In 1938, Universal Pictures was one of the lesser major film studios in Hollywood. In the sound era, only Universal, Columbia, and Republic Pictures made serials, with a few independents turning out a handful. Unlike the early silent films, wherein chapterplays (a series of short films about the same story and characters) like the PERILS OF PAULINE appealed to a wide audience, by the 1930’s cliffhangers were aimed at the kid’s matinee market. Universal had a big hit with 1936’s FLASH GORDON, and began to look to comics and radio for material likely to be popular with youngsters.
Republic Pictures had made two serials based on the Lone Ranger, THE LONE RANGER, and THE LONE RANGER RIDES AGAIN. Though successful, George Trendle had been less than entirely pleased with the productions, specifically the liberties the studio had taken with the character, including showing the Ranger unmasked. Thus he and his legal advisor Raymond Meurer determined to take a direct and personal interest in seeing that the Green Hornet was translated to the screen in a manner that would be true to the radio show.
The Green Hornet, Inc. insisted on actor approval, both via pictures of the players and voice recordings. Gordon Jones, a likable young actor, was chosen to play Britt Reid. In later years, Jones would specialize in comedy roles, and is perhaps best known for his role as the blustery Mike the Cop on THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW. For the role of Kato, Chinese-born artist-turned-actor Keye Luke was selected. Luke had a long career in Hollywood, appearing in the Charlie Chan series as Number One Son, and playing Master Po on the TV series KUNG FU. Universal, also leery about a heroic Japanese character at a time of growing hostilities, decided to have Kato declare himself Korean in Chapter One. Anne Nagel (MAN MADE MONSTER) was cast as Lenore Case. In addition to being an attractive woman with striking eyes, Nagel had a pleasant, cultured speaking voice, which surely was a plus in getting the role. Veteran character actor Wade Boteler was chosen as Mike Axford, and in most scenes wore a derby, just as in publicity artwork for the radio series. Philip Trent played Jasper Jenks, one of the various Daily Sentinel reporters that appeared on the radio show. Joe Whitehead played Gunnigan, the often harassed and irascible Editor of the paper, while Myrtis Crinley played Clicker Binnie, wise-cracking lady photographer.
Leading the villains was Cy Kendall as Munroe. Kendall had been the crime boss in Grand National’s THE SHADOW STRIKES in 1937. He put his henchmen through their paces in schemes that relied both on radio scripts by Fran Striker provided by Green Hornet, Inc. and the stock footage that Universal had on hand from other films, serials and real-life newsreels. Collapsing tunnels from shoddy construction material, as well as train wrecks, fires due to arson, and flight school insurance-murder rackets would appear. Future star Alan Ladd played played young Gilpin, an aspiring pilot who nearly falls victim to the deadly scheme.
The thirteen-episode chapterplay began filming on September 7th, 1939 under director Ford Beebe (THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, 1944). Within a week, Ray Taylor (DICK TRACY, 1937) was brought in to alternate with Beebe –- it was not at all unusual for serials, with their break-neck pace to be handled by two directors. With only 26 days allotted for filming, it became a necessity.
THE GREEN HORNET was filmed on the Universal back lot’s New York street, and all over the studio. Some familiar edifices, such as the mansion seen in a number of horror films such as SON OF DRACULA, and the steep inclined rail tracks from THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS can be glimpsed. Locations nearby the studio, such as Mulholland Drive and a cliff-side stretch of road familiar to movie fans helped open up the film.
Though Gordon Jones was quite good as Britt Reid, to insure that The Hornet sounded right to the audience, radio actor Al Hodge made a trip to Hollywood to dub in the masked man’s dialog. This was simple, as the Green Hornet of the serials wore a mask that covered the entire face— usually.
There seems to have been at least three different masks used in the serial, one made of cloth for the stunt work, and two fairly rigid ones, possibly made from leather, varnished cloth, or papier-mache. One of these two, seen in some of the early chapters, revealed Jones’ mouth and jaw from some angles, and was likely replaced for that reason. One plus is that it also allowed the Hornet to be a brilliant mimic, by simply dubbing the actor he was impersonating over the footage. In the serial, kids got to see the Hornet’s gas gun, vaguely described as looking like a “foreign automatic” on the radio show. Universal’s prop men crafted an interesting weapon along those lines. Though it appeared to have gas cylinders, on-screen the gun seemed to fire a gas pellet, which broke on contact —it was sometimes described that way on the air. The effect in the film used a pyrotechnic charge from the muzzle, with a gas cloud explosion nicely superimposed over the victim.
They also got to see the Black Beauty, played by what appears to be a 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr fitted with fancy “stream-lined” chrome mudguards.
THE GREEN HORNET is a pretty exciting serial, with a lot of verve, intelligent plotting, and better than average acting for a cliffhanger. Some viewers may carp at the low budget and obvious use of stock footage, along with a distinctly episodic feel.
However, all serials are episodic by nature, and THE GREEN HORNET script by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, Morrison Wood, and Lyonel Margolies and the photography by Jerome Ash (FLASH GORDON) and William Sickner (THE MUMMY’S GHOST) gives the production a lot of the feel of a crime B-movie of the period.
It’s more than a collection of action sequences for the kiddies, strung together with just enough story to connect the fights, chases and other set-pieces. Other serials might simply and repetitively follow a MacGuffin back and forth between heroes and villains for 12 or 15 weeks, while this one has many plot threads and situations for variety.
Though generally listed as a 1940 release, it seems THE GREEN HORNET opened in some theaters in November of 1939. It was a hit with its audience, and by December of that year a sequel premiered.
THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN returned most of the actors to their roles, with the major exception of the lead. For whatever reason, now lost to the mists of time, Gordon Jones did not reprise his part of Britt Reid.
Replacing him was the more mature Warren Hull (THE WALKING DEAD, 1936), who had previously played Mandrake the Magician, and Richard Wentworth/The Spider/Blinky McQuade in THE SPIDER’S WEB (1938)and THE SPIDER RETURNS for Columbia Pictures.
Hull was good choice, despite being less physically imposing than Jones. Possessing an easy charm and a fine voice, it seems that The Green Hornet, Inc. didn’t feel it necessary to have the Hornet’s dialog dubbed this time around. As a result, some of his lines are slightly muffled (under a new lighter colored mask), but much worse were the few occasions when supervising editor Saul Goodkind saw fit to dub his own raspy voice in places where he felt lines were missing.
Warren Hull would soon leave the movies for radio, and later television, usually to host programs such as VOX POP and game shows, most notably STRIKE IT RICH.
Jasper Jenks was not in this serial. Instead, comic actor Eddie Acuff (the hard-luck mailman in the BLONDIE movies) played reporter Ed Lowery (voiced by Jack Petruzzi in on radio) and Jay Michael, one of the WXYZ regulars made it out to Hollywood for the serial, playing the sinister-voiced gangster Foranti in Chapters 14 and 15.
The lead villain, Crogan, was character actor Pierre Watkin, who played Perry White in the two Columbia SUPERMAN serials. Among those backing up his criminal syndicate was familiar face James Seay (KILLERS FROM SPACE, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN )as the slick gangster Bordine.
It should be noted that Kato’s role in these serials (as in the radio show) tends to be more that of a skilled inventor and trusty aide. The Green Hornet handles the overwhelming majority of the fights and action, mostly limiting Kato to rescues of the hero and to take out only the occasional gangster with a timely karate chop from behind. In STRIKES AGAIN, we learn that Kato is relatively well-connected in local scientific circles.
THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN runs 15 chapters, featuring interesting setups, including pre-WWII preparedness themes dealing with schemes to take over vital aluminum production via impersonating a naive heiress (Dorothy Lovett) and borderline science fiction aerial projectiles designed to foul plane engines.
The serial is nicely shot at times (Jerry Ash again, solo), but even more stock footage dependent, and a little sloppy and rushed in the editing, notably in the music cues. They often don’t seem properly timed or appropriately selected to match the onscreen events. Someone also thought it would be funny to bring in an Irish jig (The Irish Washerwoman), whenever possible on Mike Axford’s entrances and exits. Rear projection backgrounds are used in a number of scenes to tie into stock footage of locations, and work fairly well.
Ford Beebe returned as director, this time alternating with John Rawlins (SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR). Both serials were produced by Henry MacRae, who directed the first werewolf film (THE WEREWOLF, 1913), now sadly lost. He’s listed as “Associate Producer”, but this was an idiosyncrasy of Universal Pictures at the time, which considered that the Studio was the actual producer of the film.
Universal ended the series here, and though there was some discussion on a Universal Lone Ranger serial, that never came to fruition. Seeing as the radio series would connect the two characters, that might have been interesting to see.
The Green Hornet looked good in B&W on the silver screen. His next appearances would put him color —4 colors, to start.
THE GREEN HORNET and THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN are available on restored editions DVDs from VCI Entertaiment.
THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN is also available in an inexpensive regular edition in the CINEFANTASTIQUE STORE
January 31st, 1936 marked the radio debut of Detroit radio station WXYZ’s new masked crime fighter, THE GREEN HORNET. Their previous mystery man THE LONE RANGER had proved a huge hit, and station owner George W. Trendle was determined to catch lightning in a bottle once again.
With Lone Ranger writer/creator Fran (Francis Hamilton) Striker, and director of the Ranger and other XYZ shows James Jewell, he determined to come up with a modern-day paladin who could combat political and corporate corruption, along with racketeers as well as outright mobsters. Rather than bringing “law and order to the early Western United States”, this new champion of justice would also strike at “criminals within the law” in a large city. Such a vigilante would be at odds with the police as well as wrong-doers, so a new angle was needed. The solution: make the masked man a wanted criminal in the eyes of authority, a modern Robin Hood.
Fran Striker provided for that in the first adventures. Britt Reid, a globe-trotting young playboy, was given the job of publisher of The Daily Sentinel by his father Dan Reid, a maverick newsman and wealthy entrepreneur with a social conscience. Perhaps that would sober the young rascal up. Unknown to his hard-driven father, Britt Reid already had that serious side, hidden under a devil-may-care attitude. During his travels in the orient, Britt had saved the life of a man named Kato. This man would become young Reid’s friend and ally, and who despite his inventive genius would pose as a simple manservant.
Together they had built a suped-up car which they called The Black Beauty, since it had been assembled in secret in what used to be the stables of the older building where Reid lived. When the supercharger was cut in, the engine sounded like an angry hornet.
Outraged by a particular criminal, they had ridden out to deal with him in vigilante fashion. However, the miscreant was killed by another wrong-doer, and “The Hornet” was now wanted for murder. This, Reid realized was the perfect cover. He could now pose as a criminal, walk into their dens, and trick, blackmail, and betray them to the police — or set them up to wipe each other out. Rather than carrying a pair of six-shooters, the Hornet would carry a non-lethal gas gun.
As can be seen, The Green Hornet was an admixture of many other fictional heroes. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Johnston McCulley’s Zorro (the day-time wastrel Don Diego Dela Vega). Some of McCulley’s literary creations, such as The Crimson Clown, The Black Star, and The Bat used gas guns and bombs, rather than bullets. The legend of Robin Hood was mentioned as an inspiration, and I think the ‘bent’ hero Jimmie Dale, alias The Grey Seal had a particular influence, conscious or not.
Beginning in 1910 in Street and Smith’s People’s Magazine, The Grey Seal was named for the diamond-shaped gray paper seal he left as a ‘signature’, and not from emulating in any way a sea-going mammal. James Dale was a bored playboy, an expert on locks and safes due to his father’s business, who turned to safe-cracking as an amusing hobby. If any items were removed, they would either be returned, or if taken from a no-good, donated to a worthy cause. However, his secret was discovered by a young woman, who “blackmailed” him into becoming an active agent of justice.
Donning a black mask, coat, and slouch hat, The Grey Seal would deal with villains in the New York City badlands as well as in the salons of the rich. Author Frank Packard’s Jimmie Dale appeared a number of magazine serials, several novels, and a 16-chapter silent movie serial, ALIAS THE GREY SEAL (1917).
I should note that for the first few episodes (no recordings are known to survive) the Green Hornet was referred to a simply The Hornet. and the program actually called THE ADVENTURES OF THE HORNET, according to researchers Martin Grams Jr. and Terry Salomonson. However, it’s been reported in books such as Wyxie Wonderland (a book on the history of WXYZ) that the station’s legal staff raised the issue that the show bore some similarities to the pulp magazine character The Spider, such as the insect-derived name, often being thought a criminal and wanted by the police, leaving a red spider mark as a signature on his work —usually dead criminals, as Richard Wentworth’s alter-ego carried .45 automatics which he used quite liberally— and having an “oriental” aide (Sikh warrior Ram Sing serving as chauffeur and knife-wielding enforcer).
Always a shrewd businessman, George Trendle decided after some discussion to re-christen the character the GREEN Hornet, which seemed sufficient to make the name unique. There are no actual green hornets to be found in nature.
By the way, the radio Green Hornet did NOT dress all in green. He wore a hat, topcoat ( generally tan or camel in offically approved artwork), and often a scarf. To hide his identity, he wore a black mask over the lower part of his face. After a while, he sported a green Hornet insignia on the mask, like the ones emblazoned on the seals he left to mark his involvement in cases.
Britt Reid/The Green Hornet was played by the powerfully-voiced Al Hodge from 1936 to 1943, with another stint in 1945. Hodge would later go on to play science fiction hero CAPTAIN VIDEO on television for the Dumont network in the 1950’s.
Donovan Faust played the part for awhile, followed by Robert Hall, and Jack McCarthy from 1947 to the show’s end in 1952. Known to older New Yorkers as “Captain” Jack McCarthy, he would serve as WPIX-TV’s kids show host (showing mostly Popeye cartoons), staff announcer, and presenter of the Saint Patrick’s Day parades during the 1960’s and 70’s.
The role of Kato was originated by Tokutaro Hayashi, known as Raymond Toyo. The fact that he was of Japanese descent had something to do with Kato intially being identified as Japanese, rather than Chinese or another Asian nationality. (Reid and Kato met in either Hong Kong or Singapore.)
Legend had it that Kato became Filipino after Pearl Harbor, which makes a good story. However, the show had described the character as being from the Philippines as early as 1939. In later years, actors such as Rollon Parker (who often doubled as the Newsboy usually heard at the end of the programs, assuring us that The Green Hornet was Still At Large), Michael Tolland, and others played the role.
One of the characters that would make the Hornet’s life more difficult was former police officer Mike Axford. Axford actually pre-dated the Green Hornet series; he had been in many episodes of WARNER LESTER, MANHUNTER, an offshoot of WXYZ’s MANHUNTERS series, which featured various crime fighters, and also birthed the Lone Ranger. On WARNER LESTER, Axford had begun as a hard-nosed Irish cop, eventually becoming more friendly and avuncular to the hero.
On THE GREEN HORNET, he would begin as a retired police officer, now a bodyguard the elder Reid had afflicted upon his “wild” son, and living in the same home. Soon Britt would give him a job as a reporter for the Sentinel, and gently evict him from his digs. The character would mellow into a largely comedic role, though still often a menace to the Hornet, who he longed to unmask. Jim Irwin originated the role, and played the part until 1938. Gilbert Shea would play Axford from 1939.
Taking the side of the Hornet was Lenore “Casey” Case, who had been Dan Reid’s secretary when he was publisher. The part was played thoughout the entire series by Leonore “Lee” Allman, director Jim Jewell’s sister. Though she may have suspected after a number of years, Casey did not actually learn Britt Reid was the Hornet for a fact until 1948. Like THE LONE RANGER, one of the things that made THE GREEN HORNET memorable was the music. WXYZ tended to use orchestral recordings of classical works. The theme was Rimsky-Korsokov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee, an apt choice. Igor Stravinsky’s Infernal Dance from The Firebird was also often used. As Russia did not recognize copyright at the time, the piece was effectively in the public domain in the U.S., and fair game. These cues and others from various sources really gave the shows gravitas, as many radio adventure series used no dramatic music or relied upon an organist to provide accompaniment.
Also adding zip was the Hornet buzz, attributed variously to the Black Beauty’s engine, horn, or appearing apropos of nothing, simply as a dramatic device to signify the Green Hornet was present, much as a filtered laugh heralded The Shadow. Various buzzing devices were tried, including humming through a wax paper-covered comb, before the sound crew obtained a theremin, the early Russian-invented electronic musical instrument.
The show went out on WXYZ Detroit, and the stations of the loosely aligned Michigan Radio Network. In 1938, it was picked up by the Mutual Network (flagship station WOR, New York), and in later years by the NBC Blue Network, and it’s successor ABC.
THE GREEN HORNET became a national success, and soon Hollywood would come calling. To Be Continued…
One of the proudest moments in the history of Cinefantastique was the October 1986 publication of a double issue (Volume 16, Number 5) devoted to the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The exhaustive and richly illustrated article was written by Stephen Rebello, who went on to publish an expanded version in book form, under the title of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PSYCHO. This June, Open Road Media published a new kindle edition of the book. As part of their promotional efforts, they arranged for horror film buff and thriller novelist Kevin O’Brien (Vicious) to interview the PSYCHO expert about Hitchcock’s horror classic, which will no doubt be playing on countless television sets this Halloween weekend (not to mention a few revival houses around the country). With the horror holiday looming, Open Road Media offered us an opportunity to present the unabridged interview of one horror expert by another.
Kevin O’Brien: I first heard about Psycho in the early 1960s, when I was just a kid. My oldest sister was afraid of taking a shower if no one else was in the house because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. So—I just had to find out more about this movie and see it. When did you first find out about Psycho? And do you remember what it was like when you saw it for the first time? Did you have any idea of what you were in for? Stephen Rebello: Well, Kevin, if your sister was one of the many who wouldn’t shower after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock would have advised: “Have her dry cleaned.” As for me, growing up in southeastern Massachusetts, I remember reading in the Boston newspapers these little “teasers” about how the famous director and TV personality Alfred Hitchcock was making this secretive, very different kind of movie. Not the kind of thing he usually did—a full-out shocker-type film. One of these items mentioned that Hitchcock had posted guards at the studio soundstage doors to keep out the prying eyes and ears of the curious. He swore the cast to secrecy about the plot. Well, my young imagination went into overdrive imagining what Hitchcock might be up to.
By the summer of 1960, though, I became obsessed when I saw for the first time the Psycho movie trailer. It played at the most mysterious movie theater around—a slightly eerie, faded, grand, and expansive old movie palace called the Durfee in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. If Norma Desmond had been a movie theater, this would have been it. Hitchcock taking us on a tour of this motel and scary old house made his movie seem strange, spooky, and grown up as hell; so did the constant TV and radio ads, also narrated by the grand old man himself. And the posters in the lobby, with that cracked, shattered yellow title lettering, Janet Leigh wearing a bra and slip, Anthony Perkins looking tense, a shirtless John Gavin and that tagline: A new—and altogether different—screen excitement. To me, it all spelled: hot stuff.
I wasn’t alone. Kids in my school were talking a lot about Psycho and, once the Legion of Decency forbid any good Catholic from seeing it, everyone wanted to see it. I lied, schemed, and cheated my way into the theater that first day. The place was packed and once Janet Leigh drove up to Bates Motel in the rain, you could feel dread building in this audience of mostly tough, working class, largely immigrant people. Once Leigh flushed the motel bathroom toilet—a first in an American movie!—then, disrobed and stepped into the shower, the theater sounded exactly like a kids’ horror movie matinee, even though it was filled with grownups, authority figures, friends of my parents, even one of my teachers.
They yelled like banshees. As the rest of the film went on, the audience talked to the screen and shouted out warnings to the characters. I saw one of my schoolteachers run up the aisle looking gray and nauseous. People were stunned after the shower murder, though. It was that staggering. And when Martin Balsam as the detective climbed the stairs of the Bates house and when Vera Miles tapped Mrs. Bates’s shoulder in the basement, the place went berserk. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since in a movie theater. The audience wasn’t self-conscious, faux-hip, or knowing. Nothing then was meta or ironic. The response was primal. Even though I was too young to understand half of Psycho the first time I saw it, it shook me. O’Brien:Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho is based on the Ed Gein case. Can you tell us about Ed Gein and his crimes? Rebello: As you have in some of your wonderful books, Robert Bloch took inspiration from the crimes of a real-life, deeply disturbing, and dangerous psychopath. Mr. Bloch, a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft, lived in Wisconsin in 1957, just miles from where police that year discovered almost unimaginable horrors at the dilapidated farm and house of Ed Gein, an unmarried, middle-aged loner who was known as an odd duck by pretty much everyone in his community. The police found the nude, headless, recently slaughtered body of a woman hanging by her heels in a shed. A human heart was in a coffee can on the stove. This unfortunate woman wasn’t Gein’s only female victim, as the search revealed. Gein’s various activities included dressing himself with female human remains, grave-robbing, cannibalism, necrophilia and, very likely, maternal incest. Mind you, this was a guy hired by his neighbors to babysit their little darlings. The case became a national sensation, even though many of the police findings were too sensational and twisted to be reported by the press in those days. Although Bloch claimed that even he didn’t know the grisly details, somehow his creation “Norman Bates” was uncannily like Gein in many ways. So, Gein—who appeared to be a meek, bland, slightly effeminate mama’s boy when he was actually the stuff of nightmares—inadvertently became one of Bloch’s inspirations for writing Psycho. O’Brien: How did Hitchcock stumble upon the book, Psycho, and why was he interested in making a “horror” movie? Rebello: Hitchcock had been making films since the 1920s and, by the forties, was pretty much acknowledged as the master architect of motion picture thrillers. By the fifties, he was beginning to feel particularly pigeon-holed in the suspense genre and was always relentlessly pursuing material that was different, unique, attention-getting. He drove his associates and agents insane trying to find things that would ignite his imagination. By 1959, several of his most successful films had been very expensive to make. He didn’t like that. The final straw was when he had lavished time, love, money, and preproduction on a film to star Audrey Hepburn and Laurence Harvey that he had to cancel for various reasons. That was a terrible blow, and that project could have been one of the great Hitchcock films. In a state of agitated frustration, the novel Psycho came to his attention because of an intriguing New York Times review by the respected novelist and critic Anthony Boucher. The book, generally, won strong reviews. Hitchcock had noticed how low-budget, non-star horror movies were making a killing by attracting the younger audiences he was after. Psycho fit in with his idea of trying something bolder, more contemporary, and with economy of scale. He began talking about horror movies with his associates and asking, “What if someone good were to make a horror movie?” But he was one of the few who saw merit in Psycho; many of his associates warned him against making Psycho. They thought it was beneath him. O’Brien: In the book, Mary Crain (Marion in the movie) isn’t stabbed in that fatal shower. And Norman Bates is not nearly as handsome and charming as Tony Perkins. Can you explain some of these alterations and any other differences between the book and the movie?
Rebello: But she is killed in the shower in the novel. In fact, Hitchcock told many people that he was most attracted by Bloch’s notion of a murder coming out of the blue in an everyday, confined setting—the shower, where we feel relaxed and complacent but where we’re utterly vulnerable. Hitchcock was thrilled with the idea of shocking audiences by casting a major star as the heroine and killing her off so early in the picture. That violated every Hollywood rule. Bloch’s heroine has her head cut off in the shower, not exactly the kind of thing that even Hitchcock could have gotten away with, even if he had been tempted. Bates in the novel is middle-aged, pudgy, alcoholic, brooding, unattractive, repugnant. He also has extensive conversations with his mother, which would have been fatal and a cheat on film. Casting Anthony Perkins was a lucky masterstroke; he’s as charming, attractive, sad, perverse, and lethal as earlier Hitchcock killers like the one Joseph Cotten played in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker played in Strangers on a Train. Perkins had already worked with top directors like William Wyler, Anthony Mann, and Stanley Kramer, and Paramount had spent lots of money promoting him as a successor to the late James Dean or comparing him to the young James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Although he had become a teen idol and even made some hit records, things hadn’t quite clicked and, at the time, Perkins felt typecast and owed Paramount a movie. Hitchcock could hire him inexpensively. It was a perfect storm. O’Brien: How did screenwriter Joseph Stefano get involved in the movie? Rebello: Hitchcock had thrown away an earlier draft by James Cavanaugh, a talented young TV writer known for scripts for the series Suspense and Playhouse 90; what got him the Psycho adaptation assignment was his teleplay for the famous 1959 Alfred Hitchcock Presents entry Arthur,in which Hitchcock himself directed Laurence Harvey as a murderous young chicken farmer. No one liked Cavanaugh’s adaptation of Psycho, though, and Hitchcock’s powerful and much-feared agent Lew Wasserman made the case for Joseph Stefano. Hitchcock was amused by Stefano—a talented, offbeat former dancer, singer, and songwriter who regaled and fascinated Hitchcock with intimate revelations from his psychotherapy sessions. They made quite a pair.
O’Brien: I hear Anthony Perkins was Hitchcock’s first choice for Norman Bates. What about the other roles? I hear Eva Marie Saint, Shirley Jones, Carolyn Jones, Stuart Whitman, and Brian Keith were in the running for other major roles. Could you tell us some more about the casting—and who else was in the running? Rebello: Perkins was pretty much “locked” for Norman Bates, but there were brief discussions about Dean Stockwell, Roddy McDowall, Laurence Harvey, and others. Hitchcock wanted the biggest star possible for the female leading role. Hitchcock associates and top talent agents suggested such stars, appropriate or not, as Lana Turner, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Maureen O’Sullivan, and more. For the heroine’s sister, there was talk of Shirley Jones, Dolores Hart, and Diane Varsi, and for Sam, Marion’s boyfriend, Robert Loggia, Stuart Whitman, Brian Keith, Richard Basehart, and Leslie Nielsen were among those in the running. O’Brien: I spotted the Psycho house in an Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode, “The Unlocked Window.” How did they come up with that creepy house, and was it in any other films/TV shows? Rebello: After many discussions with Hitchcock about what he did and didn’t want, art directors Robert Clatworthy and Joseph Hurley designed the house and built it on the Universal backlot, clearly referencing Victorian architecture as typified by Edward Hopper’s haunting 1925 painting House by the Railroad. The art directors appropriated architectural pieces from other standing sets on the Universal backlot, including the house from Harvey. Originally, they built only the front and side of the house because those were all Hitchcock needed to shoot. After Psycho, the house got altered but remained as a standing set and can be seen in several episodes of the Boris Karloff–hosted anthology TV series Thriller,in the Western shows Wagon Train and Laramie,in such feature films as Invitation to a Gunfighter, and, yes, in the Psycho-esque “An Unlocked Window,”among many, many other TV episodes and films. O’Brien: Why did Hitchcock use his TV show crew to shoot the film (instead of his usual cinematographer, Robert Burks)? And why did he shoot it in black and white? Rebello: After becoming so well known in the fifties for his big-star, big-budget Technicolor films, Hitchcock tackled Psycho as something of an “experiment” but also a throwback. He loved referring to it as his “30-day picture” and, just as he did in his early filmmaking days in England, he wanted to try new things while keeping the budget low, at around $800,000. One way of accomplishing this was to work with his trusted TV crewmembers, who were accustomed to working fast and with great skill. In those days, the decision to film in color versus black and white could be as much an artistic decision as a financial one. Black and white was as ideal for Psycho as it was for such other movies of the sixties as The Apartment, Anatomy of a Murder, To Kill a Mockingbird, Days of Wine and Roses, Hud, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, Cape Fear, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Haunting, In Cold Blood,and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. O’Brien: Is it true that Janet Leigh gave John Gavin “a helping hand” during their love scene?
Rebello: That’s what the gifted, very classy, and discreet Janet Leigh said, blushing as she did. Hitchcock and the charming, thoroughly professional Janet Leigh got along beautifully, but somehow he wasn’t especially happy with what he was getting out of John Gavin. He wanted passion, sexuality, heat, and he seemed to feel Mr. Gavin was self-conscious and uncomfortable. Hitchcock apparently took Ms. Leigh aside and asked her to take . . . matters . . . into her own hands. Mr. Gavin responded. What a pair of troupers. O’Brien: Rumors have flown that title designer, Saul Bass, filmed the shower scene. Can you put those rumors to rest? Rebello: Well, Kevin, those rumors flew but they’ve long since crash-landed. There is no underestimating Mr. Bass’s extraordinary gifts as an artist, but too many key people who were on the set have vehemently denied his assertions. I doubt anyone takes the claim seriously anymore—if they ever did. Saul Bass’s contributions to the movie—his visual concepts for the shower sequence and the Arbogast murder on the stairs, the test footage of the shower sequence that he shot using a nude stand-in—are indelible. Let’s remember that Saul Bass provided Hitchcock with a powerful and evocative roadmap for how to film and edit the shower sequence in an era in which extreme violence and nudity could only be suggested but not shown. But let’s also remember that Hitchcock, Robert Bloch, Joseph Stefano, especially Janet Leigh, film editor George Tomasini, and composer Bernard Herrmann are the stars and authors of that now-iconic scene. O’Brien: Any interesting stories about filming the famous shower scene? Rebello: Here are some things that did and didn’t happen during the filming of the shower scene. It was not shot by a Japanese crew. Not a frame of it was filmed in color. Janet Leigh shot the scene virtually nude, which was very brave and completely unheard-of for American movie stars in those days. Hitchcock also hired a nude model to shoot the entire sequence just in case Janet Leigh’s modesty made her guard her body and ruin the shot. That model, Marli Renfro, is definitely visible in the overhead shots. Hitchcock in his elegant dark blue suit and tie would often be seen chatting about wine, travel, and dirty jokes while Marli Renfro sat next to him, completely naked. Male crewmembers on the closed set hung from the rafters to get a better view of Janet Leigh; such a frank, bold scene was unheard of at the time. It was quite an engineering feat to make certain Ms. Leigh had sufficient warm water for the entire length of filming. So, no, Hitchcock did not douse her with cold water to elicit her screams—a silly rumor that undercuts what a skilled actress Janet Leigh was.
Anthony Perkins was not used in the scene in any way; he was already in rehearsals for a Frank Loesser musical on Broadway. Hitchcock wanted to spare Perkins any discomfort or embarrassment and, besides, Perkins had such a distinctive body type that he would have been recognized immediately by audiences. “Mother” was played in the scene by stuntwoman Margo Epper, whose face was blacked-out with makeup to conceal her identity. The sound of the knife stabbing flesh was accomplished by stabbing a casaba melon and also a slab of meat. O’Brien: Is it true that Hitchcock didn’t want music to accompany the shower scene? Can you tell us about Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to the film? Rebello: Hitchcock was out to break a lot of new ground this time. That included his wanting Psycho to look, feel, and sound unlike his elegant suspense movies like The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, or Vertigo, with their romantic, haunting symphonic scores by Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock dictated precise notes for sound effects and music for his films; for Psycho, he was after a downbeat, cool, strange jazz score perhaps similar to those director Otto Preminger had from Elmer Bernstein for The Man with the Golden Arm and from Duke Ellington on Anatomy of a Murder. He smelled change in the air, the coming of a new, franker, more violent era, and he wanted the film to be modern, to appeal to a new audience. For the shower murder, he was adamant that audiences would hear only the sound of the water, the heroine’s screams and the sounds of the knife ravaging her body. Tough, savage stuff. He resisted Herrmann’s idea of an all-string score and screaming violins but, once he heard the great composer’s work for the shower scene, he apologized—in his own way, that is—by admitting of his no-music dictate, “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion.” O’Brien: I’ve seen a few seconds of Janet Leigh actually taking off her bra during that scene in which Tony Perkins spies on her through a peephole. But this didn’t make the US version of the film (check the special features of the DVD). How much trouble did Hitchcock encounter with the censors? Rebello: Hitchcock had been challenging and tweaking the hypocrisy of censorship from the beginnings of his career. He threw down the gauntlet with Psycho, deliberately upping the ante with suggestive situations, exposed flesh, provocative themes, imagery, and subtext. When Paramount submitted the screenplay to the censors for review, as all major films had to in those days, their decision came back that Hitchcock was skating on extremely thin ice. They demanded less frank dialogue and lots of changes, for instance, in the way he proposed to film such things as the opening sequence with Janet Leigh and John Gavin shacked up in the hotel during her lunch break, the shower sequence, and more. The censors were especially infuriated about suggestions of incest between Bates and his mother. Hitchcock mostly ignored their restrictions and made the film he wanted to make, with some concessions. On the whole, he played the game brilliantly—deliberately inserting things in the script that he knew he wouldn’t get away with but that would distract the censors from things he was willing to fight for. When the censorship board demanded that he recut the shower scene, for instance, he didn’t touch a foot of the film; they didn’t notice. In the end, the censors weren’t a match for him. But make no mistake—this was a major battle. They could have stopped the movie from being released. Hitchcock didn’t get away with everything, though. He wanted Janet Leigh bra-less in the film’s opening, her breasts brushing John Gavin’s bare chest. O’Brien: Is it true that Hitchcock didn’t have much confidence in Psycho when he viewed the finished product for the first time? Rebello: The early cast and crew private screening did not go particularly well, although that’s hardly unusual in Hollywood. The film apparently played flat, unexciting; it lacked tension. Hitchcock secretly always held the view that if the film really didn’t work, he’d edit it to an hour and show it on television. A later screening for close associates—this time edited more tightly and accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s score—played much better.
Many people today don’t realize that even more effort and planning went into the scene of the private detective being killed than the heroine’s. It was the stabbing of the detective that brought the early audience right out of their seats with terror. As you know, Kevin, Hitchcock didn’t hold any sneak preview screenings for the public, and there weren’t even advance screenings for the press. Some say that Hitchcock wanted to keep the film’s revelations a complete surprise. Others argue that Hitchcock was unconvinced that Psycho was up to his usual standard and that he wanted to do preemptive damage control. To anyone who questioned him, he’d just shrug it off and say, “It’s only a movie.” Even his personal production assistant tried to calm down people on the set who were worried that Hitchcock was going too far: “Don’t worry. He’s already planning the next movie in his head.” O’Brien: “No one will be admitted into the theater after the start of the film.” Can you explain this mandate and other marketing strategies Hitchcock used? Rebello: In those days, the price of a movie ticket bought you not only a feature film, but also newsreels, short subjects, previews of coming attractions, and a second feature film. People would drift in and out of theaters as their interests and schedules permitted. That’s how the old expression originated: “This is where I came in.” Psycho helped change all that. Hitchcock was a master showman and, taking a cue from the publicity campaign for the superb French film Les Diaboliques, he created the aura of an “event” around Psycho.
He made himself the star and centerpiece of the movie’s advertising campaign. At the first-run engagements of Psycho, theater owners were instructed to hire uniformed guards to stand outside theaters to prevent audiences from trying to enter the movie house once the film had begun. Great publicity! Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Hitchcock stood in the lobby, and recorded messages from Hitchcock informed ticket-buyers of the reasons behind his unusual admissions policy and also hyped them to expect to be terrified and stunned. At one showing, audiences waiting to get in were wrapped around the block and, when it started to rain and they wouldn’t leave, Hitchcock was contacted by the theater manager and asked what to do. “Buy them umbrellas,” he said. Before the era of Facebook, Twitter, spoilers, and text messages, audiences loved being surprised and loved the chance to feel that they were part of the ritual that seeing Psycho turned out to be. O’Brien: What was the public and critical reaction to Psycho when it was first released? Rebello: American critics gave the film mixed to negative reviews—“a blot on an honorable career” as one called it. Hitchcock himself speculated that he’d put critics’ noses out of joint by refusing to invite them to the usual free advance screenings. Critics actually had to suffer the terrible indignity of having to pay to see the film along with the rest of us—the great, unwashed public. On the other hand, the public response to the movie was phenomenal. Audiences lined up around the block for the very first showings and the film was held over for weeks and weeks in many theaters. Psycho was a cultural phenomenon, the kind of movie that you’d hear people talking about at grocery stores, post offices, everywhere. Interestingly, when the movie turned out to cause a sensation, some of the same critics who panned it suddenly got religion and named it on their end-of-the-year “best lists.” The public “got” Psycho—or, as Hitchcock put it, “went Psycho”—long before the critics did. Over the years, of course, the movie has been acclaimed as a masterpiece. O’Brien: I couldn’t wait to see Psycho when it was set for its TV premiere on The CBS Friday Night Movies in September 1966. But something happened in Kenilworth, Illinois (one town away from where I lived at the time), that caused the TV premiere of Psycho to be canceled. Can you explain? Rebello: CBS pulled that network premiere after the September 18th murder of twenty-one-year-old Valerie Percy, who was brutally killed with a hammer and a knife by an unknown assailant in the family home she shared with her twin sister, her mother, and her father, then US Senator Charles H. Percy. You may remember that there was a big international investigation and a $50,000 reward but Ms. Percy’s murder remains an unsolved crime to this day. The film was rescheduled, but pulled again after the tragic fire on the Apollo space mission. In the end, the movie never had a network TV showing. Hitchcock took considerable heat from the press about his “responsibility” in contributing to what some called “the American cult of violence.” When a young man on death row said that he killed his most recent victim after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock said, “He had killed two other women before, so when the press called and asked if I had any comment, I said, “Yes. I want to know the names of the movies he saw before he killed the other two, or did he kill the first one after drinking a glass of milk?” O’Brien: Finally, can you tell us why you think Psycho continues to scare us and influence so many other thrillers—fifty years later? Rebello:Psycho continues to scare audiences and inspire filmmakers because the story works, the characters resonate, the dialogue is full of dark little gems, the imagery is stunning, and the mood, subtext—the film’s dark underneath—is troubling, primal, and universal. As directed by Hitchcock, it’s a one-of-a-kind collision of sexy soap opera, crime thriller, old dark house Gothic, black comedy, tragedy, and psychosexual mind warp.
For some, it is a perfectly enjoyable, enthralling, well-made “movie-movie,” yet it also works on deeper subconscious levels in subversive and masterful ways. No wonder we’re still enjoying Psycho, analyzing it, having nightmares about it, quoting it, parodying it, being influenced by it. And here I’ve gotten the privilege of talking with you about it, Kevin, while, later today, I go back to my involvement in preparations for a major feature film set against the making of Psycho that will begin production early next year. Somewhere, Hitchcock is having the last laugh at all those who warned him not to make Psycho. It wasn’t “only a movie,” was it? O’Brien: Thank you for your time, Stephen! It’s a thrill and an honor to talk with you. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is one of my all-time favorite film books. Rebello: The thrill and honor are also mine, Kevin. Next time, I get to interview you, and we can start with one of my favorites, Vicious.
Image Entertainment’s new 14-DVD set of 67 episodes of THRILLER is quite a marvelous treat, and it fits in perfectly with Cinefantastique’s celebration of movies released in that seminal year for terror, 1960.
Among the impressive authors who wrote episodes for THRILLER were Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Donald S. Sandford and Barre Lyndon. The directors included such experienced hands as John Brahm, Laszlo Benedek, Ted Post, Douglas Heyes, Ray Milland, Herschel Daugherty and Ida Lupino.
Yet, what I find truly amazing about the series is the cornucopia of great Hollywood character actors who were featured on the show. Actors who were never “stars.” As Boris Karloff notes, “Isn’t it quite wonderful to use actors instead of ‘stars’ ” Indeed, it is and Thriller featured among many others, these fine actors, nearly all of whom had important roles in at least one classic horror movie:
John Carradine, Torin Thatcher, Beverly Garland, Vladimir Sokoloff and Martita Hunt
Jack Carson, Estelle Winwood, Everett Sloane, Edward Andrews and Mary Astor
Jeanette Nolan, Guy Rolfe, Judith Evelyn, John Williams and Hazel Court
Jane Greer, Henry Jones, Oscar Homolka, Warren Oates and Patrica Medina
Otto Kruger, Nancy Kelly, Eduardo Cianelli, Richard Carlson and Jo Van Fleet
Sidney Blackmer, William Windom, George Kennedy, Ann Todd and Henry Daniell
All of these people were truly wonderful character actors, but none of them were ever really “stars” so it was no surprise to find not one of them listed among the 20 actors featured on the back of the THRILLER box set. I guess the PR “experts” think Donna Douglas, Tom Poston and Natalie Schafer are more exciting to genre fans, than John Carradine, Mary Astor and Henry Daniell!
Of course, since Henry Daniell nearly stole the show from Boris Karloff when the two actors appeared together in Val Lewton’s THE BODY SNATCHER, I’d like to make a special note of Daniell’s work on THRILLER here.
Mr. Daniell made five memorable appearances on Thriller, playing among others, Count Cagliostro, Vicar Weatherford and Squire Moloch. Sadly, Daniell and Karloff were not reunited in any episode of THRILLER, but since both Karloff and Daniell appeared in five episodes, it’s interesting to note that Daniell’s episodes are of better quality than Karloff’s! That certainly doesn’t mean the five episodes Karloff appeared in were bad, simply that most of them were less exciting than such classics at The Cheaters and The Well of Doom.
Actually, all of the five episodes Karloff appeared in were quite good. They included, The Prediction, The Premature Burial, The Last of the Sommervilles, Dialogues with Death and The Incredible Doktor Markesan.Dr. Markesan was beautifully directed by Robert Florey, who ironically, had been scheduled to direct Frankenstein before he was replaced by James Whale. If Florey had directed Frankenstein, it’s quite possible he might easily have cast an actor other than Karloff as the monster!
To introduce Boris Karloff’s comments on THRILLER, here are some of Stephen King’s remarks from his book Danse Macabre. King calls Thriller the best horror series ever made for TV, but in reading his comments, anyone with knowledge of the genre may notice the staggering number of factual mistakes he makes, which tend to mar his otherwise intriguing observations: STEPHEN KING on THRILLER:
Probably the best horror series ever put on TV was Thriller. It ran on NBC from September of 1960 until the summer of 1962—really only two seasons plus reruns. It was a period before television began to face up to an increasing barrage of criticism about its depiction of violence, a barrage that really began with the JFK assassination, grew heavier following the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King and finally caused the medium to dissolve into a sticky syrup of situation comedies—history may record that dramatic television finally gave up the ghost and slid down the tubes with a hearty cry of “Na-noo, na-noo!”
The contemporaries of Thriller were also weekly bloodbaths; the time of The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack as the unflappable Eliot Ness and featuring the gruesome deaths of hoodlums without number (1959-1963); Peter Gunn (1958-1961); and Cain’s Hundred (1961-1962), to name just a few. It was TV’s violent era. As a result, after a slow first thirteen weeks, Thriller was able to become something other than the stock imitation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that it was apparently meant to be (early episodes dealt with cheating husbands trying to hypnotize their wives into walking over high cliffs, poisoning Aunt Martha to inherit her fortune so that the gambling debts could be paid off, and all that tiresome sort of thing) and took on a tenebrous life of its own. For the brief period of its run between January of 1961 and April of 1962—perhaps fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes—it really was one of a kind, and its like was never seen on TV again. Thriller was an anthology-format show (as all of the supernatural-terror TV programs which have enjoyed even a modicum of success have been) hosted by Boris Karloff. Karloff had appeared on TV before, after the Universal horror wave of the early to mid-thirties finally ran weakly out in that series of comedies in the late forties. This program, telecast on the fledgling ABC-TV network, had a brief run in the autumn of 1949. It was originally titled Starring Boris Karloff, fared no better following a title change to Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff, and was canceled. In feeling and tone, however, it was startlingly similar to Thriller, which came along eleven years later.
…Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run, and not in the best of health; he suffered from a chronically bad back and had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932. He no longer starred in all the programs—many of the guest stars on the Thriller program were nonentities who went on to become full-fledged nobodies (one of those guest stars, Reggie Nalder, went on to play the vampire Barlow in the CBS-TV film version of ‘Salem’s Lot)—but fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (“The Strange Door,” for instance). The old magic was still there, still intact. Lugosi might have finished his career in misery and poverty but Karloff, despite a few embarrassments like Frankenstein 1970, went out as he came in: as a gentleman.
Produced by William Frye, Thriller was the first television program to discover the goldmine in those back issues of Weird Tales, the memory of which had been kept alive up until then mostly in the hearts of fans, a few quickie paperback anthologies, and, of course, in those limited-edition Arkham House anthologies. One of the most significant things about the Thriller series from the standpoint of the horror fan was that it began to depend more and more upon the work of writers who had published in those “shudder pulps” …the writers who, in the period of the twenties, thirties, and forties, had begun to guide horror out of the Victorian-Edwardian ghost-story channel it had been in for so long, and toward our modern perception of what the horror story is and what it should do. Robert Bloch was represented by “The Hungry Glass,” a story in which the mirrors of an old house harbor a grisly secret; Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell,” one of the finest horror stories of our century, was adapted, and remains the favorite of many who remember Thriller with fondness. Other episodes include “A Wig for Miss DeVore,” in which a red wig keeps an actress eternally young …until the final five minutes of the program, when she loses it—and everything else.
Miss DeVore’s lined, sunken face; the young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”); the fellow who sees the faces of his fellow men and women turned into hideous monstrosities when he puts on a special pair of glasses (“The Cheaters,” from another Bloch story)—these may not have constituted fine art, but in Thriller’s run, we find those qualities coveted above all others by fans of the genre: a literate story coupled with the genuine desire to frighten viewers into spasms.
____________________________ BORIS KARLOFF on THRILLER: These comments were compiled from various interviews Boris Karloff has given over the years for a special tribute program I put together in 2006 for a retrospective program of Karloff films, for which Sara Karloff was the guest of honor. The Karloff retrospective was organized in San Francisco by Gary Meyer, currently the director of the Telluride Film Festival.
How do you determine what parts you’ll accept?
BORIS KARLOFF: I am quite shameless. If I am offered a part, I’ll have a go at it. I do not go seriously around trying to pick my own parts. That is dangerous. I could fancy myself playing all sorts of things. I could read a book and think, “I would be great in that,” but I don’t think you know what is best. I think it’s much better for somebody outside of yourself to choose the part. You can always say no, if it’s a bad part. You did a TV series in which you played quite another type or role, didn’t you?
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, yes, that was Colonel March of Scotland Yard. It was made in England during the winter of 1953 and ‘54. Were they made for American audiences?
BORIS KARLOFF: Yes, they were made for the American market.
Did you enjoying making the TV series Thriller?
BORIS KARLOFF: Very much, indeed. The man who produced it, Bill Frye, is a very good friend of my wife and I. I have great respect for him. I think he’s a wonderful producer and it’s a great loss to television, because he’s gone to Columbia to make films. How did you initially get involved in doing Thriller? BORIS KARLOFF: I just happened along, and they made this test film, which was called The Twisted Image. I do hope you won’t confuse me with the title. I wasn’t in it, I just did the emceeing. I appear as myself, which is a frightful thing to do to an audience. They do it quite simply. I sort of intrude into the first scene and explain for example, that this nice looking couple is really in for quite a terrifying day, as you shall soon see and then I quietly slip out again. The producers then suggested that I might like to appear in some of the episodes, to which I was most agreeable, because it has been set up quite sensibly I think, as there is no set number of shows which I must do, you see. And it is quite wonderful to use actors instead of “stars”—that abused word that has ceased to have any meaning. It is a sad thing—the awful waste of potential talent you find today.
You have actually done quite a range of things outside of the horror category, haven’t you?
BORIS KARLOFF: That’s a dreadful word… it’s the wrong word… What term besides “horror” would you like to be applied to the films you work in?
BORIS KARLOFF: Well, I think the trapping was, in the early days when they first made these films, they were trying to get one word to express it, and they chose the word “horror.” But the word “horror” has a connotation of revulsion. That’s what the word really means. Well the aim certainly is not to repel you, or to revolt you. It is to attract you. It’s to excite you. It’s to alarm you, perhaps. It’s excitement. I think the word should be thriller, really, or shock, but certainly not horror. So I think “Thriller” is quite the best word for this sort of thing, as the word “horror” has come to mean something else altogether. I mean, if it’s to be a horror show, they put some guts in a bucket and show it to you. That sort of thing, but a thriller, you see, can go anywhere. It’s not tied down to pure mystery, or violence, or murder. That’s one thing you won’t find on Thriller—violence for the sake of violence, shock for the sake of shock. The two skillful men who are in charge of this operation are going to prove that you can have all the suspense, mystery, adventure and excitement you could want, without resorting to violence. I’m quite delighted with the whole thing. You don’t live in Hollywood now, do you?
BORIS KARLOFF: No, I live in London.
In London, that’s right.
BORIS KARLOFF: And in airplanes! (Laughs).
Oh yes, commuting across the Atlantic.
BORIS KARLOFF: I flew a total of 12,000 miles (on a round-trip from London to Hollywood) to do one day’s work filming six of the lead-in’s to Thriller. I thought it would take at least three days, and I must say I was flabbergasted that it only took one. It was filmed at Universal, on the same lot where 30 years earlier I played Frankenstein’s monster. In a way, it was like coming home again. The first season I only appeared in one episode, but it was a little tiresome to fly 12,000 miles just to read the teleprompter, so during the second season I appeared in four shows.
In 1953 you made an Italian film on the island of Ischia, called The Island Monster.
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh God, yes.
Do you remember much about it?
BORIS KARLOFF: No, I haven’t the least idea what it was like. Incredible! Dreadful! No one in the outfit spoke English, and I don’t speak Italian. Just hopeless. I had a very good time, but that’s beside the point. Most of your recent films have been done for American International Pictures. How do you like working for them?
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, they (James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff, the heads of AIP) have been extremely considerate to me. They are very successful and intelligent men. They know their market and they know their field very well. I’m most grateful to them. Their films are beautifully mounted and photographed. They shoot them in about three weeks. How can they do them in that short amount of time? The answer is in the immense amount of preparation, the homework that is done before you ever get on the set and start shooting. That’s when all the money starts to roll out, the moment you assemble the whole thing on the set. Then, if you’re not ready, you’re throwing money out the window. They rent space at a studio, they have assembled one of the finest crews that I’ve ever known, and the crews in the studios out there are really marvelous. They anticipate everything, they are ahead of you, they take a pride in what they are doing, and believe me it makes a difference. Everything is there and ready right down to the last button so that there is no pressure on me as an actor. If I’ve played a scene badly and want to do it again, they say, “sure,” not, “oh, Christ we haven’t got the time.”
______ Obviously, Stephen King is a masterful writer of horror fiction, but one wishes he had done a little more fact checking for his book, Danse Macabre, since it is filled with an incredible number of factual errors. Here are just a few from the short text I’ve quoted from, above:
KING: …fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes…
Mr. King obviously got the total number of Thriller episodes wrong, since it was 67 episodes, not 78.
KING: Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run
When Karloff began Thriller, he was 71 and in fairly good health. His major health problems came in 1963 after Thriller was off the air.
KING: Karloff had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932.
Frankenstein, as most everyone knows appeared in 1931. Karloff did not have to wear weights to stand upright, but needed leg braces to walk in his final years.
KING: Fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (appear on the show) “The Strange Door,” for instance.
Fans will remember The Strange Door, but not because it was an episode of Thriller. It was a Universal feature film starring Karloff and Charles Laughton.
KING: The young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”).
Mr. King’s memory is faulty, as the scene he describes does not appear in “Pigeons from Hell.” The young man is carrying a hatchet with which he attempts to kill his brother, it is not buried in his head.
Let’s see, how do I compare the first movie I ever saw as a five year old to how I see it 50 years later? I’ll begin by sharing that I believe in fate; coincidence is not coincidence. The anime ALAKAZAM THE GREAT (1960) is the first movie and “martial arts” film per se that I ever saw. It’s a Japanese film adapted from a Chinese kung fu novel about the Monkey King, and it was in a theatre in the middle of nowhere England (Tadley), a country still living in the past and distrustful of the Japanese since WW II. Yet there it was.
Coincidentally (or not), I was born in the Year of the Monkey, and when it comes to cinema, Fant-Asia and martial arts films are my shtick, which has just climaxed with the completion of my first book, The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s. The book includes in-depth martialogies on many sci-fi/horror kung fu films made during the 1970s, some of which I’ll exclusively reveal to Cinefantastique Online before the book’s Nov. 2010 release.
Here are my childhood memories of the film. Alakazam was a wee monkey who fights with a pole and zips around the sky on a cloud. He had three friends: a pig; a cannibal who wielded a pole with a half-moon blade that he used to burrow underground; and a Prince. I vividly recall an impish, child-like villain dressed in shorts with a horn on top of his head, which he used like a telephone to call a raging bull with witch-wife who owned a giant feather. Alakazam eventually got home to save his sick monkey girlfriend, and they lived happily ever after.
Now it’s 2010, I had not seen this film since 1961, and I’m quite well versed in the Legend of the Monkey King. I was so looking forward to re-watching this.
According to the English dubbed film version: Majutsoland, which lies off the coast of Japan, is a kingdom reigned by King Amo and Queen Amas. Their son is Prince Amat. The gods see that the animal world needs a new king. Whoever can leap off the waterfall and retrieve a placard from the underwater enchanted palace shall be king. Alakazam (spoken Peter Fernandez; singing Frankie Avalon) takes the leap, becomes king, then decrees he’s smarter and wiser than all humans. To prove it, he challenges Merlin the Magician, beats him, then sets his sights on King Amo and calls him out by defiantly eating the forbidden fruit.
After Amo defeats him, Alakazam is imprisoned in a cold cave on top of a snowy mountain until he learns the stupidity of conceit and selfishness. As monkey girl friend Dee Dee (Dodie Stevens) brings him food, the cold blizzard snow begins to drain her life. Alakazam begs that he’ll do anything to save her. Queen Amas agrees to help if he accompanies her son Amat on a pilgrimage. The ulterior mission is for Alakazam is to learn humility, mercy and wisdom.
Along their way, they run into a large pig named Sir Quigley Broken Bottom (Jonathan Winters) who is trying to force a beautiful maiden into marrying him, until Alakazam saves the day. Rather than killing Quigley, he befriends and hires him to be an extra bodyguard for Amat. They next meet a cannibal named Lulipopo (Arnold Stang); after he tries to eat them, Alakazam spares his life, too, and they now have a third bodyguard for Amat.
Meanwhile, the bratty impish Fister, who has a horn on top of his head, wears shorts, and has a red scarf around his neck, leaps onto screen. Fister wants to rule Majutsoland. His boss, Gruesome, a large raging bull, agrees to help Fister if Fister can kidnap Amat and bring him to Gruesome’s cave. Gruesome plans to collect ransom from King Amo so Gruesome can pay for his wife’s mink-stole habit. Prior to leaving the cave, Gruesome gives his witch-like wife a big fan (looks like a feather), which she uses to turn things into ice with a single swish.
The next thing you know, Fister almost kills the weakening Alakazam; Quigley and Amat are captured by Gruesome and dangled over a large vat of boiling soup, and there’s no ransom demands. Just as Gruesome is about to drop Quigley and Amat into the soup, Alakazam and Lulipopo arrive, rescue Quigley and Amat, and all hell breaks lose. Volcanoes erupt, lava flows, Gruesome and Alakazam are dueling to the death, Quigley steals the fan, and back home Dee Dee is dying.
Why so many details? By knowing the original Chinese story, we can see how easily things get totally lost in translation.
The Japanese anime version calls Alakazam “Saiyu-ki.” It was the third Japanese cartoon ever made in color and the first anime film to come to America (ASTROBOY was the fourth anime feature to hit stateside in 1964). In Chinese classic literature, he is the Monkey King, Swuin Wu-kung from the novel Xi Yo Ji (“Journey to the West”) written by Wu Cheng-an during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Swuin is famous for riding around on a golden cloud and fighting with a pole magically made from a strand of his hair. Accompanied by his kung fu brothers Zhu Ba-jie (a rake-wielding pig) and Xia Wu-jing (a creature with a monk’s spade: long pole with a shovel at one end and a half-moon shaped blade at the other), Swuin sets out to protect Tang San-tsang, a Buddhist monk, while he travels to India to get sacred scriptures.
One of the famous chapters tells how Princess Iron Fan and Ox Demon King want to eat Monk Tang so they can live for 1,000 years, but Tang is protected by Swuin, Zhu, and Xia. However, their son, Red Boy (aka Hong Hai-er) has mastered the Three Types of True Fire in Flaming Mountain, and they order him to kill Swuin. Just as all hell breaks loose, Goddess of Mercy Guan Ying descends from heaven to make peace on Earth.
With this in mind, it’s now pretty obvious who each character in ALAKAZAM represents. The not-so-clear ones are Fister (who is Red Boy), King Ama (who is Buddha), Queen Amas (who is Quan Ying, and Merlin the Magician (who is probably Lao Zi or some other Taoist sage). There was never a plan for ransom; Gruesome wanted to eat Amat.
So how does one compare the first movie you ever saw as a five-year-old to how you see it 50 years later as a film critic? Especially when it’s Chinese story turned into Japanese film turned into a Westernized dubbed version? Beyond all that is wrong with ALAKAZAM – dialogue, plot, character names, added-in songs to make it Disney-appealing, some obvious re-editing, and illogic up to the wazoo – to me, it’s still magical.
Historically, ALAKAZAM is the first Chinese-Japanese martial arts film that got theatrical distribution for mainstream audiences in Europe and America. This alone is a worthy reason for anyone into Fant-Asian films to see the movie. ALAKAZAM THE GREAT (1960). 94 mins. D: Lee Kresel, Daisaku Shirakawa, Osamu Tezuka, Taiji Yabushita. C: Sterling Holloway, Jackie Joseph, Kiyoshi Kawakubo, Arnold Stang, Dodie Stevens, Jonathan Winters, Peter Fernandez, Frankie Avalon.
Back in 1960, with the Cold War at its hottest, the end of the world seemed less like a vaguely disturbing distraction about a possible distant future than like a very real possibility – something that could happen tomorrow. That anxiety fuels THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH, an odd-ball effort from producer-director Roger Corman, about the last three people left alive after the rest of Earth’s population mysteriously disappears, leading to the ultimate love triangle as the two men vie for the affections of the sole remaining woman. Filmed on a shoe-string, the film offers a low-budget apocalypse, too slowly paced to qualify as a good cult film, let alone a classic, and yet a certain aura of existential dread infuses the situation, offering some small redeeming value.
THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH is an example of the cost-conscious Corman’s two-for-one economic strategy: on location in Puerto Rico to film BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND, Corman shot this film as well. Unfortunately, doubling down like this created some scheduling problems – namely the lack of a completed script. Unable to afford bringing the writer on location, Corman came up with a novel solution: hiring scripter Robert Towne (later an Oscar-winner for CHINATOWN) to play the film’s young lead, so that he could complete the screenplay at night when he wasn’t in front of the cameras. Town delivered the pages day by day, throughout the two-week shoot.
Said Corman of the production, “A lot of people see these films today and ask me if I knew I was being existential. No. I was primarily aware that I was in trouble. I was shooting with hardly any money and less time.” *
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the results are less than satisfying. Despite the 71-minute running time, the story develops slowly, and THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH often seems to be treading water. The script has a hood named Harold (Anthony Carbone) and his wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones-Moreland) hiding out in Puerto Rico, along with their lawyer Martin (Towne, under the pseudonym “Edward Wain”). After scuba diving, they surface to find the world mysteriously de-populated and guess that some kind of disaster temporarily destroyed the world’s oxygen supply, eradicating animal life from the planet’s surface. They survive by breathing through their SCUBA tanks until the local vegetion restores enough oxygen for them to breath normally. The struggle to survive is complicated when Evelyn and Martin fall for each other leading to a lethal confrontation…
Surprisingly, the low-key approach to the end of the world (no doubt dictated by the budget) is fairly effective, with the off-screen apocalypse offering an eerie mystery for the characters to solve. Shot in color and widescreen, THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH presents a decent depiction of a depopulated world, realized on location with streets full of empty cars abandoned in the middle of the road.
By focusing on a love triangle, the script scales world annihilation down to the size of a soap opera, but at least the situation is fraught with dramatic potential so obvious that it needs no explanation to the audience: you know the two surviving men will inevitably challenge each other over the titular Last Woman on Earth. To some extent, the older Harold and the younger Martin battle things out in terms of a conflict between the Conservative Establishment and Rebellious Youth; this tends to make us side with Martin, but he turns out to be too pessimistic and self-centered to effectively overthrow the existing authority: he may not like following Harold’s orders, but he has no vision of his own to offer as an alternative.
The conflict ultimately leads to an ending that manages to work up a little genuine feeling, refusing to cop out with a happy resolution as the loser meets his fate in a church. This is one of those happy instances when an apparent mis-step pays off in its own way: none of the characters would likely be anyone’s nomination as a worthy survivor, and the thought of the entire world left in their hands is a depressing one indeed, driving home a sense of despair that might have been muted by the presence of likable heroes.
THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH might have been a great half-hour episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or even a good one-hour television drama. As a feature film, it falls short. Fortunately, it does have a few good things going for it – at least enough so that curiosity seekers will not feel that their time has been totally wasted. THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH (1960). Produced and directed by Roger Corman. Written by Robert Towne. Cast: Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, Robert Towne (as Edward Wain) FOOTNOTE:
THE SILENT STAR (Der Schweigende Stern, a.k.a. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS) is an oddball artifact of the year 1960: a science fiction film that echoes its 1950s predecessors while simultaneously foreshadowing the decade to come, the German-Polish co-production is poised somewhere on the cusp of the artistic and the absurd. Its ambition as serious cinefantastique is proudly displayed, yet the execution seems more appropriate for a tongue-in-cheek space opera. With its heavy-handed message and occasionally trite drama, it is tempting to dismiss THE SILENT STAR as an ambitious failure or a propaganda film posing as entertainment; however, a glimmer of noble intent shines through, demanding and even earning some measure of respect.
This somewhat schizophrenic assessment may surprise Western viewers who know the film only through its truncated U.S. version, retitled FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS and cut down to 79 minutes from an original run-time of 93-to-95 minutes (sources vary). Obviously intended as a lavish epic (in color, widescreen, and four-track stereo), THE SILENT STAR’s flaws shine that much more brightly when the film is reduced to the badly dubbed pan-and-scan prints shown on U.S. television and video; it is even harder to take the film seriously if one’s impression is formed by seeing it riotously ribbed on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.
Fortunately, the original version is available as part of the DEFA Sci-Fi Collection (three films produced at East Germany’s state-run Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft in the ’60s). A good-looking widescreen transfer, with subtitles, is also available on Netflix Instant Viewing; through the running time here is only 89 minutes, nothing obvious seems missing. These European versions contain numerous character scenes and several unflattering references to America’s development and use of nuclear weapons, which were excised presumably to speed up pace and trim THE SILENT STAR’s political message.
Absent the corny star-field of the American prints, THE SILENT STAR begins like an an elaborate roadshow production, with the opening strains of an avante garde score playing against a black screen, as if signalling viewers to take their seats and pay attention. The credits roll over a background of abstract color, immediately giving the impression that one is about to go on some kind of “ultimate trip” akin to either 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) or, even more appropriate, SOLARIS (1970).
Like that later film, THE SILENT STAR is based upon a novel by Stanislaw Lem, in this case The Astronauts. The story follows what happens after a mysterious alien artifact is discovered in the Gobi desert in 1970 (the date changed to 1985 in English dubbing). The artifact, which astrophysicists determine came from Venus, turns out to contain some kind of message, but it’s too damaged to interpret immediately. When Venus remains strangely silent in response to Earth-bound attempts to make radio contact, an international crew is assembled to fly to the planet while translating the message on the way; alarmingly, the message turns out to herald an intended invasion. Landing on Venus, the crew have difficulty locating the residents, but they do encounter strange power sources, architectural structures, and tiny metallic objects resembling insects. Eventually, it becomes clear that the inhabitants of Venus destroyed themselves in a nuclear conflagration before they could invade Earth. The astronauts try to head home, but the still-active Venusian technology causes problems with liftoff… In a way, the best thing about THE SILENT STAR is its opening credits sequence; the combination of color and sound brilliantly awakens our Sense of Wonder, whetting the anticipation for the adventure to come. After that, the film itself has a hard time living up to expectations. The initial scenes on Earth are somewhat prosaic. When the astronauts reach the surface of Venus, the production design and special effects create an effectively alien landscape, filled with strange shapes and swirling colors. However, the colorful design is at odds with the script; you halfway expect Barbarella to come flying by at any moment, and the overall effect begins to feel a bit like touring Disneyland on acid.
It doesn’t help that the pressure suits, rocket ship, other vehicles, though sleek and lovely to look at, suggest collectible toys that should be part of a Major Matt Mason action figure line – the mini talking robot on tractor treads even has what looks like a face. Even worse, the suits worn inside the ship resemble giant condoms with ear muffs.
The dialogue is filled with techo-babble, as if large chunks of the novel’s exposition were simply divided up and shoved into the characters’ mouths. Despite the chatter, the science is seldom convincing; at times it plays like dramatic contrivance, such as the latent Venusian technology capable of creating a gravity field that alternately pins the Earth ship to the surface or flings it into space (all without the characters showing any signs of increased or decreased weight). What function this device served is not clear; it exists in the script simply to create the third- act crisis, forcing some crew members to sacrifice themselves for their comrades. The international flavor of the cast is a nice touch, predating STAR TREK by several years. (The credits even list the cast according to nationality rather than name: e.g., “Kurt Rackelmann as the Indian Mathematician”). Nevertheless, there is a condescending pro-communist attitude: it’s clear that the Soviets have been to the moon first, and they graciously allow an American, Dr. Hawling (Oldrich Lukes) on board their rocket to Venus, even while occasionally guilt tripping him about his country’s use of the atomic bomb against Japan. And the fact that one of the sacrificial lambs is the ship’s sole African astronaut [Julius Ongewe] plays like a bad joke: we may all be brothers in THE SILENT STAR”s Iron Curtain ideology , but the “brother” is left behind. At least “The Chinese Linguist” (Tang Hua-Ta) – who is a biologist on the side! – learns that his experiments have uncovered life on Venus, before he meets his fate.
This latter bit is one of THE SILENT STAR’s few truly affecting moments, capturing both the triumph and tragedy of the mission. Too often, the attempt at a seriousitude yields humorless tone that becomes unintentionally funny. Attempting dramatic, low-key performances, the actors shrug, shakes their heads, and mumble “bah!” as if nothing more important has happened than a light bulb burning out – all while their characters are on a mission to make first contact with an alien culture!
At times, THE SILENT STAR descends into melodrama that is old-fashioned and even sexist, with the lone female crew member, Dr. Ogimura (Yoko Tani), serving the stereotypical role as nurturer and potential love interest, her job as astronaut justified only by the fact that she is, in a sense, not a complete woman. This plays out in a cornball subplot in which Brinkman (Gunther Simon) expresses love for Ogimura and guilt for not having saved her husband’s life on a previous mission: afraid something similar will happen to her, he suggests that she should be giving life – i.e., having babies – instead of risking her own life. In response, Ogimura tells him that radiation poisoning has rendered her sterile.
This last element ties in with the film’s anti-nuclear message, which is delivered with all the subtlety of an H-bomb. As if the presence of an American scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project is not enough, Tani’s “Japanese Doctor” functions to remind us about the fall-out from Hawling’s work: when observing the shadows of bomb victims etched on Venusian walls by a nuclear blast, she says out loud what we should have been allowed to guess: that the scene reminds her of the aftermath of Hiroshima.
With its ill-fated Earth mission discovering an alien world destroyed by nuclear war, THE SILENT STAR plays like a European version of ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950). The eye-catching production values and the eerie electronic music recall FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956). At the same time, the almost pop art approach to space age technology and alien landscapes is pure ’60s, almost psychedelic in its foreshadowing of later sci-fi cinema. Today, THE SILENT STAR is mostly of historical interest as an example of science fiction made behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s. Though no match for SOLARIS, in its original form the film retains enough of its good intentions remain to make it worthwhile viewing.
Click here to read a review of the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 version.
THE SILENT STAR (Der Schweigende Stern, a.k.a. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS). Directed by Kurt Maetzig. Screenplay by Jan Fethke, Wolfgang Kohlahaase, Gunter Reisch, Gunther Rucker, and Alexander Stenbock-Fermor in collaboration with Kurt Maetzig, based on The Astronauts by Stanislaw Lem. Cast: Yoko Tani, Oldirch Lukes, Ignacy Machowski, Julius Ongewe, Michail N. Postinikow, Kurt Rackelmann, Gunther Simon, Tang Hua-Ta, Lycyna Winnicka.
Producer-director Bert I. Gordon is most well known for his low-budget 1950s science fiction pics like THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER, KING DINOSAUR, and ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, but this little seen relic from 1960 is actually one of his better efforts. It is also one of the more entertaining installments of the always enjoyable MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) and his robot pals are on-target with their caustic quips and silly asides, but equally important is that the target of their tirades borders perfectly on the cusp of watchability and absurdity. TORMENTED is not without merit; it simply tries too hard, and layers its melodramatic effects on so thick that you would be tempted to chuckle even without the addition of the MST3K commentary.
TORMENTED plays like a hard-boiled homicide story rammed into a horror film. Jazz pianist Tom Stewart is engaged to Meg, but his old flame Vi (listed in the credits as “VI,” which Joel reads as the roman number for six) refuses to let go, until she conveniently falls off the top of a lighthouse. Unfortunately for Tom, Vi (whose body turns to kelp when he retrieves it from the ocean) returns to haunt him, turning his life into a living hell and generally messing up the approaching nuptials.
The scenario (by veteran George Worthing Yates, whose credits include the excellent 1954 sci-fi effort THEM) is not without interest, wrapped as it is in some moody black-and-white photography and a cool jazz soundtrack. But the whole thing is just a bit over-baked: Tom’s voice-over narration (which Crow likens to Graeme Edge of the Mood Blues, who famously intoned, “Breathe deep the gathering gloom…) tells us more than we need to know, and the supernatural manifestations (though technically competent) are a bit too insistent in their attempts to scare the audience and drive Tom bonkers; many of them would work better as externalizations of Tom’s guilt, but TORMENTED eschews this interpretation, definitely opting for a supernatural explanation. TORMENTED quickly hits a plateau, with Tom repeatedly voicing his defiance to the unseen Vi, despite the tell-tale signs she leaves: a missing ring, footsteps in the sand, disembodied hands. When Vi finally provides a “free-floating full-torso vaporous apparition” (to quote GHOSTBUSTERS), her pose and flowing white dress are less suggestive of a spook than of a hot and sexy femme fatale, as glimpsed on the cover of a paperback novel; also, the staging is a bit static, as if Gordon were afraid that any movement would have ruined the alignment of the composite elements in the special effects shot.
Things pick up a bit when Vi’s ghost sets her supernatural sights on others. TORMENTED even achieves an occasional eerie shudder, as when Meg’s bridal dress mysteriously turns up covered in seaweed or when several characters note the presence of a perfume that Vi used to wear. There is a nice bit with a seeing-eye dog afraid to enter the fateful lighthouse and a fun if slightly melodramatic scene wherein Vi’s unseen spirit interrupts the wedding ceremony, causing all the flowers in the chapel to wilt. TORMENTED is many ways a competent B-movie. Richard Carlson (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) is an old pro who does a decent job with the guilty Tom. Juli Reding has the right look as the vampy Vi. Susan Gordon (director Bert I. Gordon’s daughter) is fine as Meg’s younger sister, an innocent moppet whose presence acts as a continual prick on Tom’s conscience. Joe Turkel (later the creepy bartender in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING) shows up briefly in a nice turn as a would-be blackmailer, who ironically speaks hipper lingo than jazz-man Tom and suspects the pianist’s affair (prompting Crow to remark “Like there’s never been a sex scandal in jazz before!”). The downbeat ending (SPOILER: Tom and Vi’s drowned corpses end up in a mock embrace on the beach END SPOILER) even elicits crocodile tears from the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 cast, suggesting they are almost impressed by the heavy-handed attempt at romantic fatalism. Unfortunately, TORMENTED never achieves the right dreamlike atmosphere to support its special effects. A sequence in which Vi appears as a disembodied head, sitting on a table, is intended as a gratuitous shock (there is no reason for her to manifest in this manner; it’s not as if she died by decapitation), but it comes across as merely funny, especially when Tom picks up the head, wraps it in a towel, and then drops it down the stairs. (Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot recreate the headless scene – to much better comic effect – in one of the host segments.)
With this kind of source material, it is almost inevitable that the crew of the Satellite of Love would have a ball, resulting in one of the better episodes of the always funny MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Verbal references to “body surfing” while Tom tries to retrieve Vi’s corpse from the crashing waves are worth a chuckle, and there is a running gag about “Sessions Presents”: the over-used establishing shot of Tom’s beach-front cabin suggests a commercial for a K-TEL type record collection of pop hits. During one of TORMENTED’s many lighthouse scenes, Joel notes the echoes of Hitccock, remarking, “An aging Kim Novak recreates this scene from VERTIGO.”
The host segments offer fun as well, such as TV’s Frank (Frank Coniff) wearing a “drinking jacket” that comes equpped with the D.T.’s (i.e., a rubber snake). There is a hysterical bit recreating Vi’s death with a miniature lighthouse and dolls, which stand in for pop musicians that Joel and his robot pals would like to see plummet to their deaths (Kenny Loggins, Michael Bolton, etc). “That felt good,” Joel sighs, when it’s all over. Perhaps the funniest segment is a brief throw-away, with Tom Servo and Crow debating whether Lyndon B. Johnson’s presence on the presidential ticket really helped Kennedy win the White House.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’s riff on TORMENTED is currently available via Video on Demand through Netflix Instant Viewing. It is also available on DVD as part of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 11, which also includes RING OF TERROR, THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, and HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND. Rhino’s four-disc box set offers theatrical trailers for several of the films, including TORMENTED. There are interviews with director Bert I. Gordon, his daughter Susan, and co-star Joseph Turkel. Bonus features not directly related to TORMENTED include Mystery Science Hour wrap-around segments, hosted by Mike Nelson as Jack Perkins, and an “MST3K Jukebox” (a compilation of the musical numbers sung by the Satellite of Love crew.” MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, Season 5, Episode 14 (originally aired September 26, 1992). Directed by Kevin Murph. Written by Michael J. Nelson, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Paul Chaplin, Frank Conniff, Bridget Johnes, Kevin Murphy. Cast: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon, Frank Conniff. TORMENTED (September 22, 1960). Directed by Bert I. Gordon. Screenplay by George Worthing Yates, from a story by Gordon. Cast: Richard Carlson, Susan Gordon, Lugene Sanders, Juli Reding. Joe Turkel, Lillian Adams, Gene Roth, Vera Marshe, Harry FLeer, Merritt Stone.
In the hot summer of 1960, one of the few places that had air conditioning in the small town where I lived was the local movie theater. That summer we went to the movies a lot. I can’t remember if it was during THE BELLBOY or THE ALAMO, but there was a preview for William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS and I was hooked. I had to see it.
By 1960 producer-director William Castle was at the height of his career. He had already unleashed such “shockers” as MACABRE, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and THE TINGLER. Castle was a showman first and movie-maker second. I like to think of him as the smiling carny who stood outside the tent and promised things he couldn’t possibly deliver. However, when you are seven years old, you believe him when he promises that the amazing new process of Illusion O will allow you to see 13 ghosts on screen. More importantly, if your nerve deserted you, the process would allow you to make the ghosts disappear. After endless weeks of anticipation, the opening day for 13 GHOSTS finally arrived. Every kid in town had lined up for the Saturday matinee, hoping for one of the coveted seats in the balcony of the Geneva Theatre (please note, I am Canadian and we spell it theatre, instead of theater). Everyone got their own ghost viewer when they entered the theatre, handed out by bored ushers who instructed us that we would need them to see the ghosts.
All the kids who crowded into the theater were wired up on a giant sugar rush powered by soda and chocolate. The air was filled with flying popcorn boxes and anticipation as the lights dropped. The curtain rose and William Castle himself gave us a pseudo-scientific lecture on how to use our ghost viewers. To see the ghosts we needed to look through the red lens, if we were chicken we could make them disappear by looking through the blue lens (as if).
13 GHOSTS is really old fashioned, with bad dialogue, lame acting and cheesy special effects. However, it captivated a group of small town seven-year-olds and even shut up the rowdies in the balcony. 13 GHOSTS follows the adventures of the Zorba family, who always seem to be on the verge of bankruptcy even though Mr. Zorba appears to have a good (albeit somewhat undefined) job at the local museum. The family, who seem like great candidates for a subprime loan, have just had all their furniture repossessed by the finance company, when a telegram arrives (producing one of the few genuine shocks in the film) to inform them that a distant uncle has passed away and left them his house and, as we later find out, his collection of ghosts from around the world.
The late professor Zorba, we learn, had invented a ghost viewer – which was much more elaborate than the cheap cardboard versions we got – that allowed him to see and capture the ghosts and then contain them in his house. All this is explained by a young lawyer who might as well have a flashing sign over his head to indicate his role in all of this. The lawyer was played by Martin Milner, who would go on to television stardom that fall in ROUTE 66.
The Zorba family happily packs up and moves right in. Apart from their dubious financial skills, the Zorbas are also numb-skulls: the father, mother, and daughter are basically throw away characters, while the son Buck stands in for the target demographic, impressionable young boys.
The only lively piece of acting in 13 GHOSTS arrives courtesy of Margaret Hamilton as the mysterious housekeeper. Her performance is enhanced because she doesn’t have much of the clunky dialogue that the script overflows with. Most of her role involves not too subtle references to her classic part as the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Once the ghosts show up the film comes to life. Part supernatural thriller and part old dark house mystery, 13 GHOSTS reaches a more or less satisfying conclusion with the mystery solved, the Zorbas rich and the house ghost free… or is it?
My friends, who hadn’t seen nearly as many horror movies as I had, spent the movie sliding down deep into their seats while I spent the entire film mesmerized. When it was over we all agreed that it was “awesome” or whatever the 1960’s equivalent to “awesome” was, and we all vowed to go again and again.
We never did.
13 GHOSTS created an indelible memory that I carried down the years, refusing to see the film again because I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my recollections of it from the summer of 1960. Several months ago, we watched the DVD of Joe Dante’s MATINEE, and my teenaged daughter asked who William Castle was. We watched the documentary on the William Castle box set that Sony released last year, and she really wanted to see some of the films including 13 GHOSTS.
Finally relenting, I picked up a copy of the DVD that included the ghost viewer version with the color inserts that revealed the ghosts through the tinted lenses (the Sony box set, unfortunately, includes only the all black-and-white version). What would a slightly cynical, hip teenager think of this black and white museum piece? And what would I think after a half a century?
Sure, the story is corny, the acting stilted and the special effects cheesy, but my daughter got caught up in the mystery and the mechanics of her ghost viewer. And, I must confess, for 85 precious minutes, I was sitting amid the flying popcorn boxes, clutching my orange soda and ghost viewer thrilling at flying meat cleavers, headless lion tamers and hidden treasure in a haunted house.
William Castle went on to create ’60s cult classics such as MR. SARDONICUS, HOMICIDAL, and STRAIGHTJACKET. Today he is celebrated for the outrageous gimmicks he employed to draw audiences, and if he were making films today it would be interesting to see what kind of gimmicks he would use.
Fifty years ago his ghost viewer opened a whole new doorway into the supernatural for a generation of bored school children. And as part of that audience I hail him and 13 GHOSTS for making the summer of 1960 a chilling one for my friends and me. 13GHOSTS (1960). Produced and directed by William Castle. Written by Robb White. Cast: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Martin Milner, Rosemary DeCamp, Donald Woods, Margaret Hamilton, John Van Dreelen.
1960 was a blood-red year for the vampire’s kith and kin, with over a half-dozen variations on the theme. There is an international flavor to these sanguine offerings, with blood-drinkers prowling crypts in England, France, Mexico, and Italy; at least one is ensconced inauspiciously in an American flower shop. Some are old-school nosferatu of the Gothic horror variety; others have a decidedly sexier style than seen in classic horror films of earlier eras; one or two are mutant science fiction off-shoots. Some are ugly; others are handsome or beautiful. Some favor old-fashioned black-and-white photography, emphasizing the spooky atmosphere of the crypt and cemetery; others are bold and beautiful in modern color. One or two are classics; others are camp; some might be dismissed as Euro-trash (or celebrated for their daring sexiness, depending on the critic). In short, there such a rich diversity of undead revenants and blood-drinking monsters that it is hard to generalize; you have to take each on on its own terms. Here then is a Photographic Retrospective of the Vampires of 1960.
ATOM AGE VAMPIRE (Seddok, l’erede di Satana)
Our first vampire title (alphabetically speaking) is more of Jekyll-and-Hyde mad scientist film, in which “vampirism” is of the most figurative sort: stealing glands of young victims in order to rejuvenate the beauty of a disfigured woman is a sort of modern variation on draining the life essence. The original Italian title is less misleading, translating roughly as “Seddok, the Heir of Satan.”
BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN)
Italian director Mario Bava’s atmospheric masterpiece of black-and-white horror features two magnificent vampires: Barbara Steele as Princess Asa and Arturo Dominici as Ygor Yavutich (four if you count two of their victims who return from the dead). Burned alive as witches, Asa and Yavutich return from the grave to drain the blood and/or life force of Asa’s descendants. The result is one of the great horror films of all time.
BLOOD AND ROSES (Et Mourir de Plasir [“To Die with Pleasure”])
Next up is French filmmaker Roger Vadim’s ambiguous adaptation of Carmilla, the excellent Victorian vampire novel by J. Sheridan LeFanue. Vadim modernizes the setting and presents a dreamlike atmosphere that leaves the question of vampirism open to debate, yet the film contains memorable imagery that should satisfy fans of the undead.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA
Hammer Films’ first sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA suffers from the absence of Christopher Lee as the Count, but there is an interesting alternative in the form of David Peel as a blond, boyish vampire named Baron Meinster. He also has some lovely brides to keep him company. This English film is one of the best of its kind, even if there is no Dracula in it.
THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS
This interesting Mexican variation on the vampire motif presents the son of the famous oracular prophet, who rises from the grave intent on establishing a cult devoted to magic and the supernatural. So confident is he of his powers that he appears to a renowned scientist and declares his intention of killing thirteen victims, even naming the time and place, just to show how unstoppable he is. German Robles makes a fine, aristocratic vampire, even if bad dubbing undermines the effectiveness for English-speaking viewers.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Before graduating to eating body parts and/or whole human, Audrey the plant begins by drinking the willingly offered blood of Seymour Krelboin, the goofy would-be botanist who created her. Producer-director Roger Corman’s campy classic, written by Charles B. Griffith, is not quite as funny as intended, but it is so weird it has to be seen to believed.
THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE (L’Ultima Preda Del Vampire [“The Last Prey of the Vampire”])
Another Italian entry in the vampire genre, this one offers a sexier slant on the old blood-suckers.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (a.k.a. L’amanti del Vampiro [“The Vampire’s Lover])
This off-beat Italian entry in the vampire sweepstakes is tame on its own terms, but it offers some of the first suggestions of the more explicitly sexual approaches to the theme that will emerge later in Continental vampire films (see THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, above). Along with a couple of fetching female vamps, the film also features one of the ugliest undead this side of NOSFERATU’s Graf Orlock.
THE WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES (El Mundo de los Vamiros)
This eccentric Mexican vampire film features vampires that, for some reason, can be disabled by particular sound waves, leading to a dubious conclusion in which the villain is defeated by someone playing a tune on a pipe organ. Gotta give ’em credit for off-the-wall originality, if nothing else.