Archive for October, 2015

Tomorrow on TCM: Horror All Day and Night for Halloween!

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , on October 30, 2015 by travsd

Tomorrow on TCM: Horror All Day and Night for Halloween! (and don’t forget, as we posted this morning, tonight is a bill of Val Lewton films)

7:00am (EST): Dr. X (1932)

I  saw this on one of my first dates with the Countess at the Film Forum, so it will always hold a special place. (This fact no doubt reveals much about us both, including why we’re together). The plot: there is a bizarre cannibalistic serial killer on the loose, who always kills on the full moon. Police track him to a scientific institute, where every one of the employees is  a mad scientist.  Each one is a suspect, and each one is disfigured in a different way.  The purported hero  (Lee Tracy), a reporter, is a goofball, a Jimmy Olsen type, and seems more like comic relief than a hero. The head scientist (Lionel Atwill) brings everyone back to his Gothic castle in Long Island and wires everyone to a giant Frankensteinian machine that will somehow tell us who the killer is when they react to elaborate re-creations of the crime featuring actors and wax figures. Eventually (spoiler alert) the killer turns out to be the guy we haven’t suspected because he happens to have an artificial hand. When the moon is full, he creates a real hand with artificial flesh and turns himself into a monster. The nightmarish climax has all the scientists including Atwill handcuffed and forced to watch the villain attack his daughter (Fay Wray). Tracy rescues her at the last moment and throws a lit kerosene lamp at the monster, who tumbles, burning and screaming to his death in the ocean below.

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8:30am (EST): White Zombie (1932)

This is probably my favorite zombie movie. I find that I am rarely truly scared by modern zombie movies of the post-Night of the Living Dead variety. Whatever it is that scares people about them eludes me entirely. However I find VOODOO zombies terrifying. This one is set in Haiti, where it seems to be perpetually nighttime. A pair of young lovers comes there to marry. An unscrupulous plantation owner wants the girl for his own, so he contacts the evil zombie master Bela Lugosi (who uses zombie slave labor) to obtain his zombie-making secrets. He turns the bride into a zombie—she becomes the “wife” of the plantation owner. He quickly regrets this path…his zombie wife is a little unsatisfying. Lugosi starts to turn him into a zombie too. In the end the groom comes to rescue the girl, and the plantation owner in a last burst of humanity pushes Lugosi over a cliff to his death. Lots of cool Dracula derived elements inexplicably transplanted to Haiti…a ride in a similar carriage, and especially the mysterious, gorgeous Gothic castle. The atmosphere is nightmarish, chilling….

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9:45am (EST): Dementia 13 (1963)

Francis Ford Coppola’s first legit feature as writer/director, produced by Roger Corman, was intended to be a rip-off of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was released a couple of years earlier. It’s all about machinations surrounding a bequest…and an ax murderer in an old Irish castle. It sounds promising but I’ve always found the movie plodding and boring and have tried watching it about three times without ever getting all the way through it.

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1:15pm (EST): Homicidal (1961)

This is William Castle‘s none-too-subtle rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho, a hit of the previous year.  I don’t think I’ll be spoiling too much for you when I say the twist owes much to Psycho too, the evidence is that poster, and the very strange countenance of vocal qualities of the “woman” at the heart of this mystery. If it’s too much for you to stand, the film stops at a certain point to give you a “fright break”.

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3:00pm (EST): The Tingler (1959)

An unspeakably good William Castle feature. Vincent Price as a scientist and county coroner (how convenient) who has a theory so unscientific it may as well have been hatched by a primitive tribesman. He finds that people who died in frightening circumstances often have cracked spines. He deduces from this observation that there is a creature that lives in people’s vertebrae, and that it grows strong when a person is tense with fear. Such “fear tensions” can only be relieved by screams; when you can’t scream the creature kills you. Castle rigged the seats in the theaters to tingle (a technique he called “Percept-o”), causing random audience members to scream. Great LSD freak-out scene with Price — perhaps the first ever on film!

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4:30pm (EST): House of Wax (1953)

One of my favorite movies of all time. Price at his absolute best, as a demented wax sculptor and museum impresario, maimed in a fire by an unscrupulous partner for the insurance money. A throwback to an earlier age of horror. The script keeps many lines from the original pre-code Mystery of the Wax Museum, but generally improves it, streamlines and clarifies the story. The mise en scene is gorgeous: designed for 3-D and Technicolor, and historically accurate in many details, set in the time of gaslights and hansom cabs (as opposed to the original which was merely an atmospheric “present day”. It has references to some of the places I talk about in my book No Applause such as the Eden Musee etc. Carolyn Jones (Morticia Addams) is in it as Price’s first victim. Charles Bronson is also in it, thankfully as a mute. The 3-D gimmick is used in many silly ways, but that’s part of its charm.

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6:15pm: The Devil’s Bride (1968)

A rare Hammer film in which Christopher Lee is not the villain but the concerned friend of a young aristocrat who has fallen in with a bad crowd (Satanists, don’t you know) who summon demons from hell. Lee leads a small group of heroes to rescue the girl the demon plans to take for his own and send the unholy ones back to Hell. For added interest it is set in the 1920s. It is based on the 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out. 

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8:oopm (EST) The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

What better horror story to tell than this one which isn’t really a horror story, in that period when they weren’t really making horror films? Well, ya know, it is and it isn’t. Yes, it is a tale of unimaginable evil; and yes there is some kind of mysterious, supernatural soul transference (or to be more accurate — facial transference, one that any plastic surgeon might envy). And the doppelganger theme is strongly reminiscent of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And there is just a soupcon of Jack the Ripper. So we’re close, we’re awfully close. Yet it’s subtle and subdued, isn’t it? There is the wonderful Technicolor money shot at the end, but they do make you wait for it. Mostly we just wonder about creepy, vacant Hurd Hatfield (in his best known role) as he does increasingly mean and cruel things over a period of years, never aging, never becoming less “beautiful”. Don’t get me wrong. I think this is the PERFECT adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel. Though others have made the attempt, I don’t think a better one is possible. Do we ever want anyone but George Sanders uttering Wilde’s arch epigrams as Lord Wotton? What would be the point? But Wilde was a literary author. I think the story is too elusive and ambiguous to slot it into a genre.

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10:00pm (EST): The Curse of the Demon (1957)

Dana Andrews makes the mistake of attending an international symposium on the supernatural and pays for it by having a curse place on him. Can he get it lifted? Wait around and find out!

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11:30pm (EST): Dead of Night (1945)

One of the terrifying classics of the horror anthology genre, Dead of Night tells six stories, the most memorable of which casts Michael Redgrave as an insane ventriloquist named Maxwell whose dummy Hugo gets him into some very bad trouble. In the end, Max does what must be done.

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1:30am (EST): Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Essentially a remake of Tod Browning’s 1927 London After Midnight. Not a good film, though a good and weird one! Seems to be set in Czechoslovakia. A baron has been killed, presumably by vampires from a nearby castle. Browning revisits much of Dracula here, right down to the recapitulation of certain scenes. Lionel Atwill as some sort of investigator, frequent Browning collaborator Lionel Barrymore as a Van Helsing-like vampire expert. It is clearly a vampire movie for most of the film.  Bela Lugosi plays the count…who never speaks! And he has a daughter, a sort of early template for Vampira, Lily Munster, et al. Many scenes of the usual slow moving bats on fishing wire changing into vampires and so forth. One very cool shot—the only one in the movie—of the vampire daughter flying into the castle as a giant bat. Then the movie stops on a dime and the entire reality changes. It turns out to be a conventional murder investigation. Barrymore hypnotizes the suspect and forces him to relive the crime. It turns out the vampires are hired actors; the guardian of the murdered man’s daughter murdered the baron with poison.  Talk about being short-changed! Surely this ending must have left audiences grumbling!

After this: lots of crazy early-career David Lynch shorts! Until dawn!

Darkness in the Late Career of Ruth Gordon

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , on October 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Ruth Gordon. (For my full article on her go here).

Since we’ve been doing so much Halloween posting, and the big day is tomorrow, I thought I’d devote a little post to some of the darker films that categorized her later work:

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Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The entire explanation for why Gordon wound up in the genre at all lies in Roman Polanski’s groundbreaking horror film. In fact, for me personally, the most horrifying moment in the movie is that betrayal (sorry! spoilers unavoidable!) when we learn that dotty, eccentric, lovable, “harmless” old Ruth Gordon is part of the Satanic coven that’s been using Mia Farrow’s womb as a devil farm. We had been hanging on to Gordon’s soothing presence throughout the movie as a last shred of possibility that the evil we’re fearing won’t come true. It does anyway. After this film (and a couple of wacky ones that preceded it) the writing was on the wall — the old gal was game; she’d do just about any crazy thing.

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Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice (1969)

A psycho-biddy horror film by Robert Aldrich, who’d also been responsible for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). This film more closely resembles the former. Gordon plays a housekeeper who takes a job at the home of a widow played by Geraldine Page…a home where the housekeepers don’t seem to live very long.

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Harold and Maude (1971)

True, Harold (Bud Cort) is by far the darker of the two, what with his fake suicides and his driving around in a hearse. By contrast, his lover Maude is all sunshine and roses. But then…she is sixty years his senior. And when we say senior, we mean senior. 

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Isn’t it Shocking? (1973)

An ABC TV movie of the week, in which town sheriff Alan Alda (!) must investigate the mysterious deaths (electrically induced heart attacks, actually) of all the town’s senior citizens. Gordon is one of the town old folks, along with Will Geer, Lloyd Nolan, and Edmund O’Brien. 

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The Great Houdini (1976)

Gordon played Houdini’s mom in the ABC tv movie bio-pic starring Paul Michael Glaser (a.k.a “Starsky”). You can’t tell the Houdini story without ghosts (fake ones, anyway), seances, and lots of dwelling on death, which this picture has plenty of.

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Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976)

Gordon was the only one from the original cast to return for this sequel, presented as an ABC TV movie. (Although it indeed has an all-star cast). It unfolds in unholy chapters over the span of several decades, much like The Omen sequels would later do, and like all such sequels is a lesser entity than the original, but still must be watched.

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Don’t Go to Sleep (1982)

The ghost of a dead child comes back to haunt (and worse) her entire family, conveniently waiting until they move out to a spooky house in the country. Gordon plays the grandma, killed when she is frightened by the sight of an iguana.

On Herschel Bernardi

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , on October 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Herschel Bernardi (1923-1986). I’m just gonna give a quick shout out, rather than let another year go by without doing so.

Without knowing I was doing so, I first knew him as the voice of Charlie the Tuna in Star-Kist commercials:

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I’ve always interpreted the character as a Phil Silvers imitation, but maybe I’m wrong.

I think I first encountered his name in the credits to the 1974 Filmation feature Journey Back to Oz (he was the voice of the saw horse of that animated feature).

Bernardi is also well known for having been one of the formerly-blacklisted stars of the 1976 film The Front, and for having replaced Zero Mostel as Tevye in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. From 1970 to 1972 he starred in the CBS sitcom Arnie, and was one of the stars of the 1977 miniseries Seventh Avenue. Other movies he appeared in included Irma La Douce (1963), and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963)

What truly merits his ioncludsion here, was that Bernardi was a family of actors in the Yiddish theatre, on New York’s Second Avenue, the “Jewish Rialto”. In the 1930, he acted in Yiddish speaking films of Edgar Ulmer. In the 1950s he branched out into TV.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Stars of Vaudeville #921: Anna Case

Posted in Classical, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , on October 29, 2015 by travsd

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Today is birthday of Anna Case (1888-1984). New Jersey born Case was said to have been the first person to sing at the Metropolitan Opera who hadn’t been trained in Europe. She debuted at the Met as a soprano in 1909, and sang with the company for a decade, in such works as Lohengrin, Carmen, Aida, and The Magic Flute. From 1919 through 1930, she gave concert recitals throughout the United States, including the vaudeville circuits. (E.g, she played the Palace in 1926). She retired in 1930 and married wealthy opera patron Clarence H. Mackey, father of Ellin Mackey, who married Irving Berlin. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Chaplin, Normand & Co. in “Gentlemen of Nerve”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2015 by travsd

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Today marks the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin/ Keystone comedy Gentlemen of Nerve. This is one of what I call the ad hoc/ improv type silent comedies, shot at an actual car race. There is a nice feeling of ensemble in this little comedy, a confidence that bespeaks a gang of comedians that have been playing together for several months are just now coming into their own creatively.

Chester Conklin and Mabel Normand play a couple who come to watch the car race. As soon as they sit down in the stands, Chester starts flirting with a homely woman in a crazy hat (Phyllis Allen). Mabel pulls his nose to get him to stop. Meanwhile Chaplin and Mack Swain tussle about trying to enter the track. They shake hands. Then they try to sneak in through the fence. Whereupon Swain gets stuck. Charlie goes under his legs and through. A Keystone Kop  helps Mack out. Then Chaplin begins flirting with Mabel, pushing Conklin out of the way. By the end of the film, with much fooling around in between, Chaplin winds up with TWO girls.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Be a Part of “The Moose Head Over The Mantel” (and See a Sneak Preview)

Posted in Horror (Mostly Gothic), ME, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), My Shows with tags , , on October 28, 2015 by travsd

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My terrifyingly talented friends at Inappropriate Films shot this amazing and highly original horror film over the summer, with yours truly in a key role. Want proof?:

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There’s a real slick trailer at this web address: http://www.seedandspark.com/studio/the-moose-head-over-the-mantel#wishlist. Please do watch it!

I won’t lie, it’s a partial plea for post-production funds — they need to cut this dang deal, mix the sound etc etc. But even if you don’t have the scratch (or the inclination), I hope you’ll watch the trailer. It may just get you jazzed to see the film at least!

Tonight on TCM: Spooky Disney Classics

Posted in Halloween, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2015 by travsd

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Tonight, in celebration of the Halloween season, TCM will show several Disney classics, most of which (kind of) have a spooky angle. Disney never allows itself to get TOO dark, but there are definitely treats on the menu tonight.

The highlight for me is the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” half of the bifurcated Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). As I wrote here, television screenings of this animated short was one of my earliest exposures to that tale, or really any sort of “horror” whatsoever. Granted, Ichabod Crane is a comical character, and so is his horse, but the film does have great suspense and atmosphere, and it is most effective on small children, which I was. Perhaps the Halloween bug bit me right then and there. The Mr. Toad half of the film is most enjoyable as well, although it’s not the slightest bit scary, but it IS narrated by Basil Rathbone. 

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Also high on my list of appropriate favorites here is the moody short The Old Mill (1937) one of the most perfect films the studio ever produced. The scary elements are merely a thunder storm and creatures of the night, but it is a glorious thing to look at and listen to. Lonesome Ghosts, released the same year is a spook comedy starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy.

Also on the menu are the live action Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return from Witch Mountain (1978). These were huge hits when I was a kid; Kim Richards was a super-star with the 8-12 set. Although it is most hilarious that TCM classifies these films as “horror” in their description. It ain’t scary (unless you find flying Winnebagoes terrifying).

The evening kicks off with three tangential but appreciated classics: Three Little Wolves (1936), Three Little Pigs (1948), and The Big Bad Wolf (1934). Many have said that they found the wolf in the latter film very scary as young children, and he does sort of rate a place as perhaps the first great classic Disney villain.

And it all winds down in the wee hours with several spooky family comedies from the 1980s: Tim Burton’s original Frankenweenie short (1980), Mr. Boogedy (1986) and The Ghosts of Buxley Hall (1980). Details on show times can be found on TCM’s website. 

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