1960 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: HORROR HOTEL AND THE HEAD

“Hitch your goose pimples to The Horrible Dr. Hichcock … and away you’ll go, screaming your head off! The good doctor is more than a little strange. He’s a lot loony, and he gets more so with every cute corpse he chops up and every beautiful bride he boxes in. Scary ghosts, black cats, secret doors. What more do you want? But there is more, even more horrible hanky panky than you can imagine in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. In blood red, ghost green turned blue, and gold fright color.”

“Welcome to the mad, mad world of The Awful Dr. Orloff, in funeral black and white. Such carryings on and such carrying out you’ve ever seen. The Doctor’s dilemma has to do with an impossible cure he’s blood-bent on effecting, no matter how many beautiful girls are tortured and killed in the process. If you like to shiver and shake, quiver and quake, there’s mayhem on a monstrous scale in the most unlawful, really awful, awful Dr. Orloff.”

Horror Hotel (AKA City of the Dead, directed by John Moxey) is the premier production from Milton Subotsky (who also wrote the story) and Max J. Rosenberg. Subotsky and Rosenberg are primarily known for forming Amicus Productions and popularizing the horror anthology format. Although Horror Hotel might be seen as a precursor of Italian Gothic cinema, it really is a case of style over substance, albeit an entertaining one. Its pedestrian writing keeps it from attaining a classic status. However, the film belongs to art director John Blezard and cinematographer Desmond Dickinson (who had previously won the award for best photography for Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet at the 1948 Venice Film Festival). Together, the two create a haunting milieu.

The film opens in the village of Whitewood, Massachusetts with the burning of witch Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) in 1692. Naturally, she puts a curse on the villagers torching her and vows to return for revenge as the bride of Lucifer. Equally predictable, we have little sympathy for the puritans, and are almost inclined to wish her well.

Circa 1960, Professor Alan Driscoll ( Christopher Lee) teaches a course on witchcraft and has zeal for his subject, and little patience for his skeptical students, with the exception of Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson). It helps that she’s serious, even volunteering to continue her research in Whitewood. It helps even more that she’s a looker.

Although Horror Hotel is an early entry in the witchcraft genre, the plot’s bullet points are paint-by-number. Driscoll’s sinister motives are blatantly obvious from his introduction, as is the identity of the reincarnated Selwyn and the intended victim (which echoes Psycho, although the films were released only a few months apart). The Whitewood fog machine could have used a little less juice, but images of zombie-like villagers and monks lethargically dragging life-size crosses through a graveyard craft an undeniable visual tension, despite the narrative predictability.

A gas station owner, mute servant, and blind priest add up to a cliched trio of soothsayers. Lee’s role is secondary, but highly effective (reportedly, he was pleased with his performance and the film, which he referred to as an “American Gothic”), but it is Jessel who steals the film.

“Refreshing ice cold, Coca-Cola with a bright, right taste and special spark all it’s own. Enjoy a coke at our snack stand right now.”

“And now Intermission. Refreshment time. Fresh candies—the flavors you love. Assorted drinks—your favorite beverages. Hot coffee. Hot dogs the way you like them. Ice cream smoothly delicious.”

“Try a tasty treat for the whole family. Hung’s Shrimp Egg Roll. They’re deliciously hot and now being served at our refreshment stand.”

“Your attention please. May we bend your ear for a few seconds? The Miracle Mile, Northwestern Ohio’s only all-winter drive-in theater, is happy to announce that this year (1960) we are installing the all-new high powered, Golden Hot Shot Electric In-Car Heater—the heater that heats quicker, circulates more heat faster than any heater available on today’s market! Continue to enjoy the pick of the pictures all winter in the toasty warmth of your own car with the Miracle Mile’s All New Electric In-Car Heaters. Guaranteed to heat your entire car.”

“Would you like to do a good deed? If you have a shut-in or handicapped friend living with or near you, bring them with you next time you attend this theater… we’ll admit them free to help you bring some sunshine into their lives. So remember… bring along your shut-in friends or invalids as our guests. Just ask the cashier for a shut-in pass.”

The Head (1959, directed by Victor Trivas) is another example proving that the cinema medium is more than just writing and filming narratives. Trivas’ credentials would indicate something more substantial than the movie’s title and premise so. After working under Sergei Eisenstein and  G.W. Pabst, Trivas’ directorial debut, No Man’s Land: Hell On Earth (1932),  was seized and destroyed by the Nazis in 1940 due to its pacifist message, leading the filmmaker to take refuge in France and America. Primarily a writer, The Head is Trivas’ last directing credit; ill health forced his retirement the same year (he died in 1970).

Two German Expressionist production designers: Hermann Warm (whose impressive resume includes art direction on  Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, F.W. Murnau’s   The Haunted Castle,  Fritz Lang’s Destiny, and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr) and Bruno Monden (who worked extensively with Paul Verhoeven—no, not  that one, the earlier one) contribute immensely to The Head. The opening credits, with barbed white lettering over a dark, full moon-covered sky, are Tim Burtonesque. Its atmosphere is punched in by a bizarre electronic score (by Willy Mattes, who did  The Horrors Of Spider Island later that year) which could well have fit into the post-Webern school of composition; but unfortunately, we only hear it occasionally. With its budget, the film is like the poverty row product cranked out by Monogram and PRC factories from the previous decade. Naturally, The Head is compared to the more infamous The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962). In place of catfights and mondo dialogue, The Head features wretched dubbing; weird performances from cult German actors Horst Frank (in a rare leading role) and Michael Simon (as a disembodied head); a haunting modernistic house that looks like it might have been designed by  Edgar G. Ulmer (surrounded by a purgatorial forest); a hunchback who is given the body of a stripper and begins touching herself; and a where-the-hell-did-that-come-from subplot about the exotic dancer and her loser artist boyfriend whose dad hated him. It’s all carried out glumly. Even in Z-grade trash, those German artists can’t resist being wacky; one suspects it’s in their DNA.

“Please remember to hang your speaker on the post before you leave the theater.”

This review, including the drive-in bumpers, refers to the double feature available  from Sinister Cinema.

PEEPING TOM (1960)

Peeping Tom (1960 Michale Powell) poster

We Westerners hate and resist having our hypocrisy exposed. We get that trait honestly and through tradition, having inherited it from both our Puritan forefathers and Mother England. Both sides of the political and ideological spectrum sow vilification when someone, especially an insider, turns the lens on our own hypocrisy. Thatis true horror; and when an artist does so in film, purportedly the most accessible of mediums, the backlash can be catastrophic. Case in point: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Released the same year as PsychoPeeping Tom, which is not as overtly violent as Alfered Hitchocks classic, nevertheless opened to furiously scathing reviews from American and British critics: “It is the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing” (The Spectator). “The only satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then, the stench would remain” (Derek Hill, writing in The Tribune). Audiences reacted with even more hostility, and it took the French to set the record straight a few years later when Peeping Tom was received there to widespread acclaim and enthusiasm.

Peeping Tom (1960 Michale Powell) poster

Peeping Tom committed an unforgivable sin in lensing the hypocritical voyeurism of both filmmakers and film goers (that Powell condemned even himself in the film did not earn him a pardon). Before 1960, Powell’s career was notable, extensive, and esteemed, which included numerous wartime and post-war collaborations with Emeric Pressburger: 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad49th ParallelThe Life and Death of Colonel BlimpA Canterbury TaleStairway To HeavenBlack NarcissusThe Red ShoesHour Of Glory, to 1951’s The Tales Of Hoffman. Backlash to Peeping Tomwas cataclysmic, resulting in Powell being permanently blacklisted by both British and American film industries. He was reduced to working (sporadically) for television and producing only three feature films over the next twenty years. That work included a television treatment of Bela Bartok’s opera “BlueBeard’s Castle” in 1963 and 1969’s bitter, semi-autobiographical Age of Consent.

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MARIO BAVA’S BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

BARBARA STEELE %22BLACK SUNDAY%22

Black Sunday (1960), AKA Mask of Satan, marked Mario Bava’s directorial debut after twenty years as a cinematographer and uncredited assistant director. This Gothic fairy tale, (loosely) inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Vij (faithfully adapted as Viy), proved the ideal launch for a director who began life as a painter and son of a cinematographer. Additionally, Black Sunday was the first true starring vehicle for Barbara Steele, making her the first (and, to date, the only) authentic female horror icon. Although both Bava and Steele had long careers following this, neither would ever make as good a film.

BLACK SUNDAY 1960 POSTER%22BLACK SUNDAY%22 BARBARA STEELE

Bava’s painterly credentials serve his cinematography well: the forests, crypts, and castles are drenched in lush black and white. Mists, cobwebs, and rotting trees, filtered through Bava’s lens, compose a sensuous ruin. Setting a pattern that he would follow for the rest of his career, Bava’s visual storytelling is far more innovative than is the narrative, which is solid, but routine and simplistic enough to have spawned a plethora of imitators. Contemporary audiences will likely find the story less appealing than 1960 audiences did, in part due to its many offspring, and in part due to its its status as a homage to the Universal Horror classics. Black Sunday is put over with such distinctive vigor that few will be concerned by its familiarity. Continue reading

TERENCE FISHER’S BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

BRIDES OF DRACULA (Terence Fisher) Peter Cushing, David Peel

There is a recurring scene, albeit with slight variations,  in Terence Fisher’s trilogy of vampire films—Horror of Dracula (1958), Brides of Dracula (1960), and Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—in which a wise and devout man releases a vampire from the pains of immortal existence. In the Horror of Dracula, Van Helsing releases Lucy, much to the relief of her brother Arthur.  Arthur smiles as he sees the beauty of innocence restored to his sister.   In Prince, Fr. Sandor releases Helen from the curse, as her brother-in-law, Charles, smiles upon witnessing the peace that finally envelops the troubled Helen.   In Brides of Dracula, Van Helsing, introduced as a doctor of philosophy and theology, releases vampire Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), at her own request.  After being staked, the Baroness shows a touch of a smile. Continue reading

LA CASA DEL TERROR (1960) AND FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF (1964)

Face of the Screaming Werewolf LA CASA DEL TERROR poster

The posthumous classification of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello erroneously places them on a level with Laurel & Hardy or The Marx Brothers. However, few, if any, of the Abbott and Costello films withstand the test of time. Their initial rendezvous with a trio of Universal monsters retains some dated charm, but little of it comes from the comedy team. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is essentially a vehicle for Bela Lugosi`s Dracula parody and Lenore Aubert’s vamp. The Monster (Glenn Strange) has little to do, and Lon Chaney Jr. seems mightily uncomfortable with the surrounding juvenile antics. Even worse is Bud Westmore’s unimaginative assembly line makeup, which reduces Lugosi’s Count to baby powder and black lipstick and Lon Chaney Jr’s Larry Talbot to a rubbery lycanthrope.

FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF poster

La casa del terror (1960) is a south of the border imitation of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, along with about a half dozen other films, including King Kong (1933). German Valdes (aka Tin Tan) is Casimiro and, just like in A & C Meet Frankie, he is doing some work in a house of wax horrors, which currently has a real mummy display. Below the exhibit, the Professor (Yerye Beirut) is deep in mad scientist experiments (just like Boris Karloff in his Columbia movies or Lugosi at Monogram). None too surprising, the Professor has an assistant who helps his boss steal bodies and blood. When bodies are not to be found, the two extract fluids from Casimiro, which renders our hero lethargic (at least Lou Costello kept his energy level up). Narratively, having your protagonist sleep through half of the film does not seem like a sound idea. Casimiro’s gal Paquita (Yolanda Varela) doesn’t think so either. After all, she is working a full time job and beau here is one lazy sot! Perhaps the all too repeated shots of Casimiro counting sheep are not necessarily a bad device after all because when he does wake up, he breaks into comedic patter which actually makes Lou Costello look funny again. Valdes elicits more groans than laughs and he even engages in a song and dance number with Valera. YES, IT’S A MUSICAL TOO! Valera does not have to work hard at making Valdes’ musical talents look pedestrian. Continue reading