Saturday, December 31, 2011


I can't sleep--I got my eyes wide open

I can feel the radiation
Vertical lines on video
It's three a.m., there's no distractions
Can't sleep 'cause all the stars are on now
Should I move to change the station
Having fun watching my tv
It's the center of attraction

When I was a lad, I was obsessed with attempting to stay up all night long. This act of adolescent willpower entailed watching plenty of after hours television, an action that scarcely distinguished me from other young knuckleheads. I spent Friday evenings with my grandmother, who gave my hardworking parents a well-earned respite from my usual mischief and prepared for me delicious tv dinners that took a now-almost-inconceivable thirty minutes to cook in those pre-microwave wonder years. Grandmother Pagan also allowed me to watch The CBS Late Movie, a memorable series that formed a substantial part of my film education. Sometimes she watched, too, though more often than not she fell asleep. Those weekend viewings included everything from Elvis Presley extravaganzas (a word I use very loosely) to Hammer horrors. Occasionally I fell asleep myself while watching the pictures--I remember being bitterly disappointed, out of all reasonable proportion, after dozing off mere minutes into Jacques Tourneur's The Comedy of Terrors (1964), which I would not encounter again for decades--but, more often than not, I remained wide awake and wanting more, more, more. There was something liberatory, and not a little addictive, about being up while everybody else was in bed.

CBS was the first American network to devote its late-night programming to cinema. For several years, it had aired The Merv Griffin Show after the 11 o'clock news, but on Valentine's Day 1972 it switched to film broadcasts, often running what the series' Wikipedia entry politely describes as "movies not well-suited for prime time due to content." In other words, my type of entertainment. A February 28 screening that year of a heavily-edited version of Luchino Visconti's originally-X-rated The Damned (1969) was vigorously protested by bluenoses from the Christian Life Commission and the Southern Baptist Convention, and actually resulted in CBS' then-president John A. Scheider's appearance before a Senate subcommittee. Alas, I missed that particular broadcast (it was on a school night, curse the luck), but Visconti's Nazi epic was undoubtedly emasculated for the protection of delicate viewers. The Late Movie also featured plenty, and I do mean plenty, of public service announcements during its interminable commercial breaks, perhaps most memorably the Ad Council's "Keep America Beautiful" anti-pollution spot in which the bogus Indian Iron Eyes Cody emerges from his canoe just in time for some litterbug to toss trash from a speeding vehicle at his beaded moccasins, which the actor reportedly wore on almost all occasions. Cody was actually Italian-American, and not, as he insisted, Cherokee/Cree; the tear he wept at this ecologically-incorrect indignity was in reality glycerine. To my knowledge, though, he never had to appear before a Senate subcommittee. Grandmother Pagan, bless her heart, called him "Crying Eyes Coyote."

The Friday Late Movie schedule was, for several years at least, especially enticing, and had me drooling in anticipation as I scrutinized the newest number of my family's TV Guide. Here CBS screened such warped wonders as Barry Shears' dystopian Wild in the Streets (1965), Roy Ward Baker's gender bending Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), and Kinji Fukasaku's surreally schlocky The Green Slime (1968). The show's theme, Morton Stevens' haunting horn-driven "So Old, So Young," combined with the multicolored pentagram graphics (were the Christian Life Commissioners and Southern Baptist Conventioneers still watching?) to promise amazing things to come. Unfortunately, in 1976 the network began broadcasting, in addition to its film library, NBC Mystery Movie reruns (McCloud, McMillan and Wife), as well as repeats of such series as Hawaii Five-O (whose celebrated theme Stevens also composed) and The Rockford Files. Although these were fine programs, I was less than enthusiastic about the change, but, during the summer break, I could always switch over to NBC's Tonight Show and watch Johnny Carson or one of his numerous guest hosts, followed by Tom Snyder's Tomorrow hour. CBS later, as if in atonement for these unwelcome changes, enlivened Friday evenings with rebroadcasts of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, as well as terrific British series (both The Avengers and The New Avengers). Here's a reconstruction of the Late Movie's opening from 1975, when the network ran Edward Ludwig's riveting ecological revenge epic The Black Scorpion (1957). I watched this exact broadcast.

Our local CBS affiliate, WFMY, was already airing Friday double features when the Late Movie premiered, and for a year or so afterwards, the station continued to schedule a 1 or 1:30 a.m. film. This was WFMY's Late Late Movie, which recycled Stevens' theme. Although it was sometimes difficult for me to stay awake until the very end, I vividly remember three of the pictures I saw during that time slot: William Castle's The Night Walker (1964), which scared the bejeezus out of me (I was actually afraid to turn off the television, lest Hayden Rorke's disfigured specter molest me in the dark), and two Hammer chillers: John Gilling's Shadow of the Cat (1961), which as a young ailurophile I greatly appreciated, and Terence Fisher's 1962 remake of The Phantom of the Opera--the first version of Gaston Leroux's classic novel I ever saw; it starred my favorite Phantom, Herbert Lom, whose soulful torment and subterranean style enchanted me. This cinematic double shot lasted until between 2:30 and 3 a.m. It wasn't all night, but by Jove it was close enough. WFMY would then sign off with the national anthem and switch not to a test pattern, but to static.

It was into the arms of Morpheus that I reluctantly went, fantasizing about what secret messages might be hidden in that static, what mysterious images were being beamed into the homes of those souls stalwart enough to watch. This must have been a relatively common curiosity for those of us nursing at the glass teat, as witness the haunted television set in Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982), or the snuff film channel materializing on wee hours cable in David Cronenberg's same-year Videodrome. Sometimes--this was several years later--when one station went off the air, I could dial in another channel from far away, painstakingly manipulating my parents' antenna clicker as if it were a magic wand. During the summer of 1978, I distinctly remember viewing a snowy-but-watchable broadcast of Jean Negulesco's The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) one Sunday overnight; the station, if I recall correctly, was based somewhere in Virginia, and may well have been Charlottesville's NBC affilliate WVIR. I imagined I was receiving an occult transmission from the gods of late night.

Inevitably, The CBS Late Movie's Friday programming became less adventurous over time. The network did, however, screen Michelangelo Antonioni's fascinating metapolitical misfire, Zabriskie Point (1970), which, like, blew my adolescent mind, man. The Late Movie was also where I originally encountered, on other evenings, Mario Bava's Baron Blood (1972), Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), and Brian G. Hutton's Where Eagles Dare (1968). As the Eighties era of cable and satellite encroached, the program offered thanks-but-no-thanks reruns of Lou Grant and The Jeffersons, as well as feature films edited with a chainsaw to fit into an eighty-minute time slot. (I shudder to recall a severely-abbreviated version of Boris Sagal's The Omega Man [1972]; now, there was literally "no phone ringing, damnit!" for machine-gun-wielding star Charlton Heston.) The series had become an utter joke, and was regularly mocked by David Letterman during his tenure at NBC. In 1985 the program's title was changed to CBS Late Night, but I had tuned out by then. Here, astonishingly enough, is a complete episode guide. And I thought I was obsessive....

ABC's Wide World of Entertainment premiered in the same time period on January 8, 1973, offering a rotating selection of made-for-television mystery movies, talk shows, concerts, and comedy specials. The movies were shot on videotape and, if my memory serves me correctly, seemed like oddball soap operas; it's doubtful that many of these photoplays have been preserved. The program was retooled three years later as ABC Late Night, offering reruns of such wrist-slitters as Starsky and Hutch and The Love Boat, as well as The Tuesday Movie of the Week. The only programming that really stands out in my mind are a 1975 Monty Python's Flying Circus compilation that resulted in litigation from member Terry Gilliam, and the 1978 broadcasting, over several evenings, of a five-part 1975 English-Italian Mafia miniseries called The Legend of the Black Hand. But, thank the stars, there was always local programming to fire, quite generously, my imagination.

Saturday nights in particular were full of mystery. Our local ABC affiliate, WGHP, aired Shock Theater from the mid-Sixties until sometime around 1981. This series was originally emceed by horror host Dr. Paul Bearer (impersonated by the legendary Dick Bennick), but he was long gone by the time I watched my first installment in 1974. The station now resorted to an animated opening, which featured the pounding of a human heartbeat, represented onscreen by pulsing blue blobs. As cemetery gates creaked open, an offscreen announcer intoned "Channel Eight presents--SHOCK THEATER!" Cartoon bats flapped their wings while damned souls wailed for all they were worth. Deplorably, I can find no trace of this opening online; for all I know, it's not even in the video vaults of WGHP, which became a Fox affiliate in the mid-Nineties. The first film I saw on this program was Ray Harryhausen's giant octopus classic It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), which thrilled me to no end even though the creature possessed, as a budgetary constraint, a mere six tentacles. My parents did not normally permit me to stay up past eleven on Saturday nights, so convincing them to let me watch this thriller (stills of which I'd seen in Famous Monsters of Filmland) was--to my small brain--a substantial achievement.

The second movie I saw on the program, perhaps a month later, was Laszlo Kardos' The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957), which centered around a women's prison whose staff stays eternally young by electrically sucking the life out of its inmates. (As I age, that no longer seems like such an appalling idea.) Shock Theater aired double features off and on during the Bad Doctor's tenure, but reverted to a single film when he departed; it would return to its twofer format in 1975, at which point my parents kindly allowed me to stay up late more frequently. My favorite of all those double bills was a May 1976 screening of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong and Son of Kong (both 1933). The local fishwrap advertised the event in its tv section with a photo of the giant ape atop the Empire State Building, and I and many other children could scarcely wait for 11:30 to roll around. Would those imbecile newscasters ever stop gabbing about weather and sports! The following Monday morning, almost every boy in my fifth grade class was rhapsodizing about this incredible broadcast and ignoring our schoolwork. The Eighth Wonder of the World and his albino offspring were infinitely more important than the multiplication of fractions.

My mother told me how much Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (1951) had spooked her when she was a girl, so I proceeded with caution when the film aired several months later, watching this Cold War masterpiece with an icepick I removed from a kitchen drawer. I didn't really expect James Arness' "intellectual carrot" to come out of the screen and kill me, of course, but I thought it wise to have a little, shall we say, insurance. Shock Theater usually ended somewhere between 2:30 and 3 a.m. All the other stations were off the air by that time, but WGHP would follow the fright flicks with a Community Bulletin Board and the obligatory national anthem. Then it was (sigh) bedtime.

Fortunately, the local NBC affiliate, WXII, came to my rescue with Nitelite Theatre. This program, which aired from June 1976 to November 1979, appeared at 2:30 a.m. after The Midnight Special. Johnny Carson was on for ninety minutes in those years, as was Burt Sugarman's weekly musical program. Nitelite originally ran until seven in the morning, but was later cut back to 6 a.m., the hour relinquished to For You, Black Woman and Big Blue Marble. WXII had whetted my appetite the week before with an all-night, four-film festival which began at 1 a.m., preempting the Special. That weekend I watched rapt from the bed in my grandmother's guest room as Joseph Adler's Revenge Is My Destiny (1971), George Montgomery's Ride the Tiger (1970), Robert Day's The Big Game (1972), and Jean Yarbrough's The Devil Bat (1940) unreeled. I'd previously seen the last movie on the station's classic Bob Gordon Theater, which aired on weekend afternoons, but it's a picture I never get tired of. At long last, all-night television had arrived.

WFMY had in fact set things in motion a few months earlier with its own all-night Friday film festival, which preempted The CBS Late Movie. Unforgivably, I passed out during the first picture, Abraham Polonsky's Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), sleeping straight through the other four features, so Nitelite was a welcome presence, indeed. The series was originally hosted by Art Neal and Zachary Gibson, who performed groan-inducing skits, but they were soon gone, and, like Shock Theater, the program now had no emcees. Its theme music was an instrumental ditty somewhere between Julius Fucik's Entrance of the Gladiators and John Williams' "Cantina Band" tune from George Lucas' Star Wars (1977); however, try as I might, I've not yet been able to track down this piece online. The program always kicked off with a movie, followed by episodes of old tv shows (The Twilight Zone, I Spy, The Invaders), followed by (in its early days, at least) yet another feature. The program officially debuted with Harry Horner's eschatological talkfest Red Planet Mars (1952) and Guiliano Montano's 1967 caper classic Ad Ogni Costo ("At Any Cost," retitled Grand Slam for English-speaking audiences); over the years, it screened such treasures as Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1941), Samuel Fuller's Run of the Arrow (1957), and Theodore J. Flicker's paranoid masterwork The President's Analyst (1967). I particularly remember one 1979 broadcast of Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), in which the feature was presented without commercial interruptions--a rare delight. The series came to a quiet end, possibly because I was the only fool who stayed up to watch it, and even I fell asleep from time to time. That was it for all night television until the fall of 1980, when WFMY became a twenty-four-hour station.

When my family moved across our small town in 1976 into a new home, we were finally able to pick up--usually only at night--WBTV, a CBS affiliate in Charlotte, and WRAL, an ABC affiliate in Raleigh. In lieu of Friday's edition of The CBS Late Movie, which must not have generated much of a local audience, WBTV ran a terrific program at 11:30 called Those Were the Years. This show was hosted by the station's then-weatherman Mike McCay (who later wound up spinning classical discs at WDAV 89.9), and aired episodes of old tv series like The Outer Limits, Love That Bob, and The Cisco Kid. The station also screened Flash Gordon serials, as well as occasional films. Its original theme was Singin' Sam's "Reminiscing," but that song was replaced by Steely Dan's more contemporary, and certainly more ironic, "Reelin' in the Years." WBTV aired a feature after the show, and it was here that I received further introductions, along with occasional Shock Theater selections, to the European Cult Cinema: Claudio Guerin's entrancingly bizarre A Bell from Hell (1973), Carlos Aured's Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), and so forth. 

Here's a 1976 news item on the program:

In the Seventies, WRAL scheduled an annual all-night, horror-hosted fright film festival on the Friday before Halloween. The first Spook Spectacular I dialed in was also in 1976; it began with Benjamin Stoloff's Night of Terror (1933), a preposterous old-dark-house thriller with a truly outrageous ending which I won't reveal for fear the Maniac will climb into my bedroom window tonight and tear me limb from limb. The station later aired a program on Friday evenings called Chiller Theatre, which had an impressive opening: a POV shot of someone racing fearfully and breathlessly through a cemetery. (Once I dreamed I finally saw the face of the person running, and--shiver me timbers!--the shock was enough to wake me in the middle of the night.) Screenings that particularly stood out for me were Edward Ludwig's The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934) and Edward Dmytryk's Captive Wild Woman (1943). With so much amazing programming, it was sometimes difficult to settle on one particular station--and nobody around those remote parts had VCRs. The best we could come up with were audio cassettes.

I later experienced the same cultural dilemma on Saturdays. As I grew older and became aware of Saturday Night Live, Shock Theater had some serious competition, especially when the program featured such musical magicians as Devo, Blondie, David Bowie, and Gary Numan. WXII ran Don Kirshner's Rock Concert immediately after SNL; Kirshner's robotic introductions to the various acts were always highly amusing, especially given Paul Shaeffer's marvelous impersonation of the impresario. Often I would watch SNL, switching to WGHP during commercial breaks for my weekly dose of horror. When the comedy show wrapped up, I would then catch the second creature feature, but by the decade's end, Shock Theater was reduced to merely one picture, followed by an episode of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, a series I adored.

Rock Concert moved to Sunday nights before being cancelled a year later. For too brief a while, WXII aired its own version of Shock Theater after SNL from May to November 1982. The program's opening was a white screen, down which stage blood trickled while Giorgio Moroder's "The Myth" composition, with Bowie humming ominously, played. (Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People had recently been released.) The series' writer and host, Paul Iacono, was a bearded gentleman in a black suit and black wraparounds who would be startled by the screams--and, later, organ music--that sounded whenever he uttered the name of the show. At one point, he went in search of the studio's organist to permanently silence the maestro. The program's director, Tim Whitt, began to appear midway through the series' run, and the two men performed amusing sketches. During a screening of George Mendeluk's Stone Cold Dead (1980)--an admittedly odd selection--they appeared from time to time discussing the picture a la Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on Sneak Previews. Another sketch involved a stand-up gynecologist. It wasn't Evelyn Waugh by any stretch of the imagination, but I emitted my fair share of teenage chuckles.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention USA's Night Flight, which aired from 1981 to 1988. (Cable ultimately arrived, better late than never, in my hometown in summer 1982.) This program ran from 11pm to 3am on Friday and Saturday nights, then repeated from 3 to 7am. The series aired episodes of New Wave Theatre (hosted by the late, great Peter Ivers, who was murdered in 1983; the crime remains unsolved), as well as music profiles, concerts, and cult films (some of which were ruinously edited, among them Andy Warhol's Frankenstein [1973] and Dracula [1974]). My all-time favorite presentation was a half-hour British documentary, Posers, on England's New Romantic movement. Like those painted peacocks across the pond, I had nostalgia for the future as well as the past.

Always talking to me
My tv's got personality
Maybe it is watching me
Eye to eye with my tv


Allow me, if you will, to return to the subject of commercial interruptions before I conclude this interminable exercise in nostalgiazing. I didn't care for the spots, of course, but there was nothing I could do about them, and they did allow me time to refill my soda and grab another fudge round. But commercial-free public television was off the air by 11:30 p.m. at the latest, so I was stuck with the infernal ads. Plus there were other pains to endure: panning and scanning or just plain old dead centering for widescreen features, cropping half the bleeding image, as well as censored prints for more recent films. Because cable for my rural county was still a few years away, Home Box Office's uncut features did me absolutely no good at all. I never thought I'd be able to see widescreen pictures in their original aspect ratios in the privacy of my family's living room, but these days almost everyone has that option. The landscape has completely changed. As cable found its way into more homes, there was correspondingly less use for overnight film programming; videocassettes, of course, changed the game entirely. Once I earned my driver's license, I was soon substituting the big for the small screen, attending midnight movies at local cinemas, and once I procured a VCR, I found myself settling less and less for what television movie broadcasts (late night or otherwise) had to offer.

Today's all night television, with the exception of Turner Classic Movies, is depressing stuff, indeed, consisting as it does of C.S.I. reruns, inane chat shows, and infomercial scams with convicted felon Kevin Trudeau. (Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas referred in a spot-on recent editorial to "the tyranny of Paid Programming.") Rebroadcasts of Today, of all the confounded things, occupy WXII's old Nitelite Theatre time slot. TCM Underground premiered in 2006 with an admirable selection of cult favorites, but the program's underwhelming host, Rob Zombie, was soon gone. I had high hopes for the hellbilly rocker, but he never seemed entirely comfortable introducing the movies; the series now opens with footage of a grungy, dreadlocked Zombie surrogate running around some nameless city, but mercifully he never opens his mouth.

Mr. Zombie didn't last long on TCM.

There's very little sense of discovery these days, I fear--at least on the small screen. Lucas suggests using YouTube to while away the wee hours on DirectTV. I did exactly that over the holidays, viewing some old Nitelite Theatre selections (William Cameron Menzies' Drums in the Deep South [1952] and Bob Wynn's The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler [1971]) and a ton of Tomorrow clips on my in-laws' humongous television. Back here at home, some of my recent DVD double bills have included Frank Perry's Rancho Deluxe (1975) and Michael Ritchie's Prime Cut (1972). I don't stay up all evening any more, but late enough to satisfy my after hours fix. These nights I, rather than some local programmer, supply the pictures in my head. Once upon a time our late show revelations were communal--we were, after all, part of the great confraternity of night owls--but today that sense of community has, as with far too many traditions, all but evaporated. The cinematic underworld of my youth was a special one, and I frankly miss that world and all its mysterious gods, whose secret messages to me ran the gamut from black scorpions and devil bats to green slime and men who reclaimed their heads.

Holding horizontal
Static lines in one dimension
Late show revelations
My tv stays on forever
--3-D, "All Night Television" (1980)

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.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


"If I'd only known how much you were going to love movies," Grandmother Pagan assured me many times, "I'd have saved all that stuff at the Patovi." This was a downtown cinema where she worked until the business was demolished in 1972 to make room for, depressingly, a parking lot that I don't ever recall seeing full. It was within those wondrous walls that Grandmother looked after me during the day, while my parents labored mightily and before I entered the public school system. I remember this picture palace well, particularly its screen, which was situated in the front, rather than the back, of the building. When I asked her why in the name of sense the Patovi threw away all its promotional materials, she shrugged. "We didn't think the movies would last."

Apparently a lot of people didn't think so, for reasons which completely elude me. But last the silver screen has, and I shudder to imagine how many fortunes in film memorabilia were unceremoniously ripped up, crumpled, and tossed into the nearest rubbish bin. Several of the posters in Grove's superb monograph, Graven Images: The Best of Horror, Fantasy, and Science-Fiction Film Art from the Collection of Ronald V. Borst (1992; 240 pages) suffered similar indignities, as witness the misadventures of Borst's title lobby card for 1931's Svengali (attic insulation) and his insert card for 1932's The Mask of Fu Manchu (shoved under a cinema carpet, "where patrons had stomped and spilled their drinks on them for more than thirty years"). One's blood boils simply imagining such desecrations, but the admirable Borst has spent decades locating and restoring these lost treasures, and this remarkable volume, edited in collaboration with archivist Leith Adams and documentarian Keith Burns, offers a fine introduction to his incredible collection. Borst secured one-sheets for such classics as Destination Moon (1950) for a single dollar, and he left the teaching field in 1979 to open his own movie memorabilia store--where he met his future wife and fellow Graven Images compiler Margaret--in Tinseltown. "When it was embarrassingly corny or unfashionable to display posters on my walls in the Sixties," this great collector reports, "I hung them anyway." Borst has remained faithful to his childhood love of the fantastic, and it's a pity that Grove has allowed this book to pass out of print.

Movie posters, observes Stephen King in his preface, "are part of a time-honored tradition that isn't quite theft or con game but has elements of both." The novelist pronounces these items "the grandchildren of advertisements for traveling medicine-show wagons, carnivals, revival meetings, and freakshows"--horror posters in particular. It is here that the frequently anonymous illustrators let their imaginations run riot, and the result was often box office alchemy. American International Pictures (originally American Releasing Corporation) found great success with their promotional posters; indeed, King notes that "it was the only studio that ever saw filmmaking as secondary to advertising." AIP's strategy was to contrive an intriguing title (e.g,. The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow [1959]; alas, Graven Images doesn't contain a reproduction of this particular poster), which the studio then submitted to distributors and cinema chains. Artists created poster treatments for well-received titles; if the buyers liked the art, AIP would make the movie, usually in two weeks and for less than thirty grand.

This policy presented a minor problem for the studio during the filming of The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955). While the titular creature's poster rendition didn't contain the requisite amount of orbs, it included enough of them to challenge AIP heads, who had spent every penny of the budget. The studio's solution was to employ a hand puppet as the extraterrestrial invader, while its spacecraft was a Woolworth's teakettle. Exhibitor Joseph E. Levine guffawed at the result, but was willing to pony up money for reshooting the picture's climax. Ever economical, AIP honcho James Nicholson simply scratched lines over the film's negative, markings which covered up the pot while masquerading as deadly rays. The movie made money, so everybody was happy. While King admits that Beast is certainly no masterpiece, "it does go a long way," he avers, "towards fulfilling the amazing, tantalizing promise of the poster that accompanied the film. It isn't really coherent, either, but are dreams ever really coherent?" Mine aren't, at any rate.

Robert Bloch's chapter on the Nineteen Teens and Twenties maintains that "movie theaters had a different smell" in those distant days. Refreshments were not available in cinema lobbies, "so if you detected an odor it probably emanated from the picture instead of the audience." Bloch recalls his boyhood bijoux, where "the washrooms alone were larger than an entire multiplex unit today, and a damned sight cleaner." He praises the professional organists of the period, but deplores that "domestic filmmakers"--in marked contrast to the German Expressionists--"kept groping for horror and hesitating to come to grips with it. Afraid of apparitions, they often settled for apes," such as those found in 1929's Stark Mad ("one of the worst alleged horror films ever made"), whose colorful red poster, replete with a smiling Satan who does not actually appear in the picture, is reproduced within. Bloch concedes that the era's thrillers, "aside from shrieks and creaks...offered little that was new," but he and his peers "were quite content with the milder monsters and marvels in those days when films were almost as innocent as we were."

Ray Bradbury's essay on the Thirties (whose pictures the thrilled-and-chilled youth often viewed "from under the seat or my brother's armpit") recounts, many years afterwards, the author's running into an assistant theatre manager who frequently admitted the boy to movies for free. Boris Karloff's performance in Frankenstein (1931) propelled him "peeing up the aisle to the Men's [room]," while King Kong (1933) was a life-altering experience for Bradbury and his budding animator pal, Ray Harryhausen. Bradbury estimates he saw Werewolf of London (1935) an impressive twelve times, "paying twice and freeloading the rest," while he was one of many boys who had "their souls shaken" by Things to Come (1936), recalling on Pearl Harbor Day H.G. Wells' "terrible gift of prophecy." Fritz Lang's M (1931) was another milestone in the young fantasist's cultural development--in fact, the monocled maestro wanted to film, but never did, Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, but the two men, the author confides, years later shared "countless martinis." They also developed an idea for a television series about a time-hopping traveler who would interact with various historical figures, but, sadly, nothing ever came of that, either.

Harlan Ellison, in his chapter on the Forties, identifies the decade as "the fracture point....The juncture at which we lost our innocence and became the brutes we are today." What brutes, you ask? For one thing, "mean and selfish creatures who can tolerate the random brutality of Terminator films," and, inevitably, "the demon television." The excitable author, whose excellent fiction is often quite disturbing, has a surprisingly low tolerance for movie violence, ostentatiously storming out of a Writers Guild Film Society Committee screening of Brian DePalma's Blow Out (1981) to protest the director's alleged "woman-hatred." Fortunately, the Forties remains an incantatory time for Ellison, principally a minor but charming Fleischer Brothers animated feature called Mr. Bugs Goes to Town (1941), so this reminiscence finds him in a less rambunctious mood. The author's tribute to the lasting impact the film had on his childhood self (he heroically several times slipped out of bed to see the picture at a nearby cinema, only to be apprehended by his family after each attempt) is enthralling, and one of the best non-fiction pieces he's composed. Ellison didn't see the entire Mr. Bugs for many decades, but he writes movingly of his adult fascination with the film. Sometimes, he tells us, "my wife has emerged from sleep in the wee hours to find me sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, watching insects."

The Fifties were a seminal time for science fiction cinema, whose films echoed "the real life" that Peter Straub "carried within" himself. Straub's essay, easily the most somber of the bunch, explores the genesis of his non-autobiographical short story of child molestation in a movie theatre, "The Juniper Tree," confessing that he "wondered if anyone would talk to me after the story was published." He also recounts being "literally killed, for at least a minute or two" by an automobile in 1950, the same year his family moved to the suburbs. Straub perceives that the films which fascinated him constituted "some kind of objectification of my sense that ordinary life was a fearful proposition," his unsettling awareness that "real horror"--whether in the form of being hit by a car or enduring childhood's "ring of fire"--"could suddenly engulf you and leave you changed for good." These crucial pictures include the first Cinemascope science fiction feature, Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) (the reanimated boy admired Captain Nemo's "polite megalomania" and coveted the skipper's Nautilus), Them! (1954), and Invaders from Mars (1953), whose "monsters fooled you by looking like everybody else." By the decade's end, however, Straub had discovered Thomas Wolfe, his parents moved far from the nearest theatre, and he "cultivated what must have been a very bookish version of hipster arrogance."

Speaking of hipster arrogance, Clive Barker's chapter on the Sixties is presented in the form of a dope-smoking dialogue with the Spirit of that swinging decade, exploring the author's fascination with kitsch in his contention that Cleopatra (1963) is "a work of fantasy" whose "re-creation of ancient Egypt is as unlikely as Oz and twice as beautiful." (There's no poster for the film, however.) Barker seems to be channeling Camille Paglia here, especially in his boast that he saw a double-bill reissue of Hammer's She (1964) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) three times in one week--a mind-altering submission to goddess power, surely. He also recollects catching the eerie Japanese masterpieces Onibaba and Kwaidan (both 1964) at, of all places, a Liverpool porn cinema ("given the choice between copulation and agitation, I'll always choose the latter"), and affirms he "learned to dream" in the Sixties, having "never lost his appetite for it."

Legendary Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman's afterword declares that there were only "thirteen Golden Years of fantastic genre films" (1923-1935), but magnanimously lists standouts through the subsequent decades. The Ackermonster worries that, when it comes to today's special and makeup effects extravaganzas, "the tail is wagging the werewolf" and "the unique artistry of [such] solitary geniuses" as Lon Chaney, Sr., Jack Pierce, and Harryhausen is a thing of the past. CGI, when it's done well, is impressive, but I'm too much of an old fogey myself not to pine for the glory days of greasepaint and stop motion.

Admittedly, the authors' personal reminiscences have little to do with posters, but each conveys the power of film to produce magic in our minds, as well as evoking the various picture palaces, from Bloch's Chicago Theater to Ellison's Heights and Barker's sex cinema, where their memories were imprinted. There's little discussion of the artists themselves, but Grove's layout, courtesy of designer and historian David J. Skal, is sumptuous. Outstanding specimens include one-sheets for the original Phantom of the Opera (1925), whose deformed-but-dashing Erik is rendered without his mask; Dracula's Daughter (1936), a 40" x 60" This Island Earth (1955), and Borst's favorite one-sheet, Karoly Grosz's marvelous artwork for Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). There's also a two-page spread of RKO Radio Picture's deluxe pressbook for King Kong ("The Answer to Every Showman's Prayer!"), as well as pre-production trade advertisements for such never-made films as Universal's Cagliostro, which was ultimately revamped as The Mummy (1932). Of especial interest are promotional ads for Frankenstein, when Universal still hoped to star Bela Lugosi, and not Karloff, in the role of the scientist's monster, and for The Invisible Man (1933), which was originally to feature Karloff, rather than his fellow Englishman Claude Rains. Borst's book contains a helpful glossary, aiding novices in their understanding of such esoteric terms as those splendid one-sheets, insert and window cards, and the magnificent-sounding British quad posters. It's a time capsule of an age in advertising art that is now largely, and lamentably, lost to us. Here's to Borst for preserving an important and often overlooked part of our cultural heritage, when cinema was, as the creator of Norman Bates discerns, almost as innocent as the children filling the seats.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Kenneth Anger's 1978 reconstruction of his 1954 masterpiece Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is so rare it had to be sent back to the kitchen. The director's revised "Sacred Mushroom Edition" of the picture substitutes the Electric Light Orchestra's 1974 concept album Eldorado for the film's better-known soundtrack, a recording of Leos Janacek's marvelous Glagolitic Mass. The ELO score, whose over-the-top electropop offers an amusing alternative take on Anger's fantasia, was originally screened at the 1978 Boston Film Festival before vanishing into the Mists of Time. Hats off to Mondo Justin for resurrecting this obscure version, which certainly whets the appetite for his upcoming Projection Booth podcast on Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


George Pal's rocket ride as a producer of science fiction epics encountered severe commercial turbulence with 1955's Conquest of Space. The picture, inspired by the bestselling non-fiction book of the same title by writer Willy Ley and artist Chesley Bonestell (which Arthur C. Clarke once suggested "perhaps did more than any other to inspire a generation of would-be space cadets"), arrested the momentum that Pal had achieved with his 1950 hit Destination Moon and his subsequent special effects extravaganzas When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), and the ecological revenge epic The Naked Jungle (1954). Conquest's box office failure foiled his plans to adapt Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's sequel After Worlds Collide, ensuring that the producer would not return to the science fiction genre--triumphantly, as it transpired--for five years with another H.G. Wells adaptation, The Time Machine.

There's no "plot" as such to Ley and Bonestell's book, so screenwriters Phillip Yordan, Barre Lyndon, and George Worthing Yates eventually fashioned, through numerous rewrites, a fairly realistic storyline which borrows heavily from Wernher von Braun's The Mars Project and manages to incorporate both a deadly oedipal conflict and crowd-pleasing, scantily-clad dancing girls borrowed from, of all things, a Bob Hope movie. In what was, at the time of the film's release, the Near Future, a circular space station not terribly dissimilar from the one in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) orbits Earth while, nearby, a rocket is being constructed for lunar exploration. The station's Captain, Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke), must contend with the hazards of his men falling victim to space fatigue, as well as with his homesick son Barney (Eric Fleming), who was married a mere three months before heading for the stars and has put in for a transfer home (which his father categorically denies). After the astronauts' dinner is interrupted by a meteor shower, tossing everyone all over the place, dapper Dr. George Fenton (William Hopper) arrives with orders from the U.S. President that the rocket's new destination is Mars; he also promotes Merritt to a General.

It seems exceedingly odd not to visit the Moon first, but of course producer Pal had already accomplished that feat in 1950. The normally gung-ho General is distressed by this change of plans, even though his dejected son is actually ecstatic at the prospect. Merritt reluctantly agrees to proceed with the mission, selecting four men to accompany him after first informing the candidates "that no one but an idiot would volunteer": Captain Barney and Sergeants Imoto (botanist Benson Fong), atrocious comic relief and alleged electronics whiz Jackie Siegle (Dick Wesson surrogate Phil Foster), whom the General tells point-blank, "I don't think there's a man on the Wheel with less formal education than you possess," and medicine man Andre Fodor (a German-accented Ross Martin in his film debut). Merritt doesn't wish to take his too-adoring friend Sergeant Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy) with them because he's "twenty years too old" (although the Sarge is merely three months younger than the General), but the big lug smuggles himself aboard the rocket anyway, and the men are off on their interplanetary voyage.

It's at this point that the picture takes an unexpectedly religious turn, as the General unpacks his King James Bible and ponders the wisdom of the expedition. After Fodor's airline is accidentally severed during a spacewalk and his corpse drifts away, Merritt ratchets up the religiosity, engaging in a philosophical debate with his son as if he's channeling space exploration opponent C.S. Lewis. "The biblical limitations of Man's wanderings are set down as being the four corners of the Earth," he insists. "Not Mars, or Jupiter, or infinity. The question is...what are we--explorers or invaders?" The General submits that the intrusion of man "into the sacred domain of God" constitutes a virtual "act of blasphemy," but Barney doesn't buy it: he sees a divine pattern in the "too perfect to be accidental" coincidence "that at the very time when Man's resources on Earth are reaching an end, Man develops the ability to leave his own world and seek replenishment on other planets," assuring his father that "the universe was put here for Man to conquer." Merritt becomes increasingly skeptical as space fatigue exacerbates his previously-lapsed faith, and finally attempts to sabotage the mission by accelerating the rocket just as it's coming in for its Martian landing. Later, as the other astronauts are exploring the planet, Merritt tries to dump the ship's fuel; when Barney returns, his father fires a pistol at him and the two men struggle, with Barney accidentally killing the General.

Mahoney, who already resents the General's son because he doesn't believe he measures up to the old man, arrives in time to witness Merritt's death, and promises the Captain he'll pay dearly for his actions. Meanwhile, the crew are stuck on Mars as they must wait a year for a launch window. There's no water, and the astronauts' spirits weaken, even though Imoto sows a symbolic seed in the Martian soil. Mahoney pronounces the mission "cursed," while Siegle laments their lack of liquid "on a lousy, dried-up ball in the corner pocket of nowhere." Fortunately for the crew, a decidedly unlikely Christmas snowfall--another too-perfect-to-be-accidental coincidence--provides them with water, and the seed sprouts a flower. There's a climactic earthquake, which the astronauts escape in an emergency liftoff that leaves them bleeding from their ears, mouths, nostrils, and I shudder to think what else. Once they've recovered, Mahoney decides to let bygones be bygones with the knowledge that General Merritt will be remembered historically "for [being] the man who conquered space," rather than a religious fanatic.

The spiritual aspect of the picture places the film squarely in the curious sub-genre of Christian science fiction cinema, a select group which includes such fantastic fare as William A. Wellman's The Next Voice You Hear (1950) and Harry Horner's Red Planet Mars (1952), though Conquest lacks the obsessive anti-Communism of the latter movie. The metaphysics may have been a bit unusual for audiences at the time--indeed, the film's subplot comes, like its meteors, out of nowhere--but it's worth noting that several real-life astronauts have experienced everything from mental breakdowns to mystical awakenings, which, as J.G. Ballard perceived, "[suggests] that more may have been taking place than we realized" in the Apollo program. It's highly improbable that Conquest's Space Corps would place such a zealot in orbit, but the scenarists craft a reasonably absorbing psychological case study nonetheless. Merritt's mental disintegration, in fact, prefigures another sub-genre--that of the Disturbed Astronaut--which found its fullest flowering in William Peter Blatty's cult psychodrama The Ninth Configuration (1980). There's no explicit anti-Christian bias on display here; rather, the General is rendered as well-intentioned but dangerously deluded, and it's strongly implied that Divine Intervention is responsible for the astronauts' unexpectedly Merry Christmas.

A surprisingly pivotal character is that of Sergeant Imoto, who functions as the conscience of the film. Earnestly arguing for the Mars mission by recalling the imperialism of his native land, he admits that Japan's aggression "was bad...but there were reasons....To the Western world at that time, Japan was a fairybook nation [of] little people living in a strange land of rice-paper houses--people who had almost no furniture, who sat on the floor and ate with chopsticks. The quaint houses," he continues, "...were made of paper because there was no other material available. And the winters in Japan are as cold as they are in Boston. And the chopsticks--there was no metal for forks and knives and spoons, but slivers of wood could suffice. So it was with the little people of Japan, little as I am now, because for countless generations we have not been able to produce the food to make us bigger." Imoto predicts that "Japan's yesterday will be the world's tomorrow: too many people and too little land." The Martian expedition is thus a first step towards "provid[ing] the resources the human race will need if they are to survive." When the General, who's plainly affected by this rather dubious speech, assures Imoto that he's "not a little man," it's a sure indication on the filmmakers' part that the West must move on from the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the utopian goal of interstellar exploration--as long, of course, as the United States is in charge of all this resource-gathering expansionism. The multiracial Wheel crew, incidentally, anticipates the cast of Kurt Maetzig's First Spaceship on Venus (1959), David Bradley's 12 to the Moon (1960), and Antonio Margheriti's Assignment Outer Space (1961).

The dumbfounding appearance of the costumed dancers, who cavort on the station's enormous video screen during the astronauts' recreational downtime, temporarily transports Conquest of Space into the realm of the musical--indeed, their pulchritudinous performance is excerpted from Claude Binyon's 1953 comedy Here Come the Girls. The ladies, led by an uncredited Rosemary Clooney, are lovely but ludicrous, though their rendition of "Ali Baba (Be My Baby)" is superior to Woody Woodpecker's contribution to Destination Moon's film-within-a-film. The acting is largely standard for the genre, but Shaughnessy is laughably obnoxious and almost as bad as Foster (who, exactly like Destination's Wesson, "entertains" his fellows with a harmonica). Byron Haskin, who had previously helmed The War of the Worlds and The Naked Jungle for Pal, here directs less vigorously, but there's only so much he can do with the awkward script. He does, however, capture not only the wonder of space travel but the miserable tedium as well of life amongst the stars, which to my knowledge no other film of the time duplicated.

Paramount's 2004 DVD presents Conquest of Space in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen monitors. The eighty-one minute picture contains fourteen chapter stops; unfortunately, there are no extras, not even a blessed trailer. As with many of Haskin's pictures, the Technicolor is vibrant, serving well the palette of cinematographer Lionel Lindon, which also has the unfortunate effect of making the visual effects (by, among others, Ivyl Burks and John P. Fulton) look even more artificial than they must have appeared on theatre screens. Bonestell, for whom a Martian crater was named, provides his usual memorable background art, though he later admitted he never even saw the finished film. Here's that missing trailer.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


William Witney and John English's fifteen-chapter Republic serial Jungle Girl (1941) is the type of politically incorrect entertainment Hollywood studios don't make any more, if they know what's good for them. Allegedly based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Cambodia-set 1932 novel--originally titled The Land of Hidden Men--the picture in fact has nearly nothing in common with its source material, other than a jungle backdrop. It's the kind of movie where the African natives are plainly Caucasian actors in ludicrously comical blackface and Afro wigs, and contains dialogue guaranteed to elicit multiculturalist conniption fits (e.g., "The rest of you can stay here," one character chastises his confederates in the midst of a tribal siege, "but I'm not going to see a white man thrown to the savages." For that matter, Jungle Girl's memorable tagline, "Mistress of an Empire of Savages and Beasts," probably wouldn't pass muster with the multiculties, either). The serial is a rip-roaring relic of its time, racially insensitive and hang the consequences. It's a window on a lost cinematic world, where the Saturday afternoon matinee reigned supreme. I enjoyed every cliffhanging moment, and wish I had a combination-riding-crop-and-blow-gun like Slick Latimer's.

Frances Gifford is Nyoka (Swahili for "snake"), who lives with her father, Dr. John Meredith (Trevor Bardette), among the Masamba tribe. Unbeknownst to her, Meredith has an evil twin, Bradley (also Bardette), an ex-convict who's supposedly dying in a nearby outpost, and who inspired the good doctor's self-imposed exile. Meredith reluctantly agrees to see his brother, but naturally it's all a ruse and he's murdered by Bradley's oleagenous partner in crime, Latimer (Gerald Mohr), so that Bradley can assume his identity after the doctor refuses to participate in his sibling's latest scheme. (Bradley also pretends to be recovering from a head injury, which conveniently explains his general confusion about medicine and other important things.) Latimer and the iniquitous impersonator are flown back to the village by studly Jack Stanton (pencil-mustachioed Tom Neal), who's unaware of the villains' plot to loot the natives' diamond cache in the mysterious Caves of Nakros. The twin and his fellow miscreants contrive with the tribe's incompetent witch doctor, Shamba (Frank Lackteen)--who resents Meredith's superior Western juju--to get their mitts on the stones, which are guarded by "lionmen" (sentries in skins). Shamba also schemes to claim the Lion Goddess amulet which Chief Lutembi (Al Kikume) gave to the doctor after Meredith saved the leader's life, thus allowing Shamba to control the tribe. Nyoka and Stanton must endure everything from flamepits to avalanches to set matters aright, and the couple are aided in their endeavors by Nyoka's loyal lad Wakimbu the Wild Boy (Tommy Cook) and Stanton's sidekick Curly Rogers (Eddie Acuff, the brother of country crooner Roy Acuff), an amateur ventriloquist whose hobby comes in handy outwitting the lionmen.

Jungle Girl's pacing is brisk, its melodramatics florid with maximum ooga-booga. The California location shooting never convinces us we're anywhere near Africa, but that's part of the picture's primitive charm. A perpetual limitation of the serial format, of course, is its blatant resort to cheating at the beginning of chapters to resolve the climactic predicaments of previous installments, as, for example, when a hero is shown plunging in his automobile off a cliff at the conclusion of one chapter, but somehow manages to leap from the vehicle to safety in the following week's adventure. Chapter Nine is a prime specimen of this chicanery, but the remainder of the serial (composed by no less than six screenwriters) is substantially less flagrant, and practically every installment is pleasingly packed with mid-chapter perils. The stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, Helen Thurston, and David Sharpe is outstanding, with Thurston's somersaults undoubtedly inspiring a generation of girlhood injuries.

Gifford, a mere nineteen years old at the time of this production, makes a fetching heroine; sensational in form-fitting leopardskin dress, she's plucky and resourceful, even if she does shriek when a man in a gorilla suit gets too close in Chapter Ten. (The actress later helped Johnny Weismuller defeat Nazi paratroopers in one of the best RKO vine-swingers, Tarzan Triumphs [1943].) Neal, best remembered for his lead in Edgar G. Ulmer's nightmarish shoestring noir Detour (1945), provides the requisite machismo, casually digging a slug from his shoulder in Chapter Fourteen as if it's all in a day's work. Both performers, as the disc's credits supplements detail, fared poorly offscreen: Gifford's injuries in a 1948 car crash precipitated an emotional breakdown, leading to a two-decades-long stay at several sanitariums, while the hot-tempered Neal effectively sabotaged his career by cracking the skull of actor Franchot Tone in a quarrel over actress Barbara Payton; he later killed his (Neal's) wife and served several years in Wire City. Mohr, an ersatz Humphrey Bogart if there ever was one, is an eminently hissable but well-dressed antagonist who's never without his stylish cravat, no matter how high the temperature climbs. Bony Bardette is simply marvelous: innocently idealistic as the doctor, alternately ruthless and obsequious as his crooked brother (especially when he's at Latimer's mercy--it's amazing how unglued the rascal becomes when stranded amongst the Masambans). Kay Aldridge replaced Gifford in the 1942 sequel, Perils of Nyoka, in which our mistress searches for the Golden Tablets of Hippocrates; the character later appeared, off and on, in comic strip form.

VCI's 2001 DVD offers Jungle Girl on two discs: ten installments on the first platter, the remaining five on the second. The second disc additionally contains an astonishing twenty-four trailers for sundry other serials. VCI's print is taken from England's National Film and Television Archive, where the picture was released, a bewilderingly belated eight years later, by British Lion Film Corporation. Violent footage was excised from chapters Ten, Eleven, and Fifteen of British Lion's version, but has been restored for this presentation; alas, the final chapter's shots of Latimer's henchmen with spears in their backs are still missing, while Latimer's fatal plunge from Stanton's plane remains incomplete, cutting away before his dummy hits the ground. Frame damage in several shots is obscured by the utilization of artificially slowed motion, but for the most part the two-hundred-and-sixty-seven-minute fullscreen print is in excellent condition. The set additionally contains several lobbycard and photo reproductions, but, regrettably, no riding crop.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Jean Rollin's death in December 2010 at the age of 72 brought down the final curtain on a remarkable, and remarkably unconventional, career in cinema. The French fantasist, who himself considered his work to be a "marginal" one, was, as Peter Blumenstock observes in his introduction to Rollin's long-out-of-print 1997 art book-slash-memoir, Virgins & Vampires (Crippled Publishing, 153 pages), "an outsider of the most extreme kind." He was a poet of fetishistic pulp, an iconographer of necks and nipples, and a surrealist somewhere between Clovis Trouille--the director's favorite painter--and serial maestro Louis Feuillade. Few filmmakers' first features actually precipitate a riot, as Rollin's Le Viol de Vampire did in the tumultuous year of 1968; even fewer of them move back and forth between the avant-garde and pornography like restless shades. Rollin was a steadfast crosser of zones, a voyager in dreamlands where aristocratic ladies drink bull's blood, lovers drift out to sea in caskets, and the undead emerge from grandfather clocks.

Virgins & Vampires collects the director's reminiscences on the majority of his features, as well as an interview with Rollin conducted by Blumenstock and which had originally appeared, a year earlier, in Video Watchdog Number 31. There are over six-hundred-and-fifty photos from his private archive, including numerous behind-the-scenes shots from Rollin's films, as well as a gallery of poster reproductions--indeed, the illustrations for those early efforts comprise some of the most amazing artwork, courtesy of the great Philippe Druillet, I've ever seen. The filmography ends with the director's then-current Les Deux Orphelines Vampires ("The Two Orphan Vampires," 1995), though, happily, more "Rollinades" would materialize in the ensuing decade-and-a-half.

The five-year-old Rollin saw his first picture, Abel Gance's Capitaine Fracasse, in 1942. Immediately entranced, he declared then and there that he wanted to make movies. Ten years later, he began to compose small screenplays on a typewriter his mother gave him. Rollin admired Cecil B. DeMille, but was "really obsessed" with Hollywood's cliffhanging serials, whose "spirit, structure and contents" constitute "the key to" Rollin's work. Blumenstock suggests that artists entering the horror genre "[seem] to have experienced awful things as a child," but Rollin, refreshingly, remembers his childhood as being totally different: rather than aggrievedly recounting his tortured youth, the director's "reflections of it are very romantic, sweet and utterly transfigured. Like recalling one's first love, 20 years later." Rollin was a light and happy artist working in a medium whose often contrived darkness never made him lose his essential sense of wonder at the world. In this sense, he was certainly a magician. Whether at the margins or in the mainstream, we could use more creators like him.

Rollin edited footage for Claude Lelouch in the French Army's cinema department, eventually directing his debut short, Les Amour Jaunes ("The Yellow Lovers") in 1958. Significantly, the shooting site was the beach at Pourville-les-Dieppe, a location which would become mythically ubiquitous in subsequent Rollin features. The artist also served a one-film term as Assistant Director on Jean-Marc Thibault's Un Cheval pour Deux (1962; "A Horse for Two"), an experience he found somewhat restricting ("I wanted to work spontaneously, without any regulations in my head"), and, short of funds, he had to abandon what would have been his debut feature, L'Itineraie Marin ("The Sea Route," 1960), after unsuccessfully attempting to salvage the picture with novelist and directress Marguerite Duras. He seems to have felt no significant attachment to the Nouvelle Vague ("I was always most attracted to traditional old French cinema"), though he met many of its key figures. Rollin's work never achieved anything near the critical acclaim accorded his contemporaries, but if his work wasn't always as accomplished as, say, Claude Chabrol's or Francois Truffaut's, it was every bit as personal, and often pronouncedly more oneiric.

Rollin made a rare foray into political filmmaking with 1964's Generallismo Francisco Franco documentary, Vivre en Spagne ("Life in Spain"), running afoul of Spanish authorities in the process and "[managing] to cross the border back to France just in time." Rollin, in fact, largely eschewed agitprop, though he concedes that, by and large, "the fantastic film is always political, because it is always in the opposition. It is subversive and it is popular, which means it is dangerous." The director published his own fiction around this time, writing novels (most of which remain untranslated into English) for many years. He also collaborated with artist Nicholas Devil on an experimental adult comic, Saga of Xam, and published a two-part appreciation of Phantom of the Opera author Gaston Leroux for Eric Losfeld's legendary Midi-Minuit Fantastique magazine.

Rollin recounts that he "packed [Viol] with as many images and ideas as possible" because he "was not quite sure I would get the chance to make a second film." Admitting that "the result was a sort of dadaist mess," the auteur believed its insanity would be favorably received in the merry month of May 1968. He was sadly mistaken. The striking soixant-huitards felt no connection to Rollin's work, and "even my collaborators thought the film was lousy." Rape of the Vampire (as the title bluntly translates) was a bizarre mishmash: the original film was a mere half-hour, originally intended as a co-feature for distributor Jean Lavie's revival of Sam Newfield's Dead Men Walk (1943) at the Scarlett and Midi-Minuit cinemas. Rollin's financial backers liked what they saw so much that they persuaded him to extend his surreal short, which contained a definite ending in which all the characters died. The director surmounted this obstacle by literally resurrecting his original cast, and resuming where he'd left off, seriously ratcheting up the surrealism. When producer Sam Selsky screened the picture for theatre owners, Rollin remembers, "he was constantly talking to them, disturbing their concentration. So, whenever they said they couldn't understand why this-or-that happened, Selsky replied that they had missed a very important plot twist because of his talking and that they shouldn't worry because it made perfect sense!"

The filming of Rollins' second feature, La Vampire Nue ("The Nude Vampire," 1969), was a nightmare of bounced checks, with the director, who was recovering from being struck by a car--not, hopefully, one operated by an enraged moviegoer--hobbling to the studio to edit the picture, and discovering no one else was working on the film as "they weren't being paid." The picture's release was once again met with derision, particularly the Pourville sequence in which a vampire crawls out of a box. "This is one of the most unusual images in my cinema," Rollin declares, "and despite [audiences'] whistling and heckling, it's there that true strangeness lies." The making of Le Frisson des Vampires ("The Shiver of the Vampires," 1970) was considerably less nerve-wracking. Cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon was in rare form ("Never before did [he] use more dazzling, baroque, phantasmagoric lighting"), his imagination fueled by masssive quantities of "white wine which he found indispensable to the creative process." The splendid Castel twins, Catherine and Marie-Pierre, with whom the director had first worked on Nue, shone in this particular picture, and would return the following year for Requiem pour un Vampire ("Requiem for a Vampire"). The motif of two mysterious women, each completing the other, would become the dominant one in Rollin's oeuvre.

The cordial-imbibing Renon "often had to be supported by technicians" while photographing Rollin's minimalist, cemetery-centered La Rose de Fer ("The Iron Rose," 1972), which the director laments as "certainly my greatest commercial failure." Lead actor Hughes Quester, Rollin complains, "took himself terribly seriously, which I detest. We are bear trainers, stall hands and nothing more." Nevertheless, Rollin took the project seriously enough to be severely shaken by its hostile reception; though he doesn't mention it in the book, he was booed offstage at the film's premiere. (One would think he'd have been used to such reactions by this time, but hope springs eternal in the human breast.) His next effort, the Expressionistic shipwreck chiller Les Demoniaques ("The Demoniacs," 1973) fared much better, although initially "all the young actors and students in Paris refused" to appear in the movie, as false rumors had spread that Rollin "was running a clandestine prostitution ring," with the result that he was "forced to make do with whoever was available."

The explosion of hardcore cinema led to Rollin's pseudonymous (as "Michel Gentil") Phantasmes (1974), aka The Seduction of Amy. Rollin had secured a magnificent chateau and a willing cast, but he faced an uphill battle bringing his vision "of a cursed Satan forced to kill the women he loves" to the screen. The director imagined "elaborate scenarios" for his erotic visions, but gave up because "fans of these kinds of films want X and nothing else...My film wasn't hardcore enough," he sighs. Rollin's other pornographic excursions, whether under his Gentil or Robert Xavier aliases, are listed in his filmography appendix, but no additional chapters are devoted to them; it's obvious he was simply collecting a paycheck, a not-uncommon practice for such Eurocult figures as Jess Franco and Aristide Massacessi. Absent as well are chapters on the patch-up jobs--writing, directing, and so forth--he performed on such grindhouse wonders as Zombie Lake (1980) and Emmanuelle 6 (1988). Rollin claims in his interview with Blumenstock that "Jess Franco just didn't show up" to direct the undead Nazi feature (Eurocine manager Marius Lesoeur has denied that Franco was ever involved with the picture), while Bruno Zincone "couldn't cope with shooting [the Emmanuelle sequel] in South America," and Rollin's script revision "tried to make some sense of the whole thing, which was quite a hopeless attempt."

Much as David Cronenberg had daringly cast Marilyn Chambers in 1977's Rabid, Rollin employed adult film star Brigette Lahaie in the following year's Raisins de la Mort. (They had previously worked together on the director's hardcore Vibrations Sensuelles ["Sensual Vibrations," 1976].) This seminal French gore movie, better known stateside as Grapes of Death, melded George Romero's zombie apocalypse with "the disaster movies that were en vogue at the time." Rollin rather defensively protests this this picture "has nothing to do with Night of the Living Dead, as has been foolishly suggested." Although Raisins is thematically distinct from Romero's debut feature (it's closer in some ways to his later The Crazies [1973]), I fear that here Rollin is deluding himself. Though his "zombies" are not actually reanimated corpses--they're villagers disfigured and demented by a new pesticide, rather like the victims of Romero's "Trixie" virus--the societal breakdown scenario is plainly influenced by Night (as, for that matter, was Rabid). This forthrightly commercial picture is also one of Rollin's strongest works, combining gruesome makeup effects with a grimly beautiful lyricism and surprisingly deep emotion.

Lahaie returned for Rollin's next two efforts, Fascination (1979)--arguably his masterpiece--and the vaguely Cronenbergesque La Nuit des Tranquees ("Night of the Hunted," 1980). Rollin notes that, during the latter film's production, "I was particularly bothered by the disdain that the mainstream movie people displayed towards their porno colleagues," so he deliberately packed the picture with X-rated performers. Rollin, however, vacillates between respect for the idea of hardcore cinema and disappointment at its frequently pedestrian execution: "Sex, pleasure or simply nudity are subjects that are just as serious as any others," he asserts. "It all depends on one's outlook. Unfortunately the most common attitude is that of a pig." Night, unsurprisingly, was not a success ("It was booed at the Festival in Sitges"), and Rollin "couldn't prevent his producers from inserting two or three short sex scenes." The director achieved his greatest commercial reward with 1982's marvelous La Morte Vivante ("The Living Dead Girl"), following it with such oddities as the serial hommage Les Trottoirs de Bangkok ("Streets of Bangkok," 1984)--"a film that was as crazy as it was incoherent"--and the hallucinatory Perdues dans New York ("Lost in New York," 1991). The essays conclude with Les Deux Orphelines Vampires ("The Two Vampire Orphans," 1995), based on Rollin's novel, itself inspired by Adolphe d'Ennery and Eugene Cormon's 1875 Les Deux Orphelines. Rollin describes the movie as "certainly my most accomplished and professional film"; it earned him Fantafestival's Special Jury Prize for Life-time Achievement.

Virgins & Vampires' behind-the-scenes photographs are themselves worth the price of the book alone. There are shots of a nude Lahaie jokingly menacing Rollin with a dagger, the young director sporting a temporary flower tattoo on his brow, and Viol's Jacqueline Siege in lizard headdress, smiling seductively into the camera as stage blood leaks from her lips. And, of course, there are key shots from his features: a scythe-wielding Lahaie, clad only in cloak and boots, the shocking-but-artfully-composed scissors-through-the-eyeballs hospital victim of Nuit, and the mysterious masked girls of Perdues. The cover design, taken from Shiver, perfectly conveys the power of the director's eerily erotic imagery.

By the end of the 1990s, Rollin was on dialysis, severely restricting his cinematic output. A mere handful of his films had made it to the States in the 1970s--most notably, Requiem, amusingly retitled Caged Virgins by American distributor Harry Novak--but mail-order company Video Search of Miami began bringing out "special" editions of Rollin's movies in 1995. Unfortunately, the quality of their videotapes was merely watchable. (Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas generously described them as "always adequate-looking.") VSoM's cassettes were two generations away from the thirty-five-millimeter masterprints (no internegatives were domestically available at that time), but were at least uncensored. Those releases also included camcorded introductions to the films by Rollin himself, which are naturally absent from Redemption, Synapse, and Shriek Show's far superior DVD transfers.

Crippled Publishing's first book was issued in a limited edition of three hundred autographed copies (mine is number 120); a used volume is currently available on Amazon for the exorbitant sum of four hundred dollars. The book contains a bonus compact disc of Philippe d'Aram and Ars Antigua's score for The Two Orphan Vampires. Although this picture is one of the director's more restrained efforts, the twenty-track platter's enchanting electronics serve the film admirably. (The soundtrack is also available as a supplement on Shriek Show's 2002 DVD.) It's unlikely that Virgins & Vampires will ever be reissued, and the definitive Rollin biography remains to be written. Lucas' loving tribute to the director, "The Man Who Befriended Death," appears in the current number (161) of Video Watchdog.

Near the conclusion of his interview with Blumenstock, Rollin expresses grateful surprise at renewed interest in his work. Looking back on the world of the fantastique, however, he glumly predicts that "the genre is about to die, as is cinema in general. The films being made today have nothing to do with my understanding of cinema." As studios churn out increasingly bloated productions inspired by and emulating video games for viewers with dizzily diminishing attention spans, those words are strikingly prescient. Rollin, however, remained resilient in the face of severe personal setbacks, sustained critical ridicule, and general audience indifference. Like his vampire protagonists, this outsider rose again and again. Rollin made movies because he had the blood of cinema flowing through his veins. The body of work he left behind constitutes an antidote to all the alleged blockbusters of our dismal age, which lack imagination and cretinize, if not downright zombify, their patrons. Hail and farewell to the Rollinade!


Blumenstock, Peter. "Jean Rollin Has Risen from the Grave!" Video Watchdog No. 31 (1996).

Hood, Donald E. and Curtis Fukuda. "Eurocine: The Best Little Horror House in France." Video Watchdog No. 63 (September 2000).

Lucas, Tim. "Jean Rollin: The Man Who Befriended Death." Video Watchdog No. 161 (March/April 2011).

Lucas, Tim. "Versions & Vampires: Jean Rollin on Home Video." Video Watchdog No. 31 (1996).

Puterman, Brian and Todd Tjersland. "Art, Sex & Vampires: The Erotic Undead World of Jean Rollin." Guilty Pleasures Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 1996).

Tohill, Cathal and Pete Tombs. Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.