Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in TROG (Warner Brothers, 1970)

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Let’s be honest: TROG is not a very good movie. It’s definitely not Joan Crawford’s best movie. It’s surely not director Freddie Francis’s best movie. Hell, it’s not even producer Herman Cohen’s best, and he’s responsible for some real bombs! TROG isn’t scary, or gruesome, or even so bad it’s good. It’s just kind of dumb, and it’s a sad end to Crawford’s great screen career.

Joan (in a blonde wig) plays anthropologist Dr. Brockton, who helps discover a troglodyte found living in an underground cave. The beast is half-man, half ape, but is really pretty stupid looking. Dr. Brockton thinks Trog is the Missing Link and begins to train him, feeding him fake looking fish and lizards, teaching him to roll a ball and play with a wind-up baby doll. Mommie Dearest, she’s  not!! We also discover Trog likes classical music, but hates rock and roll!!

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Meanwhile, there’s a local developer named Murdock (Michael Gough) who wants the creature destroyed so property values don’t go down. Allying himself with Brockton’s jealous colleague Dr. Selbourne, Murdock goes before a court of public inquiry to demand Trog be destroyed. But good Dr. Brockton makes an impassioned plea to preserve Trog, and the world’s top scientists are invited in to study it. American surgeon Dr. Warren (Robert Hutton of Invisible Invaders and They Came From Beyond Space) implants some weird gadget that let’s us see Trog’s memories. These memories are directly lifted from 1956’s THE ANIMAL WORLD, showing us dinosaurs created by special effects legends Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen (the best part of the film). Trog is taught speech, but before Brockton can continue, Murdock pulls an B&E on her institute and frees Trog. Trog responds by killing Murdock, then going on a rampage through the town, kidnaping a little girl that resembles his wind-up doll. The military are called in after Trog returns to his cave with the kid. Dr. Brockton defies the soldiers by going into the cave alone and convincing Trog to release the child. When they come out, the army goes in, and shoot down Trog in a hail of bullets, causing him to fall and get impaled on a stalagmite!

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Joan’s attempt at a British accent comes and goes. You get the feeling watching her that she clearly knows she’s better than this nonsense, but presses on like a trouper. Trog is credited to British wrestler ‘Dazzler’ Joe Cornelius, and he should’ve stuck to the squared circle. Fans of Herman Cohen (are there really any?) will want to look for his Hitchcockian cameo as a bartender in the local pub. The scariest thing about this movie is blonde Joan’s eerie resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Now THAT’S frightening!!

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Halloween Havoc: THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (Allied Artists 1959)

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William Castle was The King of the Gimmick Films. A natural born showman, Castle got his start grinding out B pictures for companies like Columbia and Monogram. By the late 1950s, television dominated the country’s entertainment audiences, and box offices suffered. Castle made the film MACARBRE in 1958, handing out $1,000 life insurance policies from Lloyd’s of London to patrons “in case they died of fright” while watching the movie. MACARBRE drew money, and for his next flick, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle had a plastic skeleton wired up to float over moviegoers heads during a crucial scene.

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THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is your basic “haunted house” movie, with seven disparate characters forced to spend the night at the gloomy house. Vincent Price plays ultra-rich Frederick Loren, host of the party, who offers five strangers $10,000 dollars to stay at the supposed “murder house”. His wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart at her bitchy best) is at odds with Loren, refusing to divorce him. The house is owned by Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr), whose brother and sister-in-law were murdered here, and who claims seven ghosts of murder victims walk the halls. The rest of the guests are pilot Lance (Richard Long), secretary Nora (Carolyn Craig), Dr. Trent (Alan Marshal), and columnist Ruth (June Bridges).

Strange things begin happening, as Lance is knocked out in a secret room, and Nora shrieks after seeing a hideous old hag (more on her later!) The house is locked tight at precisely midnight. When Annabelle is found hanging from the ceiling, everyone suspects each other of the foul deed. A storm is brewing outside the house, while inside unexplainable phenomena drive Nora to hysteria. It’s revealed to the audience Annabelle is alive, and with her lover Dr. Trent they plan to push Nora over the edge and Annabelle’s husband. But Loren’s on to their scheme, and he ends up killing Trent and driving Annabelle to her doom with the help of a mechanical skeleton (which is where Castle’s gimmick came in).

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With the success of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle continued his spook shows. For THE TINGLER (also starring Price), he had theater seats rigged with electric buzzers to give the filmgoer a jolt! 13 GHOSTS offered special glasses to “see” the spooks in the film. HOMICIDAL had a “nurse” stationed at each theater for “cowards”. After leaving his gimmick days behind, Castle made some suspense films with Joan Crawford (STRIGHT-JACKET, I SAW WHAT YOU DID) and produced Roman Polanski’s 1968 hit ROSEMARY’S BABY. The talented Mr. Castle, his ballyhoo days behind him, passed away in 1977.

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Now about that “old hag” who pops up in the movie…she still creeps me out!! Doing some research, I found out she was an silent film actress named Leona Anderson, sister of cowboy star Bronco Billy Anderson. Leona made a comeback of sorts in the 1950s, billing herself as “the world’s most Horrible singer”. She appeared on TV with funnyman Ernie Kovacs, and even released an album titled MUSIC TO SUFFER BY. Here’s the one and only (Thank God!) Miss Anderson warbling “Rats in My Room”:

Halloween Havoc!: IT’S ALIVE! (Warner Bros 1974)

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IT’S ALIVE! is Larry Cohen’s magnum opus. This drive-in classic about a mutant killer baby keeps its tongue firmly in cheek while relating the saga of Frank and Lenore Davis (John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell), whose newborn child is a freakish monster that goes on a killing rampage. The beastly bambino slaughters the entire OR staff and escapes the hospital. The cops vow to “exterminate” this demon child for the good of mankind. A University professor (Andrew Duggan) wants the baby’s corpse for study, but a pharmaceutical exec (Robert Emhardt) wants it destroyed. It seems the drug company’s birth control pills contributed to the horrible mutation.

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The little bundle of terror eludes the police, murdering any threats in its way. It makes its way home, and momma Lenore hides it in the basement. Frank finds out and, with the cops help, aims to destroy it himself. The chase ends in the sewers of LA, where daddy Frank can’t bring himself to kill his mutant offspring. Emerging from the sewers with his beastly baby, the cops end up blasting it, ending the menace of the killer baby once and for all. Until they get a radio call that “Another one’s been born in Seattle”….

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Larry Cohen got his start as a television writer, including 43 episodes of the 60s sci-fi series THE INVADERS.  Making his directorial debut with the 1972 thriller BONE, Cohen turned to Blaxploitation with BLACK CAESAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, both starring ex-NFLer Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. Then came a string of strange but interesting movies: THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER, FULL MOON HIGH, Q:THE WINGED SERPENT, and THE WICKED STEPMOTHER (Bette Davis’s swan song). IT’S ALIVE! spawned two sequels by Cohen, IT LIVES AGAIN and IT’S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. Larry Cohen is still active as a screenwriter, penning such fare as MANIAC COP, I THE JURY, PHONE BOOTH, and CELLUALR. IT’S ALIVE! was remade in 2008, but like most remakes it didn’t come close to the original.

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The cast plays it straight, with Ryan and Farrell particularly good as the beleaguered parents. Michael Ansara, William Wellman Jr., and Guy Stockwell also appear. The “baby” itself, which resembles the World Weekly News tabloid’s Bat Boy, was the creation of make-up wizard Rick Baker. Baker’s makeup and puppetry make Baby come alive. Hidden in the shadows for the most part, we only get glimpses of the chilling cherub. Veteran composer Bernard Herrman wrote the eerie score. I’m a big fan of IT’S ALIVE!, having seen it upon release (at a Drive-In of course!). Your suspension of disbelief is required for this one. Sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy IT’S ALIVE!

Halloween Havoc!: KING KONG (RKO 1933)

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No matter how many times it’s remade, no matter what new technology’s available, the original 1933 KING KONG will never be topped. The story’s familiar to horror lovers: Showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters the ship Venture to take him to the unchartered Skull Island. He scours New York to find a “love interest” for his next picture. Finding down on her luck gal Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) trying to steal an apple, he offers her a chance for “money and adventure and fame….the thrill of a lifetime”. Denham’s brainstorm is to travel to the island to capture pictures of Kong, a beast that Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) thinks is just “some native superstition”. First Mate Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is reluctant to have a woman on board, but soon warms up to her. They arrive at the island to observe the natives performing a strange ritual. A young native girl is being adorned with flowers. When they spy the white Ann, the chieftan (Noble Johnson) offers to buy her. The crew refuses, but the natives sneak onboard in the dead of night and capture Ann.

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When Charlie the cook (Victor Wong) finds a native bracelet on deck, Denham and the crew go ashore. Ann’s been tied to an altar behind the massive locked gate. The natives climb up the wall to wait for the arrival of…KONG! A giant ape appears and grabs Ann into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll, and some crew members go in hot pursuit, encountering monsterous dinosaurs along the way. Kong ends up killing all save for Driscoll and Denham. The mighty beast is downed by “gas bombs”, and carted away to New York.

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Denham stages a Broadway showing of “King Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World”. The theater’s jam packed with curiosity seekers. The press is on hand, eager to see the beast. Kong is presented onstage in chains, in what reminds one of a crucifixion pose. When the photographers take picture, their flashbulbs disturb the ape and he breaks free. Pandemonium erupts as King Kong is loose in New York City. Snatching Ann through a window, Kong climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Airplanes are sent to strafe Kong, machine guns a-blazing, and the great ape topples to his doom. Carl Denham gets the last words, sorrowfully stating, “It was beauty killed the beast”.

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Co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack keep the story moving along at a fine clip, aided immensely by Max Steiner’s score. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion special effects hold up very well, and the matching shots of Kong with the actors are well integrated. Kudos should also go to Murray Spivak and the sound department, which adds to the excitement. Eagle-eyed film fans will be able to spot James Flavin, Roscoe Ates, Dick Curtis, Charlie Hall, Syd Saylor, and Sam Levine in small roles. Cooper and Schoedsack even have cameos as the pilot and gunner who take down Kong. KING KONG has stood the test of time, and is a bonafide classic that never fails to thrill viewers of all ages. A perfect way to spend a Halloween evening.

Halloween Havoc!: Abbott & Costello in HOLD THAT GHOST (Universal 1941)

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Before they met Frankenstein, The Mummy, or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first foray into scary territory in 1941’s HOLD THAT GHOST. This was the boys’ third released film that year, and one of the team’s all-around best. Bud and Lou are two relief waiters at a swanky nightclub (is there any other kind in theses 40s flicks?). Ted Lewis (“Is everybody happy?”) and his orchestra provide the entertainment, along with singing sensations The Andrews Sisters. Of course the boys get fired because of Lou’s bumbling, and return to their regular jobs as gas pump jockeys. Along comes gangster Moose Matson, and clumsy Lou accidentally fires a gun he finds in Matson’s back seat. This gets the cops attention, and they chase down Matson with Bud and Lou in tow. Matson is killed by the police and, according to his will, the boys (being “the last people with me when I die”)  inherit his roadhouse, the Forrester’s Club.

Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.
Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.

Crooked lawyer Bannister and his associate Charlie Smith are trying to get ahold of Matson’s hidden loot. They set Bud and Lou up with a ride from a disreputable bus service. But the greedy driver books some other fares,including professional radio “screamer” Camille Brewster, pretty young Norma Lind, and nerdy scientist Dr. Jackson. The driver strands them all at the Forrester’s Club, a spooky, cobweb-infested, rundown hotel. That’s when the fun begins, as they encounter dead bodies, hidden rooms, clutching hands, and the usual things one finds in “old, dark house” movies. The boys end up finding the hidden money and chase off the villians. Dr. Jackson discovers the waters at the roadhouse have “miraculous therapeutic powers”, and the duo turn the old place into their own swanky nightclub, complete with Ted Lewis and company. The Andrews Sisters swing out to their hit “Aurora” and ‘everybody’s happy’ at the end.

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Abbott and Costello were at their peak in this entry, and their incredible wordplay still astounds me. I especially enjoyed the “figure of speech” routine, aided by funny girl Joan Davis (Camille). Davis, a veteran of radio and vaudeville, more then holds her own with Lou in the slapstick department, almost stealing the film. Their comic dance sequence is hysterical, as is the old “moving candle” routine (later reprised in ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, on top of Dracula’s coffin). Joan Davis went on to star in the early 50s television sitcom I MARRIED JOAN, and passed away in 1961.

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A Universal cast is worth repeating, and this film’s no exception. The studio’s resident “Scream Queen” Evelyn Ankers plays Norma, and shows a comedic side not usually seen in her fright films. Richard Carlson (Dr. Jackson) was just beginning his picture career, which would take him to sci-fi fame in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and It Came From Outer Space. Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, Marc Lawrence, Milton Parsons, and Thurston Hall all add to the fun. The animated title sequence may (or may not) be by “Woody Woodpecker” creator Walter Lantz (I can’t find any info on this….does anyone out there know?). HOLD THAT GHOST holds its own in the spooky deserted house creepstakes and it’s a funny showcase for stars Abbott & Costello and comedienne Joan Davis. Watch it with the kids this Halloween!!

And now here’s a link to The Andrews Sisters singing their hit song “Aurora”!!

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Halloween Havoc!: Lon Chaney Jr in SPIDER BABY (American General 1964)

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SPIDER BABY is probably my favorite horror-comedy ever, and I include ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in that statement. This gruesome tale almost didn’t see the light of day, as the original producers went bankrupt, but independent auteur David L. Hewitt (THE WIZARD OF MARS, MONSTERS CRASH THE PAJAMA PARTY) picked it up for his American General distribution company in 1968. Hewitt then used it as the second half of double feature bills. Known variously as CANNIBAL ORGY, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD, and THE LIVER EATERS, SPIDER BABY has become a cult classic.

We learn in the beginning that the descendants of Ebeneezer Merrye are dying out due to the dreaded  “Merrye Syndrome”- a rare affliction causing it’s victims to regress to a sub-human, cannibalistic state. The always welcome Mantan Moreland is seen delivering a package to the creepy old Merrye house. Mantan does some of his tried-and-true “scaredy cat” schtick while looking around the deserted joint. He sticks his head in a window….and then the window slams shut, as young Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner) pops in, brandishing a net and knives. “I got you”, she gleefully yells, then procedes to hack and slash the hapless messenger to death. It’s a jolt, as the viewer expects Mantan to see a ghost or something and do his “feets don’t fail me now” routine. The violence immediately grabs the viewer’s attention, letting us know this isn’t your garden-variety horror spoof.

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Virginia’s sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) enters the scene. “Look what you did!”, she taunts. “You’re bad, bad! Bruno’s gonna hate you!” Just then an ancient Dusenberg pulls up to the house. Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr) is the family chauffer/caretaker. Elizabeth rats out her sister, telling him Virginia was “playing spider” again. Virginia dashes to the car to greet her brother Ralph (Sid Haig), a bald, mute, drooling man-child. The exasperated Bruno calmly explains to Virginia it’s not nice to “play spider”, people will talk. Ralph discovers the message near Mantan’s corpse, causing Bruno more concern. It’s from a lawyer named Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) stating two distant relatives of the kids are coming, seeking legal guardianship.

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Emily Howe (sexy Carol Ohmart) and her brother Peter (Quinn Redeker) are Merrye cousins, and greedy Emily is looking to take control of the Merrye fortune. Peter waits in the car while bitchy Emily goes to the house. When she comes face-to-face with Ralph, she hightails it back to her brother! Bruno has picked up Schlocker and his secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel), but they’re delayed by the Highway Department “blasting” their way to a new road. Now everyone gets to meet the children, and Bruno explains about Merrye Syndrome. “It’s a regression of the brain”, he solemnly intones, “The unfortunate result of inbreeding”.

Schlocker tells Bruno the plan is to spend the night, then put these “retarded” Merryes in an instituation. Bruno objects, but is outnumbered. The kids concoct a dinner of bugs, weeds, a dead cat, and possibly poisonous mushrooms. All the guests pass save Peter, who’s pretty oblivious to the bizarre goings-on. Dinner conversation turns to horror films, as Ann and Peter discuss their favorites. “Dracula, Frankenstein..I love The Mummy. Step, scrape, step, scrape”. Chaney as Bruno is hilarious as someone mentions the Wolf Man. Looking out the window, he echoes his Larry Talbot character, warning, “There’s a full moon tonight”.

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Peter and Ann head to a local motel since there aren’t enough beds available. Emily and her lawyer stay, thinking the whole thing is a hoax. Later that evening, Emily strips down to some sexy lingerie and dances alone in her room, unaware that Ralph is spying through the window. Schlocker takes a look around the house and finds a secret passageway to the basement. Things take a definite turn for the worst, as the children commit murder and mayhem. Peter and Ann return, and are placed in danger. They’re allowed to go free as Bruno has scored some dynamite from the construction site, promising the kids they’ll be together “forever and ever”. Bruno’s final solution blows the Merrye mansion and its occupants to smithereens, and the curse of the “Merrye Syndrome” is gone forever. Or is it??

Lon Chaney Jr. gives a poignant performance as Bruno. He’s gentle and kind to the demented children, loyal til the end. Chaney’s funny in the role, too, proving to his critics he wasn’t just a one-note actor. This was his last good film, as the remainder of his career consisted of B Westerns and Grade-Z crap. While Lon was on his way down, director Jack Hill was on his way up. A former UCLA film student, Hill became friends with fellow student Francis Ford Coppola, who introduced him to Roger Corman. Hill directed parts of The Terror  for Corman, then debuted with SPIDER BABY. After shooting four Mexican horror movies with Boris Karloff, Hill ushered in the “Women-in-Prison” genre with THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. His 70s Blaxploitation films with Pam Grier, COFFY and Foxy Brown are classics of the era. spider5

SPIDER BABY is that rare low-budget gem where everything works to perfection. The kids are genuinely scary in their roles, and Hill gets a moving performance from the declining Chaney. The rest of the cast shines as well. It’s unlike any horror comedy before or since, and should be on everybody’s Halloween watch list.

Halloween Havoc!: THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES (TCA, 1973)

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TCM is airing THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES late Friday/early Saturday at 1:30 AM. Do yourselves a favor. Go to sleep. Do not set the DVR. This little opus has nothing to offer. When Faith Domergue gives a film’s best performance, you know you’re in trouble.

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The movie is much ado about nothing. John Ireland plays a low-budget film director making a horror flick in the spooky old Beal mansion. Faith is his leading lady opposite hammy Charles Macauley (Blacula). John Carradine’s on hand as the house’s caretaker, so you automatically know he’s a red herring. It’s all about the actors reading lines from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which causes strange things to happen. The only strange thing to happen in the first hour or so is Faith’s cat being found cut in half. Other than that, it’s like swimming through molasses. Seriously, nothing happens until the last ten or fifteen minutes, and when you finally get there, it’s disappointing.

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Plodding is the best way to describe THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES. The blame lays directly at the feet of producer/writer/director Paul Harrison. This was his first and last film as director, unsurprisingly. Mr. Harrison’s biggest claim to fame is writing 17 episodes of the children’s show H. R. PUFNSTUF. He should’ve stuck with Sid & Marty Krofft. The rest of the acting’s just lousy. We do get some all-too-brief behind the scenes glimpses of low budget filmmaking, but not nearly enough. If you’re a real insomniac and can’t get to sleep, this might help. Otherwise, go count sheep.