Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Amicus’

Sorry I’m a little slow off the mark with this one, but my online time has been extremely limited lately for a variety of reasons (not least of them a massive motivational meltdown), and I’ve only just become aware of it.  It seems that the good folks at Tor.com, fresh from a massive revamp of their already impressive website, were able on Wednesday to squeeze in my review of the latest Gauntlet special edition of Matheson’s work, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  The book is a must for any serious Matheson collector, examining this seminal creation in its multimedia incarnations, and I hope the review will whet your appetite for my forthcoming Tor.com Matheson interview.

Meanwhile, we bid a sad but affectionate goodbye to longtime genre fixture Michael Gough, a native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who—at the ripe old age of 93, and with 178 IMDb credits over the course of his 64-year film and television career—can, in all fairness, be said to have had a good run.  Sixty years ago, he appeared in The Man in the White Suit opposite Alec Guinness, with whom Gough was reunited in The Horse’s Mouth (1958) and the BOF fave Smiley’s People (1982).  He also had a small role in Laurence Olivier’s version of Richard III (1955); their other collaborations ran the gamut from The Boys from Brazil (1978) to Brideshead Revisited (1981).

Gough was in at the beginning of the Hammer renaissance with a substantial and, in retrospect, surprisingly heroic part as Arthur in Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958), which marked Christopher Lee’s debut as the Count.  The following year, he had what might be considered his defining role as a crime writer who commits murder to generate his own material in Horrors of the Black Museum.  This was to be his first of five collaborations with erstwhile AIP producer Herman Cohen, followed by several similar characters in Cohen’s Konga (1961), Black Zoo (1963), Berserk (1967), and Trog (1970), the latter two starring Joan Crawford, of all people.

With his talent for portraying slimy villains, Gough was a considerable asset to Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera (1962), although its disappointing box-office results gave Fisher’s career a serious hit.  His path crossed that of Lee’s almost a dozen times over the decades, and the next was in “Disembodied Hand,” a segment from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), the first of rival Amicus Productions’ many anthology films.  Further, if minor, roles for Amicus followed in The Skull (1965, again with Lee) and They Came from Beyond Space (1967), all three of them directed (as was Trog) by Hammer veteran and Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis.

Gough also found decent roles outside the genre in the likes of a television production of Pride and Prejudice (1967), and even his pairings with Lee straddled both worlds.  After they picked up a paycheck in the AIP/Tigon co-production Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), they joined an all-star cast headed by Charlton Heston for Julius Caesar (1970).  Other high-profile mainstream films from this period include Ken Russell’s D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women in Love (1969) and Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1970), scripted by Harold Pinter, and Gough appeared in such TV series as The Saint, The Avengers, and Hammer’s short-lived Journey to the Unknown.

Lest we forget the inevitable Matheson connection, Gough had an unbilled but significant role in The Legend of Hell House (1973), and then worked largely in television (including Dr. Who) for the next few decades.  Among his intermittent and noteworthy feature films were Peter Yates’s The Dresser (1983), Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), John Mackenzie’s cracking thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987), and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).  Gough’s fame with the Hot Topic generation of viewers was assured when he took the role of the Wayne family butler, Alfred Pennyworth, in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).

While still finding time for highbrow fare like Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), Gough soldiered on through the decreasing quality of the Burton-less Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).  More important, he kept working with Burton—and renewed his association with Lee—in Sleepy Hollow (1999), Corpse Bride (2005), and last year’s Alice in Wonderland, which while a bit of a disappointment to this Burton fan was a perfect capstone to his long and impressive career.  So let us salute and celebrate this consummate performer, whose many decades in front of the camera displayed such enviable breadth and depth:  R.I.P., Michael.

Read Full Post »

Presumptuous though it may be, when someone I’ve interviewed dies, I always feel like I’ve lost one of my own, and this is truer than usual in the case of Ingrid Pitt, who left us Tuesday at 73, although she seemed far younger—fitting for a star who embodied a vampire more than once in her memorable career.  First and foremost, of course, she played Heidi in my favorite film of all time, Where Eagles Dare (1968), as well as appearing in two other works that loom large in my legend, The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Smiley’s People (1982).  When I spoke with Ingrid for what became the cover story in Filmfax #62, I felt both an incredible vivacity and a far stronger connection than I have had with many of my other “victims,” despite her being an ocean away.

Ingrid’s relationship with the horror/SF genre dates back at least as far as her early Spanish credit El Sonido Prehistorico (The Prehistoric Sound, aka The Sound of Horror, 1964), which concerns an invisible dinosaur…one way to economize on special effects, I suppose.  Her other pre-Eagles roles reportedly included uncredited appearances in films ranging from Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight and David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (both 1965) to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).  Just before being featured in Alistair MacLean’s blockbuster, Ingrid starred in W. Lee Wilder’s justly obscure genre effort The Omegans (1968); I’ve already shared some of her recollections about that film and the Brothers Wilder in “The Wilder Bunch, Part I.”

Ingrid related an amusing story about being cast as Heidi:  “I was doing [an episode of] Dundee and the Culhane with John Mills.  Ralph Meeker was also on it.  He rang me up and asked me if I would like to go and play poker at [famed stuntman] Yakima Canutt’s house.  I had laryngitis but I thought, well, I couldn’t miss a big opportunity like that.  We went and it was absolutely amazing….When I’d lost all my money and had to cry ‘Uncle,’ Yak walked me to the door.  As I got in the taxi, he leaned in and said, ‘There’s a part in the film I’m just starting, why don’t you go for that?…Mention my name,’ he said as he slammed the cab door.  Of course, mentioning certain people’s names is magic.  I got to see Brian Hutton for three seconds the next day…”

Ingrid had several memorable scenes, and inspired a hilarious line from Richard Burton:  “She’s been one of our top agents in Bavaria since 1941, and…[leering at her ample décolletage] what a disguise.”  She enjoyed making the film, but lamented that “they gave me really lousy billing.  [Producer] Elliott [Kastner] had promised me, ‘Introducing Ingrid Pitt’…[but] it didn’t happen.  He forgot—he said.…I was just at the very end, since my name starts with ‘P,’ and the cinemas are empty by the time my name comes around.”  She experienced another disappointment with Hutton’s follow-up film, which reunited him with Clint Eastwood:  “I was going to be in Kelly’s Heroes [1970], and then he decided he didn’t want women in it after all.  I nearly killed him.”

Eagles is best known for action sequences such as its legendary fight atop a cable car.  “Yak was doing the great shot of the stuntman, Alf Joint, jumping from one cable car to the other….Alf was hovering in front of the camera as the cable car started to go.  (And didn’t he look just like Richard hovering there?)  The next cable car came towards him, and you must imagine hundreds of people, everybody watching.  They got into frame and Yak said, ‘Get those people out of the way!’…Anyway, when Yakima…said, ‘GO!,’ Alf went.  Unfortunately, the force of the thrust as he leapt for the other car caused the cable car to swing and the camera fell off.  Luckily none of the crew followed it.  Elliott went berserk.  They had to shoot the whole dodgy sequence again.”

Next, Ingrid appeared in a trio of films that ensured her iconic status among horror fans:  Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers and Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula (1971) for Hammer, and the Robert Bloch-scripted anthology film The House That Dripped Blood (1971) for Amicus.  As fond as I was of Ingrid, I’ve never been a big fan of Countess Dracula, which in spite of its title concerns not a vampire but Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614), the Hungarian countess who was said to retain her youth by bathing in the blood of virgins.  At least I’m consistent, because I feel the same way about other films directed by Sasdy (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970; Hands of the Ripper, 1971) or inspired by Báthory (Daughters of Darkness, 1971; Blood Castle, 1973).

Of her nude bathing scene in The Vampire Lovers, Ingrid said, “I had asked Jimmy [Carreras] to call his two producers [Harry Fine and Michael Style] up to London to show rushes.  I thought I might be a little inhibited.  They had this way of looking at me.  I thought, if they’re in London with Jimmy, then maybe it would be a sort of closed set…I came out of my dressing room and saw [the two producers] coming down the corridor en route to the car park with heads hanging down, very sad.  I thought, ‘God damn it, look what I’ve done!’  I had this terrycloth robe on and felt an uncontrollable urge to brighten their lives, so I whipped it open, did a bit of a jiggle and said, ‘Woo-whee!’  I tell you, Matthew, it made them so happy!  They were so bloody happy!”

Ingrid shared billing with Peter Cushing in The Vampire Lovers and The House That Dripped Blood, and with Christopher Lee in the latter, although the three starred in separate segments; she also appeared with Lee in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), written by Anthony Shaffer of Frenzy and Sleuth (both 1972) fame.  Other credits included two multi-part episodes of Doctor Who (“The Time Monster” and “Warriors of the Deep”) and the Reginald Rose-scripted action films The Final Option (aka Who Dares Wins, 1982) and Wild Geese II (1985).  But it is for the sanguinary roles she approached with such good humor and joie de vivre that we will remember Ingrid, and for the enthusiasm that made the word “fantastic” a veritable mantra in our interview.

Read Full Post »

Last night, I was surprised to learn that director Roy Ward Baker passed away on October 5 at the age of 93; surprised because, as is so often the case with someone so long off my personal radar, I had assumed he was long gone already.  I see now from the IMDb that he was working in British television as late as 1992, although the most recent credit I’ve seen is Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death (1984), with frequent Baker collaborator John Mills as Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes.  Of course, most people in the mainstream wouldn’t recognize his name in the first place, although they should thank him for giving Marilyn Monroe a solid early dramatic role opposite Richard Widmark in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) during a sojourn in Hollywood.

Said sojourn also included, of all things, the 3-D thriller Inferno (1953), with Robert Ryan as a wealthy man stranded in the desert by his adulterous wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover, but soon afterward he was on his way back home to England.  There, Baker made the best film I’ve seen about the sinking of the Titanic, the 1958 adaptation of Walter Lord’s nonfiction bestseller A Night to Remember.  Unlike other Titanic films, e.g., the eponymous entries directed by Jean Negulesco in 1953 and that What’s-His-Name guy in 1997, Night found sufficient drama—to say the least—in the historical events themselves, without focusing on fictional characters and their soap operas, with Kenneth More heading a “usual suspects” cast (including Honor Blackman).

Baker was a prolific television director, notching episodes of such series as The Avengers, The Saint, Department S, The Champions (Alexandra Bastedo—woo-hoo!), Journey to the Unknown, The Persuaders!, The Protectors, and Return of the Saint (starring Ian Ogilvy, a fave of Madame BOF).  But to genre fans, Baker will always be recognized as one of the best of the second-tier Hammer directors, by which I mean most of those below big dogs Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis.  According to Dennis Fischer’s worthy McFarland tome Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990, his association with Hammer was an indirect result of A Night to Remember, since they wanted a technically savvy director, familiar with special effects, to helm Quatermass and the Pit (1967).

Known Stateside as Five Million Years to Earth, this SF epic was adapted by Nigel Kneale from the third of his BBC-TV Quatermass serials, with Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir in fine form as the titular scientist, who investigates the contents of a Martian spaceship found buried beneath London.  Oddly, top billing was given to James Donald, fondly remembered from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963), as Quatermass’s self-sacrificing colleague, Dr. Matthew Roney.  The effects are wildly uneven, with the finger-puppet Martians seen in the flashback sequences a hilarious low, but Baker’s command of the complex material was firm, and he wisely reunited Keir with his Dracula—Prince of Darkness (1966) co-star Barbara Shelley.

Having known Bette Davis in Hollywood, Baker next replaced Alvin Rakoff when the latter did not hit it off with the star in The Anniversary (1968), a black comedy scripted by the studio’s resident expert on psycho-thrillers, Jimmy Sangster.  I have seen neither that film nor Baker’s next Hammer outing, but given the conspicuously low reputation of Moon Zero Two (1969), I should perhaps be grateful that it is somewhat elusive today.  Perhaps notable only as the first space Western—a dubious precedent, perhaps, for Peter Hyams’s Outland (1981)—it was co-written by second-generation Hammer honcho and mediocrity-meister Michael Carreras, and as much as I love The Andromeda Strain (1971), I doubt that leading man James Olson set the screen on fire.

My other favorite among Baker’s Hammer credits is The Vampire Lovers (1970), with Ingrid Pitt as J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” backed by Peter Cushing and Jon Finch, and although its lesbian bloodsuckers pushed the envelope for its time, Baker kept it tasteful and, above all, serious.  His vampire credentials thus established, he bracketed Hammer’s ill-conceived modern-day Dracula films with two period outings that merit a closer look.  Scars of Dracula (1970) gave Christopher Lee a little more to do than usual, even throwing in a few dollops of material from the novel for a change, while for me to note that The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) was the first kung-fu vampire film is misleading, bolstered as it is by Peter Cushing’s presence as Van Helsing and Baker’s atmospheric direction.

In between, Baker directed Hammer’s offbeat Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), my enjoyment of which will be forever hampered by my loathing for Ralph Bates, and—like Francis—worked the other side of the fence by making several films for local rival Amicus.  These included two of their trademark anthology films:  Asylum (1972), adapted by Robert Bloch from his own stories, and The Vault of Horror (1973), based on the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s.  He also directed one of the better stand-alone Amicus films, —And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), and after that company’s dissolution, Baker was reunited with producer and co-founder Milton Subotsky for another omnibus film, The Monster Club (1980), based on the stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Joyous tidings have recently been announced for fans of both classic television and the Southern California Sorcerers (aka “The Group”), namely that the anthology series Thriller will be released on DVD in its entirety by the ever-outstanding Image Entertainment on August 31.  Thriller ran for two seasons (1960-62) on NBC, initially following the same network’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents; both shows were produced by Universal’s television arm, and Hitchcock supposedly pressured them to cancel Thriller because he thought it was too similar.  Indeed, Thriller had much in common with his show:  suspenseful stories, an instantly recognizable host in the form of Boris Karloff, and many of the same personnel (e.g., Herschel Daugherty and John Brahm, who with fifteen and eleven episodes, respectively, were its most frequent directors).

Among those personnel were several Group members, with episodes written by Richard Matheson (“The Return of Andrew Bentley”) and Charles Beaumont (“Guillotine,” based on the story by Cornell Woolrich, and “Girl with a Secret”).  By far the most active was Robert Bloch, who supplied scripts or original stories for many episodes of both shows, including some of the most memorable.  But as with the Hitchcock series and England’s Amicus Productions, which filmed Bloch’s “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” as The Skull (1965) before hiring him as a screenwriter, he was recruited for Thriller only after three episodes (“The Cheaters,” “The Hungry Glass,” and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”) had been adapted from his work by other writers.

Never as well known as The Twilight Zone or the Hitchcock show, Thriller has its adherents, including Stephen King, who called it “probably the best horror series ever put on TV,” noting in Danse Macabre that “after a slow first thirteen weeks, [it] was able to become something more than the stock imitation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that it was apparently meant to be…and took on a tenebrous life of its own.”  The show initially focused more on crime and mystery, and many of its early problems can be traced to uncertainty regarding its direction and the tensions between creator Hubbell Robinson and his original producer, Fletcher Markle.  The latter and his associate producer and story editor, James P. Cavanagh (a veteran of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents), were soon supplanted by two new producers, Maxwell Shane and William Frye, brought in to handle Thriller’s crime and horror episodes, respectively.

Shane, who had already adapted Woolrich’s work in Fear in the Night (1947) and Nightmare (1956), left after basing “Papa Benjamin” on another of his stories, and Frye, who produced the remaining episodes, soon gave the series a distinctive flavor by mining the pages of Weird Tales.  That famed fantasy pulp is, of course, best known for featuring the work of H.P. Lovecraft and such protégés as August Derleth and Bloch himself.  Directed by Brahm and written by the show’s most prolific contributor, Donald S. Sanford, “The Cheaters” was one of only two episodes—the other being the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation “The Premature Burial” —that were actually introduced with the host’s frequently quoted tagline, “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller!”

This was to be the first of ten episodes written and/or based on works by Bloch, including William Shatner’s only two appearances, “The Hungry Glass” and Daugherty’s “The Grim Reaper”; coincidentally, Matheson scripted Shatner’s only two Twilight Zone outings, “Nick of Time” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and both writers later contributed to his best-known series, Star Trek.  Bloch adapted “The Weird Tailor” and “Waxworks” (both directed by Daugherty) from his own stories, which he later recycled in the Amicus anthology films Asylum (1972) and The House That Dripped Blood (1970).  His other Thriller episodes were “The Devil’s Ticket,” Brahm’s “A Good Imagination,” Daugherty’s “’Til Death Do Us Part,” and John Newland’s “Man of Mystery,” all based on his own work.

Newland, whose Thriller episode “Pigeons from Hell” is often called the single most frightening story ever done on television, also directed “The Return of Andrew Bentley,” which Matheson adapted from a Weird Tales story by Derleth and Mark Schorer.  Although Beaumont and fellow Group member Jerry Sohl adapted Lovecraft’s work in The Haunted Palace (1963) and Die, Monster, Die (1965), respectively, Matheson never did, despite his successful Poe films for the same studio, AIP.  “He wasn’t my kind of writer—too heavy,” he told me in an interview for Filmfax.  “Heavy stuff.  You know, he’d spend fifty pages talking about some Eldritch horror that is so horrible to describe that he can’t possibly do it, and then in the last ten pages he describes it.  I mean obviously, the man was brilliant, I just don’t care for that kind of writing….But the show Thriller, the whole thing had a Lovecraft atmosphere to it.”

For the full story of this neglected show, see Alan Warren’s This Is a Thriller: An Episode Guide, History and Analysis of the Classic 1960s Television Series, to which I am greatly indebted.  For a blow-by-blow account of Bloch’s involvement, see my contribution to Benjamin Szumskyj’s The Man Who Collected Psychos: Critical Essays on Robert Bloch, some of which I have drawn on here.  And, needless to say, you can read more about “The Return of Andrew Bentley” in Richard Matheson on Screen; all three books are, or will be, published by McFarland.

Read Full Post »

Concluding our look at genre films on New York’s three independent stations (WNEW, WPIX, and WOR) during my youth.

With its crudely animated but absolutely unforgettable six-fingered-hand title sequence, WPIX’s Chiller Theatre competed with WNEW’s Creature Features, although I don’t think they overlapped 100%; as I recall, Chiller started at 8:00, and I faced a crisis of conscience every Saturday at 8:30:  stay on channel 11 or, more often, switch to 5?  Two films I’m pretty sure I remember seeing on there were Mario Bava’s What (which I always imagined giving rise to any number of who’s-on-first jokes along the lines of, “You saw What?”) and The Crawling Eye, although the latter appears to have migrated to WOR at some point.  In fact, WPIX was an excellent source for Bava’s early works—Black Sabbath, Black Sunday, The Evil Eye—some of them still in glorious black and white.

WPIX showed the fewest genre films of the three and, perhaps as a result, seemed to have the least clearly defined identity in that capacity, despite the presence of a number of heavyweights.  Toho, for example, was well represented with Godzilla, King of the Monsters and several of its sequels, as well as Atragon and The Mysterians.  My records also indicate a boatload of Hammer films (The Brides of Dracula, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, The Curse of the Werewolf, Demons of the Mind, The Devil’s Bride, Fear in the Night, Five Million Years to Earth, The Nanny, The Phantom of the Opera, Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile, Taste the Blood of Dracula), although I think many of those only debuted on WPIX in later years.

The Anglo-American oeuvre of producer Herman Cohen (Horrors of the Black Museum, How to Make a Monster, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Konga) straddled the Atlantic, while British-born Harry Alan Towers was an early master of international co-productions such as Against All Odds, The Brides of Fu Manchu, and Circus of Fear.  WPIX also offered films produced by Italy (Castle of the Living Dead, The Cat o’Nine Tails, Snow Devils), Spain (Cauldron of Blood, Dr. Orloff’s Monster, Graveyard of Horror), or both (Horror, Terror in the Crypt).  Sid Pink shot Journey to the Seventh Planet and Reptilicus in Denmark, while Gammera the Invincible and its sequels demonstrated that Toho did not have an exclusive on the kaiju eiga (giant monster) subgenre.

Last but not least, WOR was notable in a number of ways, including sheer quantity, with about as many genre offerings as the other two put together, a steady stream of which appeared on Fright Night and their Saturday-afternoon Science Fiction Theater.  The former aired at 1:00 on Saturday night or Sunday morning, depending on your point of view, and was all too often joined “already in progress”—to my intense and enduring rage—due to sports (mostly Mets games, as I recall).  They also showed plenty of movies during the week, and their library included such BOF favorites as Colossus: The Forbin Project, Count Dracula, The Day of the Triffids, Horror Hotel, The Last Man on Earth, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Psycho, The Thing, and Village of the Damned.

WOR had a lock on the Universal classics from Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and their many sequels to Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (the screenwriting debut of You-Know-Who) and the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy.  They also showcased Bela Lugosi’s work for lesser studios in The Ape Man, The Devil Bat, The Invisible Ghost, Scared to Death, Voodoo Man, White Zombie, and Zombies on Broadway.  And WOR’s parent company owned RKO, ensuring Thanksgiving Day screenings of King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young, as well as access to the Val Lewton canon (The Body Snatcher, Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Isle of the Dead).

The early black-and-white work of master stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth) and Bava’s later work in color (Baron Blood, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Lisa and the Devil) both aired on WOR.  So did that of Paul Naschy, the “Spanish Christopher Lee,” who starred in Assignment Terror, The Fury of the Wolfman, Horror Rises from the Tomb, The Mummy’s Revenge, and Night of the Howling Beast.  Further cementing the station’s international credentials, it showcased a myriad of offerings from Toho, including The Human Vapor, King Kong Escapes, The Last War, Varan the Unbelievable, Yog—Monster from Space, and innumerable entries in their long-running Godzilla series.

Globally, in fact, WOR had no peer, with genre films from Germany (Creature with the Blue Hand), Italy (Battle of the Worlds, The Cursed Medallion, Lightning Bolt, Mission Stardust, The Murder Clinic, Next!, Screamers, The Secret of Dorian Gray, The She-Beast, War of the Planets, Yeti), Japan (The Evil Brain from Outer Space), Mexico (Attack of the Mayan Mummy, The Brainiac, The Curse of the Doll People, The Curse of the Stone Hand), the Philippines (Beast of the Dead, The Island of Living Horror, Tomb of the Living Dead, Vampire People), and Spain (A Bell from Hell, Fangs of the Living Dead, Horror Express, The House That Screamed, Marta, Murder Mansion, Night of the Sorcerers, Ship of Zombies, Witches Mountain).

Domestic output was hardly overlooked, including 1950s SF epics from producer George Pal (Conquest of Space, When Worlds Collide).  AIP cut a wide swath with films by Roger Corman (Creature from the Haunted Sea, Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World, Teenage Caveman), Bert I. Gordon (Beginning of the End, War of the Colossal Beast), Herman Cohen (I Was a Teenage Werewolf), and Edward L. Cahn (Invasion of the Saucer Men).  Meanwhile, the mother country weighed in with smatterings from both Hammer (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Revenge of Frankenstein) and Amicus (Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., The Terrornauts, Torture Garden, The Mind of Mr. Soames).

But quantity does not always equate with quality, and another of WOR’s hallmarks was its high sleaze factor, which made me envision their headquarters as some squalid den of iniquity.  They featured bottom-of-the-barrel films by Al Adamson (Beyond the Living, The Creature’s Revenge, Man with the Synthetic Brain, Vampire Men of the Lost Planet), Larry Buchanan (Curse of the Swamp Creature, The Eye Creatures, In the Year 2889), and Del Tenney (Zombies).  And there were a few entries whose memories still give me the willies with their gore, grim atmospheres and/or grimy milieuxChildren Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Don’t Look in the Basement, The House of the Seven Corpses, Kiss of the Tarantula, and Silent Night, Bloody Night.

Read Full Post »

Happy 80th, Mom! Love you lots.

Now, it’s time for another of my nostalgic data-crunching posts, this time on my favorite subject, namely horror and science fiction films, of which I’ve been a fan for literally as long as I can remember. While I am hardly the first to have made this observation, it’s worth noting that today’s younger viewers have no idea what it was like growing up in the pre-home-video era, when you were at the mercy of whatever was on, in whatever form—and at whatever hour—they chose to show it. Getting the TV Guide in the mail (before it became so awful that I had to let my subscription lapse a few years ago) was like receiving the Holy Bible each week, and if you wanted to see certain genre films, you had to stay up until all hours to do it.

At one point in the New York metropolitan area, we had no fewer than six commercial networks in addition to public broadcasting: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, and the WB. But when I was becoming a compulsive genre-film junkie back in the ’70s, we had only the “Big Three” network affiliates (CBS on channel 2, NBC on 4, and ABC on 7, with PBS on 13) and three independent stations (WNEW, later Fox, on 5; WOR, later UPN, on 9; and WPIX, later WB, on 11). Outside of high-profile prime-time premieres, the affiliates had their own cinematic offerings, especially ABC with its late-night fare—heavy on AIP films and TV-movies, many of which the network had produced—but for the most part, those independents were the place to be.

I’ve always said that your feelings about a film have a lot to do with the circumstances under which you saw it (again, hardly an original observation, but there it is); a related phenomenon is that if you grew up watching them under those conditions, you automatically associate certain films with the stations that regularly showed them. Luckily, my decidedly porous memory has been aided by the index cards I created until the mid-’90s for each genre film I saw, many of them including the original TV Guide clipping that shows which station they were on. Quite a few of these films have since dropped largely out of sight, and whether they were good or not (often not), it seems a shame to have a whole category of movies simply vanish.

No, I’m not going to enumerate every genre film I saw in my youth, or this post would be a book in itself, and for the sake of brevity, I will refer to those I have selected—all of them released before 1980—by the titles under which they were shown at the time. For now, I will also restrict myself to the three aforementioned independents, leaving it to others to tackle such rich subjects as ABC’s immortal 4:30 Movie, to which at least one enthusiastic and impressively researched website has already been devoted. The intention here is to conjure up, mostly for the benefit of those who lived through this period, the unique milieu that each of these now-unrecognizable stations provided for genre fans (and perhaps a few insomniacs) back in the day.

Naturally, we must set the scene properly in the large, log-built house [Lincoln joke optional] in Easton, Connecticut where my mother still lives after almost fifty years. My parents and I had our bedrooms upstairs with the kitchen, living, and dining rooms while my three older brothers—who successively went off to college and then moved out—slept in the finished basement, where the biggest TV was conveniently located at the exact opposite end of the house from my parents’ room. That made it ideal for late-night viewing, which I facilitated by taking a one-gallon glass jar Dad used to mix his frozen orange juice, filling it up with instant coffee, milk, and sugar, and pouring it into pint-sized Coke bottles, which I kept lined up in the fridge for fuel.

Now that we’re all settled in, I’ll dispense with a few ground rules, generalities, and disclaimers, e.g., the fact that broadcast rights do expire, so some of these films admittedly changed hands over the years. Regardless of when I first saw a particular movie, the TV Guide clipping on my card may date from my married life, after I got cable TV and caught many of them again on, say, TNT, so although I may know in my heart that a specific film used to air on a specific station, I’m keeping it honest by relying on the documentation rather than my memory. Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious, this may be the silliest idea for a post I’ve had yet, but after all the hours I have spent assembling the information, I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste it!

With that out of the way, let’s kick off with WNEW, which was of course the home (at least in the New York area) of Creature Features, then running on Saturday nights from 8:30 to 10:00, and since my bedtime was 9:00 when I was a youngster, seeing it in its entirety was usually beyond my reach. If I was lucky, I was able to con Mom into giving me special permission to stay up for an extra half hour, and I might reasonably have been expected to become either an actor or a lawyer for all of the passion with which I argued in favor of that week’s giant monster, walking corpse, ghostly apparition, or whatever. I can’t tell you how many genre films I saw the first third or two-thirds of, some of which I probably never did see all the way through.

I can’t swear to it, but I believe sometime WNEW offerings The Atomic Submarine, Curse of the Faceless Man, Death Curse of Tartu, House on Haunted Hill, Kronos, The Maze, and Them! were all shown on Creature Features, and since the show took its theme music from It Came from Outer Space, it seems safe to assume Jack Arnold’s classic was represented as well. Although generally light on genre films from outside the English-speaking world (e.g., Count Dracula’s Great Love, Godzilla on Monster Island, Terror Beneath the Sea), WNEW seemed to lean toward those from Italy. These included The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Horror Castle, Nightmare Castle, Planet on the Prowl, Planets Against Us, The Psychic (which I don’t even remember seeing, but there’s my card to prove it), and Slaughter of the Vampires.

This is naturally unquantifiable, but WNEW somehow seemed the most benign of the three, and also was willing to reach across the Pond more often than most. They showed many efforts from England’s Hammer Films (The Devil’s Own, Kiss of Evil, The Lost Continent, The Mummy, To Love a Vampire, X the Unknown, and various Dracula and Frankenstein films) and Amicus Productions (The Deadly Bees plus several of their trademark anthology films). Producer Richard Gordon was especially well represented with Corridors of Blood, Curse of the Voodoo, Devil Doll, Fiend Without a Face, First Man into Space, The Haunted Strangler, Horror Hospital, The Projected Man, and the German import Cave of the Living Dead, which he “presented” in the U.S.

To be concluded.

Read Full Post »

In recent years, England’s FAB Press has performed an invaluable service by publishing large, handsome volumes on hitherto neglected subjects, such as Troy Howarth’s The Haunted World of Mario Bava, with which we had to make do until Tim Lucas’s definitive tome appeared. Augmenting their list of titles on Dario Argento, Abel Ferrara, and Lucio Fulci was John Hamilton’s Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Film Career of Tony Tenser (2005), and although I am not a big fan of Tenser’s work for the most part, it was a significant story that needed to be told. It reads like a who’s who of the most ubiquitous names in horror films, e.g., Roy Ashton, Herman Cohen, Peter Cushing, Freddie Francis, Richard Gordon, Michael Gough, Louis M. Heyward, Boris Karloff, Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Dennis Price, Vincent Price, Michael Reeves, Peter Sasdy, Barbara Steele, and Harry Alan Towers.

Between 1961 and 1972, Tenser produced thirty-six films through the two British companies he co-founded and later left, Compton (1961-66) and Tigon (1967-72), with the name and symbol of the latter representing a cross between a tiger and a lion. Some were softcore “nudies” with self-explanatory titles like Naked–As Nature Intended (1961) and Love in Our Time (1969), while others such as Black Beauty, Hannie Caulder (both 1971), and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1972) aspired to mainstream success, but the best-known were in the horror and SF genres. Shrewdly covering all the bases, Tenser was also active in exhibition and distribution, obtaining the sometimes belated U.K. rights to films ranging from Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow and Missile to the Moon to Fires on the Plain and Last Year at Marienbad, as well as works by Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson) that featured future Tigon stars Lee, Steele, and Robert Flemyng.

As Hamilton explains, Tenser’s formula was simple: by giving the public what it wanted to see (as good a definition as any of exploitation filmmaking) and keeping costs strictly contained, frequently sharing them with other companies, he ensured that almost every one of his films turned a profit, however modest. Of course, scantily clad–or less–girls didn’t hurt, and Tenser paraded the likes of Francesca Annis, sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, Diana Dors, Hilary Dwyer, Julie Ege, Linda Hayden, Suzanna Leigh, Helen Mirren, Yutte Stensgaard, Raquel Welch, and Virginia Wetherell across the screen, often in various stages of undress. The conflict between art and commerce came to a head most notably when Roman Polanski clashed with Tenser over the escalating budgets and shooting schedules of his first two English-language films, Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac (1966), shortly after which Polanski headed to hoped-for greener pastures in Hollywood and Tenser left Compton to found Tigon.

Perhaps Tenser’s biggest claim to fame was producing two of the three films made by Reeves, the controversial and short-lived director who had already worked with Steele in Italy on La Sorella di Satana (aka Revenge of the Blood Beast, The She-Beast; 1965). For Tigon, he then made The Sorcerers (1967) with Karloff and Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm; 1968) with Price, and had several additional projects in the pipeline when both Karloff and Reeves died in February 1969, dealing the company a serious blow. Like the oft-imitated Witchfinder General, Vernon Sewell’s Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka The Crimson Cult; 1968), which starred Karloff, Lee, and Steele, and Michael Armstrong’s The Haunted House of Horror (aka Horror House; 1969), which was to have featured Karloff, were contentious co-productions with American International Pictures, about which I’ll have a great deal more to say at a later date.

Tenser also joined forces with other notable producers, including Cohen on A Study in Terror (1965), the first film to pit Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper; Gordon on The Projected Man (1966); and Towers on Black Beauty. Like Hammer Films (which Tigon almost acquired in 1972) and Amicus Productions, Tenser had conspicuously less success in the SF genre with such non-starters as The Body Stealers (aka Thin Air), the interstellar sex romp Zeta One (both 1969), and Sasdy’s Doomwatch (1972), spun off from the eponymous BBC-TV series. Consciously evoking the style of his homegrown rivals, The Creeping Flesh (1972) was Tenser’s only effort teaming frequent co-stars Cushing–who called Sewell’s Tigon opus The Blood Beast Terror (aka The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood; 1967) his own worst film–and Lee, reuniting them with Hammer and Amicus veteran Francis.

There may be a better book to be written about Tenser, especially since Hamilton’s prose is rarely scintillating and marred by poor proofreading, but I doubt there’s a more complete one, given that he drew on exclusive interviews, original production files, and private correspondence to make the story of Tenser’s business dealings genuinely absorbing. In particular, Hamilton had enviable access to his candid subject, who produced one more film, Peter Walker’s Frightmare (1974), after leaving Tigon and died in 2007, two years after Beasts in the Cellar was published. Tenser’s time in the spotlight was barely a decade, due to the collapsing market for the kinds of films he made, yet his was an important chapter in genre history, and this comprehensive, lavishly illustrated account more than does him justice.

Read Full Post »

Our representative sampling of non-Hammer movies by recent birthday boy Christopher Lee (May 27) concludes with a look at his work in the ’70s, plus one token ’80s offering.

El Processo de las Brujas (The Trial of the Witches, aka El Juez Sangriento [The Bloody Judge], Il Trono di Fuoco, Der Hexentoeter von Blackmoor [The Witch Killer of Blackmoor], Night of the Blood Monster, Throne of the Blood Monster; 1970): Nasty knockoff of Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General from director Jesus (aka Jess) Franco and writer-producer Harry Alan Towers, with Lee in the semi-historical role of Judge Jeffreys. Highly exploitative in scenes not involving Lee, including one in which the heroine is compelled to lick blood off the naked body of a dead girl (which pretty well speaks for itself, I presume).

El Conde Dracula (Count Dracula [1970]): This is the underrated, if undeniably shabby, Spanish version from Franco and Towers. Trying to play the role more faithfully than the long-running Hammer series frequently allowed him to do, Lee embodied Bram Stoker’s conception of an aging Count who grows younger as he feeds, and wisely insisted on using some of Stoker’s dialogue. The supporting cast includes Herbert Lom as Van Helsing, Klaus Kinski as an excellent Renfield, and Paul (Nightmare Castle) Müller as Dr. Seward. Until Bram Stoker’s Dracula came along, this was easily the most faithful adaptation, with a memorable score by Ennio Morricone’s sometime conductor, Bruno Nicolai. Leading lady Maria Rohm was also married to Towers from 1964 until his death in 2009, God bless her.

The House That Dripped Blood (1971): Of the three Amicus anthology films adapted by Robert Bloch from his own stories (the others were Torture Garden and Asylum), this is the only one to star Lee as well as Peter Cushing. (According to the DVD audio commentary with director Peter Duffell, Lee soon priced himself out of Amicus’s range, although Cushing continued working with them until the end.) “Method for Murder” stars Denholm Elliott as an author convinced his literary strangler has come to life; “Waxworks,” previously filmed as an episode of Thriller, stars Cushing and Joss Ackland (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as romantic rivals captivated by a statue of Salome; “Sweets to the Sweet” (sometimes erroneously attributed to Richard Matheson) features Lee as a cold, distant father whose daughter delves into voodoo; and “The Cloak” has sometime Dr. Who Jon Pertwee as an actor whose search for realism in his low-budget horror films has unexpected results; Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers) co-stars.

I, Monster (1971): A depressing misfire, this Amicus adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde suffers from producer Milton Subotsky’s lame script—which inexplicably changes the eponymous names but not those of the supporting characters—and even worse insistence on having it shot in a new 3-D process that required the camera and/or actors to be in motion at all times. It reportedly gave the people who watched the rushes splitting headaches, and ended up as such a fiasco that much of the footage was scrapped, resulting in an abnormally short running time. This would be a blessing were it not for the fact that it stars Lee (giving his all despite the film’s failings, and adding to his roster of classic movie monsters) and Cushing.

Nothing but the Night (aka The Resurrection Syndicate, The Devil’s Undead; 1973): I barely remember this as a sad reunion for Lee and Cushing in a tale of evildoers cloning kids, or something like that. Latter-day Hammer flash in the pan Peter Sasdy directed, and it was doubly depressing as the first and last solo effort from Lee’s Charlemagne Productions (although they apparently co-produced his Hammer swan song, To the Devil a Daughter).

The Three Musketeers (aka The Queen’s Diamonds, 1973): In light of his subsequent hard-drinking decline and death, it’s as difficult to believe that Oliver Reed was once considered enough of a star to be top-billed in this adaptation of the Dumas classic as it is nice to be reminded of what he was once able and allowed to do. The purist in me wishes this didn’t have so much humor in it, as befits Richard Lester, director of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels. But much of it is actually funny, and what isn’t is made up for by the uniformly excellent sets, costumes, score (by Michel Legrand), swordplay, and cast: Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Raquel Welch (rarely more lovely), Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie), Faye Dunaway, Charlton Heston, Lee (as one-eyed villain Rochefort), Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simon Ward, Roy Kinnear, and Spike Milligan. Many of their characters died in the more downbeat follow-up (see below), while Kinnear, who appeared in many of Lester’s films, sadly died for real after falling from a horse while filming his The Return of the Musketeers (also with Lee) years later, and his part had to be completed by a double.

The Wicker Man (1973): Not one of my personal favorites, as those who have seen it may understand, but undeniably effective, with Lee as Lord Summerisle, presiding over the Scottish island where policeman Edward Woodward seeks a missing young girl. Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland up the pulchritude quotient. Senselessly remade with Nicolas Cage.

The Four Musketeers (aka The Revenge of Milady; 1974): Strictly speaking, this is not so much a sequel to The Three Musketeers as the rest of it, since it was shot as one mammoth film and then broken into two parts. As a result, just about the only new name in the credits is that of Lalo (Mission: Impossible) Schifrin, who composed a worthy score that falls only a little short of Michel Legrand’s original. Michael Gothard (seen as a blood-drinking android who rips his own hand off to escape a pair of handcuffs before destroying himself in a vat of acid in the Amicus-AIP co-production Scream and Scream Again, and an equally ill-fated assassin in For Your Eyes Only) has a small but key role. It’s been said that the stars didn’t even know the film was being released in two parts until the first one premiered in Paris, which seems pretty hard to believe, but apparently it established a legal precedent in which future contracts prevented producers from doing just that (the so-called “Salkind Clause”).

The Man With the Golden Gun (1974): My daughter helped persuade me that I ought to own this one, since it was the only Bond film before The Spy Who Loved Me that I didn’t already have, and with Lee as the titular villain, Scaramanga, I couldn’t really argue with that. It was, however, the first entry to rush ahead of the then-customary two-year interval between films since 1965, and it shows. Ekland, while decorative, is annoyingly spacey as the Bond girl du jour, and even Lee isn’t as effectively used as he might be, with Herve Villechaize (Fantasy Island) as his henchman and model Maud Adams, later to play the title role in the awful Octopussy, as an ill-fated romantic conquest of both adversaries. The fact that Clifton James returns as Sheriff J.W. Pepper from Live and Let Die sort of says it all.

House of the Long Shadows (1983): This is notable chiefly, if not solely, as the only film in which the genre’s latter-day Big Three (Vincent Price, Lee, and Cushing, previously gathered in Scream and Scream Again) teamed up with its own Energizer Bunny, John Carradine. It’s a shame that they couldn’t have done so in, first, something closer to their prime, as this is a bit like watching a bunch of fossils pottering around in a museum (Lee’s the liveliest and, aptly, the sole survivor offscreen) and, second, a genuine genre vehicle, as this is nothing more than the umpteenth version of Seven Keys to Baldpate, an old-dark-house novel by Charlie Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers that was adapted for the stage by George M. Cohan as far back as 1913. Not helping matters is the fact that the team behind the camera was as undistinguished as the cast was stellar: Cannon Films and exploitation hacks Pete Walker and Michael Armstrong. The plot, such as it is, involves Desi Arnaz, Jr. (strike one!) betting agent Richard Todd that he can write a novel in twenty-four hours in a secluded house, and then getting constantly interrupted as the stars pop up (and in turn get mowed down) one by one, along with sundry unknowns.

Read Full Post »

Yeah, I know, I just missed his 88th birthday, which was Thursday, but is there ever a bad time to talk about Christopher Lee? “Not from where I’m standing,” to quote a certain British agent in Lee’s The Man with the Golden Gun. Focusing on the films he made with Hammer and Mario Bava, as we have done here already, it’s easy to lose sight of the wonderful work he has done in other movies and television shows (some of which were otherwise not so wonderful), so we’ll attempt to rectify that oversight now. Since I’m a firm believer that Lee’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s represented the Golden Age of cinema, this representative sampling will concentrate there, starting today with the ’60s. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his more recent collaborations with Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Alice in Wonderland), Peter Jackson (as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and George Lucas (as Count Dooku in the Star Wars CGI-fest prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith).

La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, aka Horror Castle, The Castle of Terror, Terror Castle; 1963): During the Italian Renaissance of horror films in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Lee followed in the footsteps of his transplanted countrywoman, Barbara Steele, and made films with both Bava (Ercole al Centro della Terra, La Frusta e il Corpo) and Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson). This one reunited Margheriti with the producer (Marco Vicario) and leading man (Georges Rivière) of his first film with Steele, La Danza Macabra; for good measure, Vicario also published the eponymous story by Frank Bogart upon which the film is based and supplied his wife, Rossana Podestà, as the leading lady. Here, Lee has a decidedly second-banana role—dubbed by another actor, as he was in his Bava films, alas—as the scarred and sinister-seeming family retainer in a German castle. The bride of the current occupant (Rivière), Podestà is tormented by dreams of his scarlet-clad ancestor, The Punisher, who tortured girls to death in the family dungeon. But it turns out that his deranged father, turned into a living skull by Nazi scientists for taking part in the plot to kill Hitler, sees himself as The Punisher, a plot twist aped in the inferior Il Boia Scarlatto. Shot in gorgeous color, the film features some gruesome effects.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Lee made his American debut in the 1964 episode “The Sign of Satan,” adapted by Barré Lyndon from Robert Bloch’s story, and plays Karl Jorla, whose involvement with a Satanic cult takes his acting career down a most unusual path; the creepy black-and-white cinematography is positively Bava-worthy.

La Cripta e l’Incubo (The Crypt and the Nightmare, aka La Maldición de los Karnstein/La Maledizione dei Karnstein [The Curse of the Karnsteins], Crypt of Horror, Terror in the Crypt, The Crypt of the Vampire, The Vampire’s Crypt, Karnstein, Carmilla, Catharsis; 1964): This oft-retitled Spanish-Italian co-production is a restrained adaptation of J. Sheridan le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” filmed previously and subsequently as Et Mourir de Plaisir (aka Blood and Roses) and The Vampire Lovers, respectively, although it also owes a lot to Barbara Steele’s genre debut in Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of the Demon, aka Black Sunday). That’s appropriate, as director “Thomas Miller” (Camillo Mastrocinque) went on to work with Babs in Un Angelo per Satana (An Angel for Satan), apparently his only other noteworthy genre credit, but it’s a shame he didn’t have her for this film, which somewhat makes up for her absence with a boatload of black-and-white Gothic atmosphere and, above all, the presence of Lee. Unlike many of his Italian efforts, it features his real voice, to boot.

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965): The first official Amicus film, after the wonderful City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, also with Lee), written (badly) by co-founder Milton Subotsky and directed by studio mainstay Freddie Francis. Kicking off their successful series of anthology horror films, it gets better than it deserves from Peter Cushing as the titular fortune-teller and frequent co-star Lee as an acerbic art critic tormented by the hand he severs from artist Michael Gough. Donald Sutherland is a small-town doctor convinced his wife is a vampire, and Bernard Lee (“M” in the Bond films) appears in a silly story about a killer vine. One segment concerns a werewolf; another is shamelessly plagiarized from “Papa Benjamin,” a Cornell Woolrich story that was also adapted on the TV series Thriller.

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965): First and best—which isn’t saying much—of Lee’s five similarly titled (The [fill in the blank] of Fu Manchu) appearances as Sax Rohmer’s evil genius, with Nigel Green letter-perfect as nemesis Nayland Smith and old Hammer hand Don Sharp directing. Brides followed, with Sharp but sadly without Green, who was replaced by Douglas Wilmer in both that and Jeremy Summers’s Vengeance. But worse was yet to come, in the form of director Jesus (aka Jess) Franco and Richard Greene as Smith, with the two final entries, Blood and Castle. Other than Lee, the only constants in this precipitously declining quintet were writer-producer Harry Alan Towers and Tsai Chin as Fu’s twisted daughter, Lin Tang.

Circus of Fear (aka Psycho-Circus; 1966): The hooded Lee was, as I recall, a knife-throwing red herring in this big-top caper from Towers, based on an Edgar Wallace novel and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (City of the Dead). Klaus Kinski, who appeared in innumerable German krimis (crime films) based on Wallace’s work, and Leo Genn co-star.

Theatre of Death (aka The Blood Fiend, The Female Fiend; 1967): I have only the vaguest memories of this contemporary thriller with Lee playing the head of an ill-fated Grand Guignol-type theater. Director Samuel Gallu is suitably obscure; Julian Glover also appears.

Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (The Snake Pit and the Pendulum, aka The Blood Demon, The Snake Pit, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, The Torture Room; 1967): This German mishmash was allegedly inspired by Poe, with Lee as the reincarnated and vengeful Count Regula (who presumably ate all his prunes), reassembled after being drawn and quartered for killing twelve virgins—what a waste!—in his torture chamber; erstwhile Tarzan Lex Barker plays the hero. Director Harald Reinl was then married to leading lady Karin Dor (who, like Tsai Chin, also appeared in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice).

The Oblong Box (1969): An okay AIP film with an interesting history, this is another alleged Poe adaptation, which supposedly has more to do with Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast.” It was to have been the next film by writer-producer-director Lawrence Huntington, who dropped dead leaving the hilariously awful The Vulture as his last effort. Meanwhile, Michael Reeves, fresh from Witchfinder General, was slated to direct Richard Matheson’s script for De Sade with Gordon Hessler, an old friend of Louis M. “Deke” Heyward (AIP’s so-called “Third Man,” who headed their European operations), producing. When Heyward was asked to produce that film personally—with disastrous results—and Reeves bowed out due to personal problems, he and Hessler were reassigned to this project, with Huntington’s script substantially rewritten by AIP and Hammer scribe Christopher Wicking (Cry of the Banshee). But before it could even go before the cameras, Reeves bowed out once again and was soon dead of a drug overdose, forcing Hessler to tackle the direction as well. The film features Vincent Price as a nobleman who keeps his insane and disfigured brother, the victim of a voodoo curse, locked up in an upstairs room. It also marked the first teaming of Price with fellow horror legend Lee, although their sole scene together consists of Price finding Lee dying of a throat slit by the brother, so the dramatic possibilities were limited…

To be concluded.

Read Full Post »