Category: THE STARDUST AND SHADOWS CHAMBER OF HORRORS



Outside the lonely foreboding mansion, thunder booms and lightning flashes in the sky. The approaching storm illuminates the large, time-worn building where inside the heroine is about to enter a secret staircase. The door slides ominously open, revealing a staircase down into the neither regions of the house. She steps forward toward the opening-only to have a hand reach out and slam the door closed. The house is not ready to reveal its secrets quite yet. Such is a moment of dread from THE BAT WHISPERS (1930), directed by Roland West, which set the stage for all the haunted house horrors to come.

Pictures made in the style of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE CONJURING, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL or THE SHINING have been a staple of the horror film since Charles Ogle first shuffled forth as the creature in FRANKENSTEIN (1910). House based ghoulish goings on have been around longer than that in the theatre. Its heyday was during the 1920’s and continued up to what some would say the zenith in the play Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring. The source material for THE BAT WHISPERS was the very successful stage play THE BAT written by Mary Roberta Rinehart, a mystery writer and Avery Hopwood, whose forte was farce. The result was a mixture of thrills, red herrings, murders, inept policemen and witty dialogue all with a dash of slapstick comedy to relieve the tension. Moments of horror punctuated with lighter scenes is still a cardinal writing rule in horror film today as you build to the next shock.

THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) was a remake of the silent version by the same director. Why would you remake a three year old film? The answer is the same today as yesterday because there is different technology and you already own the property. The main difference is that THE BAT WHISPERS was on the cutting edge of technology for its time. Roland West filmed THE BAT WHISPERS in not one but three different versions. The first was the standard 35 mm version aka flat screen. This was the dawn of talking pictures. Many directors as well as actors were finding their way through the new systems. Actors could not move around frantically as much as they could in the silent days, and directors were discovering camera movement such as ‘tracking shots’ on dollies. You no longer had to have the camera locked in one position yet the early cameras were still cumbersome. It was exciting times as experimentation was the vogue.


THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) Enjoy some silent moments as the use of sound was not fully discovered in storytelling.

The second version of THE BAT WHISPERS was photographed in widescreen 65 mm format, shot by a separate camera person, Robert Planck. The picture also featured innovative use of miniatures which may seem trite today but in 1930 they were used spectacularly; particularly the opening dive down the face of skyscraper to the street below only to pull up at the last moment to the front door of a building. Later on there is the quintessential shot of the corridors of the house featuring the wind billowing curtains, dark rooms on either side as the camera passes by, establishing what would become one of the fundamental images of the language of horror -the old house where evil deeds are done. This was essential as it was the first time the camera traveled down the corridors by itself showing the atmosphere of dread.

The third most effective piece of camera work was a moving shot from the garden to the front door of the mansion at night from the outside. The same angle can be seen in the odious Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Dracula (which had no relation to Bram Stoker’s novel)
THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) is also landmark in that it has no opening music. In fact, there is very little music heard at all as the film makers were not yet using music as a tool. It is also a monetary consideration in that you did not have to pay someone to use their music or compose an original piece. Todd Browning’s 1931 DRACULA, with Bela Lugosi, featured a movement from SWAN LAKE as its opening theme for dramatic purposes. This piece of music was in the public domain plus the audience would recognize it.
Another landmark moment in THE BAT WHISPERS is really a non-moment in that the on screen shriek of a menaced heroine is not heard. This is not because it was deemed too frightening for a 1930s audience but that it was not part of the horror lexicon. Sound was a new tool to tell a story. The heroine in this case when menaced lets out a muffled sound and runs, pounding her fists into a door. Once again Todd Browning’s DRACULA features the famous Lugosi muffled sound as he is staked. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) featured an original music score plus Mae Clarke’s and other people’s shrieks. This follows the horror axiom of the 30s and some of the best examples today that the most terrifying scenes are played in silence. Interesting to note that both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN are produced one year ahead of THE BAT WHISPERS.

The third version of THE BAT WHISPERS was a special edition for the foreign market, said to be made of alternate takes of scenes. All were directed and produced by one Roland West.
The 65 mm format version is important in that it foreshadowed the coming of Cinemascope, later Cinerama and Todd O formats which were so strong in the fifties and sixties as the motion picture industry was seeking a way to combat the monster of television. THE BAT WHISPERS had limited distribution in its large format as it required special projectors and screens in a theatre which in many cases had just paid for the conversion to sound. The early John Wayne picture THE BIG TRAIL (1930) by Raoul Walsh was another example of a film made in large format and flat screen that also suffered from distribution problems.

The plot of THE BAT WHISPERS in not important plus it would detract if some would like to view it on their own. The ending features an epilogue by one of the film stars Chester Morris speaking directly to the audience, asking the patrons not to reveal the ending to their friends after leaving the theatre. This is similar to the Lugosi audience speech at the end of the performance of the play Dracula (1927) and Edward Van Sloan’s prologue to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN.

Urban Legend says that fellow named Bob Kane attended a screening of this film. Kane was thrilled with the imagery of the mysterious Bat in human form that he went on to create The Batman for Detective Comics Issue number 27.

Director Roland West made a number of pictures in a similar style such as THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), later remade with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in 1939. THE BAT WHISPERS was remade in 1959 with Vincent Price, Agnes Moorhead, and Darla Hood (Darla from the Our Gang Comedies). West only made 13 films in total, yet his fame (infamy?) comes from being the lover of popular film comedienne, party girl Thelma Todd who was found slumped over dead in her car.


Todd had bruises, a broken nose, chipped teeth and three cracked ribs yet her death was ruled a suicide by LAPD due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The real life crime was one of Hollywood’s great mysteries. Other suspects included Todd’s ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, Charles Smith, treasurer of a restaurant co-owned by Todd and West and none other than Charles “Lucky” Luciano. West remained a prime suspect for fifty years. On his deathbed, delirious, he “confessed” to murdering Thelma Todd.

THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) set the pattern for all the coming horrors in a house. Everything has to have a beginning and with daring technical innovations, an eye to experiment, to push the envelope of the medium of film ….the language of the horror film is that much richer.

The Horror pictures of the Golden age are like “Diner food’ to  some’ serious film goers or Movie gourmets. If that is so then side dishes you get with a diner meal add to the being filled up. If the lead actors and central story are the ‘meat ‘ of the picture then those that circulate in and around that make it stronger. Dwight Frye and J. Carol Naish were two of the very best not only in the Horrors but also as actors outside that.


J. CAROL NAISH


DWIGHT FRYE

Two actors with similar career paths – J Carol Naish and Dwight Frye – make for an interesting yet divergent story. Both actors played hunchbacks in the Universal Monster cycle of films. Naish’s work as Daniel in the 1944 monster rally HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was a sympathetic, loving, seeking- a- cure fellow. Dwight Frye Fritz was the sadistic torturer of the Karloff Frankenstein Monster in 1931. Naish and Frye were bound together not only by that but by type casting throughout their careers.

A house is not a home without a few friends. This is exactly what Universal Studios did when they gave us the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

In HOUSE OF FRANKESTEIN there is a sequence when we head to the Village of Frankenstein where Daniel rescues a Gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), and where the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) and Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.)are both revived. Each is promised a cure as they head to Nieman’s lab in Vasaria. Daniel falls in love with the Gypsy girl only to find later that she had eyes for the tormented Talbot, who wants to die. Whips fly, the Wolf Man rampages, and love rears its ugly head in the form of a silver bullet along with the skull of the revived stumbling monster in a climax that has that old sinking feeling.

Well worth a look for Boris Karloff, leering with his voice (Daniel’s death scream is actually Karloff from Son of Frankenstein) and J. Carol Naish’s sensitive, if limited, work as Daniel.

Naish had tremendous dramatic stage experience from Paris and New York in a variety of roles. Limited screen time and playing such nefarious characters as the ‘evil foreigner’ in low budget serials and the CHRALIE CHAN film series due to his exotic looks put him in limited company. He was employed yes, someone you would see in many films, but not know his name. Naish also had a rich speaking voice and narrated many pictures without screen credit. Last role that I saw him in was as the wheel chaired Doctor Frankenstein aka Doctor Duryea in the cheapie FRANKENSTEIN VS DRACULA in 1971.

Limited work seems to be the order of the day with the career of the one and only Dwight Frye. We all know him as Fritz, the perfectly demented hunchbacked assistant in James Whale’s 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, and Renfield in DRACULA from the same year. Still some will know him from the Alice Cooper song simply called THE BALLAD OF DWIGHT FRY from the early release ‘LOVE IT TO DEATH.’ Even more so then Naish, Dwight Frye has become a cult figure of the Universal horror films playing crazy, unstable individuals often on the verge of cracking as personified by Frye’s unique high pitched delivery.

Naish had a longer and more varied career then Frye as the latter found himself pigeon holed in roles that he detested. Boris Karloff once said that he didn’t mind being typecast as it kept him working when others had faded. Frye yearned for the success and the versatility he showed in Broadway productions; beginning as a juvenile lead progressing to larger and varied roles including originating the role of The Son in Luigi Piradello’s 1922 production SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR for director Brock Pemberton, with whom he became a favourite. I remember this play as it is one of the staples one studies if one is in a theatre history or drama class. All these roles Frye did went unnoticed by Hollywood. His roles were either viciously chopped as in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), when the production was switched from Technicolour to black and white to being truncated as in the subplot of Karl in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

If you are a actor in a genre or have a certain look is what happens when that look or genre goes out of style – which happened to Frye. He was not a versatile as Karloff was in terms of comedy, nor did he have a voice which lent itself to the narration of mystery stories and childrens’ books. It is not fair to say he was not as good as Karloff as Frye was never given a chance. This lack of chance doomed him like Lugosi, who was reported to have never taken the time to learn English but to have learned lines phonetically in the beginning. Dwight Frye, like Lugosi, came from the stage where they played a great variety of characters yet were trapped in the public persona’s of Boogeymen.

Frye played a succession of bit roles often uncredited in gangster pictures, mystery thrillers and of course, horror pictures of the B variety. This forced him to work outside of film as an aircraft drafts person for Lockheed. Frye was quoted as saying”

“If God is good, I will be able to play comedy, in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer of motion pictures will give me a chance! And please God, may it be before I go screwy playing idiots, half-wits and lunatics on the talking screen!

Dwight Frye was a Christian Scientist and concealed a heart condition that claimed his life while on a crowded bus returning home from seeing a film with his son. Ironically, Frye had just been cast in a big budget picture ‘WILSON’ about the life of Woodrow Wilson, to be directed by Henry King in the role of Secretary of War Newton Taylor due to his physical resemblance. It could have been a role that finally broke Dwight Frye out of the horror mold.

J Carol Naish and Dwight Frye both played hunchbacked characters in the Universal Horror films and both lived with missed opportunities. One wonders how many other actors were given the same treatment. There are people that made entire careers out of playing policeman, bar tenders, storekeepers, judges, reporters and, in this case, lunatics.

Naish’s and Frye’s roles in film were inherited later on up to the 1970’s by Elisha Cook Jr, who became the eternal “fall guy.” Cook was either killed off early, supplied the red herring in a mystery, or was simply the stooge in a bigger plot.

The pictures these and other actors often uncredited made are richer by their contributions. I discovered Dwight Frye’s life story in an unexpected extensive article in a magazine called FOR MONSTERS ONLY which was put out by ‘CRACKED MAGAZINE.

Both of you Take a well deserved bow.

I do enjoy well done ‘Diner Food’.

I am a huge Lionel Atwill fan, so it is a treat to talk about this dark little gem of a film produced in 1933 from Paramount Pictures. MURDERS IN THE ZOO was not produced at Universal Studios yet had the look and feel from the cinematography supplied by Ernest Haller who would go on to win an Academy award for something called GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
The opening scene is one of the most horrific of the 30s, next to material from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), FREAKS (1932), and THE BLACK CAT (1934). In French Indochina, big-game hunter Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is seen using needle and thread on a fallen colleague. He is not tending to a wound however; the man rises toward the camera, his hands bound behind his back and his lips stitched shut. Gorman has sentenced a man to die in the jungle because he kissed his wife.

The pattern is set for a traditional ‘jealous husband’ story with a grisly twist. Gorman is bringing back animals for a zoo exhibition, intended to save the facility from financial ruin.
Peter Yates (Charles Ruggles) is hired as a press agent who comes up with the idea of staging a fund dinner for the wealthy, surrounded by caged animals. Something goes wrong; death occurs in the person of a snake both literally and figuratively. The victim is Roger Hewitt (John Lodge) who happens to be involved with Gorman’s wife (Kathleen Burke).

Death arrives on the scene more than once through venom, crocodiles and perhaps the most hideous of all is the python bringing death silently.

MURDERS IN THE ZOO is a brilliant film showcasing Lionel Atwill shades of villainy through very clever dialogue, a glance, up turned eyebrow or a simply cold stare. Catch an early role of young cowboy leading man Randolph Scott as researcher Doctor Jack Woodford.

Charles Ruggles as the press agent supplies comic relief, which seems improvised. It was not the best example of this and becomes silly distraction.

MURDERS IN THE ZOO was directed by Edward Sutherland, who was an original on screen Keystone Kop. It was co-written by the prolific team of Philp Wylie and Seton Miller. See this picture if you can with a running time of a mere 62 minutes. It is well worth it.

I read about this picture in Famous Monsters of Film Land magazine, wished to see it then, and waited years to accomplish this.
THE RETURN OF DRACULA, or CURSE OF DRACULA, had the unfortunate timing of being made and released shortly before Hammer released DRACULA (HORROR OF DRACULA) in 1958. This doomed, low budget, American International Picture produced film would be consigned to being an after- thought or ignored – which really is a shame.
THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958) presents us, “Cousin Bellac,” who we all know is Dracula who comes to live with a typically bland 1950s family, complete with a precocious young lad who liked to go exploring. Frances Lederer gives an understated performance as Dracula; especially with his real life East European accent and impeccable diction. Lederer’s work ranges from snapping off words to coolly letting them drip venom, or should I say blood.

The plot is familiar fare yet with some variations particularly with Norma Eberhardt as Rachel Mayberry who is the daughter in the family who has seen Cousin Bellac’s true nature in a dream. The standard vampire film events happen with the same results this time in an underground mine which itself is interesting. THE RETURN OF DRACULA is a small story with well-defined, if not slightly dated characters all swirling around Francis Lederer’s tasty turn as Count Dracula.

The film did not have the huge budget (if you can call Hammer film budgets large) or the look or feel of the slashing, fang- bloodied athletic version of the Count that exploded into our consciousness, yet still worth a look to see a different take based on Bela Lugosi; even taking his first name.
RETURN OF DRACULA was written by Pat Fielder, who was one of the few women to author a screenplay. Paul Landres gives us character conscious direction. Gerald Fried wrote the music that does sound very ‘Hammer like’ in sections. Fried when onto to do his best music work in the original 1960s Star Trek series.

Welcome to a new section on NITRATE FROM THE GRAVE called SILVER BULLETS. These will be shorter, rapid fire reviews of items that would otherwise get ignored (some for good reason) or mixed in to a longer article. They are still enjoyable for a watch or as a curiosity. You usually get to see some major stars late in their careers; people that never made another film or others who started and moved on. Clint Eastwood, for example, was in both REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and TARANTULA in 1955.

First up, it’s THE INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN or THE INVASION OF THE HELL CREATURES from American International Pictures in 1957.

The picture offers the teenage story of a ‘make out’ spot invaded one evening by aliens. Segue to some of today’s horror films and you have the goalie masked behemoth invading a cabin or a resort to do exactly the same thing without the charm. The picture features one of my favourite stars, Frank Gorshin as Joe Gruen, a ‘drifter’ with Lynn Osboure as Artie Burns, who are bent on having a good time. Gorshin is a brilliant, frenetic performer who seems always on the edge as he became famous for as an impressionist on the Las Vegas club circuit. Audiences today know him as The Riddler in the 1966 series BATMAN. I have had an opportunity to see a short live performance at a club and can say it was showmanship the classic way. Gorshin owned the room with his ever present cigarette and black tux. You don’t see that in comedy clubs today.

The picture begins with Johnny Carter (Steve Terrill) and Joan Hayden (Gloria Castillo) planning to elope- you can’t have teenager being amorous in cars without the proper intentions. They turn off their lights to exit causing them to hit what they think is a little boy in the dark, which turns out to be an alien who has exited a nearby ship. The place they go in their cars is a dairy farm. Subsequently, you have the irate farmer – literally. Farmer Larkin is played by screen veteran Raymond Hatton, who supplies human menace with his shot gun and rock salt threats to trespassers. Made at the height of the UFO craze, you have numerous references to ‘crazy people’ sighting flying saucers and ‘little green men’ by the authority figures.
The police, parents and doctors in the film ridicule the kids as they try to seek help yet never believe what they say till the end. Defeat happens when the teens get their vehicles together and organise an attack with headlights. The menace is gone with no help from the authority figures.

INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN is in black and white with running time a little over an hour so things move at a fast pace. You get to see good creatures, in spite of the status of the picture in later years becoming a cult of their own. The saucer man figures and likenesses are all over the net along with the lurid poster design. It’s a bit naïve the way the teenagers react to people but that is part of the charm of the time as you also had the rise of the ‘beach’ movie and the ‘delinquent’ movie. Still, you have cars with enough steel in them to make four of today’s vehicles. Enjoyable creatures with dripping sharp fingers that are still unpleasant to me when you see what they do to skin in an attack are also there. The end credits have an ending that raised the hackles of the younger me when I first saw it.

One cannot help saying without giving too much away that there was also a lesson against alcohol consumption in this picture. It’s a fun film if you don’t mind a drunk dairy cow as a comic relief vehicle. INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957) is available. Sit back with a can of your favourite brew and enjoy. Then toss it away in disgust as you have been warned.

The altering of the human form has been an omnipresent theme of Horror pictures. Whether that is being tossed into something or off something, made into something, or having something removed, the result is a change that does not make us or those that love us the same. The face is a key to human identity, a door to human love so if that changes, sometimes we change. Two examples of this are the Hammer films adaptation of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962,) directed by Terance Fisher, and the little known 1959 picture FACE OF FIRE (1959), directed by Albert Band.

Gaston Leroux’s novel has been the subject of many adaptations as we all know; much like Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I recently viewed it again and found parts to be some of the best subtle acting and directing that Hammer Studios has done.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962), which moves the story from the streets and sewers of Paris to London in the 1900s, is a showcase for Michael Gough as the morally bankrupt Lord Ambrose d’Arcy who wants to give every pretty ingénue who auditions for him ‘lessons’ in his apartment. Gough is wonderfully snarly if not slightly ‘one note” as he does anything and everything to get his opera on the boards including stealing music from an unknown composer- Professor Petrie- played by a young Herbert Lom.

Lord Ambrose prints Professor Petrie’s music with his name not the Professor’s. Petrie breaks into the printer’s shop at night and there is a resulting fire and acid blow back that sends him running out into the street when he find solace in the sewers where he lives for years plotting revenge.

Like the best Horror pictures and stories, the action is what is done by those who fall under the influence of the absent monster, in this case The Phantom Professor Petrie becomes a tragic figure, pleading for a chance to work with Christine for, ‘a week, a month,’ just so he can hear his music before he dies. Lom and Terence Fisher work subtle action with a single eye – either a malevolent stare or at one point a close up of a tear.

FACE OF FIRE (1959), directed by Albert Band is not really a Horror film, more a narrative of our prejudice against deformity and the fear of it. It was based on a story by American Stephen Crane called “The Monster”. Crane was considered to be one of the most influential writers of his generation who wrote in the naturalist mode. Crane’s other major work that is more familiar is the Civil War story THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1895), which he wrote without having battlefield experience yet went on to become an American classic. Crane’s hallmark was to show small town life as neither good nor evil.

The story of FACE OF FIRE is a simple one, yet again like the best films, the story is about those affected by events not an actual creature. The setting is a small town in late 1800s America where a lowly handyman Monk Johnson (played by James Whitmore) whom women want to be with, children want to befriend, animals love him. Cameron Mitchell is the town doctor Ned Trescott, whom Monk works for, and also takes his son Jimmie (Miko Oscard) he takes of fishing trips. All is pastoral till one night a fire erupts at Trescott’s residence and Monk charges into the burning building to save a sleeping Jimmie. Overcome by smoke from chemicals, Monk collapses.The boy escapes through a nearby door. Monk is pulled from the building with severe burns removing his facial features, and what is later revealed as brain damage.

The townspeople that once revered him now shun him. He sits in his room slumped over, face covered by a black cloth. The farmer whose house he has moved into asks for more money. The farmer’s children do not eat, his wife refuses to go in the room and social isolation takes place as friends refuse to call. The farmer, however, does find time to try on Monk’s disused jacket and boots that he covets and eventually gets.

Direction wise the photography is very stark in black and white with effective use of foreground and background action plus light and shadows. The people move throughout the film in an almost sleep like trance along the streets. No, this is at heart a drama, and a painful and devastating one at that. It takes a long, hard look at how people would react to a man suffering such extreme deformities, and often their reactions are just as ugly as his visage. It is quite harrowing to see their reactions, especially when they think Monk is dead and begin hypocritically praising him for his bravery. What makes it most painful is its air of truth; it is quite easy to see people acting this way when you know that they (and we) are capable of it when we let fear take control of us. James Whitmore and Cameron Mitchell are both excellent as the deformed handyman and the doctor (whose son it was that was rescued from the fire) who cares for him, even when he himself becomes a pariah and has to watch his son cope with the situation.

There are strong influences of FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) as Monk is well enough to be outside, sheds his hood and tries to join in a dance with the townspeople but is shunned. He approaches the woman who once tried to get him interested in her – she runs screaming from him now. We only see his back in the sequence as again its effect on the people that is important. The one constant is a collie dog who will still give him a stick which is a repeat from earlier in the film showing that animals love unconditionally, unlike humans. There is a plot of kill Monk by the townspeople as he is not human which is stopped when the Sheriff intervenes. Monk is offered a free house away from the town by one person all in an effort to keep him away.

Character actor Royal Dano as townsman Jake Winter battles his own feelings as opposed to his families. A young Lois Maxwell (Her pre Miss Moneypenny days) as Trescott’s incipit appearance loving wife are both stand outs. The ending is a wonderful example of what a simple human touch and gesture can do to someone who has changed on the outside.

I remember FACE OF FIRE on television years ago and the one sequence that stuck with me is when Trescott’s son brings Monk his breakfast. Monk slowly turns and his face is seen in profile causing the boy to run. PHANTOM did not do well at the box office and actually caused Terence Fisher to fall out of favour as a director. Shades of later David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) as it was also in black and white and dealt with an ‘outsider’ by appearance. It is interesting to note both these pictures were done by non- horror genre directors. FACE OF FIRE was done by Albert Band who did also produced I BURY THE LIVING (1980) and the cult classic TROLL (1986) amongst other titles, including HONEY I BLEW UP THE KIDS (1992), as Executive Producer.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) and FACE OF FIRE (1959) are two examples of the altering of a face causing a once sympathetic individual to be thought of as a monster. Both pictures are examples of subtle film making, all wonderfully photographed on a limited budget released by major studios.

BEACH BLOODY BINGO

Summer has become a time for Hollywood to release its blockbusters to eager audiences who would rather be inside then out. I remember reading movie ads in the paper proudly touting theatres having the wonders of air conditioning. Movies about summer are another bottle (now comes in a tube) of suntan lotion as they have all but disappeared. I speak of those beach party films; those drive in specials when you didn’t really watch all of the film or a Saturday matinee like THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH made in 1964 by Del Tenney

The horror film, alien invasion film, war film, biker film, silly musical, and sword and sandal epics were yours, all for one ridiculously low price. Most adolescent boys ended up re-enacting the fights outside the theatre and sometimes during the next feature. THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH sums the genre up for me. You can write many articles of this film style and I probably will later on as believe it or not each is derivative yet different at the same time, which is the charm.

It has an interesting history to it, along with a cheesy man in a rubber suit monster that we all put down yet enjoy with comfort compared to what passes for today’s horror. It contains all the components of those films such as the motorcycle gang, the hot rodders, the rock and roll band, the beach itself, the love story and the clean cut hero.

The plot of this film is not important to its charm, just that it is executed with what was thought to be a precision that became the exploitive style. The short running time of 78 minutes made it possible to fit into those Saturday matinee and drive-in venues. A short running time also meant more showings in regular cinema house although I suspect THE HORROR OR PARTY BEACH was booked into those “B” and “C” circuit places- almost grindhouse style. It was paired with another Del Tenney production THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE. Both pictures were marketed in the William Castle showman tradition of having audience members sign a, ‘fright release,’ coupled with newspaper ads stating: “For your protection! We will not permit you to see these shockers unless you agree to release the theater of all responsibility for death by fright!”

The history of THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH is that in fact it was not shot in California as inferred but in Stanford, Connecticut with beach scenes done at a place called Shippan Point. The biker gang in the film was an actual gang from Riverside, Connecticut called the Charter Oak Motorcycle Club. The Del-Aires were an actual band from Paterson, New Jersey who wrote three of the songs (Drag, Wiggle Wobblin’ and Elaine), and performed all six songs in the film. Edward Earle Marsh composed the film’s soundtrack; Wilfred Holcombe is credited as the musical director. Marsh and Holcombe wrote the other three songs that are performed in the film: “Joy Ride”, “The Zombie Stomp,” and “You Are Not a Summer Love.”

One of the monster suits made for the film apparently shrunk so that the hired actor could not fit into it, paving the way for production assistant Ruth Glassenberg Freedman’s son, Charles, who was 16 at the time, fit perfectly into the suit and thus portrayed a monster in the film.

The charm of these pictures is the naivety of the story and the people. Those activities such as slumber parties took place. Girls would sit around listening to 45 rpm records, giggle, and dream about boys. Not much has changed as it is interesting to note that in the HALLOWEEN , FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchises, the derivative of girls dreaming about the ‘evils’ of sexuality or indulging sexual relations out of wedlock became victims of the monster as a penalty for these impure thoughts.

These pictures also featured the ‘lantern jawed hero’- in this case portrayed by the James Franciscus look- a- like John Scott – who tries to work with the adults of the film to combat the monsters. These begs for speculation about typecasting as Franciscus was making a name for himself on television in the role of teacher in MR NOVAK which led to him being brought to Hollywood in 1964 to star in the picture, YOUNG BLOOD HAWKE.

These pictures usually have the rebel hero such as early Steve McQueen in THE BLOB as an outsider trying to convince the authorities that the menace exists, only then working together do they defeat the monster. Hank Green works with the authorities of the film in the person of Doctor Gavin (Allan Laurel) to discover the creatures vulnerability to ‘metallic sodium’ instead of being the brooding, social outcast teen.

An indulgent side light to these pictures for me is watching some cool cars and bikes in action. You get to see cities as they were in perhaps a simpler time. For example, Hank Green’s speedy drive to New York City passing through Central Park and Time Square. The fashions and the hair styles are also worth a look in these shows if you are into these things.

It took me a few years to see this picture as I learned about it in the Warren Magazine publication photo book in which frame blowups were captioned like comics. One of my childhood friends, Stanley, kept calling it THE HORROR OF THE BEACH PARTY which leads me to believe perhaps he did not like rock and roll or beaches that much at that time.

You can laugh at it, poke fun at it, yet it is a fact that it and films of this nature were made and seen by a segment of the public which is more than can be said of some lofty concept ideas of large studios or independents. Just because you don’t have major backing does not mean your film is not strong nor does having big money and the ‘Hollywood machine’ behind a project does not guarantee success. THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH is simply there fulfilling its purpose to make money for the company utilizing available people and sets of a time which it is still doing.

GODZILLA !!!!!

Some things are simply made to be seen on the large screen and some large things are made for the same reason. The original GODZILLA or Gojira is one of these momentous beasts. I had the good fortune of attending a screening of this 1954 classic in glorious black and white at the Egyptian theatre in LA at the 2014 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL. I thought it deserved larger post then I was able to do.

I was not born when this picture came out in 1954 and it took me a number of years to see the original cut on DVD. I did see the North American version featuring those infamous inter cuts of fellow Canadian Raymond Burr (born in New Westminster, B.C.), playing American reporter Steve Martin. Gojira functions on three levels making it a more interesting picture in scope, story and execution.

Film reflects the society that produces it. The theme of atomic testing and its repercussions that were spilled upon the earth to hasten the end of the Second World War are woven throughout. It has also been written that Gojira has an undercurrent of guilt for this country leveling destruction. The creature is a metaphor for the real life annihilation that was only a few years in the past. The main difference in Gojira is the terror comes from local legend – not an outside force as shown when an Island elder recounts the story of creature to ridiculing people. This moment mirrored real life as Japanese fishing vessel Fukuryu Maru with 23 crew members was caught in the radioactive fallout of a detonation off Bikini Atol. Dr. Yamane is the voice of reason in the picture, listening to the elder’s story and leading the research with an open mind. This changes as he learns more.

The initial evidence that Gojira is alive in the film begins at night on raging seas and later in a typhoon where we see footprints, lending a haunting quality to the film. Like most good monster pictures it is not the creature itself that is the real story instead it’s the effect it has on people caught in its influence. Vignette on the train at night in the rain as two people talk; one makes reference that they survived the Hiroshima blast when it is learned Gojira is on direct path to Tokyo. A weeping woman sitting near a wall, holding her baby saying that, “They will soon be with their father,” as the city is destroyed around them by Gojira are missing from the North American print. Audiences in the rest of the world did not want to put a face to what had happened. The moments showing the vista of the firestorm burning Tokyo plus the hospital with injured people being tended to are eerie reminders of a not too distant past.

The second story is that of a re-occurring theme in fifties Science Fiction film of science taking responsibility for its actions and consequences. A rogue researcher Serizawa has discovered a way to remove oxygen from the ocean. This is knowledge solemnly terrifying to him and the opposite in others when he demonstrates it in a small aquarium eliciting a horrible shriek from Emiko. Women still scream and men act stoic with an interesting exception in a city council scene in which a female councillor chastises her male counterpart for lack of action and hiding the truth from the public of the Gojira menace.

The third story is a love story involving Dr. Yamane’s daughter Emiko, who wants to end an arranged marriage to Serizawa in favour of sea going sailor Ogata. Serizawa is the loner; moody, physically scarred scientist, living in a large house who is tortured with the fact he discovered the oxygen destroyer formula. The traditional lifestyle meets the technological new world. Ogata respects Serizawa enough to regret inflicting this shame on him, yet the scientist is too preoccupied in his research to care that his relationship has ended. Many couples altered or went ahead with marriage plans in the face of the Second World War.

The responsibility of great power brings about the end of the film. The formula for removing oxygen from the oceans is thought to be the only way the destroy Gojira when conventional weapons fail. Dr .Yamane urges saving the creature to find out how it survived atomic testing, which is refreshing since it always seems we have kill the monster to re-establish the status quo.

Gojira’s demise is handled with great respect and the oxygen destroyer is deployed in a surreal sequence of floating divers. Serizawa sacrifices himself as he knows that the oxygen destroyer formula is still in his mind – something he cannot bear. The bubbles, the withering of Gojira all make a poignant end that as we know wasn’t really the end as a durable film franchise started. None of the films that followed from Toho Studios and Director Ishiro Honda had the same impact for me on as the original version.

The North American Version GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, changed the story to a monster stomp epic thought to be more acceptable for the mass market.

The scenes of a proud society with dignity and ceremony are in this film along with Dr. Yamane warning that further testing will unleash more monsters. This was post-war Japan – a society on the verge of a new era of prosperity-which would go on to produce a cycle of these destruction pictures along with some of the most graphically violent films in the horror and gangster genres. The dichotomy that is both versions of the film is very pronounced. Recommend seeing GOJIRA in limited widescreen release if you can. Looking forward to the new version in 2014.

(Photos courtesy of TOHO PRODUCTIONS and RIATO PICTURES)

THE NOTES FROM HELL

“A house is not a home without music, mood music. When lights are low and all is still. The songs from the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN settle over you. It makes you a real cut up.”

The above quote is part of the original narration introduction as performed by Bob MacFadden from the album THEMES FROM HORROR MOVIES by Dick Jacobs and his orchestra. The album this came from was one of the first to feature music from the horror genre. The record is also one of those signposts for us “Monster Kids” as it was the first time this style of music could be held in our skeletal hands.

Before that, there was the “Monster Mash” by Boris Pickett and the Crypt Keepers. You could get TV horror host John Zacheley’s records of “spooky rock and roll,” all released between 1960 to 1963 -the beginning of the monster boom on television. ‘Serious records’ followed; mostly sound effects records such as CHILLING THRILLING SOUNDS FROM A HAUNTED HOUSE which is still available in some shape today. The Forry Ackerman penned AN EVENING WITH BORIS KARLOFF AND HIS FRIENDS was also available. These were all pretty cool selections but THEMES FROM HORROR MOVIES was the “real thing” : real music taken seriously to scare ourselves silly and it worked.

What of today’s music in horror pictures? Looking at some of the surveys of horror film music there is a propensity to mention only the main theme. The way that music is used throughout the film is a neglected form. Today, we have replaced memorable melodies with specifically recorded rock and roll (usually metal) tunes sprinkled about the film in order to boost soundtrack sales for the show or the band. The soundtrack for the Steven King picture MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE featured past AC/DC songs plus one specifically penned for the film, WHO MADE WHO.

I would like to go back in time to the early days of horror film music. Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney survives today in its many versions with many different film scores. The original music score and cues are lost except what is known is that most films used straight classical music pieces, and the Phantom used excerpts from the opera Faust. The surviving notes do say the premiere of the picture features music cues from D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION. Today the film has been re scored many times influenced by the Broadway musical not all the time in a dignified manner

Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) featured the theme from Sleeping Beauty Ballet over opening titles which is odd for a style in that the rest of the picture featured no music except for the Opera sequence. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN with the exception of its rousing opening theme was non-event with most of the film devoid of music except for village wedding reception. Sound pictures were in their infancy for capturing dialogue, and the microphones and consoles were sluggish and uneven until technology got better with use and development. Film music was window dressing for many except in the musicals.

WHITE ZOMBIE 1932 (Discussed in fully another post) featured a rather lively yet again classical inspired musical score for such a dark themed story. One could argue that the score was used to lighten the tone of the film as perhaps Lugosi and the story of control of the dead was deemed too frightening for the audience.

The first great score in the horror genre was BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). The score by Franz Waxman set the gold standard for film scores at that time in this style. The music aided the story with the ominous five note monster theme signalling Karloff’s appearance to the church organ used in the hermit sequence to create the pious atmosphere. The highlight of the score is the creation of the Bride herself with the heart beat tones and pastoral tones complete with chimes as a parody of the wedding bells as the Bride is presented to the world. Waxman follows with the frantic building of horns and violins – stroking almost Bernard Hermann style – as the tower’s destruction unfolds. This score is much studied by film music people and is considered a classic.

Throughout the monster cycle UNIVERSAL STUDIOS found it necessary to recycle key musical parts as a cost cutting measure yet produce many fine film scores. T like SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) by Frank Skinner which was reused in some serials that the studio also produced.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN 1943 features a full song called FARO-LA FARO LI performed by villagers in which Larry Talbot reacts strongly to its sentiment of eternal life. The use of that song does not seem out of place as musicals were flourishing and everyone had a voice, even if it wasn’t your own. The songs again lift the mood of the film while furthering the plot.

Glossing over things slightly, the science fiction genre at Universal with CREATURE FORM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE ISLAND EARTH, THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE MOLE PEOPLE, all featured some (no pun intended) haunting melodies. Studios such as 20th Century Fox gave us the iconic score by Bernard Herrmann for THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951). Louis and Bebe Barron created a score of electronic tonalities for the classic FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956), which inspired one of my favourites, the theme from FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), and later the big budget BLADE RUNNER(1982) by Vangelis.

The 1950s films brought out the idea that the teenager was the market for much of film style you find so derivative yet exciting scores sprinkled in with rock and roll which was on the rise.

The subject of the music of HAMMER FILMS from the fifties to the seventies is the subject of greater article study. These pictures from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, X THE UNKNOWN, THE GORGON (With its haunting soprano vocals in the opening theme), and THE DRACULA SERIES all raised the bar for instilling fear. It should be noted that soundtracks of the scores of these films be it simply the themes or the full scores were great sellers on the cd market. I have often wondered when attending Halloween concerts why this music is not played again with full orchestra instead of the umpteenth version of the Bach Toccata fugue. The music of HAMMER FILMS is brilliant, engaging, and challenge to play yet simply perhaps not as well known on this side of the ocean.

This whirl wind look brings me back to the modern age of the horror film. There is a whole other section of music linked to horror in the spawn of horror pop, psychobilly, death metal, black metal and horror punk some of which finds its way into film.

Two of my favourite film scores 1960’s films scores come from controversial Roman Polanski for THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967) with its unnervingly haunting use of vocals in the theme plus its entire score is a direct homage to HAMMER FILMS which was still going strong. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) also directed by Polanski for again its Lullaby theme which has a note of dread as sung one of the film stars Mia Farrow plus the use of discordant notes through out the film created the sense that these events are off kilter. This use of discordant material was not seen till it was revived in THE EXORCIST with its slashing string instruments and actual religious chant in the prologue.

Today we have lost the emphasis for the horror film score. The sellable theme or rock and roll tune inserted into action is the new normal. If you can’t sell the actual sound track, why not boost it with a popular tune? Sometimes, you will also find band members actually part of the film or the television series. I remember the massive selling album TUBULAR BELLS from composer Mike Oldfield which was used in the genre shaking, THE EXORCIST (1973). The actual piece used was very short yet an entire album was built around it including some demonic growls mixed with some aggressive guitars.

The film scoring of the horror genre has been neglected with a few exceptions, such as ALIEN (1982) by Jerry Goldsmith. I may have missed some examples, yet I feel music needs to be revived. Many people don’t go to these films today for the music. Somewhere out there, there are notes waiting to be woven together into a chilling film score. These are the ‘musical notes from Hell’ we wait for.

Film has often been compared to organic matter. A film is grown, nurtured, often torn apart, replanted in more fertile ground, cultivated and harvested. The basic form model of a horror film has not changed. Form refers to use of point of view in which the film is told to and perceived by the audience. Success in this is not gauged by the screams and nervous laughter that you may hear nor the crumpling of popcorn bags in a moment of silence, but a feeling of involvement by the audience.

Why is that one of the most diverse subjects in all of cinema- to make the unbelievable more believable- has not achieved this to any substantial degree? There are some notable exceptions that have immersed the audience within the film’s world.

The first that comes to mind is the original script for SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). If you get a chance to read the shooting script first draft by Willis Cooper which was available as part of the Universal Film script series you read a picture that is completely different from what was on the screen. One particular scene early on which has strong impact yet would have been too strong for the audience then concerns Wolf Von Frankenstein strolling into town after a storm has swept thought the village. While speaking to the local police it is written that a cart moved slowly behind the pair as they talk. The new Baron inquires as to what the carts are holding; the bodies of storm victims covered in canvas, one of which was a child.

If you have seen this film you will know this is not in the finished picture. Indeed, the part of Ygor (brilliantly played by Bela Lugosi) was not in the first drafts but was later added by director Rowland V Lee as the film moved into production. There is a nocturnal walk by Wolf Von Frankenstein in the script in which he wears a black robe like death itself in physical form. This is not in the final film yet a few publicity stills exist of Basil Rathbone in the costume on the set.

The most startling is that the Monster has dialogue in the film which would have been brilliant as it followed the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Continuing this conversation would have been a wonderful, dignified ending of the Karloff version of the monster.

The entire script for SON OF FRANKENSTEIN was a creation of actors and Director as they went along in the production process. The final film is a corner stone for the Universal Frankenstein series with its action, adventure, thrills and chills (as the publicity says) yet I cannot help but believe how much stronger it would have been if those moments had been included. The result would have been a much darker, foreboding film.

The second film that I would like to bring forth is another example from the Universal film script series: Curt Siodmak’s 1941 treatment and script for THE WOLF MAN. I could not help but be struck that it was shot from the point of view of the eyes of the werewolf.

WOLFEN (1981) was perhaps a less successful attempt at showing the point of view of the wolf. This particular camera style of Killer or creature point of view has become part of the language of Horror now to the point of cliché.

These are but drafts that were changed for various reasons by studios perhaps for convenience, pacing of the picture or simply they needed something to be good box office. It is tantalizing to read what might have been. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN has an entire subplot of Dwight Frye’s character Karl removed to the cutting room floor. What might have been for Mister Frye?

Michael Powell’s ground breaking 1960 British film PEEPING TOM was a effective use of the eye of murderer point of view yet it only used it in limited amount. Proof once again that less can be more.

THE EXORCIST (1973) by William Friedkin, which tops most people’s most scary film list as it does mine for perhaps different reasons. The original screenplay was several hours long and unfilmable even by today’s standard for film length Was the effect of the picture the result of the hype that surrounded its initial release? I believe it is that the audience related to the characters as average people caught in extraordinary circumstances?

The last thirty five minutes of the picture are riveting with its use of sound, quick cuts and denouement. The crescendo of the crashing glass, the resultant fall of Damien Karras down the Georgetown steps is wonderful yet slightly manipulative. The symbolism of the Karras’ fall redemption for the perceived sin of leaving his Mother to die in a hospital has double meaning. The most poignant scene for me is the confession to Father Dyer at the bottom of the stairs. All of these moments with the exception of the demon do not feature Monsters but humans.

I would say the most interesting picture to wrestle with point of view in recent years has been CLOVERFIELD (2008) by Drew Goddard and Director Matt Reeves. While not totally a “Monster film,” CLOVERFIELD effectively takes what was started by the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT style of camera work and fuses it together to tell the story of five New Yorkers during an attack by a large Godzilla like creature.

CLOVERFIELD is a product of its times utilizing technology of today to connect with an audience to tell a story that has been told many times before. Yet is has impact because people relate to it through the point of view which enhances the experience.

What is left on the cutting room floor or today in the delete bin?