Tuesday, July 31, 2012

TRUTH IN ADVERTISING?



For the record, there is no creature referred to in the script as "Astro-Monster" in the Japanese Kaiju (giant monster) movie INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (1965). This film was released in the U.S. in 1970 under the title GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO and there is at least a designation of a "Monster Zero" in the screenplay. So what exactly is the Astro-Monster/Monster Zero?

Well, as near as I can figure out, it's King Ghidorah (aka Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster). The big guy has taken up residence on Planet X, a newly discovered planet in orbit around Jupiter. Two astronauts (one of whom is American actor Nick Adams), land there and meet the weird aliens who inhabit the planet. The aliens promise a cure to cancer if the Earth will help them rid their world of the menace of King Ghidorah. The help? Godzilla and Rodan who are captured on Earth and transported to Planet X to battle the three-headed monster.

The battle over, all three monsters are then returned to Earth where they proceed to attack various cities while under the control of the aliens (who, of course, turn out to be bad guys). There is much destruction and devastation before a way is found to free the monsters from the aliens' control, allowing them to fight the aliens and each other. The film ends with King Ghidorah flying off to who knows where and the fates of Godzilla and Rodan unknown. But don't worry. They're not dead. They both came back in subsequent giant monster films produced by Toho Studios.

INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER has fairly good special effects, model work and miniatures. The problem is that by this point in the series, Godzilla was already starting to be played for comic relief instead of the fearsome creature of mass destruction that was seen in the first two films, GOJIRA (GODZILLA) (1954) and GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955). By the mid-60s', the Godzilla films and their brethren were clearly being produced and marketed to kids and, if taken in that spirit, make for some fun, entertaining movies.

I watched the original Japanese version of this film in Japanese with English sub-titles. I find that far more preferable to watching a horribly dubbed film in English. It's a bit funny to hear Japanese coming from Nick Adams' mouth but it's a more authentic experience.

INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER is classic Saturday afternoon matinee material. It's bright colors, fast moving plot and three giant monsters guarantee a good time. I can't watch Japanese giant monster movies on a steady basis. About one of these babies a year is just enough for me but I do enjoy them.

L'ENFANT TERRIBLE PART DEUX



I don't want to come across as beating a dead monster baby and give this film more time and space than it really warrants but I forgot to mention something about IT'S ALIVE that is important.

That's the musical score by maestro Bernard Herrmann. Sonically, the music prefigures what he wrote for Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976), which was Herrmann's last movie score. The music for IT'S ALIVE is not as good as the classic material he wrote for THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, several Alfred Hitchcock films (VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PSYCHO)  and the wonderful fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen (7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) but still, any Herrmann score is better than no Herrmann score. I just felt I should mention that important contribution to a minor film.

Monday, July 30, 2012

L'ENFANT TERRIBLE




As monster baby movies go, Larry Cohen's IT'S ALIVE (1973) has to rank as one of the best of an admittedly very narrowly defined sub-genre of horror films. ROSEMARY'S BABY doesn't really count as a monster baby movie since the baby doesn't arrive until the very end of the film and is never shown on screen. Sure, we all know he's the Son-of-Satan and we can only imagine what he really looks like but the movie ends there.

I think we also have to disqualify THE OMEN (1976). Even though Damian, the anti-Christ is born in the movie, most of the action takes place when he's a child, not an infant. And Regan, the young girl possessed in THE EXORCIST (1973), is also far too old as is the murderous little girl in THE BAD SEED (1956). Creepy kids, yes, but none of them monster babies.

IT'S ALIVE, which I watched for the first time the other day, is one twisted little movie. Not as outright deranged as something directed by David Cronenberg but definitely a bubble off of plumb. The only other Larry Cohen film that I can remember seeing is the wonderful whack job, Q: THE WINGED SERPENT in which Quetzalcoatl is revived and takes up residence atop New York City's Chrysler Building. That film has a weird vibe to it (besides the obvious giant monster on the loose storyline) and the same can be said for IT'S ALIVE.

The concept of a mutated monster baby who comes out of the womb swinging with fangs and claws is so downright ludicrous that in the hands of any other filmmaker the material would be laughed off of the screen. But somehow Cohen makes this claptrap work. It's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination but it is worth seeing. The parents of the monster baby (an unnamed boy, by the way) are played by John Ryan and Sharon Farrell. Ryan is a PR man who gets canned from his job thanks to the murders his monster kid commits and he becomes obsessed with tracking down and killing his child. Paternal instincts ultimately kick in however and he just can't pull the trigger. Maternal instincts are strong in wife Farrell as well but she still goes completely round the bend after the birth of this hideous thing and spends the rest of the film packing her bags for a trip to the loony bin (metaphorically speaking, of course).

The make-up and special effects work by Rick Baker are serviceable. No CGI stuff here. This was the '70s, remember. And the climax of the film pays a nice homage to THEM! (1954), one of my all-time favorite giant monster movies.

The last line of dialogue in the film sets the stage for a sequel and there were two of them: IT LIVES AGAIN and IT'S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. What, no IT'S ALIVE WALKS AMONG US?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

CHOKE HOLD



I finished reading CHOKE HOLD by Christa Faust yesterday. This is the second novel Faust has written about Angel Dare, an adult film star who gets involved with some very shady (and deadly) characters. The first book, MONEY SHOT, was a good one, a down-and-dirty crime novel that offered a unique peek behind-the-scenes of the adult film industry(that's porn for all of you Aggies out there).

CHOKE HOLD picks up where MONEY SHOT left off. Angel is in the witness protection program but not for long. The Croatian bad guys from the first novel find her and she starts to run. And run. And run.

The book is really one long, extended chase sequence across the Southwestern United States, into Mexico and then back to the U.S. for a showdown in Las Vegas. Along the way Angel meets an old flame from the porn business who promptly gets gunned down. She's left to look out for his hotshot teenage son who dreams of making it in the mixed martial arts fight industry. The kid has an over-the-hill punch-drunk trainer who falls for Angel (and vice-versa). The trio flee from several factions of bad guys (and gals), all of whom want to kill them.

CHOKE HOLD has a pedal-to-the-metal pace. It moves furiously from one shootout to the next, with several bloody fights and explicit sex scenes in between. The ending leaves things perfectly set up for a sequel and if Ms. Faust wants to write another chapter in the adventures of Angel Dare, I'll gladly buy it and read it.

Oh, one thing though Christa. The Bonneville was a Pontiac model car, not a Buick. You got that one little detail wrong sorry to say. Other than that, I recommend CHOKE HOLD. It's another "quick and dirty" Hard Case Crime trade paperback novel.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

THE FOUR-IN-ONE LAST HURRAH OF THE HORROR KING



In the spring of 1968, horror film icon Boris Karloff had less than a year to live. Of course, he didn't know exactly how much sand was left in the hourglass but he was in very bad health, suffering from emphysema and other ailments and it didn't take a genius to figure out that his days were numbered.

But Karloff, ever the professional, continued to work in films. I don't know if he really needed the money to cover his medical expenses or if he did it out of a sense of integrity and professionalism. More likely, he took the work to have something to do rather than sit around and wait for time to run out. Best he go out doing something he loved.

Thus, in the spring of 1968, Boris Karloff made not one last film but four. The films were ISLE OF THE SNAKE PEOPLE, THE INCREDIBLE INVASION, THE FEAR CHAMBER and HOUSE OF EVIL. The films weren't released until 1971, two years after Karloff's death in 1969.

All of the films were co-productions between a small U.S. studio and a modest film studio in Mexico. Karloff was unable to travel so all of his scenes for all four films were shot back-to-back on a small sound stage in Los Angeles. His scenes were directed by Jack Hill. All of the exterior shots and sequences that did not involve Karloff were shot in Mexico. The story goes that a wheelchair and oxygen tank were always on the set, just out of camera range and as soon as a take was completed, Karloff would hurry to the chair and tank for much needed relief. He also suffered from a bad back and many of his scenes were filmed with Karloff seated.

These are not great movies. I recently watched one of them, ISLE OF THE SNAKE PEOPLE and it's pretty bad. It's a shame that one of the greatest horror stars of all time, the legendary Boris Karloff, would make his final screen appearances in such disappointing fare. Still, as always, he gave 100% in his performances. A professional could do no less.



IT'S ALIVE! IT'S ALIVE!



Two classic horror films are playing this weekend (Saturday and Sunday) at the Paramount: FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE EXORCIST. Check them out if you can and if you don't make it to the theater, here are my film notes to enjoy.

Submitted for your approval here tonight are two classic horror films. They serve as touchstones for both the genre (horror) and the medium (film) and both are among the best of their respective sub-genres: the mad scientist who dabbles in things not meant for man to know and demonic possession. Separated by a gulf of forty-two years, they are as different as night and day in terms of sophistication, polish and technical prowess. Yet both films were critically and commercially successful in their day and they both scared the bejesus out of audiences at the times of their release.

In the years since Mary Shelley first published her novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus in 1818, the story of Frankenstein and his monster have become a part of Western civilization’s cultural landscape. And over the years, however incorrectly, the name “Frankenstein” has come to refer more to the monster he created and not the man who made him. Say the word “Frankenstein” and most people will immediately conjure up an image of a stiff-limbed, green-skinned, square-headed, scarred and bolt-necked monster. That indelible image was created in the 1931 film Frankenstein but as famous as it has become, it was not the first cinematic depiction of the Frankenstein monster.

That honor belongs to a one-reel, fifteen-minute silent film produced in 1910 by, of all people, Thomas Edison. Edison’s Frankenstein is a bizarre little piece of cinema, with the monster created more by magical than scientific methods and the effects combination of puppetry and the heavily made-up actor Charles Ogle. The result is a singularly strange and creepy film, made all the more eerie for its’ sheer antiquity and primitiveness.

Years later, in 1931, Universal Studios struck box-office gold with the production of Dracula, directed by the legendary Tod Browning with Bela Lugosi in the title role that forever typecast the Hungarian actor. Realizing that there was good money to be made in rather cheaply produced horror films, Universal quickly put Frankenstein into production that same year.

Although produced by the same studio Frankenstein is a far different film from Dracula. Director James Whale brought a sense of German Expressionism to the look of the film with stylized sets and landscapes which created a feel of an “Earth Universal.” Also, Whale realized that films should move, unlike the static and stagey Dracula. As a result, Whale moves his camera more, cuts more quickly and offers a series of vertically composed shots which emphasize the distance between heaven (God) and earth (man).

Colin Clive is perfect as the mad Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Locked away in a tower laboratory, Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz (Frye, who was also in Dracula) attempt to give life to a body sewn together from parts robbed from local graves. There’s just one hitch: the creature has a criminal brain. Henry’s fiancĂ©e Elizabeth (Clarke), his best friend Victor (Boles) and Dr. Waldman (Van Sloan, another Dracula alumnus) all try to stop him.

But the switches are eventually thrown and in one of horror cinema’s greatest sequences, the monster is brought to life. Brilliantly portrayed by Boris Karloff (with icon defining make-up by Jack Pierce), the monster quickly kills several people and escapes into the woods where he has another fateful encounter with little Maria. In the end, the angry, frightened villagers storm after the monster and the creature and his creator have a final showdown in a fiery windmill.

By the time William Friedkin made The Exorcist in 1973, the horror film had undergone many changes since the glory days of Universal’s golden age of horror. Color production brought bright and vivid blood onto movie screens and the envelope of subject matter had not only been pushed but almost completely shattered. In Friedkin’s film, horror is located not in some fairytale black-and-white universe but in the here and now. The setting is the upscale and reserved community of Georgetown where twelve-year-old Regan (Blair) appears to have been possessed by an ancient demon. The girl’s increasingly odd behavior is initially dismissed as delusional. But as the evil continues to manifest itself, doctors and experts are at a loss to explain what’s happening. Finally, when the full horror is revealed, an exorcist is called in as a last resort.

Make that two exorcists. Young Father Damian (Miller) is experiencing his own crisis of faith and needs the help of the more experienced Father Merrin (von Sydow), who unearthed the demon at the beginning of the film, to expel the entity. There’s also a series of unexplained and blasphemous murders being investigated by a dogged cop (Cobb). All of these narrative elements combine to produce one of the most horrifying films ever made.

The Exorcist shattered taboos in its’ graphic depiction of demonic possession. The brilliant make-up by the legendary Dick Smith and the special effects are groundbreaking and disturbing. Friedkin slowly ratchets up the suspense and mounting aura of dread until the third act becomes almost unbearably intense. The entire cast is first rate and the script, by William Peter Blatty from his novel, is intelligent and literate.

Adding to the unease, at various points throughout the film, horrific subliminal images are briefly flashed on the screen, images that stay in your mind long after the film is over. Some scenes were cut before the initial release of The Exorcist and that footage (which is pretty shocking stuff) has since been restored in what’s become known as “the version you’ve never seen.”

The Exorcist received ten Academy Award nominations including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Cobb), Best Supporting Actress (Blair), Best Adapted Screenplay (winner), Best Cinematography and Best Editing. Two imminently forgettable sequels followed Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and The Exorcist III (1990) along with a short-lived tsunami of exorcism and possession themed exploitation films.



Friday, July 27, 2012

STOP THE CAR! IT'S THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL!



I had a great time introducing THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL at the Stateside last night. In addition to the film, we all enjoyed some vintage trailers of horror films and a classic Fleischer Brothers SUPERMAN cartoon from the 1940s. I love these animated depictions of the Golden Age Man of Steel. They're great! I'll try to write more about them in a future post to this blog.

The movie was a hoot and a half. It runs on threadbare logic but who cares when you've got the magnificent Vincent Price in all of his menacing glory. Price was a tall, commanding figure with a great voice and terrific screen presence. Even when he's in a turkey (which was often), he's always fun to watch. You've got to love Vinnie!

The exteriors of the title house were filmed at a real location, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. The sound stage interiors do not match the exterior and layout of the house and instead feature a cliched "old-dark-house" style Victorian Gothic mansion.

About that real house. In 1994, my buddy Kelly Greene and I flew to Los Angeles for a weekend. We were scheduled to visit the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman (of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND fame) at his storied "Ackermansion" on Saturday. We arrived on Friday and decided we'd drive up into the hills and scope out the exact location of Forry's house.

While we were driving the twisting, turning streets of the hills (Kelly was behind the wheel, I was navigating), we suddenly came around a curve and there it was, right in front of us, in all of its' glory: the House on Haunted Hill!

I immediately recognized the exterior from the film and shouted to Kelly to stop the car. We jumped out and snapped some photos (which I have around here somewhere) and then drove on. The next day, when we were visiting Forry, he pointed out one of his greatest treasures, "the House on Haunted Hill", which was visible on the hillside above Forry's house.

I'll write about our visit with the "Acker-monster" in an upcoming blog post. Stay tuned!

TOD BROWNING'S DARK CARNIVAL



Tonight's your last chance to see a double feature of classic Golden Age horror films at the Paramount. DRACULA and FREAKS, both directed by the legendary Tod Browning screen tonight beginning at 7:00. If you can't make it, here are my notes. Enjoy.

Horror films came into their own as a viable film genre in the 1930s, thanks in large part to the films produced by Universal Studios which gave the world such “famous monsters” as Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Werewolf of London and the Wolfman. The chief world builder of “Earth Universal” was James Whale, who helmed four classic productions: Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Old Dark House (1932). Whale’s films were filled to bursting with bizarre, expressionistic brio and while he made other films in other genres, it is his work in the horror genre for which he is best remembered. But Whale wasn’t the only visionary genius that defined the genre in the ‘30s.

Tod Browning, born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880, ran away from home at the age of sixteen to join the circus. Young Browning traveled extensively throughout the United States with various sideshows, carnivals and circuses. His jobs included being a barker for the Wild Man of Borneo, performing a live burial act in which he was billed as “The Living Corpse,” and working as a clown. All of these experiences would inform his film work in later years.

When he became a film director, Browning’s penchant for the macabre was demonstrated in such films as The Eyes of Mystery and Revenge (both 1918). But his career as a horror film director was set when he directed Lon Chaney, Sr., the legendary “Man of a Thousand Faces,” in The Wicked Darling (1919). The duo went on to make ten films together over the next decade including such milestones as The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927) and London After Midnight (1927), a cinematic treasure that remains lost to this day.

Browning and Chaney were planning to work together on Dracula (1931) but Chaney died in 1930 and the studio insisted upon using Bela Lugosi in the title role. Dracula was Browning’s only film for Universal. He went back to MGM (where he had worked with Chaney) and produced three more horror classics including Devil Doll (1936) and Mark of the Vampire (1935), which re-teamed Browning with Lugosi in a remake of London After Midnight. Browning’s last film was Miracles for Sale (1939). He retired from film making in 1942 and died in 1962.

Dracula was the first of the Universal monster movies during the studio’s first great golden age of horror. Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, who had played the part in a successful stage version, was cast as the undead title character Count Dracula and was forever associated with the role. It was a part that defined him for the rest of his life and although it brought him immortality, it also locked him into a certain type and range of film performances. Lugosi was a limited actor but he possessed a certain exotic presence that was perfect for the part. His strange accent and piercing, hypnotic stare defined Dracula for decades to come and even though there have been hundreds of other cinematic vampires since, Lugosi’s portrayal must be regarded as one of the best.

The film, based on a stage play, is a compressed version of the original Bram Stoker novel. Real estate agent Renfield (Frye) journeys to Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains at the start of the film. There he meets the Count and falls under his spell. The action then moves to contemporary London where Dracula stalks his prey, Mina Harker (Chandler) and is opposed by Dr. Van Helsing (Van Sloan), the only person who knows the truth about vampires.

The first two reels of Dracula are far and away the best parts of the film. The sets are wonderfully atmospheric and creepy. The rest of the film is static, stagy and talky betraying its’ source material as a play. Nonetheless Lugosi and Van Sloan give it their all and Frye is wonderfully deranged. The climax is also nicely staged but the staking of Dracula takes place off-camera. There’s no musical score but strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” accompany the title credits.

Dracula was a box-office smash and its success prompted Universal to immediately begin production of Frankenstein. A sequel, Dracula’s Daughter was made in 1936. Despite his inseparable identification with the role of Dracula, Lugosi would play the Count only once more in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Browning’s Freaks, one of the most legendary (and for a time, banned) horror films of all time, features sideshow oddities like the ones he knew when he was with the circus. These radically different people, at first evoke fear, curiosity and pity, feelings that soon turn to warmth, respect and amazement. The titular “freaks” are extremely talented performers who band together when one of their own is humiliated. Midget Hans (Earles) is played for a fool by a gold-digging “normal” trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Baclanova), who marries him for money and then flaunts her love for muscleman Hercules (Victor). The freaks exact a drastic revenge. They crawl after her in the mud with knives in their mouths in one of the most frightening scenes in film history before turning her into an unspeakable monstrosity. The “freaks” in the film are ultimately portrayed as monsters because that’s how the “normal” victims see them. Although treated like children, the performers are adults with a family code worthy of gangsters: mess with one, mess with all.

Because Browning insisted on working with real sideshow performers, the film had a great deal of trouble with the censors who objected to both the violence and the unmistakable sexual undercurrents. Some prints had scenes (including the epilogue) removed and after initial release, the seldom screened Freaks was almost a lost film. In the early 1970s, when the “midnight-movie” circuit for cult, obscure and off-beat films flourished, Freaks was dusted off and put back into circulation where it became a durable, popular and still shocking feature attraction. Almost eighty years after it was made, Freaks still stands as one of the most disturbing horror films ever made and a testament to the twisted milieu of the films of Tod Browning.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

THOSE TRASHY SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINES



INVADERS FROM MARS (1953), which I watched the other day, falls somewhere in the middle ground of 1950s science fiction cinema. It's not good enough to be stand alongside the giants of the genre: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WAR OF THE WORLDS, FORBIDDEN PLANET and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. But it's far better than many of the low-budget sf films of the era. Being produced in color also sets INVADERS apart as something unique and different.

Director William Cameron Menzies made a reputation in Hollywood as a first rate production designer. He worked on the immortal GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and had previously directed THINGS TO COME, a British science fiction film based on material by H.G. Wells. He directed and designed INVADERS FROM MARS which is a simple, low-budget film in which a saucer ship from Mars lands on Earth, a landing that is witnessed only by a young boy. The next day, the boy's father (Leif Erickson) disappears into the sandpit where the craft landed. He reappears later a changed man. Gone is the tender, loving father. Instead, he's gruff, harsh and belligerent. Oh yeah, he's also got a weird "X" shaped scar on the back of his neck.

More people vanish into the sandpit and reappear with changed personalites. Nobody believes the boy when he cries "alien!". Authority figures (police and military) want to lock him up. He finally finds a sympathetic ear from an attractive nurse and an astronomer and they figure out that there really is an invasion from Mars taking place, with an objective of destroying a U.S. manned rocket base. The military marshalls its forces and defeats the aliens. But the film is not yet over because the  boy then wakes up to discover that it was all a very bad, vivid dream. Or was it?

INVADERS is filmed with dream-like logic and from the point-of-view of a young boy. There are menacing high and low angle shots in which adults dominate young David. The sets (other than his house), are stark, minimal and oppressive. It's a kids' eye view of a threatening adult world. Menzies uses a handful of well-designed sets and maintains the dream flow of events in a consistent manner. It's cheap but effective.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of meat to this material which plays more like a short story. In order to fill out the running time, tons and tons of stock footage of  tanks and other military vehicles are used throughout the film. The "martians"(with visible zippers in the backs of their costumes) and soliders repeatedly run through the same tunnel sets from left to right, right to left and sometimes with the film image reversed. Special effects are achieved with a lot of footage simply being run in reverse. The "martians" repeatedly back into the scenes with their leader, a tentacled head in a clear plastic bubble. Take away all of this padding and the film comes in at well under an hour running time.

One of the delights of INVADERS is the cast which includes several familiar faces including  Milburn Stone, who would go on to play Doc on GUNSMOKE for many years, as a military engineer. Barbara Billingsley (the future June Cleaver of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER fame) appears in one scene, Robert Shayne (Inspector Henderson on TVs THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) is a scientist and Morris Ankrum (God bless him), is the Army colonel who leads the attack. Ankrum was the go-to actor for these types of roles in countless 1950s science fiction films.

The film also makes use of a sixteen voice chorale to denote alien activity. It's weird, unique and memorable. The film was remade by Tobe Hooper in the 1980s but it's the original that remains the best iteration of this material. It's well worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of '50s science fiction films. If you saw this as a kid, it's probably stayed with you for a long time.

By the way, the title of this post is a line of dialogue from the film in case you're wondering.

STEP RIGHT UP! I'M GONNA SCARE THE PANTS OFF OF AMERICA




I'm going to introduce the screening of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL tonight (Thursday) at 7:15 p.m. at the Stateside (next door to the Paramount). Come on down for what promises to be a night of fun, schlocky horror hi-jinks! If you can't make it, here are my notes for the film. Enjoy!

Over the course of his long and colorful career, William Castle wore many hats: director, producer, screenwriter and actor. But the title by which he is best known in film history is a simple sobriquet: showman.

Castle, born in 1914, began working in Hollywood at the age of 23. He began directing films in 1942 with the short subject, Black Marketing. Almost all of Castle’s output was strictly “B” material, low-budget genre fare that was serviceable but undistinguished. His brush with an “A” picture came when he shot much of the second unit location work for director Orson Welles on The Lady From Shanghai (1948). By the mid-‘50s, Castle had produced over 40 films, nearly all of which are forgotten today. He realized that something truly different and out of the ordinary was needed in order to make a name for himself and to produce financially successful films. It was time for the gimmick picture.

The movie industry in the 1950s was in a state of flux. The studio system was in decline and independent production companies were springing up left and right. Television was enticing more and more people to stay home and watch programming for free. To counter this, such innovative technologies as 3-D, color, wide screen formats and stereophonic sound were all used in film production as a way of offering something truly unique and different at the movies. Another trend of the ‘50s was the proliferation of the low-budget science fiction, fantasy and horror genre exploitation films. These films catered to the youth market, the very first of the Baby Boomers, who had both time and disposable income to spend at the movies.

Castle saw a way to take advantage of all of these factors to produce something truly unique. If low-budget horror films sold tickets, it stood to reason that low-budget “gimmick” horror films would sell even more tickets. Castle was determined to keep his productions on the cheap side but he came up with one “gimmick” for each of his horror pictures that made them unforgettable. He also put together some of the canniest marketing and advertising campaigns in motion picture history to promote his films. The age of the showman had arrived and William Castle was king.

Castle’s first “gimmick” horror film was Macabre (1958). This picture didn’t use a technological gadget to sell tickets. Instead, a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London was given to each customer in case they should die of fright during the film. Castle also arranged to have nurses stationed in theater lobbies and hearses parked outside of the theaters. Macabre was a perfectly average film, far from being something that could cause death by fright. But the gimmick worked and the film made money. In addition, it made a name and reputation for Castle.

His next film, House on Haunted Hill, will be covered below. Castle hit the jackpot with his third gimmick horror film, The Tingler (1959) which was filmed in “Percepto”. When the Tingler creature in the film attacked audiences members in a movie theater, real-life audience members were encouraged to scream for their lives. To insure participation, some seats in some theaters were equipped with military surplus airplane wing de-icers (with vibrating motors) which, when activated, gave anyone sitting in those seats an unexpected buzz. You bet there were screams.

13 Ghosts (1960) was filmed in “Illusion-O” which required the use of a handheld “ghost viewer” (strips of red and blue cellophane) to “see” ghosts at different points in the film. And Homicidal (1961) came complete with a “Fright Break” of 45 seconds at the film’s climax with a voice over advising frightened viewers that now was the time to leave if they wanted to receive a full refund. Almost everyone stayed in their seats.

For Mr. Sardonicus (1961), Castle came up with the “punishment poll” in which audience members could hold up a card with a glowing thumb to vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on the title characters’ fate. Would he live or would he die? Of course, it didn’t matter how the audience voted. Only one ending was filmed and you can guess how it turned out.

The golden age of gimmicks was about over but Castle continued on. With Zotz! (1962), viewers were given a “magic” gold colored plastic coin which tied in to a prop in the film. For 13 Frightened Girls (1963), Castle allegedly launched a worldwide hunt for the prettiest girls from 13 different countries to cast in the film. But when he hired Joan Crawford to star in Strait-Jacket (1964), Crawford balked at appearing in a “gimmick” film (although slumming in a low-budget horror film didn’t seem to bother the Academy Award winning actress) and demanded there be no gimmicks. Castle agreed, then had cardboard axes made for distribution to audience members. Castle turned the back rows of theaters into “Shock Sections” complete with seat belts to keep viewers in their seats during I Saw What You Did (1965) and for Bug (1975), he returned to his roots and advertised a million-dollar life insurance policy for the film’s star, a giant cockroach.

In House on Haunted Hill, the wealthy, eccentric owner (Price) of a haunted house offers a group of strangers a fortune if they spend one entire night in his ghost-infested domicile. While doing so, they are terrorized by decapitated human heads, crashing chandeliers, and enormous vats of lye in what appears to be an elaborate ruse to kill the homeowner’s wife, the latest in a long line who seem to meet bad ends.

What sets this routine shocker apart is the use of “Emergo” in which an inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton attached to a wire floated over the audience during the final moments of the film to parallel the action on the screen when a skeleton arose from a vat of acid and pursued Price’s wife. The gimmick, as novel as it was, did not always instill fear. Sometimes the skeleton became a target for some audience members who hurled candy boxes, soda cups or any other objects at hand at the skeleton. Will a skeleton emerge from the screen of the Paramount? Wait and see.

Exterior shots of the house on haunted hill at the beginning of the film are of the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Hollywood hills and the film was remade in 1999. But it’s the Castle original, in all its’ schlocky glory, that remains the best version.

William Castle had a brush with respectability when he produced Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, a film he originally wanted to direct. Joe Dante’s 1993 film Matinee, an affectionate homage to a Castle-esque showman played by John Goodman, is highly recommended.




Wednesday, July 25, 2012

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD



THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD was the cover feature of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #86 in September 1971. I was in tenth grade at Austin High when I bought that issue (I still have it, by the way). I was fascinated by the stills from the film but for whatever reasons, I never got around to seeing the movie.

I finally watched it yesterday afternoon and I can't honestly say that it was worth the wait. Oh, it's not a bad little movie, just a terribly routine one. It's an anthology format film featuring four vignettes all written by American horror maestro Robert (PSYCHO) Bloch. Produced by Britain's Amicus Productions (a Hammer Studios wannabe), the film stars genre vets Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee but they appear in separate stories and have no screen time together. Also in the cast is Denholm Elliott, Jon Pertwee (who played one iteration of Dr. Who) and the oh-so-lovely Ingrid Pitt.

The segments are linked together by a framing device regarding the title house. A Scotland Yard inspector is investigating the disappearances of various residents of the house and discovers the secret of the house in the last little epilogue segment of the film. The house is continually offered for rent by a real estate agent named A. Stoker (a nod, perhaps to Abraham (Bram) Stoker, of DRACULA fame?).

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is a passable time waster and it's always fun to watch Cushing and Lee but ultimately this one is for die-hard fans only.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

FALSE NEGATIVE



Just finished reading FALSE NEGATIVE by Joseph Koenig. I'm not familiar with author Koenig but the back cover copy says this is his first new novel in twenty years and that one of his previous notable books was entitled BRIDES OF BLOOD. I'll have to try and track that one (and others by Koenig) down.

The book is published in trade paperback format by Hard Case Crime, one of my favorite publishers of the last dozen or so years. They've done a great job in publishing first rate crime and mystery novels with a retro look in the artwork and graphic design. Some of the books are reprints of vintage pulp novels, others (like FALSE NEGATIVE) are brand new works which fit neatly into the genre of retro pulp noir crime thrillers. I've read almost every title Hard Case Crime has published since they began business in late 2004 and I've enjoyed almost every one of the books (there have been only a very few that I didn't care for). If you like hard boiled crime novels and you see the Hard Case Crime logo on a mass market, trade paperback or hardcover book, grab it. You won't be disappointed.

FALSE NEGATIVE is a perfect example of what Hard Case delivers. Set in Atlantic City and New York City in the mid-1950s, the story revolves around a newspaper crime beat reporter who gets booted off of his regular job and ends up peddling stories to the detective magazines of the era. He investigates a series of brutal murders of gorgeous beauty pageant contestants to both solve the crimes and get good copy for his detective magazine (which he becomes editor of). He encounters corrupt cops, sleazy photographers, hack writers, beautiful women (of course), pimps, party girls and other colorful denizens of the east coast underworld.

FALSE NEGATIVE is a quick, fast paced read, the kind of book I like to refer to as "quick and dirty" (and those are not pejorative terms!). I particularly liked the behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of the old-time "true" detective mags (I have a few of these vintage mags from the 1950s and I find them fascinating).

It's not a difficult mystery to solve. I figured out the identity of the killer (amid a few red herrings and false leads) fairly early on in the game but still enjoyed the book. But you don't read a book like this to match wits with a brilliant deductive mind. You read it to enjoy the sense of place and time, the details of a bygone era of crime and corruption, a world populated by hard boiled characters, fast action, tough dialogue, flawed heroes and beautiful "dames." Thumbs up!

Monday, July 23, 2012

I LIKE THE SOUND OF IT


Remember that panel discussion last week at the Stateside about historic Austin movie theaters? The evening was capped off with the premiere public screening of a short promotional film about Austin entitled "The Friendly City". The film was made in 1947 by the Austin Chamber of Commerce to promote the attractions of the city to newcomers and potential residents.

The film was rescued from oblivion by the Austin History Center and the company that did the restoration reportedly said that if they had waited another six months, the film could not have been saved. 

"The Friendly City" is corny and full of homespun charm but it does provide a window into a lost world of old, post-war Austin. There are many familiar sights: the Capitol, the UT tower, St. Edwards University, the old, original Austin High, moonlight towers, Mt. Bonnell, a full Lake Travis (the surrounding hills completely devoid of development), the State Highway Department, the State Land Office, the State Health Department, St. David's Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Seminary, the French Legation, the O.Henry Museum, the Elizabet Ney Museum, the Texas Memorial Museum, the original Concordia University, the old Brackenridge Hospital, Deep Eddy, Barton Springs, Zilker Park,15th Street, East Avenue (now IH-35), a much smaller Memorial Stadium, etc.

Few of these places and buildings remain today as they were then. Many have undergone significant changes, still others are long gone.

It's a fascinating trip down memory lane. I wasn't born until l956 but I do recall a lot of these places and many others that are not included in the film.

The thing I like best about the film? The title. "The Friendly City" has a nice ring to it. It's certainly preferable to "Keep Austin Weird." Anyone want to join me in a quest to restore this old slogan to our city?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

NOWHERE TO GO AND DRIVING 150 MPH TO GET THERE




I first became aware of the movie, HOT RODS TO HELL, when it was broadcast on the ABC SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE in 1968. I didn't see that telecast but I do recall seeing the promotional commercials and thinking that it looked like something I wanted to see. I finally scratched that 44-year-old itch yesterday. I should have left it alone. It will probably get infected now.

HOT RODS TO HELL was originally produced in 1967 as a made-for-television movie and it has the utterly cheap look and feel to it that confirms this pedigree. The film was made on back lots and desert locations and has that flat look of so many television productions of the era. The producer of the film, Sam Katzman, had a legendary reputation for turning out low-budget exploitation fare when he worked at Columbia in the 1950s and his reputation for penny-pinching is on full display here. Ironically, the film was deemed too intense for television audiences and instead of being shown on network television, the picture was theatrically released where it enjoyed a fair amount of success on the drive-in circuit. With a title like that, how could it not sell tickets? Eventually, the film was sold to ABC-TV and that's how it ended up on their Sunday Night Movie showcase.

The film stars Dana Andrews as an east coast businessman who suffers a near-fatal automobile accident at the beginning of the film. The accident leaves him with a bad back and severe psychological problems (impotency, anyone?). A fresh start for Andrews and his family (wife Jeanne Crain, daughter Laurie Mock and son Tim Stafford) is provided when they purchase a motel in the American Southwest. They drive cross-country to take over the business and along the way, they're terrorized by the "hot-rodders from hell."

The teenage punks (Paul Bertoya, Mimsy Farmer and Gene Kirkland) are all remarkably clean cut, wholesome looking youth. The boys have short hair, wear straight legged jeans and button-down madras shirts. Gloria (Farmer) is an attractive blonde with a wild streak but none of the three seem exceptionally threatening in appearance. They drive a souped-up Corvette and have several pals who drive other rods of mid-century vintage (the drivers of which remain unknown and never developed characters).

The trio terrorize Andrews for kicks at first until they learn he's going to take over the motel which is a notorious hangout for all sorts of illicit activity. Now it becomes personal and the conflict escalates to a night-time, fiery climax along a deserted desert road.

HOT RODS TO HELL features cars with no visible seat belts or safety restraints of any kind, a law-and-order highway patrolman who never takes off his gold crash helmet (even when driving his patrol car), pretty girls, a passable rock and roll score (provided, allegedly, by Mickey Rooney Jr. and His Combo) and tons of cool vintage cars.

What it doesn't have is any trace of imagination in the direction or script. Director John Brahm, who made some quality film noirs earlier in his career, phones in his last directorial assignment. Andrews, who struggled with booze throughout his career, looks horrible. His hair is badly dyed and his makeup makes him look like the corpse of Ronald Reagan. He exhibits inchoate rage against the "punks" and at one point seems capable of killing one of them with his bare hands.

Can't really recommend this one unless you're a die-hard fanatic and fan of '60s exploitation fare. As such, it's a passable time waster but it ultimately goes nowhere fast.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A SHEEP AMONG THE WOLVES





If you don't like to read history books, you're not reading the works of Erik Larson.

Larson, alongside U.T. history professor H.W. Brands, ranks as one of the best popular history writers working today. Larson's books include ISAAC'S STORM (about the 1900 Galveston hurricane), THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago intersects with the life and crimes of a serial killer) and THUNDERSTRUCK (Marconi invents the "wirelesss" and the technology is used to track and capture a murderer fleeing from England to the U.S.). I've read them all and they are all great books, all worth your time. My favorite of the three is DEVIL but your mileage may vary.

I just finished reading IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER'S BERLIN which was first published in 2011 and is now available in trade paperback. In the book, Larson recounts the fascinating story of one William Dodd, the U.S. Ambassador to Berlin in 1933. Dodd arrives in the city shortly after Adolf Hitler has been appointed Chancellor of Germany and his Nazi party is beginning to take over all aspects of society, politics, the economy and the military. Dodd, a professor from Chicago with no diplomatic experience is woefully inexperienced and ill-suited to the task at hand. His naivete and frugality set him apart from the senior diplomatic corps but he tries his best to do the job that President Roosevelt has expressly asked him to perform. Complicating matters are the affairs of  Dodd's daughter, Martha, a free-spirited, beautiful young woman who has many lovers including a Gestapo official and a Russian agent.

GARDEN is history as a spy-thriller novel, with intrigue, back-stabbing, double-dealing, espionage and ultimately a grand-scale massacre (The Night of the Long Knives) taking place over a period of time. Larson takes a very complex period of world history and lets us see it through the eyes of an innocent, Dodd. He makes the city and the major players come alive with telling detail. It's a brilliant feat of reportage and it's to Larson's great credit that he keeps you turning the pages even when you know the ultimate outcome.

This is an outstanding book, one of the best I've read in a long time and I rank it second only to DEVIL as my favorite of Larson's works. Rest assured, I'll read whatever he writes next. Highest recommendation.

If you say you don't like to read history, try one of Erik Larson's terrific books. I guarantee you'll change your mind.


Friday, July 20, 2012

YES, AND SUCH SMALL PORTIONS



"There's an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says: "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and such small portions." - Woody Allen, ANNIE HALL

I paid my first visit to the new location of the Austin Books Sidekick Store the other day. The first iteration of this annex store where back issue comic books were a buck a throw and trade paperbacks, graphic novels and action figures were half price, was on North Lamar, just a few blocks north of the flagship store. That location closed early this year (and what a feeding frenzy those last few days were!) and the building where it was located has recently been demolished.

The new location opened a couple of weeks ago in the office complex behind the Half Price Books on North Lamar. But you better know where it is before you head over there. It's not visible from any street as it's tucked back in a courtyard like area (with parking in the middle of the storefronts). Better bring those bread crumbs and leave a trail.

The store is about a quarter of the size of the old location (I'm sure rent was a large and decisive factor in acquiring this location). There's plenty of inventory to dig through but the aisles are extremely narrow and I can see navigation becoming a problem on a busy day when there are weight and hygiene challenged fanboys (and girls) all trying to paw through long boxes that are incredibly close together.

The product mix is good. They had some Silver and Bronze Age comics, all in "reader" condition for five bucks a piece but I passed on those. There are mini-series and complete runs that are already collated and bagged and priced to move. No need to worry about finding that one issue you need. This is a great idea and a wonderful service.

Of course, this being a dumping ground for overstock, the selection is limited. You're not going to find everything you want in terms of graphic novels and trade paperbacks but all of the major players are represented here: Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc.

I'm looking to pick up reprint collections such as the DC Archives, DC Showcase Presents, Marvel Essentials, Marvel Masterworks, etc. There wasn't much to be had of those specific brands but that can always change.

I did score a nice copy of EERIE ARCHIVES VOLUME FOUR, a handsome hardcover with a Frank Frazetta cover. This reprints EERIE #16-22. EERIE, in case you don't know, was a black-and-white horror comic magazine published by Jim Warren beginning in the mid-1960s. Warren also published companion titles CREEPY and VAMPIRELLA and FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. These archive volumes (of which I now have one CREEPY and three EERIEs) retail for fifty bucks. Twenty-five dollars for one of these is a great deal.

I also picked up a Kingdom Come action figure of Aquaman based on the designs and artwork of Alex Ross. Way cool! All told, I got out of there for $40.00. Not bad.

There were some other books that caught my eye but I'm not going to tell you what they are. I want them to (hopefully) still be available on my next visit.

The store is only open on the weekends, Fridays through Sundays, and I suggest you get there as early as possible.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled that the Sidekick Store is back in business. I just wish we all had a little more room to move around in and that the selection catered more to my specific areas of interest. Oh, well. You can't have everything.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

BRADBURY BOOKS




When legendary writer Ray Bradbury passed away earlier this summer, I decided it was finally time to read some of his books. I read for the first time both DANDELION WINE and FAHRENHEIT 451. I enjoyed both of them, although it took me awhile to really warm up to WINE. But there was a narrative moment, about mid-point in the book, that totally won me over and I actually shed a tear when I read the final chapter of the book. It's an ode to summers past and I highly recommend it.

I'd seen Francois Truffaut's film version of FAHRENHEIT 451 starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie and enjoyed it but I'd never read Bradbury's classic science fiction novel about future firemen who start fires by burning books. The book, as always, was quite different from the film and is the superior work. It's a quick read but don't skim it. There's lots of food for thought and even though it was written in the 1950s the novel has much to say about today's media obsessed society. Highest recommendation.

I was in the eighth grade when the film version of THE ILLUSTRATED MAN was released. I remember seeing it at the State Theater with my buddy John Rideout. The film starred Rod Steiger in the title role and the screenplay adapted three of the short stories which comprise the book. Steiger was one of the biggest ham actors in the history of films and he always delivered scene-chewing, histrionic performances that, while fun to watch, were rarely ever great. The film turned out to be a dud, widely reviled by both film and science fiction fans as a failure and a botched attempt to bring the works of Ray Bradbury to the screen.

At that point in my life, I knew who Ray Bradbury was, even though I'd never read any of his books. I was aware of the fact that THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, the first giant monster movie I ever saw, was based on one of his short stories and I had read at least one Bradbury short story in an anthology of short stories that we read in English class. How cool was that? A real live science fiction author had a story in our school text book!

The school library at O.Henry Junior High had copies of THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, R IS FOR ROCKET and S IS FOR SPACE, anthologies all, that I was determined to read. I checked all of them out over time but I confess that I never accomplished the task of finishing any of those books. I started them with the best of intentions but for reasons unknown, never finished reading any of them.

I finally completed one of those goals by reading THE ILLUSTRATED MAN. I finished it the other day and I really enjoyed it. There is an Illustrated Man at the beginning and end of the book and the illustrations (tattoos) that are painted on the entirety of his body come to life and reveal the stories that make up the book. Bradbury drops this linking device fairly early on and the book becomes a straightforward anthology.

The stories are all good with my favorite of the bunch being THE EXILES in which famous dead authors and their creations are alive on the planet Mars but face eradication from the creeping forces of modern man and civilization. Brilliantly conceived and realized, I thought it was the best story in the book but there's not a stinker to be found.

Bradbury does ring the chimes of Mars and rockets a bit too much and I found myself checking the cover a few times to make sure I wasn't reading a copy of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES or R IS FOR ROCKET by mistake. Those two devices figure heavily in many of the stories but there's enough variety and great storytelling on display to make up for this minor quibble. It's taken me more than forty years to do it, but I've finally read THE ILLUSTRATED MAN and I give it a big thumbs up.  
COMING ATTRACTIONS

I had a great time introducing KISS ME DEADLY last night at the Stateside. Great movie! One of my all-time favorite film noirs. If you've never seen this one, you're missing a real treat. Highly recommended.

I'm scheduled to introduce THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and double features of FREAKS/DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN/THE EXORCIST next week at the Paramount and Stateside. Check out the full schedule a http://www.austintheatre.org

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

HONORABLE MEN


The panel discussion at the Stateside Theater last night was terrific. There was a very good crowd on hand to hear stories about the history of Austin movie theaters. The Austin History Center is to be commended for their terrific exhibit, The First Picture Shows, which is still on display through mid-August at the center. They put together a nice little introductory film to start the evening and then the panelists got to speak and share their memories and stories of working in the movie theater business.

The four men on stage were Jay Podolnick, Jim Malloy, Steve Wilson and John Stewart. They have worked as projectionists, ushers, theater managers and in other capacities in the business over the last 50+ years, mostly all here in Austin. Stewart is the current projectionist at the Paramount, Malloy (91-years-young!) worked for years at practically every theater in town but did his longest stint at the old Austin Theater on South Congress, Wilson managed the late and much missed Varsity Theater on The Drag and Podolnick's parents owned the Trans-Texas theater chain which included the crown jewel of Austin's mid-century movie palaces, The Americana Theater. At one point, the esteemed Paul Beutel, whom I've had the pleasure of knowing and working with for a number of years, came up on stage to share an especially great story about the Paramount Theatre.

The bottom line is that if you were a baby boomer in Austin and ever went to the movies (and who didn't?), you probably sat in a theater and enjoyed a movie while one of these men ran a projector, took your ticket, showed you to your seat or just made sure that you had a quality film going experience.

For that, and so much more, they have my undying gratitude and thanks. They are all honorable men who have done honorable work over many years, work that has gone uncredited and unacknowledged (except when something went wrong in the booth). Gentlemen, I thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart. You made growing up in Austin and going to the movies something special and unforgettable. I will always remember the theaters and the films I've seen over the years. Now, I can remember the men who showed me those treasures.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

THE COLOR OF DOOM





I'm going to introduce a classic film noir double feature of KISS ME DEADLY and SCARLET STREET at the Stateside (next door to the Paramount Theatre) tomorrow (Wednesday) night at 7:15. Here are my notes on the films in case you can't make it to the show.

Here’s something you need to know. In the 1940s and ‘50s, no one ever said, “hey, there’s a new film noir playing at the Bijou, let’s go check it out!” Why not? Because even though the works that we now classify as film noir existed at the time, the term itself did not. Any movie from that period that is now considered film noir was at the time of its production and release simply a mystery, a crime film, a thriller or a drama. It wasn’t until the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that French film critics took a long, deep look at these American films and brought forth the term “film noir” (literally “black film”). The term stuck.

But what is film noir? Books have been written on the subject and it’s still being debated as to whether film noir is a style of film, a cycle of films or a distinctly codified film genre. Generally speaking, films noir almost always concerned themselves with crime or some deep moral dilemma. They were marked by distinctive and highly stylized visuals both in camera angles and the chiaroscuro of black-and-white cinematography. Their protagonists were usually seriously flawed people who may or may not triumph over their situations. There is usually a femme fatale of some sort, a dangerous female character who often spells doom for the hero. And make no mistake about it film noir is loaded with doom. In many of the films, no matter what happens, no matter how many twists and turns the plot takes, things are most certainly not going to end well.

This fatalistic view of a dark and dangerous moral and physical landscape populated by murderers, thieves, blackmailers, gangsters, corrupt cops and crooks of every stripe, perfectly captured the postwar angst and anxiety that permeated American society. After all, after something as horrific as World War Two, how could the world ever be seen again as a nice place?

Most film scholars agree that what is now regarded as the classic, first great golden age of film noir began with John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s seminal crime novel The Maltese Falcon (1941) and ended with Orson Welles’ baroque masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958). In between there were dozens of films that came to be classified after the fact as film noir. Some were “A” pictures from major studios. Many more were tough and gritty “B” pictures that managed to transcend their budgetary limitations and achieve some measure of greatness. Two of the very best examples of film noir are on display here.

German director Fritz Lang became the poet laureate of American film noir with such renowned touchstone films as You Only Live Once (1937), Clash By Night (1952), The Big Heat (1953), The Blue Gardenia (1953) and While the City Sleeps (1956). While at Universal Studios in the 1940s, Lang was granted his own semi-independent production unit which made The Woman in the Window in 1944. A first rate noir, Woman starred Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea. Lang reunited this cast the following year for Scarlet Street, a reworking of Jean Renoir’s 1931 French classic La Chienne.

Robinson plays a middle-aged, low-paid cashier, the weakling husband of a domineering nag (Ivan) who forces him to paint, his dearest hobby, in the bathroom. By chance Robinson takes a different way to the Greenwich Village subway one night and meets Bennett, who says she’s an actress in a play that closed that night (in reality, she’s a “working girl”). Urged on by her lowlife boyfriend (Duryea), Bennett plays Robinson for the fool, getting him to embezzle money to rent her a studio apartment-on the pretext that he can paint there. By chance, a major art critic (Barker) sees Robinson’s paintings and thinks them exceptional. Bennett says she painted them and accepts large sums of money when they’re sold. You can see where this is going.

Lang rings in the classic film noir themes: a man falls for a femme fatale and falls into fate’s trap, everyone becomes his enemy, an innocent man is convicted of a crime and the startling ending is unbearably cruel.

Coming in at 11 on the cruelty scale is Robert Aldrich’s brilliant, ahead-of-its-time masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly. Based on the pulp crime novel by Mickey Spillane, Kiss stars Ralph Meeker as private detective Mike Hammer. But this Hammer is no knight in armor, shining or tarnished. He’s a caveman with a gun instead of a club, a brutal misanthrope who gets a perverse delight out of breaking fingers and other body parts.

A chance encounter on a deserted highway at night opens the film with Hammer encountering a terrorized Cloris Leachman running for her life. She gives him a shred of a clue before they’re captured by the bad guys. She dies, Hammer is worked over and when he regains consciousness, the hunt is on. The object of the search is a mysterious box, a Pandora’s Box if you will, that provides the narrative link that makes Kiss Me Deadly part science fiction, part film noir and all bleak.

Hammer prowls the streets of Los Angeles (the film was shot on many locations that have long since undergone radical changes) looking for clues. He hates almost everyone he meets. He has a love/hate relationship with the L.A.P.D. and shows affection only for his auto mechanic buddy and Velma, his steadfast secretary (although he uses her in twisted ways to gain evidence in other cases he works). Everything comes to a literally apocalyptic ending at a Malibu beach house when the mysterious box is opened.

Director Robert Aldrich’s stylized visualizations and editing prefigure the soon to come French New Wave films and the cast is uniformly superb with such venerable character actors as Jack Elam, Percy Helton and Strother Martin turning in small but memorable bits.  The original ending was cut from the film and believed to be missing for many years. Without it, things end rather abruptly. The missing 82 seconds were eventually found and restored to the film. The sequence adds clarification to the action but it does nothing to lessen the impact of this end-of-the-world thriller. But if the world can produce such monsters as Hammer and the villains he encounters, is it really worth saving?

THE FIRST PICTURE SHOWS



If you love old movie theaters (like I do!), especially old Austin movie theaters, don't miss the special event at Stateside (next door to the Paramount) tonight at 7:30 p.m. It's a panel discussion about the history of Austin movie theaters, sponsored by the Austin History Center and their terrific exhibit The First Picture Shows. Come hear great stories and share some memories of your own. Best of all, it's free! You bet I'll be there!

Monday, July 16, 2012

THE DEADLIEST MAN ALIVE?



I watched an episode of THE RIFLEMAN the other day. This 30-minute, black-and-white classic western television series ran on ABC-TV from 1958 to 1963. The show starred Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, a rancher and widower raising his young son Mark (Johnny Crawford) in North Fork, New Mexico. McCain never wore a gun-belt. But he carried a wicked repeater rifle and he gunned down scores of villains in every episode (although he had no official status as a peace officer).

A couple of things that I really enjoy about the show is the length of the episodes and the terrific guest stars. With a running time of slightly less than thirty minutes (gotta make time for commercials), the scripts are lean, tight and compact. There are no wasted moments or sub-plots in an episode of THE RIFLEMAN. Lucas gets down to business mighty quick.

The roster of guest stars reads like a who's who of classic Hollywood movie and TV character actors. The episode I watched the other day featured the legendary duo of Warren Oates and Lee Van Cleef as bad guys with an appearance by Hope Summers (Clara on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) as a shopkeeper.

In the course of the story, six people meet their death by gunfire. Three of them are gunned down by Lucas. That's an extraordinarily high body count by anyone's standards. Did any other hero on any other western television series of the time kill as many people as Lucas McCain?

WAS THIS TRIP REALLY NECESSARY?



FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Magazine #34, with a cover date of August 1965, had a blurb on the cover (which featured a great color painting of Mr. Hyde by the way) about a new horror film, THE HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND. Inside, there were several black-and-white stills from the film and a short synopsis of the plot. I still have that issue but up until yesterday afternoon, I had never seen the film, which I had longed to see since I first saw those grainy images as a nine-year-old monster movie fanatic.

Sad to say that this now 56-year-old monster movie fanatic was disappointed when I sat down and watched the movie yesterday. Here's the plot, in case you're interested.

Eight beautiful showgirls/dancers/strippers and their manager are bound for an engagement in Singapore when their plane crashes in the ocean. They are swept up on the shores of a seemingly deserted island. They find a man's body in a gigantic spider-web within a cabin. Soon after, the manager gets bitten by a giant crab-like spider whose bite transforms him into a kind of were-spider. He then proceeds to terrorize the women. Two sailors arrive on the island and after romancing the girls (which involves lots of drinking and dancing), they all set out to finish off the mutated manager. Using flares, they chase the monster into quicksand. Say it with me: when the monster's dead, the movie's over.

What makes this film at least marginally interesting is the back story concerning its' production history, a tale that Forry Ackerman (the editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS) either had no knowledge of or perhaps he didn't find the information suitable for publication in a magazine aimed at youngsters.

THE HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND was filmed in West Germany in 1960 under the title IT'S HOT IN PARADISE. When the film was finally picked up for distribution in the United States in 1965, the semi-nudie film's title was changed to the more exploitative (and marketable) HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND. Shot in black and white and horribly dubbed, this is a true grind house classic. The monster is appropriately hideous while the women spend much of the film in various states of undress. It's incredibly tame by today's standards but was hot stuff on the drive-in circuit of the mid-1960s.

It's not the worst film I've ever seen but it sure doesn't live up to what my young, fevered imagination conjured up back in the summer of 1965. But what does?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

WIDER THAN A MILE...




Judy and I enjoyed seeing BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S at the Paramount Theatre yesterday afternoon. It was the first time "Angel Harvey" had seen it all the way through and the first time I'd seen it in many years. We also enjoyed the pre-screening party and thanks to Wade and Cameron for inviting us. We had a great time.

The film was a lot darker than I remember as the George Axelrod script had to tiptoe around the edges of the fact that both of the leads, Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, were playing characters who were prostitutes of a sort. Wild stuff for 1961. I don't think BREAKFAST is a great film, but I do think it's a very good one and it is certainly an enduring one. It made a cinematic icon out of Hepburn and it still pleases audiences after more than 50 years. That's quite an achievement.

Here are a few odd/trivial things I noticed in the film. During the scene at the bus station with Peppard, Hepburn and Buddy Ebsen, there is a spinner rack in the background displaying paperback books. If you look closely, you'll see several copies of the paperback tie-in to PETER GUNN, a private detective television series that ran on NBC and ABC from 1958 to 1961. Craig Stevens starred as the titular P.I. in this jazzy, film noir series that featured an unforgettable title theme by composer Henry Mancini. Oh, and Blake Edwards, who directed BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S was the series creator and occassional writer and director.

There's also a paperback copy of NEVER LOVE A STRANGER on display. This was Harold Robbins's 1948 debut novel and it was filmed in 1958.

When Hepburn goes to Sing Sing to visit Sally Tomato, the part of the gangster is played by Alan Reed. Who? You know him best by his voice. He was Fred Flintstone on the long-running animated series THE FLINTSTONES.

Rusty Trawler, the eligible and rich bachelor under the age of 50 that Holly has her sights set upon is played by Stanley Adams who went on to genre immortality by playing Cyrano Jones in the classic STAR TREK episode "The Trouble With Tribbles."

Finally, in what has to be one of the weirdest cases of life imitating art imitating life or whatever you want to call it, there's this. When George Peppard tells Patricia Neal that their relationship is over, she snarkily replies "Well, well, so love has found Andy Hardy." Andy Hardy was of course, a character in a long running series of films from MGM studios in the 1940s. The actor who starred as Andy Hardy was none other than Mickey Rooney who plays the upstairs Japanese neighbor in BREAKFAST. Rooney's blatantly racist caricature is the worst part of the film and makes me cringe every time I see it. There were plenty of accomplished Asian actors in Hollywood at the time this film was made. I've never understood why the producers felt the need to cast Rooney in this part and have him play it so broadly. It's the one black mark in an otherwise first rate production.

Friday, July 13, 2012

HEY, I'VE BEEN THERE!


COMIC SHOP HEROES debuts tonight on the National Geographic Channel. I can't wait to see it. The show spotlights Midtown Comics in New York City and wouldn't you know it? I shopped there when we were in NYC back in May.

After seeing the way cool dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History one morning, Judy and I and traveling companions Cathy and Chad, mutually agreed to have an afternoon where we all did whatever we wanted to do on our own. Judy and Cathy struck out for shopping in Soho, Chad did his own thing (just what was it that you did again Chad?) and I struck out from our hotel, the Crown Plaza in Times Square in search of Midtown Comics.

It wasn't hard to find. A short walk down Broadway on a beautiful late spring afternoon brought me to the store where I did some shopping. There was a ton of stuff to choose from on two levels.The store carries new comics, trade paperbacks, graphic novels, action figures, statues, busts, tee-shirts, some vintage toys and games and a ton of back issues.

I took my time and browsed everything thoroughly before settling on three items: DOC SAVAGE: HORROR IN GOLD by Will Murray, a brand-new Doc Savage novel written by Murray using notes and materials left unfinished by Doc Savage creator Lester Dent, a Doc Savage double trade paperback reprinting two classic original pulp novels THE DERRICK DEVIL and THE SPOTTED MEN and a Shadow double trade paperback reprinting three classic Shadow adventures: PRINCE OF EVIL, MESSENGER OF DEATH and ROOM 1313.

The shop was clean and well organized and stocked to the roof but not in a messy, cluttered way. Windows overlook Broadway (the shop is on the second and third floors of a corner building) and let in plenty of natural light giving the place and open, airy feel (unlike some comic shops that can feel like veritable dungeons). The staff was friendly, pleasant and helpful. Overall, a very pleasant shopping experience. Next time in New York City, I'll definitely shop there again.

I was hungry by the time I finished shopping and there was a McDonald's on the ground floor of the building but I figured I could eat at McDonald's at home. I headed back up Broadway and stopped and bought a $3.00 hot dog from a street vendor (they're on almost every corner). Cheapest meal I had the entire time I was in New York!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

SUPER ROPER


I've been listening the newly reborn KOKE-FM 99.3 for the last several mornings. The station began re-broadcasting this past Sunday with a morning gospel music program. So far, the shows have been more than a little bit rough around the edges but it's clearly a labor of love for all involved and I'm sure that things will smooth out over time.

It's great to hear Bob Cole, Troy Kimmel, Eric Raines and Jason Nassour back on the air. Listening to those guys (and the much missed Sammy Allred), when they were on KVET-FM, was a daily routine for me for many years. I was driving to work and listening one morning when I heard Sammy seal his doom with a rather unfortunate remark to a listener. I knew then and there that he would soon be gone from the KVET morning show broadcast.

I kept listening even though Sammy's replacement, Bucky Godbolt, brought little to the show. He seemed like a nice guy but so was Bob Cole and listening to two nice guys be nice was kinda dull and boring. I missed the spit and vinegar of Allred.

Over time it became apparent that the powers that be at KVET (parent company Clear Channel Communications), wanted more music (from a rigidly defined play list) and less talk on what was Austin radio's highest rated morning talk show. When that happened, I reluctantly turned my dial from KVET (after listening for almost 20 years) and searched for other morning radio fare.

I'm glad the guys are back and that the old KOKE-FM tradition of playing classic country music, along with the best of the new stuff is being revived and honored. Rumor has it that Tom Allen will return to Saturday mornings with his much missed "Country Gold" program. I can't wait.

If you like the good ol' stuff, music by the likes of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Asleep at the Wheel, Bob Wills, Jerry Jeff Walker, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and others, tune in and check it out.

And if the guys will re-hire my wife's cousin Earl as their "Girl Friday", the station will be perfect.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

WITH GREAT POWER...





I didn't get on the Spider-Man bandwagon with AMAZING FANTASY #15 (although I did eventually acquire a copy of that key early Silver Age Marvel comic and yes, I still have it and no, you can't have it, it's not for sale). Instead, my first exposure came with a copy of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #9, in which our hero battled Electro for the first time. That issue came out in November, 1963. I was seven-years-old.

I distinctly remember this comic book for two reasons. One, my dad brought it home to me when he returned from an out-of-town business trip, which made it extra special. Two, it was my first exposure of any kind to the Marvel Comics of the early 1960s. Up until then, my comic book reading consisted primarily of much "tamer" stuff, titles from Harvey Comics, Gold Key, Dell and an occasional DC comic featuring Superman or Batman. I didn't know what to make of this strange looking comic. I had no idea who Stan Lee or Steve Ditko were but I knew that by the time I'd finished reading the comic, I'd read something that was distinctly new and different.

Still, I didn't become a regular buyer of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN or any other Marvel Comic at that time. I didn't have a disposal income to speak off and the spinner racks at the drug stores and convenience stores back then held a multitude of four-color wonders all screaming for my attention. In short, I bought what grabbed my attention at the time.

This meant I bought a lot of comic books with dinosaurs on the covers. Comics like TUROK, SON OF STONE from Gold Key, with American Indians Turok and Andar trapped in Lost Valley, which was full of dinosaurs. I also enjoyed STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES from DC Comics, which featured the series "The War That Time Forgot", in which WWII era troops regularly tangled with dinosaurs. It was a brilliantly conceived series (army guys & dinosaurs!), designed to immediately separate me from my twelve cents.

I picked up a couple of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issues over the next couple of years. I vividly remember #21 (November 1964) in which Spidey and the Human Torch slugged it out with The Beetle and issue #24 (February 1965), with Spider-Man being driven insane by a mystery villain who was revealed to be Mysterio. Great stories by Stan Lee, great art by Steve Ditko.

I know I bought a few more issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN over time but it wasn't until the fateful month of September, 1966, that I decided to not only start buying AMAZING SPIDER-MAN on a regular basis, but all of the Marvel Comics titles that were then being published: FANTASTIC FOUR, AVENGERS, DAREDEVIL, X-MEN, THOR, TALES OF SUSPENSE, TALES TO ASTONISH, STRANGE TALES, SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS and the reprint titles MARVEL COLLECTOR'S ITEM CLASSICS, MARVEL TALES and FANTASY MASTERPIECES.

What a great time to become a card-carrying Marvel Maniac. I was ten-years-old and as the saying goes, everyone's Golden Age is ten. How true. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #43 (September 1966) was the first issue I bought under this new purchasing agenda (although I know I somehow picked up some random back issues from somewhere). In this issue, Spider-Man tangled with The Rhino, a massive, unstoppable villain. Stan Lee was still writing the title but the artwork was now handled by John Romita (Ditko having moved over to DC Comics). I loved Romita's artwork and the run of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN produced by Lee and Romita remain to this day my all-time favorite issues of the title and my second favorite of all-time runs of a Marvel Comic. First place belongs to the 100 issues that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did of THE FANTASTIC FOUR.

I was really getting into all of the Marvel titles and couldn't wait to see what new treasures would be published each month. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #44 & 45 (October & November, 1966), totally  blew my mind. These issues featured the reappearance of The Lizard, a Spidey villain first introduced back in issue #6 (1963). Over the course of these two epic comic book stories, Spider-Man faced off against the reptilian renegade in a series of spectacular battle scenes. To make it even better (for the readers, worse for Spidey), he had to do it with one arm in a sling. Talk about drama! Talk about suspense! I loved those two issues so much that I would often day dream that The Lizard would  somehow be found on the roof of my elementary school (Brykerwoods!) and I that I would have to change into my Spider-Man costume, swing up onto the roof and engage him in a fight to the death. Hey, cut me some slack. I was ten.

That's why I was so excited to see The Lizard finally make his big-screen appearance in the new AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movie. Parts of the film took me right back to that autumn of 1966 when Spidey journeyed in the sewers beneath New York City to confront one of his most distinctive and, yes, coolest foes.

And now you know the rest of the story.