LON CHANEY, JR.

Why no one has ever produced a cinematic biopic treatment of the Chaney boys ( Lon Sr. and Lon Jr.) is baffling. Bela Lugosi was given quite a spotlight in Ed Wood (1994), and Boris Karloff was a supporting character in Gods and Monsters (1998). Off-screen, Karloff might have made for a nice neighbor, but being the workaholic he was, his biography is dull going. Of course, Lugosi had elements of drug addiction, pathos, and parody late in life working for him. While the Chaneys lacked the European mystery of Karloff and Lugosi, there’s an aptness in these American-bred father and son icons because, as the past year has revealed, Europe has doodly-squat on ‘Murica when it comes to the banality of authentic horror.

From the slivers of information that we have received over the years through peer recollections and various articles, the Chaneys would make for one helluva psycho drama, preferably directed by someone with the sensibilities of a David Cronenberg. No definitive biography has been written about either, and cinematically there’s only a ludicrously whitewashed biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) starring James Cagney as daddy Chaney. Part of the reason for lack of a substantial biography could be the almost obsessive protectiveness of the Chaney estate, who seem to have made things consistently difficult for potential biographers. However, it is also telling that the estate has, as far I know, never disputed the more colorful biographical tidbits that have been given about their silver screen patriarchs.

There must have been something of the masochist in the elder Chaney, who went though much self-inflicted suffering for his art, including looping wires around his eye sockets and wearing false teeth so tight that shots had to be completed quickly before he started bleeding. For Quasimodo, he wore a back prosthetic so heavy that (coupled with instructions to an extra to not spare the whip in the famous beating scene) it sent Lon Sr. to the hospital for an extended stay. Apparently, he was also quite a sadist, and would lock Creighton (Lon Jr.’s birth name) in a closet after razor strap beatings for punishment. (Senior was also psychologically abusive, as when he told Junior that mommy was dead, when in fact she was quite alive).

Such heredity and abuse certainly was instrumental in composing Lon Chaney Jr. as something of a real life lycanthrope with horrific daddy issues. In assessing Jr. as a pale copy of his father, the popular and critical consensus is spot on (for once). In addition to obsessively (and vainly) trying to outdo daddy, Jr. was also a raging alcoholic, had drug problems, and was prone to a violent temper; which, according to some (including writer Curt Siodmak) sprang from guilt over latent homosexuality. However, when actually being directed, instead of just being told to do Lennie from Of Mice and Men again, Chaney, Jr., if not a great actor per se, was memorable in numerous character parts (few of which are in the horror genre).

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1944 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: CORPSE VANISHES AND VOODOO MAN

This is the introductory entry in a new series covering movies that originally played in drive-in-cinema double bills across the country.

One of the first drive-in theaters premiered in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. The venue’s popularity reached its zenith from the 1950s to the early 1980s. Still, the 1940s was also a robust decade for the drive-in, which specialized in low budget B-films, especially horror and science fiction. The setting was also unique in that drive-ins continued to screen films from the 30 and 40s all the way until the late 70s. For a more extended discussion, see the previous article Cinema Under The Stars.

Coming Attraction! Black Dragons!

“Suicide or murder in the shadow of a nation’s capitol? The screen’s master of horror, Bela Lugosi has the answer to this mysterious death. Lugosi as the madman on a mission of vengeance, vengeance  against 6 men who plot the destruction of a nation at war.”

Coming Attraction…

“Ominous footsteps in the night foreshadow terrifying death. By Day… A Man Of Honor. By Night… A Beast Of Horror. Bela Lugosi. The Invisible Ghost.

Brides are dying at the altar, and somebody’s responsible. Before being forever robbed of the opportunity to lose her virginity, each bride was given an mysterious orchid—with a scent. Whoever heard of an orchid with a scent? Maybe it’s a clue. Another clue might be that the same undertaker shows up at every crime scene—and he looks just like Dracula. Odd, too, that everyone of the brides’ corpses vanish! Luana Walters is the spunky reporter giving Lois Lane a run for the money, and stealing the entire film.

Bela’s got a bitch of a wife, too (Elizabeth Russell, from Cat People). She hates aging but, somehow, the blood of virgin brides acts like botox for her. Bela, being a mad doctor, injects it. He’s got a pair of henchman, too: Frank Moran (who’s kind of a precursor to Tor Johnsons’s hulking brute in Bride of the Monster) and dwarf Angel Rossito (from Freaks).

The movie has an imbecilic charm, but it never quite reaches the sap level of PRC’s The Devil Bat (1940) or Lugosi’s work with Ed Wood.

“Show starts in 10 minutes! We will now have an intermission time before starting our next show!”

“Get the item that adds to your personal comfort. Cigarettes? Here they are! Get the kind you prefer and enjoy them thoroughly; all the most popular brands.”

“Ice cream bars! It’s the handy way to enjoy smooth, rich, creamy ice cream. Get some!”

“Crisp, flavorful fish sandwiches. Gold and brown and crunchy outside and tender and juicy inside for a snack or a meal. ”

1944 babes are disappearing along Laurel Road after stopping at Nicholas’ gas station. Nicholas (George Zucco) is in cahoots with the henchmen Toby ( John Carradine) and Grego (Pat McKee) who in turn work for crazy doc Marlow (Bela). Doc has a wife who has been a zombie for twenty plus years and he believes, if he gets the right girl, that a voodoo ceremony will unzombify his beloved. Toby and Grego are, ahem, a tad feebleminded, which makes Doc’s job harder. There’s a also a pesky fiancee and some really cool voodoo robes. There isn’t scare one, but it’s a tacky variation of The Corpse Vanishes and has the good sense to be even more senseless.

Although The Corpse Vanishes (directed by Wallace Fox) was made in 1942, it was double billed two years later for the drive-in-circuit with Voodoo Man (directed by Willam Beaudine). Both movies are part of Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine.” For the unenlightened, this was a poverty row horror series produced by Sam Katzmann, starring the already faded Dracula actor in some of the most inept movies made. Voodoo Man is the last of the infamous Monogram Nine.

“Please remember to replace the speaker on the mast when you leave the theater. Thanks for being with us this evening. We hope that in some small way we have been able to add to your comfort, pleasure, and relaxation.”

Both films are available on a Legends double feature DVD with vintage drive-in ads, trailers, and countdowns. Olive Films has recently released Voodoo Man on Blu-ray in a pristine transfer.

1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: SHOCK WAVES & SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS

Star Wars, Annie Halland Elvis becoming a corpse were the entertainment events of 1977; but exploitation/horror cinema hardly noticed, driving ahead full-throttle with Third Reich obsessions in this banner year for Nazisploitation. Naturally, queen Dyanne Thorne was still cracking the whip. Unfortunately, Ilsa the Wicked Warden was directed by Jess Franco, and he is no Don Edmonds. Franco’s direction is, as usual, languid. Still, Thorne, now a redhead, has undeniable charisma. Originally, this was not an official Ilsa title—the wicked warden was originally Wanda—but was christened with her name somewhere along the way.

Thorne was extraordinarily promiscuous in 1977, appearing in a second Ilsa: Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (directed by Jean Lafleur). More flesh and blood along with multifarious locales makes this a far better entry than Franco’s effort, while still not at the level of Edmonds’. This was the last of the Ilsa films, which undeniably make up the most notorious of exploitation franchises.

Blatant Ilsa ripoff Elsa: Frauline Devil (directed by Patrice Rhomm) features German hookers being sent to the camps to service the poor overworked Nazis. It has a lot of wretched accents and amateur costume design, with Nazi uniforms looking like they just came off the racks. Worst of all, though, it’s a big tease in both the sex and whip-cracking departments. Needless to say, Thorne does it better.

The same can’t be said for Last Orgy of the Third Reich (directed by Cesare Canevari), which features cannibalism and death by German Shepherds and rats, but this one’s different. It has a brunette warden (Maristella Greco).

A pubic-hair eating rapist dwarf actually outdoes the lesbian concentration camp warden in SS Hell Camp (AKA The Beast in Heat, directed by Luigi Batzella). Macha Magali is the Aryan camp dominatrix filling in for Dyane Thorne. It tries to outdo the competition, and succeeds (with multiple brutal rapes, pulling out fingernails, castrations, rats, etc), but even with all that going on, it still manages to be a dull affair. It’s still banned in the U.K.

Italy continued its love affair with Nazis (at least on screen). Nazi Love Camp 27 (directed by Mario Caiano) has a decent budget, wretched dubbing, notorious hardcore sex, and a good, central performance by the tragically short-lived Sirpa Lane (from The Beast) as a Jewess out for revenge.

The Red Nights of the Gestapo is another Italian entry in the genre. Directed by Fabio De Agostini, it is clearly influenced by Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976) and features a Third Reich orgy and farting torture. Brass was more adept at this kind of thing, for what that’s worth.

SS Girls (directed by Bruno Mattei) also influenced by Brass’ Nazi opus, has its tongue firmly-in-cheek and feels like its been lifted out of the pages of a comic book. As strange as it may sound, it’s one of the most entertaining Nazisploitation films of the decade. It’s chock-full of Mattei’s trademark montages, close ups, stock footage, and a jazzy score. It also has bestiality, orgies, and endless parades of flesh.

Mattei’s second Nazisploitation feature (of the year) is Women’s Camp 119, which is more of the same, with the additional bonus of poisoned bullets for nude prisoners. The result is two hours of writhing in pain and bleeding out of every orifice. This one is also like a comic book, but more of a Chick tract. It makes you feel dirty for having seen it. It even has a lot of Chick targets, like a Catholic priest who gets popsiclized and a two-for-one with gay Jews. Of course, the Nazis-for-Christ attempt to cure the gays in this tailor-made-for-Mike-Pence flick.

Shock Waves (directed by Ken Wiederhorn) takes a different route with Nazi zombies, literally bred to survive underwater. Brooke Adams is among a small group of passengers taking a tour on a cruiser with cantankerous captain John Carradine. It’s a watery variation on Old Dark House thrillers, with the group crashing into a wrecked ghost vessel. The captain is killed and the survivors are forced to take refuge on an island (filling in for the Old Dark House) where they discover what they believe to be an abandoned hotel. Its sole occupant is former Nazi commandant  Peter Cushing (with a convincing accent). Unknowingly, the group has awakened the commandant’s genetically altered “Toten Korps”—AKA death corps—AKA Nazi zombies. They’re a creepy, disease-ridden albino lot, adorned in aviator goggles and SS uniforms, emerging from the water in slow-mo to kill anyone within their path. Since this was marketed as exploitation, Adams is required to strip down to a yellow bikini and take a swim—until she bumps into something dead.

Cushing’s role is a relatively small one, which leaves the acting to Adams. She’s up to it, but unfortunately, she’s the only one, with her fellow passengers clearly being amateurs. Apart from awakening Third Reich undead and fleeing them, there’s really not much of a plot. The violence is subdued and it’s definitely not paced for the post- Romero zombie audience. Despite its flaws, this is an impressive meager budgeted indie with good acting from Cushing, Carradine, and Adams, along with effective underwater photography (by Reuben Trane) as the death corps wait on the ocean floor to entrap unsuspecting victims. The zombie makeup is equally compelling, and Wiederhorn (who also scripted) adroitly mounts tension. None of his fellow-up films have matched this. It’s easily the best movie ever made about Nazi zombies.

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VINCENT PRICE ON BLU-RAY

Vincent Price

The first Vincent Price Blue-ray collection has already gone out of print and now requires sacrificing a mortgage payment to purchase a used copy. So, if the second collection is a must buy to you, snatch it up quick in time for Halloween.

Vincent Price II Blu-Ray collection

For many genre fans,Vincent Price is the epitome of classic horror star. That is partly because he is more contemporary than his predecessors and many of his films are in color. While undoubtedly a genre great, Price’s performances often fall into the whiny, overtly fruity category, and we see a lot of them in “The Vincent Price Collection 2.” Price was best when he did not succumb to self-parody. Of course, all the genre stars had their share of clunkers and if Price’s screen persona seems somewhat derivative of Karloff, or if he lacked the edgy screen persona of Lugosi, he still made a few good, near classic films and managed his career well enough to become an authentic horror icon. While this collection includes welcome additions to the Blu-ray format, it does not necessarily represent Vincent Price at his best.

Vincent Price House On Haunted Hill Blu-Ray

House On Haunted Hill (1959) has become a cult favorite. Directed by William Castle, it is a campy example of the “old dark house” genre. Jokes are balanced with the usual Castle gimmickry, including Price’s pitch-perfect performance as the ringmaster of the carnival-like milieu, gleefully at odds with wife Carol Ohmart (Spider Baby). Castle’s pacing may seem dated to modern audiences, but it is much preferable to the 1999 remake.

Vincent Price Return Of The Fly Blu-Ray

The Return Of The Fly (1959) is a pedestrian rehash of the 1958 original (see below). More crime thriller than sci-fi, Return‘s sole saving grace is black humor supplied by Edward L. Bernds (a veteran of multiple Three Stooges shorts). Price collects a check here and nothing more.

Comedy of Terrors lobby card. Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

The Comedy Of Terrors (1963) is part of AIP’s popular Roger CormanEdgar Allen Poe cycle. Unlike the majority of those, this was not directed by Corman, but rather by Val Lewton/RKO star director Jacques Tourneur. Written by Richard Matheson (“The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “I Am Legend,” “Duel,” “The Night Stalker,” “The Legend Of Hell House”) and helmed by the director of Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943),  Out of the Past (1947), and Curse of the Demon (1957), The Comedy of Terrors was initially seen as a disappointment and argued to be more the work and style of producer Corman. Regardless, it has since been reassessed in some quarters and has developed a minor cult reputation. Co-stars Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff easily outclass Price. Joyce Jameson[1] is even given something to do other than brandishing her cleavage (although she does plenty of that as well).

Boris Karloff, Joyce Jameson Comedy Of Terrors Blu-Ray

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THE SHOOTIST (1976)

The Shootist (1976 Don Siegel) John Wayne. Movie poster

Marlon Brando is not the quintessential American male movie star. That honor belongs to John Wayne. John Wayne was a shrewd actor who carefully manufactured his on screen persona. For many, Wayne represents the All-American WASP, yet he was of Irish descent and a Roman Catholic. Most of the B western actors had a favorite horse. In his B western beginnings, Wayne had the horse Duke, yet he disliked horses, preferred slacks and dinner jacket to western duds, wore a toupee through most of his career, and felt more at home on his boat than he ever did on a ranch.

The Shootist (1976 Don Siegel) John Wayne. Lobby card

In addition to being the archetypal cowboy, Wayne represented the ideal American soldier, yet he never served a day in the military. When the second World War broke out in 1941, many of Wayne’s contemporaries, such as Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and Henry Fonda, all enlisted. These actors were already established as “A” list stars in 1941. Even with Stagecoach (1939) behind him Wayne was not yet secure in his career and still languished in numerous “B” films. Wayne saw this as a golden opportunity, while the competition was away, to grab the number one spot, and he did just that. It was less a case of draft dodging, and more a calculating career move, one for which John Ford would relentlessly needle him ever after. The war interrupted the careers of numerous actors, such as George Reeves, who seemed to be on the way up, but had not yet established themselves in a large enough body of “A” productions. Upon his return, Reeves and many others found they had been virtually forgotten while they were away, never to regain their previous career position, let alone surpass it. So much for studio patriotism towards its contract players.

The Shootist (1976 Don Siegel) John Wayne. Lobby card.

Wayne symbolized American virtue, yet he had countless affairs with married women. Some maintain he was racist. In a 1971 interview he made naive and blatantly ignorant remarks about African Americans and Native Americans, yet he enjoyed working with African American co-stars, and was drawn to native American spirituality, an interest on display in his film Hondo (1953), produced and distributed by Wayne’s own production company. Fellow star Jimmy Stewart was far more inclined to pronounced racist views. Wayne married three Mexican women and bedded many more of them. He was a rabid anti-communist during the cold war. Both Wayne and Howard Hawks saw the film High Noon (1952) as anti-American and both saw to it that scriptwriter Carl Foreman was blacklisted; Wayne bragged about that until the end of his life, yet Wayne also encouraged Hollywood to forgive and forget regarding Larry Parks’ communism. Despite his republican leanings, Wayne began as a socialist and later sided with Jimmy Carter in giving back of the Panama Canal, much to the chagrin of fellow Republicans. Wayne’s response was, “We promised to do so and we should keep our word.”

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EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD

Bluebeard (Edgar G. Ulmer) poster

Edgar G. Ulmer began his career at Max Reinhardt’s theater, became an apprentice to F.W. Murnau on the director’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and received a commission to direct Universal’s two new horror icons, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their first co-starring film. With The Black Cat (1934), Ulmer secured an enviable budget and practically carte blanche. The Black Cat may not have had much to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but the legendary 19th century writer would have loved Ulmer’s deliciously black deco homage. 1934 critics and audiences most certainly did, making it a bona fide hit. Ulmer’s idiosyncratic cult film remains the two stars’ best film together. The director was at the top of his game and looked to have a long and successful career ahead. By all rights, Edgar G. Ulmer should have had a career and body of work that could be placed alongside the films of James Whale and Tod Browning. Then, Ulmer screwed up.

Bluebeard (Edgar G. Ulmer) poster John Carradine Continue reading