As most readers will know, The Batman did come to television in the 1960’s and became a smash success, a pop-art phenomenon that would long outlast it’s short-lived network life in syndication. But the road to the show was a circuitous one.
The first attempt to bring Batman to the small screen was by Ed Graham Jr. (LINUS! THE LION HEARTED), who had optioned the TV rights to Batman from National Periodical Publications. He was planning a straight kid’s adventure show for Saturday mornings. It’s said CBS was interested in airing the proposed program, but no pilot was ever made. Perhaps this is because Graham’s previous outings as director or producer were all in animated cartoons and TV commercials, with no live-action credits that I’ve be able to identify. Without a track record, the network may have been unwilling to finance the show’s development. But Ed Graham would not be the only person to see potential in the caped crusader.
Starting around 1963-64, enterprising theater owners (notably in Chicago) began renting the Batman serials from Columbia for weekend showings, and to everyone’s surprise it began to catch on with college students, who found the old kiddie fodder ‘campy’ — humorous because it’s ridiculous, overdone, or just plain bad in an amusing way. These bookings were so successful that Columbia officially re-released the serials in 1965, with marathon viewings offered as AN EVENING WITH BATMAN AND ROBIN.
Reportedly, ABC network executive Yale Udoff saw the serial at the Playboy Mansion, and thought the idea of a Batman TV series for prime time might be a workable proposition. National’s (DC Comics) option with Ed Graham Productions must have been up, because ABC in partnership with 20th Century Fox were able to obtain the TV and film rights. (Said to be only $7,000.)
ABC originally wanted an action-adventure show, perhaps with a certain amount of coy self-awareness, as in NBC’s THE MAN FROM UNCLE. 20th Century Fox production executive William Self originally approached screenwriter (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER) and spy novelist (The Mask of Dimitrios) Eric Ambler to write a film that would launch a Batman TV series. Ambler passed, and ABC wanted the series to go to pilot quickly, so Self’s choice for producer William Dozier (ROD BROWN OF THE ROCKET RANGERS, THE LOSER) picked Lorenzo Semple Jr. (PRETTY POISON) to write the pilot script. Semple had previously written a modern update of Charlie Chan for Dozier called NUMBER ONE SON, which would have featured Dozier’s discovery — martial artist Bruce Lee. The network wasn’t ready for that idea. They weren’t quite ready for what Dozier and Semple had in mind, either.
William Dozier had obtained several issues of Batman and Detective Comics to read while flying from New York to Los Angeles. He was not happy with what he read, and worried. He felt that if he tried to make a serious adaptation of the comics it would flop, and he would become the laughingstock of Hollywood. The only way to save face would be to spoof the character, play up the straight-faced juvenile aspects as intentional high camp. The kiddies would love it, and the adults could laugh if they wanted. Lorenzo Semple agreed with the approach and signed on.
Batman in the comic books had become almost a mockery of his former self in the late 1950’s to early 60’s. The noir-ish crime stories had given way to more whimsical adventures, visits from space aliens and other pseudo-scientific plot devices, along with juvenile attempts at awkward soap opera with Batwoman and the first Batgirl attempting to interest the dynamic duo in romance.
By 1963, DC was considering canceling at least one of the Batman titles. Editor Julius Schwartz was given control of the books, with carte blanche to make changes. He brought in Carmine Infantino, who had redesigned the Flash into a modern superhero to update Batman’s look. The hero’s increasingly broad ( in more ways than one) cartoon appearance was abandoned, slimming him down and adding a yellow circle around the bat insignia on his chest as a symbol of his “New Look”. Stung by public sniggering about a homosexual context to the Bruce-Dick-Alfred living arrangements, they even took the odd choice of killing off Alfred Pennysworth, and had Dick Grayson’s quickly invented Aunt Harriet Cooper take his place as housekeeper. Sales began to pick up somewhat.
At some point in this process, former NFL football player Mike Henry was apparently up for the part of Batman, and it’s claimed that photos were taken of him in a Batman costume. Whether these were for the CBS or ABC proposals is unclear, nor is the there any certainty this actually happened. (In the late 70’s I was shown a picture purported to be of Henry as the character, but it looked to me like the work of an airbrush rather than a tailor.) Mike Henry would in any case be busy starring as another icon, Tarzan in three films — and did a creditable job.
Many actors were considered for the role by Fox and ABC, including western TV star Ty Hardin (BRONCO), but Dozier had set his sights on Adam West (William Anderson), a handsome actor with a flair for light comedy that he had seen spoofing James Bond (as Captain Q) in a series of Nestle’s Quick commercials. At ABC’s request, he also tested future WONDER WOMAN star Lionel Wagner and former child actor Peter Dyell (MR. NOVAK) as Robin. With West he tested gymnast-turned-fledging actor Burton Gervis as Robin. ABC went with the second pair, and Gervis soon changed his name to Burt Ward. It’s interesting to note that the acting and lighting of the screen tests is noticeably more subdued than what the series would feature.
Going into production on the pilot was a gamble for ABC and 20th Century Fox. Wanting to have a good looking show (and one that could be exploited as a movie), the decision was made to build a big Bat Cave set. Production designers Serge Krizman, Ed Graves and the rest of Jack Martin Smith’s staff proposed a massive, two-story structure, that essentially took up an entire soundstage. (Part of the atomic pile came from the recently wrapped OUR MAN FLINT. ) This and other space concerns at the busy Fox Studios led the company and Dozier’s Greenway Productions to make the series not on their own stages and facilities, but at Desilu’s Culver City Studio. This was the old RKO-Pathe/Selsnick International Studios, not their main facility on North Gower Street, next to Paramount.
KING KONG, GONE WITH THE WIND, and the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN had been filmed there. The backlot (called Forty Acres) was where THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW filmed the Mayberry scenes — and both Desilu 1960’s adventure shows STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE would often visit. The BATMAN crew would often use the same backlot, though certain episodes would use the Fox lot — and the regular location of Gotham City Hall, where Commissioner Gordon’s office was located was actually (a still-standing structure) on the Warner Brothers backlot. The choice of filming at a rental facility, while solving Fox’s immediate concerns, would later have repercussions.
Lorenzo Semple’s pilot episode was loosely based on “The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler” which appeared in Batman #171 (May 1965),written by long-time DC writer Gardner Fox. Semple revised and fleshed out the story considerably, turning the short comic book tale into an hour-long TV series. Actor/impressionist Frank Gorshin (INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN) played the role of the manic and obsessive villain The Riddler, investing the part with great energy and a high pitched laugh inspired by Richard Widmark’s mad psycho killer’s giggle in KISS OF DEATH (1947). Jill St. John guest starred as Molly, a buxom red-head who with the aid of a rubber mask somehow becomes the spitting image of Robin the Boy Wonder.
The show comes off with great style, directed by Robert Butler who also directed the first pilot of STAR TREK. It was full of production value, including comic book-inspired superimposed ‘visual sound effects’ such as POW! BIFF!, etc. superimposed over the fight scenes. The cost of all this flashy, vividly colored action adventure was around a half a million dollars.
The first regular that had been cast was British character actor Alan Napier, to play the role of Alfred. Dozier thought killing the character off had been a mistake on DC’s part, and insisted on including him in the series. Subsequently, the comic books would contrive a science-fictional way of reviving the trusty butler. (Originally as a mutated monster out to destroy the dynamic duo.) The producer agreed with the idea of Aunt Harriet as a blance to the all-male home, and cast Madge Blake (THE REAL McCOYS). Neal Hamilton, with a career as both leads and character roles since the silent days, played the part of Commissioner Gordon. Stafford Repp, once a sound effects man, created the role of Police Chief O’Hara. His faux Irish accent reportedly irritated his irascible co-star Hamilton throughout the series.
Busy jazz and film composer Neal Hefti composed the soon to be famous BATMAN theme, a blues-influenced surf rock number for bass guitar, brass, percussion and vocals that helped set the tone and would win a Grammy.
George Barris proved a sleek black Batmobile, forced by the short time-frame allotted to convert the already existing Ford concept car the 1955 Lincoln Futura. The car, originally pearl white with a double-domed clear canopy, had been painted red for the 1959 comedy IT STARTED WITH A KISS. It was given a through make-over for the pilot, painted glossy black with added details and came off quite impressively on film, though it had be filmed under-cranked to safely exit the narrow Bronson Canyon mine tunnel that was used to depict the exterior of the Bat Cave — and to look as swift as the flame-thrower ‘atomic turbine’ that had been mounted on the back suggested.
The costumes for the caped crimefighters were a good attempt to translate the then-current look of the comic book characters. Costume designer Jan Kemp went to the trouble of matching the color of Batman’s leotards as printed; rather than just gray, they’re actually a subtle mauve, an artifact of how grays were generally achieved in the 4-color process. Unfortunately, the indigo blue material that covered the fiberglass shell of Batman’s cowl had a tendency to quickly turn purple under the stage lights. The cape would face similar problems, and would also be made shorter as the series progressed, so that it wouldn’t get stepped on or snagged in action scenes. The ‘face’ of the cowl was hand painted black, with accents for the nose and eyebrows in lighter blue. The Bat-insignia was a sticker that would be applied and removed daily. Though a printed item, the bat is actually not quite symmetrical. Unfortunately, Batman’s utility belt — made to appear functional — tended to make the in-shape Adam West look a bit thick-set. (Adding to the problem West’s stuntman Hubie Kerns, despite being quite athletic had a slight pot belly, which the belt accentuated noticeably.)
Robin’s costume was right out of the comics, though the cloth gloves in the pilot would be replaced with green leather ones in the series. The palm sides of Batman’s finned gauntlets would be refurbished with suede to avoid tearing.
ABC liked what they saw, and committed to 16 episodes. Of course, the show would have to be audience tested. The reaction nearly scuttled the series. The results supposedly were the worst of any program test in television history. William Dozier thought he knew why; the audience was confused — not getting the concept that the show was essentially a farce. He quickly did some narration with a preface explaining that the idea was to have fun, to ‘hiss the villains and cheer the heroes’ — along with an archly-announced middle cliff-hanger break. It’s rumored that a version with a laugh track was made and tested. Early footage (a network and affiliate promo reel) still exists, scored with stock music from Peter Gunn episodes, which was in the ballpark of what they had in mind. Eventually, well-known big band composer Nelson Riddle would score the show quoting the Nefti theme often, and coming up with distinct personal motifs for the major guest villains as the show progressed.
The show needed work, and initially there was time, as it wasn’t due to premiere until the Fall of 1966. However, ABC had a problem, several of its 1965 season shows were bombing and would be canceled. What was the solution? Launch a ‘second season’ in January of 1966. Batman would be one of the new programs, though the time slots available weren’t the most favorable. ABC figured that kids would be the primary audience, so the show couldn’t be on too late. In the 60’s most children were in bed by 9:00 PM. The answer? Well, the show was inspired by the cliff-hanger serials — instead of coming back after a mid-point break, turn the hour-long show into two half-hour shows at 7:30 on successive nights. Twice the bang for the buck. (There’s some evidence that ABC briefly considered cutting the episodes into 15 minute segments, but if so this never went past initial discussions.)
After a huge promotional campaign, Batman premiered on Wednesday January 12th, 1966. with the episode “Hi Diddle Riddle”. The second segment “Smack in the Middle” aired the next day. The show was an instant hit, with kids excited by the larger-than-life characters and action, and adults generally amused by the then relatively straight-faced spoofing.
Keeping with William Dozier’s plans, well-known actors were sought out to play the guest villain roles. Burgess Meredith would take the part of the top-hatted Penguin, developing his eccentric quacking from trying to suppress coughing from the cigarette smoke of the long holder the character sported. Caesar Romero, once typed as a latin lover, was so amused by the costume designed for the Joker that he cackled helplessly with glee. This became a signature for the role — and to add to the absurdity, rather than shave his trademark mustache, the make-up artists simply spread the clown white make-up over it.
Taking a comic book character originally named Mr. Zero, George Sanders would be the first of theer actors to take on the part of the villain re-named Mr. Freeze (with the supposed identity of a Dr. Shivel in his introductory episode).
TV actor Malachi Throne (IT TAKES A THIEF) would play the role of the always-masked False Face, but the use of name actors coupled with his question mark billing led to insistent speculation that it was really some big star unwilling to show his face — certainly an intended result.
After originally planning for the petite Suzanne Pleshette to take on the part of Catwoman, when she proved unavailable the producers went with the statuesque Julie Newmar, who relished the chance to do more comedy, and she became iconic in the role. New villains would be invented for the show, including King Tut (Victor Buono). Unlike most of the guest foes, who never have their comic book real names mentioned, Tut is given an in-joke secret identity; William Omaha McElroy. William Dozier’s middle name was McElroy, and he was born in Ohmaha, Nebraska.
The show was a huge hit, and a wave of Bat-Mania flooded the airwaves, record shops, toy stores, and even adult nightclubs. Celebrities happily did window cameos on the show as West and Ward walked along a set built sideways, capes held up by wires. Shot with a camera on its side, it gave the illusion of the pair scaling a wall. Adam West in later years would remark that the 1960’s entertainment era might well be thought of as “The Three B’s: The Beatles, James Bond, and Batman.”
Buoyed by the success of the show, 20th Century Fox greenlit a feature film, BATMAN (1966) to be filmed during the series’ hiatus. Rather than Dozier’s Greenway Productions, the film was made by a new production company he created, Greenlawn Productions. This and (presumably other) legal reasons permitted the film to be released on video decades before the TV series would be. Adam West and Burt Ward negotiated nice salaries for the film, but their duties would extend to a great deal of traveling and promotion when it was released. (Up to this point, Ward was only making $350 an episode.)
Caesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin would reprise their TV roles, but Julie Newmar was unexpectedly unavailable for the film. She’d committed to another feature and the production had to scramble to find a replacement. (This is usually said to be McKENNA’S GOLD (1969), but that film didn’t shoot until 1967. I believe the film project Newmar did was the UK-shot Zero Mostel comedy MONSIEUR LECOQ (1967).
It wasn’t until after production had commenced on BATMAN that the producers were able to bring in former Miss America Lee Meriwether (THE TIME TUNNEL) as the Catwoman. The replacement casting makes the idea that Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn’t recognize Catwoman as the romantic interest Russian reporter ‘Miss Kitka’ in the storyline somewhat easier to swallow. The only fanboy explanation for this — as in the series Batman had seen the feline villainess without her mask more or less regularly — is that the film must take place before the Catwoman episodes of the show. There also doesn’t seem to be any hint of the personal attraction the characters shared on the show, despite Wayne’s infatuation with her false assumed identity in the film. The original plan was for a feature to precede the series, perhaps this was a plot ‘hangover’.
The far-fetched sci-fi storyline by Lorenzo Semple Jr. involved the four villains kidnapping the security council of the United World Organization (read U.N.) by dehydrating them into colored powders, with the plan of reconstituting them only after spectacular ransom was paid.
Soon to be The Green Hornet, actor Van Williams did a voice cameo, using his rather good Lyndon Baines Johnson impression as the President. Direction by Leslie H. Martison is serviceable, as is Howard Schwartz’s photography. A number of scenes actually appear a bit less effective or atmospherically shot than comparable ones from the TV show. Running around in broad daylight on real locations seemed to emphasize the ridiculous nature of the material, as did the stronger embrace of outright comedy. The budget (in the area of $1.3 million) allowed for the building of the Batboat and Batcopter, stock footage of which soon would find itself nicely adding production value in the next season of the program.
The film was at best a moderate success in the United States, taking in approximately 3 million dollars, playing mostly kiddie matinees. Adults largely stayed away — why pay for something you could watch free on television? However, foreign box office and re-releases put the film well into profit. (About $7.5 million world-wide over the years.)
The second season saw a number of changes. William Dozier left most decisions up to producers Howie Horowitz and William D’Angelo, while Semple — who’d been serving closely as a story/script consultant — contributed far less frequently. Stories by writers such as Stanley Ralph Ross and Charles Hoffman would venture even more deeply into comedy and farce. Per episode budgets went down, seen with slightly less elaborate sets, somewhat scaled down fight scenes, and more obviously with the money saving expedient of replacing the costly animated overlays with quick cut-aways to solid art cards with rapid lens zooms and color shifts.
Julie Newmar reprised her role as Catwoman, Meredith and Romero returned, but Frank Gorshin’s Riddler did not appear in the second season, apparently due to a salary dispute. John Astin (THE ADDAMS FAMILY) donned the green tights for one two-parter and Maurice Evans (PLANET OF THE APES) received a re-written Riddler script as The Puzzler — a minor Superman villain. Batman co-creator Bill Finger (and writing partner Charles Sinclair [THE GREEN SLIME]) brought in Green Arrow nemesis The Clock King (Walter Slezak) — though mixed with Finger’s earlier creation The Clock, and not quite like either iteration in the BATMAN episodes. Many more villains invented for the show appeared in the second season, allowing guest roles for actors as diverse as Vincent Price, Van Johnson, Cliff Robertson, Michael Rennie, and even Liberace.
To try to save THE GREEN HORNET series, the titular crimefighter and Bruce Lee’s Kato appeared, to no avail. The Hornet would fly no more, and The Batman was soon to get his wings clipped, though not as drastically.
Though ratings were still good, they were not as spectacular as they had been. Batman was an expensive show, and the Wednesday show was consistently weaker in its audience draw. Women and girls were less interested than males. It was time to shake things up a bit.
Dozier had been conferring with the DC editors regarding female interest, and Julius Schwartz, Carmine Infantino and Gardner Fox came up with a new Batgirl (Betty Kane had been Bat-Girl, niece and partner of the Kathy Kane Bat-Woman of the `50’s.) This updated version would be Barbara Gordon, the previously unknown librarian daughter of Commissioner Gordon.
Former Miss America (1959) Mary Ann Mobely was the first actress considered for the role. (She was the first April Dancer on THE MAN FROM UNCLE in a backdoor pilot episode, when THE GIRL FROM UNCLE went to series Stephanie Powers got the part, instead.) Yvonne Craig, a dancer and film actress (two Elvis Presely musicals IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR  and KISSIN’ COUSINS ) was chosen to portray Batgirl in a presentation film for ABC.
The network approved the actress and the concept, so much so that they briefly considered giving her a solo lead-in series. Craig was given a vivid purple and yellow version of the comic book character’s somewhat more subdued costume, featuring a mask with sharply angled points on the cheekbones in the non-broadcast short. These left red marks on her face, so they would be eliminated when the character was added to the show.
The try-out film had suggested a teasing romantic relationship between Batman and Batgirl, this would be largely ignored in the third season. There wouldn’t really be time in the once-a-week 30 minute format. There was also about half the money, since the costs weren’t being spread over two episodes.
As the third season progressed, new weekly settings for hide-outs and other script locations gradually disappeared, with black ‘limbo’ sets filled with simple props, often two-dimensional brightly painted cut-outs similar to pop-art stage dressings taking the place of more realistic designs. 20th Century Fox was known for such cost-saving shortcuts on Irwin Allen’s science fiction adventure shows (LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL, et al), though those shows benefited from having accrued a good supply of technical-looking set pieces that were available to fill up space. BATMAN would beg and borrow some of these assets.
Nelson Riddle left most of the third season scoring to his associate Billy May, a jazz trumpeter turned composer/arranger who had also scored THE GREEN HORNET series. He wrote a brassy Batgirl theme to give the character a sense of edgy action, although the producers limited the motor-cycle-riding heroine to relatively lady-like kicks rather than trading punches with evil-doers.
Frank Gorshin would return for a single appearance as the Riddler, but Julie Newmar was unavailable (actually filming MCKENNA’S GOLD this time), so the producers brought in singer/dancer Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. Choosing a black actress was a bit of a daring move in 1967, but the show defused the characters’ former sexual tension. With a great purr, Kitt was a fiercer feline adversary, more interested killing Batman than kissing him. The over-all attraction to the Caped Crusader was winding down.
However, BATMAN very nearly went to a fourth season. ABC was willing to renew the series, with several caveats. To 20th Century Fox’s complaints of insufficient budget to cover production costs, the network had some ideas to further streamline the show. Madge Blake, already ailing and only appearing in two third season episodes would not be in the new season. To save time and money, Chief O’Hara was considered unneccesary. Most surprisingly, the network felt that they could dispense with Burt Ward’s Robin, and that Batman and Batgirl would become the new dynamic duo. William Dozier and Adam West both protested the elimination of Stafford Repp’s and Ward’s roles. 20th Century Fox wasn’t happy with the idea of essentially financing a portion of the show out of their own pocket. The studio felt they probably had enough episodes to go into syndication. Not getting the response they wanted, ABC cancelled the show.
What to do about the huge Batcave set filling up that rental stage at Desilu Culver? Hold it for a couple of weeks while Fox offered the series to the other networks, just in case. NBC had evidenced some interest. Weeks passed without firm results, and the Batcave set was bulldozed.
The next week, NBC contacted Fox Television to say that they’d pick up the series, and even restore it to it’s twice-weekly format. But the main set was gone. How much to rebuild it? At least a half million bucks, maybe more because some of the re-purposed set-pieces such as the atomic pile had been destroyed. NBC didn’t care to pick up that tab.
However, this seemingly effective death-trap did not kill off the show’s career on TV.
20th Century Fox was right, the series 120 episodes were perfect for local syndication, and even ‘stripped’ daily, kids would not tire of the series for decades.
True, comic-book devotees would revile the show, even if those who had been kids when the show debuted might harbor some nostalgia for the series. This nostalgia would grow after BATMAN was no longer found daily on local stations. It would have seemed perfect for release on video, but there were major problems involved.
National Periodical Publications/DC had been sold to Kinney National (originally a parking garage concern) in 1967. By 1969 they would buy up Warner Brothers/Seven Arts studio and holdings. (Bob Kane profited by this, as the new Warner Communications wanted to own all the characters free and clear. He walked away with millions, ultimately. ) By the time the video revolution came about, Warner Bros. (Time-Warner) who owned Batman, and Fox Television who co-owned the series with Greenway Productions were at loggerheads. Neither corporate entities wanted the other to be able to release and profit by the show. William Dozier, and then more complicatedly his heirs wanted whatever profit they felt they were due, and all guarded their interests fiercely.
Ultimately, an accord was reached, and now in November of 2014 the show is finally coming to video with DVDs and Blu-rays, complete with special features with Adam West, Burt Ward, and others. A decades-long cliffhanger has been at long last resolved.
But what of Batman’s fate in film and television? The 60’s TV series had cast a light on the Dark Knight, bringing him into widespread public notice, far more so than comic books, newspaper strips and serials ever had. However, his three years in the limelight would also throw a long shadow, keeping the character squarely pegged as kiddie fodder by Hollywood for nearly twenty years. Yet he would return, and once again a kind of Bat-Mania would sweep the entertainment world.
As most readers will know, The Batman did come to television in the 1960’s and became a smash success, a pop-art phenomenon that would long outlast it’s short-lived network life in syndication. But the road to the show was a circuitous one.
This year marks The Batman’s 75th anniversary. Most of you will be aware the Batman character first appeared in Detective Comics Number 27, the May 1939 issue. As comic books then and now tend to be dated three months in advance, it probably hit the newsstands about mid-February or March of that year. The cover depicted The Batman swinging across the rooftops carrying a criminal in a decidedly dangerous looking headlock as his stunned accomplices looked on.
The character looked different in the early days: darker, sinister — more bat-like, with exaggerated ears and a stiff winged cape. He was the product of a young cartoonist from the Bronx named Bob Kane (Robert Kahn), who created the masked avenger with the help of Bill Finger.
Kane had been doing gag cartoons and a Terry and the Pirates inspired adventure feature for Detective and Adventure Comics when one of the editors (usually identified as Vin Sullivan) asked him if thought he could come up with a costumed hero. DC was interested in duplicating the success they were having with Superman. When told he might make as much as $700 dollars a month by doing so, Bob Kane became very interested. It was a Friday, and Kane said he’d have one ready Monday morning. He was not going to miss out on an opportunity like this.
Kane already had a vague idea of what he wanted to do. The editor had suggested the idea after seeing some Flash Gordon sketches Kane had done to hone his talents, which were more naturally inclined to cartooning rather then realistic figure drawing. The Hawkmen character in the Flash Gordon strip had captured Kane’s imagination, and he first thought of the new character as another concept of a winged man. After toying with the idea of calling the character Birdman, Kane recounted in later years that he went through his old notebooks and verified that in his famous ornithopter sketches, Leonardo DaVinci had intended the wings be shaped like a bat’s. The Bat-Man – now that sounded dramatic.
Kane originally depicted the new hero as wearing bright red leotard, a Zorro-like black mask, and mechanical batwings that he would use to swoop down upon criminals. He contacted his friend Milton ‘Bill’ Finger, part-time shoe salesman and an avid pulp magazine reader who Kane had hired as a ghost writer to help plot and write his Rusty and His Pals stories for Adventure Comics. Finger suggested Kane replace the cumbersome mechanical wings with a bat-winged cape, like the villain in the movie The Bat Whispers. He also urged him to make the tights a more somber gray, and to make the mask a cowl that covered the head. The eyes would be left blank like Lee Falk’s Phantom to give The Batman an extra touch of mystery. Kane agreed with Finger’s ideas, and added long pointed ears and a long-nosed mask that suggested the features of a bat. They added a belt that could carry gas vials and other equipment, as well as gloves, so that he would leave no identifying fingerprints.
Despite some misgivings about his sinister appearance, DC decided to try out the character. Some there had originally thought Superman was too outlandish to succeed, but he’d been a tremendous hit. Perhaps lighting would strike twice. So Bob Kane and Bill Finger went to work. As noted, Finger was pulp fan, and the then-inexperienced writer based the first story; The Case of the Chemical Syndicate on a Shadow novel, Partners in Peril (written by Theodore Tinsley under the Maxwell Grant house name).
Elements of pulp Zorro, the Shadow, and the Spider influenced The Batman, as did the origin of the pulp hero The Bat (likely written by Johnston McCulley, creator of Zorro). Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip would also have an influence as the series progressed.
Bruce Wayne’s name supposedly came from the Scots hero Robert the Bruce and Revolutionary War general Mad Anthony Wayne — but it also sounds a lot like Bob Kane! For Batman was Kane’s alter ego of sorts, a mysterious, romantic figure who was rich and athletic, virtuous yet not bound by laws or convention. He would be a hero made superhuman not by powers beyond those of mortal men, but by an incredible will and unceasing effort. He was the flip side of Superman, the dark contrast to his bright colors, not quite as unique perhaps, but all the more compelling because he was just within the bounds of possibility.
RADIO AND FILM
It seems odd that Batman never had a radio show of his own. He did appear on The Adventures of Superman, but not until 1945. On March 1st of that year, Superman rescued a boy adrift in a rowboat who proved to be Robin, the boy wonder. He tracked down and rescued the missing Batman, forming an enduring partnership. Batman and Robin became recurring characters on the show, largely so that Bud Collyer could take time off from playing Superman. Robin was always portrayed by Ronald Liss, but the part of Batman would be played by a number of actors, including Stacy Harris, Matt Crowely (the majority of appearances), and Garry Merrill. Superman radio announcer and character actor Jackson Beck (voice of Bluto in many Popeye cartoons) would play Alfred when needed, using a cockney accent to humorous effect.
An odd conceit of the radio series is that Bruce Wayne seemed to live in an upscale suburb of Metropolis, rather than a distant city. At first, Superman knows the true identities of Batman and Robin, but they don’t know his. When Clark Kent has to approach Bruce Wayne for Batman’s help, Wayne is hostile and suspicious, and Kent reluctantly reveals his Superman identity. It’s not clear if Robin is entrusted with the secret at that time.
What many people don’t know is that Batman had been suggested as a radio show before then. A script was written for a pilot Batman program entitled The Case of the Drowning Seal, and an audition disk was made in 1943. This was a wartime script ; the villains were Nazi agents and the destroyed towns of Lidice and Coventry are pointedly mentioned. It’s been a number of years since I read the material, but it was a rather different idea of Batman.
To differentiate Bruce Wayne from the Batman, the masked hero spoke with a British accent. The character’s costume was described as being simply a “horned” black mask and bat-like cape. Apparently( from the context of the script) this simply was worn over Bruce Wayne’s street clothes, and Batman seemed not to bother with gloves, since he identifies one of the Nazi agents previously encountered in darkness because he has oil on his face — the same black oil that the Batman got on his fist when he socked one of the villains on the jaw. Not too worried about the secret identity, it seems. This was perhaps because the Batman was something along the lines of a secret agent, known to the U.S. government.
This lack of concern about secrecy is also shown by the fact that Bruce Wayne is also dealing with the orphaned son of Bruce’s friends the Graysons, undercover FBI agents who have been murdered by the spies. The boy is named Robin Grayson, not Dick — which kind of makes the team of Batman and Robin a bit too obvious even for the most dim-witted of criminals. Radio historian Jack French informed me that Scott Douglas portrayed Batman in this version. The actor had also played the pulp and comic book character The Black Hood in a 1943 series on the Mutual Network, which carried Superman as well.
Batman may have struck out on Radio but he had leapt from the comic book pages and onto the silver screen with greater success. 1943 also saw the release of the Columbia serial BATMAN.
It was 15 chapters of low-budget slam-bang thrills, directed by Lambert Hillyer; primarily an action specialist who also directed atmospheric horror thrillers such as Dracula’s Daughter and The Invisible Ray. Batman was played by Lewis Wilson. (Crime fighting must run in the family, because his son Michael Wilson now produces the James Bond films). Robin was portrayed by juvenile actor Douglas Croft, who also appeared in a number of “A” features, most notably playing the young George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The part of Alfred the butler was played by William Austin, who was tall and slim, and wore a mustache –- quite the opposite of the comic book Alfred who was at that time depicted as short, chubby and clean-shaven.
None of the other comic book regulars appeared in the serial. There’s no Commissioner Gordon, instead the Batman enjoys teasing Captain Arnold (Charles C. Wilson, This Gun For Hire). Phased-out comic book girlfriend socialite-turned actress Julie Madison is replaced by medical secretary Linda Page, played by Shirley Patterson — who would later change her screen name to Shawn Smith and appear in 50’s faves such as The Land Unknown and It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
The serial must have impressed Bob Kane, who permanently changed the appearance of the Alfred character to resemble the actor. Linda Page (now a nurse) was introduced in the new Batman newspaper strip, and Captain Arnold would also make a few appearances. Other long-lasting adaptations included the Bat’s Cave of the movie, which became the Batcave, along with the idea of entering it through a grandfather clock, which the serial writers had cribbed from Zorro. It’s interesting to note that like the radio pilot, Bruce Wayne/Batman’s identity seems to be known to the government, and he is willing to undertake missions for them. (Likely this was a case of the film serial inspiring the radio series.)
There is no Batmobile, with the crimefighters getting around in Bruce Wayne’s sleek black Cadillac convertible. Alfred often serves as wheelman, and nervously dons disguises when needed to aid the caped crime-fighters.
The serial is a lot of fun, and rather well done by the standards of Columbia chapterplays. Actually, BATMAN was produced outside the studio by Rudolph Flothow (Ramar of The Jungle TV series) for Larry Darmour Productions, who handled Columbia’s serials and a number of their ‘series films’, such as Ellery Queen, Lone Wolf and Crime Doctor at the time — acting as an essentially independent B-Unit with their own off-lot soundstage facilities. When needed, they could rent the Columbia Ranch or the Warner Brother’s backlot.
BATMAN has a nice visual look to it for the budget, using fluid camera work and creative lighting by Director of Photography James S. Brown Jr. (Strangler of the Swamp 1946.). The villainous Dr. Daka’s (J. Caroll Naish House of Frankenstein) laboratory features a nice array of equipment, including Frankenstein electrical apparatus rented from Kenneth Strickfadden. With this, he can create human ‘zombies’; mind-controlled slaves to further his campaigns of sabotage and subversion. There’s also a nifty radium-powered ray pistol (which would show up years later in 1960’s Cape Canaveral Monsters), though it’s quickly captured by Batman and rendered moot, though the bad guys continue to hunt for radium to buld a larger version. Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless, Charles Middleton gets a rare good-guy role as a prospector friend of Bruce Wayne.
Lee Zahler provides a effective, if strident score, basing his main themes on darker motifs from Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, and likely other classic influences.
However, despite the positive things in its favor, there are some puzzling editing errors — such as keeping in a portion of a fight scene wherein Batman looses his cape, only have it back on following a cut-away to Alfred waiting in the car below. Logically, the place to put the edit would have been at the point where the hero begins to have cape trouble, rather than continuing to show the fighting sans cloak. A letter to Bruce Wayne from the government asking him to look into a aircaft plant is shown with a Los Angeles address, although the film is indeed set in Gotham City. The recent DVD release seems to have added an editing slip-up or two, possibly attempts at covering for missing or damaged footage. (Several of the chapters show damage or wear that has not been restored, digitally or otherwise. There’s a least one collector’s 16mm print that has a better copy of Chapter One.)
The film has run into trouble in recent decades due to its blatant wartime anti-Japanese fervor, but it’s still interesting viewing, and J. Carroll Naish’s gleefully depraved faux-Japanese Prince/Dr. Daka is a delight for fans of hammy screen villainy. At one time the only commercially available version of the serial had been redubbed to remove the many racial slurs, with announcer Gary Owens (Laugh-In) redoing the original narration by sportscaster Knox Manning. The Sony/Columbia DVD release restores the original, warts and all.
In 1949, after the success of their Superman serial, Columbia released BATMAN AND ROBIN (also as New Adventures of Batman and Robin) . This 15-chapter serial is not nearly as good as the ’43 version and is a poor successor to 48’s Superman, though director Spencer Gordon Bennett directed both. Much of the chapterplay’s failure is likely due to the low budget producer Sam Katzman allowed. Columbia would give serial producers a flat rate, how much of that wound up onscreen is another matter. The film seems rushed and haphazard, and its lead actors worn out by the frantic pace.
Actor Robert Lowery (The Mummy’s Ghost) was reportedly (in accounts by co-star Duncan) not too thrilled to be playing the tights-wearing comic book character. Johnny Duncan, who was in his twenties (and looked it) when he portrayed Robin the Boy Wonder, also related that he had to secretly help Lowery lace up a girdle in order to fit in his leotard. The eyes in the cowled mask were too small and didn’t line up well for Lowery; you can see him adjust the cowl several times onscreen. The ‘bat-ears/devil’s horns’ were floppy, leading Lowery to stuff them with cotton. Batman’s gloves give out early in the serial, and heavy work gloves are substituted –not matching the much darker finned gauntlets.
Robin wears a dark colored cape, possibly influenced by the green cape the character sported on the cover of Batman #1 (or not, it’s anybody’s guess). Lowery and Duncan gamely did their best to enliven the proceedings, and there are a few good moments, but the results are still pretty dire from today’s standpoint.
One pathetically amusing bit is that Batman and Robin usually drive around in Bruce Wayne’s gray `49 Mercury convertible, which is noted and draws a barbed on-screen comment by the comic book’s press photographer Vicki Vale, played by Jane Adams (House of Dracula). “Does Bruce Wayne know you’re driving his car?” This and other obvious tip-offs only make her mildly suspicious of her nominal boyfriend’s dual identity. Perhaps she was distracted by her never before seen brother Jimmy Vale (George Offerman, Jr.), a pilot with feet of clay who gets mixed up with the villains.
Hollywood veteran Lyle Talbot introduced the part of Commissioner Gordon to the screen, and a partially disassembled television set in his office was used as a “high-tech” electronic Bat Signal that could miraculously project out the window a bat insignia onto the clouds… in broad daylight.
In later years, Bob Kane reported visiting the production, when he asked to see the Batmobile (apparently in the script), had the convertible pointed out to him. His heart sank; apparently the producer had made a deal with the auto manufacturer, and they supplied the car for free — several times. John Duncan said the cars were used roughly by the actors and stunt men, and the local Ford dealer would just give them a new (or repaired) one to use when they broke down.
Showing the rushed and seemingly lackadaisical nature of the film, despite there being a Batcave set, Batman and Robin are shown at least once getting into the car in Bruce Wayne’s driveway. No Wayne Manor, the place looks like a junior exec’s nicely appointed but unpretentious suburban home, complete with neighbors walking by on the sidewalk. Instead, the wheel-chair bound inventor suspect gets the mansion.
With its reliance on the masked mystery villain The Wizard’s super-science Remote Control Ray, and other gadgetry, the film has something of the feel of Batman’s 1950’s daylight sci-fi adventures. On that basis, or for low-budget laughs, the serial can be enjoyed. Completists should be aware that Chapter One of the Sony/Columbia VHS tape is incomplete by several minutes, due to the tape being assembled from 16mm prints edited to make Super 8mm reduction prints for sale to collectors. I’m told the DVD release continues this omission, though I have not viewed it myself.
If the BATMAN AND ROBIN chapterplay might have been a disappointment to comic book fans, it appears to have done fairly well at the box office. Perhaps this is why another attempt at a Batman Radio show was made in1950.
The Batman Mystery Club was an audition disc made in September of that year. The story was called The Monster of Dumphrey’s Hall, and was written by Don Cameron, who wrote for the comics and the Batman newspaper strip. It was rediscovered by Fred Shay, of the National Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame. The series’ premise reflected Cameron’s interest in disproving superstitions, and opened with Robin addressing a group of kids, and introducing Bruce Wayne, the Batman to show them that the seemingly supernatural adventures they would encounter had purely natural explanations. Writer Cameron had been researching and writing a book about occultism, which might explain his motivations somewhat.
However, it’s kind of an odd and dry idea for an kid’s superhero show (hey kids, this whole spooky story we made you sit through is pure bunk), and it’s not too surprising that the pilot did not become a series. Ronald Liss reprised his role of Robin (just Robin, not Dick Grayson) from the Adventures of Superman, and Batman was played by John Emery, who had also portrayed Philo Vance on radio.
Reportedly, there was a Batman radio series in Argentina in the 1950’s starring Carlos Carella as the caped crusader. They only documentation I’ve found of this is an intriguing publicity still.
Though it might have seemed a natural spin-off, there was no Batman series to mirror the 1950’s Adventures of Superman TV show (although former Batman Robert Lowery would guest star in an episode, The Deadly Rock). Batman would have to wait until the 1960’s to hit the airwaves again.
And when he did, it would be a tidal wave.
“Terrror Creeps from the fringe of fear to the pit of panic! And horror piles upon suspense as evil plunges into…THE BLACK TORMENT.”
Sounds pretty trashy, right? Like the excessive hyperbole associated with some deservedly forgotten exploitation film from decades past. Well, that assessment is half right: THE BLACK TORMENT is almost forgotten but not deservedly so.
Though the title suggests 1960s Euro-trash (it sounds like a German film imitating an Italian film imitating a British film), this Gothic mystery-thriller is somewhat better than its name suggests, and it actually does hail from Great Britain, exhibiting many of the qualities we associate with Anglo-horror films from that era: solid production values, good actors, atmospheric locations, and a serviceable story line. If you are a fan of classic British horror, looking for something in the same line as Hammer Films (if not as good), then THE BLACK TORMENT is worth checking out.
After a prologue in which a young woman named Lucy (Edina Ronay) is seen desperately running from an unseen attacker, the story has Sir Richard Fordykie (John Turner) returning to his ancestral mansion with his new bride Elizabeth (Heather Sears of Hammer’s 1961 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA). The homecoming is marred by accusations: witnesses claim to have seen Sir Richard pursued at night on horseback by the ghost of his previous wife, and the murdered Lucy died with his name on her lips.
Though hardly a happy homecoming, this opening effectively sets the stage for what follows. The various apparitions, murders, and bumps in the night that follow are mostly by-the-book stuff, but our interest in the plot actually hinges on the increasing tension wrought by the suspicions against Sir Richard. The viewer is continually wondering, “How much worse can his circumstances become?” And the answer is always “Much, much worse!” This engenders our sympathy for the protagonist, regardless of the mechanical plot twists. Yes, Sir Richard is a privileged member of the aristocracy, but all things considered he’s reasonably affable and fair-minded – especially under these trying circumstances – and all the poor guy wants to do is introduce his bride to her new home – but circumstances just won’t let him!
THE BLACK TORMENT eventually moves into Gothic territory when the apparent apparition of Sir Richard’s late wife appears – a white figure first glimpsed through an upper story window, from which she leaped to her death. The tension ratchets up as Sir Richard orders the haunted window barred – only to later find the bars rent asunder – after which the frustrated lord pursues the ghostly figure in a nifty midnight horse ride that nearly ends in Sir Richard lynching by the local superstitious populace.
As in most films of this type, the mystery is whether the supernatural element is real or faked. Early on there is a clue that might offer an explanation for the appearance of his ghostly wife, but the other issue – the witnesses who supposedly saw Sir Richard while he was actually miles away – leaves some room for doubt about exactly what is going on.
At least for a while. The pacing of THE BLACK TORMENT is just slow enough to give viewers time to put all the pieces together before the film actually delivers the big revelation. On the one hand, one has to give the script credit for playing fair, presenting the clues that tie together; however, if the film had only moved a little more quickly, it might have reached its conclusion a step ahead of the audience.
Nevertheless, the film sustains its mood even when the mystery dissipates. We never lose our concern for the predicament suffered by Richard and Elizabeth, and even if you can figure out the basic of the plot, there are one or two details that remain elusive until the end – which unfortunately gets a trifle silly in its effort to work a sword fight into the climax: several by-standers literally stand by during the entire fight – including officers of the law. Oh well, at least the villain(s) get what he/she/they deserve.
Besides Sears, fans of 1960s British horror will note such stalwart supporting players as Patrick Troughton (THE SCARS OF DRACULA, DOCTOR WHO) and Francis De Wolff (also seen in 1964’s DEVIL DOLL). THE BLACK TORMENT is a decent example of what was being produced in England at the time: the directorial style is straight-forward but effective, using the visual materials (costumes, sets, locations) without ostentatiously showing them off. The suspense builds effectively, and the spooky moments (the midnight ride, the discovery of the broken bars) are nicely realized – just enough to send a pleasant shiver down one’s spine.
So, BLACK TORMENT is no lost classic, but it is decent genre entertainment. The film is available on DVD from Redemption Video, a company that usually specializes in sleazy Euro-trash. THE BLACK TORMENT is much less lurid, which may decrease its perceived value among cult film enthusiasts, but fans of old-fashioned thrillers will enjoy a pleasant surprise.
THE BLACK TORMENT is generally overlooked in the usual reference guides and horror history books; in fact, your humble reviewer had never heard of it until embarking on a diligent search for 50th anniversary titles from 1964.* This obscurity is somewhat surprising: although the film does not have the most illustrious pedigree, it was produced by Tony Tenser, who would later give us such memorable horror efforts as Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1961) and Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968). THE BLACK TORMENT does not deserve the same exalted status, but neither is at an embarrassing skeleton in Tenser’s closet.
Except for Tenser, the behind-the-scenes talent did not go on to any great achievements. Director Robert-Hartford Davis does not have any other memorable genre credits. Co-writer Derek Ford ended up doing nudie comedies such as THE CASTING COUCH, though a year after THE BLACK TORMENT, he and his brother Donald did collaborate on the interesting screenplay for A STUDY IN TERRROR, which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper.
THE BLACK TORMENT (Compton Films and Tekli British Productions, 1964). Produced by Tony Tenser, Michael Klinger, and Robert Hartford-Davis. Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis. Written by Derek and Donald Ford. 85 minutes. Unrated. In color. Cast: John Turner, Heather Sears, Ann Lynn, Peter Arne, Norman Bird, Raymond Huntley, Annette Whiteley, Francis De Wolff, Joseph Tomelty, Patrick Troughton, Edina Ronay.
- THE BLACK TORMENT did not reach the U.S. until 1965. However, it debuted in its native England in 1964.
A movie about a sinister ventriloquist and his even more sinister dummy – think there might be something strange, even supernatural, at work? You guessed right! But this time there’s a twist: the ventriloquist is also a mystical mesmerist, and the dummy is not some projection of his fragmented personality; it is actually…well, we’ll get into that. For now, let’s just say that, though not truly good, DEVIL DOLL is certainly strange and interesting.
Set in England, the story follows an American journalist by the name of Mark English (William Sylvester). The weirdness of the film becomes immediately apparent: an American named English – working in England? Is there a point, or was that simply the screenwriter’s idea of a joke (get it – he’s American but he’s English!)? Anyway, Mark English is unhappy with his latest, trivial assignment: covering the act of a ventriloquist known as the Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday). At least Mark is unhappy until he sees the act: rather than the usual comedy high jinks, Vorelli and his dummy, Hugo, engage in an antagonist banter whose tension seems palpable – as if ready to explode into violence at any minute.
Eager to learn more, Mark talks girlfriend Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain, of Hammer Films’ THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) into inviting Vorelli to entertain at a party her family is giving. That night, Mark is awakened by Hugo, who mutters, “Help me.” Unsure whether this was dream or reality, Mark nevertheless checks out Vorelli’s background and learns that years ago he had an assistant named Hugo, who died on stage during their act. Meanwhile, Vorelli has set his eyes on Marianne; after Magda, Vorelli’s current assistant, objects, Hugo kills her. Seeking to unravel Vorelli’s secret and hopefully put a stop to his designs on Marianne, Mark eventually concludes that transferred Hugo’s soul into the dummy, where it remains under Vorelli’s control. If Hugo were ever to regain his free will – say, while Vorelli were distracted or asleep – there would be hell to pay…
Although deliberately created to replicate the eerie quality of the ventriloquist’s dummy episode from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), this black-and-white English production works tolerably well as a crude rip-off, thanks to a creepy dummy and an even creepier performance from Haliday as The Great Vorelli. The innovation here is that Vorelli is not only a ventriloquist but also a hypnotist who casts a spell over Marianne. Unfortunately, this Svengali-esque subplot sends the narrative down a detour that ultimately leads nowhere, since the real story is about the mystery of Hugo.
Fortunately, the story eventually gets back on track for a reasonably exciting climax, which is nonetheless marred by completely side-lining nominal protagonist Mark, who doesn’t really do anything to resolve the story. Yes, Hugo must have his revenge, but couldn’t Mark lend a hand – perhaps unlock the cage in which Vorelli imprisons Hugo while sleeping? (And while we’re on the subject: when Hugo gets out of his cage to ask for Mark’s help, why didn’t he take that opportunity to get even with Vorelli?)
DEVIL DOLL suffers from a problem that sometimes appears in these ventriloquist dummy movies: the Great Vorelli’s act is not that great. Sure, we in the film audience enjoy the tension between the ventriloquist and his dummy, but there is not much humor to amuse the stage audience we see on screen. Vorelli’s hypnotism shtick is not much better: when he presses Marianne into dancing on stage, we are supposed to be amazed at what his mesmeric influence has achieved, but her dance moves are – to put it diplomatically – not at all impressive.
Haliday does not bring much subtlety to the role, no attempt to humanize Vorelli or generate any sympathy; instead, he goes full-on sinister, somewhat in the vein of Todd Slaughter, though without the mirthless humor. In one eccentric touch, Vorelli’s Svengali-like appearance is enhanced by a not entirely convincing beard. Except for a few flashbacks to his younger days, he is always seen wearing it, whether performing or not, suggesting it is not part of his stage makeup. But in his back stage scene with Magda, we see him applying the beard in a mirror – finally justifying its phony appearance. (Since this seen is missing from the Continental version, that cut of the film asks viewers to accept the facial hair as genuine – which strains credibility almost as much as believing in a talking dummy.)
There is a sleazy aura to the film – not only in the Continental version, which adds gratuitous nudity, but also in the original narrative, which has English more or less date-rape his reluctant girlfriend in a car (she clearly resists, but he presses on regardless) and then pimp her off to Vorelli in the hope getting a good newspaper article about the famous entertainer.
Fortunately, the on-stage tension between Vorelli and Hugo lends an interesting edge to the proceedings, and the bizarre climax (a physical fight between the two opponents) is both laughably funny and oddly disturbing, leading to a final fade out in which the villain gets what he deserves: Vorelli, now speaking in Hugo’s voice, tell Mark, “The tables have turned,” while the dummy, in Vorelli’s voice, begs, “Mr. English, don’t let him get away with it! I am the Great Vorelli!”
By now we know that expecting Mark English to actually do anything is hopelessly optimistic, so the film simply freeze-frames on the dummy. As far as we know, Mark doesn’t get the girl, which is only fair, since he did nothing to save her, and she really is better off without him.
The Continental version of DEVIL DOLL, available on DVD, is even worse, short-changing the narrative to shoe-horn in a nude scene: The dialogue exchange in which Magda threatens to expose Vorelli is deleted, removing his motivation to have Hugo murder her. Instead, we see another performance by Vorelli, in which he mesmerizes a female audience member into doing a strip-tease (though dressed in a modest business suit, she is wearing lingerie appropriate for a nude dance). Otherwise, the differences between the original version and the Continental version are minimal: the credits are different (William Sylvester receives top billing instead of Bryant Haliday), and two scenes are reshot to include topless views of actresses who were covered up in the original. In the first, Magda’s breast is briefly exposed before Hugo attacks her. In the second, a colleague of Mark’s is seen in talking to him on the phone, while a woman (presumably his lover) hoovers in the background; for the Continental version, her bra is removed.
Though our usual inclination is to assume that the version with the most footage is the preferred version, in this case producer Richard Gordon (in a DVD audio commentary) confirms that the original British version – sometimes called the International version – is the official cut. The extra and alternate footage in Continental version was added just for those territories whose distributors required nudity to sell a horror picture.
Lindsay Shonteff directed DEVIL DOLL for producer Richard Gordon, who was responsible for several productions of this type during this era (CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, ISLAND OF TERROR). Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter (under the pen names George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves) wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Frederick E. Smith. Star William Sylvester went on to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).
DEVIL DOLL earned the dubious honor of appearing on an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, for which it was well suited. Good-looking enough to be interesting but absurd enough to deserve derision, the film was a perfect foil for the crew of the Satellite of Love. If you are on the fence about whether or not to see the film, MST3K version should end your indecisiveness.
Note: DEVIL DOLL is not to be confused with the Tod Browning film THE DEVIL DOLL (1939), starring Lionel Barrymore.
DEVIL DOLL (Gordon Films and Galaworld Film Productions, 1964). Produced by Richard Gordon and Kenneth Rive. Directed by Lindsay Shonteff. Screenplay by Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter, based on a story by Frederick E. Smith. Richard Gordon. Cast: Bryant Haliday, William Sylvester, Yvonne Romain, Sandra Dorne, Nora Nicholson, Alan Gifford, Karel Stepanek, Francis De Wolff.
Celebrating the Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films of 1964, Cinefantastique looks back at Ray Harryhausen’s classic adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel.
Fifty years ago, special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen took movie-goers on a memorable trip to the moon – a half decade before Neil Armstrong actually reached the lunar surface. Can the cinematic adventure survive not only the test of time but also the incursion of scientific reality, which has debunked the popular notion of life on the moon as a quaint fantasy? The answer is yes: Despite its flaws, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a charming entertainment that stirs our Sense of Wonder with its fantastic imagery, lifting us out of mundane reality and transporting us into an alternative world of the imagination.
To a large extent, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is an archetypal Ray Harryhausen production, which is to say that it initially confounds our expectations only to ultimately confirm them. Critical consensus has taught us to expect an obligatory live-action story that serves only as a showcase for Harryhausen’s marvelous special effects work. However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON launches with a promising start, raising hopes for a truly good movie, not merely a succession of set-pieces. Although those hopes remain unsatisfied when the curtain falls, the film remains engaging and entertaining, if slightly frustrating.
Utilizing a flashback structure, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins with a contemporary prologue depicting a United Nations landing on the moon. The lunar explorers discover a British flag, next to some kind of legal document with a hand-written note on the back, dated 1899, claiming the moon in the name of the Queen of England.
Back on Earth, a team of investigators follow a name on the document to track down Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), an old man in a nursing home, known as a crank for his dire warnings about the moon. Initially panicked about the recent landing, Bedford calms down and relates his story, which becomes the body of the film…
In 1899, after a series of failed business ventures, Bedford is living in a cottage in a the country, where he hopes to write a successful play. His fiance, Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), a Boston actress, comes to live with him, in anticipation of getting married. Bedford continually demurs, citing financial concerns; what sounds like an excuse has an element of truth, because Bedford is indeed hiding from creditors.
Financial rescue comes in the form of Joseph Cavor (Lionell Jeffries), a research scientist who offers to buy Bedford’s cottage, for fear that his experiments might damage the property. Bedford agrees, on the condition that he be allowed to reinvest the money into Cavor’s experiments into an anti-gravity substance dubbed “Cavorite.” There is only one problem: though he claims to have inherited the cottage from an aunt, Bedford is actually renting it. He circumvents this obstacle by “transferring” the title to Kate, who sells it in her name, unaware of the illegality of the transaction.
With one or two mishaps, Cavor completes his experiments; at one point, an explosion of Cavorite literally lifts the roof off his house. While Bedford waxes over the commercial potential of anti-gravity boots, Cavor dreams of flying to the moon – an idea Bedford dismisses until Cavor tells him the lunar surface is rich in minerals such as gold (“Better than boots, isn’t it?”).
Kate objects to the planned excursion, which she considers a pointless risk, and threatens to return to Boston. However, when she is served with papers for the illegal sale of the cottage, she runs to confront Bedford, who is about to take off with Cavor in an iron sphere that will serve as their space ship. (The film gets off one of its few really good jokes here: Anticipating the take-off, Cavor warns, “There might be a violent shock coming” – and we cut to Kate outside, knocking on the sphere.) Rather than risk her being killed in the blast, Bedford drags her inside.
After a mishap or two, the sphere lands on the moon. Bedford and Cavor explore the terrain and plant the flag that we saw found in the prologue. They also crash through an artificial, concave surface, leading to an underground area with breathable atmosphere. They encounter pygmy-sized insectoid aliens, whom Cavor dubs “Selenites” without much explanation. Surrounded, Bedford fights several them off, possibly killing some, while Cavor laments the “taste of human violence” that Bedford has given to this alien civilization.
Back at the landing area, Bedford and Cavor see that the sphere has been dragged away. Returning underground, they encounter giant caterpillars, which Cavor takes to be “moon calves” – that is, the lunar equivalent of cows, bred for food. Chased by one of the monsters, they get separated. Cavor is captured and, along with Kate, is taken to meet some taller, apparently more advanced Selenites, who manage to translate English well enough to ask him about Cavorite.
Bedford rescues Kate, but Cavor wants to continue communicating with the Selenites. While Bedford and Kate fix the sphere (which has been partially disassembled by the aliens), Cavor stands before the Grand Lunar (never so named on screen), who questions him about human society. Cavor explains that, unlike the Selenites, humanity is divided into different countries, who sometimes make war. When the Grand Lunar expresses concern that other men may follow Cavor and make war on the Moon, Cavor points out that only he knows the secret of Cavorite. The Grand Lunar proclaims that Cavor must remain with his secret.
Unable to fix the sphere without Cavor’s help, Bedford returns to rescue the scientist, blasting away at the Selenites with an elephant gun. Though deploring Bedford’s violence, Cavor repairs the sphere. Bedford and Kate may escape. Cavor chooses to remain behind, to prevent other humans from discovering the secret of Cavorite…
Back in the present day, Bedford and the investigative team interviewing him watch the moon landing on live television. As the astronauts descend beneath the surface, they pass areas that Bedford recognizes, but there are no living beings; in fact, the entire civilization has been wiped out as if by some disease. While the others marvel at this unexpected turn of events, Bedford gazes at the moon through a small telescope pointing out his window. Knowing now that the danger he feared will not materialize, he smiles to himself and mutters, “Cavor had such a terrible cold.”
PLOT AND PERFORMANCES
What can you say about a film that treats the extinction of an entire civilization as a bad joke? Ironically, the best thing you can say is that ending does not work – and it’s to the film’s credit that it does not. Bedford’s closing comment is laughable only if one shares his simplistic view that Selenites were inherently evil – a threat to humanity that need to be extinguished; however, the action in FIRST MEN IN THE MOON does not support this reading, and it’s a bit of a wonder that the filmmakers thought they could get a laugh with his smirking bon mot. (Additionally, there is the matter of Cavor’s almost symptom-free illness; his “terrible cold” manifests only as a few coughs dubbed onto the soundtrack near the end.)
In fact, the faux-funny conclusion of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is symptomatic of the film’s schizophrenic nature, which suggests two scripts spliced together: the first half is comedy romance; the second half is serious science fiction. Presumably, the humor was provided by Jan Read (who had co-scripted Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS the year before), and the serious aspects were provided by science fiction specialist Nigel Kneale (who created such thoughtful scripts as THE QUATERMAS EXPERIMENT). However the contributions break down, the two sensibilities wrestle for supremacy, and if in the end, the serious aspect loses out, at least it leaves an impression strong enough to endear the film to viewers willing to overlook a few lapses.
After a clever opening credits sequence (a graphic of a crescent moon is “eclipsed” by ripples as if we are seeing a reflection in a pool of water), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins strong with its depiction of a contemporary lunar landing. The international flavor of the crew, including Americans and Russians, is a nice, progressive touch for a film shot during the Cold War, and the sequence not only provides a spectacular opening; it also updates the Wells novel for contemporary audiences, who already knew more or less what to expect on the moon (a lifeless, arid surface with no atmosphere, unlike the blooming plant life depicted in the book). Thus the screenplay provides the scientifically accurate surface while concealing Wells’ marvels below ground, where they seem a bit more credible.
When the action switches to Earth for a few scenes explaining how the U.N. finds Bedford, the script offers what at first seems like a surfeit of comedy relief, as if over-compensating for the obligatory nature of the connect-the-dots narrative. However, once Bedford’s tale takes us back to 1899, we see that the comedy is not merely “relief”; it is in fact the focus. We get comical sound effects for the boiling Cavorite. We learn that working class people are shiftless and unreliable. Laurie Johnson’s otherwise fine score underlines allegedly humorous moments, inadvertently reminding us how un-funny they are. Kate continually says, “We could get married,” to which Bedford replies, “We could, but…”
Essentially, we are watching a Victorian-era Rom-Com, but the situation is not very amusing for two reasons: First, Arnold Bedford is a bit of a scoundrel; second, he never really does anything to deserve Kate’s forgiveness, but she forgives him anyway (a relationship arc that would be more or less recreated in Harryhausen’s 1969 effort VALLEY OF GWANGI).
Actor Edward Judd almost sells Bedford to us as a lovable rogue. Though the script gives us little reason to admire him, Judd shows us the man’s appealing charm, and to some extent gets us forgive Bedford’s deceptions about his embarrassing financial matters. However, the character crosses the line when he talks Kate into “selling” the cottage in her own name – a ruse that puts her in legal jeopardy.
All of this would be acceptable if the script were setting up Bedford as a flawed character who becomes a better man after Kate calls him on his bullshit; unfortunately, the only time Kate shows a little willpower is when she threatens to return to Boston if Bedford refuses to back out of his lunar voyage. Why this should be the breaking point is unclear (it’s almost as if Bedford is choosing Cavor over her), but she is given a real reason to be angry when she receives the legal summons. Nevertheless, the most she says during the weeks-long trip to the Moon is that she “shouldn’t” forgive Bedford (her tone suggests she does). That’s the last time the topic is even mentioned; the romantic-comedy story line is forgotten once Cavor’s sphere lands, at which point the science fiction half of the film takes over.
This is when FIRST MEN IN THE MOON becomes truly interesting. At first, the film seems to conform to the traditions of cinematic science fiction at the time, which tended to portray aliens as hostile and dangerous, justifying any “defensove” taken by the humans, not matter how overtly hostile. And indeed, if you saw FIRST MEN IN THE MOON when you were five years old, Bedford’s violent reaction to the Selenites seems justified.
However, one suspects that Nigel Kneale saw things differently. Unlike THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), which depicted the scientist’s attempts to communicate as hopelessly naive, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON gives Cavor a fair hearing; his despair over Bedford’s actions is palpable and, to some extent, justified. Presumably, Nigel Kneale’s first draft was thematically sympathetic to Cavor, and Jan Read was brought in to conform the script to the tenor of the times, presenting the questionable Bedford as the macho hero battling the evil aliens.
Yes, the Selenites want to prevent Cavor from returning home, but only to protect themselves from other humans, who might use Cavorite to invade the Moon. One can hardly blame them after hearing Cavor himself describe the human propensity for war, which is horrible and yet considered heroic and noble, even glorious. Unable to resolve the contradiction, Cavor is reduced to almost pleading: “We’re not perfect,” he admits, but insists, “There are men of peace.” To which the Grand Lunar replies, “My concern is men of violence,” and Cavor knows that concern is justified.1
When Bedford interrupts Cavor’s audience with the Grand Lunar, the scene is staged like a traditional rescue, and perhaps we are expected to cheer as Bedford fires his elephant gun, yelling at Cavor that his “audience” with the Grand Lunar is actually a trial. On the other hand, Bedford’s actions seem to confirm the Selenites’ view of humans as dangerously violent,2 and a moment later we are given further reason to doubt Bedford’s character: when Cavor says he did not want to be rescued, Bedford responds, “Don’t flatter yourself. I didn’t risk my neck for you. I need you to repair the sphere.”
Pushing the hapless scientist around and even threatening him, Bedford reveals himself once and for all to be a total ass, loosing any sympathy he may have earned, and when Cavor voluntarily decides to stay behind, it is a truly grand gesture. The young handsome Bedford may conform to the stereotype of a movie hero, but it is Cavor who ultimately behaves heroically, sacrificing his return home both to preserve his secret and also to undo some of the damage Bedford has done.
Much of the credit for this goes to actor Lionel Jeffries, whose sincere performance helps Kneale’s intent shine through. Jeffries perfectly embodies Cavor, first as an absent-minded eccentric in the comical half of the film, then as a dedicated man of science in the latter. His frustration over defending the human race’s less noble characteristics is heartfelt, and his initial reaction to the Selenites’ attempt to translate English is splendid (or “imperial” as the character would say – and let’s not forget the irony of the word in the context of a story about aliens wary of Earth’s intentions).
Jeffries wins us over to such an extent that we cannot laugh at Bedford casual disregard for the extinction of the Selenites, which registers as a tragedy instead of a relief. In this context, one should note that the international nature of the contemporary lunar expedition belies the Grand Lunar’s fear of Earth: humanity has outgrown the war-mongering divisiveness, and one suspects that, had the Selenites survived, the meeting may have gone off peacefully.
The supporting cast is strong, filled with reliable British character actors such as Miles Maleson and Michael Ripper, not to mention a young un-credited Peter Finch (who would eventually win a posthumous Oscar for his role in NETWORK). Martha Hyer deserves some credit for playing the rather thankless leading lady role: though Kate is too gullible and forgiving, Hyer almost makes something of the character. In particular, she pulls off scenes that have defeated many an actor in a Ray Harryhausen film: while staring silently at the off-screen special effects, she actually seems to be looking at something, not just waiting for her cue; while Jeffries is given all the dialogue expounding on the wonders being viewed, Hyer seems on the verge of speaking, as if itching but unable to articulate her reactions.
Still, it is Jeffries show, as far as the live-action actors go. Our final image of Cavor shows him crouching before two Selenites as the sphere takes off in the background, leaving him behind on the Moon. Somehow, the character deserves more.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Like the majority of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects epics, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was produced by Charles H. Schneer for Columbia Pictures,. The duo had previously collaborated on an adaptation of a Victorian-era science fiction novel, Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), and Harryhausen had long wanted to film Wells’ War of the Worlds, even going so far as to shoot test footage of the tentacled Martians (though the film ended up made by Paramount instead). Like THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON benefits from the source material, which provides an imaginative, fanciful narrative to which Harryhausen can apply his visual effects magic, though in this case the screenplay is a bit more obviously compromised.
Though shot on a modest budget, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON looks grand in scale. As producer, Schneer kept costs down by putting most of the budget below the line, spending money on the actual production rather than on big-name stars. Wilkie Cooper’s Panavision cinematography (in “Lunacolor”) is beautiful, despite an occasional lapse (e.g., a slightly jittery tilt-down in Bedford’s nursing home). Sets and locations (including some beautiful caverns) effective convey the subterranean lunar landscape with a vividness absent from today’s digitally created backgrounds.
Nathan Juran, who earned a reputation as one of the worst directors ever thanks to his involvement with the bad-movie classic ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN (helmed under the pseudonym Nathan Hertz), proves here that he was actually a competent craftsman, who knew how to stage and shoot a scene with narrative efficiency, if not with a recognizably personal style. Though he resorts to the occasional cliche (the hand that reaches on screen to startle our hero is revealed to belong to a friend)3, Juran also manages a few suspenseful moments (rare in Harryhausen films, which were always wary of scaring off younger viewers), including a nice bit of foreshadowing when we – but not the oblivious characters – first glimpse the lunar inhabitants only as shadows on a cave wall. The script’s comedy may not be particularly funny, but thanks to Juran, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON seldom drags, and once the characters reaches the orbiting orb, the film becomes a non-stop tour of wondrous sights.
Those sights are enhanced by Laurie Johson’s music, which is suitably grand when not obligated to underscore the comic high jinks (the orchestra sounds slightly drunk during the zero gravity scenes). Early on, Johnson uses the recurring motif of a British anthem to tie together the discovery of the British flag on the moon with the presentation of that discovery to Bedford. Later, he offers a stately march as Cavor ascends the stares of the spectacular set for his audience with the Grand Lunar, dotted with strange angular crystals that seem otherworldly but believable.
The cumulative effect is quite impressive, eclipsing the somewhat mundane aspects of the film’s first half. But of course the star of the show remains Harryhausen himself…
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS
Ray Harryhausen is relatively unique in the annals of cinema – a special effects artist who not only provided technical excellence but also contributed to the development of his films, sometimes conceiving sequences that would showcase his visual effects process, which he dubbed Dynamation (short for “Dynamic Animation” or “Dimensional Animation,” to distinguish the work from hand-drawn cartoon animation). In the days before computer-generated imagery, Harryhausen’s specialty was stop-motion, in which miniature creatures, built from foam rubber laid over metal armatures, were manipulated by hand and photographed one frame at a time; the resulting sequence, when projected at regular speed, gave the illusion of motion. Though time-consuming compared to CGI, stop-motion provided a hand-made charm, allowing Harryhausen to work as an artist and almost an actor, imbuing his characters with amazing semblance of life and personality.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is somewhat atypical, in that little stop-motion is utilized; the only animated creatures are the giant caterpillars and the larger Selenites. Despite a weak sound effect for their snapping mandibles, the caterpillars are impressive monsters, nicely detailed and animated, their menace enhanced by Johnson’s ponderous score, but essentially they are a throw-away plot device to get Bedford and Cavor separated, and to showcase the technology of the Selenites, who are able to fell the beast with some kind of ray gun. (We later see its skeleton is picked neatly clean – so much for the voracious monster!) The special effects equivalent of a bit player, the caterpillars do not provide Harryhausen with much opportunity for virtuoso work; the lead Selenites; however, are another matter.
The smaller Selenites are portrayed by children in rubber costumes, which are fairly well utilized, though the rubber faces sometimes bend awkwardly. (Harryhausen uses his special effects to increase their numbers, filming the same dozen or so three or four times and matting them into different parts of the frame.) The later Selenites are achieved with stop-motion, which gives them an entirely different character – more insect-like and alien, able to walk on spindly legs that would not support a human actor’s weight.
They also have a peculiar, almost analytic personality, emphasized in a wonderful shot as one of them peers curiously through a distorting lens while observing Kate (who comically appears only as a talking skeleton, as if being examined via some kind of x-ray device). Harryhausen’s staccato stop-motion emphasizes the inhuman aspect of the Selenites, whose portrayal conforms with the attitude of the time, which often depicted alien life forms as emotionless “brainiacs,” who might be able to run an efficient society but would probably rob it of any soul, turning people into mindless drones.4 Perhaps the Selenites could have been portrayed with masks and makeup, but it is unlikely they would have achieved the same unearthly effect.
Other than that, Harryhausen restricts himself to depicting the wonders of a lunar voyage, putting his special effects in the service of the story instead of generating set-pieces to showcase his work. The results are spectacular to behold.The matching of miniatures to full-scale settings is marvelous, shifting seamlessly back and forth, and the composite work is convincing except for a few matte lines betraying the juncture between elements shot separately from each other. (There is also one weird jump-cut as Cavor and Bedford explore the lunar caves: while the angle angle moves in from long-shot to medium-shot on the actors, the matte painting in the background remains at the exact same distance.)
Five years before the first real-life moon landing, Harryhausen does a fine job of visualizing the event in the modern-day prologue, including a reasonably accurate depiction of a lunar module that separates from the mother ship to touch down on the surface. That the astronaut descends from the vehicle by hanging from a wire like a trapeze artist is eccentric but not enough to ruin the spectacle of the moment.
The 1899 landing is a bit less elegant – the bouncing of the sphere betrays its miniature nature – but the trip through space is convincingly rendered. As Cavor and Bedford explore the Moon, the script provides several wonders beneath the surface, which Harryhausne realizes to perfection, including a gargantuan glass cylinders that provide oxygen for the Moon’s subterranean atmosphere and an enormous rotating orb that generates energy from the sun (yes, the 1964 film predicts solar power!). Hell, even the lunar surface is beautiful – more beautiful than the real thing, filled with eye-catching colors that are consistently amazing in both the live-action and the special effects.
Harryhausen’s hand-crafted techniques have their limitations. When combining live-action, matte paintings, miniatures, and models into a single shot, proper alignment usually required the camera to remain motionless (unlike the sweeping crane shots seen in today’s CGI spectacles). Yet this static quality created its own sense of style, forcing Harryhausen to fill the frame with dynamic action and to avoid letting any shot run on too long. Of all his work, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one of those that best disguises this shortcoming.
Perhaps this is due to the Panavision aspect ratio. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is the only film Harryhausen ever made in a widescreen format, which allows filmmakers to squeeze more onto the edges of the frame without having to pan back and forth. Though Harryhausen felt the process was too cumbersome for his techniques, he filled the frame with such wonders that they eye is seldom aware that the camera has become locked down to enable the special effects.
Typical for its time, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is a bit dodgy in its science. Although NASA receives a thank you in the credits, implying a level of authenticity, the film makes several unapologetic errors, assuming that viewers are not familiar with even the fundamentals of astronomy.
- During the lunar flight, Kate touches the controls, sending the sphere careening off course. Cavor shouts angrily that the ship is now heading “straight for the sun!” His tone somewhat overstates the danger: whereas the Moon is a mere 237,000 miles from Earth, the Sun is 93-million miles away. Assuming the sphere is traveling at the “speed of a bullet” as Cavor says (approximately 800 miles per hour, depending on the bullet), it would take 116,250 hours to reach the sun – that is, 4,843 days or a little bit more than 13 years. Even if the sphere were traveling ten times as fast (which it would need to do to make the lunar voyage in the few weeks the film implies), Cavor would have over a year to readjust the trajectory before falling into the sun. (On another note, though lip service is paid to the issues of food and oxygen, the lack of bathroom facilities is politely overlooked.)
- When confronted with the first Selenite, Bedford remarks on the creature’s diminutive stature, to which Cavor replies, “It’s the low gravity” – as if the statement provides some kind of explanation. If low-gravity results in smaller life forms, one wonders how Cavor accounts for the giant caterpillars.
- During Cavor and Bedford’s initial moonwalk, the film seems well aware of the low gravity; for instance, the not particularly athletic Cavor leaps into the air like John Carter of Mars. Yet when Kate and Bedford are re-assembling the sphere near the conclusion, they lug the items around as if they were at full weight.
- The modern-day expedition beneath the lunar surface is conveyed to Earth via live television broadcast, but we are left to wonder: Who are manning the cameras that film the astronaut’s escape as the Selenite city collapses around them?
- I suppose I should mention Cavorite. Back when Wells’ novel was published, Jules Verne (who strove for scientific accuracy in his own work) derided the concept of the anti-gravity Cavorite, famously demanding, “Show me this metal.”
LOOKING BACK FIFTY YEARS LATER
Like much of Harryhausen’s oeuvre, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON falls short of being a masterpiece but remains a joyful entertainment. To some extent its appeal is rooted in nostalgia: a generation of viewers who saw it at an early age recall it fondly and enjoy revisiting it; some of those now-grownups have graduated to making their own science fiction and fantasy films, keeping the Harryhausen legacy alive through the next generation and beyond.
However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is not merely a museum piece. Its power to captivate an audience remains intact. Though today we are (justifiably) less inclined to forgive Bedford for his dishonesty, and more inclined to question Kate’s devotion to him, the film’s charm lays elsewhere, with Cavor and his mission to the Moon. The fanciful depiction of lunar travel has aged well, partly because the narrative’s framing device accounts for the archaic elements, which were always supposed to look like a leftover remnant from an earlier era. Perhaps more importantly, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON creates its own stylized semblance of space travel. Like the Wells novel, it presents a fantasy rather than believable science fiction, and fantasy’s power to entertain is unchecked by decades of real-world advances in science (unlike the more realistic approach of 1950’s DESTINATION MOON, which seems rather dull now).
Though the film will never stand as Harryhausen’s shining moment – others showcased his talent for amazing animation far more memorably – FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a job well done, its old-fashioned approach retaining a special charm five decades later. As Cavor transports himself and his comrades to the Moon, so Harryhausen transports the audience into a world of imagination where scientific impossibility takes a back seat to our Sense of Wonder.
A trip worth taking!
- One of the screenplay’s more felicitous decisions was incorporating this material into the main body of the story. Wells’ novel, originally published in serial format in a magazine, was intended to conclude with the sphere taking off and leaving Cavor on the moon, but the author decided to extend the story with three additional chapters in which the scientist sends wireless messages to Earth, offering an anthropological account of Selenite society. Communication is suddenly terminated when the Selenites realize that Cavor could transmit the formula for Cavorite, potentially paving the way for an invasion of the Moon. This extended epilogue worked in the literary format, expanding and deepening what had been up to that point an imaginative adventure rather than science fiction. This structure would have been dramatically anti-climactic in the film, which benefits from using Wells’ sociological ideas in the third act.
- This tactic used four years later with the character of Taylor (Charlton Heston) in PLANET OF THE APES (1968).
- Juran pulled a similar stunt in the earlier Harryhausen film, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.
- Which is almost literally the case here: when the Selenite chemists have finished their failed attempt to analyze Cavorite, they are cocooned into hibernation. Cavor at first seems to approve of this method for “dealing with unemployment,” until Kate suggests the Selenites may do the same to them. Cavor is suitable horrified – the only time he truly seems wary of the Selenites.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (Columbia Pictures, 1964). Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Directed by Nathan Juran. Screenplay by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. 103 minutes. Not rated. Cast: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries, Miles Malleson, Norman Bird, Gladys Henson, Hugh McDermott, Betty McDowall, Michael Ripper (uncredited), Peter Finch (uncredited), John Forbes-Robertson (uncredited).
Cinefantastique celebrates the good, the bad, and the ugly from five decades ago.
1964 is a transitional year for horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. In the wake of the new wave of Technicolor horror that started in the 1950s, old-fashioned black-and-white atmosphere is seeing its last gasp, with titles such as CASTLE OF BLOOD and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH. Ringing the death knell, Mario Bava abandons the period setting and moody monochrome of BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN, 1960) for the lurid hues and modern-day mayhem of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (a.k.a. SIX WOMEN FOR THE ASSASSIN). The foremost proponent of graphic Gothic horror, with an emphasis on bright red blood, Britain’s Hammer Films is recycling old ideas (THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB) but also experimenting with a new monster movie, THE GORGON, which emphasizes tragic romance instead of horror. Meanwhile, the fear of the unknown dramatized so well in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1961) is replaced by the more nuanced view of CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED.
In the world of spy-fi, Bond is back, but the gritty Cold War melodrama of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is extinguished by the over-the-top antics of GOLDFINGER, whose incredible gadgets and laser beams point the way toward the superspy’s eventual entrance into full-blown science fiction a few years later. Although 007 will not leave the stratosphere for a while, the space race is altering science fiction cinema, turning out attention toward the stars more than ever before. Ray Harryhausne leaves the earthbound Greek legends of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) to explore our nearest neighbor in the solar system with THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. Likewise, Toho Studios, which has been moving away from grim black-and-white science fiction of GODZILLA (1954) toward colorful fantasy, begins offering monsters from outer space, with DOGARA and GHIDORAH: THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER.
Speaking of Japan, though the country has been making wonderful ghost stories for decades (e.g. YOTSUYA KAIDAN in 1959), these films make their first impression on the international market this year, thanks to the one-two punch of ONIBABA and KWAIDAN. The latter, an anthology, includes an episode titled “The Black Hair,” whose imagery will return decades later in the J-Horror wave of the 1990s and early 2000s.
There is an increasingly international feel to cinefantastique. American producer-director Roger Corman moves his series of Poe adaptations to England, where bigger budgets and better supporting casts yield two of his best efforts, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGIEA. Corman’s U.S. distributor, American International Pictures, will follow his example, mounting many of their subsequent productions in the U.K.; they will also release an alternate version of GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (under the title GODZILLA VS. THE THING) that was specifically designed by Toho for international release, with additional scenes of English-speaking actors and American warships.
As usual with genres that depend on satisfying popular taste, many of the films are churned out with little artistry; nevertheless, even some of the lesser efforts show hints of imagination, with enough lively energy to make interesting viewing. Moreover, great titles abound – classics that live on, delighting our Sense of Wonder five decades later: George Pal’s THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO; Robert Aldrich’s HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE; Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, to name a few.
Here, then, is a rundown of what the year 1964 has to offer those willing to take a trip in the Way Back Machine. Explore at your own risk. There is exploitation aplenty, lurid and shocking, but tempting nonetheless – and not nearly intimidating enough to dissuade brave viewers willing to sift through the sleaze in search of gems.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao
George Pal produced and directed this fantasy film, from a screenplay by Charles Beaumont and Ben Hecht, based on the novel The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney. Tony Randall stars as the enigmatic Chinese magician, who rides into an old western town and changes the lives of the inhabitants with the lessons learned from the magic wonders inside his circus. William Tuttle won an honorary Oscar for his makeup work, which transformed Randall into the titular seven faces (well, one of them is actually a stop-motion puppet voiced by Randall, and another is pretty much a stunt man in a suit). Jim Danforth’s special effects, which also included a fanciful Loch Ness Monster, were nominated by the Academy as well.
Pal is more well known for his apocalyptic science fiction epics, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) and WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), but 7 FACES OF DR. LAO is equally memorable, its charms lovingly recalled by a generation of children now grown to adulthood. With Babara Eden and Arthur O’Connell.
This is a black-and-white silent film, made by artist Andy Warhol without approval from DC Comics. Taking a campy approach to the character years before the Adam West television series, BATMAN DRACULA was shown only at Warhol’s art exhibits. Jack Smith starred as Batman.
The Black Torment
The title of this unfairly neglected Gothic thriller suggests Euro-Horror – German, maybe Italian – but it is in fact a colorful British production about a wealthy gentleman, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returning to his ancestral home with his new bride, only to be met with accusations of murder. During his long absence, his dead wife has been wandering the countryside, suggesting she rests uneasy in her grave – perhaps because Sir Richard killed her? Also, Richard himself has supposedly been seen stalking and killing a victim during his absence from home.
The script (by Derek and Donald Ford) and the direction (by Robert Hartford-Davis) are perhaps more workmanlike than inspired, but the competent craftsmanship is more than enough to wring several spooky chills out of the premise of an innocent man, who merely wants to settle down to a quiet life with his wife, bedeviled by rumors, innuendo, a ghost, and possibly a doppleganger. Fans of Hammer horror will spot a few familiar faces in THE BLACK TORMENT, including Heather Sears (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA).
Blood and Black Lace
Known as Sei Donne per L’assassino (“Six Women for the Assassin) in its native country, the mystery-thriller from director Mario Bava pushes the violence to horrific levels, essentially creating a new sub-genre, the giallo (named after the yellow covers of mystery novels in Italy). Set in the world of high fashion, the story in a programmatic, Ten-Little-Indians kind of way, depicts the death of six beautiful models, each of whom has come in contact with a diary that includes some kind of incriminating evidence that the killer (or killers) wants to keep hidden.
The ultimate explanation of the motivation appears too weak to justify the on-screen carnage, which seems more like the work of a maniac (as the police in the film assume it to be). However, questioning the plot developments is beside the point in this film, which works as a series of gruesomely stylish set-pieces, showing off Bava’s visual artistry. Never has murder been realized with such beauty; the heightened use of color (as when one victim’s face is pushed closer and closer to a red-hot stove) rendered the imagery in almost abstract terms – until you hear the screams of pain. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is must-see viewing.
The Brass Bottle
Tony Randall and Barbara Eden, seen in 7 FACES OF DR. LAO, are together in this fantasy film as well. Randall plays an architect who purchases the titular antique, from which emerges a djinn (like a genie but different, according to the F. Anstey source novel). The joke is that, having been locked inside the brass bottle for many years, this ancient supernatural being (played by Burl Ives) is ill-equipped to deal with the modern world, and his granting of wishes inevitably goes wrong, causing trouble for the architect. Harry Killer directed from a screenplay by Oscar Brodney.
“…one of the duller fantasies dreamed up by Hollywood’s necromancers,” opined the New York Times’ A. H. Weiler upon the initial release of THE BRASS BOTTLE. Little has happened over the ensuing decades to alter that judgement.
A Carol for Another Christmas
This 90-minute made-for-television update of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was scripted by Rod Serling (THE TWILIGHT ZONE) and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Sterling Hayden plays an industrial tycoon embittered by the loss of his son on Christmas Eve in World War II, until he has a change of attitude thanks to the intercession of the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Steve Lawrence), Christmas Present (Pat Hingle), and Christmas Future (Robert Shaw).
Broadcast on December 28, without commercial interruption, A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was the first in a series of special promoting the United Nations. As such, Serling’s adaptation was themed as a plea for cooperation between nations. The “all-star cast” included Britt Ekland, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, James Shigeta, and Peter Sellers (Hayden’s co-star from DR. STRANGELOVE).
Never released on home video, the film has been screened in recent years by Turner Classic Movies, and is available through UCLA’s Film and Television Archive.
Castle of Blood
This splendidly atmospheric Italian ghost story features a contrived plot in which English journalist Alan Foster (Georges Riviere) tracks down Edgar Allan Poe ( Silvano Tranquilli) for an interview, only to end up accepting a challenge from Poe’s acquaintance, Lord Blackwell, whose ancestral castle is supposedly so haunted that no one can survive All Souls Night within its walls. Inside, Foster encounters various spectres from beyond the grave, including Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele) and Dr. Carmus (Arturo Dominic), the latter of whom theorizes about the distinction between the Death of the Body and the Death of the Spirit (apparently, a violent demise kills the body but leaves the spirit restless and wandering on this earthly plane).
The castle setting, beautifully captured in black-and-white, lends just the right atmosphere for this horror film, which is much enhanced by the presence of Steele as an alluring phantom. The screenplay by Sergio Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi has some interesting ideas and pulls off a nice, ambiguous twist ending that is both morbid and romantic. Director Antonio Margheriti (working under his Anthony Dawson pseudonym) handles the material with unobtrusive expertise – he doesn’t have the visual flash of Bava, but he knows how to get the job done in an entertaining fashion.
CASTLE OF BLOOD is known as Danza Macabra (“Macabre Dance”) in Italian. The credits claim the screenplay is based on a story of that name by Poe, though the author bibliography includes no such title. The film was released to American television, in a shortened version, as CASTLE OF TERROR. The longer version, available on DVD, includes dialogue in which the character of Poe recites passages from his work – truly the only Poe material included in the script.
Castle of the Living Dead
This is a relatively minor black-and-white thriller from Italy, whose historical interest lies mostly in the presence of Michael Reeves, who would go on to direct WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968, a.k.a. THE CONQUEROR WORM) before his untimely death a few years later. Though the direction is officially credited to Warren Kiefer and Luciano Ricci (working as “Herbert Wise”), second-unit director Reeves impressed the producers so much that he was allowed to write and direct additional material (apparently focusing on supporting character rather than the main cast).
Christopher Lee (HORROR OF DRACULA) plays another Count, this one named Drago, who mummifies his victims with a secret formula that leaves them frozen, looking exactly as they did at the moment of death. Donald Sutherland plays a comic-relief gendarme who does little to solve the situation but takes credit nonetheless. One of Reeves’ additions to CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (Il Castello dei Morti Vivi) was to give Sutherland a second role, as a witch in drag – a sight that truly must be seen to be believed.
No one is doing his best work here, but Lee’s fans may want to check this out after they have seen everything better. Reeves’ work (mostly on non-dialogue action scenes) are nice but not enough to save the film. The biggest attraction is probably Sutherland’s eccentric performance(s).
Cave of the Living Dead
This little German opus is too much a jumble of conflicting elements to be fully satisfying, but at the same time the mixture is just weird enough to be interesting. Known as Der Fluch Der Gruenen Augen (“The Girl with the Green Eyes”), CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD begins like a James Bond movie, with hip agent Frank Dorin (Adrian Hoven) hanging out in a nightclub, listening to jazz, and eyeing a hot chick while contemplating a well-deserved vacation. Unfortunately, his idyll is interrupted by a call from headquarters, asking him to investigate a rash of mysterious deaths (though not necessarily murders) in a small town. The modern flavor of the opening scenes morphs into a more traditional flavor as Dorin reaches the stricken villa, which hasn’t moved much out of the 19th century. It becomes clear pretty quickly that the problem is vampires and almost as quickly that the source of the problem lives in the local castle, though Dorin takes his time about figuring this out.
The locations, filmed in black-and-white, lend an appropriate atmosphere to the proceedings, even when the narrative is taking its time about getting anywhere, and Dorin’s transformation from modern-day skeptic to believer is nicely underplayed. There are a few visual moments that evoke the glory days of German expressionism, such as the shadow of a vampire cast upon a wall, suggesting the monster’s presence without revealing its true identity. Perhaps the most remarkable moment reveals how the old “he was right behind me but now he’s gone” moment works, the vampiric Professor Adelsberg (Wolfgang Preiss) quickly stepping through a doorway when Dorin is not looking.
Akos Rathonyi directed from a script he co-wrote with Kurt Roecken. and Erika Remberg co-star. Also known as NIGHT OF THE VAMPIRES.
Children of the Damned
This truly remarkable follow-up to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) deserves credit for being one of the few sequels to truly re-think the material, creating a new story that is less a continuation of its predecessor than a complete inversion. The only link is the concept of children, gifted with psychic powers and glowing eyes that make them an (apparent) threat to the normal, human world. Though there is an ominous black-and-white atmosphere similar to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, which depicted the children as an alien menace that needed to be exterminated, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED presents mankind as the true monsters, afraid of this new breed of humanity without trying to truly understand it.
The original screenplay by John Briley (GANDHI) is fairly clever about serving up its liberal message in an exciting science fiction story. One of the sly jokes is that the two male leads (played by Ian Hendry and Alan Badel) are, respectively, a psychologist and a geneticist, neatly embodying the old “nurture versus nature” debate regarding human development – though in this case, neither one has an answer for why there are suddenly a half a dozen special children from around the world, who may be the next step in human evolution (unlike the previous film, in which the children were implied to be the result of alien invasion). Even the title makes metaphoric sense: the children are not “damned;” they are the children of the “damned” – i.e., the human world that is too paranoid to accept these new beings, whose virgin births and ability to resurrect the dead make them blatant Christ-figures.
Anton M. Leader directed. Barbara Ferris, Alfred Burke, and Patrick Wymark arein the supporting cast.
The Comedy of Terrors
Though not based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, this tongue-in-cheek spoof from American International Pictures is clearly a follow-up to their previous efforts, TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN, both of which had injected the old horror formula with doses of humor. Richard Matheson, who had scripted those two efforts, recycled and revised motifs, inverting character relationships to come up with something recognizable but new. The love triangle from TALES OF TERROR’s middle episode, “The Black Cat,” is back, in the form of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Joyce Jameson, but this time Lorre rather than Price is the third wheel. The story has Price and Lorre as undertakers who save money by reusing the same coffin over and over again, dumping out the body and buring it after mourners have left. The plan goes bad when their latest customer, Mr. Black (Basil Rathbone) is placed to rest above ground, inside a tomb, where the coffin will be visible. Things get worse when Mr. Black returns from the grave to menace the undertakers, who contributed to his “death” when he was trying to collect a debt from them.
Unfortunately, AIP’s resident horror producer-director, Roger Corman was not involved, and his absence is telling. Though THE COMEDY OF TERRORS features a similar look to Corman’s Poe films, right down to exteriors rendered with stylized matte paintings, the result feels like an uninspired forgery, despite the presence of director Jacques Tourneur, who had helmed the excellent CAT PEOPLE (1941) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1942) for producer Val Lewton. The film’s greatest virtue is its cast of classic horror stars, who seem to be having a good time – much better than the audience, unfortunately – delivering lines like “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing” (in reference to an attempt to build a replacement coffin). Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN) is on hand as the decrepit former owner of the funeral business (now owned by his son-in-law); he is given little to do, but his funeral eulogy (in which the senile old man cannot recall the name of the dearly departed) is worth a few laughs.
THE COMEDY OF TERRORS actually had its premiere on December 25, 1963 in Detroit, Michigan, but its major release did not take place until the following year, so we included it here among the films of 1964. The film was not a success, and a planned follow-up was abandoned. Matheson ceased writing the Poe films, leaving Corman to find other collaborators for the two that he completed in 1964.
The Creeping Terror
Prepare to have your mind blown by one of the most aggressively awful films ever created – a movie that truly knows no shame as it assaults the viewer with mindless stupidity from beginning to end, justifiably earning a reputation a for unintentional camp that helped make it one of the best episodes of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 ever. Produced, directed, edited by, and starring Arthur Nelson White (who billed himself as “Vic Savage” in front of the camera and “A.J. Nelson” behind), THE CREEPING TERROR is the one with the walking carpet monster – surely cinema’s most hilarious inept example of a slow-moving threat that miraculously manages to overtakes its victims (who more or less have to throw themselves into its maw, because despite the alien’s dangling appendages, it has no functioning claws or tentacles to grab its prey).
This is also the film with no soundtrack. Well, there is canned music and narration; however, there is no live sound recorded while filming. Explanations vary: either the director lost the soundtrack, or he shot silently with the intention of over-dubbing later, only to find the post-production process too time consuming. The result is that the “story” is conveyed by an annoying narrator, who spends most of the time telling us what the characters are saying and explaining action that is self-evident to any viewers who manage to remain non-comatose throughout the proceedings.
The highlight is a dance party invaded by the monster, who eats men and women indiscriminately – though the director’s gaze lingers far more lovingly on the latter, who go in head first and ass-up, kicking and screaming as they crawl inside, pretending to be eaten. In at least one case, the woman’s male companion clearly pushes her toward the monster. (Chivalry is dead – it’s time to look out for Numero Uno!)
Screenwriter Robert Silliphant was the brother of Sterling Silliphant, a successful film and television writer. Though uncredited, Robert’s younger brother Allan is said to have written the original story. Apparently, Sterling’s talent was not genetically transmitted to his siblings: Robert went on to co-script the equally awful THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES; Allan wrote and directed the 3D softcore film THE STEWARDESSES, under the pseudonym “Alf Sillman Jr.
Reportedly hiding from creditors, Vic Savage never made another movie. His story is told in the documentary THE CREEP BEHIND THE CAMERA (2014), which includes dramatic recreations and interviews with the cast of THE CREEPING TERROR.
Crypt of the Vampire
Camillo Mastrocinque, who later directed Barbara Steele in AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (1965), helmed this unofficial adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla. Christopher Lee once again plays a Count, though this time he is protecting his family from vampirism. The screenplay by Tonino Valerii & Ernesto Gastaldi (writing as Robert Bohr and Julian Berry) has Count Karnstein’s innocent daughter, Laura (Adriana Ambesi) befriending Ljuba (Ursula Davis) after the latter’s coach crashes outside the castle. Ljuba turns out to be the witch Scirra, who has been plaguing the Karnstein family for decades.
Release in England as CRYPT OF HORROR, and shown on American television as TERROR IN THE CRYPT, CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE (originally La Cripta e L’Incubo) has never earned much of a reputation, even among fans of black-and-white ’60s Euro-horror. There is some nice black-and-white photography in this Italian-Spanish co-production, but the pacing is slow (even though the basic outline of LeFanu’s fine tale is still recognizable).
The Curse of the Living Corpse
Stop me if you have heard this one: a bunch of greedy relatives, gathered at an old house for the reading of a will, die in mysterious ways. Even by 1964, this story was older than Dracula’s castle, but that didn’t stop one-man creative team Del Tenny (director, writer, and co-producer) from dusting off the cobwebs for another attempt. The interesting wrinkle here is that the dearly departed had a morbid fear of being buried alive, and his will left specific instructions to prevent this from happening – instructions which the relative ignore in their haste to get their hands on the estate, thus sealing their fate.
This film marks the feature film debut of Roy Scheider, who would essay the iconic role of Chief Brody in JAWS a decade later. Cult movie fans will also note the presence of Candace Hilligoss (CARNIVAL OF SOULS).
Shot in Stamford, Connecticut, on an estate owned by Tenny’s father-in-law, THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE was released on a double bill with THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, another Del Tenny production, filmed around the same time.
Critic Dennis Schwartz advises: “If you love bad films, this one is irresistible.”
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb
Though not a direct sequel, this second mummy movie from Hammer Films is a rehash of its predecessor, THE MUMMY (1959). To its credit, the scenario (credited to “Henry Younger” – a pen name for producer-director Michael Carreras) offers a few interesting twists on the familiar elements; for instance, actor George Patel is back, playing another Egyptian, but this time instead of aiding the mummy, he turns out to be a good guy.
A very proper British expedition of dedicated archaeologists discovers yet another entombed mummy, but their backer and crass American showman Alexander King (Fred Clark) exploits the discovery for fun and profit – at least until the Mummy revives and kills him. It looks like yet another example of an ancient curse decimating the desecrators of a tomb, but there is something more going on here, something to do with the Mummy’s brother, who may also be walking the Earth as an immortal…
The story is an entertaining mis-mash of forgotten plot threads and neglected motivations; at first, scenes seem to make sense (such as an attempted robbery of Egyptian artifacts), and only later do you realize that we never learn who the robbers were or whether the attempt was not just a set-up, allowing a stranger, Adam Beecham (Terence Morgan) to intervene heroically and gain the trust of the expedition.
Typical for Hammer, the sets and photography are beautiful, and the modest budget goes a long way toward making this look like a lavish production. Unfortunately, stunt man Eddie Powell, his face buried beneath the bandages, brings little personality to the Mummy – which might not normally be a big drawback in a mummy movie, but this one gives the character a back story and a dramatic conflict based on a character conflict with his brother.
Carreras pulls off several nice horror scenes. The attempted capture of the Mummy by the police, after the bandaged juggernaut has crashed through a window into a study, plays like a direct lift from THE MUMMY, once again juxtaposing the decaying ancient figure with brightly colored, modern surroundings, but one attack upon a helpless victim, whose skull is bashed repeatedly with a paperweight, is memorably brutal, without being explicit; the almost methodical way the Mummy raises the weapon for one more blow is just slow enough to give viewers time to gasp, “Oh no, not again!”
All in all, this is a good “Horror Pinch Hitter” – not as good as THE MUMMY, but a good substitute when you tire of repeatedly viewing the original.
Death on the Fourposter
This is another modern-day Euro-thriller that affects a Gothic atmosphere, insofar as much of the action is set inside an old castle and filmed in black-and-white. Mostly the film is about a group of young, hip, swinging ’60s kids, deciding who will sleep with whom. However, the most provocative member of the group starts a little game, in which her allegedly psychic boyfriend predicts horrible demises for the participants.
Originally titled Delitto allo Specchio, and sometimes known as SEX PARTY in England, this little-seen Italian production includes some elements that would later bloom into the giallo genre, but here they play a subordinate role in the narrative (which doesn’t get to the first murder till after the halfway mark). Fans who have tracked it down tend to be modest in their appraisal (the film’s appeal seems to rest more with its attractive female cast than with the thriller elements); however, Johan Melle of Euro-Fever Blogspot writes that DEATH ON THE FOUR POSTER offers “is a superlative early giallo that provides sexy, campy fun from beginning to end.”
Jean Josipovici and Ambrogio Molteni directed, from a script Josipovici co-wrote with Giorgio Stegani. The cast includes John Drew Barrymore (the missing link between John Barrymore and Drew Barrymore), Gloria Milland, Luisa Rivelli, and Antonella Lualdi.
The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse
This is the sixth and final entry in a ’60s-era series of films based on the character previously seen in Fritz Lang’s THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE. Unlike its predecessors. THE DEATH RAY OF DR. MABUSE (Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse) supplants the krimi (“crime”) film elements with a more high-tech, science fiction approach, akin to the James Bond films – most notably with the titular death ray.
Working from a screenplay by Ladislas Fodor, Hugo Fregonese directed the German-Italian-French co-production, which features an international cast, including Peter Van Eyck, Yvonne Furneaux (of Hammer Films’ THE MUMMY), Walter Rilla, O.E. Hasse, Rika Dialina, and Robert Beatty. Wolfgang Preiss, who had played Mabuse in the previous films, appears only in re-used footage; the character, apparently now in spirit form, is dubbed by another actor, as he influences a professor to complete the death ray.
The Lexicon of International Film dismissed the movie as “rude and crude.” Poor box office returns doomed plans for further sequels, though the character was revived years later.
Demon in the Blood
This ultra-obscure title apparently hails from Argentina (though IMDB lists it as Mexcian in origin). A three-part anthology, DEMON IN THE BLOOD (El Demonio en la Sangre) showcases tales of ordinary people turning to murder: a black boxer is hypnotized, turning him into a murderer; a married couple is haunted by the ghost of the man’s first wife; a mysterious stranger torments a couple travelling by train.
Rene Mugica directed. The script was co-written by Tomas Eloy Martinez, Augusto Roa Bastos, and Mugica. The cast includes Rosita Quintana, Ubaldo Martinez, Ernesto Bianco, and Wolf Ruvinskis (who starred as Neutron in a series of Mexican masked wrestler movies).
Phil Hardy’s Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror called DEMON IN THE BLOOD “technically competent” but “disappointing” and accused the cast of giving “hammy” performances.
A movie about a ventriloquist and his dummy – think there might be something strange, even supernatural, going on? You guessed right! Although deliberately created to replicate the eerie quality of the ventriloquist’s dummy episode from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), this black-and-white English production works tolerably well as a crude rip-off, thanks to a creepy dummy and an even creepier performance from Bryant Haliday as The Great Vorelli. The innovation here is that Vorelli is not only a ventriloquist but also a mystic who casts a mesmeric spell over leading lady Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain, of Hammer’s THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF). William Sylvester (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) plays American journalist Mark English (??), who seeks to unravel the secret of Vorelli’s ambulatory dummy Hugo and hopefully put a stop to Vorelli’s designs on Marianne.
There is a sleazy aura to the film – not only in the Continental version, which adds gratuitous nudity, but also in the original narrative, which has English more or less rape his reluctant girlfriend in a car (she clearly resists, but he presses on regardless) and then pimp her off to Vorelli in the hope getting a good newspaper article about the famous entertainer. Fortunately, the on-stage tension between Vorelli and Hugo is palpable, lending an interesting edge to the proceedings, and the bizarre climax (a physical fight between the two opponents) is both laughably funny and oddly disturbing, leading to a conclusion that is almost satisfying (the villain gets what he deserves, but no thanks to our hero Mark, who was off-screen at the decisive moment).
Lindsay Shonteff directed for producer Richard Gordon, who was responsible for several productions of this type during this era (CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, ISLAND OF TERROR). Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter (under the pen names George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves) wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Frederick E. Smith.
If you like this kind of thing, DEVIL DOLL is worth seeing, especially if you can catch the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 version.
You ever get tired of giant monsters attacking Tokyo? So did the filmmakers, or at least that’s the way it seems when you look at DOGORA (Uchū Daikaijū Dogora – i.e., “Giant Space Monster Dogora”), which conspicuously splices a cops-and-robbers story line involving international jewel theives into the usual kaiju scenario. The intersection between the two plot elements is that the titular monster feeds on coal, including diamonds, the mysterious disapperance of which leads the local diamond ring to be blamed for more robberies than they actually committed; consequently, they set out to discover who’s poaching their territory, and finger Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham), who turns out to be an international agent posing as a criminal.
In between the police procedural elements, the monster attacks just often enough to remind you that this is a monster movie, though the initial special effects sequences are played somewhat tongue-in-cheek (e.g., a sleeping man levitating without waking). Later, there is a fairly spectacular sequence in which Dogora finally materializes – a giant jellyfish floating above the city, its tentacles destroy a bridge like matchsticks. Abandoning the usual man-in-a-suit approach, effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya created a startling, amorphous creature unlike any other in his lengthy filmography (which includes Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and more). Unfortunately, the creature mutates into a less impressive form for the rest of the film, which leaves viewers feeling the climax took place at the film’s midpoint.
The usual crew from Toho Productions was involved here: producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishiro Honda, screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, composer Akira Ifukube. The cast included Yosuke Natsuki, Yoko Fujiyama, Hirohsi Koizumi, Nobuo Nakamura, Jun Tazaki, and Akiko Wakabayashi as a sultry gangsters moll.
Though DOGORA does not really add up to much, there are some exciting scenes, including a nail-biter in which Mark Jackson and his Japanese police counterpart are tied up and left in a room with a lit stick of dynamite. The effectiveness suggests that director Honda was eager to prove he could handle a more conventional form of suspense that did not require toppling buildings to generate thrills.
Dr. Orloff’s Monster
This is an early effort from cult auteur Jess Franco, whose exploitation excesses have earned him a following among fans of Euro-trash. The story involves a Dr. Fisherman (renamed Dr. Jekyll in some languages), who kills his brother Andros (Hugo BLanco) for cuckolding him, then resurrects him as a mindless zombie that kills on command; plot complications ensue when Fisherman’s niece (Agnes Spaak) arrives for a visit and finds out what happened to her father.
DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER is the second a series of films named after mad scientist who first appeared in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF 1962). However, the connection is tenuous at best: there is an early scene of a dying old man (presumably Orloff, though not played by the actor from the previous film) passing on his secrets to Fisherman (Marcelo Arroita-Jauregui), who carries on from there.
Also, it is easy to loose track of exactly where this film comes in the Orloff saga, thanks to confusion over the title. Shot as El Secreto Del Dr. Orloff (“The Secret of Dr. Orloff”) in its native Spain, the film was released as THE MISTRESSES OF DR. JEKYLL in some territories, and did not become known as DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER until much later – after a subsequent sequel named DR. ORLOFF’S INVISIBLE MONSTER (1971).
Franco’s combination of pretension and sleaze (arty black-and-white approach mingled with gratuitous nudity) has its advocates, but DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER is not highly regarded, even by fans (thanks at least in part to the absence of the title character).
Long available only in an edited TV version, the Spanish production can now be seen in its uncut European incarnation (taken from a French print, dubbed into English), which is available on DVD and instant streaming.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Fifty years after its release, it is more than a little bit redundant to rank producer-director Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy apocalypse among the greatest achievements in the history of cinema; the film is a masterpiece that transcends genre. The science fiction element is small (limited to a Doomsday Device that brings about the end of the world regardless of the effectiveness of enemy attack); nevertheless, DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB stands as a superb example of speculative fiction: What if a general went made and ordered his B-52s to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear warheads?
The premise plays out in a surreal context that juxtaposes the petty foibles of individual humans against the horrifying backdrop of potential human extinction, and the comic absurdity is all the more effective because the grim logic of the narrative seems absolutely convincing. Credit this to the fact that Kubrick based his screenplay, co-written with Terry Sothern, on a serious novel, Red Alert, by Peter George.
If there is anything we can extract from the film today that was not apparent in 1964, it is perhaps the moral imperative of civil and military leaders to ensure that their actions are justified when they send soldiers in their command to war. The various faction we see in the film all perform heroically when seen from their own vantage point: the air force personnel defending their base (not knowing their commander is launching an unprovoked war); the soldiers who are attacking the base to get the recall code from the general, which requires them to fire upon fellow Americans; and most especially, the crew of the B-52 that defies all odds to deliver its payload, in the belief that they are defending friends and family back home from a Soviet attack. The plane’s captain, Major Kong (Slim Pickens, playing to perfection) deserves a medal of valor, and in a weird way it’s a good thing that he ends up vaporized, having sacrificed his life to dislodged a bomb a stuck H-Bomb – and thus never learning the truth that his action triggers the Doomsday Device.
Unlike other Kubrick films, DR. STRANGELOVE is mostly free of elaborate tracking shots; the emphasis is on montage, with exaggerated camera angles, expressionistic black-and-white photography, and stylized performances that emphasize the nightmare nature of the demented comedy. Peter Sellers shines in three roles, particularly the title character – a mad German scientist who seems like a living embodiment of the Death Wish driving mankind to nuclear annihilation. Sterling Hayden is equally memorable as the insane General Ripper, and George C. Scott chews the scenery with gusto (though in fact his performance is the result of Kubrick pushing him further than he wanted to go).
What else can we say about DR. STRANGELOVE, five decades after its debut? Well, apparently the U.S. Air Force reviewed and revised its protocols to prevent this scenario from playing out in real life. There are many films that can lay claim to great artistic achievement; how many can plausibly claim to have helped prevent the end of mankind?
To be continued…
Hello, fellow movie cheaters! Hm, maybe that’s not the best way to describe fans of movie cheats, but it has a nice ring to it. In any case, I am back with another in an on-going series of the greatest movie cheats in horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. This one is a real gem – and long overlooked (even by me, who is deliberately searching for this kind of thing).
Please recall our definition of a “cheat,” which is a variation on movie terminology used when a prop or set piece is moved from its established position in order to create a more pleasing composition on screen (that is, when you move the camera to a new angle, you “cheat” lamp in the background to the left or right, so that it doesn’t seem to jump from one side of the character to another when the shots are cut together). In our usage, a “cheat” is a piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand that pulls a fast one on the audience, often violating the film’s own internal “reality.” Usually, a cheat works because the trickery is visible, though perhaps subliminal; if you couldn’t see it, the impact would be lost.
Writer-director Roman Polanksi’s 1968 film ROSEMARY’S BABY – based on Ira Levin’s novel, about a young married woman who believes her unborn child has been targeted for sacrifice by Satanists – is generally considered to be one of the great achievements in the horror genre – a subtle exercise in suspense that works because it remains grounded in the real world, its horrors suggested and ambiguous, its supernatural element possibly imagined. What has never been mentioned before (at least until it was pointed out to me*) is that the film features a remarkable movie cheat – one that may be unique. Before we get to the cheat, however, we have to take a look at the set-up.
Midway through the film, before the suspense has set in, the recently pregnant Rosemary (Mia Farrow) attends a party, where she chats with pediatrician Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). In this scene, Dr. Sapirstein is photographed only from behind; in fact, it is hard to say with certainty whether we are seeing Bellamy or a body double with Bellamy’s voice dubbed in. Whatever the case may be, we get a good look at the back of Sapirstein’s head – enough to recognize the doctor from behind later in the movie.
This recognition takes place during a four-minute sequence during which Rosemary, convinced that Dr. Sapirstein is part of the Satanic conspiracy, uses a phone booth to contact her old pediatrician, begging him to see her. While Rosemary is facing toward camera, her back to the phone booth door, a man slides into view; the audience immediately “knows” it is Dr. Sapirstein.
Finishing her call, Rosemary turns and pauses in alarm when she sees the man. She closes her eyes in fear and desperation; when she opens them again, she is relieved to see that the man has turned around revealing not Dr. Sapirstein but just someone wanting to use the phone (a cameo by producer William Castle).
The scene is deceptively simple: a single, continuous take in close-up, with only a short camera move to emphasize the appearance of the man waiting outside the phone booth. But there is more here than meets the eyes – at least the eyes of the character. I have deliberately omitted a few frames in order to convey what Rosemary perceives, which might also represent the erroneous impression that a viewer could take away from the film: that there was a man who looked like Dr. Sapirstein from behind, but he turned around to reveal an unexpectedly innocent face.
What Rosemary does not notice is that, while her eyes are closed, the “Sapirstein” character walks off-screen, then walks back into the shot – or does he? It may not be apparent on first viewing, but if you go back and look again, the switch takes place a little too quickly for the man to have walked away, done a 180-degree turnabout, and come back.
Instead, this is what seems to happen:
After Mia Farrow closes here eyes, Bellamy (or his body double) exits to the left.
For a brief moment the “Sapirstein” character is off-screen, while Farrow plays Rosemary as if she is silently praying for deliverance.
The “Sapirstein” character appears to re-enter the frame – actually William Castle. It is hard to tell from the brief glimpse we get, but if you pause the film and look carefully, Castle’s hair does not quite match the back of Dr. Sapirstein’s head, confirming that a switch has been made.
As she opens her eyes, Farrow is blocking our view of the actor outside the booth, making it difficult to notice the switch that has taken place. When she finally turns, the movement of her head reveals not Bellamy’s Dr. Saperstein but the smiling stranger played by Castle.
What makes this cheat uniquely interesting is that it may not be a cheat at all. On a superficial level, the gag is that Rosemary and the audience think the man outside the booth is the sinister Dr. Sapirstein, but he turns out to be someone totally innocuous; the “cheat” is achieved by simply having Castle quickly replace the other actor. However, the switch takes place in full view of the camera, leaving the scene open to a second interpretation: that we are supposed to notice the switch, even if Rosemary does not; although we sympathize with her relief when she re-opens her eyes, we have to wonder whether she was right the first time: maybe that was Dr. Sapirstein, and he has simply gone off to alert the other Satanists that he has located Rosemary. In which case, the “cheat” of using Bellamy (or his double) to fool us into “seeing” Sapirstein is not a cheat at all but rather an accurate depiction of what happens in the scene.
There is a delicious ambiguity to this interpretation: Was it, or was it not, Sapirstein? Was it, or was it not, a cheat? And on a meta-level, was it, or was it not, Bellamy’s body double in either or both scenes?
As intriguing as these questions are, there is yet a third, equally intriguing interpretation of the scene. As much as ROSEMARY’S BABY is a story of witches, Satanists, and the Anti-Christ, the film is also a study in paranoia, with Rosemary driven to hysteria by fear for her baby. In the phone booth scene, she thinks Dr. Sapirstein has found her. She closes her eyes as if wishing him away, and it works: when opens her eyes, he is gone – like magic. What we may be seeing in the shot is an externalization of Rosemary’s inner mental state: her fear manifests as the appearance of Dr. Sapirstein; the appearance of the harmless stranger represents a return to a semblance of normalcy, a momentary quelling of paranoia, as Rosemary briefly gets a grip on her emotions that have been driven to extremes by both the events around her and the hormonal changes inside her body. In which case, we’re back to calling the scene a movie cheat, because two actors were switched right before our eyes to create an erroneous impression. The difference is that, in this new interpretation, the switch conveys not a mistaken identity but a paranoid delusion.
That’s an impressive amount of significance and meaning to pack into a single shot, making this scene worth a second look not only to spot a great movie cheat but also to appreciate the subtle tour-de-force machinations of a master filmmaker at work.
Note: This article has been updated to explain our definition of movie cheats, in order to clarify that it is not a derogatory term.
- A tip of the hat to Ted Newsom for pointing out this overlooked movie cheat.
Genre film lost one of its most influential forces last week when author and screenwriter Richard Matheson passed away. Whether writing originally for the screen, as with the STAR TREK episode, “The Enemy Within,” adapting his own work, which he did for such classic TWILIGHT ZONE episodes as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and the archetypal 50’s horror film THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, or adapting others, including bringing Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife to the screen as BURN WITCH BURN (a.k.a. NIGHT OF THE EAGLE), Matheson was able to embue his scripts with a contemporary outlook and an incisive inquest into the human condition that helped define genre film for the latter half of the twentieth century, and on into the twenty-first.
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons sit down to discuss Matheson’s contribution to the world of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, weigh his overall influence on popular cinema, and discuss favorite examples of his work. Also in this show: Steve and Dan discuss the recent limited releases BYZANTIUM and 100 BLOODY ACRES. Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.
It is not an understatement to say that, for many who work within the industry of fantastic film and those who cover it, Ray Harryhausen was one of the key godfathers of the Sense of Wonder. In such films as EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and CLASH OF THE TITANS, Harryhausen’s collection of creatures — singlehandedly and painstakingly stop-motion animated by the man himself — exhibited a wondrous sense of life, and convinced many of us that, with dedication and love, almost anything that could be dreamed of could be realized on the screen.
Come join our special guest, theofantastique.com‘s John W. Morehead, as he sits down with Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons to celebrate Ray Harryhausen’s achievements and evaluate his indelible contribution to the world of film. Plus: Dan gives his capsule reviews of SIGHTSEERS and THE PAINTING, and previews what’s coming to theaters next week.
All movies cheat, but horror, fantasy films, and science fiction films are a special case. Every motion picture shoots its scenes over and over, then edits the best bits together to hide the seams: camera angles conceal objects the filmmakers do not want us to see; lens filters enhance the look of real locations, while unreal locations are built on sound stages; computer-generated imagery airbrushes away flaws in live-action photography. Fantasy-oriented film-making takes this make-believe a step further: miniatures assume gargantuan proportions on the big screen; makeup alters men into monsters; and CGI creates not only imaginary creatures but also entire worlds in which they live.
In such a context, when everything seems possible and much of what is visible on screen exists only because it was created with special effects, how does one define a movie cheat? Like this: In most films, whether they are achieved with live-action, animation, or special effects, the techniques used are supposed to be invisible to the average viewer, creating a sense of verisimilitude. The film is meant to unreel as if the events are actually happening, and the audience accepts what they are seeing without questioning how it was achieved.
Some filmmakers, however, are bolder than this. Sometimes in order to make a dramatic point, or more often to spring a surprise on the audience — the filmic equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat — the filmmakers will violate the “internal reality” of the film with a clever visual or audio cheat. This is different from the special effects that create a fantasy environment: wizards and monsters exist in the imaginary world of LORD OF THE RINGS, so it is hardly a “cheat” to portray them by whatever means necessary.
In this context, a “cheat” means a piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand that pulls a fast one on the audience, that shows something contradictory or impossible according to the film’s own logic. In short, a cheat works because the trickery is visible – intentionally so – otherwise, the impact would be lost. You may need sharp eyes (or the reverse button on your DVD player), but you should be able to spot the subterfuge if you look for it.
Take, for example, Walt Disney Pictures animated gem, TANGLED (2010). Computer-generated imagery takes us so far into the realm of fantasy that one may question the wisdom of pointing out a cheat; after all, what reality is there to violate? Yet, this wonderful animated fairy tale does indeed include a classic movie cheat, one previously seen in Dario Argento’s TENEBRE (1982). Watch the following sequence of shots to see how directors Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard use a movie cheat to create an impossible surprise.
When Flynn Rider first enters Rapunzel’s tower, he is seen in long-shot, clearly alone; there is nowhere for anyone to be hiding behind him.
As he pauses to open a satchel containing a stolen crown, the film cuts in to a closer angle, hiding the (previously empty) space behind him. However, before he can enjoy his ill-gotten gains….
Rider is wacked from behind, falling to the floor and revealing Rapunzel standing behind him, a frying pan in her hand.
How did Rapunzel manage to get behind Rider without being seen by the audience? In the long-shot that begins the sequence, there is nowhere for her to be hiding (unless her pet chameleon Pascal has somehow magically transferred his powers to her).
Presumably, Rapunzel sneaked up from behind, but there is a wall at her back and no object to provide cover. She could have entered the scene only from the right side of the frame, which should have made her visible to us – unless we are to assume that she crawled into the waist-high medium shot on her hands and knees, and then rose up once she had positioned herself so that Rider would hide her from the camera.
In short, Rapunzel’s appearance behind Rider is impossible within the “reality” presented by the film TANGLED. Does that make this a film flub? No, it is a wonderful example of an excellent movie cheat used to create a memorably effective moment that might have been mitigated by restrictions to the semblance of reality. This is movie magic at its best, using basic techniques of camera placement and editing to create illusions so convincing that we do not question them, even when they are “impossible.”
This article is the first in a series of favorite movie cheats visible in fantasy, horror and science-fiction films. These are all moments that catch the eye and/or provide dramatic impact because the films dare to violate the dictates of “realism.” Hopefully, exposing this sleight-of-hand will not undermine your appreciation of the magic; if anything, awareness of the cheat should increase your appreciation of the deft techniques used to achieve these remarkable and startling effects.