More Than Meets The Mogwai

Monday, October 29, 2007

Horror Anthology #3: DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (Freddie Francis, 1965)

The inaugural entry in Amicus Productions’ not quite ten year run of pleasantly engaging, visually arresting, and oft-imitated brand of devious anthology horror (counting the other Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky co-production TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS, but discounting 1980’s THE MONSTER CLUB, solely produced by one-half of Amicus -- Subotsky -- but still appearing under the banner anyway), DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS remains the colourful yardstick by which these later releases (TORTURE GARDEN, 1967; THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, 1970; ASYLUM, 1972; TALES FROM THE CRYPT, 1972; VAULT OF HORROR, 1973; FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, 1973; and TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS, 1974) are commonly measured against. And with the notable exception of the EC Comics-derived TALES FROM THE CRYPT (also directed by Freddie Francis), none would prove to be as satisfactorily stunning as this original rendering of placing five randomly plucked strangers in closed quarters before a menacing entity, who gradually speaks of the inevitable, horrid fates awaiting our (sometimes morally compromised) protagonists, told in flash-forward (or should that be flashback?) form.

Should our unlucky five ever arrive at their intended destinations (DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS) -- or escape the immaculately lily-white room and malfunctioning elevator (VAULT OF HORROR), or make it out of the remote dank cave located somewhere in England (TALES FROM THE CRYPT) -- the ghastly destinies generously elaborated on by our Cryptkeeper (Ralph Richardson in CRYPT) -- or impish Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith in TORTURE GARDEN), or sinister Dr. Sandor Schreck (Peter Cushing in HOUSE OF HORRORS) -- surely will come to pass, wreaking havoc on the initially skeptical upper middle class characters represented by the various rosters of international stars. But of course, that last minute twist of the knife in each film reveals that any possible evasion of these unpleasant futures is but a charade – the envelopes containing their fates have already been sealed and preconceived, everyone’s on their pathway to eternal damnation, and the past ninety minutes have been but a mere detour on the way to the fiery pits of hell.

The wraparound is as simplistic and unassuming as it gets. Five commuters board a rickety train cabin (obviously a set) and await their respective long journeys ahead. Architect Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum) is heading for the west coast of Scotland, to the cozy estate where he once grew up, while jazz trumpeter Biff Bailey (Roy Castle) is making his way to the West Indies for a paid gig; on their way back to England, for either business or family, are Bill Rogers (UK disc jockey Alan Freeman), snobbish art critic Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee) and devoted husband Bob Carroll (a baby-faced Donald Sutherland). A sixth gentleman with feral facial hair joins the party at the last minute, a man who will only later introduce himself as Sandor Schreck (a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-him Peter Cushing). A clumsy move on the behalf of Schreck (but upon reflection, obviously predetermined in light of the revelation of his dark secret identity) results in the spilling of a deck of tarot cards; curiously amused, all five allow (with the fussy Lee being the most determined not to) Schreck to shuffle and deal, and thus begins the telling of their futures as it’s foretold by the seemingly random display of cards.

The cramped compartment here really allows director Freddie Francis to include all six central cast members in just about every shot, and it’s this stuffy atmosphere that permeates and gestates in these linking segments, a claustrophobia that only gains in intensity on the faces of the doomed protagonists as they learn the gruesome details of just how they’re damned (and in addition, the corollary of exactly why they’re here), with the added benefit of seeing a devilishly reserved Cushing registering and silently delighting in their troubles.

“Werewolf” kicks things off with the aforementioned Jim Dawson (McCallum) arriving at the residence where he was raised. A family has since moved in, but they’re accommodating his stay, as he’s there to ply his trade and knock down a wall in order to open up the living room. After a series of mysterious murders, Dawson discovers a coffin in the basement and immediately suspects a werewolf, enough so to melt down an ancestral heirloom (a silver cross) into bullets. Setting up shop in this cobweb-infested crypt, Dawson awaits nightfall, only to have his attention placed elsewhere as the ethereal presence emerges once again into the night. Racing up the stairs, he’s accosted by the new matriarch who brings Dawson up to speed on the resurrection and familiar curse that has now been lifted, thanks to his entrance into the dwelling.

Despite some early foggy exteriors that could be classified as clichéd and in the tradition of gothic horrors, Francis keeps the proceedings realistic up to a point, with the otherworldly aspects played close to his chest before letting loose alongside the malicious intent of the matriarch – as she begins her spiel, Francis delivers bright splashes of greens and oranges that serve as highlights on the elderly actress’ mesmerizing pair of eyes.

As we will see, Francis keeps this stylistic pattern of sedate and serene compositions, followed by a swirling and vibrant array of multicolored gels to signify oncoming threats, throughout the film, with the exclusion of the second story, “Creeping Vine”, which is set during daytime and thus bright and sunny. And this works as a thematic context also, as Freeman does battle with this indestructible vegetation (with the help of Bernard Lee, or “M” from the James Bond series), daylight should be a dreadfully frightful factor as it provides nutrition and growth for this strangling shrubbery (but like most second momentum-killing anthology episodes, there’s a devoid of shocks, making for the weakest tale in a group that’s otherwise resolutely strong).

It could be said that “Voodoo” is producer and screenwriter Milton Subotsky’s attempt at broad humour, akin to the “Golfing Story” segment of the treasured model of anthology horror, DEAD OF NIGHT (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, 1945), but I think the breezy attitude can be attributed to its choice of lead actor, the real life jazz musician Roy Castle. Castle’s jovial devil-may-care delivery is the very definition of a carefree non-actor having a great deal of fun in a light dramatic role; his nature lends itself well to its tale of an avaricious jazz trumpeter meddling around with voodoo (and a demon named Dambala) in the West Indies, adopting some catchy riffs and adding them to his repertoire – to his eventual detriment.

I’m convinced that the startling widescreen composition and accompanying clever obfuscation of a letter in a nearby prop (see above) is not an accident, and shows the sense of humour that Francis must have in his directorial undertakings. Other than an amusing lead performance, “Voodoo” is but a palate cleanser, gearing the spectator up for two much more memorable tales (not to mention it’s guilty of being a slightly derivative riff itself -- just witness the “Thriller” Season One episode “Papa Benjamin” from 1961, starring John Ireland and directed by Ted Post, and based on the short story by Cornell Woolrich).

“Disembodied Hand” pits two Hammer regulars at odds with one another: the shrewd art critic (Christopher Lee) vs. the sensitive, but amused artist (a cheery Michael Gough). Within this clever battle of wits is an absolute horror story that’ll make anyone who has ever made a living passing critical judgments cringe, for on a primordial level, broken down, it’s the essential tool of the artist (Gough’s chopped-up hand) that becomes fixated on destroying the eyesight of his plucky detractor (Lee’s prized eyeballs). It remains a menacing episode, probably one of my absolute favourites from any of the Amicus entries, and it gets by without a lot of the expository fat that becomes important, yet needless, in telling such succinct stories. Lee’s swift statements about the artwork of (what he doesn’t yet know to be) a chimpanzee are but one of the many witty diversions it effortlessly includes in addition to the central revenge.

The definitively titled “Vampire” is an early showcase for Donald Sutherland, who portrays a fresh-faced doctor in a new town with a bloodsucker for a wife (his first tip-off? He cuts his finger and she lovingly, even maternally, licks the wound). Supporting his unconventional belief is the resident medical practitioner who, despite his scuffle with a vampire bat, has a peculiar ulterior motive for doing so. The denouement is but a cruel, macabre punch line to an otherwise pithy segment, reminiscent of some of those last-minute “episodes” of “Night Gallery” (I’m thinking of Victor Buono’s brief pun-happy jaunt in “A Midnight Visit to the Neighborhood Blood Bank”).

Some reports have stated that Francis (who passed away only this year) seemed a bit apprehensive about and dismissive of his directorial outings, foregoing his significant forays in genre filmmaking for his work as a camera operator (THE TALES OF HOFFMANN) and cinematographer (THE INNOCENTS, THE ELEPHANT MAN, GLORY), and it’s probably for this that his peer, Terence Fisher (who once penned an article entitled “Horror is my Business”, as laconically embracing as John Ford’s “I Make Westerns” line), will forever be more endearing in the hearts of genre enthusiasts everywhere. Still, it’s us spectators in the dark that’ll have the final say, and it’s for this reason that I can’t help but reflect on Cushing’s closing bit of dialogue as Sandor Schreck whenever I’m watching an old-school British horror effort of the period and I’m not sure who signed the picture; for more often than not, the vivacious widescreen compositions seem to be shouting out that immortal question (which is used to confirm Cushing’s role as the specter of death), signaling the inimitable hand of Freddie Francis - “Have You Not Guessed?



Edgar Wright’s commentary can be turned on/off over the trailer, housed at “Trailers from Hell”:

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Horror Anthology #2: CREEPSHOW 2 (Michael Gornick, 1987)

Sharing much more in common with Laurel Entertainment’s then-ongoing “Tales from the Darkside” syndicated series than the innovative original, CREEPSHOW II, the follow-up to George A. Romero and Stephen King’s ode to the EC Comics of the 1950s, is a streamlined production with a trio of unnerving tales in place of the first film’s more generous five. Made on the cheap at New World Pictures, Romero punted off the directorial reins to his former cinematographer, Michael Gornick, who dims down the heightened phantasmagoria/comic book lighting compositions from the first film (the commentary track reveals that it was more due to budgetary constraints than any kind of stylistic overhaul on the director’s part). King receives story credit, while Romero adapts the tales into workable screenplay form (the most altered being “The Raft”, originally published in “Twilight Zone Magazine”, and later collected in “Skeleton Crew”, as Romero adds a last-minute, trailer-moment jolt that’s nowhere to be found in the King short story).

Nearly everybody who has seen the film seems to only recall “The Raft” with any clarity, probably in part to its involving the perennial 80s favourite of pot-smoking, promiscuous young adults looking for a good time (and this time, vs. an amorphous, deadly “oil rig”), but “The Hitchhiker” (with obligatory Stephen King cameo as a backwoods trucker) is arguably just as memorable and remains a potent little shocker (it's also director Gornick’s favourite).
This tale features Lois Chiles (Dr. Holly Goodhead of MOONRAKER infamy, filling in as a last minute replacement for Barbara Eden, who had to leave the production in order to be with her ailing mother) as a well-to-do businesswoman racing home to her husband from the willing arms of her $100 a night gigolo. Sleekly sliding into her Mercedes, she begins to jam it home in a hurry, but gets preoccupied in a prolonged hit-and-run with a hitchhiking black man in a yellow raincoat -- and his progressively mangled, undead body that haunts her every subsequent step of the way home. But don’t let the simplistic casting fool you, as this combat between posh upper-class Chiles and her tormenting working class zombie (Tom Wright) really has nothing to say in the interest of racial politics save for the most innocuous, on-the-surface sort. Still, it’s a prolonged chiller that goes a long way to express how the psyche can work in overtime to deal with and justify blunt traumas, and how immediate and fatal accidents pierce through and plague the morality of even the blackest of hearts.

The less said about “Old Chief Wood’nhead” the better, especially when considering the laughable lines given to the long, silky haired Holt McCallany (“This hair’ll get me paid and laid!”); McCallany portrays one of three small-town hoodlums paving their way to Hollywood by robbing an old-fashioned mom and pop general store (run by George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour, in her final screen appearance). The practical make-up FX (by Howard Berger, Greg Nicotero, and Ed French) of the rampaging, revenging Wooden Indian are solid and intimidating, and the only elements that prevent the film from drowning after the initial staid set-up that goes on and on to indicate how Kennedy and Lamour are pillars to this blustery Arizona community.
The framework that ties it all together is an all-too-brief appearance by Tom Savini as The Creep, followed by some economical animation of a bullied blonde-haired boy who extracts comeuppance through the classified ads in the fictional “Creepshow” comic. Gornick’s preliminary framework, which was shot down during pre-production, promised much, much more: stock footage and audio clips of the senate hearings between EC Comics publisher/co-editor Bill Gaines, contrasted alongside those of Dr. Fredric Wertham, the unreasonable and puritanical oppressing mind behind “Seduction of the Innocent”, the book that attempted to point out the devious underpinnings and thematic content inherent in just about any comic book. All that remains is a quote, buried in the closing credits:

Labels: , ,

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Horror Anthology #1: BLOOD BATH (Joel M. Reed, 1976)

The Devil's Spawn confronts his human father in BLOOD BATH's out-of-left-field finale (with P.J. Soles in out-of-focus background).
Joel M. Reed, the arguably depraved director of the infamous BLOODSUCKING FREAKS (original title: THE INCREDIBLE TORTURE SHOW), made this PG-rated, Amicus inspired portmanteau on a $1.98 budget a year before that despicable gore fest turned up to disgust audiences on 42nd street . The dapper Harve Presnell (THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN, Daddy Warbucks in “Annie” on Broadway, FARGO), in an indubitable career low, plays Peter Brown, a horror director specializing in the same sort of cheap dreck that BLOOD BATH, on first glance, purports itself to be. After a prolonged “we were only making a movie!” false scare, Brown assures all of his producers and his cast that he doesn’t believe in the occult, and that he’s been making these kinds of films simply to line his pockets, opening the gates for the other dinner party guests to trudge out their past dealings with the the otherworld in order to dispute his stance.

With the first tale relying on pure bad luck, the second being a ghost story (with a horrible racist connotation that I don’t even want to mention, in the hopes that it was simply a mistake on the part of the filmmakers), the third a take-off on “The Monkey’s Paw” (thus continuing the unbroken rule that every anthology must contain a variation of the W.W. Jacobs short story), and the fourth being a hodgepodge of sci-fi/kung fu, it’s safe to say that BLOOD BATH doesn’t make a lick of sense, and doesn’t gel or come together in any real way. Another hampering on the proceedings can be found in the poor art direction (courtesy of Ron Sullivan, aka: hardcore porn director Henri Pachard), as each story (and the wraparounds) were filmed on redressed sets in the same corner of a Manhattan loft (slyly obscured through the non-use of any kind of long or establishing shot), with often the same props being recycled (a bookshelf being the biggest repeat offender). Reed’s direction is oftentimes incompetent – ill-timed edits and awkward, spacey close-ups abound.

Jerry Lacy (Bogie in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM) receives his first wish -- to be in the Napoleonic Wars (?!)

What makes these 70’s and early 80’s exploitation films particularly interesting (at least for me) can be the usual reliance on non-permit, chintzy and saturated red NYC location footage (mostly of 42nd street, natch), but being that BLOOD BATH consists of mainly interiors, there’s none of that juicy footage to be found here (save for a final minute POV night shot of a roving goat-boy in search of prey – he eventually breaks into an apartment to find P.J. Soles, in her screen debut). Jerry Lacy (Bogie in both play and film versions of PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM), Walter Hill favourite Sonny Landham (THE WARRIORS, 48 HRS.), Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), and Stanley Brock (NICKELODEON) are the other familiar faces.

The Subversive Cinema DVD release contains a 45-minute extra entitled “Taking a Blood Bath: Making 70’s Indies in New York”, with director Reed, art director Sullivan, principal Lacy, and bit part player Landham cutting across a wide swath of topics, but one problem: it’s annoyingly edited, jumping from one player to another, oftentimes in the middle of a story.

Labels: ,

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Dad, Can I Borrow the Car? (1970)

More proof that youtube has just about any short film or music video available to you with just a couple of clicks of your fingertips, here's DAD, CAN I BORROW THE CAR? (Ward Kimball, 1970), a short educational -- almost avant-garde -- Disney work narrated by Kurt Russell (back when he seemed be involved with just about every one of their productions).

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Charles B. Griffith (1930 - 2007)

Charles B. Griffith in 1968.
Watching the supplementary features on the new “Supercharged Edition” of the Roger Corman-produced EAT MY DUST last week, I was somewhat surprised that writer/director Charles B. Griffith hadn’t been interviewed. After all, he made an appearance on Buena Vista Home Video’s DEATH RACE 2000 special edition DVD a couple of years back, and he had a lesser hand in the way that film eventually turned out (in that his best ideas in the script department never made it before cameras). Had he been rewritten out of his place in obscurant film history so badly that the producers handling such featurettes didn’t bother to contact the man calling the shots on this New World Pictures production on the day-to-day basis? Well, today, I’m hoping that it wasn’t due to a long-term illness, as I’ve found out on my daily visit to Tim Lucas’ Video Watchblog that Charles B. Griffith -- the caustic voice behind the greatest of Roger Corman films, both as director AND producer -– has passed away.

I was nineteen when my path crossed with Mr. Griffith. On a whim (perhaps after seeing and marveling at ROCK ALL NIGHT for the umpteenth time), I sent an e-mail to the webmaster of Griffith’s barebones website, expressing my enthusiasm for the screenwriter’s work and my interest in interviewing him some day; the webmaster wrote back to inform me that he passed along the message, and… I thought that would be it. Fortunately, I was pleasantly mistaken as Griffith sent an easygoing reply the next day thanking me for the kind comments and agreeing to as long an interview as I wish -– enclosing his telephone number at the end of the message.

Now somewhat faint, as I never had the opportunity to interview anybody before but was confident enough in my abilities and in my knowledge of film history to pursue the field, I researched what would best record a conversation through the telephone and constructed a number of questions on three, single-spaced pages. To be perfectly honest, I took inspiration from two sources: Tom Weaver’s countless invaluable and informative books interviewing the B-Movie stars and creative talent of yesteryear, as well as David Sheff’s 1980 “Playboy” interview with John Lennon, in which the author brought up every single Beatles song and asked the genesis and development of each. I figured I would do the same, with produced and unproduced screenplays alike, stray second unit directing work, films in which Griffith served as sole director, and even random, strange unclassifiable ideas that never materialized into full-blown scripts or novels (the form Griffith gravitated towards as his screenplays increasingly became too long and convoluted to develop as film properties). At the back of my head though (since I’d already written a number of scripts) was the fact that here was a chance to have the equivalency of a Master’s Class on the nature of screenwriting by a writer that I greatly admired.

The results of the interview (be kind, it was my first!) are here:

I wanted to concentrate on the films that have been given the short shrift in the few previously published interviews with Griffith in the past, but to not leave out these established classics (such THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS or A BUCKET OF BLOOD). I tried to touch upon such drive-in highlights as ROCK ALL NIGHT and TEENAGE DOLL, but even the Cannon-produced DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE, which remained a film Griffith was extremely proud of and never tired of talking about. His passion and commitment to that project was palpable even twenty-some years after it had been made, and even though my individual evaluations may hold it in lesser regards to his other work, I still find it a wonderfully inventive, gag-fueled film miscast with Oliver Reed (Griffith wanted Dick Van Dyke) in the central role.
Given the fact that it hasn’t really received a proper home video release, Griffith was puzzled at how I’d seen the film in the first place considering I wasn’t even alive when the film was shown in theaters. I told him I had a less-than-legal grey market copy, and after hearing the excitement in his voice about his desire to see it again, I agreed to send him a copy (he told me that he diligently checked the TV guides in the hopes of it turning up, but that it had not since the ‘80s).

The bitterness in Griffith that Lucas hints at in his vibrantly written remembrance could be detected, but strangely, and not surprisingly, was often quickly followed up by remorse; after letting a few nasty things slip about Corman (and others), and his suspicions that certain unproduced works had been ripped off whole sale, Griffith asked if I could please not use these allegations in the published form as he didn’t particularly mean any of it (and I didn’t use any of this).

After our close to three-hour interview (the second part mostly involving the craft of screenwriting, which is something I’ve held off on trying to get published for some reason), I hesitantly uttered that I hoped we could stay in touch, and Griffith delightfully agreed. I sent him a tape of DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE and he wrote back some scattered and random thoughts about his viewing. He also mentioned that I should be reimbursed for this effort –- even offering to send me an original prop from one of the many films he’s written or worked on (“though”, he said, “most of the good ones are already gone”). As much as the film enthusiast in me would have loved such a gift (or even to know WHICH film the item would have been from), I just couldn’t accept it – he was a hero of mine and this was a film he no doubt made with a lot of sweat and hard work, and the least I could do was to run off a copy for him.

Around this time, Griffith was planning to visit some friends in Australia, and to take in a viewing of a brief run of the musical stage version of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. I guess I e-mailed him a question (concerning what, I can’t remember) when he had literally just missed his flight due to a misplaced passport. After briefly answering my query, Griffith followed up with a two-page diatribe about his aggravations in “tearing up the house looking for this passport”. I wish I could post it all here, but it contains some personal information that I would feel iffy about broadcasting in such a public manner, so I’ll have to keep it hidden -– still, I’m not exaggerating (well, not by much) when I say it had it had the originality, insightfulness and ferocious wit of some of his stories at its center. Still, through it all, Griffith remained bemused and amused by it all.

At the close of this message (one of our last exchanges), Griffith related that:

“and now you have cleared my brains and given me a new mood to write the two comedy jobs I have working!
Thanks again,

That –- for one brief moment -- I helped him get something off of his chest in order to start work on two new CHARLES B. GRIFFITH creations will remain my favourite memory of my brief time quasi-knowing him at this distance.

To invoke and reinterpret Quentin Tarantino’s dedication at the front page of the screenplay to DEATH PROOF:
Your work has always –- and forever will -– “Rock All Night”, daddy-o.