Halloween Havoc! Extra: The Mind-Warping World of EC Comics!

William M. Gaines’ graphic and gruesome line of horror, crime, and science fiction comics helped turn America’s youth into mouth-foaming, homicidal Juvenile Delinquents until they met with a horror of another kind – Dr. Fredric Wertham and the U.S. Congress! These beasts effectively destroyed EC through censorship and propaganda, ending one of graphic arts’ most creative eras. But EC still lives in the hearts and minds of horror fans everywhere, so here’s gallery of ten spine-chilling covers from the Golden Age of EC Comics! Spa Fon!

 

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Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (Universal 1932)

We can’t have a proper ‘Halloween Havoc!’ without inviting Bela Lugosi to the party, now can we? After all, his 1931 hit DRACULA practically invented the horror movie as far as ‘talking pictures’ go. Both Bela and director Robert Florey were slated to work on producer Carl Laemmle’s next horror opus FRANKENSTEIN, but Laemmle wasn’t satisfied with their version, handing it over to James Whale, who hired a bit player named Boris Karloff to portray the monster of science, and the rest is history. Lugosi and Florey were instead given MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, to bring to screen life. This was the first of Bela’s “mad doctor” role, a part he would essay twelve more times in films of varying quality.

It’s Carnival Night in 1845 Paris, and med student Pierre Dupin takes his girlfriend Camille L’Espanaye to make merry watching exotic belly dancers, “wild” American Indians, and other ‘oddities’. Oddest of all is the grotesque Dr. Mirakle and his ape Erik, “the monster who walks upright… the beast with a human soul”. The sophisticated, imperious Mirakle espouses his theory that  man is descended from apes, leading to cries of “Heresy!” from the gathered masses. Erik seems to take a shine to Camille, grabbing then caressing her bonnet, and gripping Pierre by the throat in a jealous pique. Mirakle apologizes to the mademoiselle, yet sends his henchman Janos to follow her.

Later, Mirakle’s carriage comes across a knife fight by two ruffians over the affections of a prostitute. Both men die on the fog-shrouded, dimly lit waterfront, and the frightened hooker is scurried away by Mirakle, taking her to his hidden lair, where he puts her in bondage on a makeshift tilted cross, determined to make her “the bride of science”, mingling Erik’s blood with her own to see if she’s worthy. Under the microscope, Mirakle screams the prostitute has “rotten blood” (what did he expect?), and she dies on the cross, a martyr to mad science, released through a trap door into the River Seine.

Pierre, besides being a med student, is also an amateur sleuth, and has been investigating the murder of the girl and two other “ladies of the evening”. He discovers a mysterious “foreign substance” in their blood samples, and learns it is ape’s blood. He tracks down Mirakle at the carnival, who answers curtly to Dupin’s questions, telling Pierre he’s about to leave for Munich. Pierre discovers this to be a lie, and follows Mirakle and Janos to an abandoned warehouse down by the docks.

Soon Mirakle comes calling on Camille, only to be rebuffed at the door. Never one to take no for an answer, he sends Erik to kidnap the girl, killing her mother in the process and stuffing her up the chimney. Pierre happens to be in the vicinity, and hearing the screams, he rushes upstairs. The police prefect conducts an inquiry, receiving three different answers from three different witnesses (and an excuse for some ethnic comedy relief). Pierre is exonerated when Madame L’Espanaye is found up the chimney, her hand clutching ape hair, and they race to Mirakle’s secret lair. He’s about to inject Erik’s blood into Camille when the simian escapes his cage and throttles his master to death, scooping up Camille and escaping via the rooftops of Paris, where brave Pierre finally shoots the beast and saves his lady-love from certain doom.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has it’s good and bad points. The best is obviously watching Lugosi at the height of his acting prowess, his continental charm not quite masking his unibrowed, demonic countenance. Bela’s startling performance as Dr. Mirakle ranks among his finest film roles, and you’ll be mesmerized once again by his talent as an actor. Karl Freund’s cinematography is a marvel of nourish lighting, accentuating the eeriness of the expressionistic sets. A scene set with Camille on a swing pushed by Pierre, the camera positioned in her lap, is quite innovative, and that aforementioned scene involving the prostitute (who’s played by Arlene Francis, later of TV’s WHAT’S MY LINE? fame) is one of the darkest in early horror cinema, a scene that could only be made during the Pre-Code era, as is much of the material here.

Among the film’s bad points, holding it back from being a true horror classic, are the cloyingly sweet lovers Pierre and Camille. Their romancing is sickeningly sappy to behold, and Sidney Fox (Camille) has such a squeaky voice you wonder what Pierre sees in her. Leon Waycoff was just starting his film career, and quite frankly he isn’t all that good; the actor got better as time went on, after changing his name to Leon Ames . The rest of the cast is hit and miss; Noble Johnson and D’Arcy Corrigan among the hits, Bert Roach, Torbin Meyer, and Herman Bing the misses.

Charlie Gemora once again donned his “gorilla suit” to portray Erik, as he did in countless other films: SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, BLONDE VENUS, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, SWISS MISS, ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, WHITE WITCH DOCTOR. I’ve no complaints about Gemora; however, close-up stock footage of Erik features different species of apes at different times, negating the effect. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE didn’t do well at the box office, as apparently audiences were turned off by all the talk of evolution and interspecies mating. Florey went on to an interesting career as a ‘B’ auteur, while Lugosi… well, we don’t have to rehash his descent into lower-case pictures again. We all know whatever script he was handed, Bela gave his all for his art. That’s why, 86 years after beguiling the world in DRACULA, Bela Lugosi still reigns supreme in Hollywood’s Horror Valhalla!

Halloween Havoc!: THE DEVIL DOLL (MGM 1936)

Producer/director Tod Browning’s THE DEVIL DOLL is a film reminiscent of his silent efforts with the great Lon Chaney Sr. This bizarre little movie doesn’t get the attention of Browning’s DRACULA or FREAKS ,  and the ending’s a bit on the sappy side, but on the plus side it features Lionel Barrymore dressed in drag for most of the time, some neat early special effects work, and a weird premise based on a novel by science fiction writer A. Merritt, adapted for the screen by Guy Endore, Garrett Ford,  and Erich von Stroheim (!!).

Barrymore stars as Devil’s Island escapee Paul Lavond, and he pretty much carries the picture. Lavond and fellow con Marcel (Henry B. Walthall ) make it to Marcel’s home, where wife Melita (a pop-eyed Rafaela Ottiano) has been keeping the faith on her hubby’s experimental work… turning animals miniature, to solve the coming food shortage and better mankind. But their brains shrink too, and the critters can only act when a human imposes their will on them (by thinking real hard, apparently).

Servant girl Lachna (Grace Wood), an “inbred peasant halfwit”, is next in line for testing, but when things go awry, Marcel dies of a heart attack. Lavond takes this opportunity to travel with Melita and (now) tiny Lachna to Paris, to exact revenge on the three banking partners who framed him for embezzlement and murder. Posing as the elderly dollmaker “Madame Mandilip”, Lavond goes after his crooked former friends, hoping to win back the love and respect of daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan ), who grew up hating her convicted criminal father.

Like Chaney Sr. in Browning’s THE UNHOLY THREE, Barrymore is more than convincing as the old woman, and seems to be having a field day all bundled up in ladies’ garments. His tour de force performance is what makes THE DEVIL DOLL worth watching, as sadly the rest of the cast is lacking. Ottiano overacts as Melita, Frank Lawton is bland as Lorraine’s cabbie beau Toto, Walthall is wasted (and looks terrible; he died a month before the film’s release), and bad guy bankers Robert Greig, Arthur Hohl, and Pedro de Cordoba are stereotype villains. Only O’Sullivan as Barrymore’s daughter and Ford as the shrunken Lachna shine in their supporting roles. Look real quickly for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit by comedian Billy Gilbert as a butler… I’m wondering if he originally had a bigger part that got cut from the movie. Any film fans know the answer to this mystery?

The special effects can best be described as “early Bert I. Gordon“, done with superimposing and rear projection. No doubt cutting edge for their time, they don’t stand up nearly as well as John P. Fulton’s work for Universal or Willis O’Brien’s marvelous KING KONG . THE DEVIL DOLL isn’t on a par with the best horrors of the 30’s, but curious fans of Tod Browning and/or Lionel Barrymore will want to take a look. Browning would make one more film, 1939’s MIRACLES FOR SALE , before retiring. Barrymore continued his thespic career as cranky Dr. Gillespie in the ‘Dr. Kildare’ films, and he’s fondly  remembered for his role as mean Mr. Potter in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Now Henry Potter… that was one really scary dude!

Halloween Havoc!: Tod Browning’s FREAKS (MGM 1932)

Ex-carnival and sideshow performer Tod Browning had combined his love for the macabre and carny life in films before in two silent films with the great Lon Chaney Sr (THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN), but with FREAKS Browning took things to a whole new level. The cast is populated with genuine “abnormalities of nature”, legless and armless wonders, bearded ladies and skeletal men, a crawling human torso and microcephalic pinheads, parading across the screen to shock and frighten the audience. Yet it’s not the “freaks” that are the monsters in this movie, but two specimens of human physical perfection, their healthy bodies hosting malice and murder.

The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing a crowd to a horror hidden in a box, victim of what happens when you dishonor the code of the freaks – “offend one and you offend them all”. A flashback introduces us to the members of this dark carnival, beginning with midget performer Hans, who has an insane crush on big person Cleopatra, a trapeze artist dubbed “the peacock of the air”. Cleo plays along, toying with Hans’s affections and making his fiancé Frieda extremely jealous. Beautiful young Venus, meanwhile, is about to leave her abusive lover, the strongman Hercules, and is taken in by nice-guy clown Phroso.

Hans showers Cleo with gifts, and she soon discovers the dwarf has inherited a fortune. The scheming siren conspires with the strongman to marry Hans and do away with him. “Midgets are not strong”, she tells her musclebound lover. “He could get sick… it could be done”. Browning takes us to the famed ‘Wedding Feast” scene, in which the freaks are partying hardy. A chant begins among them in Cleo’s honor: “Gobba gabba, gobba gabba, we accept her, one of us”, and a goblet of wine is passed around. Cleopatra is appalled by them, and when the goblet is served to her, she unleashes her fury. “Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!” The dejected “living, breathing monstrosities” leave the room as Cleo and Hercules humiliate Hans, perching him atop Cleo’s shoulders and parading around the tent.

Cleopatra is slowly poisoning her new husband, but the freaks are watching from a distance. Always watching, hidden in the dark, underneath the wagons. Watching and waiting. Hans is wise to Cleo’s plot against him, and initiates a plot of his own with the help of his brethren. The circus wagons roll out during a storm, and Hans and his army of freaks confront Cleo. Hercules, trying to silence Venus, fights with Phroso. The freaks go on the attack, creeping and crawling in the darkened storm, and Hercules dies in the muddy road, as the “peacock” runs screaming into the night in the pouring rain, hunted down like an animal. The flashback ends, and the audience is shown the result in that box: Cleopatra has truly become “one of us”!

Browning’s film shocked both audiences and MGM execs, who cut a half hour from the film, then swiftly withdrew it’s release. The negative reactions to FREAKS effectively ruined Browning’s career; he’d make only four more films before retiring in 1939. FREAKS was banned in Britain, and sat unseen until the early 1960’s, when it was rediscovered by midnight movie audiences and rightly heralded as one of the best in the horror genre. Browning never knew his dark vision had been vindicated, having died in 1962.

Of the “big people” in the cast, Leila Hyams and Wallace Ford are sympathetic to the plight of the freaks as Venus and Phroso. Miss Hyams was (and is!) a Pre-Code favorite in films like THE BIG HOUSE, RED HEADED WOMAN, and THE BIG BROADCAST, also appearing in Browning’s first talkie THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (with Bela Lugosi) and the horror classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. I’ve discussed Ford’s career many times; he was one of the most dependable character actors in film. Beautiful Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) was a silent star whose transition to talking pictures was hampered by her Russian accent; in FREAKS that accent and her exotic good looks serve her well as the villainess. Henry Victor (Hercules) suffered the same fate as Baclanova, though his career was lengthened by WWII, where his German accent came in handy in Nazi roles. His horror credits include THE MUMMY and KING OF THE ZOMBIES . Other “normal” Familiar Faces include Roscoe Ates, Ed Brophy, Rose Dionne, and Matt McHugh.

But it’s the freaks themselves who are the real stars, beginning with Harry Earles as the diminutive Hans, and his sister Daisy playing fiancé Frieda; both were circus performers with extensive movie credits. The rest were recruited straight from sideshows, circuses, and carnivals, each amazing in their own right. Most well known is probably Schlitzie, the microcephalic who served as the model for Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead. She’s joined by two others, Zip and Pip. Prince Randian, the Human Torso, was born without arms or legs, and demonstrates an amazing ability to overcome his handicap. Johnny Eck, the “half-boy” who walks on his hands, is equally amazing. The famed Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins Violet and Daisy, once performed in vaudeville with no less than Bob Hope , and starred in the exploitation film CHAINED FOR LIFE. There’s Josephine Joseph (hermaphrodite), Koo Koo (the bird girl), Olga Roderick (bearded lady), Peter Robinson (human skeleton), Frances O’Connor (armless girl), and Delmo Fritz (sword swallower). Dwarf star Angelo Rossitto , who had a long and successful film career, also appears.

Tod Browning and the cast of “Freaks”

FREAKS will disturb some people even today, mostly those who feel the performers were being exploited by Browning. Yet these men and women took what misfortunes nature had given them and used it to their advantage to earn a living as best they could. We should be grateful Tod Browning gave them a chance to shine on the screen, especially in a movie showing them in a sympathetic light. In the world of the FREAKS, it’s Cleopatra and Hercules that are the true monsters, and their retribution, while horrifying, is justified. Browning’s dark carnival remains a masterpiece of early horror, and perfect for a dark, stormy Halloween night.

Halloween Havoc!: SUGAR HILL (AIP 1974)

The worlds of Horror and Blaxploitation intersected frequently during the 70’s, beginning with American-International’s BLACULA . The vampire tale spawned a subgenre of black oriented riffs on familiar themes: BLACKENSTEIN (man-made monsters), DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE (Stevenson’s classic novel updated), ABBY (demonic possession), and SUGAR HILL, a crazy voodoo-zombie revenge tale that’s creepy, outrageous, and entertaining as… well, as hell!

Foxy lady Marki Bey plays foxy lady Diana “Sugar” Hill, whose boyfriend Langston runs the voodoo-themed Club Haiti. Southern-fried gangster Morgan (Robert Quarry) wants to take over the club, and sends his goons to ‘persuade’ Langston. When he refuses, they stomp him to death in the parking lot, leaving Sugar no recourse but to return to her ancestral home and ask ancient voodoo queen Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully of THE JEFFERSONS) for help. Mama conjures up voodoo god of the dead Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who gives Sugar control over an army of zombies to enact her revenge on Morgan and his cohorts.

A series of weird set pieces follows, as Sugar and her zombies kill off the gangsters one by one. The machete-wielding zombies mutilate and decapitate one, feed another to hungry pigs (!), lock a goon in a snake-filled coffin, and give a zombie massage to lead goon Fabulous (Charles Robinson, NIGHT COURT). Sugar’s ex-boyfriend, police detective Valentine (Richard Lawson) suspects Sugar’s doing that voodoo that she do so well, but can’t prove it, and winds up hospitalized when he gets too close to the truth. Sugar saves the best for last as Morgan and his racist ho Celeste (Betty Ann Rees) get their just desserts.

Colley’s over-the-top Baron Samedi makes a great supernatural villain (Geoffrey Holder played the Baron in the James Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE). Miss Bey, if not the greatest of thespians, sure does looks sweet as Sugar. In the middle of the film, there’s a wild cat fight between Sugar and Celeste that serves no purpose but is a lot of fun! The zombies are appropriately eerie-looking,  and the murders are done well, though not as gory as later zombie flicks.

SUGAR HILL was filmed in Houston, standing in for New Orleans. The backlot swamp is peppered with stock footage of gators, crawling snakes, and assorted swamp critters, and some familiar film sound effects, including that classic kookaburra that pops up in every jungle pic:

Too bad the kookaburra is only indigineous to the wilds of Australia! This was Quarry’s final AIP film; the studio had tried to build him into the next Vincent Price in COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE, RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN , and DEATHMASTER without much success. Director Paul Maslansky shows a steady if unspectacular hand; he went on to produce the POLICE ACADEMY movies, which were a horror of another kind! And we can’t have a Blaxploitation flick without a funky theme song, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” by Motown’s The Originals:

SUGAR HILL is a sweet (sorry) entry in the Horror/Blaxploitation  field, and it’s overblown insanity, sense of fun, and downright spooky atmosphere makes it a worthy Halloween treat for lovers of both genres.

 

 

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.