Monday, October 31, 2011

HORROR HARVEST: Part Seven: The “Corman Poes” and the Price, the Prince of Horror

Vincent Price as Roderick Usher -- the haunted hero.
 “I don't play monsters. I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge.”

This quote by Vincent Price is the key to understanding his standing (in my mind at least) as the epitome of the horror-film actor. His ability to take a disreputable genre seriously elevated it almost single-handedly to the level of profound art.

The perfect marriage of his skills to material was achieved during his collaboration with director Roger Corman on the so-called “Poe cycle,” all but one which featured Price and all but one which were based, more or less, on an Edgar Allan Poe story. Corman took advantage of the royalty-free, public-domain status of Poe’s stories, found inspired adapters such as Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Robert Towne, and convinced the studio to let him shoot in widescreen and color. In the last, he was influenced by the success of the Hammer horror cycle, which had begun three years earlier.

Price was a natural choice for the series. He had gradually become identified with horror film, especially after his appearance as the sinister Henry Jarrod in the first U.S. 3-D color feature film, “House of Wax” (a remake of Michael Curtiz’s distinctive 1933 “Mystery of the Wax Museum”).
The unmasking scene in "House of Wax."
Price had trained as a stage actor, and in fact had made his second big success on Broadway was as the evil Manningham in “Angel Street,” the popular thriller that would later be adapted twice into film as “Gaslight.” His first horror-film appearance was, ironically, as a victim – the hapless Clarence, who is dispatched by Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff in 1939’s “Tower of London,” a loose adaptation of “Richard III.”

Price was an adequate leading man, but his presence as a tormented, mordantly mirthful anti-hero was much more powerful. He worked extensively in radio, most notably as the “The Saint” and in horror classics such as “Three Skeleton Key,” “Present Tense,” “Bloodbath,” and “Leona’s Room.” His role as a rich, brooding patrician in the 1946 film “Dragonwyck” prefigures all his later work.


Parodists have feasted on, and many take issue with, his plummy, acerbic delivery, and the petulant aggression present in his horror roles. However, he would not have wound up being termed “The Merchant of Menace” without them. As with Karloff, Lorre, Carradine, Rathbone and Chaney, he preferred steady employment in a genre rather than virtuous penury.

His used his elegant bearing, his rich and expressive voice, and his haunted, hooded to push his acting to the extremes demanded by the genre. If you buy into his style, it is riveting – and there is just enough stagey ironic distance in his characterizations that we can sense a coziness, a hint of winking put-on that allows him and us to relish the grand, melodramatic style even more intensely. He is playing, in the purest sense. “I sometimes feel that I'm impersonating the dark unconscious of the whole human race,” he once said. “I know this sounds sick, but I love it.”

Price could carry almost any kind of story, as shown by his work in the William Castle cheap gimmick-rigged creepies “The Tingler” and “House on Haunted Hill” (for “Tingler,” Castle planted electric buzzers under some seats in the theaters; for “House,” “Emergo” unleashed a plastic skeleton that flew on wires over the heads of the audience members).
Price in "The Tingler."
Corman, despite his reputation as a purveyor of schlock, was actually quite a good director. The rich, gloomy art direction of the Poe films was accentuated by the robustly over-the-top dialogue, effective editing and genuinely compelling story lines.

Later Price films are a mixed bag. Some of the work is so-so, but there are a few gems. His weary and cynical vampire hunter in “The Last Man on Earth,” the first adaptation of Matheson’s “I Am Legend”; his double appearance as the gruesomely vengeful Dr. Phibes, and his Matthew Hopkins, the brutal Witchfinder General, are all memorable creations.

His best work is in his favorite film: “Theater of Blood,” in which he plays the scorned actor Edward Lionheart -- who dispatches his victims, a gaggle of critics, by killing each in a manner performed in a Shakespeare play. It gave Price the chance to recite some passages from the Bard, and leaves the viewer wondering what he might have made of roles such as Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Macbeth or Lear.

Sweetly, and appropriately, he made his last significant appearance as The Inventor in Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands.” The best account of his life was written by his daughter Victoria in 2000. “Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography” is exceptionally well-written – too often, the books children write about their parents are either white-washes or belated acts of revenge. Hers is expertly researched, honest, fair-minded and compassionate.

By the time his bulk of his career was complete, a new kind of horror film, vastly more graphic and much less dependent on sonorous line readings and sweeping gestures, was coming. It was the age of “The Night of the Living Dead” and “The Exorcist” – and horror was becoming much more visceral.

American culture is notoriously allergic to both tragedy and Shakespeare -- in the hands of Corman and Price, it came as close as it ever would to those heights.

‘POE’ FILMS BY ROGER CORMAN


House of Usher
Roger Corman
1960



The Pit and the Pendulum
Roger Corman
1961





The Premature Burial
Roger Corman
1962


Tales of Terror
Roger Corman
1962


The Raven
Roger Corman
1963


The Haunted Palace
Roger Corman
1963


The Masque of the Red Death
Roger Corman
1964


The Tomb of Ligeia
Roger Corman
1964


VINCENT PRICE SELECT FILMOGRAPHY

Tower of London
Rowland V. Lee
1939

The Invisible Man Returns
Joe May
1940

Dragonwyck
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
1946

House of Wax
Andre de Toth
1953

The Mad Magician
John Brahm
1954

The Fly
Kurt Neumann
1958

House on Haunted Hill
William Castle
1959

The Tingler
William Castle
1959

(Corman/Price collaborations take place during this time)

The Comedy of Terrors
Jacques Tourneur
1964

The Last Man on Earth
Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow
1964

Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm)
Michael Reeves
1968

The Oblong Box
Gordon Hessler
1969

Scream and Scream Again
Gordon Hessler
1970

Cry of the Banshee
Gordon Hessler
1970

An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe
Kenneth Johnson
1970

The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Robert Fuest
1971


Dr. Phibes Rises Again
Robert Fuest
1972

Theater of Blood
Douglas Hickcox
1973


Edward Scissorhands
Tim Burton
1990

Friday, October 28, 2011

HORROR HARVEST: Part Six: A lurid palette and ample bosoms – the Hammer horror story

,

Christopher Lee as Count Dracula -- a very different interpretation.
Oddly enough, what is thought of now as one of the primary veins of classic film horror was widely despised as graphic and obscene when it first emerged.

Britain’s Hammer Film Productions was originally one of many low-budget domestic movie companies. It struck gold in 1955 when it adapted a highly successful BBC television series with a scientist hero, Dr. Bernard Quatermass. British censors found the shooting script “outrageous,” but audiences didn’t seem to mind the inclusion of graphic details of invading aliens and mutated human beings one little bit.
Richard Wordsworth as the mutated astronaut in "The Quatermass Xperiment."
 Emboldened, the Hammer team decided to resuscitate the Frankenstein franchise, diverging far enough from the Universal Studios approach so that lawsuits would not be filed. Furthermore, they intended to shoot it in color and to make maximum use of a rich and pronounced color palette, which intensified the viewing experience to a remarkable degree. (Unfortunately, they used Eastmancolour stock, which is highly unstable and prone to fading – it is very difficult to find well-preserved copies of these 1950s Hammer efforts.)

Four key figures set the tone for Hammer horror – director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, cinematographer Jack Asher and production designer Bernard Robinson. Asher and Robinson are the particular unsung heroes – faced with skeletal budgets and the limited confines of what became the Bray Studio, a former country house on the Thames west of London. The two men created a lavish look for most of the films in the series.

NOTE: My dear friend, Hollywood composer and orchestrator Jon Kull, reminds me that the contributions of Hammer house composer James Bernard are not to be neglected. His distinctive percussive emphases, horn runs, and clashing string harmonies did much to carry home the sweeping, magisterial threats peddled by Fisher's sequences. Here's an excerpt a devoted fan has concocted:



The wild success of “The Curse of Frankenstein” caused Hammer to forge an alliance with Universal, and brought investors to the business office. Soon most of the Universal and other classic horror icons – Dracula, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera, and werewolves -- joined other fanciful creations on screen. In livid color, graphically violent and gory situations, they ruled the fright box office for nearly 15 years.

Another aspect of Hammer was its emphasis on revealing the female body, and exploring the sexual subtext (later on, there was nothing sub about it) implicit in the horror narratives. Hammer heroines were often blonde and always bosomy, showing off their balconies in diaphanous, low-cut gowns and peignoirs. The tall and suave Christopher Lee played Dracula as a hypnotic seducer who seemed to unleash his female victims’ carnality as he sucked their blood.
Ingrid Pitt, the ultimate Hammer (anti)heroine.
 Eventually, sex moved into the foreground. “The Vampire Lovers” featured Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla, who decided preferred to dominate innocent young women, mentally and sexually. The so-called Karnstein trilogy continued with “Lust for a Vampire” and “Twin of Evil,” and Pitt went on to star as Countess Dracula, bathing in the blood of her victims to maintain eternal youth.

Interesting offshoots such as “Captain Cronos” and “Vampire Circus” attempted to breathe new life into the cycle, but by the early 1970s, the rest of the film industry had caught up with and surpassed Hammer’s cinematic transgressions. The string was played out, and variations had been rung on the Hammer archetypes until there was no life left in them at all.

And of course, the Hammer repertory company of actors was superb. Actresses such as Pitt, Barbara Shelley, Veronica Carlson and Kate O’Mara are unmistakable as screaming victims and/or as vampiric acolytes. Actors like Michael Ripper, Ralph Bates, Andre Morrell, and Andrew Keir were standouts as well. (Good old Oliver Reed’s first starring role was in “The Curse of the Werewolf.”)
 The three central Hammer actors were Michael Gough, Christopher Lee and Pete Cushing. Gough would later best known as Alfred the Butler in the first cycle of Batman films, but his waspish menace was exhilarating to behold. 
Michael Gough in "The Horror of Dracula."
Lee was not just the definitive Dracula for many; he could play a variety of characters from sober heroes to raging maniacs.
Christopher Lee as a good guy in "The Devil Rides Out"
. . . and as "Rasputin the Mad Monk."
Cushing ranks for me with Karloff and Price as the epitome of horror star. Whether playing a Frankenstein or a van Helsing, he had an absolute, no-nonsense conviction about his character that carried him through the most implausible scenarios. Additionally, he was a consistent underplayer. Cushing’s restraint made his performances so subtle and modulated that, if his career had been in a more “legitimate” strain of film, he would be far more widely known and honored today. He is endlessly fascinating to watch.
Peter Cushing in his signature role -- Doctor Frankenstein in "The Curse of Frankenstein."

Hammer horror still works. Despite its absurdities and lapses into bad taste, Hammer’s literate and high-toned approach gave it a bit of class and distinction, a shuddery thrill associated with mist, velvet, lace and splashes of vivid red.


The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown)
Val Guest
1955
X the Unknown
Leslie Norman
1956


The Curse of Frankenstein
Terence Fisher
1957

Quatermass 2
Val Guest
1957


Horror of Dracula
Terence Fisher
1958

The Revenge of Frankenstein
Terence Fisher
1958


The Mummy
Terence Fisher
1959

The Brides of Dracula
Terence Fisher
1960

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll
Terence Fisher
1960

The Curse of the Werewolf
Terence Fisher
1961

The Shadow of the Cat
John Gilling
1961

The Phantom of the Opera
Terence Fisher
1962

The Kiss of the Vampire
Don Sharp
1963

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb
Michael Carreras
1964


The Evil of Frankenstein
Freddie Francis
1964

The Gorgon
Terence Fisher
1964

Nightmare
Freddie Francis
1965

Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Terence Fisher
1966

The Plague of the Zombies
John Gilling
1966

The Reptile
John Gilling
1966

Frankenstein Created Woman
Terence Fisher
1967

The Mummy’s Shroud
John Gilling
1967


Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth)
Roy Ward Baker
1967

The Devil Rides Out
Terence Fisher
1968

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
Freddie Francis
1968

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Terence Fisher
1969

Taste the Blood of Dracula
Peter Sasdy
1970

The Horror of Frankenstein
Jimmy Sangster
1970

Scars of Dracula
Roy Ward Baker
1970


The Vampire Lovers
Roy Ward Baker
1970
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb
Seth Holt
1971

Countess Dracula
Peter Sasdy
1971

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde
Roy Ward Baker
1971

Hands of the Ripper
Pete Sasdy
1971

Lust for a Vampire
Jimmy Sangster
1971

Twins of Evil
John Hough
1971

Demons of the Mind
Peter Sykes
1972

Dracula AD 1972
Alan Gibson
1972


Vampire Circus
Robert Young
1972

The Satanic Rites of Dracula
Alan Gibson
1973

Captain Cronos – Vampire Hunter
Brian Clemens
1974

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell
Terence Fisher
1974


The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
Roy Ward Baker, Cheng Cheh
1974

To the Devil … a Daughter
Peter Sykes
1974

NEXT UP: The Corman Poes, and the peerless Vincent Price

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

HORROR HARVEST: Part Five: Atomic Age monsters

After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, where could horror film go? The unbelievable terrors that mankind unleashed upon itself during the Second World War dwarfed anything a storyteller could conceive.

After this, two distinct paths diverge from each other in horror cinema. One continues frighten through metaphor and suggestion. The other starts down the ever-escalating process of providing more and more graphic gore, trying somehow to come to terms with the frightening capabilities people proved could come from them.

The film industry began to loosen it s taboos at the same time. The inroads television made on film audiences meant that movies had to provide something you couldn’t get from staying home and watching the boob tube. That meant epics, super- wide-screen and 3-D screenings; more sex, more violence, and controversial topics; the incursion of more broad-ranging foreign and “art” films; that meant throwing the Motion Picture Production Code out the window.

It’s a delicate balancing act from this point on. Does graphic depiction of the forbidden, or relentless assault on a viewer’s sensibilities, mean that the film is without merit? It’s a subject we’ll examine in much greater detail in later chapters.

As it stood, a flood of horror hit the screens in the decade following the end of the war. In a new development, it cross-pollinated strongly with the science-fiction genre – one that had primarily focused on flights of fantasy (“Die Frau im der Mond,” Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, “Things to Come,” “Destination Moon”) rather than monsters and death. The opening of the Space Age filled people with curiosity and an appetite for speculative fiction on the subject. There was a whole new realm of which to be afraid.

Now the horror/sci-fi rush broke down roughly into three categories: man’s scientific experiments (usually atomic) creates/awakens non-human, giant monster, or causes Earth’s destruction; alien creatures invade, seeking to subdue/enslave/consume/erase mankind; or tampering with things better left alone creates an altered self – a shrinking/colossal/transparent/all-seeing man, warped out of shape and usually out of his mind as well.

By and large, the effects were cheap and cheesy, but it didn’t bother moviegoers one bit. They gave themselves eagerly to the premises these films worked from. The monsters lost their pathos, became reptilian and insectoid – things to be squashed, exploded, stomped (only Godzilla wound up as a kind of de facto defender of Earth). 

Science’s individual victims became hostile, aggressive, resentful, alienated – there was no way to reintegrate them into society. And the aliens, like Communism, were an amoral force that sought to take over our souls and destroy our treasured way of life. They deserved no mercy. (Only in one film, 1953's “It Came from Outer Space,” do we find out that the benign visitors are just here to put their ship up on the rack and tweak its interstellar carburetor – Ray Bradbury supplied the non-traditional script.)

Mankind usually triumphs. However, we begin to see a lack of complete resolution. In “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” an “everything is under control” ending was forced on director Don Siegel and tacked awkwardly on the end; in other films, a familiar “The End?” would be seen, leaving room for doubt if not for a sequel.

At the conclusion of Val Guest’s 1961 “The Day the Earth Caught Fire,” nuclear detonations are made to drive an off-course Earth back into its normal orbit. In a newspaper office, two front-page headlines are prepared: “WORLD SAVED” and “WORLD DOOMED.” For those of us who grew up in during the Cold War, under the direct daily threat of atomic annihilation, it was a scenario with which we were all-too-comfortable.


The Thing from Another World
Christian Nyby
1951


The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
Eugene Lourie
1953

Invaders from Mars
William Cameron Menzies
1953


The Magnetic Monster
Curt Siodmak
1953

Donovan’s Brain
Felix E. Feist
1953

Them!
Gordon Douglas
1954


Creature from the Black Lagoon
Jack Arnold
1954


Killers from Space
W. Lee Wilder
1954


Godzilla
Ishiro Honda
1954


The Beast with a Million Eyes
David Kramarsky
1955

It Came from Beneath the Sea
Robert Gordon
1955

Tarantula
Jack Arnold
1955

It Conquered the World
Roger Corman
1956

The Quatermass Xperiment
Val Guest
1956


Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Don Siegel
1956


X the Unknown
Leslie Norman
1956


Attack of the Crab Monsters
Roger Corman
1957


The Amazing Colossal Man
Bert I. Gordon
1957

Not of This Earth
Roger Corman
1957

Beginning of the End
Bert I. Gordon
1957

Monster from Green Hell
Kenneth G. Crane
1957

Quatermass 2
Val Guest
1957


The Incredible Shrinking Man
Jack Arnold
1957


Night of the Blood Beast
Bernard L. Kowalski
1958

The Fly
Kurt Neumann
1958

It! The Terror from Beyond Space
Edward L. Cahn
1958

War of the Colossal Beast
Bert I. Gordon
1958

The Hideous Sun Demon
Robert Clarke
1959

The Amazing Transparent Man
Edgar Ulmer
1960


The Day the Earth Caught Fire
Val Guest
1961


Reptilicus
Poul Bang
1961

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die
Joseph Green
1962


The Attack of the Mushroom People
Ishiro Honda
1963


X the Man with the X-Ray Eyes
Roger Corman
1963


The Birds
Alfred Hitchcock
1963


Crack in the World
Andrew Marton
1965


Destroy All Monsters
Ishiro Honda
1968

NEXT UP: The bloody success of Hammer horror

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

HORROR HARVEST: Interlude: Meanwhile in Europe – and the comforts of Victoriana

Michael Redgrave and friend in one of the stories in "Dead of Night": this 1945 British movie marks the birth of the horror compendium film.
The past few chapters have focused on American film, but there was horror action in film across the Atlantic between the Hollywood exodus and the end of World War II. It’s hard for the casual viewer to track, but it’s there. It has a more self-conscious, arty tone, to be sure – its practitioners are carrying that baggage of Old World culture, a burden anyone working in America could gleefully cast aside.

There’s a tiny burst of gaslit thrillers in American film during the war as well that is spectacularly successful, two at 20th Century Fox and one at MGM. German √©migr√© John Brahm had essayed an unmemorable werewolf film, “The Undying Monster,” for 20th Century Fox. He was yoked to screen heavy Laird Cregar with amazing results in “The Lodger” and “Hangover Square,” two creepy masterpieces that take full advantage of Cregar’s uncanny ability to project darkness.
Laird Cregar in "Hangover Square" -- the incredibly gifted actor died at age of 31, before this film was released.
All the stars came into alignment for the production of MGM’s “Dorian Gray,” starring the undistinguished Hurd Hatfield, but garnering a Golden Globe and a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Angela Lansbury, as well as an Oscar win for cinematography and a nomination for art direction. Well worth a look, despite Hatfield’s shortcomings.

We will see an impulse towards the foggy comforts of Victorian horror settings in future chapters. Enjoy this atmospheric assortment!


The Fall of the House of Usher
Jean Epstein
1928





Vampyr
Carl Theodor Dreyer
1932



The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
Fritz Lang
1933

The Lodger
John Brahm
1944



Dead of Night
Cavalcanti/Crichton/Dearden/Hamer
1945

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Albert Lewin
1945



Hangover Square
John Brahm
1945