“and then all is madness”: PIT AND THE PENDULUM (AIP 1961)

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How have I ignored Roger Corman here for so long, save for a short “Cleaning Out the DVR” review of THE TERROR ?  The King of the Low Budget Quickies has long been a favorite filmmaker of mine, and has probably had more impact on American cinema than people realize. Well, now that TCM is running its month-long salute to AIP, I’m about to rectify that oversight. (By the way, Corman himself is cohosting the retrospective every Thursday night along with TCM’s own Ben Mankiewicz!)

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American International Pictures scored a hit with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER, an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation starring Vincent Price and directed by Corman. Studio honchos James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff looked at the box office numbers and, realizing they had a cash cow on their hands, asked Corman to produce a follow-up.  Rapid Roger decided on PIT AND THE PENDULUM, shot in 15 days for less than a quarter million dollars. The result was one of the series best, a moody piece that reportedly influenced Italian horror maestros from Mario Bava to Dario Argento.

Poe’s original story was very short, so screenwriter Richard Matheson concocted a new framework, using Poe’s torture tale for the final act. Matheson was a giant of horror fiction himself, a prolific writer of novels (“I Am Legend”, “The Shrinking Man”, “Hunted Beyond Reason”), short stories (“Death Ship”, “Steel”, “Button Button”), teleplays for THE TWILIGHT ZONE (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), TV Movies (“Duel”, ‘The Night Stalker”, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, “Trilogy of Terror”), and films (including five Corman/Poe collaborations and DIE DIE MY DARLING, THE DEVIL’S BRIDE, SOMEWHERE IN TIME, JAWS 3-D, STIR OF ECHOES).

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PIT AND THE PENDULUM begins with Francis Barnard arriving at the Spanish castle of Don Nicholas Medina. Francis’ sister Elizabeth has recently died, and he’s come to find out what really happened. He’s greeted at the door by Nicholas’ sister Catherine, who’s reluctant to let him enter. Francis demands to see her brother, so Catherine takes him “down below”, into the catacombs of the castle. Weird noise are emanating from behind a large, foreboding door. Undaunted, Francis approaches the door, just as it opens and….

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…out pops Vincent Price as Nicholas, startling both Francis and the audience! It’s a grand entrance, and another showcase role for Price. He’s subdued at first as Nicholas, slowly building over the course of the film as he’s tortured by Elizabeth’s memory, finally descending into full-blown madness as only Vincent Price can. Price’s Nicholas Medina is a tour-de-force performance that stands tall among his pantheon of great horror depictions (HOUSE OF WAX, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, etc, etc). Price plays it low-key in the beginning but, once Nicholas snaps, out comes the ham he’s so famous for slicing. And here, it’s spicy and delicious!

Back to the story: Nicholas tells Francis his sister died from “something in her blood”. Francis is skeptical, and will stay the night (“and more, sir”) in order to get to the truth. At dinner, a caller drops in, Dr. Charles Leon, who lets the black cat out of the bag, that Elizabeth “literally died of fright”! They take Francis below again, and the secret behind that door is revealed: it’s the torture chamber of Nicholas and Catherine’s father, Don Sebastian Medina, the infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition.

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Flashbacks saturated in blue and red show happy couple Nicholas and Elizabeth living a serene life. But soon she begins to change, obsessed with Sebastian’s chamber of horrors, hearing strange voices call to her. Nicholas plans on taking her away from the castle, but on the day they’re to depart, he hears “the most hideous, bloodcurdling scream I have ever heard in my life”. Rushing to the dank basement, Nicholas is shocked to discover Elizabeth has locked herself inside the iron maiden. Before she dies, she whispers a name to him: “Sebastian”.

A second flashback sequence shows us that Nicholas, as a young boy of 10, wandered into the dungeon to witness his father accuse his mother Isabella and Uncle Bartolome of adultery, then murder them both in his insidious torture devices. Later that night, harpsichord music is heard playing from the parlor. Her ring is found on the keys. “It was Elizabeth”, says Nicholas in a state of shock. They put him to bed, then Leon has another revelation: Nicholas fears that Elizabeth was “interred prematurely”, as his mother was, walled inside her tomb while still alive.

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A scream from Elizabeth’s room sends everyone running, finding the frightened maid Maria there, the place trashed. Maria insists she heard Elizabeth’s voice, and while they comfort her, Francis finds a secret passageway leading directly to Nicholas’ room. Francis accuses Nicholas, but he denies it, while beginning to doubt his own sanity. Dr. Leon suggests they exhume Elizabeth’s tomb to soothe Nicholas’s dread, and they do, only to discover her body frozen in horror, buried alive after all. “True!”, Nicholas repeats over and over, having crossed the threshold of madness. “True! True!”

Nicholas, alone in his room, hears Elizabeth calling out to him. He trudges down to the dungeon, and recoils in terror as a bloodied Elizabeth rises from the grave. His mind has gone, and we learn Elizabeth and Dr. Leon planned this all well in advance; like his father before him, Nicholas is a victim of his wife’s adultery. But something’s happened to Nicholas: he now believes he’s his father Sebastian, and history is about to repeat itself. “I’m going to torture you, Isabella”, he proclaims as he traps Elizabeth in the iron maiden. Leon falls into the pit unseen by Nicholas, and when Francis barges in on the commotion, Nicholas transfers his evil intentions, believing Francis is Bartolome. Strapping Francis to a cold stone slab, he puts the razor-sharp pendulum into motion, the blade slowly swinging back and forth, inching closer and closer toward Francis’ prone body…

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Corman and his crew created a psychedelic nightmare of a movie with PIT AND THE PENDULUM. DP Floyd Crosby and set designer (and future AIP director) Daniel Haller work their magic within the budget limitations, giving it an expensive look. Les Baxter contributes another moody score, as he did in many an AIP production. The cast features another horror icon, beautiful Barbara Steele as Elizabeth. While her role is brief, Steele conveys the evil of Elizabeth in her scenes with Price (watch out for that final shot!). John Kerr (Francis) was known for more mainstream films like TEA AND SYMPATHY and SOUTH PACIFIC; he later dropped out of movies and became a successful lawyer. Corman regulars Luana Anders and Antony Carbone round out the cast.

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PIT AND THE PENDULUM is a must-see film for horror lovers. Corman and Price would go on to make five more Edgar Allan Poe shockers together before Corman tired of them, and moved onto more experimental works, eventually becoming a mini-movie mogul by founding New World Pictures. Nicholson and Arkoff, not willing to put the Poe cash cow out to pasture, hired other directors, and persuaded Price to star in more Poe offerings. While THE CONQUEROR WORM (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL) is considered a modern-day classic, THE OBLONG BOX and CRY OF THE BANSHEE suffered without Roger Corman and his band of merry moviemakers, and the AIP/Poe series ended in 1970. All of the Corman/Price/Poe pictures are worth watching today, and if you’re late to this Poe party, PIT AND THE PENDULUM is an excellent place to start.

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Another Fine Mess: Laurel & Hardy in JITTERBUGS (20th Century Fox 1943)

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Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the screen’s most beloved comics. Their Hal Roach comedy shorts contain some of the screen’s funniest moments, capitalizing on their unique comic personas. But by the 1940’s, Stan and Ollie had separated from Roach, and were plying their trade in features at 20th Century Fox. No longer in control of their material, the roles they played could’ve been filled by any pair of comic actors. That’s what makes later L&H efforts like JITTERBUGS so depressing.

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Stan and Ollie are two itinerant musicians (“The Original Zoot Suit Band”) conned into aiding con artist Chester Wright into hawking “instant gas pills”. The scam gets uncovered in the small town of Midville, where Chester accidentally steals pretty young Susan’s purse. Since he’s smitten with her, he returns it, and discovers Susan is being swindled by some gangland goons. The con plays a con on these cons, aided by Stan and Ollie. Stan dresses in drag as Susan’s aunt, and after some complications, the gangsters are rounded up, Chester and Susan get together, and everything’s hunky dory.

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It’s strange to see Laurel & Hardy in this 40’s milieu, acting like 40’s hepcats, surrounded by energetic jitterbuggers. Like I said before, the parts could’ve been played here by any pair of comic actors. The uniqueness of what made Laurel & Hardy so special is nowhere to be found. The boys look older, but definitely not wiser here. The gags they participate in are stale as old bread, but the duo’s natural funniness does manage to shine through in glimpses. Vivian Blaine (Susan) had a fine singing voice, wasted here with some forgettable ditties. She had more success on the Broadway stage, creating the role of Adelaide in GUYS & DOLLS, which she also played in the film version.

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Bob Bailey (Chester) never made a big splash in films, either. He was a radio star known for the series YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR. The cast is loaded with Familiar Faces: Douglas Fowley, Noel Madison, Lee Patrick, Robert Emmett Keane, Anthony Caruso, and Francis Ford. Director Malcom St. Clair had a long, undistinguished film career; his best known credit is probably THE CANARY MURDER CASE, an early talkie with William Powell as suave sleuth Philo Vance, featuring Jean Arthur and Louise Brooks.

Screenwriter Scott Darling has 196 credits listed on the IMDb! He wrote the ongoing silent serial THE HAZZARDS OF HELEN, all 119 chapters totaling over 23 hours. That alone would get him in the record books, but Darling didn’t stop there. He’s responsible for a ton of B-movies, some of them quite good: CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA, MYSTERY OF MR. WONG, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON , WEIRD WOMAN, COBRA WOMAN, THE SPIDER WOMAN, DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS, KIDNAPPED, BLUE GRASS OF KENTUCKY, and his last, DESERT PURSUIT. In October of 1951, the prolific writer was going through a painful divorce. His car was found parked on a beach, his wallet in the ocean surf. Scott Darling’s body was later found in the Pacific Ocean, a suicide.

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JITTERBUGS is not among Scott Darling’s, or Laurel & Hardy’s, best work. It’s sad to see the two great comedians wasted in an inconsequential movie like this. Any of their silent movies or 30’s comedies will bring you much more joy than sitting through JITTERBUGS. Don’t waste your time on this one; go find a copy of SONS OF THE DESERT instead.

 

 

In Praise of William Schallert

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“Hey, isn’t that whatsisname?” Chances are, if you’ve watched classic movies and TV shows, you know William Schallert. The actor, who died today at the ripe old age of 93, was never a star, but contributed many fine supporting performances in over 300 films and television episodes. He was one of those guys that, if you didn’t know the name, you certainly recognized the face.

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Schallert’s career stretches back to the late 40’s, with an uncredited role in THE FOXES OF HARROW, starring Rex Harrison and beautiful Maureen O’Hara. The young actor also popped up in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, the first of his many science fiction films. Schallert had a meaty part as greedy Dr. Mears in Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1951 THE MAN FROM PLANET X , and appeared in GOG, THEM, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and THE MONLITH MONSTERS. He would return to the genre later in his career in such features as TWIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, GREMLINS, and was a favorite of director Joe Dante (GREMLINS, INNERSPACE, MATINEE).

American actors (left to right) Richard Gautier, Patty Duke and William Schallert in a promotional portrait for 'Anywhere I Hang My Horn Is Home', an episode in the US sitcom 'The Patty Duke Show', 1966. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Schallert was ubiquitous on television. Better to ask what TV show DIDN’T he guest on! Regular roles included Lt. Manny Harris on PHILIP MARLOWE , stuffy Prof. Pomfret on THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS, and dad Martin Lane on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW. He worked on all the sci-fi/horror anthologies: SCIENCE FICTION THEATER, THE TWILGHT ZONE, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, ONE STEP BEYOND, and THRILLER. Recently, he played the Mayor on HBO’s vampire series TRUE BLOOD.

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But he’ll probably be best remembered as Nils Baris, the authoritarian under-secretary of agriculture in the classic STAR TREK episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles”. Here, Schallert’s in top form as the pompous Federation official at odds with Captain Kirk. It’s one of the series best (definitely the funniest), and Schallert shows why he was one of the best supporting actors in the business. Rest in peace, William Schallert. They don’t make ’em like you anymore.

Make Mine Marvel! CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Disney 2016)

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I haven’t reviewed a new film here since last year’s BLACK MASS , but since all the characters in CAPTAIN AMERICA:CIVIL WAR are classics, I feel the movie fits right in with the blog’s theme. Plus, I simply love the Marvel Super Heroes! I grew up in the Marvel Age of Comics, devouring monthly issues of Spider-Man, Captain America, The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and the rest of the costumed cavorters. I had stacks and stacks of them, which I regrettably sold as a young man to finance a move to the bayous of Louisiana. But I remember them well, and how much fun the Marvel titles were.

Apparently, directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely remember too, because this movie is a whole lot of fun. Sure, there’s an underlying political theme here, the will of the collective vs the will of the individual. But it’s handled well through the characters of iconoclastic Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr). The film doesn’t bash you over the head with it, giving both points of view. (As for me, in case you were wondering, I’m on Team Cap!)

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CAPTAIN AMERICA:CIVIL WAR is the third of the Cap trilogy, but could easily be considered the third Avengers film. Everybody’s in this one. Well, almost. Conspicuous by their absences are Hulk and Thor. Some new characters are introduced, including T’Challa, aka The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). He’s central to the plot here, as the Wakandan prince whose father is killed in an attack on a UN summit where some (but not all) Avengers are signing an accord to give up their autonomy and work strictly for the world governing body. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) joins the fray on Captain America’s side, and he adds a welcome comic presence to the film. He also gives us a cameo as Giant-Man… shades of Bert I. Gordon !

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By far, the most anticipated new addition to the MCU is teenage Peter Parker, better known as Spider-Man! Tom Holland dons the long-johns as everybody’s favorite neighborhood web-slinger, and he certainly does Steve Ditko proud. The scene where Tony Stark recruits Spidey is hilarious, and Holland captures the spirit of the comic book Spider-Man better than anyone since Tobey Maguire. Maybe even better! His wisecracks while battling Cap and company are priceless, and I’m looking forward to his upcoming solo film. I just can’t wrap my head around Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, though…. she’s far too sexy for the role!

And as much as I rail against CGI on this blog, I didn’t mind it so much here. It’s a comic book movie, and as such isn’t supposed to reflect the real world. The fight scenes are handled well with the CGI, so I won’t piss and moan about it. Instead, I’ll compliment the fine ensemble cast. Sebastian Stan reprises his Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier role, and he’s solid as usual. His banter with Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is great. Paul Bettany (The Vision) and Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda/The Scarlet Witch) work well together, and is it me, or is Viz showing some human emotion coming through? Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo is a villain with a believable motive, not your typical bad guy. William Hurt plays Hulk’s nemesis Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross, elevated here to Secretary of State. And of course, Smilin’ Stan Lee gets his usual cameo as a FedEx delivery man.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA:CIVIL WAR is a fast paced film, despite its 2 hour, 27 minute running time. It’s not only enjoyable as a stand-alone movie, but sets up what will happen next in the MCU. The audience I watched it with at the soon to be defunct Flagship Cinema stayed until the last credits rolled, waiting for those clues of things to come. Most importantly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously (are you listening, BATMAN VS SUPERMAN?). Superhero fans will love this one, as box office receipts are already showing. Like I said, Make Mine Marvel! And Go, Team Cap:

My Living Doll: ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (AIP 1958)

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Oh boy. TCM is running a salute to AIP every Thursday this month. Now I’ll never get that DVR cleaned out! American International Pictures released some of my favorite films of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and TCM’s showing everything from Vincent Price/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe horrors to outlaw biker flicks to Beach Party teen shenanigans. Expect to see lots of AIP posts in the near future, starting right now with 1958’s ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE.

One of my earliest movie memories is watching this on the local “Four O’ Clock Movie Matinee” when I was about five years old. For some strange reason, it resonated with me. I haven’t seen it in years, and my recent re-viewing had me wondering just why it did. Maybe I was a strange kid! Anyway, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE was the brainchild of Mr. B.I.G. himself, producer/director/effects wizard Bert I. Gordon. Well, maybe “wizard” isn’t the right term, as Gordon’s special effects were mainly using super-imposing techniques and rear projection screens to create his movie magic. Mr. B.I.G.’s DIY style was popular with the “Monster Kid” generation (that’s me!), and his low-budget masterpieces include THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and its sequel WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, EARTH VS THE SPIDER, THE MAGIC SWORD (a fantasy with Basil Rathbone as an evil wizard), VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, FOOD OF THE GODS, and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS. (As of this writing, Bert Gordon is still with us at age 93).

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ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE is the opposite of Gordon’s giant monster movies, as it concerns shrinking people to doll-size. Sally Reynolds (June Kenny, EARTH VS THE SPIDER) answers an ad for an “office girl” at Dolls Incorporated, run by kindly, eccentric Mr. Franz (character actor John Hoyt ). Franz has a habit of talking to his dolls, especially some particularly lifelike ones he keeps in a glass case. Sally meets Bob Westley (the overacting, eyebrow arching John Agar , star of many a sci-fi schlockfest), the self-proclaimed “best salesman this side of St. Louis”. Bob and Sally don’t hit it off at first, and soon they’re engaged, with Bob promising to tell Franz the good news.

When Franz’s old friend Emil (Michael Mark… more about him later!) pays a visit, we learn the dollmaker’s wife left him, and he now suffers from an exaggerated case of separation anxiety. He can’t stand when people leave him. He tells Sally that Bob has left for St. Louis without her. But when Sally spies a lifelike Bob doll, she fears the worst, and runs to the police, claiming Franz has “made Bob into a doll”. Sgt. Paterson is skeptical of course (wouldn’t you be?), but when she rattles off the names of other recent missing persons, the cop goes with her to confront Franz, who burns the Bob-doll before their very eyes! It seems it’s “only made of plastic”, and Franz has a suitcase full of Bob-dolls he’s made. The cop leaves, and Franz now has Sally in his clutches. Using his ‘molecular disintegration ray’, he turns Sally into one of his doll-people! Now Sally and Bob, along with brassy Georgia, 50’s teens Laurie and Stan, and Mac the Marine, are miniature versions of themselves, and forced to entertain Franz as his ‘Puppet People’, kept in a state of suspended animation until he wants to play with them.

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ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE isn’t very frightening, nor does it achieve any dramatic heights. It’s silly and loopy, and its “shrinking” theme was done much better in DR. CYCLOPS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. But it’s still fun, and Gordon gives us a nice touch when Bob and Sally go on a date to a drive-in. The film they watch is Gordon’s THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. The scenes where the doll-people are surrounded by giant props are well done, and the rear projection special effects aren’t all that bad, considering the budget limitations. Hindsight being what it is, I probably enjoyed this movie more when I was five than I did now. Having said that, I recommend ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE for the inner five-year-old in all of us. And that’s not such a bad thing after all!

Trivia Time!

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Michael Mark, who plays Emil, is best known as little Maria’s father in the 1931 classic FRANKENSTEIN. Eagle eyed Cracked Rear Viewers can spot him in uncredited roles in THE BLACK CAT, MAD LOVE , THE MUMMY’S HAND, and even CASABLANCA ! Mr. Mark appeared  in four Universal FRANKENSTEIN films altogether, tying him with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Dwight Frye for second place in the series. Can you name the two horror icons who appeared in the most Universal FRANKENSTEIN movies, with five? (Hint: one of them played the same role four out of his five times)

 

Meet and Greet @ Dream Big: 5/7/16

Danny’s Meet & Greet Weekend is open!

Dream Big, Dream Often

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It’s the Meet and Greet weekend at Dream Big!!

Ok so here are the rules:

  1. Leave a link to your page or post in the comments of this post.
  2. Reblog this post.  It helps you, it helps me, it helps everyone!
  3. Edit your reblog post and add tags.
  4. Feel free to leave your link multiple times!  It is okay to update your link for more exposure every day if you want.  It is up to you!

  5. Share this post on social media.  Many of my non-blogger friends love that I put the Meet n Greet on Facebook and Twitter because they find new blogs to follow.

Now that all the rules have been clearly explained get out there and Meet n Greet your tails off!

See ya on Monday!!

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Homeless to lose some spots after 2 New Bedford transitional housing programs lose HUD funding

I’m taking a step back from classic films for a moment to talk with all my fellow bloggers. In my “real” life, I have a job as program director of Network House in New Bedford, MA. It’s part of the Veteran’s Transition House, and a ten bed program for civilians suffering from homelessness and substance abuse. Network House has helped hundreds of people get their lives back on track since it’s inception in 1998.

But no more. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has decided to stop funding transitional programs and go with Housing First, designed to put people directly into permanent housing situations. They feel this is the best way to go, and we, along with other transitional programs, have been defunded as of 4/30/16.

But for the nine men currently residing at Network House, they now have nowhere to go. They came to us directly from detoxes, shelters, even jails. They’re not ready to go out on their own yet. I’ve been given until July 1st to find appropriate housing for them. Some will wind up homeless once again, some will relapse, some may die. I’ll do the best I can. All I’m asking of my fellow bloggers is to reblog this post and the article that follows, share to your social media sites,  and maybe we can send  message to HUD that transitional housing should not be eliminated, especially in the midst of a nationwide opiate crisis. If you can’t, I understand, but if you think it’s worthy enough to share with your viewers, I thank you.

NEW BEDFORD — Joseph Moniz said he has struggled with addiction for 20 years and been in and out of jail. Thanks to Network House, a transitional housing program for civilians based out of the Veteran’s Transition House (VTH) on Willis Street, Moniz, 42, said he has gotten treatment and a whole host of services to help him get back on his feet. “It’s given me my self-esteem and self purpose back,” he said. “This is like a stepping stone for the next

Source: Homeless to lose some spots after 2 New Bedford transitional housing programs lose HUD funding

(Cracked Rear Viewer will return to looking at classic films soon. Meanwhile, if you’d like to make a donation to the Veterans Transition House, please go to our website. Any little bit helps house a homeless man. Thank you.)