As most readers will know, The Batman did come to television in the 1960’s and became a smash success, a pop-art phenomenon that would long outlast it’s short-lived network life in syndication. But the road to the show was a circuitous one.
The first attempt to bring Batman to the small screen was by Ed Graham Jr. (LINUS! THE LION HEARTED), who had optioned the TV rights to Batman from National Periodical Publications. He was planning a straight kid’s adventure show for Saturday mornings. It’s said CBS was interested in airing the proposed program, but no pilot was ever made. Perhaps this is because Graham’s previous outings as director or producer were all in animated cartoons and TV commercials, with no live-action credits that I’ve be able to identify. Without a track record, the network may have been unwilling to finance the show’s development. But Ed Graham would not be the only person to see potential in the caped crusader.
Starting around 1963-64, enterprising theater owners (notably in Chicago) began renting the Batman serials from Columbia for weekend showings, and to everyone’s surprise it began to catch on with college students, who found the old kiddie fodder ‘campy’ — humorous because it’s ridiculous, overdone, or just plain bad in an amusing way. These bookings were so successful that Columbia officially re-released the serials in 1965, with marathon viewings offered as AN EVENING WITH BATMAN AND ROBIN.
Reportedly, ABC network executive Yale Udoff saw the serial at the Playboy Mansion, and thought the idea of a Batman TV series for prime time might be a workable proposition. National’s (DC Comics) option with Ed Graham Productions must have been up, because ABC in partnership with 20th Century Fox were able to obtain the TV and film rights. (Said to be only $7,000.)
ABC originally wanted an action-adventure show, perhaps with a certain amount of coy self-awareness, as in NBC’s THE MAN FROM UNCLE. 20th Century Fox production executive William Self originally approached screenwriter (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER) and spy novelist (The Mask of Dimitrios) Eric Ambler to write a film that would launch a Batman TV series. Ambler passed, and ABC wanted the series to go to pilot quickly, so Self’s choice for producer William Dozier (ROD BROWN OF THE ROCKET RANGERS, THE LOSER) picked Lorenzo Semple Jr. (PRETTY POISON) to write the pilot script. Semple had previously written a modern update of Charlie Chan for Dozier called NUMBER ONE SON, which would have featured Dozier’s discovery — martial artist Bruce Lee. The network wasn’t ready for that idea. They weren’t quite ready for what Dozier and Semple had in mind, either.
William Dozier had obtained several issues of Batman and Detective Comics to read while flying from New York to Los Angeles. He was not happy with what he read, and worried. He felt that if he tried to make a serious adaptation of the comics it would flop, and he would become the laughingstock of Hollywood. The only way to save face would be to spoof the character, play up the straight-faced juvenile aspects as intentional high camp. The kiddies would love it, and the adults could laugh if they wanted. Lorenzo Semple agreed with the approach and signed on.
Batman in the comic books had become almost a mockery of his former self in the late 1950’s to early 60’s. The noir-ish crime stories had given way to more whimsical adventures, visits from space aliens and other pseudo-scientific plot devices, along with juvenile attempts at awkward soap opera with Batwoman and the first Batgirl attempting to interest the dynamic duo in romance.
By 1963, DC was considering canceling at least one of the Batman titles. Editor Julius Schwartz was given control of the books, with carte blanche to make changes. He brought in Carmine Infantino, who had redesigned the Flash into a modern superhero to update Batman’s look. The hero’s increasingly broad ( in more ways than one) cartoon appearance was abandoned, slimming him down and adding a yellow circle around the bat insignia on his chest as a symbol of his “New Look”. Stung by public sniggering about a homosexual context to the Bruce-Dick-Alfred living arrangements, they even took the odd choice of killing off Alfred Pennysworth, and had Dick Grayson’s quickly invented Aunt Harriet Cooper take his place as housekeeper. Sales began to pick up somewhat.
At some point in this process, former NFL football player Mike Henry was apparently up for the part of Batman, and it’s claimed that photos were taken of him in a Batman costume. Whether these were for the CBS or ABC proposals is unclear, nor is the there any certainty this actually happened. (In the late 70’s I was shown a picture purported to be of Henry as the character, but it looked to me like the work of an airbrush rather than a tailor.) Mike Henry would in any case be busy starring as another icon, Tarzan in three films — and did a creditable job.
Many actors were considered for the role by Fox and ABC, including western TV star Ty Hardin (BRONCO), but Dozier had set his sights on Adam West (William Anderson), a handsome actor with a flair for light comedy that he had seen spoofing James Bond (as Captain Q) in a series of Nestle’s Quick commercials. At ABC’s request, he also tested future WONDER WOMAN star Lionel Wagner and former child actor Peter Dyell (MR. NOVAK) as Robin. With West he tested gymnast-turned-fledging actor Burton Gervis as Robin. ABC went with the second pair, and Gervis soon changed his name to Burt Ward. It’s interesting to note that the acting and lighting of the screen tests is noticeably more subdued than what the series would feature.
Going into production on the pilot was a gamble for ABC and 20th Century Fox. Wanting to have a good looking show (and one that could be exploited as a movie), the decision was made to build a big Bat Cave set. Production designers Serge Krizman, Ed Graves and the rest of Jack Martin Smith’s staff proposed a massive, two-story structure, that essentially took up an entire soundstage. (Part of the atomic pile came from the recently wrapped OUR MAN FLINT. ) This and other space concerns at the busy Fox Studios led the company and Dozier’s Greenway Productions to make the series not on their own stages and facilities, but at Desilu’s Culver City Studio. This was the old RKO-Pathe/Selsnick International Studios, not their main facility on North Gower Street, next to Paramount.
KING KONG, GONE WITH THE WIND, and the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN had been filmed there. The backlot (called Forty Acres) was where THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW filmed the Mayberry scenes — and both Desilu 1960’s adventure shows STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE would often visit. The BATMAN crew would often use the same backlot, though certain episodes would use the Fox lot — and the regular location of Gotham City Hall, where Commissioner Gordon’s office was located was actually (a still-standing structure) on the Warner Brothers backlot. The choice of filming at a rental facility, while solving Fox’s immediate concerns, would later have repercussions.
Lorenzo Semple’s pilot episode was loosely based on “The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler” which appeared in Batman #171 (May 1965),written by long-time DC writer Gardner Fox. Semple revised and fleshed out the story considerably, turning the short comic book tale into an hour-long TV series. Actor/impressionist Frank Gorshin (INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN) played the role of the manic and obsessive villain The Riddler, investing the part with great energy and a high pitched laugh inspired by Richard Widmark’s mad psycho killer’s giggle in KISS OF DEATH (1947). Jill St. John guest starred as Molly, a buxom red-head who with the aid of a rubber mask somehow becomes the spitting image of Robin the Boy Wonder.
The show comes off with great style, directed by Robert Butler who also directed the first pilot of STAR TREK. It was full of production value, including comic book-inspired superimposed ‘visual sound effects’ such as POW! BIFF!, etc. superimposed over the fight scenes. The cost of all this flashy, vividly colored action adventure was around a half a million dollars.
The first regular that had been cast was British character actor Alan Napier, to play the role of Alfred. Dozier thought killing the character off had been a mistake on DC’s part, and insisted on including him in the series. Subsequently, the comic books would contrive a science-fictional way of reviving the trusty butler. (Originally as a mutated monster out to destroy the dynamic duo.) The producer agreed with the idea of Aunt Harriet as a blance to the all-male home, and cast Madge Blake (THE REAL McCOYS). Neal Hamilton, with a career as both leads and character roles since the silent days, played the part of Commissioner Gordon. Stafford Repp, once a sound effects man, created the role of Police Chief O’Hara. His faux Irish accent reportedly irritated his irascible co-star Hamilton throughout the series.
Busy jazz and film composer Neal Hefti composed the soon to be famous BATMAN theme, a blues-influenced surf rock number for bass guitar, brass, percussion and vocals that helped set the tone and would win a Grammy.
George Barris proved a sleek black Batmobile, forced by the short time-frame allotted to convert the already existing Ford concept car the 1955 Lincoln Futura. The car, originally pearl white with a double-domed clear canopy, had been painted red for the 1959 comedy IT STARTED WITH A KISS. It was given a through make-over for the pilot, painted glossy black with added details and came off quite impressively on film, though it had be filmed under-cranked to safely exit the narrow Bronson Canyon mine tunnel that was used to depict the exterior of the Bat Cave — and to look as swift as the flame-thrower ‘atomic turbine’ that had been mounted on the back suggested.
The costumes for the caped crimefighters were a good attempt to translate the then-current look of the comic book characters. Costume designer Jan Kemp went to the trouble of matching the color of Batman’s leotards as printed; rather than just gray, they’re actually a subtle mauve, an artifact of how grays were generally achieved in the 4-color process. Unfortunately, the indigo blue material that covered the fiberglass shell of Batman’s cowl had a tendency to quickly turn purple under the stage lights. The cape would face similar problems, and would also be made shorter as the series progressed, so that it wouldn’t get stepped on or snagged in action scenes. The ‘face’ of the cowl was hand painted black, with accents for the nose and eyebrows in lighter blue. The Bat-insignia was a sticker that would be applied and removed daily. Though a printed item, the bat is actually not quite symmetrical. Unfortunately, Batman’s utility belt — made to appear functional — tended to make the in-shape Adam West look a bit thick-set. (Adding to the problem West’s stuntman Hubie Kerns, despite being quite athletic had a slight pot belly, which the belt accentuated noticeably.)
Robin’s costume was right out of the comics, though the cloth gloves in the pilot would be replaced with green leather ones in the series. The palm sides of Batman’s finned gauntlets would be refurbished with suede to avoid tearing.
ABC liked what they saw, and committed to 16 episodes. Of course, the show would have to be audience tested. The reaction nearly scuttled the series. The results supposedly were the worst of any program test in television history. William Dozier thought he knew why; the audience was confused — not getting the concept that the show was essentially a farce. He quickly did some narration with a preface explaining that the idea was to have fun, to ‘hiss the villains and cheer the heroes’ — along with an archly-announced middle cliff-hanger break. It’s rumored that a version with a laugh track was made and tested. Early footage (a network and affiliate promo reel) still exists, scored with stock music from Peter Gunn episodes, which was in the ballpark of what they had in mind. Eventually, well-known big band composer Nelson Riddle would score the show quoting the Nefti theme often, and coming up with distinct personal motifs for the major guest villains as the show progressed.
The show needed work, and initially there was time, as it wasn’t due to premiere until the Fall of 1966. However, ABC had a problem, several of its 1965 season shows were bombing and would be canceled. What was the solution? Launch a ‘second season’ in January of 1966. Batman would be one of the new programs, though the time slots available weren’t the most favorable. ABC figured that kids would be the primary audience, so the show couldn’t be on too late. In the 60’s most children were in bed by 9:00 PM. The answer? Well, the show was inspired by the cliff-hanger serials — instead of coming back after a mid-point break, turn the hour-long show into two half-hour shows at 7:30 on successive nights. Twice the bang for the buck. (There’s some evidence that ABC briefly considered cutting the episodes into 15 minute segments, but if so this never went past initial discussions.)
After a huge promotional campaign, Batman premiered on Wednesday January 12th, 1966. with the episode “Hi Diddle Riddle”. The second segment “Smack in the Middle” aired the next day. The show was an instant hit, with kids excited by the larger-than-life characters and action, and adults generally amused by the then relatively straight-faced spoofing.
Keeping with William Dozier’s plans, well-known actors were sought out to play the guest villain roles. Burgess Meredith would take the part of the top-hatted Penguin, developing his eccentric quacking from trying to suppress coughing from the cigarette smoke of the long holder the character sported. Caesar Romero, once typed as a latin lover, was so amused by the costume designed for the Joker that he cackled helplessly with glee. This became a signature for the role — and to add to the absurdity, rather than shave his trademark mustache, the make-up artists simply spread the clown white make-up over it.
Taking a comic book character originally named Mr. Zero, George Sanders would be the first of theer actors to take on the part of the villain re-named Mr. Freeze (with the supposed identity of a Dr. Shivel in his introductory episode).
TV actor Malachi Throne (IT TAKES A THIEF) would play the role of the always-masked False Face, but the use of name actors coupled with his question mark billing led to insistent speculation that it was really some big star unwilling to show his face — certainly an intended result.
After originally planning for the petite Suzanne Pleshette to take on the part of Catwoman, when she proved unavailable the producers went with the statuesque Julie Newmar, who relished the chance to do more comedy, and she became iconic in the role. New villains would be invented for the show, including King Tut (Victor Buono). Unlike most of the guest foes, who never have their comic book real names mentioned, Tut is given an in-joke secret identity; William Omaha McElroy. William Dozier’s middle name was McElroy, and he was born in Ohmaha, Nebraska.
The show was a huge hit, and a wave of Bat-Mania flooded the airwaves, record shops, toy stores, and even adult nightclubs. Celebrities happily did window cameos on the show as West and Ward walked along a set built sideways, capes held up by wires. Shot with a camera on its side, it gave the illusion of the pair scaling a wall. Adam West in later years would remark that the 1960’s entertainment era might well be thought of as “The Three B’s: The Beatles, James Bond, and Batman.”
Buoyed by the success of the show, 20th Century Fox greenlit a feature film, BATMAN (1966) to be filmed during the series’ hiatus. Rather than Dozier’s Greenway Productions, the film was made by a new production company he created, Greenlawn Productions. This and (presumably other) legal reasons permitted the film to be released on video decades before the TV series would be. Adam West and Burt Ward negotiated nice salaries for the film, but their duties would extend to a great deal of traveling and promotion when it was released. (Up to this point, Ward was only making $350 an episode.)
Caesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin would reprise their TV roles, but Julie Newmar was unexpectedly unavailable for the film. She’d committed to another feature and the production had to scramble to find a replacement. (This is usually said to be McKENNA’S GOLD (1969), but that film didn’t shoot until 1967. I believe the film project Newmar did was the UK-shot Zero Mostel comedy MONSIEUR LECOQ (1967).
It wasn’t until after production had commenced on BATMAN that the producers were able to bring in former Miss America Lee Meriwether (THE TIME TUNNEL) as the Catwoman. The replacement casting makes the idea that Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn’t recognize Catwoman as the romantic interest Russian reporter ‘Miss Kitka’ in the storyline somewhat easier to swallow. The only fanboy explanation for this — as in the series Batman had seen the feline villainess without her mask more or less regularly — is that the film must take place before the Catwoman episodes of the show. There also doesn’t seem to be any hint of the personal attraction the characters shared on the show, despite Wayne’s infatuation with her false assumed identity in the film. The original plan was for a feature to precede the series, perhaps this was a plot ‘hangover’.
The far-fetched sci-fi storyline by Lorenzo Semple Jr. involved the four villains kidnapping the security council of the United World Organization (read U.N.) by dehydrating them into colored powders, with the plan of reconstituting them only after spectacular ransom was paid.
Soon to be The Green Hornet, actor Van Williams did a voice cameo, using his rather good Lyndon Baines Johnson impression as the President. Direction by Leslie H. Martison is serviceable, as is Howard Schwartz’s photography. A number of scenes actually appear a bit less effective or atmospherically shot than comparable ones from the TV show. Running around in broad daylight on real locations seemed to emphasize the ridiculous nature of the material, as did the stronger embrace of outright comedy. The budget (in the area of $1.3 million) allowed for the building of the Batboat and Batcopter, stock footage of which soon would find itself nicely adding production value in the next season of the program.
The film was at best a moderate success in the United States, taking in approximately 3 million dollars, playing mostly kiddie matinees. Adults largely stayed away — why pay for something you could watch free on television? However, foreign box office and re-releases put the film well into profit. (About $7.5 million world-wide over the years.)
The second season saw a number of changes. William Dozier left most decisions up to producers Howie Horowitz and William D’Angelo, while Semple — who’d been serving closely as a story/script consultant — contributed far less frequently. Stories by writers such as Stanley Ralph Ross and Charles Hoffman would venture even more deeply into comedy and farce. Per episode budgets went down, seen with slightly less elaborate sets, somewhat scaled down fight scenes, and more obviously with the money saving expedient of replacing the costly animated overlays with quick cut-aways to solid art cards with rapid lens zooms and color shifts.
Julie Newmar reprised her role as Catwoman, Meredith and Romero returned, but Frank Gorshin’s Riddler did not appear in the second season, apparently due to a salary dispute. John Astin (THE ADDAMS FAMILY) donned the green tights for one two-parter and Maurice Evans (PLANET OF THE APES) received a re-written Riddler script as The Puzzler — a minor Superman villain. Batman co-creator Bill Finger (and writing partner Charles Sinclair [THE GREEN SLIME]) brought in Green Arrow nemesis The Clock King (Walter Slezak) — though mixed with Finger’s earlier creation The Clock, and not quite like either iteration in the BATMAN episodes. Many more villains invented for the show appeared in the second season, allowing guest roles for actors as diverse as Vincent Price, Van Johnson, Cliff Robertson, Michael Rennie, and even Liberace.
To try to save THE GREEN HORNET series, the titular crimefighter and Bruce Lee’s Kato appeared, to no avail. The Hornet would fly no more, and The Batman was soon to get his wings clipped, though not as drastically.
Though ratings were still good, they were not as spectacular as they had been. Batman was an expensive show, and the Wednesday show was consistently weaker in its audience draw. Women and girls were less interested than males. It was time to shake things up a bit.
Dozier had been conferring with the DC editors regarding female interest, and Julius Schwartz, Carmine Infantino and Gardner Fox came up with a new Batgirl (Betty Kane had been Bat-Girl, niece and partner of the Kathy Kane Bat-Woman of the `50’s.) This updated version would be Barbara Gordon, the previously unknown librarian daughter of Commissioner Gordon.
Former Miss America (1959) Mary Ann Mobely was the first actress considered for the role. (She was the first April Dancer on THE MAN FROM UNCLE in a backdoor pilot episode, when THE GIRL FROM UNCLE went to series Stephanie Powers got the part, instead.) Yvonne Craig, a dancer and film actress (two Elvis Presely musicals IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR  and KISSIN’ COUSINS ) was chosen to portray Batgirl in a presentation film for ABC.
The network approved the actress and the concept, so much so that they briefly considered giving her a solo lead-in series. Craig was given a vivid purple and yellow version of the comic book character’s somewhat more subdued costume, featuring a mask with sharply angled points on the cheekbones in the non-broadcast short. These left red marks on her face, so they would be eliminated when the character was added to the show.
The try-out film had suggested a teasing romantic relationship between Batman and Batgirl, this would be largely ignored in the third season. There wouldn’t really be time in the once-a-week 30 minute format. There was also about half the money, since the costs weren’t being spread over two episodes.
As the third season progressed, new weekly settings for hide-outs and other script locations gradually disappeared, with black ‘limbo’ sets filled with simple props, often two-dimensional brightly painted cut-outs similar to pop-art stage dressings taking the place of more realistic designs. 20th Century Fox was known for such cost-saving shortcuts on Irwin Allen’s science fiction adventure shows (LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL, et al), though those shows benefited from having accrued a good supply of technical-looking set pieces that were available to fill up space. BATMAN would beg and borrow some of these assets.
Nelson Riddle left most of the third season scoring to his associate Billy May, a jazz trumpeter turned composer/arranger who had also scored THE GREEN HORNET series. He wrote a brassy Batgirl theme to give the character a sense of edgy action, although the producers limited the motor-cycle-riding heroine to relatively lady-like kicks rather than trading punches with evil-doers.
Frank Gorshin would return for a single appearance as the Riddler, but Julie Newmar was unavailable (actually filming MCKENNA’S GOLD this time), so the producers brought in singer/dancer Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. Choosing a black actress was a bit of a daring move in 1967, but the show defused the characters’ former sexual tension. With a great purr, Kitt was a fiercer feline adversary, more interested killing Batman than kissing him. The over-all attraction to the Caped Crusader was winding down.
However, BATMAN very nearly went to a fourth season. ABC was willing to renew the series, with several caveats. To 20th Century Fox’s complaints of insufficient budget to cover production costs, the network had some ideas to further streamline the show. Madge Blake, already ailing and only appearing in two third season episodes would not be in the new season. To save time and money, Chief O’Hara was considered unneccesary. Most surprisingly, the network felt that they could dispense with Burt Ward’s Robin, and that Batman and Batgirl would become the new dynamic duo. William Dozier and Adam West both protested the elimination of Stafford Repp’s and Ward’s roles. 20th Century Fox wasn’t happy with the idea of essentially financing a portion of the show out of their own pocket. The studio felt they probably had enough episodes to go into syndication. Not getting the response they wanted, ABC cancelled the show.
What to do about the huge Batcave set filling up that rental stage at Desilu Culver? Hold it for a couple of weeks while Fox offered the series to the other networks, just in case. NBC had evidenced some interest. Weeks passed without firm results, and the Batcave set was bulldozed.
The next week, NBC contacted Fox Television to say that they’d pick up the series, and even restore it to it’s twice-weekly format. But the main set was gone. How much to rebuild it? At least a half million bucks, maybe more because some of the re-purposed set-pieces such as the atomic pile had been destroyed. NBC didn’t care to pick up that tab.
However, this seemingly effective death-trap did not kill off the show’s career on TV.
20th Century Fox was right, the series 120 episodes were perfect for local syndication, and even ‘stripped’ daily, kids would not tire of the series for decades.
True, comic-book devotees would revile the show, even if those who had been kids when the show debuted might harbor some nostalgia for the series. This nostalgia would grow after BATMAN was no longer found daily on local stations. It would have seemed perfect for release on video, but there were major problems involved.
National Periodical Publications/DC had been sold to Kinney National (originally a parking garage concern) in 1967. By 1969 they would buy up Warner Brothers/Seven Arts studio and holdings. (Bob Kane profited by this, as the new Warner Communications wanted to own all the characters free and clear. He walked away with millions, ultimately. ) By the time the video revolution came about, Warner Bros. (Time-Warner) who owned Batman, and Fox Television who co-owned the series with Greenway Productions were at loggerheads. Neither corporate entities wanted the other to be able to release and profit by the show. William Dozier, and then more complicatedly his heirs wanted whatever profit they felt they were due, and all guarded their interests fiercely.
Ultimately, an accord was reached, and now in November of 2014 the show is finally coming to video with DVDs and Blu-rays, complete with special features with Adam West, Burt Ward, and others. A decades-long cliffhanger has been at long last resolved.
But what of Batman’s fate in film and television? The 60’s TV series had cast a light on the Dark Knight, bringing him into widespread public notice, far more so than comic books, newspaper strips and serials ever had. However, his three years in the limelight would also throw a long shadow, keeping the character squarely pegged as kiddie fodder by Hollywood for nearly twenty years. Yet he would return, and once again a kind of Bat-Mania would sweep the entertainment world.
As most readers will know, The Batman did come to television in the 1960’s and became a smash success, a pop-art phenomenon that would long outlast it’s short-lived network life in syndication. But the road to the show was a circuitous one.
Part Three: The 4-Color Hornet
In The Golden Age
The Green Hornet is a natural character for comic books. Several radio characters made that leap, including The Shadow, the Lone Ranger, and Captain Midnight.
Green Hornet comic books first appeared with a cover date of December, 1940 — due to the three months in advance dating policy of most publishers, it probably hit the stands in Spetember of that year.
The first series, titled Green Hornet Comics, were published by Helnit/ Holyoke Comics. Unlike most comic book publishers, who were based in New York, they were located in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Stories were credited to Fran Striker, but they were likely freely adapted, possibly directly by the artists from Bert Whitman Associates.
This was one of the many “art shops” put together to supply publishers that did not have full-time comic book staff with product, often churned out in what approached assembly line fashion –- perhaps even sweat-shop conditions under some bosses. Bert Whitman was an editorial and comic strip artist who was also involved in comic books, considered at that time a real step down from newspapers.
Though portrayed with the correct black half-mask on the first issue’s painted cover, the character was soon depicted wearing a green mask with a black hornet on it –- which is much easier to draw and reproduce via rapid printing on cheap newsprint paper.
The Helnit series only lasted six issues, ending in 1942, but was quickly picked up by Harvey Comics. They continued with Helnit’s numbering, their first being #7.
The cover and some of the interior work was by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, creators of Captain America, and veterans of NY art shops, who later started their own shop. On the cover of #7, the Hornet insigna was omitted from the Green Hornet’s mask. This would apparently happen from time to time in the rush to get the work done.
Harvey did well with the series, which trumpeted the fact that The Hornet was a star On the Air and In the Movies, and published 40 issues by mid-1949. (Technically, the comic was renamed The Green Hornet Fights Crime with issue #34, and The Green Hornet, Racket Buster with #44 –- although on the covers it actually read: Radio’s Racket Buster: The Green Hornet.)
It’s unclear who who and/or adapted the stories for the printed page, though possibly artists/writers like Arthur Cazeneuve (who also drew the golden age Blue Beetle, a super-powered, chainmail-wearing riff on the Hornet, with his own, short-lived Mutual Network radio show) did the work themselves.
Artwork was by a number of hands, possibly by the freelance shop run by Cazeneuve and his brother Louis. A large portion of the work is by Al Avison, who did a lot of Captain America art and other heroes for Marvel Comics, often emulating the Simon/Kirby style.
The Green Hornet also appeared in other Harvey comics from time to time, and other Harvey heroes and features shared his title. It was during the Harvey run that the comic book Hornet began to dress mostly all in green, possibly a result of being handled by people who were more familiar with conventional costumed superheroes, who tended to wear distinct and seldom varying “uniforms”, rather than simply slipping on street clothes and a mask as disguise.
I should note that the Harvey series fairly consistently depicted Britt Reid as having blond hair, which was how it was described in the radio series.
After the radio show went off the air in 1952, Dell comics published a single issue with the character (Four Color Comics #486) in 1953. The painted cover artwork was by Frank Thorne, who also did Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim comics. In later years, he would do “good girl art” for Marvel’s Red Sonja, inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.
Whitman Books put out three ‘Better Little Books’, small hard cover books for children, with many comic book style illustrations enlivening the stories. They were The Green Hornet Strikes (1940), The Green Hornet Returns (1941), and The Green Hornet Cracks Down (1942), all credited to Fran Striker.
The Lone Ranger also had books of these variety published, along with a newspaper comic strip, and his own pulp magazine. Despite seeming a natural choice for the blood and thunder single-character pulps, The Green Hornet never cracked that market.
The Lone Ranger made it to television in 1949, and was eventually joined by WXYZ’s Sergeant Preston of The Yukon. However, for various reasons, The Green Hornet did not generate a 1950’s TV series.
George W. Trendle felt that The Hornet could be a big hit on television. Sponsors, on the other hand, were concerned that the grim, violent, often cynical world that Britt Reid lived in would not be as acceptable to parents as the more wholesome and perhaps as importantly, distanced by history adventures of the masked rider of the plains. The adventures of a vigilante in the old West had a nostalgic, fairy tale-like quality, the Hornet lived in uncomfortably relevant modern times.
This had already become a concern on the radio series, with The Green Hornet being eventually cleared of the murders attributed to him, and becoming an ally of Police Commissioner Higgins, a friend of Britt’s father Dan Reid, both of whom now knew Britt’s secret and noble purpose.
Frustrated by a lack of positive response from potential sponsors, George Trendle actually went to the extent of paying for a TV pilot to be made in Hollywood, out of his own pocket (or the company’s). In 1952, LONE RANGER producer Jack Wrather put together a half-hour film, directed by Paul Landres (THE RETURN OF DRACULA), and starring one of radio’s Sam Spade actors and game show host Steve Dunne as the Hornet.
The pilot did not sell the show to advertisers, likely because the pilot’s budget was someting under $30,000 – an insufficient amount to fund an action-adventure show, and the results probably showed onscreen. Shopped around for several years, this reportedly unimpressive production is said to be lost, with no surviving prints, and even still pictures are elusive. The only photo I’ve ever seen is one of the gas gun made for the production, which is a ringer for the one on the cover of the Dell comic. Could that one-shot also have been a back-door attempt to sell sponsors on a series, or other Green Hornet projects?
At one point Trendle had contacted Universal Studios, inquiring if perhaps episodes of the movie serials could be cut together to form an inexpensive TV series, presumably as a sort of trial run for a new program. This did not come to pass, either.
It would not be until the mid-1960’s that the Green Hornet would make the jump to television. When it did, a new take on an old character would change the balance of the Green Hornet and Kato team—probably forever.
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.
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.
13 GHOSTS (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.
A colorful Hollywood adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel.
I cannot recall when I first heard of George Pal’s 1960 production of THE TIME MACHINE, but it must have been in one of the many books about science fiction cinema that I read as a teenager in the 1970s. At a very tender age, I had seen the first part of Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) on television; it was a school night, so I had to go to be before the conclusion, but the sight of the Martian death ray rising up out of the mysterious meteor and blasting three helpless humans left an indelible impression. Consequently, learning that Pal had produced another adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel was more than enough to pique my interest. I probably caught some or all of the film on television, but in the days before widescreen, high-def televisions and cable stations that show movies uncut and uninterrupted, I did not reckon a television viewing as really “seeing” a film. Fortunately, I got a chance to experience THE TIME MACHINE on the big screen in 1979, thanks to science fiction film festival at the old Tiffany Theatre on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Did it live up to my enthusiastic expectations? Yes and no.
I found THE TIME MACHINE to be a lavish and entertaining production, but at that time I was a film student rapturously enamored of modern cinematic technique, and THE TIME MACHINE was a bit too old-fashioned for my taste. Also, the special effects, although colorful, were sometimes transparent in their phoniness; I recall with disappointment noting the visible matte lines as the Time Traveller (Rod Taylor) walks through a future world with a stone idol in the background.
To some extent, I was also a bit disappointed with the divergence from Wells’ 1895 novel, which I had read in grade school. Although I did not know it at the time, Wells had written two versions of The Time Macine: the first was serialized in a magazine; the second was published in book form, and there were significant alterations between the two. In retrospect, I realize that, if there were elements missing from the film, it was not necessarily because a Hollywood screenwriter deleted them; the real reason might have been that Wells himself had removed them during his second pass of the novel. (For example, the original version has an episode near the end, set in the distant future, when the unnamed Time Traveler finds small mammals that – it is clearly implied – are the last evolutionary descendants of humanity. These creatures are missing from the version published in book form.)
Looking back, I am more willing to forgive THE TIME MACHINE for expanding and updating the source material to make it work in the film medium and to bring its concerns up to date for the audiences of 1960. The result is a film that is an interesting time capsule in its own right, in some ways quaint, even naive, but nevertheless entertaining, though perhaps not always for the reason originally intended. For example, the futuristic Eloi (mostly inarticulate in the book) speak perfectly good (albeit simple-minded) English; their childlike size has been increased to adult dimensions, and they are given blonde sugar-bowl hairstyles, so that they resemble apathetic California beach bums. On the one hand, this also allows for a captivating romantic interest in the form of the charming Yvette Mimieux (a more child-like character in the original). On the other hand, it feels very much like parental finger-wagging, with the Old World Pal using the Eloi to make a snide comment on the hedonistic “younger generation,” who are portrayed as lazy and ignorant, living the good life without lifting a finger to work or create. As the Time Traveler (here named George) says:
What have you done? Thousands of years of building and rebuilding, creating and recreating so you can let it crumble to dust. A million years of sensitive men dying for their dreams… FOR WHAT? So you can swim and dance and play.
The most interesting aspect of this, for me anyway, is that the appearance of the Eloi seems so clearly to be of 1960s. The decade has barely started, and Pal is presenting this image as if it will be instantly recognized by the target audience of presumably disapproving adults. I would have expected something that was a bit more of a holdover from the 1950s. Oh well, perhaps Pal, like Rod Taylor’s character, was able to see what the future would bring.
More important than the film’s attitude toward the youth of 1960, THE TIME MACHINE jettisons Wells’ evolutionary angle and the social criticism that went with it. In the book, the sun-dwelling Eloi and the cave-dwelling cannibalistic Morlocks are portrayed as the inevitable if unpleasant result of the schism between the affluent ruling class and the downtrodden workers. In the movie, mankind devolves into the Eloi and the Morlocks not because of unstoppable forces of biology and economics but because of a nuclear holocaust. The end result in the year 802,701 may seem almost the same, but there is a major difference: what has gone wrong in the movie, we are left in no doubt, can be undone.
Consequently, when the George disappears from his own era, never to return, we are not left to speculate that he may have been devoured by “the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times”; instead, we know that he has gone back to the future to lift mankind back up from its dismal situation. Again, this may disappoint those who desire a faithful version of Wells, but the nuclear element gives the film its own context. Whether this is better or worse than the original is less important than the fact that, fifty years later, it renders THE TIME MACHINE as an interesting time capsule of an earlier era, its fears and concerns expressed in a popular artistic medium, in the same manner that Wells expressed the zeitgeist of his era in the novel.
Seen today, THE TIME MACHINE remains a reasonably elaborate affair, with impressive production values and fine special effects (even if these are somewhat dated, they do not undermine the movie.) The old-fashioned cinematic style, which previously disappointed me, now seems part of the film’s charm – a sort of look back at how movies used to be made. The Moorlock makeup is reasonably frightening (in part because their scenes are filmed mostly in underground darkness), turning them into memorable movie-monsters. And there is a decent amount of spectacle for the eye (e.g., exploding volcanoes, nuclear bombs). The film even has a fair degree of visual poetry, as when the Time Traveler asks to learn more about the Eloi by looking at their books: an Eloi takes George to a dilapidated library and hands him an ancient volume, which promptly crumble into dust in his fingers. George concludes ruefully that the books do, indeed, tell him all he needs to know about the Eloi.
Overall, while perhaps not a masterpiece, George Pal’s version of THE TIME MACHINE deserves to be considered a classic of science fiction cinema – a piece of old-fashoined filmmaking expressing a decent amount of intellectual ambition in the context of a rousing adventure story.
THE TIME MACHINE (1960). Produced and directed by George Pal. Screenplay by David Duncan, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Cast: Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux, Sebastian Cabot, Tom Helmore, Whit Bissell, Doris Lloyd.
Although many younger television and movie fans may think that the 1970s represent an archaic time in entertainment, there were certain advantages to growing up during this period. One was that television was all about local markets, and this made it necessary for local stations to find programming that would keep the viewer’s attention. One reservoir often tapped during this period was horror films, not only as late night fare, but also as afternoon and weekend entertainment. This television broadcasting circumstance worked to my advantage as a young fan of the wondrous and horrific: it opened a world of horror cinema that is hard to find today, short of rare videos at specialty stores or online. One such film that holds a special place in my heart is HOUSE OF USHER, which I knew by its alternative title in the U.S. and U.K. (as well as on the DVD cover I hold in my hand as I write this article), THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER.
I first saw this film as a teenager, and it came with a sense of great anticipation. At an early age, I had gravitated toward all things fantastic and the horrific, and this included the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. I developed a habit of searching each week’s TV Guide and circling the fantasy, science fiction, and horror film, so that I could watch as many as my parents would allow me to see. In past programming searches, I had learned of a series of horror films based upon Poe’s writings. I had already seen THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), and enjoyed those immensely. Now HOUSE OF USHER was soon to air, and I was sure it would deliver the same cinematic frights. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.
HOUSE OF USHER tells the story of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who has traveled to the house owned by the Usher family in search of his fiancé, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). He is anxious for her to leave with him in order to be married, but Madeline’s brooding brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), desperately desires that she stay in the home. He is convinced that she is tainted by the family curse, which Roderick feels he shares as well, as does the Usher house that is literally fracturing around them. After some conflict between these characters over Madeline’s fate, she apparently dies following an argument with her brother and is buried in the family crypt, located in the basement. Winthrop eventually discovers that Madeline was buried alive, with the full awareness of her brother, but has escaped her tomb to prowl the grounds as a mad woman intent on seeking vengeance for her death. Eventually, the last two remaining Ushers meet their tragic end, as does their house, fulfilling the alternative title of this film both metaphorically and literally.
Much critical analysis has been devoted to director Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, often to the neglect of his other films, but this is not without good reason. Corman had himself been inspired by Poe as a young person, and was able to adapt this source material for a popular audience of the period. Although the Poe films were produced on modest budgets, Corman was able to maximize the investment in order to produce atmospheric and frightening films without recourse to lavish special effects or gory makeup, which would become popular in the 1970s and which dominate contemporary trends in horror.
HOUSE OF USHER, and the other series of Poe films directed by Corman, have the distinction of being part of the brief revival of American gothic horror that had been fueled by television broadcasts of the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the fresh interpretations of these classics by Britain’s Hammer Films. While this classification has some merit, HOUSE OF USHER may also be understood as a hybrid in keeping with another trend in horror from the period. HOUSE OF USHER is in a sense Gothic, in that it takes place against the backdrop of a mansion that appears at first glance to be a haunted house; however, it is not haunted in typical supernatural fashion by ghosts or poltergeists. Instead, the haunting of the Usher House takes place through the troubled psyches of the homeowners who wrestle with their family legacy. In this sense it is similar to another classic of 1960 cinema, PSYCHO, which signaled a shift from supernatural horror in the 1930s and 1940s, and the science-fiction-horror of the 1950s, to an internalization of horror (horror is not the supernatural other; it is us) that would later take a quantum leap forward with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
HOUSE OF USHER was well received by audiences in 1960. One of the “fun facts” included with the DVD release, as part of the MGM Presents Midnite Movies series, states that it “scored among the top 5 box office hits of 1960.” But how well does it hold up today? That depends upon what one is looking for in a horror film. If one is a fan of much of the drivel seen in contemporary horror cinema, then you are likely to find HOUSE OF USHER disappointing. Fortunately, if you have a broader appreciation for horror, you will likely find this film of continued value.
Beyond the rich atmosphere emodied by the Usher House, and the great performance of Vincent Price (who would continue to build on his work as the horror actor successor of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), HOUSE OF USHER provides something for viewers who want to probe a little more deeply into horror. One of the film’s interesting facets is its treatment of the struggles of personal identity within the context of family legacy, particularly a dysfunctional one. Roderick Usher is convinced that he is doomed by the Usher curse, and that neither he nor his sister can escape. Rather than engaging in a flight of fancy and illusion by trying to flee, he has consigned not only himself but also his sister to what he sees as an inevitable outcome. Contemporary audiences are perhaps more aware of the dysfunctional nature of all families (to some degree) than were audiences of the 1960s, and this self-awareness – coupled with the realization that, despite a problematic family history, it may still be possible to transcend the “curse” of the lineage and the past – makes this film relevant for the present day, and an item for self-reflection.
If you are a horror fan who hails from my generation, then a new viewing of HOUSE OF USHER will provide a nice trip down memory lane. If you are a younger fan interested in considering a solid piece of horror filmmaking now celebrating its 50th anniversary, then this film is worth adding to your library.
I didn’t see BLOOD AND ROSES when it was originally released; I first encountered it while reading early books on genre films, where it was mentioned very favorably, and I was particularly haunted by the image of a man in a bat-mask with spread wings bending over a beautiful woman, which appeared in the book The Seal of Dracula. The director was Roger Vadim, a French filmmaker whose work I would come to know well, both for its positive attributes (Vadim specialized in featuring the most beautiful women in Europe, and his work tended to have a lush look) and for its failings (consistently, he was an awkward storyteller with threadbare characters and not much substance). For those who view films for their storytelling, Vadim consistently disappoints, but for those who view movies for their indelible imagery, his work has many delights, and BLOOD AND ROSES remains one of his strongest features.
I was not impressed by Vadim’s other cinefantastique offerings (the first — and worst — part of SPIRITS OF THE DEAD and the Jane Fonda vehicle, BARBARELLA). Though BLOOD AND ROSES shares the same pros and cons, it is by far the best of Vadim’s genre films, and it is significant and important in its own right. Once more, the words are often stilted, the characters underdeveloped, and the plot barely coherent, but this film has images that will haunt you and become part of our collective consciousness.
Vadim’s original title for the film was ET MOURIR DE PLASIR, which translates as “To Die With Pleasure,” and the European version was 13 minutes longer than the 74-minute re-edit that made it to U.S. shores . Still, to see Americanized BLOOD AND ROSES is to see the origin of so-called Eurotrash horror; much of the basic imagery would be mined in that particular sub-genre for decades to come, including the pioneering effort to feature a lesbian subtext.
Since BLOOD AND ROSES is difficult to see, I will provide some details concerning its plot and characters. The film is narrated by the spirit of Millarca, a member of the Karnstein family, who kept a villa in Italy and were rumored to be vampires. Though set in what was then contemporary times, Millarca identifies with the world of the spirit, which she says is the Old World. She begins relating the story of her current incarnation.
At Karnstein Castle, Carmilla Karnstein (Elsa Martinelli) from Austria has come to visit her beloved cousin Leopoldo (Mel Ferrer) before his wedding to Georgia (Annette Vadim). Leopoldo has hired a premier pyrotechnician Carlo Ruggieri (Alberto Bonucci) to put on a fireworks display for the engagement party, which he intends to set up at the site of a ruined abbey nearby, along with its adjacent cemetery.
Gradually we discover that Carmilla has fallen deeply in love with her cousin Leopoldo and has become bipolar — one minute deliriously happy and the next hopelessly depressed. Ruggieri’s fireworks set off a hidden cache of German explosives, frightening the crowd and loosening Millarca’s sepulcher. Dressed in a white wedding dress, Carmilla wanders through the smoke-drenched abbey, drawn by the presence of Millarca, who takes possession of her body.
The next morning Carmilla walks back to the castle and falls asleep on a bed, where Leopoldo and Georgia find her. Georgia watches as Leopoldo takes Carmilla to her room, observing, “I ought to be jealous of her, but I’m not.” Later, Georgia bends over Carmilla only for Carmilla to suddenly grab her by the wrist with an ice-cold hand. This bit of entrapment becomes linked to a subsequent scene in which groundskeeper Guiseppe (Serge Marquand) has captured a fox and put it on a leash for Georgia, only for it to break away from her at the approach of Carmilla.
BLOOD AND ROSES then delights in giving hints that Carmilla has become a vampire, as when Georgia asks her if she likes the sun, and Carmilla replies, “No, it burns.” There is a dream-like scene of Guiseppe standing next to a fire, and through the flames we see the approaching figure of Carmilla in a white dress, only for her to appear on the other side of him, moving away. Carmilla recalls the abdication of the Hapsburgs as if it were a recent event, and suddenly knows how to dance to classical music, connecting her to another time. Once a talented equestrienne, Carmilla now finds horses start and shy away in her presence.
Millarca, having taken possession of Carmilla, announces that she has to return to her grave and that she needs “nourishment — blood!” as she eyes Lisa (Gabriella Farinon), the family’s servant girl who lives in a cottage nearby. Carmilla pursues her, and Lisa is later found dead by two young girls who tend the sheep. The doctor who examines the body pronounces her death an accident, though Guiseppe tells the girls that a vampire is to blame, and the girls later take to wearing garlands of garlic.
There follows a few set pieces that BLOOD AND ROSES is most famous for. During a rainstorm, Georgia confronts Carmilla, telling her that she knows Carmilla is in love with Leopoldo. Carmilla tells her that she’s wrong as Carmilla is dead. Georgia gives Carmilla a red rose and promises to always be her friend. A thorn of the rose pricks Georgia’s lip and Carmilla kisses the blood away, thinking, “One drop is not enough. I must have more, much more.” (How much more is probably part of what was excised from the American release). Per vampire legend, the rose quickly loses its color once Carmilla touches it.
Complicating matters, Leopoldo invites Carmilla to join them on their honeymoon to the Caribbean, but when Carmilla sees herself in a mirror, she sees a spreading bloodstain on her white blouse near her heart — the stain only visible in the mirror image. This panics her, causing her to flee to her bedroom and rend her dress. Concerned, Leopoldo comes to her and begins kissing her on her bed.
The final great setpiece is a dream sequence reminiscent of the work of Cocteau. The dream is Georgia’s and is presented in black and white with color vividly intruding in two instances. The first is of Carmilla with a white scarf around her neck from which spurts crimson blood. The dead Lisa swims by the window and Georgia follows her by opening the window and diving into the water – wandering past dancers at the estate, a gateway to the real world (with color and a man on a horse carrying a woman), a corridor with many women, and finally two nurses escorting her to an operating room with all the nurses wearing bright ruby gloves. There she sees Millarca as the surgeon and Carmilla as the patient on the operating table. The two women seem to embrace and spin as Georgia wakes up screaming.
The cinematography is by Claude Renoir, who worked with Renoir on THE GOLDEN COACH and THE RIVER, and later shot SPIRITS OF THE DEAD and BARBARELLA for Vadim, as well as the James Bond adventure THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. The great costumes, including that haunting bat mask, are by Marcel Escoffier, and Juan Andre and Robert Guisgand handled the memorable production design.
As in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, near the end a doctor offers a rational explanation of what has been transpiring. He says that Carmilla has been sick for some time now and, given the impossibility of her love for Leopoldo, retreated into a world of fantasy, living like a child in a dream where she could take Georgia’s place and have Leopoldo all to herself. Overhearing the explanation, Carmilla wanders off toward the abbey, where the army is detonating remaining explosives, and she is killed, with blood dripping down her blouse as in the dream when her body lands on some barbed wire.
However, Millarca gets the last word: as Leopoldo and Georgia return from their honeymoon and travel from Paris to Rome by plane, Leopoldo fails to notice that the rose he gives to Georgia suddenly fades at her touch. Millarca has finally claimed her elusive lover by possessing yet another victim.
Though talky and slow at the start, BLOOD AND ROSES features ripe imagery that would keep other filmmakers such as Mario Bava and Roger Corman very busy over the rest of the decade, doing their own variations of the tropes Vadim presents here.
While BLOOD AND ROSES was lensed in Technicolor and the Technirama widescreen process, thus far Paramount has seen fit to release only a faded pan & scan presentation on VHS in the ep mode, and then only in its dubbed and shortened American version. Now if only dedicated cultists could convince Paramount that this rarely screened classic deserves to be seen on video in this country in its original and complete form.
BLOOD AND ROSES (Et Mourir de Plasir [“To Die with Pleasure], 1960). Directed by Roger Vadim. Screenplay by Claude Brule, adaptation and dialogue by Roger Vadim and Roger Vailland; based on “Carmilla” by J. Sheridan LeFanu. Cast: Mel Ferrer, Elsa Martinelli, Annette Vadim, Rene-Jean Chauffard, marc Allegret, Alberto Bonucci, Serge Marquand, Gabriella Farinon, Renato Speziali, Edith Peters, Giovanni Di Benedetto.
ATOM AGE VAMPIRE was a film that haunted me as a youngster. It seemed a very modern nightmare, a science fiction variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A well-meaning doctor who willingly turned himself into a monster to both prove his theories and possess the woman of his obsessive desire. The dark, oppressive atmosphere, seedy locations, and dream-like transformations made many appearances in my own dreams. After local New York stations stopped showing horror films on a weekly basis, I didn’t see it for many years.
I was not an early adopter of DVDs, but joined the ranks when I bought my second Windows PC (I had an Amiga originally, used mostly for video work.) Since it has two DVD drives, I picked up a couple of cheap DVDs, figuring “what the heck, why not?” One of them was ATOM AGE VAMPIRE.
Did it hold up after all those years? Well, yes and no. It’s still an atmospheric little B&W flick, but it’s also pretty cheesey. However, that’s not a damning flaw, to me — but I have to admit it’s not nearly as good as I remembered.
ATOM AGE VAMPIRE was a 1960 Italian production originally titled Seddok, l’erede di Satana, which means something along the lines of Seddok, the Heir (or Inheritor) of Satan. Directed and co-written (with the award winning Alberto Bevilacqua [EYE OF THE CAT]) by film and TV veteran Anton Guilio Majano, it was not released in a big way in the U.S. until 1963. (By Topaz Film Corporation, though IMDB says there was a 1961 release by Manson Distributing Corporation, which seems to have specialized in importing Italian films.)
It must have made it into TV syndication packages pretty quickly, because I first saw it around 1969-70.
The film features generally good low-key photography by Aldo Giordani (MY NAME IS TRINITY), which becomes strikingly chiaroscuro in some of the “horror” scenes. That points to one of the film’s problems; it suffers from some slight inconsistencies of style and pacing. Some of the material, such as the exposition and soap opera-ish scenes fall flat or appear rushed. It’s clear that certain sequences received more time and attention than others. This of course is not at all unusual in modestly budgeted films.
It’s hard to judge the writing and acting, as ATOM AGE VAMPIRE film is a dubbed film. I happen to be one of those ‘philistines’ who actually prefers dubbed horror/sci-fi imports, as I see them as dreams transcribed onto celluloid, and reading is inimical to dreaming — I hold them to be different aesthetic and cognitive processes.
Perhaps more importantly, dubbed is how I saw these films in my youth and nostalgia is an important factor in my enjoyment of them. As Italian films of this period were nearly always post-synched, English dubbing probably detracts little from their cinematic values.
AAV’s credits list Richard McNamara as “Director of English Language Version” (McNamara, according to IMDB. was a US solider who stayed in Italy, and became an actor mainly doing dubbing work, eventually becoming a dubbing director).
“English Dialog” is credited to John Hart (not the Lone Ranger actor). To some extent, they are responsible for the story line (which may be slightly different from the original) and the occasionally awkward phrasing.
Nevertheless, I suspect the dialog and acting were always florid and theatrical. There’s quite a lot of hysterical energy underlying most of the performances, which can be quite entertaining in its own right. Everyone seems to feel everything so intensely.
Alberto Lupo is quite good as the brilliant but obsessive Dr. Levin, and Susanne Loret is well cast as disfigured exoctic dancer Jeanette Moreneau. Roberto Berta is effective as the doctor’s loyal, mute servant Sacha, and Ivo Garrani underplays everyone as the slightly humorous police investigator.
The transformations I mentioned before still retain that odd, dream-like quality. They seem to use an unusual mix of lap dissolves and animated changes to the make-up, and possibly some skip-frame printing. This imparts an unrealistic and slightly queasy-feeling kinesthetic to the healing of the dancer’s scars — and especially the monster transmorgifications.
The rationale for said transformations is interesting. The doctor discovers he finds killing to obtain the glands he needs to cure the object of his experiments disfigurement too much against his professed essential nature — and fears to be identified and caught. He feels that if he uses his mutagenic ‘Derma 25’ to become a monster, he will be capable of any monstrous act, without regret. (A somewhat medieval view for a man of science.)
As we see, what it really does is release his inner brute, strips away his thin veneer of compassion and civilization. Like Stevenson’s Hyde is often portrayed, Levin’s other self is vaguely ape-like savage, cunning and furtive. He’s the Id set loose, and as always in films of this era, once freed he will eventually prove dominant.
Many have carped that ATOM AGE VAMPIRE features no vampire (despite the animated bat of the titles), but the monster is indeed engaged in a vampiric activity: stealing the vital essences of young women. And the fact that Dr. Levin’s formula was originally created to cure radiation burns places it firmly in the atom age.
Others hold that it’s a rip-off of EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959), a charge with some merit. However, one could argue that both films owe something to 1956’s I, VAMPRI (THE DEVIL’S COMMANDMENT).
The DVD I viewed (a DVD Alpha video of the now public domain film) runs about 69 minutes, though it’s listed as 87 minutes on the box. I believe this is a TV print, and it’s definitely missing some footage from the TV run time. Possibly a little as a minute, as 70-72 mins. was sufficent for most time slots back then. I’m sure the strip-tease sequence in the trailer never made it to US Television.
However, there’s a fragmentary shot of Dr. Levin sitting at his desk, and it may have been a cut transformation scene, as it precedes the first ‘outside’ murder. I seem to recall more action with the Atom Age Vampire itself in its broadcast TV days, and the trailer appears to support this notion.
Though possibly, a larger focus on the murder monster and less emphasis on angst-ridden soap could easily be an artifact of the rather better film I built in my memory. For what are half-remembered horrors but fuel for the dream machine?
ATOM AGE VAMPIRE (Seddok, l’erede di Satana, 1960)
Starring Alberto Lupo, Susanne Loret, Sergio Fantoni, Franca Parisi, Andrea Scotti
Directed by Anton Giulio Majano
Screenplay by Anton Giulio Majano, Alberto Bevilacqua, Gino De Santis, Piero Monviso
Format: Black & White, DVD, NTSC
Region: Region 1
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 1
Running Time: Listed as 87 minutes, timed at slightly more than 69 minutes.
No Extras on the Alpha Video Disc.
Has it really been nearly 30 years since Friday the 13th came out? If, in 1980, you had asked me to watch a film from 1950, I’d probably have wondered why you were forcing such an old movie on me. Maybe Friday doesn’t seem that old because I actually saw it in a theater during its initial release. Now, I couldn’t tell you how it came to pass that I actually managed to convinced my father to take me: I was way, way too young to fake my own way into an R-rated movie – perhaps he was under the impression that it was a modern spin on “10 Little Indians,” but it’s more likely that he simply didn’t know anything about it at all and I had been badgering the poor man to take me ever since seeing the first ads on TV. And what ads they were – who can forget the memorable ‘body count’ trailer that was later adapted into television spots? In NY it seemed like the ad played on channels 5, 9, and 11 around the clock; I was already flirting with disaster by staying up on Saturday nights watching Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and seeing that ad during the breaks had me absolutely petrified with fear – and things didn’t get any easier in the theater. Even now, while driving by a heavily wooded area, I think back on poor, doomed Annie’s flight from the unseen killer after an unwise attempt to hitchhike to her new job at Camp Crystal Lake. I wasn’t much of an outdoors-man back then, but after that fateful matinee in 1980, I’ve managed to successfully avoid being in any sort of camping or hiking situation. I absolutely cowered in my seat, afraid to look at the screen or admit defeat and leave the theater (an offer that was made several times by my parent and guardian). Does that make Friday the 13th a masterpiece? Nope – but it’s damn effective, and that’s enough.
After failing to recapture his early success producing Last House on the Left by directing a pair of ill-advised family comedies (the just-above-execrable Manny’s Orphans and Here Come the Tigers) Sean S. Cunningham decided to return to familiar territory with another horror tale. Halloween had proved how lucrative the genre could be for a low-budget picture that was smartly advertised and slickly presented, and in true exploitation tradition – without money, cast, or even a script – Cunningham placed a striking ad in Variety for “The most terrifying movie ever made” featuring bold block letters shattering through a pane of glass and spelling out “Friday the 13th.” In short order, he had investors lined up and a script written by Victor Miller that took a more maternal outlook on the traditional killer, giving the film a relatively unique twist in its closing moments. The story follows a group of teens attempting to re-open a long-closed summer camp that is rumored to have a “death curse” ever since the drowning of a young boy several years previous; the camp counselors are killed off in graphic fashion until only one remains to see the face and learn the motive of the murderer. Filming took place at an actual Boy Scout camp in New Jersey, giving the production access to lots of young, hungry, and (except for Betsy Palmer) mostly unknown acting talent in nearby New York, including the fetching Adrienne King as the virginal “final girl” Alice; Bing Crosby’s son, Harry, as future archery target, Bill,\: and a 22 year old Kevin Bacon as Jack, who doesn’t check under the bed.
While filming on a shoestring budget in the middle of Jersey, it’s a safe bet that the notion of creating a franchise that is still going strong three decades hence didn’t occur to anyone, least of all its director. Cunningham’s reputation as a genre producer in the Roger Corman mold is secure, but directing isn’t his strong suit; the success of Friday got him a more prestigious directing gig adapting Mary Higgins Clark’s suspenseful A Stranger is Watchinginto a tepid mess a few years later. But Cunningham kept to a very simple filming style on Friday, relying heavily on a stalking, subjective camera simulating the killer’s viewpoint. But the final key to Friday’s success was composer Harry Manfredini’s iconic musical score, featuring the indelible “ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma”, whispered throughout the score and inspired, according to Manfredini, from Mrs. Voorhees repeating “kill her, mommy…kill her!” during the conclusion (though what remains is a near libelous lift from Hermann’s Psychoscore). And while that conclusion along with its last act reveal might seem trite and overly familiar today, it played beautifully before the horror market was over-saturated with out-of-left-field twist endings (thank you, Sleepaway Camp).
Though often cited as the tipping point for the modern “body count”-style horror movie, it was far from the first. Cunningham was smart enough to steal from the best, namely Mario Bava’s 1971 Twitch of the Death Nerve – a film to which Friday’sfirst sequel would owe an even bigger debt. Bava’s violent thriller was basically a chamber mystery – revolving around a pricey parcel of land and the motley crew of fortune-seekers that assemble to vie for its inheritance (which itself is an extension of what Bava began 7 years earlier in Blood and Black Lace, setting a black-gloved killer loose in an Italian fashion house) – that reveled in the method of murder over motive. I’ve sat through Twitch at least twice and I’d be hard pressed to tell you much about the plot; what I do remember are the inventive and graphic (for the time) murders, which generated some unusually negative press for the acclaimed director.* This is particularly true of a section that has a group of twenty-somethings drop in near the estate for some general teen-type partying. This passage always had a different vibe from the rest of the film – almost as if spliced in from another movie – but it’s this segment that marks the true beginning of the modern slasher film.
Friday the 13th’s attractive cast is also genuinely like-able; not that the characters are memorably written (bluntly put, they were written to be killed), but the actor’s performances are effective. After a 1958 prolog in which two counselors at a seemingly thriving Camp Crystal Lake are murdered during a make-out session, we flash forward to the “present day” (present in this case being 1980) and meet Annie, an attractive young girl hitchhiking her way to a job at the very same camp, about to reopen for a new season after several abortive attempts over the previous 20 years. After shrugging off the warnings of locals in a diner that anyone attempting to reopen the camp will be “doomed,” Annie continues on and accepts a ride for the final leg of the trip from an unseen driver of a Jeep. Now, you don’t have to have seen the movie to know that Annie’s life expectancy clock has hit the under 5-min mark; in fact, she doesn’t even make it to the camp! In the typical modern horror movie, female characters almost always fall into one of two categories: supermodel hot or eyeglass-wearing bookworm that eventually takes off her glasses to reveal – a supermodel. Annie is played by actress Robbi Morgan, an attractive, curly-haired brunette (probably no older than 19 when the film was shot) who appears very much the normal girl. Perky, a bit tomboyish (in a non-sexually intimidating way) and utterly believable in a flannel shirt and backpack on her way to a summer job, we’re instantly engaged and feel a genuine affection for her, making her inevitable fate surprisingly tragic. The waif-like WB castoffs that typically populate horror films today seem even more plastic by comparison, weighing down every scene with phony ennui that can only come from having a cadre of assistants constantly telling you how tough your job is.
Equally strong is Adrienne King as Alice, pigeonholed after the film’s release as the archetypal ‘final girl’, a term proposed by feminist authors in the ’80s to support the notion that the men who wrote and directed these films thought of most women as either virgins or whores, with the latter deserving of a grisly end, elevating a single girl – typically both virginal and somewhat masculine, conforming to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in the original Halloween – to survive and face the killer. Though Alice is somewhat dowdy in comparison to her fellow counselors, it’s sexism of a different color to assume that she’s a virgin simply because she doesn’t sleep with Kevin Bacon or tie the tails of her oxford shirt over her bellybutton. Alice is in the midst of an affair with one man when the film begins, and doesn’t flinch at the suggestion of strip Monopoly. Empathy is what’s important here, and King is particularly good at allowing the audience in, even as the cinematography puts us in the place of the killer.
The completed film was picked up for distribution by Paramount Pictures, who invested heavily in its advertising and were rewarded with both a huge moneymaker, and a string of sequels that could each be counted on to bring in many times its meager budget before finally losing the character (and Cunningham) to New Line in the ’90s. Though New Line could have continued to use the Jason character as much as they wanted, the participation of Paramount would be required to use the very marketable title, and this year the remake stars finally aligned and the Michael Bay-produced remake of Friday the 13th opens nationally on, fittingly, Friday, February 13th.
Kicking up a bit of publicity, Paramount has re-released the first 3 films in the series on DVD, with the original also getting a Bluray release. Now, Paramount has already put out DVDs of the series individually, in two-movie sets, and in a large box set (the first release to include any value-added content). What makes the new release of the original special is that America will finally be able to see the film in its complete, unrated version, restoring roughly 10 seconds of bloodshed. But anyone expecting a gore-fest will be sorely disappointed; Friday came out at a time when the MPAA was being particularly tough on horror, routinely targeting genre filmmakers like Wes Craven and Brian DePalma and insisting on myriad cuts from most slashers before passing with an all-important ‘R’ rating. The level of tension that Friday so deftly maintains throughout makes the film seem – like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre before it – much more violent than it actually is. Only Kevin Bacon’s demise is noticeably augmented by the extra bloodletting, but it has the curious effect of calling attention to the Tom Savini-created effect and actually detracting from the moment; however, Paramount should be congratulated for finally making the footage available. The new edition also features a commentary track cobbled together from separate interviews (a practice we’re not fond of, but understand the need for) with Cunningham, writer Victor Miller, Crystal Lake Memoriesauthor Peter M Bracke, actresses King, and Betsy Palmer (Mrs. Voorhees), editor Bill Freda, assistant editor Jay Keuper, and composer Manfredini.
Featurettes include “A Friday the 13th Reunion,” which is actually a panel from a horror convention (featuring Palmer, as ever, wearing that famous cable-knit sweater).”Fresh Cuts: New Tails from Friday the 13th” is a more formal collection of interviews featuring many of the above participants, including our favorite victim, Robbi Morgan. “The Man Behind the Legacy: Sean S Cunningham” features an interview with same. Also available is the famous original trailer and the inexplicable “Lost Tales from Camp Blood – Part 1,” a short film about a couple who hear noises in the middle of the night, go out into the hallway of their home to investigate, and are killed in short order by a masked, Jason-like figure. It doesn’t really have anything to do with Friday the 13thexcept that the creator is most likely a fan; its inclusion is somewhat baffling. If it appeals, the story continues on the new disc for Part 2. The 1080p Bluray picture brings out clarity and detail in the image that I wouldn’t have thought possible, and is well worth the upgrade if you’re so equipped. Midway through the film, Ned (Mark Nelson) calls out to a hooded, shadowy figure in a cabin doorway where it’s clear for the first time since the original theatrical prints that it’s actually Betsy Palmer, making the most of her 10 shooting days. Paramount also gets high marks for including the original mono soundtrack in addition to a newer surround mix. Highly recommended.
Read about this week’s other Friday the 13th DVD releases in this edition of our weekly Laserblast column.
*Writing in the Fall 1975 issue of Cinefantastique, Jeffrey Frentzen called TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE Bava’s most “complete failure to date” and accused the director of having an “obnoxious eye for detail” in regards to the violent murders.
Old monsters never die. They just become familiar friends. We’ve seen it happen with classic fiends from the early black-and-white era, like Frankenstein and Dracula, but what about more recent more recent movie monsters, like the titular creature haunting the spaceship Nostromo in ALIEN (1979). Does the passage of decades turn what was once frightening into what is now merely quaint nostalgia? Has even the best example of its genre mellowed with age? Has the subsequent advent of computer-generated special effects rendered the old man-in-the-suit technology hopelessly dated in comparison?
There is no doubt that our perception of a film changes over time, but it is far from inevitable that a classic film must become, eventually, nothing more than a time capsule of its era. There are some films that can still be enjoyed as entertainment, not as museum pieces, and ALIEN is one of them. I should know. I was there at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, watching the film on a Saturday morning during its original release in 1979. The historic Egyptian, one of the classic movie palaces from Hollywood’s golden era (it predates the more famous Chinese Theatre), was the perfect setting for the movie: the decor, suggesting a pyramid built from stone, was redolent of ancient mystery, which was abetted by the addition of props from the movie: alien eggs along the walkway to the entrance, space hardware strewn about the lobby, and (most impressive of all) the ill-fated alien “space jockey,” long dead but still seated at whatever mysterious controls it had operated in life.
The film itself was a galvanizing experience, with an intensity that never seemed to falter. In DRACULA, you could feels safe when the sun was up; in JAWS you could just stay out of the water. But in ALIEN there was no safe harbor, no safe time; you felt that the monster could strike anytime, anywhere. And worst of all, you could tell what the damned thing was! Extreme close-ups revealed what looked like row after row of metallic teeth, along with some kind of tongue that struck its victims with lethal force, and there seemed to be appendages (arms, les, and a tail – or was it a tentacle?), but only at the very end did you get a full-body view of the whole creature, one of the most memorable and elegantly designed monsters ever to grace the screen – as cool as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, although far less sympathetic..
Over twenty-five years later, the mystery of the alien’s appearance is long gone, as is some of the shocking impact, but the overall intensity remains, and the shock sequences ( the face hugger’s leap from the egg, the chest-bursters bloody birth) are still capable of sending first-time viewers leaping from its seats. If there was any doubt of this, it was overturned during a sold-out screening at the very same Egyptian Theatre where I first saw the film decades ago – part of a week-long tribute to director Ridley Scott, put on by the American Cinematheque. All this time later, ALIEN remains the definitive science-fiction monster movie, unsurpassed by the numerous sequels and rip=offs that followed in its wake.
Director Ridley Scott is pleased with how well ALIEN has stood up to the test of time. Of course, he and other filmmakers of his generation had an advantage over those of earlier eras: not only could they learn from the mistakes of the past, but also Hollywood was willing to give genre films the sort of major studio treatment seldom seen since Universal Pictures in the 1930s. Thus, the 1970s saw young filmmakers making big-budget version of the sort of movies they had loved as children: THE EXORCIST (1973), JAWS (1975), and STAR WARS (1977). Yet despite this trend, Dan O’Bannon’s script for ALIEN (which was developed with the help of executive producer Ronald Shussett and then substantially rewritten by producers Walter Hill and David Giler) was not immediately embraced as an attempt to make a lavish science-fiction, monster-on-the-loose movie. It was originally conceived as a low-budget film and not everyone saw the value of turning it into an expensive production. O’Bannon’s story combined elements from past films such as IT THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965). Scott acknowledges that he was influenced by science-fiction films from that era: ” THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THEM, and IT actually were good fun at the time and used to scare the living daylights out of me as a kid, and now are kind of collector’s items. The first science-fiction that rang a bell for me was Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie [in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL]. I registered that when I was a youngster and thought, ‘Hm, that was interesting.’
“Walter Hill was one of the producers. I was sitting in Fox, in one of their small theatres at lunchtime. It was very hot out. I was running TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, because I’d never actually seen it before. Funnily enough, as a child I was brought up not to see horror movies, because my parents classified them along with sex movies. I saw this poster in Piccadilly of the guy in the face mask with the buzz saw, and I just decided not to see the film. So now I’m making movies, and I’m sitting in Fox, and TEXAS CHAINSAW is running. Walter Hill came in behind me and said, ‘What are you looking at all this stuff for? Why don’t you get on with it?’ He had a large Coca-Cola and a hamburger, just as the film began, and when it finished, he hadn’t eaten the hamburger, and the Coca-Cola glass was warm in his hand – he hadn’t touched that either.
But the director wanted to make his film with a modern, high-tech sheen that conflated Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY with George Lucas’s STAR WARS: “Totally. Stanley’s influenced me pretty much all through my life, in everything really.
I though the first STAR WARS was absolutely brilliant,” says Scott. “2001 was an absolutely different cutting edge of science fiction. Stanley’s was somehow entirely real, and STAR WARS is a kind of rather grand, beautiful, majestic fairy story.”
With Scott on board, 20h Century Fox was still planning to make the film on a relatively modest budget – which would have necessitated making major cuts in the screenplay. Fortunately, the director found that his experience at art school came in hand. “I’m able to sit down and do storyboards, and boards are useful to me because it helps me to think,” he says. “It’s a bit like having a blank sheet of paper and getting writer’s block – you just start drawing and it evolves. I storyboarded the whole thing in three weeks and actually doubled the budget. It was $4.2-million, so I went to London and came bakc with something on paper in about a month, and they doubled the budget. Shows the value of art school!”
Even with the additional money, the film still ended up stretching its resources in order to realize the extensive visual outlined in the script. “The [revised] budget started out at $.8.2-million and ended up at 8.6, which I think in those days was still relatively cheap,” Scott recalls. “We didn’t have the money to do pretty well anything. In those days, there was no CGI. Of course, with CGI today, it would have been easy to do anything; it would have been dead simple. We didn’t even have motion control. We had scaffolding bars with a chap pushing [the miniatures] along, saying, ‘No no no, mate, you’ve got to do it smoother.’ So all the shots of the space ship were basically a dolly being pushed with a good steady hand underneath the bloody model. So it was actually all hand-made. But in a funny kind of way, you get very clever when there is very little money, because it makes you think – there’s a big lesson there, somewhere. So when you complain about your CGI budget, think about that.”
Scott continues: “A good example of that is, Les tried desperately and there was no money left… it was up to Les to make the model of the planet. I walked into this stage at Bray Studios in mid-winter, and the heating had gone off. Les had done the alien planet. The mountains were about a foot high. It was ridiculous; it looked terrible. We sat staring at the model and the big croissant, which is what I call the alien spacecraft. I said, ‘Anybody got a home video kit?’ This is just about the advent of home video cameras. Somebody said he had one, so I said, ‘Get it.’ So I literally walked through the set with a home video camera held low, and approached the ship. That’s what you see on screen, and wow, I think it looks amazing! It looked good because you saw it through Ash’s eyes, through the head sets of the astronauts, because it was being televised back to the craft. That gave it scale and credibility.”
Scott stretched the budget by dressing up his two children in spacesuits for a scene of the astronauts leaving the Nostromo by an exterma; life: “By using two kids, the set looked twice as big. It was much cheaper to make two little space suits than to make a bigger set. We had to wire them to the set in case they fell off!”
Still, some sequences were lost, such as the storyboard airlock scene, in which the alien’s corrosive, acidic blood was to burn a whole through the ships hull, through which one character would be sucked out by the vacuum.
“We couldn’t afford it,” says Scott. “Besides, I couldn’t work out in those days (without CGI)_ how to squeeze a body through a hole that big – but they did it in Number Four,” he laughs, referring to a climactic moment in 1997’s ALIEN: RESURRECTION.
Whatever its budgetary limitations, ALIEN was certainly lavish when compared to its 1950s era antedecants, and much of the impressive looks is attributable to the design team. Ron Cobb conceived most of the Earth hardware, which was then realized by production designer Michael Seymour and art director Roger Christian (who went on to direct the dire BATTLEFIELD EARTH). The futuristic look of the spaceship Nostromo and its equipment was counterbalanced by the otherworldly alien imagery of Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger, who was brought on to the project by Dan O’Bannon, over the objections of the producers.
“Dan took me aside, like he was showing me a dirty book,” Scott recalls. “It was Giger’s book, which is NECRONOMICON. My eyeballs nearly fell out.”
Images form NECRONOMICON were used as inspiration for the alien landscapes and the alien itself, which Giger designed and sculpted. Although the studio executives were woreid that they might be hring an eccentric artist unable to work on a tight production schedule, Scott found Giger to be “far more straightforward than you could possibly imagine. Despite the strangeness of his work, he’s incredibly reliable, and never once let me down.”
The alien was brought to life with the same technique used for classic movie monsters from the ’50s. “In those days, it boiled down to a guy in a rubber suit,” Scott recalls. “The thing that I had always worried about was that the monster wouldn’t be good, because they rarely are. Probably the last great monster was the little girl in the bed in THE EXORCIST. But all you had to put on her was the voice of Mercedes McCambridge – that one trick was chilling.”
The head had mechanics by Carlo Rambaldi to bring it to life, but the key to creating a convincing creature was hiding the human proportions of the man inside the costume.
“We started with a stunt man who was quite thin, but in the rubber suit he looked like the Michelin Man. So my casting director said, ‘I’ve seen a guy in a pub in Soho who is about seven feet tall, has a tiny head and a tiny skinny body.’ So he brought Bolaji Bodejo to the office, and he was actually from Somalia, funnily enough,” Scott remarks, having much later directed BLACK HAWK DOWN, which was set in Somalia. “I said, ‘Do you want to be in movies,’ and he said sure. And he became the alien. I had him for two months. In the cockpit, there’s a pack of cigarettes that says ‘Bolaji.'”
Giger also built the egg from which the face-hugger emerges, but his alien landscapes fell into the hands of the film’s second art director, Lesley Dilley. “I figured it made it sense to have Mike and Roger be the art directors on what I called ‘Earth matter’ – that would be everything involved with the Nostromo – and Les would have the difficult task of taking Giger’s drawings and interpreting them into actual sets,” Scott explains.
“You can take a great visual – which is one thing – and then you can convert it into a set that can look like a really bad ’50s coffee bar. I think Les took what Giger had drawn in very exotic visuals and made them real. That was a hard thing to do.”
Another point that separates ALIEN from its ’50s forbearers is the presence of a strong woman protagonist: Ripley, played by then-unknown Sigourney Weaver. Scott, however, takes no credit for this; in fact, the character was originally sciprted as a man. “After a couple of weeks at Fox, they said, “We’re ruminating on the idea of making Ripley a woman.’ I just said, ‘That’s a good idea,’ but at that point I didn’t fully comprehend the significance of that to the female world. It took me until THELMA AND LOUISE to realize that was a good point.”
Rather like the B-movies that inspired it, ALIEN did not rely on marquee names, but it did have a solid cast that lent credibility to the characters, who are revealed to us only through their actions, not through any revelations about their back story. (This is in keeping with producer Walter Hill’s early work as a writer-director, such as THE DIRVER, in which the characters do not even have names.)
As Scott says, “This film was so brief in terms of each piece of characterization: that’s the sign of a really good script: there’s no fat; it’s all lean. The actors are able to squeeze in as much as they have to for this kind of film.”
Scott adds that , upon re-watching the film, “It struck me that we had a really, really special cast. I was just watching tonight, thinking, ‘My god, how good they were – all of them.’ Everyone one of them had his own bit of individual, built-in subtext and implicit story that he didn’t have to voice. It was all just part of the character.”
The final element that lifted the film ot the level of an A-class production was the orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith. Despite their “stormy” working relationship, Scott credits the composer with making ALIEN work. “I was just thinking again tonight, ‘Thank god the score is absolutely brilliant.’ And I’m not yanking his chain. I think it’s one of his best scores, because it truly does nurse you through this story and leave you in a constant state of tension. I think without that score I couldn’t have let scenes run so long with nothing happening. I decided I wanted to stick to a certain rigid pace and not hurry it – just let things happen – and I think it’s pretty successful. To be perfectly honest, I was surprised how well it stands up.”