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Archive for the ‘Profiles’ Category

King for a Day

While working at Viking Penguin from 1990 to 1996, I had the honor of being Stephen King’s hardcover publicist for Four Past Midnight, Needful Things, Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Insomnia, Rose Madder and, in the preliminary stages, Desperation. It was a unique assignment: we certainly had no trouble getting reviews, which was just a matter of sending out endless copies, but Steve declined virtually every request for interviews; it almost seemed the hardest part was dealing with all the inquiries about the Dark Tower books, which we didn’t publish. Ironically (and, I’m sure many would say, inexplicably), I was not a reflexive fan of Steve’s when I got that gig, nor am I now, although I do think he grew a lot during that period.

Steve’s refusal to do publicity meant that I usually had very little contact with him, with notable exceptions such as the ten-city motorcycle tour he did to promote Insomnia (exclusively at some of the better independent bookstores), which I helped coordinate. But some of the fringe benefits were quite memorable, like attending his and Tabitha’s 25th anniversary at the Civic Center in Bangor, Maine, with Madame BOF and a big Penguin contingent, or the time we took an entire day at work to watch the miniseries of The Stand, which Steve screened for us before it aired. I have warm memories of my relationship with Steve, which sadly did not outlive our professional association, and in honor of his 64th birthday today, I present my personal list of the Top 10 King films:

Carrie

The Shining

The Dead Zone

Christine

Stand by Me

Misery

Needful Things

The Shawshank Redemption

Dolores Claiborne

The Green Mile

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It’s Milla Time

Quite by chance, I am in the midst of watching a Milla Jovovich double-feature, consisting of her back-to-back 2010 efforts Resident Evil: Afterlife and Stone; in fact, I didn’t even know she was in the latter when I taped it, having only a one-line description and the names of its leading men, Robert De Niro and Edward Burns. This will be neither a review of those two films per se nor a detailed rundown of her career, but rather a brief celebration. And yes, I’m aware that—as with my post on Das Boot (1981)—although I couldn’t resist it, my title is something of a cheat, since La Jovovich apparently pronounces her first name to rhyme not with “vanilla” (as my Sigourney Weaveresque mentor at Trinity College, the great Professor Milla Riggio, did) but with “tortilla.”

Unsurprisingly, Milla is best known through her work with two filmmakers for whom she served as both muse and mate, writer-directors Luc Besson (some of whose efforts I greatly admire) and Paul W.S. Anderson (not so much). Besson gave her both her breakthrough, as the flame-tressed object of the exercise in his delirious SF oddity The Fifth Element (1997), and the to-die-for title role in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999). Milla’s pre-Besson oeuvre is an eclectic array of television and such features as exploitation-maestro Zalman King’s Two Moon Junction (1988), Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991), Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin (1992)—each of which I have yet to see—and Richard Linklater’s ode to slackers, Dazed and Confused (1993).

Despite a reflexive aversion to films based on video games, I recommended Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) to my zombie-fan friends, who rejected it because it lacked the gut-munching gore of a George A. Romero or Lucio Fulci. After serving only as a writer-producer on the first sequels, Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) and …Extinction (2007), PWSA reclaimed the megaphone for …Afterlife, and has another, …Retribution, in pre-production. While some effort has been made to differentiate the entries, as was done much more successfully in the Alien franchise, the series has undergone a steady and perhaps inevitable decline, although I would not lay this at the feet of Milla, whose character of Alice forms the connecting link and epitomizes the ass-kicking female.

This persona, originated with Besson, was no doubt responsible for Milla’s casting in Ultraviolet (2006), reportedly written by director Kurt Wimmer with her in mind, but the result, if not a total waste of time (as no film with Milla kicking butt could be in this writer’s opinion), is generic and superfluous. Alas, the same is increasingly true of the Resident Evil movies with their huge slabs of largely plot-free action scenes, thus making Jovovich the only reason to watch them. Luckily, Milla has managed to diversify with an enviable variety of projects, following The Fifth Element with a film for writer-director Spike Lee, He Got Game (1998), and The Messenger with one for BOF favorite Wim Wenders, The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), co-written by Bono of U2 fame.

I have yet to see Milla in the Thomas Hardy adaptation The Claim (2000) or the spoof Zoolander (2001), which would seem to exemplify her range even further. But I found her delightful in her next effort, Dummy (2002), with Adrien Brody as Steven, a young man whose social skills are so stunted that he communicates largely through a ventriloquist dummy, and has a decidedly rocky relationship with his love object and unemployment counselor, Lorena (Vera Farmiga). Milla is hilarious as his friend Fangora, who is so desperate to get a gig for her punk-rock band that when she learns his sister, Heidi (the always awesome Illeana Douglas), needs a klezmer combo for the wedding she is planning, she assures Heidi that is her specialty, despite having no idea what it is.

A side note on Farmiga, who was profiled by Time for her recent directorial debut, Higher Ground, and had appeared opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009), which I am eager to catch. Recognizing her face, I looked her up on the IMDb, but at the time, the only film I specifically remembered her from was Dummy, although I discovered that I had seen and then forgotten her (sorry, Vera) in 15 Minutes (2001), Jonathan Demme’s underrated remake The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). Only later, having forgotten the somewhat nondescript title, did I realize that she had also impressed me as the Valerie Plame character in Nothing But the Truth (2008), which fictionalizes the case and gives it a devastating final twist.

Stone depicts the interrelationships among parole officer Jack Mabry (De Niro), inmate Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Burns), and their respective spouses, Madylyn (Frances Conroy) and Lucetta (Jovovich). Convicted of setting the fire that consumed his grandparents, who were killed by a fellow addict, Stone uses his hot-blooded wife to try to influence Jack in his favor, and although the story lacks a satisfying climax or resolution, its intent may be simply to show lives spiraling out of control. Like De Niro, Milla gets a welcome opportunity to do a little acting for a change; meanwhile, I see that Anderson has cast her as the villainous M’Lady De Winter in this year’s umpteenth version of The Three Musketeers, so now I suppose I’ll have to watch that one, too…

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On the occasion of 107th birthday, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

While his work epitomized the Gothic horror tales that secured the fortunes of England’s Hammer Films, director Terence Fisher (1904-80) also made his mark in the SF genre, there and elsewhere.  After unsuccessful careers in the merchant marine and a department store, he joined the industry in 1933 as “the oldest clapper boy in the business,” and worked his way up to editor.

Aptly, Fisher’s directorial debut was a supernatural comedy, Colonel Bogey (1948), while another early indication of what lay ahead was the suspense thriller So Long at the Fair (1950).  He began his association with Hammer in 1952, receiving one of his two screenwriting credits on Mantrap (1953), adapted from the novel Queen in Danger by Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor).

Fisher and Paul Tabori also co-scripted Four Sided Triangle (1953), based on William F. Temple’s novel about scientists in love with the same woman.  Bill (Stephen Murray) believes he can solve the problem by duplicating Lena (Barbara Payton), using their experimental process of turning energy into matter; unfortunately, “Helen” also prefers Robin (John Van Eyssen) to Bill.

Tabori and Richard Landau adapted Spaceways (1953) from a BBC radio play by Charles Eric Maine, whose novels became such films as Escapement (aka The Electronic Monster, 1958) and The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970).  Howard Duff starred as a scientist planning a space trip, to prove that he did not murder his wife and her lover and conceal their bodies in a previous rocket.

As with Universal in the 1930s, Hammer kicked off its successful cycle of Gothic horror films with back-to-back adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, although in reverse order.  Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958) made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, with their signature roles.

Hammer elected to follow the fortunes of Frankenstein (Cushing) rather than his creation (Lee) in its sequels.  Except for Freddie Francis’s The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), they were all directed by Fisher:  The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).

Fisher largely left the Dracula series to other hands, with Francis following him again on Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), although he directed the first two sequels.  The Brides of Dracula (1960) brought back Cushing’s Van Helsing, but not the Count himself, who returned sans dialogue in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), due to Lee’s dissatisfaction with the script.

Also using those two stars to excellent effect was Fisher’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), with Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes among the screen’s greatest and Lee as the endangered Baskerville heir.  Soon, Fisher was revisiting horror classics left and right in The Mummy (1959), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (aka House of Fright, 1960), and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961).

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) was a remake of a more obscure film, The Man in Half Moon Street (1945).  But the box-office failure of The Phantom of the Opera (1962) led to a brief exile from Hammer, during which Fisher directed Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes (Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, 1962), with Lee taking a turn as Holmes.

He also made a pair of films for American producer Robert L. Lippert, who distributed much of Hammer’s early output in the U.S.  The Horror of It All (1963) was a spoof, written by Ray Russell, while The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) marked Fisher’s return to SF with a low-budget, star-free tale about the survivors of an alien invasion that utilized robots and zombies.

Reunited with Hammer, Cushing, and Lee on The Gorgon (1964), Fisher still continued alternating horror and SF with two projects for the short-lived Planet Films.  In Island of Terror (1966), a solid script and a good cast, headed by Cushing and Edward Judd, helped to make up for the somewhat silly appearance of its tentacled silicates, which consume the calcium in bones.

Based on the novel by John Lymington, Night of the Big Heat (aka Island of the Burning Damned, 1967) displayed similar strengths and weaknesses.  Tensions simmer among Cushing, Lee, and the romantic triangle involving Jane Merrow, Patrick Allen, and his on- and off-screen wife, Sarah Lawson, but the rock-like alien blobs besieging them leave something to be desired.

Fisher next made the outstanding Dennis Wheatley adaptation The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil’s Bride, 1968), scripted by the acclaimed Richard Matheson.  Sadly, health problems prevented him from following through on several Hammer projects for which he was scheduled, and helped precipitate his retirement, but not before he brought the Frankenstein series to a close.

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On the occasion of his 103rd birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

Displaying a rare commitment to SF and fantasy, George Pal (1908-80) produced, and sometimes directed, a dozen feature films that had a profound impact on the genre.  Most of his works had their origins in literature, and perhaps his greatest achievement was his adaptations of two classic novels by H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960).

Born Marincsák György to Hungarian stage parents, unemployed architect Pal was hired by Budapest’s Hunnia studio as an apprentice animator.  Marrying and moving to Berlin, he rose to the top of the UFA studio’s cartoon department until the Nazis’ rise to power drove him out of Germany, and then lived and worked in various European countries before emigrating to the U.S.

During the 1940s, Pal directed, photographed and/or produced dozens of animated shorts, combining puppets and stop-motion in his famous Puppetoons.  He earned an honorary Academy Award for developing the techniques used in the Puppetoons, and seven consecutive nominations for the best animated short subject, from Rhythm in the Ranks (1941) to Tubby the Tuba (1947).

Unlike other forms of stop-motion, the Puppetoons used replacement animation, which substitutes a series of figures in various poses or emotions, instead of manipulating one model.  Animator Ray Harryhausen got his start in the Puppetoons, but after working under Frank Capra in the Army’s Special Service Division during World War II, he declined an offer to rejoin Pal.

Harryhausen told me in our Filmfax interview, “George…was a very easy man to work with, and I was one of the first animators he hired….It was great experience, although it wasn’t the type of animation I was really delighted to do, because…[Pal] had twenty-four separate figures to make one step, and that meant substituting a new figure for each movement, which wasn’t really my cup of tea.”

Pal’s debut feature, The Great Rupert (aka A Christmas Wish, 1950), was among the first to combine stop-motion and live-action footage, as the eponymous animated squirrel aids Jimmy Durante’s down-on-its-luck family.  After this transitional effort, directed by actor Irving Pichel, Pal focused solely on live-action projects, although animation still featured in many of his films.

Also directed by Pichel, Destination Moon (1950) was adapted by genre giant Robert A. Heinlein from his own young adult novel Rocket Ship Galileo, and indeed the script, written with Rip Van Ronkel and James O’Hanlon, lacks sophistication.  But Pal’s breakthrough project set a cinematic standard rarely equaled, dramatizing a lunar flight with scrupulous scientific accuracy.

Based on the novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, Rudolph Maté’s When Worlds Collide (1951) was the first of five films Pal made for Paramount, including the biopic Houdini (1953).  As two planets approach the Earth, one passes close enough to create mass destruction, also allowing forty colonists to travel there before the larger heavenly body demolishes our own.

Barré Lyndon’s updated script made The War of the Worlds more immediate, a precedent set by Orson Welles in his famous 1938 radio broadcast.  Pal’s initial collaboration with director and special-effects expert Byron Haskin, the film featured modern Martian war machines that are extremely impressive (albeit a far cry from Wells’s tripods) as they besiege the world’s capitals.

Although not strictly SF, The Naked Jungle (1954) nonetheless gave Haskin and Pal the opportunity to dazzle audiences with spectacular scenes of destruction, interwoven with human drama.  Adapted by Philip Yordan and Ranald MacDougall from Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen vs. the Ants,” it starred Charlton Heston as a man trying to protect his plantation from army ants.

Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955) marked Pal’s swan song for Paramount, undone by a melodramatic O’Hanlon screenplay.  Adapted by Yordan, Lyndon, and George Worthing Yates from a nonfiction book by astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell (a frequent Pal collaborator) and Willy Ley, it depicted a Mars mission jeopardized by a religious fanatic in conflict with his son.

With the fantasy tom thumb (1958), Pal moved to MGM, where he would remain for the next decade, and assumed directorial duties, as he would on his next four films.  A showcase for the acrobatic Russ Tamblyn in the title role, it featured Puppetoon sequences, songs, and rising star Peter Sellers as the henchman of Terry-Thomas’s villain, who tries to exploit the tiny hero.

The Time Machine won an Oscar for its special effects, as had Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, and tom thumb.  The script was by David Duncan, while Rod Taylor played the intrepid time traveler who journeys far into the future, when evolution has divided the human race into the passive Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks, who feed on them.

Disappointing on all counts, Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961) was hampered by Daniel Mainwaring’s unusually outlandish script, adapted from a play by Sir Gerald Hargreaves.  Greek fisherman Anthony Hall rescues a princess and travels by submarine to her home, Atlantis, but it is dominated by mad scientists and destroyed by a volcano just after Hall has effected his escape.

Co-directed with Henry Levin, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) told the story of the brothers and dramatized three of their fairy tales:  “The Dancing Princess,” “The Cobbler and the Elves,” and “The Singing Bone.”  It featured an all-star cast and a screenplay by David P. Harmon, famed genre author and screenwriter Charles Beaumont, and William Roberts.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) was adapted by Beaumont from Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr. Lao, with Tony Randall as Lao, who enlightens people by showing them their true selves while in various guises (e.g., Merlin, Pan, Medusa, the Abominable Snowman).  William Tuttle’s makeup earned an honorary Oscar; Jim Danforth’s special effects were also nominated.

Even a reunion with Haskin could not save The Power (1968) from tensions between Pal and MGM’s régime du jour, which dumped the film with little promotion.  Based on the book by Frank M. Robinson, it starred George Hamilton as a man on the run from an unknown assassin, a telekinetic superman who is eliminating his colleagues—and any evidence of his own existence.

Pal’s many abortive projects over the years included an adaptation of Wylie and Balmer’s sequel, After Worlds Collide, and a follow-up to The Time Machine.  One of the most devastating was his attempt to film William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s SF novel Logan’s Run, which after a long period of development was taken out of Pal’s hands and given to Saul David.

“Poor George was stymied one time after another while he generated new enthusiasm,” Johnson told me in a separate interview.  “Each new regime that came in would throw out all the old projects and say no to almost everything….[He] was linked to the deal for the longest period of time, during which he managed to teeter on there at MGM, trying to get one thing and another together…”

Pal’s final film, Doc Savage—The Man of Bronze (1975), showed how sadly out of step he had fallen with current public tastes.  Released by Warner Brothers, and directed by Michael Anderson, it sought unsuccessfully to recapture the spirit of the old serials, with Ron Ely (better known onscreen as Tarzan) playing the hero of Kenneth Robeson’s lengthy series of pulp novels.

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Believe it or not, it’s been almost fifty years since Swiss goddess Ursula Andress arose from the sea, clad only in a white bikini with a knife at her hip, and set the standard unbelievably high for all future Bond girls in 007’s first big-screen adventure, Dr. No (1962).  That’s only tangentially related to the subject of my post, but since a more attention-grabbing piece of pulchritude could scarcely be imagined, she can certainly serve the same purpose here.  Robert Aldrich wisely built up to another memorable Andress entrance in 4 for Texas (1963) as she directs a fusillade of rifle shots at Dean Martin from offscreen, before realizing he is her new partner and revealing herself.

Aldrich’s film is one of a quartet with Martin, Frank Sinatra and, in some cases, other members of the Rat Pack such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop, each of which has a numeral as part of the title.  The others are Lewis Milestone’s Ocean’s 11 (1960), on which our very own George Clayton Johnson shared story credit with Jack Golden Russell; John Sturges’s Sergeants 3 (1962); and Gordon Douglas’s Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964).  I’m no numerologist, but I noticed, back when they used to air some of them on The 4:30 Movie during my youth, that the numbers added up in several ways (e.g., 3 + 4 = 7, 4 + 7 = 11); maybe it’s a gambling thing?

I’m also no expert on Aldrich—I’d love to read a good book on him, if there’s one out there—yet knowing what I do, I had trouble imagining such a strong personality getting on with the notoriously volatile Sinatra.  Then I read on the IMDb that he “intensely disliked Frank Sinatra’s non-professional attitude and tried unsuccessfully to have him dismissed from the film” (since it was produced by The SAM Company, as in Sinatra And Martin, it’s a wonder it wasn’t the other way around).  It’s certainly interesting that each film had a different director, although Douglas did work with Sinatra on Tony Rome (1967), The Detective (1968), and several others.

It’s also interesting, in light of the lounge-lizard personae of the Rat Pack (epitomized by Oceans 11), that two of the films were Westerns made by masters of the form.  Sergeants 3 transplanted Gunga Din (1939) to the West, and featured Martin, Sinatra, and Lawford in the roles created by Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., with Davis as the Din analog.  Sturges made Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), its underrated sequel, Hour of the Gun (1967), and The Magnificent Seven (1960)—itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954)—while Aldrich directed Burt Lancaster in Apache, Vera Cruz (both 1954), and Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

Although by no means a classic, 4 for Texas has several things going for it, including Andress (who, in my view, completely eclipses co-star Anita Ekberg) and Charles Bronson as Matson, the killer hired by crooked banker Harvey Burden (Victor Buono).  Both men appeared in other Aldrich films—most notably The Dirty Dozen (1967) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), respectively—as did Martin’s right-hand man, Nick Dennis, who essayed a similar role in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).  But along with The Choirboys (1977), disowned by original author Joseph Wambaugh, and The Frisco Kid (1979), it showed that comedy was not Aldrich’s forte.

Fortunately, 4 for Texas is more of an adventure film than a comedy; such inanities as Martin’s mugging and double takes (including his reaction to a walk-on by Arthur Godfrey), plus a cameo by the Three Stooges, take a back seat to the action.  Bronson gets to kill Jack Elam in an early scene, as in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), and is gunned down twice by our boys, finally succumbing to a head shot on the paddle wheel of a riverboat that is central to Frank and Dino’s rivalry as would-be gambling bosses of Galveston.  I seem to recall reading somewhere that Bronson later sued somebody for promoting this as a starring vehicle for him.

I’ve been wanting to write something about Aldrich here for a long time, something a little more substantive than including several of his films in the B100, and this post is a roundabout excuse to do so.  I can’t think of a single filmmaker, alive or dead, who could do no wrong, be it Bava, Hitchcock, or Kubrick, and Aldrich is certainly no exception, but he had more than his fair share of noteworthy credits in his oeuvre.  Among other things, he worked with Lancaster, a big BOF favorite, on four films—more than any other director except The GREAT John Frankenheimer—which in addition to those aforementioned Westerns included Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).

At his best when prefiguring or subverting entire genres and subgenres, Aldrich made heroes of a sympathetic Indian in Apache, at a time when few would do so, and unsympathetic—but weirdly compelling—p.i. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in Kiss Me DeadlyThe Flight of the Phoenix (1965) anticipated the wave of all-star disaster films launched, as it were, by Airport (1970), and Ulzana’s Raid used a Western setting to make a statement about the war then raging in Vietnam.  In The Dirty Dozen, he turned the star-studded WW II epic on its head twice, first by making a bunch of convicted criminals his main characters, and then by making us really care about them.

With Baby Jane, Aldrich could lay claim to creating an entire subgenre of his own, unleashing a torrent of “dotty old lady” thrillers, which he perpetuated as both a director (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte [1964]) and a producer (What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? [1969]).  In fact, he often produced his own films and, like Dino De Laurentiis, used his early success to establish his own production company, only to have it shuttered by a series of flops.  Among his directorial efforts, he’s credited as a writer on only three (Ten Seconds to Hell [1959], 4 for Texas, and Too Late the Hero [1970]) and, perhaps predictably, was never so much as nominated for an Academy Award.

Clearly, Aldrich inspired loyalty among his actors, many of whom worked with him repeatedly, from stars like Lancaster to such supporting players as Richard Jaeckel.  Lee Marvin appeared with Jaeckel in the anti-war film Attack (1956) and The Dirty Dozen, also starring in the Tom Flynn fave Emperor of the North opposite Aldrich regular Ernest Borgnine, while Jack Palance toplined the Hollywood exposé The Big Knife (1955), Attack, and Ten Seconds to Hell.  Other familiar faces include Cliff Robertson (Autumn Leaves [1956], Too Late the Hero), Bette Davis (Baby Jane, Sweet Charlotte), and Burt Reynolds (The Longest Yard [1974]; Hustle [1975]).

I won’t keep you from your DVD player much longer, but I can’t resist closing with a couple of quotes, courtesy of the IMDb.  On Davis:  “[She] is a tough old broad and you fight.  But when you see what she puts on the screen you know it was worth taking all the bull.”  On Lancaster:  “He has matured gracefully, plays men his own age and understands the need not to win the girl.  He is much more tolerant of other people’s point of view.”  On Marvin:  “Look, this feller is a pretty good boozer, he’s got a short fuse, but he can be handled okay.”  And, finally, on Sinatra:  “Unpleasant man.  No one has yet worked out what really makes him tick.  But he sings well.”

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The Two Towerses

In 1964, Austrian actress Maria Rohm (née Helga Maria Grohmann) met British producer and sometime screenwriter Harry Alan Towers (aka Peter Welbeck), whom she wed in 1982, and their personal and professional lives were inextricably intertwined until Harry died at the age of 88 in 2009.  A frequent friend of this site, Maria Towers had begun acting at the age of four with ten years at the Vienna Burgtheatre, and later spent more than a decade in front of the camera—primarily in Towers productions—before moving behind it to be his producing partner.  Harry’s half-century in the cinema, or even just the joint filmography of the two Towerses, is beyond the scope of this post, but I did want to pay tribute to him on what would have been his 90th birthday.

I know little of Harry’s early success in radio in the 1940s and in television in the ’50s, which is why I was delighted to learn from Maria that he completed a forthcoming autobiography, which I anticipate with pleasure.  “Harry, an RAF Flying Officer, was extremely prolific in those early days, writing and producing many programs,” she recalls.  “Among them was Much Binding in the Marsh, which Queen Elizabeth II favorably mentioned to Harry when they met on his 74th birthday in St. Petersburg, Russia during the filming of Bullet to Beijing [1995].

“Harry was also instrumental with Lew Grade in starting commercial TV in England,” Maria added.  He worked in radio with John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and Orson Welles, who later played Long John Silver in Harry’s Treasure Island (1972) and lent his voice to Ten Little Indians (1974).  The prolific and oft-pseudonymous Spanish exploitation filmmaker Jesús (aka Jess) Franco was the second unit director on Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965), and directed nine films for Towers between 1968 and 1970, most of them starring Maria.

The fact that Maria was a gorgeous woman who enjoyed “bringing eroticism and sexuality out into the mainstream” undoubtedly endeared her to audiences and Franco, who is notorious for his sensational subject matter.  I’ve often cited as a high-water mark of this trait the scene from The Bloody Judge (1970) in which Maria’s character is compelled to lick blood from a naked female corpse.  Over the years I have been admittedly critical of several Towers productions, especially Franco’s, for their high sleaze quotients and inversely proportional budgets, yet Harry’s career has long fascinated me for its international flavor, the high caliber of many of his collaborators (most notably and consistently actor Christopher Lee), and his reliance on famous literary works.

Harry’s cinematic oeuvre comprised about 100 films in countries from Austria to Zimbabwe, and I believe he pioneered the polyglot international co-productions whose credits often looked like the result of some demented Euro-Mix Master.  Among the best known are eight inspired by the work of Sax Rohmer, including five with Lee as arch-villain Fu Manchu, the first of which, Don Sharp’s The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), is among Harry’s finest, with Nigel Green letter-perfect as Fu’s nemesis, Nayland Smith.  But the Green-free sequels—Sharp’s The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Jeremy Summers’s The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), and Sr. Franco’s The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)—sadly and steadily declined in quality.

Another of Harry’s most durable properties was the Agatha Christie whodunit Ten Little Indians, which he filmed three times over as many decades, starting in 1965 with Hugh O’Brian, Shirley Eaton, Fabian (!), Leo Genn, Stanley Holloway, Wilfred Hyde-White, Daliah Lavi, and Dennis Price.  The 1974 rendition, a BOF childhood fave, deployed an equally enviable cast, including Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Herbert Lom, Richard Attenborough, and Charles Aznavour as well as Maria.  It also boasted two former Bond villains, Gert (Goldfinger) Fröbe and Adolfo (Largo) Celi, and a standout score by Ennio Morricone protégé Bruno Nicolai, but the 1989 version had considerably less star power, highlighted only by Lom (in a different role) and Donald Pleasence.

Ironically, the producer of Franco’s Eugenie…the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970) also specialized in family fare such as Black Beauty (1971) and The Call of the Wild (1972), the latter directed by the late Ken Annakin and starring Charlton Heston.  Maria told me that while filming Anna Sewell’s equine classic, she broke six ribs when training to ride side-saddle, and was—to say the very least—uncomfortable when she had to get back on the horse a week later.  Like Eugenie, the Franco-Towers-Rohm Justine (1969) was based on the writing of the infamous Marquis de Sade; the trio also joined forces for Venus in Furs (1969), adapted from the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, thus neatly encompassing the eponyms of sadism and masochism.

I have written repeatedly of my qualified admiration for the best of the few Franco films I have seen, Count Dracula (1970), which along with Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is probably the most faithful version, pace a certain Mr. Matheson.  The film’s threadbare production values are an undeniable debit, but Lee was afforded more screen time and a greater fidelity to Stoker’s character than in most of his Hammer entries as the Count, backed by Lom’s Van Helsing, Klaus Kinski’s Renfield, and another fine Nicolai score.  On the distaff side, Mina and Lucy (for whom we named our two adopted shelter cats) were respectively played by Maria and Franco’s tragic first muse, Soledad Miranda, who died at 27 in an auto crash that same year.

Within the horror/SF genre, Harry adapted such notable authors as Verne (Rocket to the Moon, 1967), Wilde (Dorian Gray, 1970), Wells (The Shape of Things to Come, 1979), Poe (The House of Usher, 1989; Masque of the Red Death, 1991), Leroux (The Phantom of the Opera, 1989), Conan Doyle (The Lost World, 1992), King (The Mangler, 1995), and Haggard (She, 2001).  Outside it, he had a go at Alistair MacLean (River of Death, 1989) and revived Len Deighton’s “Harry Palmer” in Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg (1996).  The Towerses also returned to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson (Black Arrow, 1985) and Jack London (The Sea Wolf, 2001), as well as tackling newer versions of Dorian (2001) and Rohmer’s Sumuru (2003).

“I remember Harry deeply regretting that some of the films hadn’t turned out better.  Raising enough money was usually the problem, also he tended to rush from project to project which did not always help the quality of the films.  Harry never stopped coming up with new ideas and trying to finance them until the very end.  That’s who he was, for better or for worse.  Often this caused him great disappointment, because at the beginning he was always filled with a vision which had to be changed, bit by bit lost its luster because of insufficient finance.  This led to the need for co-producing partners in other, non-English-speaking countries, which in turn brought with it concessions in casting,” Maria recalled in an e-mail that I quote with her kind permission.

“Having said that, Harry and I would not have met had he not been looking for a German actress in Vienna for City of Fear [1965], where Constantin were the co-producers.  We used to search for better solutions during countless hours of tossing ideas back and forth, mostly in the middle of the night.  It’s not a simple life for an independent producer.  Still, Harry was not a company man, couldn’t have worked for a major studio.”  Maria has provided him with a fitting epitaph indeed, affectionate yet clear-eyed about the unavoidable shortcomings of his large and diverse body of work.  So let us remember Harry Alan Towers as a unique, industrious, path-breaking, colorful figure who made my favorite cinematic era, the 1960s and ’70s, far more interesting.

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Marking the 89th birthday of co-founder Milton Subotsky, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

As a purveyor of cinematic horror in the 1960s and ’70s, Amicus Productions was Britain’s only serious rival to Hammer Films, whose personnel (e.g., Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, directors Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker) it borrowed on a regular basis. Ironically, the studio was founded by the American producers Max J. Rosenberg (1914-2004) and Milton Subotsky (1921-91).

Also a screenwriter, Subotsky received the story credit on an early effort that was technically a Vulcan Production, John Moxey’s City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960), a splendid tale of witchcraft featuring Lee in a solid supporting role. He later scripted the first official Amicus production, Francis’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), which started a signature series of anthology films.

Subotsky based one of the earliest Amicus films, Francis’s The Skull (1965), on horror author and screenwriter Robert Bloch’s classic “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Bloch was then hired to adapt his own published stories into Francis’s Torture Garden (1967), Peter Duffell’s The House That Dripped Blood (1970) and Baker’s Asylum (1972), each of which utilized the anthology format.

Amicus eventually became the first studio permitted by publisher William M. Gaines to film stories from the eponymous E.C. horror comics of the 1950s in Francis’s Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Baker’s The Vault of Horror (1973). But it also made several significant contributions to the SF genre, including the only feature films to date based upon the long-running BBC-TV series Dr. Who.

Unveiled in the Doctor’s second adventure, “The Daleks” (aka “The Dead Planet”), the titular mutants inside their metallic casings, whose primary goal is to “Exterminate!” humans, soon became the most enduring of his interstellar adversaries. Thus, an adaptation of Terry Nation’s serial seemed a safe bet for Amicus to introduce the Doctor to the big screen—and in color—for the very first time.

Written by Subotsky, with additional material by the show’s script editor, David Whitaker, Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) changed the Doctor from the Time Lord of the series to an eccentric human inventor, played by Peter Cushing. The film was directed by Gordon Flemyng, who worked almost exclusively in British television for the thirty-odd years of his decidedly unremarkable career.

The Doctor’s invention, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), is disguised as a police call box, and can travel through time and/or space. It does both, whisking the Doctor and his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey) to the planet Skaro in the distant future, when Barbara’s clumsy boyfriend, Ian Chesterton (Roy Castle), stumbles against the controls.

Poisoned by nuclear war, Skaro is inhabited by two races: the peaceful, humanoid Thals, and the deadly Daleks, which are protected by their mechanized armor. Joining forces with the Thals, the Doctor and his companions undergo the usual quotient of captures, imprisonments, and escapes, but ultimately defeat the Daleks by interfering with the magnetic forces that control their futuristic city.

Cushing and Tovey were back, with a bigger budget, the same screenwriters, and essentially the same crew, for Flemyng’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), based on Nation’s second Dalek serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Ian and Barbara were supplanted by police constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins), another comic foil, and the Doctor’s niece, Louise (Jill Curzon).

In 2150, the Daleks are excavating in England with evil intent, hoping to blow out the Earth’s magnetic core by planting a bomb in a fissure, effectively turning the planet into a giant spaceship. This ambitious plan is put to rest when the Doctor reprograms their human slaves, the Robomen, and diverts the bomb down an unused shaft, so that the magnetic pull draws the Daleks down to the core.

Allan Bryce’s Amicus: The Studio That Dripped Blood tartly (but not necessarily inaccurately) dismisses their next SF efforts, Montgomery Tully’s The Terrornauts and Francis’s They Came From Beyond Space (both 1967), as “the two worst films the company ever produced.” Each was based on a decidedly pulpy paperback (Murray Leinster’s The Wailing Asteroid and Joseph Millard’s The Gods Kate Kansas, respectively).

Francis told me in an interview for Filmfax that after budgeting for both movies, Amicus spent most of the money on The Terrornauts, leaving very little left over for him. “So we were trying to do this film with not much money, and I thought it was a rotten film anyway,” he said. “That was another Subotsky script [indeed, his writing was widely considered the studio’s weakest link], which I didn’t interfere with.”

In The Terrornauts, a group of humans is spirited off into space and subjected to a series of intelligence tests, before being plunged into the middle of a war between alien races. Francis’s film concerns another alien race, this time taking over humans to effect their mysterious plan, which turns out to be nothing more menacing than trying to get from our moon to their own world to die at home.

More ambitious and intelligent, but faring badly at the box-office, was Alan Cooke’s The Mind of Mr. Soames (1969), based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine. Reminiscent of Charly (1968), it stars Terence Stamp as a thirty-year-old man awakened from the coma he has been in since birth, with Robert Vaughn and Nigel Davenport as doctors in disagreement over how to educate him.

Scream and Scream Again (1970) was an odd hybrid of horror and SF, and of personnel from both Amicus and American International Pictures, then expanding into England. Star Vincent Price, director Gordon Hessler, and screenwriter Christopher Wicking had already worked together at AIP, while Rosenberg and Subotsky produced the film, and Lee and Cushing co-starred.

Based on Peter Saxon’s The Disorientated Man, this historic teaming of horror’s “big three” is a disorientating experience indeed, with multiple settings and plotlines that seem unconnected at first. Finally, it becomes clear (relatively speaking) that Price’s character has been creating a race of deadly, super-strong “composites,” which are infiltrating various governments to control the world.

Amicus also produced some of the few films based on SF novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known as the creator of Tarzan. Financed—and distributed in the U.S.—by AIP, The Land That Time Forgot (1975), its sequel, The People That Time Forgot (1977), and At the Earth’s Core (1976) were all directed by Kevin Connor, as was their last anthology film, From Beyond the Grave (1973).

Land and People concern Caprona, a lost continent on which, as in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, dinosaurs still exist at the time of World War I. The survivors of a British ship, including American Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure), are taken aboard the U-boat that torpedoed them, and clash with the crew before encountering prehistoric creatures and mysterious tribes of cavemen.

At the Earth’s Core is set in another fictional world, Pellucidar, to which Tarzan himself paid a visit in one of Burroughs’s sequels. McClure starred as David Innes, who journeys to the center of the Earth in a giant drilling machine, with Cushing as Abner Perry, the absent-minded professor who accompanies him, and Caroline Munro as Dia, the primitive princess he rescues from assorted perils.

Amicus was in fact disintegrating as the Burroughs films were being made; Subotsky left the company in 1975, after Land was completed, and the company was officially dissolved even before People was released by AIP. But while its track record was mixed and its production values never as high as Hammer’s, Amicus is fondly remembered for the genre entertainment it offered for a decade.

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