconscious creature. The scene shows the level of ferocity that man is capable of, and with this violent over-kill we on the other side of the evolutionary scale become monsters as well. It is a not so subtle contrast with the main character who is considered the ‘creature.’

Ricou Browning portrayed the creature in the under water scenes, and Ben Chapman played the creature on land. There’s wonderfully engaging cinematography by William E. Snyder. (Flying Leathernecks 1951, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 1956)

The Gill Man has dwelt in the warm existential depths of the water… the lagoon his endless cycle of existence, thriving until he is invaded by scientific hubris. While in the lagoon he is connected to the creator of his world, remaining bound to a body of water that is symbolic of the eternal maternal womb. He is then forced out of his quiet habitual life where he then becomes ‘otherized’. With an ‘Outsider’ narrative the familiar then becomes monstrous.

Our perceptions are focused on how this ‘creature’ shatters the mold of normalcy. He transforms the ordinary world into something provocative and forces the outside world to define him, once again as with Frankenstein’s monster, he is perceived as a thing… a creature.

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A film like Creature from the Black Lagoon can suggest to us the recognition of our notions of conventional sexuality and gender as well. The Gill Man is similar to a frog yet has walks upright and has the stance of a man and possesses that archetypal ogling that shows he has sexual designs on our heroine Kay.

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Kay Lawrence: “And I thought the Mississippi was something.”

While he is placed in a role that sees Kay as the ‘object’ of his affection, he’s sort of an androgynous amphibian, and yet he suggests that  “alternatives can exist which may be more desirable”-Mark Jancovich Rational Fears American Horror in the 1950s. Jancovich goes on to say that the film is “unremittingly sexual” The film has sexual symbolism throughout, as the outside world intrudes on an ambiguous sexual being living in the womb of the water, now unleashed as a sexual peril to women. The water scenes between the water ballet swimming Kay unaware that the creature is also swimming very near to her–are absolutely visual foreplay.

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Sweaty men baring their chests, wielding shot guns and Phallic harpoons as much as possible.

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Need I say more???

The most significant scene of the film is when The Gill Man swims a slight distance away from Kay, under the murky lagoon while Kay unaware, simultaneously moves through the water embracing it’s import with pleasure and liberation. She whirls above him, barely hinting at an erotic intimacy between the two.

Under the water the creature is not a threat to Kay, he’s almost shy, as he barely touches her leg, he swims away as if he’s conflicted with uncertainty about this new experience. William E Snyder is responsible for the striking underwater footage, that creates an erotic spacial world of shimmering light.

It’s almost a type of Eden, that those pesky aggressive scientific males spoil…

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We know that the creature shows a fascination toward Kay, but she sort of shares a kind of bond with him, as both are threatened by the domination of the two male scientists Mark and David. She tells the men to leave the creature alone, that it won’t bother them. Mark wants to capture the creature as proof of his discovery, rather than just study him in his own habitat. Mark also wants to possess Kay, both of them are treated as ‘objects’. There are several scenes where Kay and the creature stare at each other as if they see something in common within themselves. Harry Essex wrote the screenplay, hated the script at first so he added the Beauty and the Beast theme, to give the creature more of a sense of humanity.

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The Creature from the Black Lagoon is relentlessly sexual. Inhabited by mostly male characters, scientists who have traveled to the deep Amazon in search of undiscovered animal life. What they find instead of more fossils is the Gill Man who refuses to give up his freedom. And why shouldn’t the creature react violently to their intrusion into his quiet domain. What’s more interesting is how he quickly becomes attracted to the gorgeous Julie Adams and her gutsy character Kay, the only female on the expedition who once again looks smashing in a one piece white bathing suit and swims like she’s in the water follies. Jancovich quotes Biskind from his Seeing is Believing – claiming that the creature is “driven into a frenzy by the proximity of Julie Adams in a one piece bathing suit.” Sounds about right to me!

The Gill Man evokes our sympathy who has become an ‘object’ to be controlled, dominated and assaulted by the outside world. It’s the ‘men doing science’ who become the ‘aliens’ the bad guys, the human monsters and the creature another existential anti-hero who we identify with. It’s just a different slant on the theme of unrequited love in the the lagoon…

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Continue reading “THE BEACH PARTY BLOGATHON- CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) & Night Tide (1961) : Gills-A LOVE STORY!!!”

Altman’s That Cold Day In The Park: 1960’s Repressed Psychosexual Spinster at 30+? and the Young Colt Playing Mute

“How far will a woman go to possess a 19 year old boy?”

“When does that screaming loneliness drown the silence? When do the innermost cravings of a woman, tear away the iron-clad bonds of her small Victorian world? For Francis Austin- a virgin spinster of 32, it happens that cold day in the park. For Francis, the promise of fulfillment comes in the form of a wet 19 year old boy.”

That Cold Day In The Park (1969) Robert Altman-iconic American director (Mash, Nashville) best known for his very naturalistic approach to plot development in his films. He has a very stylized viewpoint, which creates an atmosphere of actors dialogues overlapping each other. He allows his actors to improvise their lines which was a very unorthodox method of film making. He’d often refer to a screenplay as a “blueprint” for the action, and cared more about character motivation than the relevant components of the plot. In Cold Day, he uses a more somber monotone dialogue, still informal and intimate, yet not as cluttered with the chatter he uses in his later works. Here the film works as a mood piece of modern Gothic horror that eventually devolves into Grande Guignol style. Another aspect of this subtler psychological horror film is how it makes the protagonist particularly ambiguous as we are not sure where our sympathies lie. Considering the boy’s entrapment which he become complicit in since he has several opportunities to stay away once he realizes that Frances is not emotionally stable, yet he’s complacent in luring Frances into his game. While Frances is both predator and victim, the moral ambiguities lay open.

Altman often presents Frances in that iconographic mirror in order to represent her duality. The reflections of the repressed woman and the voyeur who seeks to fulfill her sexual desires. While, ‘the boy’ walks around the apartment naked he becomes and ‘object’ of desire for Francis’ fragile self control. She is a pathetic deranged time bomb who will eventually lose all hold on reality.

Again, I will not give away the climactic ending. It’s too powerful through the camera’s framing, the storytelling and of course Dennis and Burns extraordinary performances.

At first I set out to do this review with a mind towards coupling it with another psycho-sexual film experiment Secret Ceremony 1968 starring Liz Taylor and Mia Farrow, by the great director Joseph Losey, but once I started thinking and writing about Cold Day, I realized I had a lot to say, so I’ll save that other psychologically startling feature for another time, although it makes for a good companion piece.

Johnny Mandell’s music works well as the very minimalist piano score that creates the atmosphere of loneliness. It’s a beautifully evocative piece of film scoring. Laszlo Kovacs’s cinematography creates a stark and sterile landscape who’s monochromatic colors seem to implode around the characters.

Starring Sandy Dennis (Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?’66, The Fox, The Out of Towners ’70) as Frances Austen and Michael Burns (loads of television appearances and he plays yet another  strange boy in Grand Guignol’s The Mad Room 1969) as “The Boy” That film directed by Bernard Girard. 

Dennis, an Actor’s Studio disciple is the compelling embodiment of the quirky-neurotic wounded bird. All of her unique idiosyncrasies manifest themselves with an air of offbeat mannerisms.

And in this way, you either are drawn to her non-subtle methodology which seems more natural to her than affected, or… her quirky charisma and physical ticks – the stuttering, nervous laughter, hysterical writhing, and awkward fits and starts, might just repel you. There’s probably no middle ground. That didn’t stop her from winning Academy Award and Golden Globes for her various performances. Best Supporting Actress for Who’s Afriad of Virginia Woolf? 1966, nominated for Best Actress in The Out of Towners 1971, and The Moscow International Film Festival Award for Best Actress in Up the Down Staircase 1967 and a Tony Award for A Thousand Clowns 1962-63.

This is what distinguishes Sandy Dennis from any other actor. She is memorable, and everything she touches will keep you transfixed because she is a brilliant sprite who possesses a hint of madness and jubilation.

The film is premised on Dennis’ character being a psychotic sexually repressed woman who’s loneliness has driven her to a spiraling madness. She is portrayed as the figure of an archaic high born spinster devoid of emotional or physical connection to her own body nor any other individual, male or female. A sexless drone living outside the world in her own isolated imprisonment/apartment in Vancouver left to her by her wealthy deceased mother. Frances carries on the ritual of entertaining her mother’s older friends out of an empty obligation filled with no joy or passion for life.

I’ve not read Richard Miles book, but I think that this story most likely had the characters’ motivations more fleshed out, it would have made for a compelling stage piece.

Sandy Dennis, plays a wealthy spinster starved for human contact who while entertaining truly older folk in her apartment, situated in some nondescript Urban setting, spies a young man sitting on the park bench outside her apartment. At first Frances wearing a forbidding black dress had ignored the boy sitting on the bench. While Sandy Dennis was quite a young actress of 31, her tightly upturned hairstyle and mannerisms indicate that she is taking on the role her mother once had, presenting herself as an ‘older’ woman.

She seems to be more recluse than hostess. She is repulsed by the old doctor friend (Edward Greenhaigh) who keeps trying to get her alone. It revolts her that he wears support bands to hold up his socks and smells like an old man. And she doesn’t seem to want to engage in conversation with any of her guests. One wonders if these gatherings are just Pavlovian ritual of the idle rich, a circumstance she has been conditioned to since birth, or is she shielding herself from any real contemporary human contact by hanging around a collection of fossilized bores?

Altman doesn’t give us a lot of information, he usually makes the audience infer from the actors what their motivations are. My guess is that it’s a little of both.

[And I mean no disrespect for the elderly, I hold a very high reverence for people who have claimed the right to life experience, but here in this situation, these particular guests seem to be used as a conveyance of sour, cynical and hardened natural snobbery.]

But the film uses artifacts of growing older to symbolize Frances’ revulsion of time honored traditions and older people. Though she surrounds herself with remnants of a past way of life handed down by her mother, her growing antagonism and loneliness sparks her madness.

Frances lives in her own world and for no reason that we are privy to, has been terribly damaged by her loneliness and self imposed isolation handed down by the matriarch. One day, one cold and rainy day during a very strained social dinner party at her place, she notices Michael Burns (The Boy) sitting on the park bench outside her apartment window. He is conspicuously perched on the bench with no apparent purpose. Only later do we learn that he had been waiting for his sister Nina (Susanne Benton) who fails to show up that day. Most likely in bed with her rough around the edges, Vietnam vet, drug using, oversexed boyfriend, played by John Garfield Jr.

A lone passerby drops off a newspaper in the trash can by the bench and Burns uses it as a blanket to shield himself from getting wet. This action creates an aura of a poignant soul at the mercy of the elements– an influence that draws the boy closer to Frances’ gaze. A praying mantis who has stumbled onto her mate/prey sanctuary.

She studies him with fascination. Perhaps, she glimpses a kindred spirit in his solitariness. We see how she sets herself apart from her guests. We sense a certain hostility, an obvious antagonism toward her gathering, rather than empathy. Even her trusty servants, who dote on her like a mother hens evoke a level of disdain in Francis. Her housekeeper Mrs. Parnell played by (Rae Brown) sheds a disapproving air about Francis once she’s let the boy into the apartment. Everyone involved in the periphery of Francis’ life assumes her loneliness as unhealthy. Yet Francis continues to shield herself from any genuine human contact until she discovers the boy. The boy being the catalyst for her latent sexual desire.

She sends her guests away early and runs outside standing behind the chain link fence of the apartment complex, an almost prison like effect is constructed. She calls to the boy from her fortress. He comes to the fencing and Francis invites him in to her apartment to dry off. She then runs him a bath and begins to dote on him, feeding him, playing him records of various varieties of music. She hovers over him as if he were a stray puppy or as the New York Times reviewer(Howard Thompson) referred to him as a young colt, she has found.

In Peter Shelley’s Grande Dame Guignol Cinema he makes an interesting observation about the way Kovacs lenses Frances in shadow as if she is a ‘female monster’ when she asks ‘the boy’ to stay. Also suggesting that Altman presents Frances personae likened to ‘vampirism’ as she wears her hair down at night.

He feigns being mute. This is something his sister lets us know he does from time to time. Again we do not know why he would shut off from communicating, but he uses it as a way to watch Francis from a distance. He tells his sister the first time he sneaks out the bedroom window back to his real home that he’s never met anyone who talked as much as Francis, and that she is sexually weird. Perhaps we are supposed to decipher something  significance about a boy who chooses not to talk, and a woman who chooses only to talk. Francis’ chatter is so trivial at times, yet it uncovers no layers to her pathology.

Early on we sense that his being mute is a ruse, we also see glimpses of Francis knowing all too well, that he is only playing mute. But she is suddenly drawn to him and now their game has commenced which plays out very tediously, yet compelling all the same.

Michael Burns has an impish face. He’s a highly underrated actor of the 70’s. In Cold Day, his range is truly utilized in Neo-Gothic urban fashion. His role in The Mad Room (1969) released that same year, starring Shelley Winters and Stella Stevens, didn’t really give him the environment to expand his acting prowess. He’s got boyish good looks. Almost Cherubim. We see his naked bum a lot, prancing around the apartment with only a bath towel and his silent body language. Doing a little Chaplinesque pantomime to convey “himself”, his spirit, as he is acting mute for Francis. He exudes a hint of dangerous quality yet manifests a gentleness. Perhaps in his mind he at first romanticizes in dreamy fashion that he is an Oliver Twist who has stumbled onto something good. A street urchin who has been taken in by a seemingly kind yet odd woman. And so he’s playing along with the game, all the time realizing that Sandy Dennis’ character is not quite right. She talks incessantly about things that aren’t relevant. He humors her, in an odd sort of sympathetic way.

Of course there is another element of his motive for allowing himself to be taken in. His opportunism, as he is tolerating her advances and the exploitation of her quirkiness, and the foisting of gifts and comforts upon him. We later come to learn, that he is from a very dysfunctional home life. When he runs home to his sister Nina who’s smoking hash and carrying on with her boyfriend, he tells her how grateful he is to finally have his own room and bed.

Nina is a hyper sexual sister, who has more than incestuous overtones for her little brother. The Boy also has a strain of sexual dysfunction in him as well. There are no boundaries as his sister has sex with her boyfriend while her brother watches on the fire escape outside her window. Later on, she shows up uninvited to Francis’ apartment and takes a bath, she plunges him into the tub with her and then while lying on the bed naked tells him that he excites her and she excites him. If not for her breaking the tense and perverse moment with laughter, we might have seen the boy move onto the bed to have sexual relations with her. These are streetwise and blamelessly ruthless children. Apparently the mother is non involved and these siblings are out to fend for themselves. There is no familiar foundation from which they spring from, and so they seem to wander aimlessly, pleasuring themselves with what ever comes their way.

After the first night of Francis’ treacly verbal stroking of her new pet, she tucks him into bed like a child, and then she locks the door. He is able to sneak away through the window to retreat back to his origin. To meet up with his sister. To relate the strange situation he has stumbled into. But we get the first sign that this diversion, this subterfuge will not end well.

From that very first night there is a sort of tedium that drones on as Dennis’s character starts to care take him, which begins with the locking of the door to his room. Though striking the boy as bizarre, he seems untroubled by this maneuver, and so slips out at night through the window, planning to return later on, unnoticed by Francis.

Later on in the film, entering his room, she discovers he’s out again at night after having poured her heart out with more than the usual meaningless diatribes she spurts, she realizes that it’s really a lump of dolls he’s stuffed under the blanket made to look like him sleeping. She had been telling him that it’s okay if he wants to make love to her, and that she wants him to make love to her. Once she discovers that he’s not even in the bed, it ignites outrage,she screams, and now we see her wrath starting to leak out a bit, betrayed that he has left her alone.

So,no more slipping out for the boy. She nails down every window and locks all the doors and keeps him prisoner. When he returns after the revelation that he’s been slipping out,he now finds that he is a virtual prisoner, he tells her that he can leave any time he wants. he looks for knives in the kitchen and grabs a meat cleaver to try and wrench the nails from the window sills. The tension is building as he realizes that this is not a game anymore, that she is truly mentally deranged and he is now her captive.

She tells him that she understands that he’s young and needs sex and that she’ll bring him someone.

She then proceeds to go to a seedy bar trying to procure a prostitute as surrogate for her sexual repression.The first bar Francis goes to, she sits and watches a girl, beehived Mary Quant black eyeliner and attitude, almost a flash forward to singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse. Francis approaches her in the bathroom and asks if she’ll come home with her because she has a boy there who needs sex. The girl asks how much, then rebuffs Francis and calls her a pervert.Assuming that the sexual procurement was for herslef, a woman and not someone else. But overhearing the incident, Michael Murphy as The Rounder.

Taking on the task of recruiting a prostitute for Francis, the smarmy character that Murphy plays, brings Francis to what looks like an all night dive diner/lesbian hang out, where all the players in the room are further used to set off an ambiguous puzzle as to whether the prostitute is for her or not. Francis’ sexuality is truly ambiguous in this film.

A scene at the gynecologist, (a male doctor) must be part of the narrative that tells us how clinically she is disconnected from the sex act. How her body is something she is not attached to, but finding this boy, as a keepsake, a play thing, brings her madness to the level of psycho sexual and psychopathic breakdown.

Ultimately while we’ve been dancing back and forth between both characters who have been humoring each others’ motives and whims, the fracturing of reality has begun for Francis, and ultimately for the boy to see that he has entered into a very savage trap. The tension stems from more of a growing inertia that suddenly combusts.

Luana Anders, (early 60’s cult actress from Roger Corman’s wonderfully macabre adaptation of Poe’s Pit and The Pendulum and Curtis Harrington’s very obscure but nigthmarish and dreamy Night Tide also starring in Dementia 13 ) plays Sylvie the prostitute, in one of the more emotionally connected scenes that gives us some frame of reference of reality to the real world,a more engaging character who comes into the framing of the story. The whole thing culminates in a very disturbing moment, that abruptly grabs at your psychic jugular vein and leaves you speechless. A tragic poignancy, bleak and dismal, perhaps while more subtle than recent films of the genre, still a psychologically grotesque film for some people to watch.

It’s a compelling interaction of misguided souls triggering a psychotic combustion of parts. Leaving you more than a little uncomfortable. While I found the film an interesting experiment in the sub genre of psycho sexual disturbances and 70s Grande Dame Guignol, I’m not sure anyone else would be able to sustain viewing it long enough for the climactic end.

Sandy Dennis has done her share of films where she gets to stretch her range. Usually, coming across like a wounded bird. (The Fox, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolff?) she can be like a languid train wreck in our view who’s articulations while off putting, can draw you in as well.

Without giving away the swiftly shocking ending, I’d say that this film might annoy most film goers, yet I found it oddly satisfying. Perhaps in it’s initial theatrical release, audiences found it disturbing and unsavory, today it satisfies my taste for eclectic cinema and character acting with a slow burn pace and an undeniable gestalt laden, thought provoking climax that permeates the brain cells and lasts on the tongue like a big clove of garlic, the film disturbs the mind for hours. While That Cold Day In The Park obviously reviled film critics and movie goers during it’s theatrical release in 1969, I think it’s one of Altman’s most underrated pieces of work.

 

Movie Review New York Times Published June 9,1969 by Howard Thompson

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

“The kindest thing to say of this misguided drama, about a wealthy, thirtyish spinster, who installs, then imprisons a coltish youth in her apartment, is that it caused a healthy flurry of filming activity in Vancouver, British Columbia, by an enterprising American production unit.”

“The climax is a gory business with a bread knife.”

The Cast
THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK, screen play by Gillian Freeman, from the novel by Richard Miles; directed by Robert Altman; produced by Donald Factor and Leon Mirell;  Running time: 112 minutes.
Frances Austen . . . . . Sandy Dennis
The Boy . . . . . Michael Burns
His Sister . . . . . Susanne Benton
Nick . . . . . John Garfield Jr.
The Prostitute . . . . . Luana Anders