Thursday, October 27, 2011


Lew Landers' cinematic swan song Terrified (1963) is yet another low-budget shocker that has taken up apparently permanent residence in my damaged brain. The picture's opening cemetery sequence of a poor fool being buried alive in cement by a well-dressed, giggling fiend with a black stocking over his face is the stuff of adolescent nightmares, and I'm pleased to report that this late-night perennial, viewed for the first time in several decades, is still potent. Absurd, to be certain, but most assuredly potent.

The masked maniac is making life miserable for people who live near a ghost town by trying to run them off the road when he's not burying them. The model for his cement overcoat, Joey (Robert Towers), survived the ordeal, but "his mind snapped like a rubber band" and he's currently in the bughouse, although he later escapes in a completely unnecessary revenge subplot. His cocktail-hostess sister Marge (Tracy Olsen), who works at ex-vaudeville ventriloquist Wesley Blake's (Stephen Roberts) cafe--Marge's father, incidentally, was murdered, while her mother perished in a suspicious car crash before the picture even begins--is torn between two college students: her brother's best friend Ken Lewis (Rod Lauren), who's writing a mid-term paper on "the strength of the human mind to resist terror," and the older David Baker (Steve Drexel), who admits that, even though he lacks his romantic rival's intelligence, at least "[knows] enough to come out of the rain and not to sit on a hot stove." The county caretaker and local wino, "Wild" Bill Clark, had secretly witnessed Joey's torture, so Marge and Baker visit Ghost Town to interview him, where they're spooked by an unseen organist playing Frederic Chopin's "Funeral March." Rather than beating a hasty retreat, they stick around to investigate, only to discover the caretaker's corpse impaled on a cemetery fence--drunk again, I'll wager.

Just as Marge and Baker are finally leaving to alert the police, Lewis himself arrives to wander around the disused western set, manfully fighting his own fear while attempting to find out who reduced his pal Joey "to a slobbering oyster." Lewis, you see, is haunted by the fact that his father considered his son cowardly because the boy preferred reading books to playing with the no-doubt uncultured neighborhood kids. The killer supplies him with plenty of good material for his mid-term, attempting to drown him, shooting at the student, and finally frightening him to death before Lewis can complete his paper by covering him with graveyard dirt. He also knocks Baker unconscious and abducts Marge to an abandoned mine shaft when the pair return after, incredibly enough, stopping at a diner and gabbing with some friends, but luckily Sheriff Dixon (a clean-shaven Denver Pyle) materializes in time to plug the murderer, who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be Blake, who's been lusting after Marge all along, even though he claims "she's almost like a daughter" to him. Wild Bill, meanwhile, is still stuck on that fence at the film's conclusion, presumably forgotten in all the brain-cracking excitement.

Producer Richard Bernstein's script is preposterous, but that's an integral part of the picture's oneiric, wee-hours appeal. Landers, who died shortly before the film's release, earlier helmed (as Louis Friedlander) one of the most outrageous Universal thrillers, The Raven (1935); here he creates a bare-bones but believably creepy atmosphere, immensely aided by the stark noirish cinematography of Curt Fetters, who primarily worked in television. The opening moments pack a visceral punch: Blake's eyes seem almost aglow through the holes of his hood, and his taunting laugh is merciless--he's not only empowered by spreading fear, he's released by it as well. The film's animated titles are eerily effective, as are Terrified's visually rhyming shots of car headlamps blazing like Blake's demented stare. (Daylight doesn't exist in this picture.) Blake, of course, is immediately suspicious when first we see him without his hood--ventriloquists are, as a rule, up to no good in the thriller genre--but Roberts plays him with pluck, lustily telling Marge that she'd "make a man's heart sing just to look at you" and pleading for "one instant of love" with her before the sheriff shoots him. Olsen and Drexel (here resembling William Campbell with a gene splice of Chuck Woolery) are relatively colorless, but Lauren remains just brooding enough ("Terror is what the world is," he glumly informs his companions, referencing the various atrocities of the Second World War) to be interesting.

In retrospect, the actor's life was interesting as well. Lauren, born Roger Lawrence Strunk, emerged as a minor pop vocalist (his 1960 recording of "If I Had a Girl" briefly charted on Billboard) before his singing career evaporated in the face of the new breed of British rockers. He switched to acting, appearing in such schlock favorites as Herbert L. Strock's The Crawling Hand (1963), and eventually married, after well over a decade of courtship, the Filipino performer Nida Blanca, whom he met while filming John Derek's World War II melodrama Once Before I Die (1966). Blanca became a star in the Phillipines while Lauren's new career similarly faded. The actress was beaten and stabbed to death in a San Juan City parking lot in 2001; two years later, authorities charged Lauren with hiring her killer after she threatened to divorce and disinherit him. He moved back to Tracy, California, where a district judge dismissed an extradition case against him. Lauren worked as a camera operator for the city's public access station, but leapt to his death from a hotel balcony in 2007.

Terrified has surfaced on home video several times, beginning with the second volume of Rhino's Horrible Horrors Collection. I myself have copies of the film on two different DVD sets, where it shares disc space with other Crown International features. The first set, BCI/Eclipse's Drive-In Cult Classics, Vol. 2, was released in 2008 (the same year the label folded); the second, Mill Creek Entertainment's Gorehouse Greats Collection, appeared in 2009. The grainy fullscreen transfers, which contain a fair amount of frame damage, are identical and clock in at eighty minutes. The film is paired in the Gorehouse set with Bud Townsend's Nightmare in Wax (1969); alas, my used copy obstinately locks up forty-nine minutes into the story, although its co-feature plays just fine. Fortunately, the Drive-In version (which allots Terrified a side of its own) is glitch-free, but neither set contains a trailer. BCI/Eclipse's platter offers eight chapter stops, as opposed to Mill Creek's measly four. The muddy sound on both releases hampers Michael Andersen's savvy score, which encompasses everything from ominous western-themed piano chords and tubular bells to bouncy cocktail jazz. The Drive-In collection additionally includes a nice booklet containing liner notes for each film, wherein is related the tragic story of Mr. Rod Lauren.  Here's the YouTube trailer.