Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The turkeys have escaped

If you found yourself chuckling at the above, I've got good news for you. 

There's this TV programme called Mystery Science Theater 3000, from which the above graphic was taken. In every episode they screen an entire movie, usually but not always American low-budget horror or sci-fi from the fifties, sixties and seventies. Meanwhile the cast, permanently silhouetted at the bottom of the screen as if in the front row of an auditorium, constantly crack wise to ensure you never get a chance to enjoy the film as its makers intended.
If, however, you knew exactly what the photo represented and found yourself grinding your teeth at the very memory of the thing, I've got bad news for you.
Much as we feared, the programme's influence has been permanent.

Though I was surprised to learn it has not been produced since 1999, MST3K (as it is popularly known) remains a touchstone for an entire generation, and the ultimate source of validation for people who think that the only possible means of engaging with low budget genre films is in snorting derision. It’s for people who think it’s hilarious whenever a set wobbles, or you can see the strings on the devil bat.
You can only imagine the trouble these poor souls must have with live theatre: “How was Hamlet, honey?” “Terrible! Hilarious! Some of the dialogue was good, but no way was that set a real castle!”

This sort of myopia is nothing new of course: what bothers me specifically that it is a regression.

Like most of my generation, I was first exposed to the likes of Ed Wood and Herschell Gordon Lewis by the Medved Brothers, whose hugely popular books – most famously The Golden Turkey Awards – first unveiled that whole lost continent of low budget, off the wall movies that the standard film encyclopaedias either ignored or skipped over in a sentence or two of derisive guesswork. That they did so even more derisively is much to be regretted, but they were pioneers, nonetheless.
My friend Mykal Banta – author of the peer-free blog Radiation Cinema! – shares my detestation for MST3K, and is equally ill-disposed towards the collected works of the Medveds. But the latter – though of no use to anyone now – can be at least partially excused for a number of reasons.
They were trailblazers, and however regrettable their superciliousness, they at least had nothing better or more substantial to compare themselves to. At times, their commentaries were genuinely witty (though most often they were not). And best of all, every so often they abandoned the attitudes of the schoolyard bully and went after films that could actually hit back. Their Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time finds room for brave parries at The Omen, Ivan the Terrible and Last Year at Marienbad, while The Hollywood Hall of Shame – focusing on the film world’s most expensive flops and by far their best book – includes among its uncharacteristically in-depth and seriously researched essays a forensic account of the Heaven’s Gate folly that is among the most enjoyable skewerings of cinematic pretension I have ever read.
But most of the time, I'll admit, Mykal's right. They were a disgrace.

But then, suddenly and wonderfully, everything changed. Instead of the binoculars with which we were expected to view these films, at safe and disdainful distance, we were suddenly handed a microscope by a wonderful and equally influential publication called Incredibly Strange Films, edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno.
I discovered it in my teens a few years after it was published and it instantly became my bible, one of that handful of movie books that changed the way I looked at cinema and without which I would truly be a different person today. I used to carry it to and from school every day, and read and re-read it every spare minute I had.

From the introduction:

Most of the films discussed test the limits of contemporary (middle-class) cultural acceptability, mainly because in varying ways they don't meet certain "standards" utilised in evaluating direction, acting, dialogue, sets, continuity, technical cinematography, etc. Many of the films are overtly "lower-class" or "low-brow" in content and art direction. However, a high percentage of these works disdained by the would-be dictators of public opinion are sources of pure enjoyment and delight, despite improbable plots, "bad" acting, or ragged film technique. At issue is the notion of "good taste," which functions as a filter to block out entire areas of experience judged - and damned - as unworthy of investigation.

Vale and Juno approached the same films as the Medveds from the exact opposite angle. By presenting them as the uncompromised products of unique creative imaginations they sought to assign them a more dignified place in screen history. It was a revelation, and it was exhilarating.
It was also embarrassing, because like all great critical writing it showed us things we should have been able to see for ourselves, yet somehow could not or did not. Those brilliant, damning quotation marks - "standards", "bad", "good taste" - exposed the inadequacy of mockery as a means of addressing whole worlds of cinema, simply because they have the audacity not to conform to the boring standards of consensus Hollywood, and the sheer silliness of critics whose paltry imaginations were affronted by low budgets and non-mainstream ideas and effects. In these pages, films like Plan Nine From Outer Space, hitherto regarded as good only for sniggers, re-emerged as the unique visions of some of the most cherishable eccentrics who ever picked up a movie camera.

So what makes films like Herschell Gordon Lewis's The Wizard of Gore or Ray Dennis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies worthwhile? First of all: unfettered creativity. Often the films are eccentric - even extreme - presentations by individuals freely expressing their imaginations, who throughout the filmmaking process improvise creative solutions to problems posed either by circumstance or budget - mostly the latter.

Bad movies are uninspired, dull, derivative, conveyor belt movies. These ones, by contrast, are wild and imaginative and unlike anything else - and it really doesn't matter much if the space ship is cardboard and the actors recite their dialogue in a manner that doesn't happen to match whatever the consensus is on naturalism this week.
These are films to be enjoyed, not guffawed at by people who probably think Star Wars is the greatest film of all time. (Perhaps the biggest indictment of MST3K is that it exposes these movies to kids who might otherwise have never encountered them,and then simultaneously and knowingly crushes any enthusiasm they might have discovered for them before it has a chance to bloom, rather in the way that generations of British schoolchildren have been turned off history by Terry Deary's idiotic books.)

Vale and Juno went further still, however. They exposed not only our gestures but also our motives. They pointed out that far more than revealing deficiencies in the object of our scorn, we were boasting of the limits of our imaginations, and also, obliviously, revealing distinctly unsavoury aspects of ourselves. Their genius was to make the Golden Turkey approach to these films seem not just wrong, not merely silly and pointless, but also positively shaming:

The concepts of "good taste" are intricately woven into society's control process and class structure. Aesthetics are not an objective body of laws suspended above us like Plato's supreme "Ideas"; they are rooted in the fundamental mechanics of how to control the population and maintain the status quo... The power to literally create desire, fashion, consumer trends, opinions and even one's very identity is expressed through film and video. This force - power through persuasion - reaches deep into the backbrain, rendering more brutal, physical control tactics obsolete.

Why do so few of us sense the irony in laughing at the fashions we wore in previous decades as if they are objectively absurd, while studiously keeping up with those of the present day (only to laugh at them just as heartily when their time comes)? Because cultural conformity's a powerful beast, that's why.
The forces that govern our reactions to the hairstyles and trousers of thirty years ago - the hairstyles we willingly sported and the trousers we happily wore - also condition our judgement of ‘bad’ acting, ‘bad’ special effects, ‘bad’ writing, or ‘inadequate’ technical standards.
Of course taste is subjective, but, just as surely, consensus is arbitrary.

Now, this is not to say that objective standards do not exist, or that there are not works of art that are greater and lesser than others; at least, that is not a position that I would ever endorse myself. Certainly Tolstoy and Bach and Fellini offer deeper, richer, more considered artistic experiences than Ed Wood, as Wood himself would be the last to deny. But it does not follow from that there is no place for Wood, or that he should be pilloried simply for being different, or for having the energy and invention to attempt to recreate his ideas without access to the resources and technology to which we are lazily accustomed. (It's the guilty, self-loathing lament of many a lofty critic: How dare he try?)

In any event, though we can happily argue about aesthetics until forever, there is one other much more important reason for hating the Medved/MST approach, and that is simply that it is irredeemably snobbish and ill-mannered. Clearly, these are not films that are going to appeal to everyone, and if you can't see their peculiar magic, that's not a problem for me. But mockery - an activity which by its very nature seeks not merely to insult but also to advertise one's own greater sophistication in contrast - is a disgusting attitude to take to works that have plainly had to struggle in order to exist, and especially to the individuals who did the struggling.
Whenever I think of Mystery Science Theater, I think of something Ed Wood said to Valda Hansen, quoted in Rudolph Grey's wonderful Nightmare of Ecstasy. Wood was a nut, but he was sincere, he was impassioned and he got off his arse and created. All he wanted was to entertain people with his ideas. When most of us would have given up a hundred times, he kept on trying. He never made it. He thought he would die completely unknown, and he probably thought there was no worse fate. In fact, he was proved wrong. He died well-known - and the laughing stock of the world. He didn't live to enjoy the sensitive reappraisal of his work ushered in by Incredibly Strange Films, but he got to see himself hailed as the worst director of all time by the Medveds.

Did he like that? What do you think?

Do you think I care if I'm a millionaire? No... what hurts me is the cruelty toward me... I'm only trying to do the best at what I feel. All this garbage I see, they praise. And me, they seem to love to deride me.

If there were nothing else, just those few sad, beautiful words, playing in my head on endless loop, would be enough to ensure I reserved my ire and disinterest solely for the corporate cogs turning out their soulless, narcotic multiplex fodder - never for the work of characters like Ray Dennis Steckler or Ted V. Mikels, producing instantly identifiable, genuinely unique and constantly surprising and unconventional cinema on nickels and dimes.
Without Vale and Juno, I would have known Steckler, for instance, only through the Medved prism: as the creator of two of the ‘worst film titles of all time’: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. Nothing in their writings would have inspired me to look deeper into the man’s work, and thus to the discovery that he is one of the greatest alternative artists of film history whose works – those two cited especially – have provided me with a decade or two of endless and intense stimulation. (And to glaze the turd: they’re actually great titles too. The worst film title of all time, I think you’ll find, is The Silence of the Lambs.)

I do know - and mean no personal offfence to - people who like Mystery Science Theater, but truly and unapologetically, I wish they didn't. I wish they didn't warm to its tone, to its cynicism, its meanness, its unreflective endorsement of arbitrary and limiting notions of cultural value.
The trouble is that they would (and probably will) read this and protest that their love of MST is in no way incompatible with a genuine respect for Ed Wood and his peers. Some of them might even tell me to get the bug out of my ass, stop applying exactly the kind of sweeping cultural judgements I affect to decry, and lighten up a bit.
But I've gone round and round these issues now for twenty-five years, and I can't see the logic of any position but my own. And if they tell me they can love Wood and Lewis and Steckler and 1950s horror, and MST at the same time, I can't really believe them.
I just can't believe them.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Nobody wants to eat a film: The hermetic universe of Ted V. Mikels

Okay, before you do anything else, certainly before you read any more of this, pop over to here and, if you have a quid or two to spare, contribute to the budget of Ted V Mikels’s latest film.
This is the first time the legendary filmmaker has part-funded one of his films by public subscription, and the campaign's only got about a week left to run.

You don't need to want to see the film. Indeed, even with no interest in seeing it at all, you can still feel the weight of screen history pressing on this, and enjoy the thrill of having a chance to help influence it.
That ten pounds you were saving to go and see Pacific Rim? Wait for the DVD, and use it for something your grandchildren will want to hear about instead.

O tempora, o mores; Mikels makes his films on video these days. And not for the increasingly fickle and apathetic masses who paid his way through the sixties and seventies either. Now he's a fully paid up alternative cinema legend, and his constituency are primarily those who rediscovered his films in the 1980s and 90s, when that whole alternative canon of maverick auteurs was first erected (on the ruins of the earlier, derogatory 'Golden Turkey' boom). For me and many others it was a glorious time to be a young film fan, as names like Lewis and Steckler and Mikels, whom we had hitherto encountered only in the course of their being dismissed as jokes, were suddenly being treated with respect and hailed as heroes, and their extraordinary back catalogues were at last thrown open for all to see by sympathetic video distributors.
But among that pantheon, Ted V. Mikels is unique in that he’s not just a professional cult hero: he's still a full-time moviemaker, some sixty-plus years since he first picked up a camera in anger.

Of all of them, Mikels is by far the most insistent that the film-maker is servant to his public, and that there is something fundamentally awry with the concept of the director who aims to please himself first and foremost, and expects the audience to join him. To him, the point is to do as good and original job as you can, but strictly within the conceptual parameters dictated by the state of the marketplace at any given time. Few auteurs – and whatever you think of him, he’s unquestionably one of those – have been so insistent that their job is to tailor their own tastes to those of the majority:

You can put your blood, sweat, tears, soul, and all your friends’ and everybody’s money into a motion picture, but if the world doesn’t like it, you eat it. Literally, you take it out, you put salt on it - you might have to wet the film a little bit first so the salt will stick - and then you eat it, because there’s nothing else you can do with it. So, nobody wants to eat a film, so therefore you must always research your market before you make a picture. Don’t make a picture that pleases you, make a picture that you think is going to please the world.

And yet still, unquestionably, the personality comes through, as any fan of the man can tell you, and not least because there are often few things as bizarre as Ted V. Mikels's idea of what is going to please the world. Hence that odd paradox noted by earlier observers: though no two Mikels films are alike, they're all at the same time unmistakably his. And their odd, spontaneous energy comes by cable direct from the man himself.

Energy is a key word when considering Mikels, along with enthusiasm, stamina and impregnable optimism: it's no accident that he is the one major name among the sixties and seventies exploitation pioneers who's still going. He's a film-making machine, part man and part celluloid, who, in his own words, has spent "28 hours a day, 10 days a week" making films. (Incidentally, as well as a director and an engaging raconteur, he's also a skilled magician, ventriloquist, accordionist, archer, fencer, horse rider, acrobat, weightlifter and escapologist. He’s also famous for having once lived in a castle, with a rotating pool of seven ‘castle ladies’: you can see both in his films, most notably Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, filmed extensively in the castle and its grounds.)

It's a shame he never wrote a book of his experiences, a kind of memoir-cum-manual along the lines of King Vidor's On Film-making. He's a born teacher, and the tips and tricks he has to offer budding moviemakers aren't going to be the same as Vidor's, for certain.
For him, the essence of moviemaking is logistical: it's not so much the product itself as what creating the product entails: how to get that effect in those circumstances, or on that budget; film to him is a physical and mental challenge, and the actual process of making it is the joy he thrives on. That's why as soon as he's finished, he's on to the next. He doesn't want a static body of work to look back on; he wants to be out there, doing it.
Ted likes being a cult director, as who would not, but he is wary of the exploitation mantle and positively dismissive of the suggestion that his work contributes to any kind of trash-aesthetic:

If the cult following is paying regard to somebody - like myself - who has made films under twenty impossible obstacles, but was able to do it and put together something out of nothing due to their sheer, driving will, then I'm really pleased with it. But I do not like to be included in admirations of trash films. I dislike that completely because I don't consider my films trash, and neither do the people who have actually seen them, which I find many of the people who have written about them clearly have not.

His preference is for action adventures, and he’s contributed at least two trash-classics (sorry, Ted!) to that genre: The Doll Squad (later ripped-off as Charlie’s Angels) and Ten Violent Women. But, he stresses, he’ll make whatever people want him to make, and he’s probably best known for his horror movies, especially the pair that keep him busily turning out sequel after sequel to this day: 1969's Astro-Zombies (with John Carradine, Tura Satana and Wendell Corey!) and 1972's The Corpse Grinders (that everyday story of wily entrepreneurs who mince dead bodies into catfood and inspire the nation’s cats to go on a murder rampage).

If there's one film that's going to be in the brackets after his name until the end of time, it's Corpse Grinders, dominated by that amazing central image of the corpse grinding machine, through which bodies are fed at one end on a conveyor belt before squirting out as sausage meat at the other. Mikels built it for a disgracefully extravagant thirty dollars. (As he points out, it doesn’t matter whether an effect cost one dollar or a million: all that counts is whether or not it works.) But the big surprise of the film is how good-natured and fun it is: Mikels does not take the opportunity of the grotesque central idea to go all out for an HG Lewis gorefest; it's more like a live-action episode of Scooby Doo, albeit with the most outre central idea and the weirdest cast of oddballs of just about any film you've ever seen in your life.
It was made, in Ted’s words, with "no money, baloney sandwiches with no cheese, a little bit of mustard and a lot of heart and soul" but the take was enormous - three million was the conservative estimate simply for first-run - and the film made number 11 at the American box-office. That's some achievement, impossible to even imagine today, but Mikels himself is happy to stress that when he says his films were low budget, he means really low budget:

I think I spent ninety percent of my life looking for money for films, and most of the films I made were for no money. But I managed a film or two a year, using short ends - twenty to fifty feet - of raw stock that I bought from the major studios for a penny a foot. Some of these short ends were so short that you had to reload the camera after every take. It was very demanding on your patience. People just don't know how hard it was putting a film together this way. They talk about low budgets as seven thousand dollars - if I'd had seven thousand dollars for some of my films I could have made a spectacular!

There’s good reason to love all these movies for what they are: supreme examples of an independent commercial cinema, and of just how personal genre material can seem when there's absolutely no interference whatsoever. And there is a campy quality to these horror and action subjects that make them ideal midnight movies, and understandably the works for which Mikels is best known.

Nonetheless, my own personal favourites are two of his lesser-known, earlier titles - and if anyone reading is inclined to write him off as a mere schlockmeister, make sure you see both of them first: Strike Me Deadly (1963) and The Black Klansman (1966).
Both are taut and precise black and white thrillers, with neither flab nor flubs; they display an aptitude and a concision of technique and expression that would be commendable in any low-budget studio movie: as the work of a non-studio maverick with tiny crews and a next-to-nothing budget they are sensational.

Strike Me Deadly, in fact - and incredibly - was his very first feature production, and he hocked everything he owned to finance it. Were I in his position I suspect I'd devise something with the technical complexity of My Dinner With Andre. Mikels instead devised a suspense thriller with difficult locations, complex motion photography and a raging forest fire, and brought it in with a nickels and dimes budget and a crew of four. (For the fire scenes, he integrated 16mm shots of controlled fires being dowsed during training exercises, but it’s not library footage: everything you see, Ted and his team shot for themselves.)
What really comes through is the man's enthusiasm, and the desire not just to overcome logistical challenges but to actually go looking for them, for the sheer pleasure of overcoming them. It is a filmmaker's film.

Even more unexpected is the sophistication of its narrative construction. The film plunges us straight into the action, without the smallest hint who the characters are, and with no background detail of any sort. All we know is what we see, as we see it: somewhere in the great outdoors, one guy stumbles upon a second guy in the act of cold-bloodedly murdering a third guy, and then starting a fire in the hope of getting away with it. When the second guy suddenly spots the first guy a chase begins. The first guy seems to get away, and rushes to a log cabin to tell the girl there what he has seen and that they have to get away and report it. Within seconds of his arrival, however, the killer bursts in.
This has so far occupied thirty nail-biting minutes, and it has scarcely occurred to us that we don't really know who these people are and what they are doing. But it is now, with the fire raging and the heroes trapped by the killer, that Mikels opts to backtrack, and fill in the gaps. Then, for the final third, we return to the action and find out how it is resolved.

It also looks good. For those of us with a black and white aesthetic, one of the best things about it is the vivid monochrome photography, but ironically this is the element of the film with which Ted is most displeased. Given the chance to do it again, he says, he would have sold even more of his possessions, or perhaps skimped yet further elsewhere, to shoot it in colour. Partly this is because the fires and backgrounds would look more impressive that way, but also because he is sure it limits its potential as a marketable commodity. Once, maybe, I'd have thought, but surely no longer. (There has been talk of colourising it: fair enough, I suppose, so long as the original remains available, but aesthetically? No, no, no!)

The Black Klansman is, if anything, even more compact, economical and effective, as well as an advance in terms of thematic depth and complexity, and the securing of effect through structure. (Contrasting with the essentially physical nature of the first film, there are here several gripping dialogue sequences, that hold the attention just as surely, with physical action used only intermittently.)
It could be argued that to a degree the film pulls the rug from under Mikels’s carefully cultivated stance of public servant: if all he cared about was box office returns then clearly this is an insane project to mount in 1966. Mikels knew how to make a safe buck at the drive-in: Astro-Zombies was only a couple of years away, after all! If he made this instead, it’s because he wanted to.
This is a message movie, really and truly, made with non-politically correct confidence, long before the very idea of a white commercial filmmaker utilising the civil rights movement as a source of exploitable drama would be perceived as suspect whatever his stance. While the central idea sounds like it’s straight out of the exploitation playbook – the father of a child killed in a church bombing poses as white to go undercover among the Klan to enact revenge - the film itself reeks of integrity, while still functioning powerfully on the level of exploitation thriller.
Like Dirty Harry it is a film that really does seek to recruit its audience’s outrage as a means of ensuring their attention and soliciting their approval; a work of moral passion, unpolluted by pussyfooting liberal piety. (A subplot about an equivalently murderous black gang stands out surprisingly now, just as surely as the main plot was contentious then.)
Here we see fulfilled the real value of Mikels's tendency to divorce content and form utterly in his work. As always, he's going all out to ingratiate himself with you as a film-maker, but the story being offered is the work of an angry man, who is more than happy to alienate; on the conceptual level he's not playing safe at all. The film has a socio-historic authenticity equivalent to (though of course distinct from) any newsreel.
There's a palpable realism to the settings and details, too, that belies the melodrama of the plot. The sense of makebelieve that lies behind even the best Hollywood sets is nowhere to be detected in this film's small, sweaty hotel rooms, cheap bars and austere, joyless offices. And look at the actors playing the Klansmen. If, somehow, this had been launched as a major studio project they'd all be Jack Palance-types, and knowingly villainous (as if they enjoy doing wrong, rather than think they're doing right). Mikels, by contrast, stresses how ordinary they are, especially Rock: sleazy, paunchy businessman by day and their leader by night, played superbly by Harry Lovejoy, a Mikels favourite also to be seen in Corpse Grinders and Girl In Gold Boots.

This is the liberty of the independent filmmaker really being used: Meyer gave us more nudity than the major studios could ever have dreamed of showing; Lewis, more explicit violence. But just as surely, no film from a major studio could possibly have told this story, at this time, from this angle, with this degree of intensity. So who’s best making use of his freedom: Meyer, Lewis or Mikels?
The film is exploitation cinema doing everything it’s able to do: use a saleable idea or gimmick to give it a head-start against the majors and make up for its lack of stars and lavish trappings, and use the fact that there's no requirement to conform to consensus ideology to actually say something. There were other exploitation films from around these years that used similar themes, of course, but few can boast the same obvious sincerity, let alone the same rigorous, unpretentious filmcraft. It is a small but gleaming masterpiece of low-budget American cinema.

In a way, these two films point to a road not taken for Mikels, technically as much as thematically, and it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if the majors had stepped in after seeing them – as God knows they should have – and made an offer. Would he have foregone the freedom, and how would his career have shaped out? (Something like Sam Fuller's perhaps, or maybe Robert Aldrich's.) Probably, freedom is just too important to a man like Mikels. In any event, those Astro-Zombies were just around the corner, and so, too was the kind of immortality that neither Strike Me Deadly nor The Black Klansman could ever have provided.

That he’s still out there, still raising the money, still writing the scripts, still cranking out the movies, is just wonderful. If I had ten million dollars to give to any filmmaker in the world for any reason, I think I’d give it to Mikels to make the adaptation of Beowulf that has been his dream for his entire career and which, surely, would be his Citizen Kane, Ivan the Terrible and Heaven's Gate all rolled into one.
But until he or I strike it that lucky, Strike Me Deadly and The Black Klansman are testament enough to his talent, his commitment and his invention.

(Ted quotes from Vale and Juno's Incredibly Strange Films, John McCarty's The Sleaze Merchants, and the video series Directing Movies from "Action" to "Wrap" by Ted V. Mikels.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dropping in on The Ghoul

If you're anything like me, when you watch Veronica Carlson in a 1920s wig take a bath and then get slaughtered and eaten by a green-skinned maniac in a toga and sandals, you're thinking only one thing: where in England exactly is this movie set?
Read my speculations on the plot locations of The Ghoul, unless of course you're not anything like me, over at Hammer and Beyond (here).

Monday, January 28, 2013

Steckler for detail

That Ray Dennis Steckler appraisal I've been promising here for donks' yonks has landed over at Acidemic, here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Did a vampire really haunt Highgate Cemetery? No. Of course it didn't.

If you have the sort of memory that retains the details of two year old blog posts, then you may recall that back here I wrote of how my attempts to get on a Highgate Cemetery walking tour, in order to see the parts of the site that were used for location filming in Taste the Blood of Dracula, were thoroughly rebuffed by the stuffy chap at the gate.

Taken out of context, there's something a bit silly about the phrase Taste the Blood of Dracula, and saying it in public on a sunny Sunday morning in Highgate when there are people about walking their dogs and throwing bread to the ducks only makes it seem even sillier.
So I had initially said that I had wanted to see the grounds because they were used in "a film".

That's all the guy needs to know, right? I'm a film enthusiast, soaking up my country's artistic heritage. He probably doesn't know anything about that side of things anyway.
"Which one?" he asked, immediately zeroing in on my embarrassed evasion, his eyes darting across my face, as if looking for an exposed point through which to bore into my brain.
"Taste the Blood of Dracula," I said.
Perhaps I should have said "Taste the Blood of Dracula, sir," because at that moment his face hardened and I felt like I'd just gone into George Woodbridge's pub and asked him if he knew the way to the castle.
"Oh," he said, "We don't mention that."
And that was that.

At the time I put his attitude down to distaste at the idea of this splendid London landmark being recalled purely for its use in a tawdry 'orror movie. But an interesting comment I received a little while ago from a chap called Anthony Hogg suggests an alternative explanation:

The likely reason why the tour guide didn't want to speak about the movie is because of the vampire association.
The Friends of Highgate Cemetery aren't keen on 'exploiting' that aspect of the cemetery's history, because of the vandals the Highgate Vampire media coverage attracted. Indeed, the FoHC was formed to clean up the mess they left behind.

I followed the link to Mr Hogg's name and found myself being dragged, stage by jaw-dragging stage, into one of the weirdest and most embarrassing sagas of mass-crankery I had ever encountered: the strange case of The Highgate Vampire.

How could it have been that I had never heard all this before?
I had lived in the area involved for over five years. I knew that Stoker had set the vampirised Lucy loose on nearby Hampstead Heath in Dracula, and had name-checked The Spaniard's Inn, one of my locals. (As, incidentally, does Dickens in The Pickwick Papers and Dennis Wheatley in The Forbidden Territory.) I knew of Lizzie Siddal and her ghostly hair that supposedly still grew after death, filling her Highgate Coffin.
Come to think of it, I was even familiar with one of the actual protagonists in the Highgate Vampire affair, the eccentric fantasist and Van Helsing-for-hire Bishop Sean Manchester. I remember reading a review of one of his books in which it was pointed out that what he described as a "remarkable photograph of a vampire in the final stages of dissolution" was in fact a shot of the special effects make-up created for a tv movie version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

But somehow I had completely missed the fact that my neighbourhood, in the early 1970s, had become the focus of national media attention over a fabricated mass-delusion whipped up from literally nothing that did considerable damage to the historic cemetery and resulted in criminal prosecutions over grave violations and lifelong feuds between the main protagonists.
It's one of those utterly compulsive stories of human folly, like the Hitler Diaries, or the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? coughing scandal.

Another scoop for 'Sun Reporter'

It all kick-started in 1970 when a paranormal investigator called David Farrant (the other key player in the story besides Manchester) wrote a letter to the Hampstead and Highgate Express saying that he had been passing by the cemetery and seen a grey, supernatural figure. He ended his letter by asking if any of the newspaper's readers had seen anything similar.
The request brought forth a plethora of earnest first hand accounts,  all telling totally different stories of totally different otherworldly encounters with totally different spectral entities, no two letters alike. According to Wikipedia, they included "a tall man in a hat, a spectral cyclist, a woman in white, a face glaring through the bars of a gate, a figure wading into a pond, a pale gliding form, bells ringing and voices calling."
So either Highgate Cemetery was a sort of nightclub for ghouls of all nations, a bit like in the film The Monster Club, or it was obvious from the get-go that this was a story with no foundation but a potentially hazardous appeal to exhibitionists and oddballs.

As if to prove the point, it was at this stage that Manchester stepped in. He told the Hampstead and Highgate Express, without any cited evidence, that a Romanian nobleman-occultist had come to England 150 years before, been buried on the site of Highgate Cemetery and was now "a King Vampire of the Undead", operating from the grounds of the cemetery.
Lest readers might begin to worry that Manchester might be a few shillings shy of the grand total, he showed his reasonable side by explaining that he would like to solve the borough's vampire problems in "the traditional and approved manner: drive a stake through its heart with one blow just after dawn, chop off the head with a gravedigger's shovel and burn what remains." The only snag in the plan, he acknowledged sadly, was that it would be illegal. Bloody red tape.

Despite the fact that a Romanian nobleman-occultist in fact hadn't come to England 150 years before or been buried on the site of Highgate Cemetery, and therefore was in all likelihood not now "a King Vampire of the Undead" operating from the grounds of the cemetery, the story began to attract interest outside of the normal circle of bored North Londoners who made up the general readership of the Hampstead and Highgate Express. 
Further confirmation came when the paper reported that a number of dead foxes had been found in the area. "This was puzzling," Farrant later wrote, "because there were no outward signs betraying the cause of death."
This just about clinched it. As everyone who has ever read their Bram Stoker or watched a Hammer film knows, the first sign that there might be vampires in the vicinity is all the dead foxes they leave lying around.

The stage was set for The Mass Vampire Hunt of 1970.

Why do the foxes die? Let me guess. Vampires?
David Farrant investigating the case of the mysterious 30 mile an hour sign
Sean Manchester: Is that a skull on your altar or are you just pleased to see me?

Already by this time, a territorial rivalry was growing between Farrant and Manchester, who each considered themselves the Peter Cushing of the hour, and resented losing any of the spotlight in favour of some little pipsqueak Michael Gough. (Farrant later described Manchester as "a somewhat theatrical character dressed in undertakers' clothes who had been pestering local newspapers looking for publicity".)
The first sign that the two protagonists were splintering into rival factions came when Manchester announced  an "official" vampire hunt at the cemetery on a forthcoming Friday the 13th and didn't send Farrant an invite.
Friday the 13th was carefully chosen as the ideal night for a vampire hunt because it was an especially spooky night of the year, making it therefore more likely that the vampire would appear. Even a widely-publicised vampire hunt wouldn't keep him indoors: the date was just too spooky for him to miss.
That evening, ITV broadcast interviews with both men, along with some of the other whackos who had attached themselves to the saga, and by nightfall a seething mob of nutters had assembled from all over London intent on ransacking the cemetery and staking the vampire. Police had to be called in an effort to contain them.

According to his later account, Manchester managed to slip past the police in all the confusion and enter the cemetery, where he made straight for a tomb he considered an especially likely location for the king vampire of the undead, having previously been led there by "a psychic sleepwalking girl". Manchester was all for entering the cursed chamber and confronting its hellish occupant, but unfortunately the door was stuck, so he did the next best thing and dropped some onions through a hole in the roof.
A few months later, police discovered a burned and decapitated corpse not far from the same tomb that had so fixated Manchester, and shortly after that discovered Farrant prowling around the cemetery in the night with a crucifix and a wooden stake. He was arrested but let off with a caution by a magistrate called Christopher Lea.
Farrant insists that what was described as a stake was in fact "merely a pointed piece of wood used with string to cast or measure out a magical circle." (I love that 'merely'.)

A few days after that, according to his own testimony, Manchester returned to the cemetery, and to another vault indicated by the same sleepwalker who had picked out the previous one. Whether she was wrong the last time, or the vampire had moved, or perhaps had a number of desirable properties dotted around the site Manchester does not tell us, but the important point in favour of this one was that the door was easier to open. So in he went, found a coffin that he decided had been supernaturally transferred there from the previous tomb (just say if you want me to go slower), ripped the lid off and prepared to drive a stake through the remains inside. Sadly, he was prompted to desist by his companion at the time, who perhaps feared the legal consequences of a deranged weirdo defiling the dead in an internationally famous burial site. Once again, he was forced to rely on the temporary measure of filling the coffin with bulb plants.
But, undeterred, he rediscovered the fiend three years later in the cellar of a house in Hampstead and this time, he assures us, he really did impale and burn it, which perhaps explains why the number of vampire attacks in the Highgate area have fallen to a reassuring annual average of none, as opposed to the none reported during the peak years of the Highgate Vampire scare in the early 1970s.
And, as a former resident of the area accustomed to the sight of shredded bin bags and rotting food strewn all over the pavements in the morning, I'm pleased to say the local fox population is recovering too.

Farrant, meanwhile, had not given up on his own quest to solve the Highgate mystery, and the increasingly outlandish claims being made by Manchester were hardly helping matters. To settle things once and for all it was announced in 1973 that the two would take part in a 'magicians' duel' on Parliament Hill. Just like in an exciting film, neither man turned up and fuck all happened.
Farrant was, however, still intent on putting an end to the Highgate fiend's reign of terror, and in 1974 was again caught in the cemetery in the middle of the night with his Van Helsing kit, charged with damaging the memorials and disrupting the remains, and imprisoned. Farrant vehemently denied the charge, as he continues to do on his website, claiming the damage was the work of Satanists, and expressing uncertainty as to whether the Highgate apparition actually was a vampire in the first place. I know. Go figure, as they say on Buffy and suchlike.

And still it goes on today.
Farrant and Manchester are still active, still arch-rivals, and safely ensconced in that corner of the internet where literally anything is taken seriously, each earnestly supported by large, arch-rival cliques.
Manchester's take on the affair can be found here, under the banner of his Vampire Research Society. Look no further if you want purple prose, photo-montages of dissolving vampires and nice candids of ethereal-looking women reclining on tombs, all served up on a black screen with cute graphics of flapping bats.
Among the many quotes he has included to show how serious and respectable a fellow he is is this one from Paul Spencer Vickers, from the Department of English literature at University College London: "Sean Manchester's literary style is refreshingly reminiscent of the Gothic genre."
He's not the first to have noticed. Manchester's writings are full of ideas and even whole phrases lifted neat from Stoker's Dracula.
It has also been alleged that he has a framed photograph of Hitler on his wall, along with many more items of Nazi kitsch.

Meanwhile Farrant's Highgate Vampire Society can be visited here, where we are told (presumably by Farrant himself, despite writing in the third person) that "it remains a fact that David Farrant well and truly (albeit inadvertently) put Highgate Cemetery and stories about vampires there 'well and truly on the map'. He regrets that much, but again I suppose he had no choice in the matter."
We also learn that "David Farrant decided to form the Highgate Vampire Society in order that it should become a repository for all the oral history and written data concerning the Highgate Vampire while at the same time take off some of the pressure from the British Psychic and Occult Society who literally had its hands full with dealing with numerous psychic investigations."
Farrant runs both organisations, you see.

David's account: too much to tell in one volume 
Sean's account: 50% Bram Stoker, 100% bats

The most interesting thing about all this from our corner is the revelation that Highgate Cemetery might have links with not one but two Hammer Horrors.
According to Professor Bill Ellis, the furore directly encouraged Hammer to produce Dracula AD 1972, any unease they may have had over audiences swallowing the idea of a vampire in present day London having been thoroughly swept away by the behaviour of the credulous loons making their nightly way to Highgate in the hope of seeing one.

Meanwhile the appalling destruction and desecration caused by vandals and day-tripping occultist nut-jobs to the historic site led directly to the formation of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who helped restore it and now charge for guided tours - on which Hammer freaks are most definitely not welcome.

And quite right too.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Rediscovering Mike Raven

If by any chance you're wondering where Carfax has been of late, we've been moonlighting over at Hammer and Beyond, where I've been examining the short and much-maligned (not least by me: apologia here) career of Mike Raven: the British horror star that time overtook, then forgot.

For some reason, this wonderfully eccentric talent has never found the sympathetic reappraisal he so richly deserves, and I have done my part to put that right in a three-part retrospective that benefits greatly from the reminiscences of Raven's wife Mandy and son Dominic.
Do please pop over and take a look: it was a real labour of love.

You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.
Alternatively, all the Raven material on the site, including my original, introductory post, can be collectively accessed here.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A world that dust and scratches try to hide: an interview with Bjørn Egil Eide

I was intrigued to receive an email a few weeks ago from Bjørn Egil Eide, to tell me about a film he has made called Volkodlak.

It was, as he explained it:
... a short film that mimics an old silent horror movie. It has English intertitles, original music and is just about as 'classic' as one can go both in terms of film-making and the horror genre. Now I'm searching for the "right audience" for the film... this is an amateur, ultra-low budget and artsy film, but it's also something completely different from the rest of today's many generic titles and I'm sure it would be very welcomed by fans of old horror films - if they actually knew about it. If nothing else it does at least keep the spark of classic horror cinema alive.

There's something perversely heroic about an amateur film-maker striving to recreate the look and atmosphere of a silent movie, and I really do like the finished product.
There are some truly impressive images and effects in it, and while you are never quite in danger of mistaking it for the real thing (the cast look unavoidably modern) it is often amazingly effective given the kind of constraints that video filmmakers must ever labour under, compounded massively in this instance by the need to create an artificial style and setting.
The absence of soundtrack does not feel gimmicky but genuinely of the essence of the piece. It's not a flashy pastiche but rather the product of Eide's deep and wide-ranging love of silent horror, coupled with a genuine disenchantment with many of the genre's contemporary manifestations.
I'd like to think that the renewal of interest in silent cinema brought about by The Artist might rub off in some small measure on this film, unquestionably one of the best amateur productions I have seen.

Despite his concerns to the contrary, Bjørn's English is fantastically good - better than my Norwegian, det er sikkert - and I first asked him if he had made any films prior to this one, and how he got the idea.

Bjørn Egil Eide: It was the first of my attempts that I managed to turn into a complete film. I'd had a couple of stabs at film making during the late 90's, but I lacked focus on what I was doing as well as the ability to do proper editing. As a result these attempts crashed and burned.
In August 2002 I had become more serious and wanted to try my hand at a dark comedy (in Norwegian) together with a group of friends. During its production I managed to "con" a couple of these into joining me on some "damn fool idealistic crusade", and so Volkodlak was started in January 2003.
This lead to both films being shoot at the same time. I finished the original cut of Volkodlak in 2005, long before the other production wrapped, but because of insecurities surrounding it (which can be read about at our website) I held it back. It didn't see a release until late 2010 - four years after its "twin production" had been shown at a local college.

Why silent?

Well, I had no choice really. I had to get rid of a ghost that had haunted me since my early teens. The thing that made me interested in making films in the first place was the early horror films, and of these I was particularly drawn to the silent ones. There was something about them, it was like peering into a color- and sound-less ancient mystery-world, that dust and scratches tried to hide from you. A place where monsters lived. Maybe they seemed more believable that way, I don't know. In any case, I was hooked.
I knew how to operate a video camera by then and made up my mind - I was going to make something just like this! Although I tried, and failed the following years, the urge to complete such a film kept lurking in the back of my mind. I couldn't get rid of it. Finally, the first day of 2003 I decided that I just had to go through with it if I hoped to stay (somewhat) sane.

I'm guessing you're a fan of Dreyer's Vampyr. Can you tell me what some of your other favourites are, or any other influences that fed into the film?

You know what, I actually didn't see that one until only a few years ago. I was impressed with its striking visuals, minimalistic use of sound and the fact that much of it felt like the recording of a dream. I distinctly remember the shot where the shadow of a peg-legged soldier sits down next to it's owner - who is already sitting! But there's a lot of fascinating and memorable moments in there.
A major influence on me as a film maker was the shot from Nosferatu where Count Orlok is discovered in his coffin, and the one of him rising from the earth box. Other major influences were The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Frankenstein (1931) - which was probably the first of the old horror films that I watched in it's entirety, Dracula (1931) and White Zombie. Really most of the old Universal canon and other horror, science fiction and fantasy films (and cartoons) that I saw at a fairly young age influenced me greatly. King Kong, Ray Harryhausen films, the old Star Wars trilogy and Gremlins also made me interested in special effects. I'm very glad practical effects were still the norm while I was a kid so that I was spared of the CGI craze at an impressionable age.
Mario Bava's Mask of Satan had a late but tremendous influence. It is my favorite Gothic horror film because of its beautiful black and white imagery, and because it's dripping with a wonderfully dark and dreamy atmosphere pretty much from start to finish.

I can see the influence of Bava in there.

Of the Italian horrors it's mostly the Barbara Steele films that I've seen, from the sixties. What I like about them is that many of them were shot in black and white and stepped back into the Gothic realm. Also they feel a bit deeper, more psychological than many of their contemporaries (like the Hammer output), dealing with taboo subjects such as incest, lesbianism, necrophilia. I think it makes them more interesting. They are what I fancy the American horror films of the late 30's could have become if they hadn't been made to suffer the wrath of the Hays Code. If you look at films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935), it doesn't seem so far fetched.
And yes, I am definitely a Barbara Steele fan. I have an autographed photo of her from the set of Mask of Satan on the wall of my office. In my book she is the Gothic horror chick, there's just something unique about her that's impossible to explain. That, and she's incredibly attractive in those films, especially in Mask of Satan. Yes, I know...

Have you seen The Artist? Do you think it might have a positive effect on how your film is received now?

Sadly it's not the kind of film that is likely to play anywhere near where I live. I've seen the trailer though and I think it looks great. It's nice to see something of this style being well received. I guess most people who'll go to see it (and want to see my film) are people who are fans of classic cinema, but who knows? So I hope it does very well, that certainly can't hurt a film like mine and other film makers who want to develop similar projects.

What do you dislike about modern horror films?

A lot, so get ready for my rant! No, I'll try to restrain myself. It was when all the torture-porn and extreme gore really kicked in (like the Saw pictures and all the zombie-stuff) that I'd had enough. It just doesn't do it for me. Sure, it's all truly horrifying, but it's the kind of experience that leaves me more sick to the stomach than fills me with dread. I can of course only speak from a personal perspective, but in general it seems that today everything has to be extreme. It's over-the-top and in-your-face, constant use of jump-scares and overuse of CGI. The result is overkill on all fronts and it renders me numb and unimpressed pretty quickly.
Then there's also a tendency to set everything to modern times which I think is a mistake. It seems to me that the further away from a world with electric light and technology you get the bigger the arena of darkness and insecurities become, and I don't understand why that isn't taken more advantage of. I truly believe that a less extreme approach in this genre - both in the use of special effects and in-your-face moments - along with a focus on atmosphere and use of the unseen (or only partially seen) - is far more effective if you want to get under someone's skin. I can't remember who said this and which film they were referring to, but it was something like; "this film is not designed to horrify, it's designed to haunt". Now that's a great philosophy! I'm not saying the genre as a whole should adapt it, but a good chunk of it should.

I agree. What is your next project?

There's so many ideas, but little time available to work on them. Volkodlak took three years to do, and after that I decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from film making mainly because it's just too time consuming. But, I do have a couple of finished scripts, and one is for another Cold Grave Studio production. It's called Black Cloak (it's not a vampire film), and would be similar to Volkodlak in terms of technique, but be closer to an early 1930's Pre-Code sound horror film.

You've got my ticket already!

The sound however would mainly be used for the sake of effect, not so much for dialogue. It has great potential, but since it's a much larger production then Volkodlak it would need some real funding as well as the involvement of an English-speaking crew, so it's pretty unlikely that I'll ever get it made. I would definitely go through with it though if I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity.

What would you like to say to anyone about to watch Volkodlak for the first time?

This is of course a very small, homemade film, a love-letter to classic horror cinema, made by fans for fans, to keep the spirit alive. Naturally it's not something that most websites promoting independent horror films are likely to care about, and we don't have resources to promote it ourselves. So we're totally reliant on word of mouth from fan to fan, but without the help from horror bloggers I fear the film will have an incredibly hard time finding this very specific audience. So I'm very grateful to you, Matthew, for taking the time to write about it. It means a lot to me. So everyone - please tell your ghoulish friends!

You can see the full movie here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Socko Zucco Back To Backo

George Zucco and Lionel Atwill to me are a bit like Karloff and Lugosi, or rather I should say Lugosi and Karloff: crazy George is plainly the Bela of the outfit.
Atwill is the all-rounder, and like Boris is invariably a classy pleasure to watch, but if you want to see a real force of nature going berserk, giving wild performances in wilder scenarios, you need Lugosi... or you need George Zucco.

Are you in the Zucco club? Not many of us are.
Unlike Lugosi he didn't even have that one classic signature performance as a starting point from which to decline. He started off running. He began at the bottom, and declined from there.
If there is any kind of tragedy in his career equivalent to Lugosi's it is certainly a less romantic one; he lacks the sense of doomed majesty that permeates Lugosi's work.
He is a member of the Universal team, sometimes in good bit roles in the biggies (like his Professor Lampini getting House of Frankenstein off to a roaring start, killed at the end of his first scene in a perfect little cameo), sometimes in leads in the second-eleven (most effectively in The Mad Ghoul).
But PRC gave him his best opportunities in the genre, and unlike Lugosi at Monogram, there is never the uneasy feeling of a great man being exploited.
Zucco always stands out, even when he's over on straight street, doing sensible cameos in proper films. He's not a bona fide horror star, but one of those men like Atwill, Carradine and Naish, who maintained a busy and sometimes critically successful career in supporting character roles in A pictures, but who moonlighted in horror films for extra pocket money. As a rule, their attitude to the latter work is not serious, and in some cases you may detect a certain visible resentment that manifests itself either in uninspired stock performances, or else a lofty kind of mockery (Carradine is especially guilty of the latter).
Zucco has certainly drawn this complaint over the years, but I can't see it myself.
Zucco, for me, has the velvet class of Karloff and that glint of genuine insanity that flickers in Lugosi's eye; the theatrical certainty of the one; the spectacular ill-restraint of the other, and a commitment to rival either.

His own background seems to account for the combination: his father a Greek merchant and his mother a former lady in waiting to Queen Victoria; part outsider, part aristocrat, all neither. He has flamboyance and he has precision, his mad professors have the cold madness of reason.
He is the consummate horror star: well-spoken and uninhibited, sardonic and flamboyant; the voice cut from the silk lining of Dracula's cape; the figure dapper, soft but not paunchy; the hands controlled. The face would radiate nothing but grandfatherly warmth if it were not for the eyes, which, possessed of some internal form of illumination, brood darkly and malevolently until suddenly lit from within, like the flicking on of a switch, as insane inspiration strikes.

To satisfy my heretic suspicion that the mad Mancunian might just be the greatest horror star of Hollywood's golden age, I have opted to watch all of his PRC horrors in one back to back session.
This was originally planned back when I was doing PRC Month, which ended without finishing. You may remember when I did the same thing with Lugosi and Monogram. Well this is like that, but even more so. It really feels like I've learned something doing this. I always loved Zucco, but now I really love Zucco. I can't understand why he isn't one of the absolute top icons in the horror star pantheon. He certainly is as far as I am concerned.
What an actor! And what a star; what screen-floodlighting star presence in the man! Such silky evil, such barely concealed depths of sadism and depravity.
I find myself heretically imagining him in other roles, even roles associated untouchably with the star who immortalised them: as Dr Mirakle in Rue Morgue, or Dr Moreau in Lost Souls, or Dr Vollin in The Raven. I'd have liked to have seen him doing the Atwill role in Murders in the Zoo. He was the screen's greatest ever Professor Moriarty.

Monogram misused him as they did most everybody: his near-comically demeaning role in Voodoo Man, as Lugosi's berk of an assistant, plays to none of his strengths. It hardly uses him at all, in fact, after his effectively creepy first scene at his gas station (as he deliberately steers lone female drivers into peril, his unlikely accent adding greatly to the character's creepiness). He somehow got out of the monster role in Return of the Ape Man - some say illness, others say pride.
But all of his PRC roles are, for me, models of the art of horror villain acting. They allow him a range of which Lugosi could only dream: monster-making mad scientist here, criminal mastermind there, revenger, vampire.
In each he is subtly different but always basically gives the star performance, the Zucco show, as if he somehow knew that decades after his death we were going to start really loving what he does. I don't think any other Poverty Row lead was as well served by his studio.
I really enjoyed these movies; as with the Monograms, it has changed my whole perception of them.

I kicked off with The Mad Monster (1942): not the best of them, my memory told me, but as archetypal as they come.
In the event I was pleasantly diverted. Posters claimed it 'the year's most terrifying shocker' (and just get a look of that luxuriant brown hair on Zucco)!
It may not be that, but there's one thing we can all agree on: what a title!
What a fantastically, amazingly fabulous title!
The Mad Monster: it's the very essence of PRC horror. So perfect a mix of hyperbole and mundanity. He's a monster, and he's mad!
With most monsters there always the chance you can reason with them. Catch them in a quiet moment, just before going to bed perhaps, and you can explain to them why violence never really solves anything. Or you can appeal to their best interests, if not to their better natures. Lon Chaney's Wolf Man might be induced to take a bribe in exchange for not savaging you - not this guy! He's not just a werewolf, but an insane werewolf!
American viewers, of course, have the additional option of taking it to mean 'The Really Angry Monster', which is if anything even better.
It's a masterpiece of a title. It's the Sistine Chapel ceiling of forties horror movie titles.
And the opening of the film lives up to the magic of the title. To the ominous theme tune, over which PRC in their profound wisdom have laid the sound of a barking domestic dog, we fade into a moonlit night in Dr Zucco's lab, where his assistant Petro (Glenn Strange doing Lon doing Lenny) is already tied down ready for business. And, as a measure of just how big a doofus Petro is, Zucco is ignoring him and chatting to a wolf in a cage (handily for us recapping everything he has been up to in the lab so far).
As with The Devil Bat there's no messing about like you'd get in a Universal horror: setting the scene, establishing relationships and motives, any of that rubbish. He's already perfected the means of turning Glenn Strange into a werewolf by syringing a bit of fluid out of the wolf's leg and injecting it into Glenn while we were still buying the Kia-Ora. A couple of minutes after lights down and it's already lap dissolve time.
The special effects, though hardly Jack Pierce standard, are ambitious and commendable, though it is typical of Poverty Row eccentricity that once transformed he does not leap out snarling but settles down to have a nap.

Zucco, clearly the weirder of the two, then immediately launches into an address to his imaginary colleagues, justifying his experiments and railing against their opposition to his ideas.
As he does so, we see their transparent forms hovering around the table. Sometimes they interject with objections to his claims, but there's no arguing with Zucco once all you can see of his eyes are the white bits.
"Gentlemen," he begins, "I wish you were here to see the proof of my claim that the transfusion of blood between different species is possible," perhaps not realising that 'possible' is next to meaningless if the result is that it turns people into werewolves.
Recalling one eminent professor who dared call him mad, he suggests: "Perhaps you will change your mind one day soon when Petro tears at your throat..."
Yes, that'll be the moment that clinches it. This guy's experiments have turned a harmless boob into a snarling werewolf and now it's ripping my jugular out. How wrong I was to suggest he was not the full shilling...
And it's not just revenge he's got in mind with his werewolf serum: he also wants to do his bit for the war effort.
This monologue is just terrific:

You realise, of course that this country is at war. That our armed forces are locked in combat with a savage horde that fight with fanatical fury. Well that fanatical fury will avail them of nothing when I place my new serum at the disposal of the war department. Just picture gentlemen: An army of wolf men. Fearless! Raging! Every man a snarling animal! My serum will make it possible to unloose millions of such animal men. Men who are governed by one collective thought: the animal lust to kill, without regard to personal safety. Such an army will be invincible gentlemen!

I foresee two possible objections to this plan. One is the Geneva convention - I doubt it's explicitly forbidden, but there must be at least one abstract principle it violates. The other is the more practical one of what you do to maintain esprit de corps when your platoon consists of snarling wolf men governed by the animal lust to kill. My guess is that discipline is going to be a problem.

Oddly, after this crackerjack beginning, the film settles down as one of the slower and least eventful of the PRC horrors, albeit with an honourably well-sustained spooky atmosphere, and well-photographed scenes of the beast stalking his victims through the undergrowth only occasionally let down by the size of the sets. And there's a major shock when Petro in wolf form slaughters a little kid.
But the plot goes pretty much nowhere (and literally nowhere in a geographical sense), consisting mainly of Zucco grumbling about his rival scientists interspersed with scenes of the local dungaree-clad rubes discussing mittel European folklore like they've just got off the bus from the Universal studios tour.
These yokels immediately spot a werewolf's handiwork, but our reporter hero (Johnny Downs - top-billed!) has a more audacious theory: dinosaurs.
I know, I know. But hear him out:

I understand they travelled around on their hind legs and made our present day public enemies look like horticultural specimens.

Well, that's my choice taken care of - now your suggestions, please, for the strangest line of dialogue in the history of American cinema.



The film has one of PRC's most interesting casts. As well as Zucco the film boasts bona-fide Universal horror heroine Anne Nagel in the female lead, as George's daughter. (Interestingly, George is often a close relative of the heroine in PRC.)
Nagel's also one of Monogram's Women In Bondage, but you know her best from a somewhat classier bill of fare: Black Friday, The Invisible Woman, Man Made Monster and The Mad Doctor of Market Street. (To say nothing of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.) Behind the scenes she seemed sadly to have been one who never got a break herself, and professionally her luck was on the out by this time too.
You may also spot another refugee of the terrible lottery of stardom: the great Mae Busch as Susan the hillbilly.
Way back in silent days Busch had been a major and exotic star. One of the many casualties of the talkie changeover, she kept at it in what little work she could get, though fate being an odd son of a bitch, one of the most demeaning gigs it landed her was supporting roles in Laurel and Hardy shorts - thus catapulting her securely into screen immortality.
If we only had her silent movies she would be a complete unknown today, thanks to Laurel and Hardy she remains a cherished star to millions of comedy fans. It's great when the roulette wheel dishes out some arbitrary good luck for a change.
This is a rare post-L&H straight appearance, and one of her last: I didn't even recognise her the first time I saw her in the movie.
It's her voice more than her face that gives her away. When she yells at some clay pipe-chewing old crone: "Oh will ya stop talking like that! I'm so nervous now I could scream!" you suddenly hear her in Their First Mistake, berating husband Ollie: "It's Stan here, Stan there! I'm telling you it's beginning to get on my nerves!" God, I love this still. If a snarling man-beast tries to make off with your girl, grab him by the dungaree-straps and let him know who's boss.

Next up, a new one to me, which the reference books tell me is more a mystery thriller than a horror, albeit with horror icing: The Black Raven (1943).
Another splendid title. Films with the word 'raven' in the title are usually pretty good. Something about the word just seems to bring out the best in movie folk.
And another great opening, with that fabulous Devil Bat theme tune and one of those handy credits sequences I tend to associate with Warner Brothers, where they show the actor at the same time as projecting his name and character.
So we learn that Zucco and Strange are back together again, the former as "Amos Bradford, alias 'The Raven'", the latter, doing his Lenny bit again, as his dimwit assistant Andy. I really wouldn't care to guess if they are called Amos and Andy as a joke, or in blissful innocence. It could so easily be either.
Who else do we have to look forward to? Well, there's Noel Madison (gangster of choice for studios that couldn't afford Jack LaRue), Charlie Middleton (another L&H regular, to say nothing of the strangler in the PRC swamp, here playing a cop in a raincoat) and, joy of joys, the former Miss Dorothy Quackenbush herself: Wanda McKay, the oomph girl of Poverty Row horror. I. Stanford Jolley too.
I smell masterpiece and it hasn't even started.

Immediately the credits are over we learn that the Black Raven is not a black raven but an inn near the Canadian border, run by criminal mastermind Zucco.
In a splendidly Old Darky Housey first act, various unsavoury characters turn up in the middle of a storm, including a two-bit crook (Jolley) that Zucco had double-crossed right into the pokey, now busted out and itching for revenge ("he's suffering from rabid delusions aggravated by a moronic mentality," Zucco sums-up; "Is that bad?" asks Strange), a bank teller turned thief (Byron Foulger), and Madison as Mike Baroni, racketeer on the run, who wants Zucco to get him into Canada after his flight from the law has made the front page of the New York Leader, alongside 'Rodeo Begins Photo Drive'. "D'you think I got where I did by bein' a cream puff?'", he asks when Zucco questions his criminal chops.

Just when you think this inn caters for nothing but criminals, along come Wanda McKay and Robert Randall (our hero), with their eyes likewise fixed on Canada but for entirely different reasons: "We're not going to give up, even if your father's political influence did keep us from getting a marriage license in this state", he obligingly reminds her, filling in for us like he's George Zucco talking to a wolf.
Last to arrive is the father himself (Robert Middlemass), on the trail of Wanda, and coincidentally the man whose pressure has resulted in Madison's fleeing... Add thunder, a dead telephone and a weirdo stranger who may or may not be all or less than he seems, and all is in place for one of those delightful old house thrillers that Hollywood was at that time turning out at the rate of about one a week, but which never lost their instant marquee appeal (and still haven't round my place: if I had to pick one type of movie that I never, ever get bored of it's the spooky old dark house comedy mystery thriller).
Some good dialogue, as in this bit where a nocturnal shock propels the weaselly bank teller into the orbit of the redoubtable father:

- Help! Help! Someone tried to break into my room!
- A man or a woman?
- A man I suppose. Why would a woman want to break into my room?
- Yeah, I guess you're right.

Next thing, Pops is dead and obviously everyone's got a motive, and just as obviously the killer turns out to be the weedy little one who wouldn't say boo to a goose. (No this isn't a spoiler - the killer in these films always turns out to be the weedy little one who wouldn't say boo to a goose.)

Now its off to Fog Island (1945), another of those borderline horror-mysteries, but a really good one, with Zucco and Atwill, and that glorious spiv Lester Cowan, an actor born shifty, best known to me as Humphrey Bogart's ill-fated partner from the head-end of Maltese Falcon.
It starts off a bit like Black Raven, with a criminal on the run coming for Zucco's help, but soon turns into one of the most truly mean-spirited thrillers of the forties: a parade of figurative and literal back-stabbers, all trying to cross and double-cross each other, that builds to a grand finale in which almost the whole cast are locked in a flooded room and drown screaming.
It's inspiration, I assume, was Rene Clair's adaptation the same year of And Then There Were None, but whereas the Christie story is a blackly comic whodunnit, this puts all its cards on the table at the start, as Zucco greets his weekend guests:

I invited you out here for, let me say, retribution. Now, retribution's an odd word. It can mean so many things. It could mean reward - the return of money you think I stole from you. It could mean giving you an opportunity of getting even with me. Or with each other. It could mean revenge - taking a life for a life. You see, one of you killed something very dear to me. It might have been friendship, it might have been my ideals, it might have been my wife. Perhaps she never knew it, but I happened to love Kama. She was more than just a wife to me. She was my ideal, my friend. Whichever one of you killed her will kill again, and just as wantonly. So let me warn you - the innocent, mind you - to beware of the murderer whenever he, or she, finds it necessary to strike again. And that, my dear friends, concludes the business of the evening. Now. Let's all be as socialble as we can, hmm?

And then, as a deliberately insincere afterthought:

Oh, by the way. I'm afraid I had to send the launch back to the mainland for some slight repairs. It'll be back in the morning, probably. In th meantime I'm quite sure that you'll find every convenience on this island. Except, of course, the telephone. Dinner will be at eight-thirty.

Now, this is really good stuff, and Zucco is note-perfect: he's not overdoing it, he's not sleepwalking though it and he's not condescending to it.
It's good writing and it's good acting, the latter somehow improved by the retention of a moment, in the middle of the line 'Retribution's a funny word', where Zucco suddenly looks as though he is about to sneeze; he abruptly looks away, grimaces and puts his finger to his nose. He just manages to stifle it and, like the theatrical pro he is, continues uninterrupted.
And PRC, who know to the penny how much a retake costs, have their cameras do likewise. The result is a moment of charming and unexpected naturalism that somehow adds to the casual menace of the scene.

It's great to see Atwill and Zucco sparring, exchanging pithy, rat-a-tat dialogue, steeped in sarcastic loathing. Can't you hear their voices, and theirs alone, here, when Zucco discovers Atwill obviously snooping around where he shouldn't be:

ZUCCO: Looking for something, Alec?
ATWILL (knowing himself caught): Er... my pipe-cleaners. I thought I left them here.
ZUCCO: I didn't know you smoked a pipe.
ATWILL: Oh, didn't you?
ZUCCO: I've always been very interested in pipes. Do you mind if I have a look at yours?
ATWILL: Certainly... (Makes vague, token gesture of pretending to check his pockets.) Oh, I must have left it in my room.
ZUCCO: Undoubtedly. Have a cigar.
ATWILL (his old silky composure returned): Thanks.

Shortly after, Zucco is dead at Atwill's hand, and his death scene, a beautifully sustained rasping monologue as Atwill stands, nonchalantly smoking a cigar and staring at him with a fixed but entirely emotionless expression, is another genuinely fine moment. Two absolute pros doing what they do. (Sadly, it would be one of Atwill's last performances before his death from throat cancer the following year.)

Dead Men Walk (1943) begins with a scene almost guaranteed to play strange tricks on a heavily intoxicated brain that has already seriously overdosed on PRC wonderment: Zucco at a funeral, in full toupee, gazing into a coffin at the corpse of... Zucco, with characteristic bald pate.
Turns out they're twin brothers, and the one who's dead is an evil murderer and, according to his brother at least, a demonically possessed force of pure evil. This diagnosis is confirmed when the nasty one pops up post mortem in the nice one's office, and threatens him.
The hero is a big lunk of a doctor who arrogantly refuses to believe Zucco's story and treats him like a silly child, at first even refusing to accompany him to the crypt and examine the coffin ("I'd feel like a fool, or... worse," he cryptically explains.)
Eventually persuaded, his skepticism is undented on discovering the body gone ("perhaps it's been stolen by medical students") and despite Zucco's assertion that his dead brother has actually visited and talked with him, he continues to insist that "ignorant people believed that stuff in medieval times but not anymore."
"Perhaps you're right, I don't know," says Zucco, who has just finished explaining what he has seen with his own eyes.

This is a straight vampire movie: a rarity indeed on Poverty Row, with a support cast to match the nostalgic script.
Mary Carlisle, former WAMPAS starlet and high hope of 1931 gives her last screen performance before retiring as the heroine, and as the vampire's assistant, in one of his last performances before dying from a heart ailment exacerbated by overwork (movies by day, factory work for the war effort at night) and wacko religious abstention from medication, we have none other than Dwight Frye, quite unrecognisable as Lugosi's Renfield, but giving an equally balls out performance.

Mary looks like she's travelled a long road from the little cutie who illuminated many a modest pre-coder, but Frye looks decades older than Renfield; sadly indeed he looks exactly like what he is: a man with not very long to live. There's something a little sad, but massively imprressive, about the aplomb with which he goes back into his whining and cackling routine here, even though he had tired of it years before. We lost a good one in Dwight Frye: I'd give anything to see him taking comeback roles for Roger Corman, or William Castle.

This is one of a number of PRC films that really do show how serious the studio was about producing quality product to rival the larger studios - unlike Monogram, whose films, though delightful, play as the work of sherbert addicts who can only just keep the camera steady from laughing so much.
This is no masterpiece - as most critics will helpfully tell you - but it is made with care, it has some great moments and it's emphatically worth your time. Zucco is, if anything, more than usually restrained in his two roles.
He makes for a suave, sinister vampire, taunting his brother much as his Moriarty goads Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, but he never really seems like a vampire as such. We never get much of a sense of the demonic fury that his brother was ascribing to him even while he was still alive; there's something too solid and calculating about Zucco to usefully suggest the supernatural: like Atwill, he's strictly mad scientist, and could never really play any kind of monster. (I'm sure that's why he pulled out of Return of the Ape Man at some time after the eleventh hour.)

If you're like me, your first thought on hearing of a film in which Zucco plays twin brothers is - oh good, trick work! In particular, I'm already hoping for my favourite eerie effect: the stand-in dressed like the star with his back to the camera while Zucco is photographed over his shoulder, then switch angles and POV, and repeat.
And somehow you can always tell when it's the stand-in, and obviously it's fabulous when they let you get a good look at him, as they increasingly did in Three Stooges shorts when Curly was supposed to fall off a chair but was too ill to do it himself. The thought of Zucco filming this is an especially amusing one, because it would entail his having to take his toupee on and off each time as he swaps places.
Sadly, though, there's not nearly enough of this, though the final shot, in which the two Zuccos fight to the death in a burning room makes up for the lack immediately prior. Rarely have we seen such carefully positioned and half-hearted death struggles. The thing about a good screen fight is that it's uninhibited, and it's difficult to be uninhibited when the most important consideration is that one of the pugilists keeps his face away from the camera at all times and the other one's wig doesn't fly off.

Lastly, one of the great joys of my life. There have been some wonderful surprises today; how nice to round-off with something known and trusted.
The Flying Serpent (1946): an old friend.
That said, I'd quite forgotten that it began with a rolling caption, informing us that when "the wiley Emperor Montezuma" was fleeing the invading Spanish conquistadores, he "hid his fabulous treasure... and implored his native gods to guard it. Among these gods was the feathered serpent QUETZALCOATL."

Perhaps because he was silly enough to hide his fortune in a massive temple (in a 'secret chamber' only accessible by going through the door carved visibly into the temple's exterior wall), only one of the gods showed up, the aforementioned Quetzacoatl, and you have to assume that Montezuma knew he was coming, because he made a special alcove for him, the entrance barred so he can't escape.
Rather a shabby way to treat a god, still more one for whose assistance you have implored - and not much protection against looters either if it's trapped behind a grill in an alcove. Loyalty is not Quetzalcoatl's strong suit anyway: when Profesor Zucco finds the treasure (in best PRC tradition, long before the beginning of the movie) its loyalties, such as they are, switch immediately to him, which was of course the one thing it had been waiting there all that time not to do.
Even more obligingly, it proves willing to kill Zucco's enemies for him. Many writers have noted that this film is basically a remake of The Devil Bat and so it is, with the flying serpent primed to kill this time not by hatred of the victim's aftershave lotion but by their possession of one of its own feathers, which Zucco tweaks out and places on the person of the intended victim, and which the serpent can then mysteriously locate at any distance.
This leads to much amusement at the big climax when the monster kills its own master: in The Devil Bat it comes perilously close to making sense, because Lugosi had no means of removing the aftershave that had been splashed on him, but this time we get Zucco fleeing in terror from the winged serpent, but not thinking to simply discard the feather he knows full well is the reason for the attack.
Actually, his motives are pretty zany all through the film. He is zoologically fascinated by the serpent, and intoxicated by the treasure, which he makes no effort to move to a new location. He then pretty much goes looking for trouble, and seems in no hurry or desire to make his life more comfortable in the light of his find.
His only aim, it seems, is to leave both treaure and beast in situ, and kill anyone who looks like they might stumble upon the discovery themselves. This, rather than become both rich and hero of the hour by claiming discover's rights of the greatest combined arcaeological and zoological find of the century.

As in The Mad Monster (and The Devil Bat) we kick off with a useful sequence in which Zucco gets us up to speed by recapping his plans and achievements to the monster, this time Quetz in his alcove, whom he addresses with bar-room familiarity.
When an ornithologist innocently writes a piece about sightings of the legendary bird in Mexico and the legend of Montezuma's treasure in an obscure academic journal, Zucco is driven to open, contemptuous rage from fear that it will bring treasure-seekers, journalists and sightseers to the area. So he decides that the only way to rain on all this curiosity before it even starts is to make the bird man the victim of a sensational murder.
Before he has a chance to spring his trap, however, his dishy daughter invites the ornithologist round: "Doctor Lambert, I wish there had never been any such thing as Aztec Indians! Father does nothing but think, dream and talk Aztecs!"
What her well-meant meddling does, of course, is give Zucco a chance to plant the feather on the doc. Before his death, though, he correctly pieces together the truth, that the Aztec shaman who conceived of Quetalcoatl based it upon an extant prehistoric flying lizard, a last survivor of which is most likely the creature that has ended up fortuitously, and presumably coincidentally, in the temple.
This is precisely the account that Zucco pooh-poohs in his opening monologue, but there is little that is god-like about the creature's behaviour or abilities: it is, after all, killed with ordinary bullets. Neither can a Hollywood film of the forties admit to the genuine existence of non-Christian deities (or at least I would assume not, not that the Breen Office would have bothered spending too long untangling something like this).
All of which strongly implies that Zucco is wrong to assume that his house guest is a living Aztec god - making him even more of a bozo than he seemed straight off the bat.

The case is big enough to make the front pages in Chicago: "MYSTERY MOUNTAIN MURDER" (a phrase that cries out to be the title of a John Denver song) - "Scientist Victim of Unindentified Beast" yells the headline.
The story begins by observing that the killer appears to be "some monstrous creature", and goes on to add that "the case presents some strange angles."
The New York Blade opts to claim the doc is the victim of a vampire, "evidenced by the fact that the victim's body was entirely bloodless", an element the Chicago press had refrained from mentioning.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, where the police department must have a spotless record of clearing up cases, the somewhat impatient headline announces "HORRIBLE DEATH OF SCIENTIST REMAINS UNSOLVED MYSTERY".
So much for wanting to keep a lid on it. Zucco can only stand sullenly by as the small town becomes the focus of the nation's fascination, and fills with reporters, treasure hunters and rifle-packing serpent hunters, to say nothing of radio crime writer Dick Thorpe pledging to solve the case in a series of radio broadcasts: the exact opposite of the results he must somehow have anticipated when he first opted to murder an obscure academic who merely mentioned an already-acknowledged legend in a specialist ornithology journal.

Oh, how beautiful is this film? What part of it is not entirely perfect?
It gives me such pleasure I feel my eyes welling with tears as I watch.
The special effects are magnificent. The titular serpent is the best movie monster of all time. I love the way it swoops, I love the way it screams, and I love those beautiful shots of it making its lonely course through those gorgeous deserty locations. There are even a couple of lovely little moments where it switches to stop-frame.
People go on about visible wires as if they're let down to discover it isn't a real serpent, righteously wounded that forties technology wasn't quite up to the task of letting them off having to use the smallest grain of their own imaginations. 'Look - it's on wires!' they shriek.
Yes, I know. Funnily enough I guessed it might be as soon as I saw it. Did you think it wasn't, then? Because otherwise, what's the great harm in seeing them once in a while?
Cynical sophistication's all very nice, but if it stops you enjoying things like this with 1940s eyes you really are cutting off your stable door before the horse has bolted to spite your spilled milk. (Sorry, but I've been on a PRC dialogue-writing course. This week it was metaphor mixing. I'm looking forward to next week's: 'Why your hero should always be an unimginative dumbo'.)

The acting is wonderful: It may be Zucco's best and most confident PRC lead, and you'll also enjoy the spooky, switched-off quality of Hope Kramer as his daughter, especially if, like me, you've been watching PRC movies all day and are pretty much hammered by the time she comes on.
PRC's leads often seem a little doped-up; understandable, I suppose. With painted eyebrows and an almost hypnotised delivery, Kramer is a real mystery, with this lead and a smallish support role in I Was a Communist For the FBI seemingly her only movie credits. But if you're only going to make two movies, these, clearly, are the two...
The supporting male cast is drawn to a man from that great PRC stable of city-boy wiseacres and dumb-as-an-ox hicks, like the offspring of some new race created when the extras from Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma went off to live together on an island. Not a sympathetic characteristic in any of them, even the nominal hero: they're all either on the make, or trying to stitch up one or the other of them, or else big dopes walking blindly into danger and incapable of making the most elementary logical connections.

But this is Zucco's show - it's the Zucco show - and what it is to watch him skulk about, effervescent with derangement, as he acts out a plot that requires total capitulation to his own lunatic world view for it to even pass as coherent, much less logical.
I don't really know what this is or where it comes from, but it can't be something as random as carelessness. This is not bad writing, still less is it lazy writing. It's something different, but it has an almost narcotic allure, for me at least. (And if you agree, there's a comments box below...)
What strange alchemy was at work in forties Hollywood, whereby studios with no resources, no budgets, no big stars and only the lowest commercial aspirations so reliably turned out such strange and magnificent fare?
And this is 1946, remember. Nothing Universal was doing by now was as innocent, authentic and fresh as this. These guys really were the ones keeping the torch alight by this point.
Thank you, Mr Zucco. Thank you, PRC.