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About Jessie

I work in the Chester County Library System in Pennsylvania.

Supernatural Hollywood Horror of the Sound Era: A Brief History

“One distinction I want to make, a point I am always careful to make in this country and abroad, is that I differentiate between the entertainment ‘terror’ in the Poe pictures and the modern ‘psychological’ terror films.”
Vincent Price in Monsters, Maidens & Mayhem:  A Pictorial History of Hollywood Film Monsters (1965)

A Symbiotic Relationship

Question #1:  Is terror the same as horror?  Can those terms be used to distinguish between supernatural fright films (horror) and movies based on mental, medically explainable aberration (terror)?

Question #2:  when is a horror film actually a science fiction film, and vice versa? Frankenstein (1931) is usually reckoned a horror film, but it is also science fiction.  It has a laboratory and a scientist using technology to resurrect the dead or create life from the body parts of various corpses.  Alien (1979) is generally thought of as a science fiction movie.  It has the technological hardware and takes place in space (In space no one can hear you scream read the poster), but it is also creates a sense of dread.  Likewise, one of Alien’s inspirations, The Thing from Another World (1951) featured a being from outer space desiring human blood for itself and its progeny.  So it’s a vampire?  The Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises pose this conundrum:  are Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees undeads inexplicably, i.e., unscientifically, returned to life?  Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) skirt the issue.  It is only in the ensuing films that some, often lame reasons are posited about these killing machines.  In Halloween 4:  The Return of Michael Myers, Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis calls Michael “evil on two legs.” One can detect an element of the supernatural in Jason’s first outing:  the finale suggests he is capable of living underwater.  In Friday the 13th Part 6 (1986) Jason is resurrected via “Frankenstein” methods, i.e., lightning.  Have we therefore crossed the line into science fiction?  In the final analysis, it might be best not to ask too many questions about character creation and motivation in what are often termed “slasher” movies.

For the purposes of this piece, horror will only apply to the supernatural, thus leaving out such terror films as Psycho, Blood Feast, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream, The Silence of the Lambs, and Saw.

Creation

After the advent of sound films in 1927, horror came rapidly to the fore as a distinct genre.  Although wildly different in tone, like the musical, horror seemed to provide catharsis for audiences suffering through the Great Depression.  Hollywood horror was influenced by German expressionistic cinema, e.g., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922).  With Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein Universal Pictures started a trend and became the go-to studio for tales of vampires, werewolves, mummies, and lab-created human beings.  Universal created the models we still follow as it delved into the arcane and eldritch in The Mummy (1932), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Werewolf of London (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and The Wolf Man (1941).  Other studios did on occasion jump on the bandwagon and backed some films of equal significance, e.g., Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Warner Bros.’ Doctor X (1932), United Artists’ White Zombie(1932).

The films of the era contain the lines we quote and parody today:

“Look, it’s moving.  It’s alive.  It’s alive.  It’s alive.  It’s moving.  It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive.  It’s alive!  In the name of God, now I know what it feels like….”  (Frankenstein)

“Alone, bad.  Friend, good.  Friend, good!”  (Bride of Frankenstein)

“Listen to them.  The children of the night.  What sweet music they make.”

“I never drink—wine.”

“The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly.  The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield.”  (Dracula)

Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers at night may turn to a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright.”  (The Wolf Man)

Taking a more somber tack in the 1940s was RKO, where Val Lewton produced and sometimes co-wrote a series of moody, dark thrillers, all of which possessed an undercurrent of unease and terror, some of which could be construed to or in fact did contain supernatural elements:  Cat People, Isle of the Dead, I Walked with a Zombie, The Body Snatcher, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, Curse of the Cat People. 

Real ghosts—as opposed to those who turn out to be hoaxes—inhabited several sterling horror films in the ‘40s.  Prime examples were MGM’s The Canterville Ghost (1944), Paramount’s The Uninvited (1944) and Fox’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).

Horror Down, Science Fiction Up

The creation of the atomic bomb in 1945 sounded a temporary death knell for traditional cinematic horror.  Science fiction came to the fore whereas the number of bona fide science fiction films prior to the splitting of the atom had been negligible.  These included Just Imagine (1930), The Invisible Ray (1936), and Dr. Cyclops (1940).  After ’45, with the advent of the A-bomb and the knowledge of radiation and mutation, plus jet planes, rockets and the possibility of space flight, what humans could do and might do for good or evil supplanted what began to seem quaint.  Universal parodied itself in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  In 1950, with Destination Moon, science fiction was put on the track into a golden age.  [see “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Movies, 1950-1956” on the Multimedia Blog, March, 2013]  Spaceships, mutants, giant ants and spiders and mantises, thawed-out dinosaurs, a plutonium blast that made a man a giant, radiation from an alien that made a woman a giant, a radioactive cloud that made a man bug size, alien invaders—these got the public’s attention.  It didn’t last, however.  Increasingly, science fiction movies became B-movies, i.e., cheaply made programmers with outre titles such as The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), The Alligator People (1959), Invisible Invaders (1959).

Horror Resurgent

Perhaps science fiction’s loss of prestige made it easier for horror to retake its position in the fantastic film firmament.  If the early Hollywood sound horror films had been inspired by Germany, Britain spurred this latest change when in 1957 Hammer Studios released The Curse of Frankenstein—in color!  Hammer followed with Horror of Dracula (Dracula in the U.K.).  Both were extremely successful.  Gothic horror would dominate Hammer films for more than a decade, with the studio remaking The Mummy, continuing the Dracula and Frankenstein series, adding its own werewolf and zombies, and creating the “Karnstein Trilogy” featuring voluptuous female bloodsuckers.  Peter Cushing, who played Van Helsing in the vampire films and the doctor in the Frankenstein sagas, and Christopher Lee, the face of the new vampire count, became cult stars.

Hollywood took notice, and “The King of the Bs,” director Roger Corman at American International Pictures, gained fame with adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories even if at times only the title was Poe-inspired.  House of Usher (1960) starred Vincent Price, the tall, dark supporting player of many mainstream Hollywood films.  He was to become a cult star himself, working for Corman in, among others, Tales of Terror, and The Raven.  Sometimes Corman went far afield, literally.   The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) were filmed in England.  Novelist Stephen King reckoned that along with the Hammer films, Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) paved the way toward explicit gruesomeness.  Vincent Price opened the coffin of his wife to find her body frozen in rictus, her hands held up in a desperate attempt to push off the bier’s lid.  She’d been buried alive!  This, observed King, demonstrated how far filmmakers were going to go to shock us.

The Corman films and science fiction and horror movies in general catered to the youth market, aka baby boomers, and were fodder for matinees and drive-ins.  “Gimmick” horror films, some of which were bogus horror (rational explanations offered during the finale) came from the entrepreneurial mind of producer William Castle.  On the Macabre (1958) poster audience members were informed that “Any member of the audience is insured for $1000.00 against DEATH BY FRIGHT during the performance of this terrifying picture.”  In Halliwell’s Film Guide, British author and critic Leslie Halliwell aptly observed:  “We are not aware that the money was ever paid.  But then, if someone did die of fright, how would they prove it?  (Having seen the picture, we can definitely say that death by boredom is more likely.)”  In The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, author Michael Weldon called it Peyton Place set in a graveyard.

Castle continued the horror gimmick route with House on Haunted Hill (1959).  In some theaters a skeleton on a wire rocketed out above the audience.  For The Tingler (1959) a device known as “Percepto” was used to vibrate selected seats when the title creature escaped its human bonds in a theater.  (Shades of The Blob!)  Warned Vincent Price, “Ladies and gentlemen.  Please, do not panic, but scream!  Scream for your lives!  The Tingler is loose in this theater, and if you don’t scream it may kill you.  Scream!  Scream!  Keep screaming!  Scream for your lives!  Ladies and gentlemen, the Tingler has been paralyzed by your screaming.  There is no more danger.  We will now resume the showing of the movie.”  A pseudo-3-D was used in 13 Ghosts (1960).  Featuring a “Fright Break,” Homicidal (1961) was a Castle film obviously owing a debt to the previous year’s Psycho.

A mix of horror and science fiction took place in 1957 with three films, all with a Hollywood staple, the mad doctor.  Two featured Whit Bissell in this role:  I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf.  In the latter he proclaimed himself the world’s benefactor who through hypnosis would unleash “the savage instincts that lie hidden within.”  Moreover, “Mankind is on the verge of destroying itself.  The only hope for the human race is to hurl it back into its primitive dawn, to start all over again.  What’s one life compared to such a triumph?”  In Blood of Dracula a young woman was transformed into a demonic-like killer.  The real villainess played by Louise Lewis told her charge, “Power, especially the power to kill, is never pretty.  It won’t go on much longer.  In time you’ll be proud of the part you played in saving mankind.  Here, drink this.”  The potential for atomic annihilation might be the subtext for one or more of these cheaply made but very successful movies.

Other low-budget horror films of the era included Curse of the Undead (1959), about a vampire gunslinger, and The Return of Dracula (1958).  High class horror was represented by The Haunting (1963), directed by Academy Award-winner Robert Wise.

Zombies had a history before 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.  In White Zombie (1932), the coach driver played by Clarence Muse explained, “Yes, monsieur.  Zombies.  The Living Dead.  Corpses taken from their graves or made to work in the sugar mill, or fields at night.  Look!  Here they come!”  After Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), the title character had little exposure on cinema screens.  A small comeback occurred in 1966 with Hammer Studio’s Plague of the Zombies, but in 1968 that there was a real breakthrough, and what a resurrection it was:  George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  (“Don’t you know what’s going on out there?  This is no Sunday school picnic!” railed Duane Jones)   Were these zombies of supernatural or scientific origin, e.g., a virus?  It took another decade for Romero to jump start this oeuvre with Dawn of the Dead After that came a zombie boom with increasingly fast-moving undeads that has yet to abate.  At the time, many reviewers were appalled.  Even the exceptional genre magazine Castle of Frankenstein called Night of the Living Dead “putrid.” Variety, the Bible of the entertainment industry concurred:   “Casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers,…the film industry as a whole and exhibs who book the pic, as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism….No brutalizing stone is left unturned….”  .  (Director George Romero had been said to be making a racial statement by having a black man, Duane Jones, as his star, but the director told a West Chester University audience in 2000 that he chose Jones as his lead because he was the best actor in his cast.)

A Brief Sci-Fi Boom

Quality science fiction made a comeback the same year with two large-scale smash hits:    Planet of the Apes and 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Nevertheless, it would take a decade for a true high-quality science fiction film boom to materialize.

TV Horror, Blaxploitation, Possession

Dark Shadows was an afternoon TV soap opera that ran from 1966 to 1971.  Jonathan Frid became famous as the vampiric Barnabus Collins.  The series spawned two decent theatrical films with the TV cast, House of Dark Shadows (1970), and Night of Dark Shadows (1971).

Robert Quarry had his moment in the sun in Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and The Return of Count Yorga (1971).  In the latter he watches Hammer Studios’ The Vampire Lovers (1970) on TV.

“Blaxploitation” was not just private eyes (Shaft, 1971), bank robbers (Cool Breeze, (1972), pushers (Superfly, 1972), ‘Nam vets taking their revenge on the mob (Slaughter, 1972), or pimps (The Mack, 1973).  Horror was part of this oeuvre, most notably Blacula (1972) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) with classically trained actor William Marshall giving gravitas to the title character.  Played straight, both were frightening and amusing tales.  Thalmus Rasulala, the heist planner in Cool Breeze, played the vampire hunter in Blacula.

Films of possession were next in the pipeline.  Preceded by 1972’s The Possession of Joel Delaney with Shirley MacLaine, The Exorcist (1973) captured the public’s imagination.  Two Blaxploitation horrors were concerned with possession:   Abby (1974) and J. D.’s Revenge (1976).   Stephen King’s novel Carrie became a surprise hit in 1976.  That same year The Omen (1976) reinvigorated superstar Gregory Peck’s career.

Coexistence

As noted, in terms of quality and scale, there had been no immediate science fiction consequence for Planet of the Apes and 2001:  A Space Odyssey until Logan’s Run (1976), which while an often silly version of the novel did make money and portended a new age of handsomely-produced science fiction movies.  The following year came Star Wars, in 1978 Superman, and in 1979 Star Trek:  The Motion Picture.  Nevertheless, horror was not supplanted, and in 1978 another ground-breaker was released.  John Carpenter’s Halloween featured the unstoppable Michael Myers, hiding his face behind a William Shatner Star Trek Captain Kirk mask.  This ostensible lunatic returned to Haddonfield, Illinois to terrorize the community.  Even though Tommy (Brian Andrews) knew “You can’t kill the boogeyman,” Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode managed to confound him, or…it!  How could he take bullets and fall from the second floor and escape?  The success of the film spawned a series, as did 1980’s Friday the 13th.  Counselors at a deep woods summer camp (where there are no screens on the windows) find their number reduced by a maniacal mother and in the ensuing films her equally murderous offspring, Jason Voorhees.  Curiously, actress and former game show guest Betsy Palmer turned out to be the maniac, Jason’s mother who lived a double life:  “Kill her, mommy.  Kill her.  Don’t let her get away, mommy.  Don’t let her live….I won’t, Jason, I won’t!”  As the series progressed, Jason became a truly supernatural entity who like Michael Myers could take a licking and keep on ticking.  Some critics found the subtext to be warnings about teen sex and its ramification, e.g., death.

Since the 1980s, horror movies—some major, many independent and in some instances made on a shoestring budget but looking good and, as Variety might have said, generating coin—have coexisted with science fiction on a fairly equal basis. Based on Stephen King’s novel, Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining (1980) was a deeply disturbing film, with Jack Nicholson (who’d served some of his film acting apprenticeship in The Raven and The Terror) become iconic as the increasingly maniacal and possessed Jack Torrance  (“Here’s Johnny!”).  Some of the groundbreaking horror films since The Shining are The Evil Dead (1981), The Howling (1981), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Poltergeist (1982), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and The Last Exorcism (2010).

In addition to Michael Myers and Jason, Freddy Krueger joined the pantheon of horror movie icons in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).  Most of the sequels were actually good.

As it had been influenced by silent German films and in the 50s British Gothics, Hollywood would look to Japan for some of its recent projects, e.g., The Ring, The Grudge, Silent Hill.  As with science fiction, sequels and remakes became de rigueur.  Videogames such as Silent Hill found themselves filmed, often to no good effect.

And today?  Without excessive fanfare, in 2017 Stephen King’s giant novel It, which had been a 1990 2-part TV mini-series, became an immensely popular feature film.  Shortly after release it surpassed The Exorcist as the highest-grossing horror movie of all time in the United States.  Chapter Two is in the works.

It is fitting that coexistence between horror and science fiction has continued in recent decades, with Jason Voorhees himself (itself?) transplanted onto a spacecraft in Jason X (2001).  It remains a symbiotic relationship and helps explain why Horror, Science Fiction (and Fantasy) comprise a specific film genre.

By Kim

References

Beau.  “Night of the Living Dead.” Variety, October 16, 1968, p. 6.  [film review]

Castle of Frankenstein, July 1970, p. 60.  [Night of the Living Dead review]

Halliwell, Leslie.  Halliwell’s Film Guide:  A Survey of 8000 English-Language Movies1977.

Hardy, Phil.  The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies.  1986. 

King, Stephen.  Danse Macabre.  1981.

Steiger, Brad.  Monsters, Maidens & Mayhem:  A Pictorial History of Hollywood Film Monsters.  1965.

Weldon, Michael.  The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.  1983.

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Fungus Films: Oh, the inhumanity!

“Dave, make ‘em listen to me!  There is a monster!
We saw it again in dad’s store—and it’s bigger now!”
Steve McQueen, The Blob (1958)

Unremarked upon outside science fiction fandom (and hardly there) is the golden age of theatrical “fungus films.”  No, wait!  The golden age of fungi on film was the only age of fungi on film.  It began in 1955 and for all intents and purposes ended almost where it began, with a 1988 remake of its iconic 1958 predecessor.  The fungi film was probably doomed because audiences generally would rather watch characters matching wits with other bipeds or darned smart aliens rather than unthinking globs of protoplasm.  Moreover, there’s something inherently revolting about death by blob.

Let’s explore this phenomenon whose heyday really concluded in 1972.  “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Films” (see Multimedia Blog, March, 2013) began in 1950 and ended in 1956.  This period coincided with Cold War paranoia, and many science fiction films of the period had a Cold War subtext often discovered in retrospect.  In The Thing from Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), It Conquered the World (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), for instance, humans are either killed for blood, implanted with mind-control devices, or mysteriously transformed into soul-less pods.  The analogy is with totalitarian communism, a convenient bogeyman for politicians stoking fear among the citizenry in the West.  In these scenarios the human body remains essentially intact.  Not so with fungus films.  The entire body is consumed, almost always from the outside, often as a result of one touch to the alien entity.  It seems a stretch then to analyze these science fiction movies from a Cold War perspective.  The human mind is of no concern to the (mostly) mindless goo, liquid, slime, mold, gelatin or crusty substance thrust upon the human.

The first fungus film was in many respects the best:  The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), released in 1956 in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown.  The well-respected writer Nigel Kneale’s stories of Professor Quatermass had originally been made for British TV and were mightily popular.  The film version of what would become a trilogy did what a number of Brit films would do to increase worldwide, specifically U.S., profits:  casting one or more American “names,” in this case the venerable character actor Brian Donlevy as an irascible Quatermass.  (Dana Andrews was enlisted for Night of the Demon, Gene Evans for The Giant Behemoth and Forrest Tucker for The Abominable Snowman.)  Generally considered miscast by highbrows (tell that to impressionable youth!), Donlevy provided a certain gravitas in this and its sequel.  In the film, a British rocket crash lands on earth.  There had been three crew members, now there is only one.  What happened to the other two?  Examination of the rocket’s interior reveals a strange organic substance behind the bulkheads.  This material apparently consumed the missing crew members, and the mute survivor is undergoing his own horrible metamorphosis.

On the heels of The Quatermass Xperiment came another British film, X the Unknown (1956).  Here again, an American actor starred.  Dean Jagger even had a Supporting Actor Academy Award to his credit for Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and was then and is now remembered for playing the general for whom Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye put on the show in 1954’s White Christmas.  In X the Unknown, British soldiers come upon a gravel pit spewing radiation.  Dr. Royston (Jagger) hypothesizes that intelligent beings developed in subterranean caverns and periodically make their way to the surface.  What with humans now experimenting with radiation, these creatures have deadly interest in us.  In Keep Watching the Skies! , Bill Warren described the creature as “a tremendous sheet of radioactive living mud.”  Similarities with The Quatermass Xperiment are rife.  Jagger is another incarnation of Quatermass, the film is in black and white, and the cinematography suitable for noir or in in this instance horrible, mostly unseen monsters.

The sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment was released in 1957:  Quatermass 2, aka Enemy from Space.  This time out Quatermass (once again the brusque and demanding Donlevy) discovers an alien plot to invade earth after creating masses of “food” in gigantic vats at Wynerton Flats, a secret government facility.  As with The Quatermass Xperiment, director Val Guest filmed in semi-documentary fashion.  In fact, this film looks like it was made a decade previously.

The subterranean gunk of X the Unknown was joined by another under-earth goo in 1957’s The Unknown Terror.  This grows in a Latin American “Cave of the Dead,” where an American doctor facilitates its development.  The subtext here is actually Mala Powers’ negligee, which in time-honored horror film style she wears while naturally wandering into the nighttime jungle searching for…raggedly men covered in what critics derisively termed “soap bubbles.”

Chronologically, Japan was next up with a fungus film.  The H-Man (Bijo to Ekotai Ningen) was released there in June, 1958, in the U.S. in May, 1959.  Again, humans create and facilitate the menace.  Radioactivity turns Japanese fishermen into nebulous creatures that can devolve into a rapidly moving, deadly goo.  Don’t dare touch it!

Space Master X-7 (1958) features the intriguingly named “blood rust,” an outer space fungus unknowingly spread on earth by a woman believing the authorities are pursuing her for murdering the scientist who in reality succumbed to the alien entity.  A nationwide hunt is undertaken to find the woman, whose possessions contain fungal spores.  Here, as in The Quatermass Xperiment, a semi-documentary approach lends verisimilitude to the proceedings.

Equally dangerous is The Blob (1958), still the most famous of fungi films.  Outer space is again the source.  When a meteorite is cracked open, its gooey innards flow up a stick and onto the human inspecting this visitor from space.  In due course it consumes his body and crawling around the small town by night increases its size with every human it envelops.  Steve McQueen’s warning (“Listen!  Listen to me!  Now listen to me, everybody!  This town is in danger.  Now several people have been killed already.  Now, now we had to make this noise, we had to make it so you’d listen to us, so we could warn you.”) fell on deaf ears until in the film’s most famous scene the blob invades Phoenixville, PA’s Colonial Theater, prompting the audience to flee into the street.  The mystique of The Blob is such that the Colonial sponsors an annual Blob Fest that attracts visitors from across the country for a screening and a “run-out” mimicking that in the film.  There is a Cold War element when an old coot hearing sirens retrieves from his closet his Civil Defense helmet.  He is obviously preparing for incoming missiles from the Reds, not a terrifying and deadly mass from space.

First Man Into Space (1959) sounds like a documentary, but of course it was an attempt to make hay from the space race.  (Russia’s Sputnik satellite began orbiting earth in 1957.)  Naturally drama becomes melodrama.  This first American spacefarer is infected after his vehicle courses through a strange cloud.  Encrusted like his capsule, his oxygen-starved body requires copious amounts of blood only obtainable (in the movies) via a killing spree.  But who can forget the poor soul’s final comment, “Sorry things had to happen this way, but I just had to be the first man into space” or Dr. Van Essen’s proclamation that “The conquest of new worlds always makes demands on human life, and there will always be men who will accept the risk.”

Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959) climbs from a Mayan pool in this Italian/French co-production co-directed by budding horror maestro Mario Bava (Black Sunday).  Whereas cold foiled the Blob, flame put the kibosh on Caltiki.

Mutiny in Outer Space (1965) covered an expedition into our moon’s caves.  Back on their space station, the explorers soon learn that the deadly fungus found beneath the moon’s surface loves heat and seems intent on finding earth.  Hopefully they can freeze it first.

Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967) was the third of the Professor Quatermass feature films.   However, although there was a pit and a spaceship inside it, its alien creators were not fungi, rather ancient Martians resembling giant locusts or grasshoppers.

The Japanese got into the act again with The Green Slime (1968).  The title is misleading as the slime quickly metamorphoses into ridiculous tentacled monstrosities.  Once again American actors are front and center.  Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel are joined by bond girl Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball).

Beware!  The Blob (aka Son of Blob, 1972) is a mix of comedy and drama that sometimes gells into an entertaining film, e.g., the dude raising a crucifix to ward off the oncoming mass, the sheriff looking down at the gunk crawling up his boot and asking, “What?”

Aftermath
 
The Incredible Melting Man (1977) features the title character returned from Saturn with an infection that melts skin and naturally sends him on a flesh-eating spree.

The Stuff (1985) is a seriocomic satire of rampant consumerism in which people eat a substance that returns the favor by ingesting them from the inside out.

The Blob (1988) is a serviceable but now largely forgotten remake of the iconic 1958 film and in essence brought the fungus film subgenre full circle.

Note:  The Slime People (1963) are not slimy, rather crusty and intelligent spear-carrying bipeds that emerge from beneath Los Angeles and encase the city in an impenetrable fog.  The Creeping Terror (1964) is a distinctly low-budget effort with a troubled production that saw it released as a TV movie.

 

References

Hardy, Phil.  The Overlook Film Encyclopedia:  Science Fiction Film.  Overlook Press, 1995, c1984.

Holston, Kim, and Winchester, Tom.  Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Sequels, Series and RemakesVolume I:  1931-1995.  McFarland & Co., 1997.

Warren, Bill.  Keep Watching the Skies!  American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties.  Volume I:  1950-1957.  Volume II:  1958-1962.  McFarland & Co., 1982, 1986.

By Kim

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The League of Alternate Superstars: Glenn Ford

It is a shame that Glenn Ford (1916-2006), contemporary of many Hollywood luminaries including his chum William Holden, did not receive the credit he deserved for a long and distinguished film and TV career.  Perhaps the most egregious omission is that Citadel Press never published The Films of Glenn Ford.

In The Great Movie Stars:  The International Years, David Shipman wrote of Ford, “It is always a pleasure to renew acquaintance with him, especially in comedy, where his relaxed and impish performances as a bumbling ordinary guy have been much underrated.  In drama he remains the Little Man, often victimized and battling grimly against the forces of fate.”

Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford was born on May 1, 1916 in Quebec City.  In 1922 the family relocated to Los Angeles.  Gwyllyn, now Glenn, made his first feature film in 1937, Night in Manhattan.  In 1939, the same year as Holden gained fame in Golden Boy, Ford was 4th billed in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence but was in fact the key player.  His breakout role was as a young German caught up in the Nazi net cast over Jews and others the Fascist regimes considered undesirables in So Ends Our Night (1941), a major film starring Fredric March and Margaret Sullavan.  The same year he co-starred with Holden in the quality western, Texas.   Eventually the Holden character goes bad.  (Almost a decade later they reversed roles for The Man from Colorado, with Ford as a psychopathic colonel become federal judge after the Civil War.)

Like Holden, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable and various other Hollywood leading men, Ford joined the service during World War II.  He enlisted in the Marines.

The war over, Ford returned to the Columbia Pictures fold and had his big breakout role as Johnny Farrell opposite siren Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946).  Now considered a staple of film noir, it would not be Ford’s last venture into that arena.  Although hardly anyone realizes it today, Ford and Hayworth were a legitimate movie team, co-starring in three other films:  The Loves of Carmen (1948), Affair in Trinidad (1952), and The Money Trap (1966).  Unfortunately, these films were primarily memorable for the casts, not the plots.

Ford became a major western hero, and sometimes, like James Stewart, a tortured one.  The same year as The Man from Colorado (1948), Ford starred in Lust for Gold, a tale of the search for the Lost Dutchman mine.  The ending featured a spectacular earthquake.  In Western Films:  A Complete Guide, author Brian Garfield suggested that as the amoral German immigrant, Ford gave the best performance of his career.  (Note that the same year The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had a similar plot and theme:  greed.).  Ford’s son wrote that co-star Ida Lupino ranked his father and Richard Widmark as her favorite leading men.

Five quality westerns followed:  The Violent Men (1955) opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, Jubal (1956) opposite Felicia Farr and Valerie French and the amazing male duo of Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger with Charles Bronson in support.  An acknowledged classic was next:  3:10 to Yuma.  Ford played ingratiating but dangerous outlaw Ben Wade, captured and assigned to Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a rancher hired to put him on the train over the dangerous obstacle of Wade’s scurvy gang.  Wade comes to respect Evans and actually helps him survive.  There were two westerns in 1958.  Cowboy was rather epic in scope, with a hard edge befitting this tale based on fact.  The dude played by Jack Lemmon joined Ford’s no-nonsense rancher on his cattle drive and became a man.  The Sheepman was not so hard-edged, with Ford battling with the cattlemen (naturally) and sparring with spunky Shirley MacLaine in this, her fifth film.  A sixth western intended as a large-scale remake of the epic 1931 Best Picture Academy Award winner, 1960’s Cimarron was a major disappointment, as would the 1962 remake of 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Ford’s first noir classic had been Gilda, and Ford had another significant—and vastly more violent entry in that realm in 1953.  Directed by Fritz Lang, The Big Heat joined the pantheon of most famous noirs.  After his family is attacked, Detective Dan Bannion (Ford) goes all out for revenge on Mike Lagana’s crime syndicate and its prime hitman (Lee Marvin).  It would not be much of a stretch to label Experiment in Terror (1962) a noir.  Ross Martin’s psychopath terrorized sisters played by Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers. Ford’s detective is out to nab the miscreant, and symbolic of changing times, in one scene Ford stands alone among a gaggle of female mannequins.  His attire may be symbolic:  still in fedora, which by decade’s end will disappear from the noggins of both policemen and hoods, but his trenchcoat has no belt.

Contemporary issues were also in Ford’s repertoire.  The most famous and significant film in this bailiwick was Blackboard Jungle (1955), whose theme “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets became the anthem for rock ‘n roll.  Ford played teacher Richard Dadier (or “daddio” to the punks) at an inner city school packed with society’s newly christened “juvenile delinquents”, including Vic Morrow.  The film was controversial on several accounts, not least in casting Sidney Poitier in a prime role as one of the students.

After Blackboard Jungle Ford began a spate of military movies in that almost forgotten comedy subgenre:  the “service comedy”:  The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Don’t Go Near the Water (1957) Imitation General (1958), and Cry for Happy (1961). As Shipman indicated, he was also adept at light contemporary comedies (The Gazebo, 1960; Love is a Ball, 1963) and comedy-dramas (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, 1963; Dear Heart, 1964).

It may be that Ford’s on-screen persona was so soothing and made things seem so effortless that he was not a perennial Academy Award-nominee.  He did, however, receive nominations and win awards presented by other organizations, including the Golden Globe for Best Actor-Comedy or Musical (Pocketful of Miracles, 1961), the Golden Apple Award for Most Cooperative Actor (1948 and 1957), the Golden Boot Award (1987), the Laurel Award for Top Male Comedy Performance (Don’t Go Near the Water, 1957), and the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1987 San Sebastien International Film Festival.  He received his Hollywood Walk of Fame Star in 1960.

By Kim

 

References

Ford, Peter.  Glenn Ford:  A Life.  Madison, WI:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.

Garfield, Brian.  Western Films:  A Complete Guide.  Rawson Associates, 1982.

Shipman, David.  The Great Stars:  The International Years.  London:  Angus & Robertson, 1972.

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The Curse of Elvis? You Be the Judge

One would think that getting a leading lady gig in a 1960s Elvis Presley movie would lead to something.  However, if the actress in question hadn’t already started her cinematic career and had some buzz, appearing with Elvis didn’t amount to much.  Naturally talent, a competent agent, persistence and luck played their part in achieving and maintaining stardom, whether or not you were in an Elvis film.

Those who failed or perhaps were not fanatical about their careers enough to leverage their presence in an Elvis vehicle into long-term, big-screen stardom included Joan Blackman (Kid Galahad), Blackman and Jenny Maxwell (Blue Hawaii), Laurel Goodwin (Girls! Girls! Girls!), Pamela Austin, Cynthia Pepper (Kissin’ Cousins), Joan Freeman (Roustabout), Jocelyn Lane (Tickle Me), Mary Ann Mobley (Harum Scarum), Shelley Fabares (Spinout and Clambake), Pat Priest (Easy Come, Easy Go), Donna Douglas (Frankie and Johnny), Susanna Leigh and Marianna Hill (Paradise, Hawaiian Style), Michele Carey (Live a Little, Love a Little), Annette Day (Double Trouble), Nancy Sinatra (Speedway), and Marlyn Mason (The Trouble with Girls).  It didn’t help that Elvis, who could have done so much more himself, was kept from even trying by his guru, Colonel Parker.  As a result, Elvis’ films became ever weaker as the decade came to a close.

Sometimes there was no expectation of superstardom via Elvis.  Anne Helm was his leading lady in 1962’s Follow That Dream (released in April), but she’d been very busy that year: The Couch (February), The Magic Sword (April), The Interns (August).  (The Swingin’ Maiden was a 1962 British film released in the U.S. in December, 1963.)

In April of this year Ms. Helm responded to a question about Follow That Dream:

I know there were quite a few names up for the part when I tested for it.  I loved the part but really didn’t think I would get it because of some of the names attached to it, one being Tuesday Weld.  I can’t remember the other ones.  I never really thought about future ambitions in those days.  God I was so young.  I think I was more intent on my prince coming along at that time of my life.  My career as an actress was not motivated by a lot of ambition, although I was always glad to be working.  Looking back now I see it all as a grand play unfolding and I just showed up…so happy to be working.  How lucky was I to have played so many different roles.

 

Three actresses not affected positively or negatively by being in a 1960s Elvis movie were Joan O’Brien, Stella Stevens and Ann-Margret.  O’Brien, a successful singer, transitioned into actress and had significant roles on TV and in Operation Petticoat (1959), The Alamo (1960) and It’s Only Money (1962) before playing opposite Elvis in It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963).  Stevens played opposite Elvis in Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), but her cinematic career had begun in 1959 and included roles in Li’l Abner, The Blue Angel, and Say One for Me.  She was a Playboy centerfold in 1960 (another venue that rarely led to a significant acting career) and that same year guested on five TV series.  She was on her way and had a solid film career through the decade and beyond (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, The Nutty Professor, The Silencers, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Slaughter, The Poseidon Adventure).  Like Stevens, before she costarred with Elvis in 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, Ann-Margret had a big-screen career on the fast track:  Pocketful of Miracles (1961), State Fair (1962), and Bye, Bye Birdie (1963).  She was a multi-talented performer who could hold her own with The King.

Further corroboration that his leading ladies got short shrift is that except for a small frame of the prime cast in Kissin’ Cousins, they did not appear on the cover or reverse of Elvis’ soundtrack albums.  This includes the legendary Barbara Stanwyck (Roustabout).  The King Creole (1958) soundtrack reverse does feature a few black and white photos that include Carolyn Jones.  One can only surmise Colonel Parker demanded every column of space devoted to his protégé.

By Kim

Reference

Anne Helm email to author, April 18, 2017.  Helm made 77 guest appearances on 1960s TV series, from Route 66 to Gunsmoke, from Run for Your Life to Hawaii Five-O.  Her pal Yvonne Craig, who in addition to her role in Elvis’ Kissin’ Cousins briefly appeared at the beginning of his It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), also had over 70 guest starring roles on 60s TV, including her stint as Batgirl on Batman.

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by | July 10, 2017 · 3:08 pm

Riot in Cell Block 11: When Character Actors Star

With a sterling resume as an independent Hollywood producer (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Queen Christina, Algiers, Stagecoach, Foreign Correspondent, Canyon Passage, and in 1963, Cleopatra), Walter Wanger opted to use his talents to expose prison injustice in the 1954 film Riot in Cell Block 11.  The immediate prompt was his 1952 incarceration at the Wayside Honor Farm for putting a slug into the groin of agent Jennings Lang, believed to be having an affair with Wanger’s wife, actress Joan Bennett. 

The resulting spare film (80 minutes) is an attack on a society—wardens, guards, politicians and the public at large—that could care less about rehabilitation or the tendency to dump psychopaths into the general prison population.  Aptly, the director was Don Siegel, cutting his teeth on B-movies generally more interesting and in retrospect more important than most big-budget studio films.  Soon Siegel would helm Wanger’s seminal science fiction movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and later achieve greater fame directing Clint Eastwood in such films as Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled and Dirty HarryRiot bears his occasional semi-documentary approach, beginning with newsreel film of actual U.S. prison riots.

Filmed at Folsom State Prison in California, Riot in Cell Block 11 is unique in that all of the stars  are character actors:  the riot’s fomenter Dunn (highly decorated WW II soldier Neville Brand in a sympathetic role), his brutish enforcer (Leo “The Scariest Guy in Hollywood” Gordon), the frustrated warden (Emile Meyer, fresh off his role as cattle baron Ryker in Shane), the by-the-book commissioner (Frank Faylen, an It’s a Wonderful Life alumnus soon to play Dwayne Hickman’s dad on TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), Snader (Whit Bissell, once disparaged as an American everyman, here a despicable guard whereas in 1947’s Brute Force he’d been a con—and in 1957 would play mad scientists in I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein), “The Colonel” (Robert Osterloh, veteran then and later of innumerable TV and film roles) here playing an intelligent war vet incarcerated for a lapse in judgment that led to a manslaughter conviction), hepped-up Mickey (William Phipps, a nuclear holocaust survivor in Five as the most unhinged of the prisoners), victimized guard Monroe (Paul Frees, the ubiquitous narrator and voice actor, e.g., Boris Badenov on TV’s Rocky and His Friends), news reporter (William Schallert, the father on The Patty Duke Show in the 1960s), the con who initiates the riot (Dabbs Greer, veteran by the end of his life of over 300 roles), “Gator” (Alvy Moore of the future TV series Green Acres in a long-billed cap that must be seen to be believed).  Pay attention or you’ll miss James Anderson, who will be playing Scout’s brutish nemesis in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and a chain gang captain in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969).

In summary, Riot in Cell Block 11 may be the only major Hollywood film whose performers were all members of the unsung but necessary and often compelling caste:  the character actor.

By Kim

 

References

Holston, Kim.  Susan Hayward:  Her Films and Life.  Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co., 2002.  Trace producer Wanger’s trial and incarceration in at least 12 New York Times 1952 articles.

Kaminsky, Stuart M.  Don Siegel, Director.  New York:  Curtis Books, 1974.  See “Chapter VI:  700 Prisoners and a Handful of Actors.”  Siegel said San Quentin ex-con, now actor, Leo Gordon, was not originally welcomed by the warden, who made him enter a separate gate and searched.  Siegel and producer Wanger knew Gordon’s worth.  “Had he not been in the picture it would surely have suffered,” said the director.

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Peyton Place: Return to Innocence

Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place was the scandalous and best-selling novel of 1956-57.  The title has become synonymous with small-town America, especially its hidden, often odious human substratum.  Here, in a story set immediately before and during World War II, patriotic parades, picnics, and proms mask hypocritical, sexually repressed, judgmental, mean-spirited, alcoholic, catty, and even murderous citizens.

In 1957 Peyton Place was made into a big-budget and highly successful film that may be the ultimate quality Hollywood soap opera.  (It became a hit primetime TV soap in 1964.)  With a running time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, Peyton Place allowed significant time for each of its multitude of characters to make an impression, and of its 9 Academy Award nominations five were for acting:   Best Actress (Lana Turner), Supporting Actor (Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn), Supporting Actress (Diane Varsi, Hope Lange).

The virtually unknown Varsi landed the key role of Allison MacKenzie, the high school senior who doesn’t want to attend college to learn how to write, she wants to write even if her apprenticeship is on the town’s newspaper.  It is Allison’s voice periodically narrating the story.  Another prominent inhabitant of the town is Dr. Swain, played by ubiquitous character/supporting actor Lloyd Nolan.  The climax turns on Swain’s decision to renege on a promise.  His voice of reason and compassion is raised to hold the community accountable.

Even now Peyton Place is a surprisingly affecting movie that can bring tears to the eyes.  Why?  Is it the tree-lined streets, the lake, the Labor Day celebration, the students and teachers holding hands and singing “Auld Lang Syne”?  It is perhaps a fantasy, a terrain that never existed, an environment we think or wish or maybe did inhabit as carefree children.  (Another example of this yearning is seen in “Walking Distance,” the 1959 Twilight Zone episode in which Gig Young interacts with his younger self and longs to remain in the town of his youth.).  One must not neglect another “character” that allows the film to successfully carry all this emotional weight:  Franz Waxman’s lovely theme and score.  Just before Waxman’s music wraps it up, Allison’s voice provides hope for the future:  “We’d finally discovered that season of love.  It is only found in someone else’s heart.  Right now someone you know is looking everywhere for it, and it’s in you.”

 

[Thank you, Mike Varano, for identifying potentially significant subtext:  characters are constantly opening and closing doors:  front, back, classroom, diner, restroom, office, closet, kitchen, pantry, car, bus, train carriage.]

By Kim

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Saddle the Wind  (1958)

In Western Films:  A Complete Guide (1982), Brian Garfield extols Royal Dano’s performance but otherwise comes down fairly hard on Saddle the Wind (1958).  He thought the actors had not received much direction, New York-born John Cassavetes was miscast, and the story familiar and clichéd.  Yet there is much to give pleasure in this film, especially for film aficionados who can put the whole shebang into context.  Familiarity with the entire corpus of film allows one to enjoy almost any movie.

The Colorado scenery is captivating, the gunplay choreography judicious, the music by future master of western scores Elmer Bernstein, and the character actors backing up Robert Taylor and Julie London rather stunning:  Dano as the fanatical, perhaps unhinged Union army veteran who shakes a deed to the verdant valley into the faces of Sinclair (Robert Taylor) and Deneen (Donald Crisp) and dares them to run off him and his small group of sodbusters, Jay Adler as a bedraggled saloon worker, gravely-voiced Charles McGraw as the extremely nasty Venables come to town to test himself against former gunman Sinclair, Douglas Spencer as the ranch hand incapable of chaperoning the increasingly violent Tony (Cassavetes), and Ray Teal as Deneen’s major domo.

The dialogue is also sparkling, and it’s easy to see why.  Rod Serling was the screenwriter.  He’d written Patterns (1955) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) for TV.  The year after Saddle the Wind he was narrating and writing his ground-breaking TV series, The Twilight Zone.

Some of the movie’s pithy monologues:

“Looking after your brother is like poking hot butter in a wildcat’s ear.  It just can’t be done.”  (Douglas Spencer as Hemp Scribner)

“Sonny, I got the guts and the know-how to puncture your belly six times before you can take a breath of air.”  (Charles McGraw as Venables)

“I’m no slut, Mr. Sinclair.  He didn’t buy me like he bought that gun.”  (Julie London as Joan Blake)

“Yes, but not to a man.  I’m telling it to a dirty, little, trigger-happy jackal without a heart in his body. I can’t say it much plainer that that, Tony.”  (Donald Crisp as Dennis Deneen)

Beyond the sociopathic behavior of Tony, larger issues emerge.  Like Shane (1953), in Saddle the Wind we observe characters embroiled in an imbroglio from which neither side can claim a fully satisfactory outcome.  Who should control the valley, the farmers or the cattlemen?  Both have solid arguments.  Human detritus from the Civil War is also in evidence, with the Union veteran (Dano) being taunted by “Dallas” (Richard Erdman).  Consider Cassavetes’ Tony the incarnation of Shane’s gun-for-hire Wilson (Jack Palance) who insults and blows away Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Reb.  Or maybe Charles McGraw’s Venables is the parallel, although we don’t learn anything of his backstory.

By Kim

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Everything, Everything Book to Movie Discussion CANCELLED

Unfortunately, the Book to Movie Discussion of Everything, Everything has been cancelled.

We hope to have a Book to Movie discussion of The Dark Tower in August.

 

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The Circle Book to Movie Event

Calling all book and movie lovers! Join us at the Movie Tavern at Main Street in Exton on Tuesday, May 2nd for the 6:50 showing of The Circle. We’ll have a discussion after the movie for anyone interested in discussing and comparing details from the book and movie.

Get popcorn and a drink for $7.50 by showing your library card!

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New Releases 4/25

Movies
La La Land
Underworld: Blood Wars
Agatha Christie’s The Witness for the Prosecution
Disturbing the Peace
Mean Dreams
The Levelling
The Daughter
Catfight
Right Now, Wrong Then
Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films Collection
Mifune: The Last Samurai

TV Series
Animal Kingdom season 1
The Affair season 3

Music
Love and War by Brad Paisley
Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. by Imelda May
Americana by Ray Davies

Audiobooks
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
Golden Prey by John Sandford
The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger
No Easy Target by Iris Johansen

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