An Underrated Man: RIP John Llewellyn Moxey (1925-2019)

John Llewellyn Moxey’s “Horror Hotel” (1960)

You won’t find the name of John Llewellyn Moxey bandied about in conversations on great film directors. Truth is, though Moxey did make some features of note, he spent most of his career doing made-for-television movies, a genre that doesn’t get a lot of respect. John Llewellyn Moxey wasn’t a flashy director or an “auteur” by any stretch of the imagination, but he was more than capable of turning out a solid, worthwhile production, and some of his TV-Movie efforts are just as good (if not better) than what was currently playing at the local neighborhood theaters or multiplexes at the time. Moxey’s  passing on April 29 at age 94 was virtually ignored by the press, but his career deserves a retrospective, so Cracked Rear Viewer is proud to present a look back at the film and television work of director John Llewellyn Moxey.

Moxey was born in Argentina, his father the overseer of a coal and steel empire. He was a movie-mad youth, and after serving in the British infantry during WWII, found work as an editor and assistant director in England. He got the opportunity to direct a few TV shows before taking on his first, best, and  most famous feature, 1960’s HORROR HOTEL (also known as CITY OF THE DEAD). This now-classic tale is filled with shock after shock, and starred Christopher Lee in a tale of Satanism and witchcraft in New England. Moxey shows he knew how to handle a good horror story, building the tension slowly, and would become a genre specialist in the years to come.

The director followed with a string of low-budget British thrillers based (loosely, I might add) on the works of mystery writer Edgar Wallace: DEATH TRAP, RICOCHET, FACE OF A STRANGER, DOWNFALL, STRANGLER’S WEB; the films featured familiar actors like Maxine Audley, Patrick Magee, and Barbara Shelley. Also on tap was 1966’s PSYCHO-CIRCUS (retitled CIRCUS OF FEAR for American audiences by AIP), another Wallace crime drama with some horror elements. This British-German coproduction reunited Moxey with Christopher Lee, along with Klaus Kinski, Suzy Kendall, and Leo Genn. During this time period, Moxey worked in British television directing episodes of CORONATION STREET, Z-CARS, THE BARON, THE AVENGERS, and THE SAINT.

Moxey moved his base of operations to America in the mid-60’s, directing episodes of NYPD, JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, NAME OF THE GAME, HAWAII 5-0, and THE MOD SQUAD. In 1969, the struggling ABC network took an old concept (the anthology series) and spun it on its ear with the ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK. Budgeted at around $350,000 apiece and clocking in at 90 minutes (including commercials!), these were like the ‘B’ movies of the old studio days, featuring mainly faded stars of the past and up-and-coming actors in mysteries, romances, thriller, comedies, and even Westerns. Moxey’s first foray into the genre was THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE, a haunted house chiller involving Revolutionary War-era ghosts terrorizing Barbara Stanwyck and her niece (Kitty Wynn) in Pennsylvania Amish country. Mr. Moxey had found his niche, and would become TV’s most prolific TV-Movie director. 1971 alone saw him do ESCAPE (Christopher George as an escape artist/private eye), THE LAST CHILD (a sci-fi drama dealing with overpopulation that featured the last acting work of Van Heflin ), A TASTE OF EVIL (psychological horror with Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, and Roddy McDowell), and THE DEATH OF ME YET (a Cold War thriller with Doug McClure).

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, “The Night Stalker” (1972)

The next season saw Moxey helming a true classic: 1972’s THE NIGHT STALKER. The Richard Matheson teleplay follows Darren McGavin’s down-on-his-luck reporter Carl Kolchak investigating a Las Vegas serial killer that turns out to be ancient vampire Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater). THE NIGHT STALKER was a huge hit, the highest rated TV Movie ever up to that time, and inspired a sequel (THE NIGHT STRANGLER, directed by producer Dan Curtis ) and a brief weekly series (KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER). This well-done little gem compares favorably to any horror/exploitation theatrical film of the day, and has become a cult favorite for horror buffs, thanks in large part to Moxey’s taut direction.

Alex Cord in “Genesis II” (1973)

More Moxey TV-Movies followed, including a pair of 1972 Westerns starring Clint Walker (HARDCASE, THE BOUNTY MAN). HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (’72) was a Christmas-themed shocker with Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris, Jessica Walter, and Walter Brennan; GENESIS II (1973) a pilot for a new Gene Roddenberry sci-fi series starring Alex Cord; A STRANGE AND DEADLY OCCURRENCE (1974) another haunted house chiller, this time with Robert Stack and Vera Miles; WHERE HAVE ALL THE PEOPLE GONE? (’74), post-apocalyptic sci-fi with Peter Graves and Verna Bloom; CONSPIRACY OF TERROR (1975), a creepy Satanism-in-the-suburbs tale featuring Michael Constantine and Barbara Rhodes. Moxey was also busy doing episodic TV, like SHAFT, POLICE STORY, KUNG FU, and the pilot episode of CHARLIE’S ANGELS.

Deborah Raffin in “Nightmare in Badham County” (1976)

Two 1976 TV-Movie efforts are worth noting. NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY could have fit right in on a Southern Fried Exploitation double feature with MACON COUNTY LINE or JACKSON COUNTY JAIL. In this one, Deborah Raffin and Lynne Moody are travelling down south when they encounter sleazy sheriff Chuck Connors, who wants to write them more than a ticket, if you get my drift! They’re arrested on false charges and brought before the judge, who happens to be the sheriff’s cousin (Ralph Bellamy, no less!), and sent to a grueling labor camp, where they undergo the familiar harsh conditions and sexual harassment. Sure, it’s a TV knockoff, but extremely well handled by Moxey and his cast, which also features Tina Louise, Robert Reed, Della Reese, and Lana Wood, and is a personal Guilty Pleasure of mine!

“Smash-Up On Interstate 5” (1976)

SMASH-UP ON INTERSTATE 5 was the TV-Movie version of a disaster flick, done on a much smaller scale, concerning a 39 car pile-up on a California highway that results in many injuries and deaths. The movie follows a select few who’ll be involved on the fateful day, and like its big screen brethren, it features an all-star cast (though again, on a much smaller scale): Robert Conrad, Buddy Ebsen, Herb Edelman, Scott Jacoby, Sue Lyon, Vera Miles, Donna Mills, David Nelson, Harriet Nelson, and Terry Moore (with an early role for young Tommy Lee Jones as a traffic cop on the scene).

Sally Struthers and Dennis Weaver in 1977’s “Intimate Strangers”

Into the late 70’s and 1980’s, Moxey’s output slowed down, but there are a few worth mentioning. INTIMATE STRANGERS (1977) was one of the first films (TV or otherwise) to tackle the issue of domestic violence, with Dennis Weaver as the rage-oholic, Sally Struthers his battered wife, and Tyne Daly in an Emmy-nominated performance as her supportive friend. SANCTUARY OF FEAR (1979) was a pilot for a mystery series featuring Barnard Hughes as G.K. Chesterton’s priest/sleuth Father Brown. THE VIOLATION OF SARAH MCDAVID (1981) was another tough drama ripped from the headlines, as inner city teacher Patty Duke is brutally beaten and raped, and battles the system while the higher-ups (led by Ned Beatty) create a cover-up. DEADLY DECEPTION (1987) won an Edgar Award for Best TV Mystery Teleplay (by Gordon Colter), about a reporter (Lisa Eilbacher) aiding a father (Matt Salinger) locate his long missing and presumed dead son. LADY MOBSTER (1988) was an over-the-top melodrama with Soap Opera Queen Susan Lucci taking on the Mafia – and winning!

After directing 8 episodes of MAGNUM PI and 18 of MURDER SHE WROTE, John Llewellyn Moxey retired from filmmaking. His body of work features some outstanding efforts, and as a director he had a high batting average indeed. He’ll be remembered for his home runs (HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER), but the rest of his filmography features some solid doubles and triples, and though the mainstream press hasn’t paid much attention to his passing, Cracked Rear Viewer fondly salutes you, Mr. Moxey. Job well done.

RIP John Llewellyn Moxey (1925-2019)

Cleaning Out the DVR #21: Halloween Leftovers 3

Time to reach deep inside that trick-or-treat bag and take a look at what’s stuck deep in the corners. Just when you thought it was safe, here’s five more thrilling tales of terror:

YOU’LL FIND OUT (RKO 1940; D: David Butler) – Kay Kyser and his College of Musical Knowledge, for those of you unfamiliar…

…were a Swing Era band of the 30’s & 40’s who combined music with cornball humor on their popular weekly radio program. RKO signed them to a movie contract and gave them this silly but entertaining “old dark house” comedy, teaming Kay and the band (featuring Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, and the immortal Ish Kabibble!) with horror greats Boris Karloff , Bela Lugosi , and Peter Lorre . It’s got all the prerequisites: secret passageways, a creepy séance, and of course that old stand-by, the dark and stormy night! The plot has Kyser’s band hired for Helen Parrish’s 21st birthday party at said spooky mansion, with band manager Dennis O’Keefe as her love interest. Bela gets the juiciest part as flamboyant phony medium Prince Saliano, Boris is a shady family friend, and Lorre his usual sinister self. Alma Kruger plays Helen’s aunt who’s into spiritualism, which sets things in motion, and bumbling Kay gets to solve the mystery. Nothing earth-shaking going on here, but fun for fans of the Terror Trio. Fun Fact: The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Song, “I’d Know You Anywhere”, written by Jimmy McHugh and Johnny Mercer, and sweetly sung onscreen by Ginny Simms, who had a brief film career of her own after leaving the band in 1941.

THE LEOPARD MAN (RKO 1943; D: Jacques Tourneur) – One of producer Val Lewton’s most unheralded films, chock full of his trademark use of sound and shadows. A black leopard gets loose from nightclub performer Jean Brooks’ act, and a series of gruesome murders follow in a small New Mexico town. This tense, gripping ‘B’ is loaded with eerie scenes; I especially liked the one in which a young girl gets locked in a cemetery and stalked by the killer cat (or is it a human – the movie will keep you guessing!). Dennis O’Keefe is Jean’s publicity agent whose stunt goes awry, Margo (later married to Eddie Albert) a castanet-clicking dancer/victim, and Isabel Jewell shines as a Gypsy card reader. Mark Robson’s marvelous editing job on this and Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE got him promoted to the director’s chair for THE SEVENTH VICTIM later that year. This chilling horror-noir doesn’t get the attention of other Lewton films, but deserves a much larger audience. Fun Fact: Based on the novel “Black Alibi” by prolific pulp author Cornell Woolrich, whose many books and short stories were made into film noir classics.

THE DISEMBODIED (Allied Artists 1957; D: Walter Grauman) – Ice Princess of Horror Allison Hayes IS Tonda, jungle voodoo queen in this low-budget shocker that wasn’t as bad as I expected, far as jungle voodoo epics go. Paul Burke costars as a filmmaker who brings his wounded friend to Allison’s doctor husband John Weingraf’s jungle compound, but let’s face it – the main reason to watch this is Allison Hayes, thoroughly evil and sexy as hell! And that memorably sensuous voodoo dance she performs…

Hot Damn! She’s the whole show in this minor chiller directed by Walter Grauman, who later helmed 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE and tons of TV (including 53 episodes of MURDER, SHE WROTE). Fun Fact: Weingraf gets off the best line when he tells Allison, “There are only two places where you belong. The jungle – and the place where I first found you!”. Burn!!!  

BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (Filmgroup 1959; D: Monte Hellman) – An uneven blend of the horror and crime genres courtesy of the Corman Brothers finds crook Frank Wolff and his gang (including his perpetually soused moll Sheila Caroll) plotting a gold bar heist using an explosion at a mine as a diversion. Wolff and his cohorts (perennial Corman actor Wally Campo and Frank Sinatra’s cousin Richard!) use good-looking ski lodge instructor Michael Forest to lead them on a cross-country ski trip to make their getaway, but the blast awakens a not-so hideous monster from its slumber that tracks them down! First film for director Hellman has its moments, but the rock-bottom budget defeats him. Filmed on location in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Fun Fact: The unscary monster was designed and played by actor Chris Robinson, the original “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” commercial ad guy!

HORROR HOTEL (Vulcan/Trans-Lux 1960; D: John Llewellyn Moxey) – Also known as CITY OF THE DEAD. New England 1692: accused witch Elizabeth Selwyn curses the town of Whitewood, MA as she’s burned at the stake. Present Day: college student Nan Barlow wants to do her term paper on witchcraft and devil worship, and is directed by her history professor Alan Driscoll to travel to his hometown of Whitewood for research. He even recommends she stay at The Raven’s Inn, run by Mrs. Newless (who bears a striking resemblance to Elizabeth!).

Nan immediately notices strange things about Whitewood: the fog-shrouded town doesn’t look like it’s changed in 200+ years, the townsfolk aren’t very friendly, the old reverend warns her “Leave Whitewood”, and weird noises emanate from the cellar. The only person who welcomes her is the reverend’s granddaughter Patricia, newly arrived herself and running an antique bookstore. Curiosity gets the best of her and… DON’T GO IN THAT BASEMENT, NAN!!

When Nan doesn’t return home after two weeks, her brother Ronald and boyfriend Bill become worried. Patricia, too, is worried, and pays a call on both Ronald and Prof. Driscoll. The men decide separately to go to Whitewood and investigate, and that’s when the fun really begins! This is probably Moxey’s best feature film, though he does have some good TV Movies on his resume (THE NIGHT STALKER, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY). Christopher Lee is dark and ominous as Driscoll, but it’s Patricia Jessel (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM ) who stands out in a truly bloodcurdling performance as Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newless. The rest of the cast (Betta St. John, Valentine Dyall, Venitia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis) is equally good, and the British actors do a fine job maintaining their American accents. This incredibly creepy nightmare of a movie is an old favorite of mine, and highly recommended! Fun Fact: This was a Vulcan Production from Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, who soon changed their company’s name to Amicus , premiere makers of horror anthologies in the 60’s & 70’s.

Killer Christmas: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (ABC-TV Movie 1972)

Four daughters reunite at the old family homestead during Christmas to visit their estranged, dying father. Sounds like the perfect recipe for one of those sticky-sweet Hallmark movies, right? Wrong, my little elves! HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, originally broadcast as part of ABC-TV’s “Movie of the Week” series (1969-1975) is part proto-slasher, part psycho-biddie shocker, and a whole lot of fun! It plays kind of like a 70’s exploitation film, only with a high-powered cast that includes Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris , and Walter Brennan, a script by Joseph (PSYCHO) Stefano, and direction courtesy of John Llwellyn Moxey (HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER).

Rich old Benjamin Morgan (Brennan) has summoned his daughters home on a dark and stormy Christmas Eve, claiming his second wife Elizabeth (Harris) is slowly poisoning him to death. Elizabeth was once ‘suspected’ of poisoning her first husband (though never proven) and spent some time in an insane asylum. The girls haven’t been back since their mother committed suicide nine years ago, and believe dear ol’ dad drove her to it. There’s seemingly level-headed Alex (Parker), pill-popping lush Freddie (Jessica Walter), multi-times married Jo (Jill Haworth), and sweet young grad student Chris (Field).

Freddie, drunk and stoned, has a freak-out when she enters her late mother’s room, and tries to commit hari-kari of her own with broken glass. Jo decides to split the scene, and is followed to her car by someone wearing a yellow rain slicker with red boots and gloves – items owned by Elizabeth! When Jo discovers her keys aren’t in the ignition, she turns back to the house, only to get impaled with a pitchfork! Freddie, recuperating in a hot bath with a bottle of vodka, is dragged under the water and drowned – by someone wearing those same red gloves! The phone is dead, the roads are washed out, and it’s thundering and lightening like crazy, so Chris gets the bright idea to try and make it through the woods to the nearest neighbor’s house a mile away.

Chris is stalked by that slicker-wearing, pitchfork wielding someone in a scene reminiscent of slasher movies to come, with some ominous piano and strings in the background. Ducking away, in a panic now, she heads back home, only to trip over Jo’s corpse! She hides in her father’s room, when Elizabeth enters and says “He’s dead”, causing her to go screaming into the night. Running down the dark country road, a car driven by Alex pulls up, and the real killer is revealed… and it’s not who you think (or maybe it is, if you’ve seen enough of these films!). This penultimate scene is followed by a cool twist ending which I wouldn’t have seen coming had I not watched the movie before.

Angelic young Sally Field makes a darn good Scream Queen… could be the kid has a future in pictures! Uptight Julie Harris, always skulking about and peering through windows, is as obvious a red herring as Bela Lugosi in a butler’s uniform! Triple Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker steals the show with her histrionics at the end, Jessica Walter goes over the top (but in a good way), and neither Brennan nor Haworth (BRIDES OF DRACULA, HORROR HOUSE)  get much to do, but add to the star power. I’ve been looking for something a bit different than the usual holiday fare this year, and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS certainly fills the bill. If you’re craving your Christmas goose with a dash of arsenic this season, check it out, it’s available on YouTube!

 

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