Categories
British Horror/Suspense

Masque of the Red Death

Low budget film genius Roger Corman once said the two films he was proudest of were The Intruder (a searing film about racism and civil rights which I recommended here) and the superb horror movie Masque of the Red Death.

Corman had been enchanted by Edgar Allen Poe stories since reading The Fall of the House of Usher at age 11. After directing a number of schlock black-and-white films made in 10 day shoots, he persuaded James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkhoff to let him do a Poe adaptation and to make it a “big budget” movie: Not only would it be in color, but he would have 15 whole days to shoot it! With his usual brilliance at spotting affordable talent, Corman cast as the lead Vincent Price, an actor who otherwise might have faded into obscurity along with his youthful good looks. The Fall of the House of Usher proved a big money maker, and an enduring cinematic collaboration was born (Corman, Price and Poe, often joined by other terrific horror actors and writers).

I have recommended the Corman-Price-Poe film Tales of Terror, which while a lot of fun is not as impressive cinematically as Masque of the Red Death. The latter was filmed in the United Kingdom because the government at the time had a film production subsidy policy, giving Corman more to work with financially than usual. The film also benefited from the cinematographer being the gifted Nicholas Roeg, one of the many soon to be famous film artists who was nurtured in the university of Roger Corman. Couple those virtues with Corman’s scrounging ability — he recycled much of the opulent set of Becket here — and you have the best looking of any of the Corman-Price-Poe films.

The plot of this 1964 release comes from the Poe story of the same name, with a subplot drawn from Poe’s Hop-Frog. The story opens in a foggy forest in Medieval Italy, where a mysterious figure cloaked in red foretells of a coming plague (His face is never seen, and I assumed his wonderfully sonorous voice was provided by the late Christopher Lee, but it turns out to be John Westbrook). Meanwhile, the rich, cruel, Satan-worshiping Prince Prospero terrorizes the peasants, and casts a lustful eye in particular on a lovely, impoverished lass named Francesca (played by Paul McCartney’s one-time beau Jane Asher). As the plague spreads through the land, Prospero’s castle fills up with both his greedy courtiers and his unwilling prisoners. Debauchery and nastiness ensue, coupled with ample surrealism and existential dread for good measure.

Corman was utterly in command of his material by this penultimate entry of his Poe cycle, and benefited from a strong script by R. Wright Campbell and the legendary Charles Beaumont (co-creator of the Twilight Zone). The almost hallucinatory ambiance of the film makes it both uniquely unnerving and a foreshadowing of the more experimental film style that would flower as the 1960s went along (including the moments when Corman strains for artiness a bit too much). As for the actors, this may be Vincent Price’s most impressive horror performance: he dominates every one of his scenes. Of the many good supporting performances, particular praise is in order for the little-known Skip Martin. As Hop-Toad, a wronged dwarf who seeks revenge, Martin conveys impressive emotional power. He had the bad luck to work in the pre-Peter Dinklage era where good parts for little people were virtually never written into films, but at least he made the most of his opportunity to shine here.

Masque of the Red Death succeeds as a horror film and also as an art house drama. Congratulations to Corman and his crew, as well of course to the magnificent Edgar Allen Poe.

Categories
Drama

The Intruder

It is pretty hard to imagine a Hollywood Producer sitting in a meeting in 1962 and saying “I want a daring and powerful film about racism in the civil rights era…get Roger Corman and Bill Shatner on the phone pronto!”. Yet the B-Movie king and television’s most beloved overactor did indeed make such a movie, and The Intruder still packs a punch today. .

The story opens with an angelic-looking charmer (Shatner) named Adam Cramer arriving at a small Southern town for the purpose of “social work”. He is boyish and innocent-seeming at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is a member of a John Birch-type society and intends to stir up racial animosity concurrent with the arrival of school integration. He preys on weakness in all its forms and foments hatred and violence which spins out of control. Disgusted by Cramer, a fence-sitting newspaper editor (Frank Maxwell) has an attack of conscience and moves to side decisively with integration, at horrible cost to himself and his family.

Maybe because it was his first movie leading role or because Corman kept him under control, Shatner is unusually restrained here and it really works well for him. Then young and handsome, he is particularly effective at portraying seductive yet smarmy sexuality. Most of the extras and small roles were people of the town in which the crew filmed and were eventually chased out of because of the dirty laundry the movie was airing. Charles Barnes as the high school senior leading the first Black students into the previously segregated school movingly conveys strength, dignity and sadness all at once. This was a role from the heart for him as the prior year he had actually done the same thing in real life.

Although The Intruder can be experienced as a film about racism, it can be even better appreciated as a mesmerizing character study. Adam Cramer is a blend of the calm salesman and someone desperate to obtain, a bully and a weakling, an Adonis who is deeply ugly. The development of this strange yet realistic character is the best thing about Charles Beaumont’s script. For someone with a tragically short life, Beaumont had significant artistic impact, including co-creating The Twilight Zone with Rod Serling and going on with Corman and much of the cast here to make the first adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s work for the big screen (The above-average horror film, The Haunted Palace).

Corman was known for making cheap, unpretentious grindhouse films about motorcycles, monsters and mayhem (Including Edgar Allen Poe adaptations I recommend here and here). He also, famously, never lost money on a movie. Until The Intruder that is, which was denied bookings in much of The South and in other parts of the country where the film was considered too controversial. It was re-titled multiple times to try to get it into theaters (as “Shame” and later with the cringe worthy exploitation title “I Hate Your Guts!”), but with minimal success. As the film’s reputation grew and it was the subject of some documentaries and festivals, it finally broke even four decades after its release.

The only thing I didn’t love about The Intruder was the climax, which though still downbeat comes out a bit happier than I expect it would have in real life. But if Corman had gone for complete realism his film would never have been released at all. This was daring stuff for its time, and both for its themes and character development The Intruder remains an impressive piece of cinema over 50 years later.

The Intruder is in the public domain and you will be able to find it online pretty easily. It took only the first six minutes for me to be completely hooked.  After you have watched it, you might enjoy this short film about the making of the movie (spoilers).

Categories
Horror/Suspense

Tales of Terror

Low budget whiz Roger Corman revered Edgar Allen Poe and brought his stories to a new generation through film. The best known is probably Masque of the Red Death (my recommendation here), but most of them are rewarding, including Tales of Terror.

This 1962 film is a trilogy of stories based on four different Poe stories: Morella, a pastiche of The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The stories are well-employed in the script of the late, great Richard Matheson, whose ability to infuse new, um, blood, into hoary tales I have praised many times. Vincent Price anchors the film with three lead performances, which vary in tone from lugubrious to frothy to sepulchral.

Price is joined by two aging stars who still know how to deliver the goods. Peter Lorre makes a fine boozy bully in The Black Cat and Basil Rathbone lends gravitas to the role of Carmichael, the hypnotist who tries to hold Valdemar at the point of death in the final story. The roles of the women characters however are comparatively flat, with the female performers cast mainly for their looks.

Many horror films, including some of the most famous, include some element of camp, and Tales of Terror is very much in that tradition. Price and Lorre enjoy themselves enormously in The Black Cat, inviting the audience to laugh at them as much as be frightened by the murderous proceedings. As a viewer, you should bring eggs for this part of the film, because these guys are bringing the ham.

In addition to the tension and fear generated by the three stories, the film makes for good horror viewing because Corman, as always, was experimenting as he went along. Some novel special effects are on display, all of which work pretty well. On the small screen, some of the Cinemascope trickery at the screen edges will be lost, so see this one on the big screen or in letterbox format if you can.

In some people’s minds, Corman is nothing but a schlock merchant, but that’s not fair to him. Like Richard Rodriguez, he has a genius for improvising in a low-budget environment. He shot movies on the sets of other movies while they were being torn down, writing a script each night to take advantage of whichever set would be gone by the end of the next day. He told Peter Bogdanovich that “Boris Karloff owes me a few days of filming, let’s make something out of that”, which became the nail-biting Targets. And he also helped launch many future superstars, including Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Francis Ford Coppola. I was absolutely delighted when Hollywood finally woke up and gave the 83-year old Corman an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, because he’s long been the kind of disruptive, creative force that the film industry needs to maintain its vitality.

Categories
Horror/Suspense

The Howling (Plus a Trivia Quiz!)

There may be only one film that’s more packed with references to other horror films than Scream: Joe Dante’s 1981 cult favorite, The Howling.

Originally intended as a straight-ahead werewolf film, it was changed significantly in tone by a late-arriving co-screenwriter, the ever-creative John Sayles. Sayles kept the scary bits, but added a pile of in jokes and satiric moments (including one with himself as a coroner). The result was unsatisfying to some viewers, but the movie returned its modest budget many times over as horror fans embraced it enthusiastically.

The story opens with earnest, All-American TV reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) putting herself in danger to help capture a serial killer who has developed an obsession with her. Despite police backup (actually, BECAUSE of police backup), things go horribly awry and she is psychologically traumatized. With the support of her ex-Stanford football star husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone) she seeks treatment from a pompous psychiatrist who emphasizes the need to release the beast within (Patrick Macnee). He sends Karen and Bill to “the colony” an Esalen-type retreat, for healing. What the innocent couple don’t know is that the colony is a den of werewolves, and before you can say “Aaahooooooooo” they are both being terrorized by a motley assortment of lycanthropes!

The budget apparently prevented the casting of any A-listers, but the performers do a serviceable job, especially MacNee, who gamely spouts 1970s psychobabble, and the sultry Elisabeth Brooks, who memorably redefines the term “maneater”. But the real stars are Sayles’ parade of little gags (everyone eats Wolf Chili and drinks Wolf’s Liquor; look fast also for a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl), and the astonishing person-to-wolf transformations of Rob Bottin. Bottin leaves the CGI-dependent special effects artists of today in the dust with his extraordinarily scary work here.

The film has some flaws. After a gripping opening 20 minutes, it shifts the pace to neutral for too long before revving up a thrilling final act (In fairness, the film is over 30 years old, so perhaps a little flab in the middle is forgivable). I can understand also that the smart-alecky script may elude some viewers or seem to precious to others. But for horror movie buffs, The Howling is a fun screamfest that will enliven your Halloween.

And, now A TRIVIA QUIZ, with answers after the jump, with all the questions deriving from Sayles’ script flourishes.

  1. MacNee’s character is named George Waggner. The real Waggner directed what horror classic?
  2. One member of the colony is named Erle Kenton, after the director of the spooky 1945 movie House of the Dracula. The actor playing Kenton in The Howling was actually IN that movie. Who is he?
  3. Early in the film, when Karen White is in a phone booth waiting to meet serial killer Eddie Quist, a tall man stands just outside the door. Is he waiting to use the phone, or is he the killer, blocking her escape? Well, when he turns to face the camera he is revealed to be which famous horror movie director?
  4. Stone’s character is named after R. William Neill, who directed what great horror “team-up” movie?
  5. Noble Willingham plays a character named Charlie Barton. Barton directed what famous comedy-horror mashup?

ANSWERS

  1. The Wolf Man
  2. John Carradine
  3. Roger Corman.
  4. Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man
  5. Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein

Categories
Blogs on Film

Making Good Movies on the Cheap

The cost of making movies seems to climb every year, with $100 million productions being common nowadays. Yet few people would argue that Hollywood’s product is better than it was when budgets were smaller. It takes money to promote a movie and to get big stars in a movie, but fundamentally you can make a good movie pretty cheaply. And I admire the people who are inventive and unpretentious enough to go for it on a low budget, like the subjects of the documentary American Movie (which I recommended here) or Robert Rodriguez, who penned the Rosetta Stone of such filmmakers: Rebel Without a Crew.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Trailer) - YouTube

For example, I recently watched X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, one of Roger Corman’s many low budget horror/sci-fi films. He used a common strategy for such films, which is to cast someone who used to be an A-list star but whose career is waning enough that he will take a smaller check. In this case it was Ray Milland, who clearly didn’t think the film was beneath him and turned in a good performance. The sets are spare, the actors are few and other than Milland, unknown. But it’s completely watchable and engaging. It doesn’t try to be a blockbuster extravaganza life-changing piece of cinema. Rather, it tries to entertain for 79 minutes and it does, on what is clearly a modest budget.

A film that is an even bigger triumph of low budget movie making is Rocky. Yes, Rocky, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, spawned a billion-dollar film franchise and was a world-wide hit, was a low budget film. Burgess Meredith was in the Ray Milland position; something of a name in the past but now affordable. All those shots of Rocky running around Philadelphia were an economy, using the new Steadicam technology to generate emotional momentum without having to build sets or hire extras (Mostly it’s ordinary Philadelphians volunteering to do cameos). The romantic ice rink scene with Rocky and Adrian was supposed to happen with many skaters and a crowd, but they couldn’t afford that so they set the scene instead at a time when the rink is closed.

And the climactic sequence is a work of genius in inexpensive film production. Before the final fight, Stallone’s shorts didn’t match the banner image of Rocky and his robe was the wrong size, but they couldn’t afford to switch props so they simply rewrote the script to have Rocky comment on the errors and make him that much more pathetic. During the fight itself (embedded below), the arena is dark because it was mostly empty — they had run out of budget for extras. Stallone’s dad is the guy ringing the bell for rounds and other friends and family pitched in as extras to stretch the dollars. They could not afford many re-shoots so if you watch carefully you will see that the people watching the fight were moving around to give the impression of a full arena (you can also see the Steadicam in some of the overhead shots and that some the key punches actually miss — a “rib shot” to the hip for example).

With such a sparsely populated set, it was impossible to portray a big crowd reaction. So what did director John Avildsen do? When Rocky first decks Apollo Creed, Avildsen cannily cuts to the neighborhood bar, so that a small number of actors can give the audience a scene of excited, cheering people packed in close and rooting for Rocky.

Inspired, resourceful work by everyone involved, on what was then a slender budget of about a million dollars. And note to Hollywood, it returned an over 200 to 1 profit so it isn’t true that you can’t make money in Hollywood without a gazillion dollar production behind you.