Sunday Nite Surreal-The Premonition (1976) Carnival Clowns & Deathly Dreams

THE PREMONITION 1976

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Directed by Robert Allen Schnitzer and written by Anthony Mahon, Schnitzer and Louis Pastore? Okay… While I’ve never seen anything else by Schnitzer, this moody, surreal, haunting and often frenetically disturbing reverie has remained with me all these years. Some people think it’s a weak film, not even a horror movie. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece, but I think it’s a genre gem!

What’s really strange about this hidden terror film is cinematographer/director Victor Milt ( Run Stinky Run, Sex Wish) has done some weird really obscure stuff after working on The Premonition and director- writer Schnitzer hasn’t done anything I can talk about here either. So how did this remarkably creepy film become what it is??? I wish I knew the answer, but there have been memorable films created by one time feature film directors like Herk Harvey’s who usually did shorts or documentaries who envisions the gorgeous dreamlike Carnival of Souls 1962. At least writer-actor Richard Blackburn did Eating Raoul 1982 after his unbelievable Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural 1973. (Coming to the Last Drive In soon!)

Great character actor Jeff Corey plays the investigating Police Det. Lt. Mark Denver. There’s even a gypsy woman, played by Wilmuth Cooper. 

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Jeff Corey plays the investigating Police Det. Lt. Mark Denver.

I saw The Premonition when it first arrived in theaters in 1976. It frightened the bejesus out of me then, with it’s nightmarish segments in particular Jude’s (Richard Lynch) and Andrea’s (Ellen Barber) uncontrollable fits of rage. Their joint psychosis was a very powerful elixir as part of the carnival set piece. Their relationship alone could have made for an interesting story of madness, obsession and self-destruction.

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This film was my introduction to the interesting actor that is, Richard Lynch. The film has stayed with me. I’ve read other people’s reviews who think the script is ridiculous, muddled and the pacing is choppy. Still it has a haunting quality to it, especially Lynch and Ellen Barber’s performances. The music by Henry Mollicone is fantastical for the vibe of the film and fascinates me, now I have to see his musical performance in the fascinating documentary The Face on the Barroom Floor 2013.

The lens has a ghostly haze over it. with a low drab subdued tonality. The music brings you in like a soft waling of an otherworldly siren. An eerie Glossolalia , the fluid vocalizing of the tormented Andrea. Reminding me of the amazing Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance.

The institutional green bus pulls over and Andrea grips herself looking toward something. The clear pale blue sky hovering over Andrea feels chilly. She is beautiful yet strange, walking slowly toward the carnival grounds. A flutter of birds let out into the air, the vocalizing continues and Ferris Wheel comes into focus with another stomach turning carnival ride. These daydreaming machines add the color to the midway landscape. It is desolate here.

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It somewhat creates a colorful version of Carnival of Souls the haunting set pieces of desolation, and otherness that play on our deepest thoughts. The impressions effervesce in fair grounds and we construct fantasies.

Dulcimer and glistening piano bring forth Jude, a cigarette hanging out of his oddly angular face and lion like blonde mane, he’s almost sexy ugly. The film still lensed in cold aqua greens and pale blue. He steps out of his trailer, we see he’s wearing white ballet slippers like a mime. The piano rolls magnificently. Henry Mollicone is a virtuoso. With electronic music by Pril Smiley.

Jude steps out onto the pavement, wearing suspenders he begins a series of theatrical movements. Moving dramatically with his scarf.

Jude expresses with his body more fervently as if he hears the grand piano playing. He reaches up to the blue sky so vivid so crystalline blue. As Jude it is a lonely dance for a sad solitary clown. As he bends downward he sees Andrea standing there. It a portent, life is about to be turned truly upside down.

The story is a simple and unreserved one, gripping and nightmarish for all the players and we who witness a small girl being hunted psychically by her dangerously unstable biological mother who is traveling with a carnival.

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The scene cuts to them sitting in his trailer she’s looking at photographs through a spy glass. He says “Look at those eyes, Andrea, and the mouth… see that. I saw her yesterday when I took the photograph. This time I’m positive I know it’s her” “You sure her name is Janie” “Yeah I’m sure, here look” He flips the photo over and the name and age is on the back.
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“Janie Bennett the age is right… it all figures… it’s gotta be her” Andrea asks, “Where does she live?” Jude tells her, ” Dover about 5 miles from here.”

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Jude begins to put on his heavy white grease paint. Andrea goes to the board and touches the photo of Janie…
She turns to him… ” I thought you’d forgotten about me Jude” ” I told you I’d call you as soon as I found something didn’t I?” “Jude what if its not her, what if it’s like all the other times… what if we come out with nothing what then?” Then we wait and we keep on waiting until we find her”

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When Andrea shows up at Janie’s school, the music becomes a flutter of wings with flute as the children run free from their inside captivity. Andrea fingers the metal holes in the fence moving slowly, waiting for her little girl to appear. Finally Janie is standing before her she calls to her, then Janie runs to her adoptive mother Sherrie who is waiting in the car.

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Back in Jude’s trailer-Jude says, “We were lucky it couldn’t of taken years to find her” “It did take years… five stinkin’ years in that rotten pit” Jude answers,”Oh it wasn’t all that bad, I mean we wouldn’t have met otherwise.” 

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Andrea’s horrible beer drinking tv junkie landlady in curlers

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The use of ‘red’ in this movie is distinct. It is the characteristic color that symbolizes Andrea’s passion, madness and self destruction. Red is Andrea’s COLOR… down to her lipstick

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The window impresses me as a Mark Rothko painting. The color red is very impressionistic and so vital to the film’s narrative.

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The use of ‘red’ in this movie is distinct. It is the characteristic color that symbolizes Andrea’s passion, madness and self destruction.

Jude tells Andrea that he has found a house. A small house in the woods, a nice place to settle down with the kid.

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Andrea glows a weird smile emerges at first “Settling down!” Then clenching her teeth as she drags the comb through wet raven tresses. “What are you talking about settling down for… what are you talking about. Sometimes I just don’t understand you Jude. Settling down for what…?this comes first! “

But Jude explains that they can hide out in that house til things blow over. She walks away towel drying her hair.

He remains on the topic “nobodies lived there for years. they’ll never find us”

Jude lays on the bed smoking a cigarette while Andrea in red bathrobe, plays a beautiful piece of music on the piano.

The scene switches to Miles talking to Dr Kingsly his associate about parapsychology as she instructs a small class-

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“The Clairvoyant reality is totally rejected by science and finds expression only in our art, music religion”

“The Clairvoyant reality is totally rejected by science and finds expression only in our art, music religion”

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At the same time the film is juxtaposing images of Andrea having a primordial psychic meltdown. Not even maternal scream, just a core anaphylactic roar from deep within.

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Sherri begins to see visions of a volatile confrontation between Jude and Andrea. On the spectral plane it comes across in distorted yowls and negative film images. It’s quite a frightening effect. I remember being terrified by these scenes in the darkness of the theater. Like little shock treatments to a burgeoning MonsterGirl mind…

For people who think there isn’t enough explanation to the narrative Sherri’s friend hints at the idea when spending the night telling Sherri that she had heard of two minors who had been trapped for several days, they began sharing the same hallucinations. In this way, her question about Sherries disturbing visions somehow being linked to Janie’s bad dreams is true.

A psychic storm is brewing from the rage and unrequited desires from both Jude and Andrea. Janie and Sherrie naturally begin to form a single wave length that tunes into this frequency. At least this is the premise of the film. The one link is Janie the child… and who will be the conquering mother?

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While Miles is not working late with the attractive professor Kingsly, he’s eating cotton candy and riding the merry go round with her.. hhm… at the carnival-definitely research related… as she suddenly looks down at Mile’s wedding band her happy expression fades away.

Meanwhile Andrea and Jude pull up in that fabulous green pick up. The crickets and chorus frigs are singing their night song. Jude shuts the motor off. In her red dress, nails and oz slippers like the witch of the west Andrea creeps or slithers into the house to take Janie.

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the frame appears to give an almost fun house effect with the striped wall paper that disorients us
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Andrea’s presence on the stairs casts a dark menacing shadow along the wall, reminiscent of Nosferatu

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The use of electronic sounds is excellent.

Andrea’s casting a darkness, shadowing the wall is reminiscent of Nosferatu. Andrea is almost as icy as a dead thing herself… wanting to lure the child back, it looks and feels vampiric. Yet this is Janie’s biological mother, which creates some ambivalence for me as she deserves to have at least guided contact with her daughter, otherwise why let her out of the mental hospital?

It creates the effect of psychic static the use of sound used whenever the camera focuses on Andrea’s movements.

And the framing of Andrea looking back into the den while Sherri sleeps utilizes the striped walls as they also become as distorted as fun house room. Very disorienting.

The last remnant of shadow left from andrea creeping up the steps is eerire as Sherri sleeps as if under a spell. Once again… a notion of Nosferatu. Andrea even has a dark complexion that could even be considered eastern European gypsy, like Bela Lugosi.

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The use of electronic static, noise represents Andrea’s state of mind at the moment. The use of low lighting and color is well placed and create a surreal atmosphere of worlds colliding.

The electronic noises that represnet Andrea’s madness and presence are like a metalic insect. As if she hisses and slithers into Janie’s room. Everything is back lit. Andrea’s color is hot reds, and Janie is cool blue.

Sherri wakes up to the sound of the rocking chair in Janie’s room.

No body can tell me that this film isn’t an eerie, haunting little story, that stays with you… If it doesn’t deliver on the kinds of gruesome gory chills you’d expect from a 70s horror story then you’re watching the wrong film. But this film is highly underrated and often shot down by critics who feel it falls short. Oh well… The rest of us who know it’s strength will continue to advocate for it…Back to the film….-MonsterGirl 

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Andrea runs down the stairs taking one of Janie’s dolls  after fighting with Sherrie who is clinging to Janie on the bed. Andrea screams up to Sherrie… “She is Mine… she will always be mine-!!!!!!” Her voice is strained, powerful, almost magnetic.

Back at Jude’s little house in the woods, Andrea is holding Janie’s doll as if it were her.

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“You are such a pretty baby” Andrea says to the doll. Jude staring out the bleak window of the little house looks on with a worried stare. He rips the head off the doll as it squeaks Andrea screams and cries. Jude has become more unhinged himself. It has been brewing in him since the beginning. But it is not working out the way he had envisioned. He can’t control Andrea, and she obviously doesn’t care for him the same way. Two mentally ill people fighting over their own neurosis.

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“What’d you do to my baby?”
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“Your baby, your baby is back in the goddam house with its mother”

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“What’s it to you? You’re not her father!! You are nobodies father. And you’re never gonna be anyone’s father… You aren’t even a goddam MAN!!!!

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Andrea destroys Jude’s manhood as if she took a knife and thrust it in.

Jude looses it… we hear screams.

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At the same time…Sherrie gets cold in the bathroom, the mirror freezes over. She cannot see herself. It’s a supernatural event that begins to connect the events surrounding the players involved.

Jeff Corey the investigating cop shows up at Janie’s biological father’s house to ask some questions about Andrea.

I’ve noticed the narrative uses a lot of frames where people are either looking out windows or doors or standing in the doorframe looking in. It’s that tout to parapsychologies’ introspective plane of existence…the within powers that surround all of us on a personal level. The character look inward, we’re watching them look inward and we wind up looking inward with them…

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Danielle Brisebois makes her debut playing Janie Bennett the wee one who is being visited by her psychic/psychotic mother through horrifying visions like a vampiric wraith filtering through the ether reaching outward to contact her little girl who was given away to foster parents while she was in the mental ward. But Janie is terrified and wants to remain with her foster parents Prof. Miles and Sherri Bennett played by Sharon Farrell  (Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive 1974) and Edward Bell. Farrell is always good at playing adorable cheap, neurotic and a little over the edge. Brisebois was still really cute at this stage before she became Archie Bunker’s annoying niece, until she grew up into a sexy rock singer.

I have to admit that seeing this film in the theater when I was an impressionable teenager really freaked me out a bit. The images were quite startling, and in retrospect anything Carnival related is wonderfully creepy and wonderfully eerie, as it attains it’s own self contained world. The vision of the crazy Andrea Fletcher are quite stunning as well, so as far as the pacing being muddled or uninteresting, I suppose those people who hated this film were looking for more 70s bloody, axes, psycho-sexual mind games, animals attacking or devil children. This story is a bit of a childlike nightmare amidst, Folie à deux insanity, loss, possession, motherhood and longing. The narrative slips between a mordent sense of all these themes, as it expands beyond the literal world and works on our unconscious participation in moral ideals of motherhood, rights of and the boundaries that separate us all by a psychic thread.

Andrea (Ellen Barber  who plays Mickey Roarke’s secretary in Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986) comes to Janie’s school to try and grab her, but Janie’s new mommy Sherri has a premonition and manages to arrive just in time to save Janie. Andrea lives with her wildly menacing boyfriend, a clown named Jude. Yikes, as if Lynch wasn’t frightening on a good day, wearing white face paint and painted on tears… it still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

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Andrea is obsessed with getting Janie back, and Jude will do anything for his nutty girlfriend. The pair manage to kidnap Janie leaving the Bennetts in a panic who then seek out the help of a parapsychologist Dr. Jeena Kingsly (Chitra Neogy) a colleague of Miles. They hope that she can decipher Sherries terrifying visions, as she also has a psychic link to Janie she must try and track her down before the unstable Andrea loses it completely and harms her daughter.

The story makes it hard for us to sympathize with Andrea as a protagonist longing to be reunited with her daughter, because she herself is such a threatening figure. She’s been recently released from an institution and is still emotionally volatile. She met Jude while she was hospitalized. Jude keeps a watchful eye out for Janie, working for the carnival he’s in the position to see a lot of children pass through. One day he spots Andrea’s daughter with Sherri.

He tells Andrea that he’s seen Janie which is the catalyst for a wave of psychic visions that beset Sherri. Dr Kingsly tries to guide Sherri to use her powers of ESP to find Janie and connect with her to track her down and bring her back.

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Jeff Corey is on the scene talking to the landlady helping to locate the kidnapped Janie

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Filmed in Mississippi the look has a haunting rustic and starkly Gothic feel to it. There’s an untouchable sense of dreamery, a trance like aura that surrounds the frames. It disconnects us from all things being easily explained, but dreams are like that and the atmosphere of the eerie and urgent narrative compensates for the lack of cohesive and sensible plot design.

In the 70s not all things were explained coherently. Sometimes the figures floated upon landscapes that were nightmarish and made no sense. As in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death 1971, and yet it was this ambiguity that created the mystique, the mystery and the mood.

What makes a story a thing that is haunting are visions not clearly defined, nor affirmations said aloud. The outstanding theme that jolts you into a sense of agony is the pull between two mothers, one who is emotionally destructive yearning for her child, and the other, desperately trying to protect the child she believes is hers now.

Caught in between is Janie who can only feel the thrust of possession surrounding her, the vivid nightmares and fears of innocence and unknown. Also tangled in the web of possession is Jude who is merely being used as a means to procure Janie for Andrea. His frustration turns outward like the rage of a tornado. Lynch’s face reveals his turbulence well. Andrea taunts him until he is so wounded that he keeps the child even when he doesn’t have to. If I say more I will give away part of the story…

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There are some truly shocking moments-The painting crying blood when Dr Kingsly tells Sherri just to let it flow when trying to teach her to hone in on her psychic insights. -Andrea wearing  a ruby red evening gown soaked in blood appears in Janie’s bedroom with rocking chair (turtle lovers look away) it is extremely eerie and somber. Her hands seem like talons, once again The Monstrous Feminine arrives on cue.

There are a few visions or apparitions of Andrea drenched in blood and the recurring forming of ice on those iconographic mirrors. Mirrors, the pathway to see ourselves is clouded by ice in order to obscure Sherri’s view into the psychic world.

The climax is a mesmerizing sequence, one that will either have you laughing and dismissing this film completely as others have done, or it will stay with you as it has with me, a beautiful little nightmare.

A Trailer a Day Keeps the Boogeyman Away! The Sniper (1952)

THE SNIPER 1952

“Hungrily, he watched her walk down the street…and then he squeezed the trigger!”

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There’s a crazed sniper picking off brunettes, as the police scramble to try and profile the psychology of the killer on the loose!

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Gritty psycho-sexual film noir based on a story by Edna & Edward Anhalt. Screenplay by Harry Brown (A Place in the Sun ’51, The Man on the Eiffel Tower ’49) Director of Photography is the great Burnett Guffey (From Here To Eternity ’53, Private Hell 36, NIghtfall ’57, The Strange One ’57, Screaming Mimi ’58) With music by George Antheil (uncredited stock music compose)And film editing by the great Aaron Stell (Human Desire ’54, Beginning of the End ’57, Touch of Evil ’58, Lonelyhearts ’58, The Giant Gila Monster & The Killer Shrews ’59, To Kill A Mockingbird 1962)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk  marking his return to Hollywood after he was named the blacklist and served time in jail for contempt of court.

Starring Adolphe Menjou as Police Lt. Frank Kafka, Arthur Franz as Eddie Miller, Gerald Mohr as Police Sgt. Joe Ferris. Noir’s sassy Marie Windsor as Jean Darr, and Mabel Paige as the landlady.

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Richard Kiley as Doctor James G. Kent “I’d look for somebody that’s been getting tough with women from the very beginning… maybe he started small slugging them on a dark street or something like that… maybe some woman did something mean to him when he was a kid. Who ever it was, he’s been killing her over and over again!

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Eternally Yours-MonsterGirl

Saturday Nite Sublime: The Baby (1973)

THE BABY 1973

The Baby film poster

The poster for The Baby alone is disturbing in it’s ability to create an instant queasy feeling and queer flutter that hits your senses due to the inappropriate visual environment. A crib with a large pair of legs hanging over the edge. The hands holding an axe and a sexualized young female holding a teddy bear. So let’s just get these words out of the way for starters…

DISTURBING, repulsive, odd, subversive PERVERSE, TRANSGRESSIVE, unnatural, deviant provocative DEGENERATE immoral warped twisted wicked KINKY inflammatory abhorrent, repugnant offensive objectionable, vile, NASTY, sickening stomach turning, detestable, abominable, monstrous horrendous awful dreadful unsavory unpleasant, GROTESQUE ghastly horrid flagrant audacious unpalatable unwholesome baleful, improper immoral indecent DEPRAVED salacious iniquitous criminal nefarious REPREHENSIBLE scandalous disgraceful deplorable shameful morally corrupt, obscene unsettling disquieting dismaying alarming frightful sinister WEIRD menacing threatening freakish sensationalist, violating breach of decency straying from the norm, awkward unethical reactionary QUEASY inappropriate improper unorthodox taboo malapropos unseemly strange tawdry psycho-sexual lunatic madness sleazy bizarre peculiar, curious queer controversial offbeat outre abnormal outlandish shocking and sick…..?

Touching on so many taboos and cultural deviance is director Ted Post’s shocker The Baby 1973. starring the mighty Ruth Roman.

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Look at that sensual face… what a beauty Ruth Roman
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Still of Ruth Roman and Robert Walker in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951)

Day of the Animals 1977, Look in Any Window 1961, Bitter Victory 1957, Strangers on a Train noir thrillers Down Three Dark Streets 1954, The Window 1949, various television performances The Naked City’s ‘The Human Trap’ Climax!, Dr Kildare, The Outer Limits, Burke’s Law, The Name of the Game, I Spy, Marcus Welby M.D, Mannix, Ironside, Gunsmoke, The Sixth Sense, Mod Squad and more!

And I’ve got to mention that Anjanette Comer is an excellent rival to play the ‘outsider’ antagonist against Ruth Roman in this battle of wills.

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Anjanette Comer stars in the ABC movie of the week’s Women -in -Peril feature film FIVE DESPERATE WOMEN 1971…

Directed by Ted Post who gave us Beneath the Planet of the Apes 1970, perhaps my favorite of the ‘ape’ films after the original. Saw each of the series during their theatrical release. Sadly Ted Post passed away just this past August 2013.

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James Franciscus in Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes 1970
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Clint Eastwood & Ted Post collaborating on the set of Magnum Force
He directed television for years beginning in the 50s.  I love the TV movie also starring Beneath the Planet of the Apes blond hunk James Franciscus… who co-starred with the fabulous Lee Grant in Night Slaves (1970) and Dr. Cook’s Garden 1971 with a murderous Bing Crosby. And hey while I”m touting made for TV movies how bout Five Desperate Women 1971 where he most likely met Anjanette Comer. He’s also responsible for several episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), including “Mr. Garrity and the Graves” and “The Fear.”  Post also directed two episodes of the Boris Karloff horror anthology show that you know I truly love, Thriller (1961-1962), The Specialists & Papa Benjamin. And geez Columbo ’75-’76, A Matter of Honor and A Case of Immunity. Most people probably cite him for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry vehicle Magnum Force 1973 or Good Guys Wear Black 1978. Ted Post knows how to put together a thriller!

The Baby’s screenplay was penned by Abe Polsky  (The Rebel Rousers 1970, The Gay Deceivers 1969)According to IMDb trivia, it took almost a year for Polsky to convince Post to direct the film because Post found the topic too ‘dark.’ While in retrospect the film must have ruffled many feathers, and the themes are truly disturbing, there isn’t anything in there that hasn’t been done in a contemporary film in some way, and ideas that force us to think are a good thing. Especially when it’s wearing 70s clothes, and showcasing groovy genre character actors.

The seventies was rife with psycho-sexual theatre that showcased really uncomfortable themes, but somehow managed to create an atmosphere of low-budget art. Consider this, haven’t you seen episodes of Law & Order SVU, Criminal Minds, & CSI where some of the most brutal acts of inhumanity and grotesque forms of torture and abuse are highlighted in graphic detail.  In the 70s it was more nuanced, bathed in muted lighting gels amidst experimental cinematic framing and absolutely moving musical scores.

So on one level refer to the litany of words above and assign your favorite one to The Baby, yet on another level, let’s look at this film and ‘react’ to it and recognize its power.

Baby's photo anthropological in the way it shows his captivity bars of crib
Baby’s photograph is lensed in an ‘anthropological’ way as it shows him in captivity-the bars of his crib symbolically like the bars of a prison

Continue reading “Saturday Nite Sublime: The Baby (1973)”

From the Vault- Russ Meyer’s The Seven Minutes 1971-

THE SEVEN MINUTES 1971

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The Seven Minutes 1971 is based on a novel by Irving Wallace. Directed by provocateur Russ Meyer (Lorna 1964), Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! & Mudhoney(1965) with a screenplay by Richard Warren Lewis and an uncredited Manny Diez. This film comes on the heels of his hit at FOX with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls 1970. (Dolls with a screenplay by Roger Ebert) Meyer and Fred Mandl (Checkmate, The MunstersThe Twilight Zone, The Fugitive) create a great visual romp with the cinematography. The opening titles roll over the first almost seven minutes of the film as we hear the ticking of a clock…

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With a very unusual cast of character actors starring Wayne Maunder as Mike Barrett, Marianne McAndrew  (Hello Dolly 1969, The Bat People 1974) as Maggie Russell. Philip Carey (I’ve always been amazed at how much he reminds me of Charlton Heston) as District Attorney Elmo Duncan.

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Phillip Carey has always reminded me of Charlton Heston in stature and mannerism- great underrated character actor….

The awesome Jay C. Flippen as Luther Yerkes, Edy Williams as Faye Osborn, Lyle Bettger as Frank Giffith, Stanley Adams as Irwin, Jackie Gayle as pornographer Norman Quandt, Ron Randell, Charles Drake, Olan Soule and John Carradine as Sean O’Flanagan, Harold J. Stone and Yvonne De Carlo as Constance Cumberland.

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the ubiquitous John Carradine. I could watch him in anything… he tickles me…
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the beautiful Yvonne de Carlo here as Constance Cumberland movie actress.
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love love love that Yvonne de Carlo- a kindly beauty (I met her on the set of Laugh-In at the Westbury Music Fair in the 70s while taping the show live… She was an absolute gem, warm hearted and filled with tangible grace.)

Music by Stu Phillips (Quincy M.E.) with Lionel Newman supervising. BB King sings Seven Minutes.

‘The Seven Minutes’ refers to an artistically erotic banned book published thirty five years ago in Paris, that essentially opens up the floodgates for the public discourse about pornography, censorship, violence against women and the dual standards during a time when morality was ambiguous. You know, just like today.

the titles

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Argo Book Stores clerk played by Robert Maloney… arrested for knowingly selling smut… convenient scapegoat for the cause.
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Charles Drake plays vice cop Kellogg entrapping the poor Mr Fremont book seller for being a clerk where an allegedly filthy book is being sold.

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A bookstore clerk is indicted for selling the obscene material which leads to a court trial. There is also the question as to whether this licentious book actually led to the rape of a young girl. The film is part trial based as the defense lawyers try to hunt down any clues that would prove the author of the book was not a smut merchant but trying to express an artistic viewpoint which can not be silenced by censorship.

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Wayne Maundy as Michael Barrett defense attorney for bookseller Fremont

The author and the mystery surrounding their identity is key to the plot. Meyers does a high spirited job of developing this narrative with engrossing scenes that portray a society of zealots and self serving neophytes in turmoil with themselves. All amidst a groovy 70s palate that’s nostalgic and filled with a colorful verisimilitude.

The film opens with some great 70s devil may care by composer Stu Phillips. At first we see a beauty chasing her dog passed a small storefront. The story reveals that the vice bureau is staking out the ARGUS book store, as Sgt Kellogg (Charles Drake) walks in with his cigarette box tape recorder ready to entrap the clerk for selling smut. He asks the young bookseller for something ‘brand new -unusual, ‘something you wouldn’t find in an ordinary library.’ The clerk (Robert Maloney) just tells him to look around, the jackets tell the story pretty well.

Kellogg casually asks for one particular book on display The Seven Minutes by JJ Jadway and the bookseller repeats the title ‘Oh yeah” Kellogg remarks, “That’s a pretty sexy cover ain’t it?” As Kellogg ogles the pretty blonde talking to the young clerk who tells him she’ll see him later.

Sargent Kellogg (Charles Drake) “You read it?” Clerk -“The new addition at least… the first one was banned thirty five years ago.” Kellogg- “How come it was banned?” Clerk– “Cause it was considered obscene” Kellogg- “Do you think the book’s obscene?” Clerk– “Why don’t you buy the book and find out for yourself.” “How much is it?” ” $7.30 with the tax.”

“Wrap it up… You the manager around here?” Clerk-“yeah, the day manager.” Kellogg-“Who do I bring it back to if I don’t like it” the clerk answers– “Fremont, Ben Fremont.” Kellogg waves.

Kellogg’s partner is tape recording the conversation from the car. “Took you long enough.” “Literary conversations take a little doing, we better start comparing, same jacket same title, same publisher, same publishing date and copyright… Let’s pay Mr. Fremont another visit.”

They arrest him for knowingly selling obscene matter which is a misdemeanor in the state of California. And thus starts the ball rolling in this film. As the powers that be, seek out district attorney Duncan who feels that The Seven Minutes would be found obscene if taken to court.

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Mike and Faye Osborne are bed pals. She’s the spoiled daughter of an influential father.
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Cars the way they used to look… oh those were the days.
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never had one of these… but I know people who did! cool…70s memorabilia. Even the brown striped sheets.

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the hair and the groovy chick appear later on at a funky club but I couldn’t resist putting her in the visual time capsule with the volkswagon bug and the phone and Selleck…teehee
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Mr Selleck don’t you look fine! He plays the publishers son Phil Sanford of Sanford Publishing. 

Check out that cherry Volkswagon and Corvette, check out that cool 70s phallus phone, Check out that wild moppy fro..check out that really young Tom Selleck as the publishing guy… who calls hot shot attorney Michael Barrett (a very cool Wayne Maunder) who is representing the publisher Phil Sanford (Tom Selleck) who’s in a panic about the book clerk Fremont going to jail for selling one of Sanford House’s books.

The tower of self righteousness Elmo Duncan the D.A. (Phillip Carey) wants to be propelled into the Senatorial seat in California. The powers that be who want him to become Senator conspire to exploit this contrived issue of corruption & decency so Duncan has a powerful platform to run on. This elite cabal want to build a state wide case in which Elmo Duncan can fight the ‘Smut Merchants.’

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Defense Attorney Mike Barrett tries to appeal to district attorney Duncan.
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District Attorney Duncan looms large as the figure of ethical fortitude.
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the secret cabal setting up the scenario for Duncan to influence public opinion and win the election. Stanely Adams, Olan Soule & Jay C. Flippen

They have a political agenda to stamp all youthful violence incited by salacious material in reading matter and films, and so this cause has become the lynch pin with which they hope to win an election on, making ‘The Seven Minutes’ the subject of their campaign.

Meanwhile, a violent rape takes place involving the son Jerry (John Sarno) of a wealthy advertising tycoon Frank Griffith (Lyle Bettger) who owns a copy of The Seven Minutes and was present at the time of the assault committed by his psychotic friend, the one who actually commits the brutal rape.

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The rape scene is handled with quick cuts interwoven with Wolf Man Jack doing his thing on the air. It’s all very frenetic as the soundtrack “love train” is sung by Don Reed.

The prevailing secret surrounding pathetic Jerry Griffith (John Sarno) is that he’s been emasculated by his domineering father and now can’t get it up, so he’s impotent sexually and in helping Sheri Moore (Yvonne D’Angers) while she’s being attacked by his violent friend.

Jerry takes the blame for the rape, refuses to talk about it, there by implicating himself as an impotent sissy and allows the lynch mob and voyeurs to assert that Jerry would not have committed such an act if the The Seven Minutes hadn’t been available to him. Duncan is now convinced that a clean boy wouldn’t have done the crime if it weren’t for the availability of the dirty book.

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this is Shawn ‘baby doll’ Devereaux -well it sure ain’t Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan’s vision of Carroll Baker is it…

These hypocritical old cronies have young girls of their own on the side, watch pornography while salivating at the mouth. Yerkes has a girlfriend he calls ‘baby doll’ who dances provocatively for these guys. She’s got ample boobs (It is a Russ Meyer film after all) hanging out of her 70’s style yellow hot pants. Amidst the interesting subject matter Shawn ‘Baby Doll’ Devereaux gyrates and inserts herself into the frame so show us the hypocrisy of these old farts who condemn others for their own personal agenda all the while being the worst kind of purveyors of sinful behavior.

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the wealthy Frank Griffith that wants all this smut taken out of the reach of impressionable teens like his son. What’s carefully framed by Meyers playing in the background is a porn film that the men have been reviewing and enjoying way too much-we witness the HYPOCRISY

Russ Meyer had his own dealings with censorship so the subject is probably of very personal substance for him. He does a fantastic job of pointing out the duality of persuasions. And he builds the story really well here. Showing the belligerence by equal sides of the coin toward a moral center and a society ripping at the shreds of personal freedom to express, create and destroy.

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Whether you’re an avid Russ Meyers fan or just think you might like to venture into the complex questions the film evokes, presented in that real 70s style The Last Drive In weeps for most days, it’s a film worth watching, even just to spot the few character actors that pop up on the screen like baby doll’s and Faye Osborne’s (Yvonne & Edy) eh hems… well you know… the cleavage shot!

What appears on the surface as a controversy surrounding a banned book that contains alleged salacious material-The defense evokes some good examples of Henry Miller’sTropic of Capricorn’ or, D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ etc.

What manifests is an interesting commentary on censorship, masculinity and the spurious connection between perceived immoral content and violence in society..

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Manhood and masculinity is a texture that is not necessarily used as the theme in the story, but let me tell you it is all pervasive with images of Duncan heaving his heavy weights as he sweats and works out in front of Mike, spouting his holier than thou rhetoric. It was almost masturbatory.

He gave Michael that “politician’s holier than thou number” Duncan was hostile while he pumped weights in front of the intellectual Mike Barrett. A dueling of masculinity and the question of causality with pornography and violence against women.

Duncan talks to a church official about ‘freedom’ Duncan– “We only want to penalize those who would corrupt it.”

Duncan and his reprehensible comrades belong to a group called Strength Through Decency.

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The acronym STD... was this intentional? Probably. It’s hilarious as these types of organizations do spread like a social disease. They’re against lust, motorcycles, homosexuals and lesbians. All the factors that made the 70s so dangerous of course. Those lustful lesbians on motorcycles riding down 5th avenue in NYC wreaking havoc with our delicate morality. Why I’m surprised we all survived it…

So as much as the words “smut merchants’ are bandied around, and the question of censorship takes priority in full view, the underlying sub-context is the posturing of masculinity and the double standard of sexism & classism and who gets to play and who must obey.

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Marianne McAndrews is fabulous as Maggie Griffith. I really dig those orange orbs… truly the light fixtures I mean…

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I won’t get into story behind the mystery or the trial, the story behind Jerry’s impotence, the elitism, the ultimate reveal about the author of The Seven Minutes. The media frenzy that occurs which feeds on the sensationalism of the situation who condemn the book but want to hear about the details of rape victim Sherri’s violation.

Is The Seven Minutes a beautiful novel about a woman’s awaking or really filthy trash. You’ll have to find out… but I’ll say that Russ Meyer’s The Seven Minutes is a great addition to the social conscious sexually charged films of the late 60s & 70s like Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All In a Row, and Robert Thom’s  Angel, Angel Down We Go 1969…

Your ever loving MonsterGirl.

Sunday Nite Surreal-A Reflection of Fear-William Fraker’s directorial foray beyond The Outer Limits into a Psycho-Sexual miasma

A REFLECTION OF FEAR 1973

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A Reflection of Fear 1973

Please forgive the quality of some of my screen capturs. Alas… I do not have a good copy of the film.

If a movie lingers… if it stays with you for hours… days, then it has done something right. I think this film is perhaps as uniquely disturbing as it is underrated & thoughtfully done. Though there are details and subject matter that most will consider too perverse, it’s still a potent yet slightly murky thriller. Perhaps provocative in a way that might turn many away as being a revolting little psychodrama. One with an eerie, queasy mood amidst the ornate set design and restrained performances.

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The 70s were so good for giving us these kinds of surreal, sinisterly captivating and unsettling themes. The House That Screamed, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Silent Night, Bloody Night, Lemora, Blood and Lace, What’s The Matter With Helen, so many, too many to mention. Films rife with taboos, power struggles, narratives questioning psychosis, ritual murders and deviance.

Directed by William Fraker (cinematographer on Rosemary’s Baby ’68, Bullitt ’68 uncredited on Incubus ’66 for Roger Corman, The Day of The Dolphin ’73, Looking for Mr Goodbar ’77)

A Reflection of Fear was hacked to pieces in order to receive a PG rating for Columbia Pictures. Fraker made his feature debut as cinematographer on one of my favorite psychological thrillers – Curtis Harrington’s cat and mouse thriller GAMES 1967 with Simone Signoret. He was the camera operator for my beloved fantasy 60s series The Outer Limits TV series 1963-1965. No wonder why this film’s atmosphere is a hazy dreamy landscape that transcends the outward appearance of reality.

László Kovács (Easy Rider ’69, That Cold Day in the Park ’69) enhances the look and feel of the film as Director of Photography. A Reflection of Fear is based on a novel by Stanton Forbes called Go To Thy Deathbed with a screenplay by Lewis John Carlino (Seconds 1966, The Mechanic 1972, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea 1976).

Blogger David Furtado from his fabulous Wand’rin’ Star cites in a post From Sondra Locke’s autobiography The Good, The Bad and The Very Ugly- A Hollywood Journey

“Then came a film which was a landmark, professionally and personally: A Reflection of Fear, directed by promising filmmaker William A. Fraker, who had been nominated for several Oscars as a director of photography, and who had directed Monte Walsh with Lee Marvin and Jeanne Moreau, one of the last great and underestimated westerns. Sondra Locke plays the mysterious and unbalanced ‘Marguerite’, a girl of sixteen.

As 'Marguerite' in A Reflection of Fear (released in 1973).

As ‘Marguerite’ in A Reflection of Fear (released in 1973).

Once again, Gordon and her plotted a scheme to get Fraker interested, since they both thought the role was almost perfect for her. Gordon Anderson even played the “voice” of ‘Aaron’, Marguerite’s alter-ego. Unfortunately, the film was butchered by Columbia since it dealt with themes deemed too strong for the general public. Locke found the attitude ridiculous, even more so because, at that time, “audiences were enthralled with the young girl in The Exorcist, spewing vomit and masturbating with crucifixes”. Nonetheless, she became longtime friends with the director and his future wife Denise, who was very supportive when Locke had serious health problems.”

This is the underrated cult film star Sandra Locke’s first film… She was perfectly unorthodox as the odd Agatha Jackson alongside Colleen Camp in DEATH GAME 1977 where they hold actor Seymour Cassel hostage as they play mind games with him. As Marguerite she is perfectly chilling in her debut.

Sandra Locke is the captivating young sylph Marguerite, Robert Shaw portrays her estranged father Michael. Mary Ure  (Shaw’s real life wife at the time) is her mother Katherine. Swedish actress Signe Hasso lurks as Marguerite’s sinister grandmother Julia, a harpy like matron who seems to be the locus of the askew matriarchy that treats Marguerite like a sickly princess caught in a closed universe. It plays like a dark fairy tale where initially she appears to be at the mercy of wicked women.

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Mary Ure is absolutely gorgeous, seductive yet refined, Signe Hasso is a marvelous actress whom I’ve admired for a while now, she’s elegant and quite regal though imposing as the character called for. Both Ure & Hasso exude an unsavory perfume.

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Richard Burton and Mary Ure in Look Back In Anger 1959

Quirky and affable Sally Kellerman plays Michael’s fiancé, Anne, who worked with Fraker on The Bellero Shield with Martin Landau airing on Feb. 10th 1964. One of my favorite Outer Limits episodes with the bifrost alien. Fraker also worked on the set with Signe Hasso on Outer Limits’ Production and Decay of Strange Particles  yet another superb entry in the short lived yet transcendently brilliant series.

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Chita Rivera, Sally Kellerman and Martin Landau in The Bellero Shield- The Outer Limits- William Fraker was on camera crew
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George Macready and Signe Hasso in Production and Decay of Strange Particles -as part of  The Outer Limits 60s TV series

Gordon Anderson (also the voice of Ratboy 1986) is the voice of the imperceptible Aaron, doll or boy I won’t tell…

Fred Myrow (Soylant Green 1973, Scarecrow 1973, Phantasm 1979  is responsible for the haunting musical score that is dizzying with lilting harps and mandolin, low muted french horn, music box shimmer and eerie wavelengths of noise. Joel Schiller  is the art director (Rosemary’s Baby, The Muppet Movie) and Phil Abramson’s (Bullitt ’68, Close Encounters of the Third Kind ’77 and Raging Bull ’80) does the creepy and suffocating set design which is perfect for the sense of repression, dread and decay.

A Reflection of Fear has been referred to as a proto-slasher. There is the use of a caped hooded ‘masher’ Perhaps this film set off a slew of slashers to come, but several reviews have cited a correlation between this film and Hitchcock’s Psycho ’60. Quite frankly I do not see this at all.

If I were to disclose anything because I love a good hint- I could say the closest the film’s story line comes to is actually an episode of Journey to the Unknown “Miss Belle” 1968 with George Maharis and Barbara Jefford, but that’s all I’m sayin…. if you know the one I mean, I’ve just given you a golden crumb to nibble on.

And if I were to argue this point or to relate any similarities to another film or early 70s tv series, I might give the ending away. Perhaps it’s the bright child with a mother complex instead of taxidermy she likes Horticulture. Anyhoo, as an obscure 70s psycho-sexual thriller, it has it’s very own universe to spin around in so making connections for me is well… inconsequential…

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The multi-layered narrative surrounds a disturbed and alienated sixteen year old girl named Marguerite (Sondra Locke), who exists in a private world of dolls that she talks to and who in voice-over talk back in the quietude and opulent isolation with her affluent mother (Mary Ure) and grandmother (Signe Hasso) at an exclusive Inn somewhere in Canada. Marguerite is not only held captive by mother and grandmother but to my impression is seemingly a willing recluse who yearns for the love of the father she’s only known by the various books he sends her on art, flowers etc.

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Grandmare Julia-“I hardly think he’s coming again for you my dear she’s his daughter after all” Mother Katherine-“We’ve been so careful mother” Julia-“A glimpse would perhaps satisfy him for another fifteen years” Katharine-“A glimpse would hardly satisfy Michael of Marguerite” Julia- “Would you stir his curiosity? And… Marguerite seeing Michael might tempt her certain idolatry of the man.”

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Something is not right within the family dynamic but when Marguerite’s father Michael finally arrives this particular languid summer to ask his wife for a divorce so he can marry Anne (Sally Kellerman) The vitriol comes out as Grandmare (Signe Hasso) turns the knife in as Michael exclaims, and Mary Ure refuses to set him free, unless he agrees to never see Marguerite ever again.

Once Michael sees his wisp of a daughter he’s never known in the flesh a peculiar gaze is set forth. He finds her enchanting. He actually says so several times. Yet he is concerned about the way his wife and mother in law are holding the child prisoner. As he considers rescuing the child, the dynamic starts to invade on Anne’s future life with Michael, and the brutal murders begin to ensue.

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One of the central mysteries is whether Marguerite is being driven mad by her mother and grandmother, is she delusional or if there truly is an Aaron – either way the concept is provocative as it is malefic. Always lensed in darkness it adds to the creepiness of the matter at hand. “You keep me cooped up in here like one of the dead dolls in your trunk“-whispers Aaron

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The painting of the figure in black with a large staff looks similar to the life size doll of Aaron that Marguerite keeps in her bedroom

The local police come to investigate. Mitchell Ryan plays the cop who suspects the father,  Michael of the murders. The lovers Michael and Anne are to remain close to the crime scene, so they move into the estate as sort of an unspoken house arrest.

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Sondra Locke who manages to catch my gaze with curiosity at her queer sort of whimsical prettiness, more odd than sensual. here as childlike, gaunt and pale as schoolhouse chalk which works for the character of Marguerite. She carries on creepy Socratic dialogues with her decrepit dolls.

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Marguerite presence is both disturbing and sympathetic as she plays at being a fay prisoner, kept isolated by her grandmare and mother, while exhibiting extraordinary intelligence and a primal burgeoning sexuality.

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the image of Aaron slowly arises in the frame in pure shadow- it’s a very powerfully eerie moment in the film.

Marguerite lives in a fantasy world, she’s brilliant, owns microscopes, a pond filled with amoebas, full knowledge of horticulture, stamen and pistils and all that, has rooms filled with myriad of creepy dolls in tatters and decay, a specie of cannibal fish which she finds quite natural in the natural order of things.

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Something that girlfriend Ann (Sally Kellerman ) will invoke when trying to describe how Marguerite is trying to ‘devour’ her father. Consume him, which he allows, as part of the odd liturgy of perverse underpinnings of the narrative. Incest, sexual repression, sexual mutilation, castration anxiety, oedipal lust, castrating females-Misandry (women hating men) “don’t ever let a man touch you, it’ll mean death.” Her mother tells Marguerite in voice-over flashback.

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Her main confidant is a doll… or is he… named Aaron a very belligerent spirit either way, who is quite possessive of Marguerite and seems to be destructive, antagonistic and malevolent. Neither the mother nor grandmother believe he is anything more than a doll. Or perhaps they know more then they are willing to disclose to father Michael, when he comes to visit after 15 years. He wants to marry the lovely Anne, but Marguerite’s mother refuses to give him a divorce as a way of punishing him. Using it as a weapon to keep him from seeing his daughter again.

During his visit, the odd relationship is shown, depicting father and daughter in sexualized frameworks. It’s painful to watch as Michael doesn’t discourage Marguerite’s advances, not even in front of Anne.

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‘Aaron’ begins to become more violent as the father and his lover Anne intrude on the opulent, isolated nether world these women seem to inhabit. Fraker who was the director of photography on D.H Lawrence’s story The Fox 1967 directed by Mark Rydell is really good at capturing the visual sense of place surrounding alienation and the immortal triangle. A world that is quiet, when all at once an intruder turns everything into chaos.

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The film is rather brutal and grotesque even within the kaleidoscopic colors and hazy shadows that both Fraker and Kovács  manifest to murk and lurk and obscure what we see. This heightens the horror of the thing rather than impinge on it. The incandescent lighting and subduing of colors of the photography by László Kovács using filters and gels create a hazy shadowy landscape that’s as enigmatic as the story. By now you know that my second nick name should be Shadowgirl….

The murders are savage, phallus driven mutilations and speak of sexual repression and hatred toward women.

Marguerite is referred to as ‘enchanting’ more than once. Her skin is translucent and her Alice in Wonderland exterior purposefully dress her up to look as if she’s falling through the rabbit hole at any minute might be a way to draw attention to the underlying turmoil of growing sexual awakening. Once her mother and grandmother are out of the way, she begins to wear more adult clothing. She also injects bottles of what is supposed to be insulin, but the labels have been removed from the bottles. Curiouser and curiouser.

At one point she asks her father to give her the injection so that it won’t hurt as much. In retrospect I think this is a pretty clear allusion to Marguerite’s desire to have her father penetrate her.

Sandra Locke’s performance is quite chilling, with her child like, almost socio-pathic lack of affect, it comes across as an eerie sexualized pubescent blond droid, rather than a child who has been secreted away by the older women in her life, in a clandestine garden paradise with malefic forces afoot.

Her voice is part of the characterization of a frail, wispy spirit with no earthly substance, dressed in little girl finery spouting factoids about sea life and flowers but baring no resemblance to a real child of this world. Initially, her dolls have more breadth to them. But Marguerite begins to awaken by the presence of her father.

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Marguerite’s dolls represent her closed world, some even mimic the people in her sheltered life… Herself, Grandmare and father…

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Marguerite’s mother and grandmother are cold, and uncommunicative. There’s no sign of nurturing although her mother calls her ‘chéri‘.

The two women obviously hate men and have done a good job of keeping little Marguerite from coming in contact with anyone of the male species. Even the male fish get eaten by the stronger female of the species.

Sally Kellerman is the one character that buoys us to the normal ‘outside’ practical world. As she sees all the subversive deeds and perversions that are rampant around the old estate but still refuses to walk away from the man she loves. She is the one stable witness to the madness as it unfolds.

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William Fraker and screenwriters Edward Hume and Lewis John Carlino (who also wrote the screenplay for The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea in ’76 interesting enough this too dealt with disturbed children with higher intelligence),allow the repulsive sexualized relationship between father and daughter to flourish til we’re completely uncomfortable as uncomfortable as Anne.

I must warn anyone who might be interested in seeing this film that there is a very edgy scene where Marguerite, who’s room is next to her father and Anne, masturbates while the couple are making love. Marguerite calls out ‘father’ while she climaxes so that the couple can hear her cries. Anne finds this entire experience vile, though by now she shouldn’t be surprised by the odd child’s behavior and finally almost leaves Michael yet still remains in this sick environment.

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The film is apparently heavily cut due to censorship in order to secure a ‘PG’ rating for its original U.S. theatrical release in the early 70s. I’d love to see the unedited version someday.

The shocking twist ending was a bit muddled in terms of visual realization but finding out that the film was badly modified due to censorship might explain some of the jagged continuity. I don’t mind the obfuscation of various key scenes as they add to the sense of mystery and concealment. But the reveal at the end did not come to full fruition as it could have.

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Sadly, Mary Ure died suddenly in her sleep in 1975 after an accidental overdose of pills and booze. The imposing and ever larger than life actor Robert Shaw suffered a massive heart attack in 1978 and so joined her in death.

This film is not for everyone, especially those that find psycho-sexual thrillers objectionable because their pathology are usually based on some kind of subversive wiring in the brain or dysfunctional or arrested development of the family structure. But if you’re like me, who just can’t devour enough obscure 70s dark and delectable lunacy then try and catch this one some night… bring your favorite doll.

This has been a reflection of -Your ever lovin’ MonsterGirl

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
jacques tourneur-on location for berlin express
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

The Golden Boy in Bedlam
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
Wise, Robson & Lewton
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.

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

Val Lewton with Boris Karloff set of Bedlam
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.

Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead Lewton
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.

Lord Mortimer's new pet with Skelton Knaggs
Billy House as Lord Mortimer in Bedlam
Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
The marvelous Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
Knaggs as Finn in The Ghost Ship
Skelton Knaggs as the mute Finn in The Ghost Ship
Leopard Man angry mother
Kate Drain Lawson as Señora Delgado in The Leopard Man
Edith Barret the ghost ship
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.

musuraca & tourneur
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.”

Lewton and Robson 2
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.”

Lewton and typewriter
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

CapturFiles
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
Annex - Lupino, Ida (Ladies in Retirement)_01
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

the-mad-monster-glenn-strange-left-everett

anne
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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Annex - Lugosi, Bela (Black Friday)_01

1940 UNIVERSAL
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.

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Big Sleep, The)_04
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!”

A Halloween clip joint-Man Made Monster (1941)

Just for Halloween & our upcoming Chaney Blogathon here’s the very deranged Lionel Atwill trying to create a race of ‘Electrical Supermen’ starring Lon Chaney Jr in his glowing electro-cool rubber suit for George Waggner’s Man Made Monster (1941)

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Man Made Monster

You Man Made MonsterGirl-It’s been Electrifying!!!!!

 

Postcards From Shadowland No.13

Act of Violence
Act of Violence 1948 directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Van Heflin, Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh
Chaney Hunchback
Lon Chaney in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1923
Baby Jane
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? 1962 Directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford
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Bedlam 1946 directed by Mark Robson Produced by Val Lewton and starring Boris Karloff and Anna Lee
Bette Davis in Dead-Ringer
Bette Davis and Bette Davis in Dead Ringer (1964) directed by Paul Henreid and co-starring Karl Malden and Peter Lawford
Blondell and Tyrone Nightmare Alley
Joan Blondell and Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley 1947 written by Jules Furthman for the screen and directed by Edmund Goulding
CabinInTheSky
Cabin in the Sky 1943 directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Lena Horne and Ethel Waters
crossfire postcards
Crossfire 1947 directed by Edward Dmytryk starring the Roberts- Robert Young, Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan
Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951 directed by Robert Wise and starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Hugh Marlowe
Devil Commands
The Devil Commands 1941 directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Boris Karloff and Anne Revere written for the screen by Robert Hardy Andrews
Title: OLD DARK HOUSE, THE (1932) • Pers: STUART, GLORIA • Year: 1932 • Dir: WHALE, JAMES • Ref: OLD005AA • Credit: [ UNIVERSAL / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE (1932) GLORIA STUART and BORIS KARLOFF Dir: JAMES WHALE
dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde
Dr JEKYLL AND MR HYDE 1931starring Frederick March & Miriam Hopkins and directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Farley andThey Live By Night
They Live By Night starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. Directed by Nicholas Ray
Fontaine and Anderson Rebecca
Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca 1940
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Phantom of the Opera 1925 starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin
freaks
Tod Brownings Freaks 1932
Gloria Odds Against Tomorrow
Gloria Grahame Odds Against Tomorrow 1959 directed by Robert Wise
Josette Day Beauty
Josette Day in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast 1946
Judith Anderson Rebecca
Judith Anderson in Rebecca 1940
Leigh and Thaxter Act of Violence
Janet Leigh and Phyllis Thaxter in Act of Violence 1948
Louis Calhern Marlon Brando Julius Caesar 1953
Joseph L. Mankiewitz directs Louis Calhern & Marlon Brando in  Julius Caesar 1953
Ls metropolis
Fritz Langs’ Metropolis 1927
M castle's sardonicus
William Castle’s Mr Sardonicus 1961 Starring Guy Rolfe and Audrey Dalton
Maclean the children's hou
William Wyler directs Shirley McClaine in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour 1961co-starring Audrey Hepburn and James Garner
Mary Astor and Van Heflin Act of Violence
Mary Astor and Van Heflin Act of Violence 1948
Odds Against Tomorrow Shelley Winters and Robert Ryan
Odds Against Tomorrow Shelley Winters and Robert Ryan 1959
Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck in Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird 1962 written by Harper Lee with a screenplay by Horton Foote
Robert Ryan The Set-Up
Robert Ryan in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up 1949
Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss, Constance Towers
Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss 1964 starring Constance Towers
Samson and Delilah-Hedy Lamarr
Cecil B DeMille’s Samson and Delilah 1949 -starring Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature
Taylor and Jane Eyre
Robert Stevenson directed Bronte’s Jane Eyre 1943 starring a young Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Ann Garner
The Children's Hour
The Children’s Hour Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine
The Haunting
Julie Harris and Claire Bloom in Robert Wise’s The Haunting 1963
the night_of_the_living_dead_3
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead 1968
Walk on the Wild Side barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyk as Jo in Walk on the Wild Side 1962 directed by Edward Dmytryk
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane Bette
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962 Bette Davis and Victor Buono

HAPPY FRIDAY THE 13th- Hope you have a truly lucky day-MonsterGirl

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.

homicidal
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.

Castle and Polanski Spine Tingler
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.

on set Castle, Gordon, Farrow and Polanski b&W

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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)

bill in crowd green jacket

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)

Polanski on the set with Mia

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.

polanski in hall shot with Mia and John color

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.

Tuesday Weld
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?”