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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TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973) & FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987)

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Freddie Francis’ Tales That Witness Madness, made for World Film Services in 1973, is clearly patterned after the Amicus horror anthologies. Of course, what better way to emulate the competition than to acquire the man who directed nearly half of the Amicus franchise, along with several of that studio’s top draw actors?

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The setup is simple and familiar enough: Donald Pleasance is the resident psychiatrist of an asylum, giving friend Jack Hawkins (in his final film) a tour of the grounds. Along the way, he tells the stories of four inmates.

In “Mr. Tiger,” Russell Lewis’ imaginary feline pet beast takes a sour view of his master’s verbally abusive parents. Just how imaginary the tiger is questioned after some clawing on the door and blood splattering on Oedipal walls.

A time traveling bicycle is at the malevolent heart of “Penny Farthing.” It stars Peter McEnery as an antique shop owner and Suzy Kendall as his wife. Soon, they discover the bike is literally antique and … we’re so sorry, Uncle Albert.

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“Mel” stretches credibility when Michael Jayston is more interested in an oddly shaped tree than he is in oversexed wife Joan Collins in something pink from Frederick’s of Hollywood. It’s the most remembered segment for a reason—it’s a camp hoot, with Collins channeling her inner jealous diva. The tree tries to upstage the human competition, which is not an easy task against Joan in a flimsy nightie, wielding an axe.

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1969 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, IT’S ALIVE, AND SATAN’S SADISTS

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After the success of 1968’s The Conqueror Worm (AKA The Witchfinder General, with a deliciously evil Vincent Price), director Michael Reeves was assigned dual films: The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again. Unfortunately, shortly after pre-production work on The Oblong Box , Reeves died at the age of 25 from an accidental, lethal mix of alcohol and barbiturates, putting an end to a promising career. The film must have seemed cursed, because scripter Lawrence Huntington also died. Gordon Hessler replaced Reeves and Christopher Wicking replaced Huntington. Given Reeves’ high critical standing, Hessler was immediately criticized as being unable to fill the late director’s shoes. While there’s little doubt that Reeves’  idiosyncratic style would be impossible to imitate, he was unenthusiastic about the assignment to begin with. Thus, whether he could have made a better film is pure speculation. Despite starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, The Oblong Box can hardly compete with Roger Corman‘s AIP Poe series, but it does have an ambitious, somber, gothic style of its own and is well photographed by John Coquillon.

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Of more interest is a genuine oddity in the AIP canon: Scream and Scream Again, which also starred both Price and Lee along with Peter Cushing (in what amounts to a cameo) and the same writing/directing team of Wicking and Hessler. Released in the U.K in 1969 and stateside 1970, Scream and Scream Again is one of the queerest horror science fiction extravaganzas committed to celluloid, which may explain why Fritz Lang proclaimed it among his favorite films. Wicking’s screenplay is an ambitiously brazen adaptation of Peter Saxon’s “The Disoriented Man.” Given that Hessler is a minor cult filmmaker, Scream and Scream Again is, likewise, a film with a minor cult reputation, one that deserves a broader audience. Although imperfect, it is creepy and perverse enough to be of interest to weird movie lovers who crave a challenge.

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The fragmented plot (one of several) opens with a jogger in the park, keeling over from what appears to be a heart attack. He wakes up in a hospital bed to a nurse who won’t speak to him. After she leaves, the jogger finds that his leg has been amputated. He screams.

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The corpse of a rape victim is discovered with two puncture wounds on her wrist.

In an unnamed European totalitarian state, a humanoid Gestapo soldier (a lurid Marshall Jones) murders his superior by squeezing his shoulder.

The jogger wakes up to find his second leg amputated. He screams again.

Inspector Bellever (Alfred Marks) of Scotland Yard sets up a sting to catch a serial killer (Michael Gothard) whose M.O. is biting women’s  wrists and draining their blood after raping them. Bellever uses a policewoman as bait, with fatal results. A long, captivating chase follows and, after the modish killer in a convertible is caught and handcuffed to the back of a car, he severs his own hand and another chase follows the trail of blood.

The jogger wakes up to find an arm amputated. He screams again.

Vincent Price shows up as a mad scientist who specializes in “organ transplants” and happens to have a vat of acid.

A fascistic superior (Cushing) lectures the Gestapo soldier about his torture methods, which is followed by another shoulder squeeze.

The jogger awakes to find his other arm amputated. He screams again.

Price returns to an operating table, meets a British Intelligence officer (Lee), and that vat of acid comes in handy.

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And so it goes. For most of the duration of the film, the vignettes seem completely unrelated, but there’s a fascist spy ring afoot, paranoid conspiracies about super humans, and a potential alien takeover of the government. There’s no real star, but Marks (who is quite good) has the most screen time. Price and Lee lend little more than marquee value, although Price does get an over-the-top scene for the film’s conclusion and, for once, his hamminess is apt. While the finale is a tad too neatly wrapped, for the first 90 minutes of its 95 minute running time, one doesn’t know quite what the hell to make of this seemingly erratic mess. It’s equal parts science fiction, espionage thriller, and traditional mad scientist horror yarn, evoking Lang’s Mabuse but with a late 60s disco number performed in a seedy club thrown in for good measure. Well photographed (by Coquillon), kinetically paced, strikingly bloody, and awash in enigmatic energy, Scream and Scream Again is impressive for its adventurously bizarre composition. Although uneven and saddled with a ho-hum title, it’s as difficult to dismiss this authentic original as it is to embrace it.

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VINCENT PRICE ON BLU-RAY

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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 VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION: AN INTRODUCTORY PRIMER ON BLU-RAY

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER . Vincent Price

A Vincent Price six pack has made its way to Blu-Ray. The set features some of the actor’s most iconic roles, along with at least one surprise inclusion. It is by no means a complete collection, as it concentrates primarily on the late actor’s work with Roger Corman and AIP (since most of these movies were adapted from works by Edgar Allan Poe they are known as the “Poe cycle”). Even by that criteria, the collection is a mere introduction.

House of Wax 3D RR Quad

Price cemented his status as horror icon in Andre De Toth’s House of Wax (1953), despite the fact that that this 3D box office hit is a flat and unimaginative remake of Michael Curtiz’ vastly superior Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). In a way, this parallels Price himself. Although he has been beatified by genre aficionados, and despite doing occasionally fine acting work, Price’ carefully crafted screen persona seems more derivative than innovative. That persona lacks the authenticity of a Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Dwight Frye. The passage of time makes that even more apparent. Still, the veteran actor could often supply a luster to pedestrian productions, without necessarily redeeming them.

House of Wax. Vincent Price. Lobby card

Fortunately, this Blu Ray collection, although somewhat haphazard in concept and packaging, is a marketable compilation in a “Vincent Price’s Greatest Hits Volume One” style. Like most such compilations, the choices deemed “greatest” are not without debate. Continue reading