The Zombie King: RIP George A. Romero

Way back in 1970, my cousins and I went to a horror double feature at the old Olympia Theater in New Bedford. The main attraction was called EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.  Quite frankly, it sucked, but the bottom half of that double bill was an obscure black & white films that scared the shit out of us! That movie was George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

NOTLD (1968)

From the creepy opening in a cemetery (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) to the gross-out shots of zombies feasting on human entrails, from the little girl eating her father’s corpse to the tragic final scene when the hero (a black man, no less!) is shot by the cops, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was an edge-of-your-seat nightmare of horror. There were no stars in it, unless you count Bill Cardille, a local Pittsburgh DJ and horror host known around these parts as ‘The Voice of Professional Wrestling’. As a 12-year-old horror fanatic, I absolutely loved it, and still do today, thanks to the genius of George A. Romero.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

George Romero’s dark, apocalyptic vision opened the floodgates for zombie movies to come. He followed up NOTLD with 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, set inside a suburban shopping mall (where I happened to see it!), and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, the final chapter in his original “Zombie Trilogy” (though there’d be more walking dead to come). Born and raised in the Bronx, Romero attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which became his home base. Unlike other low-budget horror filmmakers (Tobe Hooper, for example), Romero stayed true to his roots, making all his movies in and around the Pittsburgh area, refusing to “go Hollywood”.

Martin (1978)

His movies are the stuff nightmares are made of: THE CRAZIES (1973) deals with a biological weapon accidentally unleashed, turning people into homicidal maniacs. MARTIN (1978), Romero’s personal favorite, features both religious fanaticism and vampirism. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) is the bizarre tale of a traveling medieval show with jousters on motorcycles. CREEPSHOW (1982), a collaboration with Stephen King, has a quintet of stories in the style of 50’s EC Comics like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR. MONKEY SHINES (1988) involves a bond between a quadriplegic man and a service monkey that turns deadly. TWO EVIL EYES (1990) is another collaboration, this time with Italian maestro Dario Argento, with each director taking on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. THE DARK HALF (1993) is one of the most successful adaptations of a Stephen King novel put to film.

NOTLD (1968)

But it’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that everyone will remember Romero for, a shocking masterpiece of terror that’s been often imitated, but never duplicated. It still scares the hell out of me, and I’m going to go dust off my VHS copy and watch it right now. I think George would’ve wanted it that way.

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Grand Dame Guignol: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (United Artists 1971)

The recent FX mini-series FEUD has sparked a renewed interest in the “Older Actresses Doing Horror” genre, also known by the more obnoxious sobriquettes “Hagsploitaion” or “Psycho-Biddy” movies. This peculiar film category lasted from 1962’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? until winding down around the early Seventies. 1971’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? came towards the end of the cycle, a creepy little chiller with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters   getting caught up in murder and madness in 1930’s Hollywood.

I wouldn’t exactly call Debbie Reynolds a “hag”; she was only 39 when this was filmed, and still quite a hottie, especially when glammed-up in a Jean Harlow “Platinum Blond” wig. Deb gets to show off her tap-dancing and tangoing in a few scenes, showing off her still amazing legs for good measure. She and Shelley play a pair of Iowa mothers who (as the opening newsreel footage tells us) have spawned two killer sons that slaughtered a young girl and got sentenced to life in prison. Harassed by angry mobs and receiving threatening phone calls, Adelle (Debbie) and Helen (Shelley) decide to go west and open a dancing school for aspiring Shirley Temple types in Tinsletown.

Changing their last names, Adelle and Helen rent a studio, and soon an oddball unemployed ham named (appropriately enough) Hamilton Starr worms his way into a position as voice coach. Linc Palmer, rich father of one of Adelle’s no-talent pupils, takes an interest in her, while Helen withdraws from the world, finding solace in her pet rabbits and the religious radio broadcasts of Sister Alma (played by Agnes Moorehead, whose genre credits include HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE   and DEAR DEAD DELIALH).

Helen is still getting those threatening phone calls, and seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adelle suspects Helen of sending a newspaper clipping of her sordid past to Linc, and comes home to find blood smeared on a cardboard cut-out of her. She demands Helen leave, and walks out in a huff. A knock on the door finds a man who knows Helen’s real name, and as he walks up the staircase, the frightened, freaked out woman pushes him to his doom. Adelle returns, discovering the horror, and helps Helen get rid of the body.

Helen is now truly cracking up, and not even Sister Alma can save her (“There is no forgiveness for me”). After Adelle receives a marriage proposal from Linc, she arrives back home to discover her bedroom trashed, and blood all over the bathroom. Following a trail of blood down the bannister to the backyard, she gasps as she sees Helen’s pet rabbits all slaughtered in their coops. Then Helen appears, blood on the front of her nightgown, and…

And you’ll have to watch the movie to find out (although that poster up top may give you a clue). Shelley Winters was said to have been having a real-life nervous breakdown while shooting this film, and her acting is more restrained than usual at this stage of her career. She certainly had me convinced she was going bonkers but, given the circumstances, it probably wasn’t that much of a stretch for her. There’s a subtle but noticeable lesbian subtext in Helen’s reliance on Adelle, deftly handled by both ladies. Shelley had previous appeared in THE MAD ROOM, and went on to star in WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, and overcame her breakdown to continue a long career.

Linc is played by Dennis Weaver, taking a break from MCCLOUD to portray Debbie’s lover. Flamboyant Irish thespian Michael MacLiammoir plays the flamboyant Hamilton Starr in a clear case of typecasting (though he did remind me a bit of Sydney Greenstreet). Another oddball actor, Timothy Carey , has a cameo as a down-on-his-luck bum. Pamelyn Ferdin, Logan Ramsey, Peggy Rea, and the immortal Yvette Vickers   all pop up in small parts.

Henry Farrell, whose novel served as the basis for BABY JANE, wrote the spooky screenplay, as he did with SWEET CHARLOTTE. He also did the teleplays for HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALAN (with Julie Harris and Anthony Perkins) and THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE (Barbara Stanwyck). Director Curtis Harrington was a huge horror buff responsible for the atmospheric NIGHT TIDE, QUEEN OF BLOOD, GAMES, and the TV Movies THE CAT CREATURE, KILLER BEES (with Gloria Swanson!), and DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL. DP Lucian Ballard isn’t a name usually associated with horror films, but he dabbled occasionally early in his career (1942’s THE UNDYING MONSTER, ’44’s THE LODGER), so he knew the territory fairly well.

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? is kitschy fun, with Debbie and Shelley enjoying a good, gruesome romp together. Keep a lookout for more of these “Psycho-Biddy” films on TCM and elsewhere, featuring Golden Age stars like Bette, Joan , Barbara, Agnes, Olivia, Tallulah, Miriam , even Gloria Grahame… just watch out for hidden knives!

 

Happy Birthday Vincent Price: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (AIP 1960)

I’ve covered Vincent Price’s film work 17 times here, which must be some kind of record. Can you tell he’s one of my all-time favorite actors? Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. was born May 27, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri. The elegant, eloquent Price was also an avid art collector and gourmet cook of some note. He’s justifiably famous for his film noir roles, but Price etched his name in cinematic stone as one of filmdom’s Masters of Horror.

Price starred in his first fright film way back in 1940 with THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS . But it wasn’t until 1953’s 3-D outry HOUSE OF WAX that he became tagged as a horror star. Later in that decade, he made a pair of gimmicky shockers for director William Castle ( THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL , THE TINGLER), and in 1960 began his collaboration with Roger Corman on movies based (loosely, mind you) on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The first in the series, 1960’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, helped usher in (sorry!) a whole new genre of horror…  Vincent Price Movies!

The story: a rider approaches a fog-shrouded, gloomy, decaying mansion. He’s Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon), betrothed of Madeline Usher, come to fetch his fiancé. Bristol, the Usher’s faithful servant (Harry Ellerbe), tells him Miss Madeline is ill and confined to her bed by brother Roderick. Enter our star, a blonde Price, as Roderick, a sensitive, tortured soul who suffers “an affliction of the hearing… sounds of an exaggerated degree cut into my brain like knives”. Roderick warns Phillip to “leave this house” and forget about Madeline, for “the Usher line is cursed”, afflicted with madness.

Madeline (Myrna Fahey) arises from her sick-bed to greet Phillip. The beautiful but haunted girl is “obsessed with thoughts of death”, and leads Phillip downstairs to the family crypt, filled with dead ancestors and two coffins waiting for the last living Ushers. Roderick appears, and upstairs he later explains to Phillip the wicked legacy of his forbearers, whose macabre portraits hang on the walls of the house of Usher. He intones that “the house itself is evil now”, the sins of his family “rooted into its stones”.

Madeline dies following an argument with Roderick, dies, unable to take the strain of her situation. She’s buried in the family crypt, finally at peace… or is she? Bristol lets slip that Madeline suffered from catalepsy, and a frantic Phillip rushes down to the crypt to find her coffin locked! He takes an axe to the lock, only to discover the casket’s empty! The angry suitor, axe in hand, confronts Roderick, demanding to know where she is. Roderick confesses she lives, telling Phillip, “Even now, I hear her, alive, deranged, in fury… twisting, turning, scratching at the lid with bloody fingernails… can you not hear her voice, she calls my name!”….

A subdued, understated Price left his trademarked ham at the table to play the tortured Roderick Usher. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when Price hams it up (see the Dr. Phibes films  , for example), but he could tone things down when the role warranted it. The cultured actor was a Poe aficionado, and his performances in this and the subsequent Corman/Poe films rank among his best work. This was also Corman’s first movie with scenarist Richard Matheson, who does a bang-up job despite taking some liberties with the source material. Surprisingly (or maybe not), American-International honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff didn’t like the idea, wanting Corman to stick to their profitable low-budget double features. “There’s no monsters”, he complained, and Corman had to explain that “The house IS the monster” before being given the green light*. The rest is horror history.

If Boris Karloff was the King of Horror and Lugosi its Dark Prince, surely Vincent Price has an exalted rank in the horror hierarchy as well. High priest, perhaps? He and his British compatriots Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (who was also born on this date) kept the torch of Gothic horror burning well into the 1970’s, before gore and slasher shockers started dominating the marketplace. Happy birthday, Vinnie, and thanks for the nightmares!

(BTW, those weird paintings of the family Usher were done by Burt Shonberg, a little known artist whose feverish works have never been truly appreciated. Since Vincent Price was an ardent collector of art, here’s a sampling of some of them. I think Vincent would approve!)

*according to the book “The Films of Roger Corman” by Alan Frank, pg. 88 (BT Batsford Ltd, 1998)

Vincent Price Goes to Camp in DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (AIP 1972)

Since 1971’s THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES  was such a big hit, American-International Pictures immediately readied a sequel for their #1 horror star, Vincent Price. But like most sequels, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN isn’t nearly as good as the unique original, despite the highly stylized Art Deco sets and the presence of Robert Quarry, who the studio had begun grooming as Price’s successor beginning with COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE. The murders (for the most part) just aren’t as monstrous, and too much comedy in director Robert Feust’s script (co-written with Robert Blees) turn things high camp rather than scary.

Price is good, as always, bringing the demented Dr. Anton Phibes back from the grave. LAUGH-IN announcer Gary Owens recaps the first film via clips, letting us know Phibes escaped both death and the police by putting himself in suspended animation. Returning with loyal servant Vulnavia (who’s now played by Valli Kemp, replacing a then-pregnant Virginia North), Phibes plots to travel to Egypt with his deceased wife Victoria to the ancient Pharaoh’s Tomb where flows the River of Life. Seems the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter’s aligned with Mars… no wait, that’s from the rock musical HAIR! Anyway, there’s some sort of astrological phenomenon involving the moon that will allow Phibes to revive his dormant bride.

Phibes’ home in Maldeen Square is in ruins, and he discovers his safe emptied of the Scared Scroll he needs to locate the tomb. It can only be the work of Darrus Biederbeck (Quarry), who has his own reasons to find the River of Life. This gives the good doctor an excuse to commit a series of gruesome murders in order to achieve his fiendish goal. The best is when Biederbeck’s manservant (actor/wrestler Milton Reid) is attacked by snakes (and you know how much I hate snakes! ) and gets the old hidden-spike-in-the-telephone-receiver-through-the-ears! Phibes’ other ghastly deeds involve having a man eaten alive by an eagle, stung by scorpions, squished between two blocks of granite, sandblasted to death, and thrown overboard inside a giant bottle of gin (Oscar winner Hugh Griffith gets that dubious honor). Ingenious yes, but not as cool as the previous movie’s ten curses of Egypt murders. You just can’t beat that Old Testament-style torture!

I thought Valli Kemp was misused as Vulnavia; instead of a silent-but-deadly assassin, she’s more like a spokesmodel from THE PRICE IS RIGHT (no pun intended). Scotland Yard’s finest, Inspector Trout and Superintendent Waverly (Peter Jeffries, John Cater) return, as do Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards. But the intrepid cops are basically comic relief, and the robotic Wizards are wasted. Peter Cushing  , Terry-Thomas, and Beryl Reid are also wasted in too-small cameos, though Fiona Lewis  has a good turn as Biederbeck’s fiancé Diana. Victoria Regina Phibes is still played by Caroline Munro, who can’t do much but look beautiful as a corpse. DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN is gorgeous to look at, but suffers the same fate as most sequels. The formula has worn thin, and though a third Phibes film was announced (THE BRIDES OF DR. PHIBES), it was never made. This entry did well enough at the box office, but Dr. Anton Phibes would rise no more.

 

 

 

 

Flesh & Blood: Marilyn Chambers in RABID (New World 1977)

Once upon a time, there was a pretty young actress named Marilyn Chambers. She had a fresh, wholesome quality about her, and did some bits parts and modeling gigs. One was as the decent young mom holding her pride and joy baby on the box of Ivory Snow, the detergent that claimed it was 99 1/4% pure. But no acting jobs were forthcoming, so Marilyn found herself in a porn flick called BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR, which became a sensation…

… as did young Marilyn, though she longed to be taken as a serious actress in mainstream films.

Around the same time, there was a young Canadian director named David Cronenberg. He was making a name for himself in the horror field with films like CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (1970) and SHIVERS (1975)…

… but though a few critics admired his work, most dismissed him as just another Grindhouse hack. For young David’s movies were of the “body horror” school, filled with gore, grossness, and a lot of sex, not to mention a very low budget. He had an idea for a movie titled RABID, and wanted to cast Sissy Spacek, fresh off her lead in CARRIE, in the starring role. But the producers balked at casting Sissy and her Texas accent in a Canadian film, so young David searched far and wide, finally choosing young Marilyn as his nominal star. Marilyn was grateful to finally have the lead in a mainstream film, and they lived happily ever after.

Well, not really. Cronenberg went on to THE DEAD ZONE, THE FLY remake, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and a great career, while Marilyn went back to porn with 1980’s INSATIABLE and other hard-and-softcore delights before her way-too-early death in 2009 at age 57. RABID shows she could act, if not on a par with Hepburn or Meryl Streep. Still, she was more than competent in this creepy little thriller as Rose, who’s involved in an horrific motorcycle crash with her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore). Fortunately (or unfortunately, as it turns out), the accident occurs near the Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery. Rose is put back together using an experimental method of skin grafting, resulting in her growing a monstrous blood-sucking appendage in her arm pit (which pops out of what suspiciously looks like a certain part of the female anatomy!).

Rose begins infecting people with a mysterious virus that turns it’s victims into mouth-foaming, blood-lusting maniacs. Soon the entire city of Montreal is under siege by the zombie-like creatures, and martial law is declared with orders of shoot to kill. Oh, Canada! Rose continues infecting people, including an iconic scene where she enter a porn theater and is hit on by a leisure-suited perv. Bad idea, perv! (The film playing is called MODELS FOR PLEASURE, and I’m unsure if it’s a real movie or not. I can’t find any info on it… any readers out there heard of it?) When Rose leaves the theater, she walks past another movie palace. The film showing there? CARRIE!

RABID showcases Cronenberg’s trademark black humor, as well as his penchant for gruesomeness. It also features a good turn by character actor Joe Silver as the sympathetic business partner of Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan, who also ends up infected in a wild operating room scene). The film helped put David Cronenberg on the map, due in large part to the novelty of having Marilyn Chambers in a straight role (though she does have her share of topless scenes, praise Jesus!). Any fans of David Cronenberg, the lovely Miss Chambers, or good ol’ 70’s Grindhouse gore will be more than satiated by viewing RABID.

Stage Fright: THE HYPNOTIC EYE (Allied Artists 1960)

The Hypnotic Eye (1960) Directed by George Blair Shown: Lobby card

Evil hypnotists have been a movie staple since Svengali first mesmerized Trilby in 1911, but THE HYPNOTIC EYE is in a class of its own. This demented little tale is sufficiently creepy enough to overcome its meager budget limitations, and features the Ice Queen of Horror, Allison Hayes, in the pivotal role of Justine, assistant to master trancemaker Desmond.

hypno2

We start with an opening shot of a woman, thinking she’s washing her hair, sticking her head directly into the flame of a stove pilot. That’ll get your attention! A series of horrible self-mutilations have left a dozen beautiful women disfigured and the police scratching their heads. Detective Dave Kennedy discusses the bizarre cases with police psychologist Phil Hecht: “One of them stuck her face in the blade of an electric fan. Thought it was a vibrator. Another one sliced her face with a straight razor. Thought it was a lipstick brush”.

hypno3

Dave’s girlfriend Marcia thinks he needs a night out, so along with their friend Dodie they attend the hottest show in town, stage hypnotist The Great Desmond. Dave’s skeptical, but Dodie volunteers to be hypnotized, remembering nothing afterward. Later, she sneaks backstage to visit Desmond, and when she gets home has the brilliant idea to wash her face with sulfuric acid! Marcia has a theory that Desmond is behind all the ghastly mischief, but when Dave interviews the victims, none of them recall going to Desmond’s show… not even Dodie! That proves it! Now Marcia volunteers to be hypnotized by Desmond, and danger takes center stage…

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I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen THE HYPNOTIC EYE, but I will tell you about HypnoMagic!  This was part of the ballyhoo campaign for the film, featuring Desmond hypnotizing the audience (both onscreen and off) into doing his bidding by directly looking into the camera, and using a swirling psychedelic hypno disc to control our minds. This is the kind of thing William Castle   was famous for, and I’m proud to say it didn’t work on me. My will is much stronger than The Great Desmond!

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Dave and Phil follow Desmond and the hypnotized Marcia to a beatnik coffee-house, where we get to hear the latest groovy poem from a hipster played by Lawrence Lipton, titled “Confessions of a Movie Addict” :

Crazy, man, crazy! Equally crazy is Allison Hayes as Desmond’s assistant Justine, the catalyst for all the gruesome shenanigans going on, and the star of ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN is in fine bitchy form. Jacques Bergerac as Desmond is quite the charming sleazebag. The former star of LES GIRLS and GIGI (and ex-husband of Ginger Rogers and Dorothy Malone) was on his way down in the Hollywood pecking order, but still gives the role his all . The rest of the cast is nondescript, though I’ll give some credit to genre vet Merry Anders (THE TIME TRAVELERS, WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET) as Dodie. Fred Demara, known as ‘The Great Imposter’ for his 50’s-60’s exploits, has a cameo as a doctor. His life was made into a movie starring Tony Curtis; let me assure you they look NOTHING alike.

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This cult classic won’t make any “best-of” lists, and isn’t as gory as what was to come in future sicko 60’s Grindhouse shockers, but it has its moments, and Emile LaVigne’s make-up jobs on the disfigured women is on a par with his work on Zsa Zsa Gabor in QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE  . THE HYPNOTIC EYE is slow in parts,  but provided more than enough deranged fun to satisfy the horror lover in me.