I AM LEGEND excites and delights

Will Smith as Robert Neville, the last man on Earth, accompanied by his dog, Sam.Warner Bros. long in the works re-make of I AM LEGEND hits theaters this Friday, and I found myself rather surprised to find it quite a sensation, as I truly expected it to be the typical Hollywood case of dumbing down the original novel.  Of course, this third big screen version is still not very faithful to Richard Matheson’s book, but it’s easily the best of the three movie versions that have been produced so far.  And naturally, if analyzed too closely, there are some plot holes in the logic of the story, but to be truthful, what movie (and especially what fantasy movie) can’t be faulted in this regard?  The prime example in this area would be most of  Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, including his masterpiece, VERTIGO.  They all have lapses of logic, but as Hitchcock knew so well, the trick was to keep the audience from noticing them as they were watching the film.  In this regard, I AM LEGEND succeeds admirably.  Director Lawrence also seems to know when less is more, as like Hitchcock in THE BIRDS, he carefully follows his suspense set pieces with quiet reflective scenes that allow an audience the chance to recover.     Continue reading “I AM LEGEND excites and delights”

Supernal Dreams: BERNARD HERRMANN score inspires SWEENEY TODD

I recently watched John Brahm’s Hangover Square,  a film I have long wanted to see, mostly due to hearing it’s superb score and piano concerto by Bernard Herrmann.  Thanks to the beautiful new Fox DVD set of three John Brahm films, which also includes The Lodger (with music by Hugo Friedhofer) and The Undying Monster (with music by David Raksin), all of these terror classics are now available in beautifully restored prints.     

Laird Craigar as the mad musician, driven to murder by sudden, discordant noises
Laird Cregar as the mad musician, driven to murder by discordant sounds.
What I found a bit bizarre, though, was reading the press notes for Sweeney Todd only a few days after watching Hangover Square,  for the first time and finding that Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score was the actual inspiration for Steven Sondheim to write Sweeney Todd.    
It’s also interesting to note that Sondheim went back to see Hangover Square two times, while Burton went back to see Sondheim’s play of Sweeney Todd in London twice! 
So here are comments from Tim Burton, as quoted in the Paramount press notes, and from Steven Sondheim, as quoted from his 1993 appearance with Jeremy Sams at the Lyttelton Theatre in England:     
TIM BURTON:  I’m not a big musical fan, but I loved Sweeney Todd.  I didn’t know anything about Stephen Sondheim. The poster just looked kind of cool, kind of interesting. It’s like an old horror movie but the music is such an interesting juxtaposition, being very beautiful while the imagery is kind of old horror movie.  And it was interesting to see something bloody on stage, too.  I went to see it twice because I liked it so much.
Continue reading “Supernal Dreams: BERNARD HERRMANN score inspires SWEENEY TODD”

JOE DANTE presents Trailers From Hell!

Joe Dante began his writing career in the sixties for Castle of Frankenstein magazine, and I think it would be safe to say that COF was quite influential on most of the writers who eventually ended up writing at Fred Clarke’s Cinefantastique magazine.   
However, Dante began his actual filmmaking career in the trailer dept. of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, where, as a trailer editor, he amassed a huge collection of previews from many classic and not so classic horror films.
Joe recently began the fabulous online site, TRAILERS FROM HELL, possibly the first site of it’s kind devoted exclusively to movie trailers, and it features all kinds of rare and unusal trailers from horror and other films, mostly from the fifties and sixties.   

Joe’s latest commentary is for the trailer from The Black Sleep (above), a film that featured the stellar horror film cast of:  Basil RATHBONE, Bela LUGOSI, Lon CHANEY, John CARRADINE,  Akim TAMIFOFF and Tor JOHNSON. 
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Supernal Dreams: CHRISTOPHER LEE – Now you see him… Now you don't

You can barely see Christopher Lee in THE GOLDEN COMPASS

Christopher Lee has been delighting aficionados of the genre since his appearance in Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein fifty years ago. Since that time, Lee has gone on to enjoy the kind of late career success that eluded most of the other big genre movie stars.  Unfortunately, the flip side to all the renewed interest in casting Christopher Lee in big-budget fantasy movies,  seems to be the rather alarming trend of having his scenes end up on the cutting room floor!   

You can barely see Christopher

The most drastic example of this occurred a few years ago when Peter Jackson cut Lee’s incredibly important final scene as Saruman from The Return of the King.  Now, for all intents and purposes, Lee has been cut from New Line’s The Golden Compass, as well.  Presumably Lee never had a very large part as the First High Councilor of the Magisterium to begin with, but now, what remains of his part is little more than a joke!  A single line, in a throwaway scene lasting no more than 30 seconds.  To add insult to injury, director Chris Weitz totally botches what could have been quite a dramatic entrance for Lee’s character.  
Thankfully, Christopher Lee is not even mentioned in the billing for The Golden Compass.  Presumably Lee asked that his name not appear.  Here’s what Mr. Lee told me about a similar case, when he almost appeared in William Wyler’s 1965 thriller, The Collector
Continue reading “Supernal Dreams: CHRISTOPHER LEE – Now you see him… Now you don't”

Supernal Dreams: Richard Matheson on I AM LEGEND

With Warner Bros. impending release of I Am Legend, I recently checked out The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, the second abortive attempt at bringing Richard Matheson’s classic end of the world novel to the screen.  That brought to mind a piece by columnist Marilyn Beck, claiming that Charlton Heston wanted to make the movie after he had read Matheson’s novel at the suggestion of none other than Orson Welles while they were working together on Touch of Evil at Universal in 1957. 
Here’s an excerpt of Marilyn Beck’s 1971 column:

HOLLYWOOD – Feb 10, 1971.  Charlton Heston is terribly excited about “I Am Legend.” Actually, he has been for the last 14 years. The story first grabbed him back is 1957, after be read the novel at Orson Welles’ suggestion. Chuck, who’s a whiz on the big things, but who frequently has trouble remembering mundane matters like his phone number and book titles, asked producer Walter Seltzer in 1957 to hunt down “My Name Is Legend” for a possible film project. Seltzer eventually found a work bearing that name. It was a 1,400-page anthropological text. And when they finally located the science fiction novel Heston was actually interested in, a European film company was already adapting it under a different title, (“The Last Man on Earth”).

Continue reading “Supernal Dreams: Richard Matheson on I AM LEGEND”

The Art of Ray Harryhausen: Interview, Part 1

Ray Harryhausen and his films probably appeared on the cover of Cinefantastique more than any other person in the history of the magazine, so I thought it would be nice to update CFQ’s extensive past coverage of Harryhausen’s career with this interview which covers three of Ray’s recent projects: his two beautifully illustrated volumes from Billboard Books, written with Tony Dalton, An Animated Life and The Art of Ray Harryhausen, as well as his fabulous collection of shorts and fairy tales,  Ray Harryhausen – The Early Years.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After years of keeping your effects secrets under wraps, what led you to be so forthcoming in your autobiography of your work in movies, An Animated Life?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I bare my soul in the book, don’t I? Everybody else is baring his soul, so I thought I might as well do it, too. You never know when the world may be coming to an end. A comet could hit the earth.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Since you actually started working on the book before the millennium, was that also a factor?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: You could put it that way. But I think it’s always been a mistake to tell people how things are done, because then it’s no longer attractive for them. So in the Film Fantasy Scrapbook I didn’t want to talk about the details—that was the point. Half the charm when I first saw KING KONG was I didn’t know how it was done. There were no books available at that time on stop-motion. In fact they tried to hide that stop-motion was a single frame process. I knew it wasn’t a man in a suit, but it wasn’t until later on that I discovered the glories of stop-motion. But nowadays everybody tells you everything about the picture before it’s released and I think it spoils everything. It allows you to start picking the scenes apart.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That’s true, because if you didn’t know that Todd Armstrong’s voice was dubbed in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, you’d never give it a thought. But when you know his voice is dubbed, it becomes much more noticeably, even though it’s dubbed very well.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, we had some very good dubbing for Jason, but the reason for that was because Todd Armstrong’s American accent was a little too strong for all the British accents we had in the picture. So we got an actor (Tim Turner) who narrated a British TV series, A Look at Life to do the voice of Jason. Did you know we also had to dub Gia Golan’s voice in THE VALLEY OF GWANGI?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, she was from Poland and we found she had a rather thick European accent, so we got another actress to dub her voice.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you work with Tony Dalton in writing the book?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: After doing the Film Fantasy Scrapbook way back in 1972, I started doing this one on my own, but as I wrote it I found I was saying the same things over and over again, so I thought, “I better get somebody else in to help me.” So Tony Dalton and I sat down and discussed things, and we went through the archives and did a lot of research. During that whole process I remembered a lot of things I had forgotten about.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s nice that you can remember everything in so much detail, because you joke about not even being able to remember what happened to you last week.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, but luckily some of the films are more vivid in my mind than what happened to me last week.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Your second Billboard book, The Art of Ray Harryhausen, focuses on all of your pre-production drawings, storyboards, models and bronzes, which are all quite beautifully reproduced.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, after Tony Dalton and I went through the archives, we found we had so much material we decided we could make two or three volumes, and since it’s a companion volume to An Animated Life we wanted to keep it in a similar format. Now, after doing the second book, we found we still have so many extra pictures, that we’re going to be doing a third book, but it won’t be out for a couple of years. It will be a history of stop-motion animation.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I imagine you were a big movie fan when you were growing up.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh, yes. My parents were great cinemagoers and they took me to the theater when I was very young. I remember seeing the first THE LOST WORLD that Willis O’Brien made and I must have been sitting on my dad’s knee, because I couldn’t have been more than five years old. And I saw many other silent films, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Siegfried’s Death. Then, later on in the forties, I remember all the Maria Montez pictures – Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, with Jon Hall and Turhan Bey. But those pictures always left the fantasy elements out. The only one that brought the fantasy elements in was Alexander Korda’s Thief of Bagdad, which was a superb film. So I vowed then and there that every picture I made would stress the fantasy, rather than the gold hunt, or the cops and robbers and those kinds of things.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course, as you say in the book, in 1933 you saw the picture that changed your life.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, that’s when I first saw KING KONG. I was only 13 years old and I came out of the theater absolutely amazed. It just goes to show you how much a film can impress a young person. It really did change my life—I haven’t been the same since. It was at Grauman’s Chinese theater in Hollywood, with all the glamorous showmanship they used to put on back then for the opening of a picture. The forecourt was decorated in a jungle setting and they had a full size bust of Kong himself in the forecourt, with pink flamingos roaming around pecking at the sand beneath him. Later on, after KING KONG had made such a big impression on me, on the weekends Ray Bradbury, Forry Ackerman and I used to go down to the old Pathé lot in Culver City. You could still see the standing set of the of the Skull Island wall from the street, so we’d all look up at the wall and chant, “Kong, Kong, Kong.”

Ray Harryhausen, Lawrence French, Phil Tippett

Ray Harrhausen, Lawrence French  &  Phil Tippet
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When you first began to pursue stop-motion animation, how supportive were your mother and father?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: My parents were very supportive, which was very important to me, because there was no information about stop-motion when I started out and there was no career to go into. But my parents always encouraged me. They helped me when I started my first 16mm experiments, when I began making the Mother Goose stories in my garage. I was very lucky that my mother also happened to be very talented with a needle and thread, so she did all the costumes and my father built all the armatures for my early shorts.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So your first short films were a real family affair.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, and on the credits it looks like I had a big crew, but that’s because I used my Mother’s maiden name, Reske, and my Grandmothers maiden name, Blasauf, since I thought we couldn’t have all these Harryhausen’s in the credits. Today I wouldn’t be worried about that, but in those days I was more modest. So my parents were credited as Martha Reske and Fred Blasauf. And the photographer was credited as Jerome Wray, who was me.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It isn’t hard to figure out why you billed yourself as Wray, but why the Jerome?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: The Jerome came from Jerome, Arizona, where my uncle owned a gold mine, but unfortunately it petered out.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So the name was certainly appropriate for King Midas. When you started making feature films, your father continued to make most of the armatures for your puppets, didn’t he?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, I was very fortunate that my father happened to be a machinist, so he made all the armatures for me. I didn’t have the patience to do the lathe work myself, so I farmed it out to my dad. We had a real challenge in doing the skeletons for JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, because we had to hide the armature within the skeletons. We finally ended up mixing cotton soaked with liquid latex and we built up the bone structure directly onto the metal armatures. The skeleton’s heads were made of plastic resin. Later on, after I lost the original swords we had made for the skeletons, I was in Madrid and I happened to find these wonderful miniature swords for spearing pickles and olives, so the sword you now see the skeleton holding is really a pickle fork.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Your new collection of shorts Ray Harryhausen – The Early Years (on Sparkhill DVD) is really the missing link in your career, because most of these shorts have never been seen before.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, the fairy tales had only been shown in schools in the early days of visual education and nobody has seen them outside of elementary schools. There have been pirated copies, but on the new DVD we have all the originals, while the pirated copies are usually dupes of dupes. So I hope nobody continues to buy the pirated copies. Most of the material was stored at my house in Malibu, but not in good conditions, so thank heavens the Academy Archive restored it all. I had originally shot everything in 16mm, and the Academy blew it up to 35mm. Arnold Kunert approached the Academy and then Scott MacQueen (who heads Disney’s restoration dept.) started the whole process rolling. We finally got the Academy to acknowledge that these fairy tales were quite important and they eventually funded the whole project. Mark Toscano at the Academy did a wonderful job. At the end of the DVD we put The Tortoise and the Hare, so now there are six fairy tales. They were mostly taken from the realm of Grimm’s fairy tales. I started making them after I began doing my early tests and experiments, because I wanted to do a story that actually had a beginning, a middle and an end. I’m very grateful they’ve been restored, because they were shot over fifty years ago, so naturally the color was slightly faded. Now, they look like they could have been made yesterday.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What’s amazing is if you did make them today they’d probably cost over $100,000.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I know it. But I financed them all myself. I had different jobs, and I shot them in my garage during my spare time. Sometimes on the weekends I would work all day on them, but it was mostly done in the evenings. I stayed up until two in the morning sometimes. It varied, but they took me about three or four months to finish each one, depending on how complicated they were.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood was designed and animated so beautifully, it’s too bad you never did a werewolf movie.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: That gets into the category of a horror film and we never made a horror film. We made creatures, not monsters. I made the wolf a semi-werewolf, but not totally. I wanted to have a dramatic ending where he stands up and leaps over the banister before the hunter shoots him. But the original story of Little Red Riding Hood is quite lascivious and bloody, so I had to modify it. The wolf ate both Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood before the hunter splits open his stomach and frees them. You couldn’t show that back in those days, although you probably could today.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Although you never made a horror film,  you liked the classic monsters movies, like DRACULA and THE WOLF MAN, didn’t you?

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh, yes I grew up on all those wonderful pictures, like DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDEFRANKENSTEIN, and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I love horror stories. I think war stories are more of a horror story than some of the horror movies that were made in the thirties.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I imagine you also had to tone down some of the elements in Hansel and Gretel.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, we had problems with the stepmother, who was very cruel in the original story. There were so many broken families, I thought we should write her out. So I had to change the story around to make it look less evil for stepmother’s.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you come up with the effect for making the gingerbread house materialize?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I had to dream that up by myself. There were no books to consult at the time, so you had to use your imagination. I shot falling pieces of glitter photographed at high speed against black velvet, then wound the film back and combined that with the house materializing through dissolves and double exposures. It was all done in the camera, and everything was done on the first take.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s such a wondrous effect.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Beam me up Scottie! I guess they copied that for STAR TREK. But you couldn’t beam up a gingerbread house (laughter). I made the gingerbread house out of real gingerbread and candy and I had it stored in my garage for two years until some mice ate it up.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Maybe it was Mickey and Minnie visiting you from Burbank.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well if was, they got a free meal, because I used real cookies and candy to make it.

Supernal Dreams: Richard Matheson's Poe scripts published by Gauntlet

By a strange coincidence, I have just re-joined the staff of  CFQonline,  only a few days after receiving the first copies of the new book I edited, Visions of Death, which contains two of Richard Matheson’s original shooting scripts for House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum.  
For years I’ve wanted to publish Mr. Matheson’s Poe scripts, and I’m happy to say I think the long wait has been well worth it, as over the years I’ve been able to extensively interview not only Richard Matheson, but Roger Corman, Vincent Price, Sam Arkoff and Danny Haller.  The results of these interviews are contained in two “Making of” essays that preface the Matheson scripts.  So without further ado, here is an exclusive look at my “editor’s introduction” from the book for CFQ readers, as well a link to the Gauntlet Press website where you can get more information about the book.

By Lawrence French  
The publication of Richard Matheson’s screenplays for The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum marks a long overdue tribute to the man who is, without a doubt, one of the all time great screenwriters of terror films. But back in 1959 when Matheson was just beginning his career in Hollywood, film critics were in general, very dismissive of fantasy, horror and science-fiction movies. Luckily, filmgoers were not. As a result, both The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum became solid box-office smashes for American–International Pictures, and Matheson’s career as successful screenwriter was launched. 

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Price on Poe: Thoughts about the Horror that Made him Famous

Vincent Price as Fortunate Lucresi in the Long before Vincent Price was asked by director Roger Corman to star in a screen version of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960), he had been a fervent admirer of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Price relates “I’ve been enchanted by Poe ever since I was forced to read him as a kid.” Later, as an English major at Yale, Price had further time to become immersed in the world of Poe, and he bristles at the lack of acclaim Poe received in his lifetime. “The American people relegated him to a second place in the history of American literature,” says Price. “In the rest of the world, Poe is considered to be our major contribution to literature. He invented the detective story, he influenced all of the great French poets: Baudelaire, Valery, Verlaine, as well as all of the great English poets. And almost every major artist of the 19th century illustrated Poe: Gustave Dore, Edouard Manet, Odilon Redon. His influence on the world of art was enormous.” Continue reading “Price on Poe: Thoughts about the Horror that Made him Famous”