This is one of the best films from the end of Vincent Price’s career at American International Pictures (where he made a series of classic cult horror films during the 1960s). In fact, Price himself ranked it as one of his personal favorites; even though the acting challenge was a relatively modest one for him, the film played to the tongue-in-cheek style he had adopted in many of his later horror films, in which his hammy, over-the-top performances signaled to the audience that he wasn’t always taking the material seriously. Price plays Dr. Anton Phibes, a mad doctor (his Ph.D is in music!) who was horribly disfigured in an automobile accident while racing to see his wife in the hospital, where she was undergoing unsuccessful surgery that left her dead. His face immobilized by the accident, Phibes speaks without moving his lips by means of a gramophone attached to his neck. Director Robert Fuest uses Price more as an icon in a tableau than as a performer, emphasizing the lush art deco production design (courtesy of Brian Eatwell). The director’s deadpan camera style accentuates the campy approach, as Phibes gets away with one murder after another, each gruesome enough to make anyone cringe if taken seriously, all while being pursued by hapless Scotland Yard inspectors who seem to be always just one step behind him.
Set in 1925, the plot follows the mad musician as he kills off the surgical team behind the failed operation, using grimly imaginative methods (bees, rats, bats) inspired by the Old Testament plagues Moses called down upon Egypt (it seems Phibes also studied theology while getting his musical degree). Respected character actor Joseph Cotten (CITIZEN KANE) stars as the head of the surgical team, adding a touch of class to the modestly budgeted horror film and providing a solid, serious protagonist to balance Price’s tongue-in-cheek mugging as the villain.
The film is filled with marvelous visual touches: Phibes playing an organ that rises up out of the floor, then silently conducting a performance by a band of clockwork musicians; detectives trying to ‘unscrew’ a victim who has been impaled to a wall by a statue in the shape of a unicorn head; Vulnavia (Virginia North), the beautiful woman who silently assists Phibes in all his atrocities; and of course, the final-reel unmasking of Phibes’ burned features, followed by his embalming himself beside the preserved corpse of his wife (Caroline Munro), while the melody from ‘Over the Rainbow’ swells majestically on the soundtrack.
In a way, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is the perfect combination of horror and humor, and during his later years Price said Mel Brooks had admitted to him that the film was the inspiration for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Unfortunately, Price was not necessarily pleased by the homage, saying he found Brooks about as funny ‘as an open grave’ because he overdid the humor at the expense of the horror. ‘I think the ones like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN become so comic that there is no fright,’ the actor complained. ‘It’s a delicate balance.’
BEHIND THE SCENES
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES almost did not get made. Vincent Price’s more recent films for American International Pictures. (e.g., 1969’s THE OBLONG BOX) had not been up to the high standards of his early films for the company (ranging from THE HOUSE OF USHER in 1960 to THE CONQUEROR WORM in 1968). Also, the actor had been having disputes with the company’s owners, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, who were reluctant to pay him a higher salary to renew his contract after the old one lapsed with CRY OF THE BANSHEE in 1970.
Fortunately, Price settled his contractual differences with Arkoff and Nicholson and returned to AIP to do the PHIBES film. According to executive producer Louis M. Heyward, ‘A tennis player named Ron Dunas came to Jim Nicholson with a script [by James Whiton and William Goldstein, called “The Curse of Dr. Pibe”]. It was very ambitious but very strange.’
Dunas went on to co-produce the film with Heyward, who claims to have done an uncredited re-write to turn the script into a parody: ‘I did a re-working of it. When I was head writer for Ernie Kovaks [a star of early live television], Ernie used to do a take-off of Vincent Price. I did a re-write, which is Vincent playing Ernie Kovaks playing Vincent, which is what this film turned out to be.’
Apparently, several writers had a hand in the final draft, including Brian Clemens (creator of the tongue-in-cheek British spy series THE AVENGERS). But whoever was responsible for the script, the man most often given credit for the finished product is director Robert Fuest, a cult figure whose reputation rests on this film, its sequel, and the sci-fi opus THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH. Fuest was a former art director who had turned to directing, learning his craft on several episodes of THE AVENGERS.
Fuest brought to the film both the lavish visual sense he had had learned from set design and the outrageous tone of THE AVENGERS, which asked audiences to laugh even though the programs were not, strictly speaking, comedies. In the director’s hands, the humor was the result not so much of content as of style: there are not that many punch lines; audiences laugh not at what happens but at how it happens, the deadpan style of the camera at odds with the tongue-in-cheek approach of the star – which is, in turn, at odds with gruesome murders featured in the plot.
Price, normally one to avoid auteurist praise in favor of crediting creative collaboration, gave high marks to his director: ‘I think Bob Fuest was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with in my life because he was making a mad films and he’s a mad man!’
Thanks to Fuest, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES works because it exploited Price natural tendency toward self-mockery. Whereas earlier Price horror comedies like THE RAVEN (1963) had let Price get away with something not quite intended in the script, and whereas THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963) and the two DR GOLDFOOT films int he mid-1960s were straight out comedies, PHIBES had a story that could have been straight horror. It was the style and the handling that created the humor, and at last Price had a director capable of matching him note for note and getting the rest of the cast to do the same. A talented gallery of supporting players, including Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith, aided and abetted the insanity.
‘It was a total delight,’ says Heyward of working on PHIBES and its sequel. ‘The creativity was flowing around like crazy! Everybody contributed because Fuest encouraged that. You’d do a funny little shtick during the walk-trough, and he’d say, “Keep that in.” The business of Phibes having a drink [through an unseen hole in the side of his neck] – that was Vincent’s. All of the ticks and character pieces that these guys were playing with in their heads became part of those two pictures. I love that picture, and I love the sequel.’
Price made a point of playing the role relatively straight in front of the camera, knowing that it would come across as amusing on screen, thanks to the bemused twinkle in his eye as he successfully complete each murder. In this regard, he was helped by makeup man Trevor Crole-Rees, who developed Phibes’ appearance. Although Phibes briefly glimpsed skull-like face was achieved with a simple mask that took only two minutes to apply, the makeup the character wears throughout most of the film n order to look normal was more interesting.
Said Price, ‘We invented a wonderful makeup for it. They covered my face with colodium, which is like new skin, so that I really couldn’t move. The character spoke out of a voice box on his neck, so I learned the lines but never had to speak them, which made Joe [Cotten] very angry. He used to come up to me and say, “It’s not fair. You’re not speaking the lines, and I’m having to remember all mine and say them.’ I said, “Well, I remember them, Joe.”‘
Made for approximately half a million dollars, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES was a commercial success when AIP released it theatrically, earning $1.5-million. That was enough to ensure a sequel, which came out next year: DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN.
The first PHIBES film also earned its share of critical accolades. Alan Frank (in his book HORROR FILMS) called it a “meticulous combination of fantasy/horror and humor.” Others disagreed. The OVERLOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM: HORROR accused the film of a “crassly undergraduate approach, going for easy laughs rather than exploring the potential of the grotesque variations on generic cliches which the script and casting seem to promise.”
Price himself was quite fond of the film and its sequel. “I loved them,” he said. “They were brilliantly witty and cleverly thought out.”
The introduction to a ROLLING STONE magazine interview with Anton Szandor LaVey credited the founder of the Church of Satan with being a “consultant” on THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, although his name appears nowhere on the credits and the story has nothing to do with Satanism. Director Robert Fuest, however, did at least meet (and probably hang out with) LaVey, and there are a few trivial similarities between the Anton LaVey and Anton Phibes, beginning with their first names. LeVay (whose real name was Howard Stanton Levy) was, like Phibes, an organist , and he supposedly had a set of clockwork musicians like the ones seen in the film. Rather bizarrely, LaVey claimed that the heavy metal music feared by many Christian fundamentalist was not the music of the Devil; rather, innocuous, upbeat tunes like “Telstar” (covered by The Ventures, among many others) were truly Satanic. So perhaps we are supposed to fear that “Elmer’s Tune,” “Close Your Eyes,” and the other songs whose melodies are heard on the film’s soundtrack are exerting some kind of subliminal Satanic influence on the audience.
As mentioned above, the music score for THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES incorporates melodies from famous popular songs. Although these tunes are supposed to suggest the era in which the film is set (the 1920s), “Over the Rainbow” (from THE WIZARD OF OZ) was not written until 1938. Foreign language versions of the film apparently include different musical choices. Also, as with many American International Pictures releases from that era (e.g., THE CONQUEROR WORM, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN), new music was substituted on the soundtrack when the film was released on videotape. (Fortunately, theatrical prints and television airings continued to show the film with its original soundtrack.)
Attempting to cash in on the film’s use of music, American Interantional Pictures released a soundtrack album. Strangely, the album does not consist of the actual soundtrack music, nor did it include original recordings the songs that were incorporated into it. Instead, voice over artist Paul Frees (heard at the beginning of 1953’s WAR OF THE WORLDS) sang new interpretations of the songs, each featuring his imitating the voices of a famous movie star (Humphrey Bogart, etc). Weird.
One danger to aging horror films is that one generation’s terror has a way of turning into the next generation’s camp. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES avoids this danger, because it was always, intentionally camp. Seen today, the film’s horrific impact may have somewhat diminished, but the humor – subtle and not so subtle – still works, and the extravagant stylistic flourishes are as impressive as ever. ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES remains a favorite among fans of Vincent Price – an extremely entertaining piece of ear-and-eye candy that plays to the horror star’s often overlooked penchant to send up his malevolent image. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES(AIP, 1971). Directed by Robert Fuest. Written by James Whiton and William Goldstein. Cast: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Terry-Thomas, Hugh Griffith, Virginia North.
Friday Cat Blogging is an Internet tradition not much associated with cinefantastique, but we are doing our best to change that. Not so long ago, we did an installment dedicated to Stuart Gordon’s MASTERS OF HORROR adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” This week, we’re taking a look at producer-director Roger Corman’s TALES OF TERROR, a 1962 anthology film that includes an episode inspired by the very same story.
In Corman’s triptych of tales inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat” shows up in the middle episode (which includes elements of “The Cask of Amontillado”). Rotund Peter Lorre plays Montresor Herringbone, a jovial alcoholic who introduces his wife to a handsome wine-taster (Vincent Price). When he discovers they are having an affair, he kills them and walls the ir bodies in the cellar but inadvertently entombs the cat as well, its mournful wail alerting the police to the corpses.
To provide a change of pace from the first and third episodes in this anthology film, screenwriter Richard Matheson turned “The Black Cat” into a black comedy and left out the more gruesome elements (in the story, the demented narrator plucks out the cat’s eye and later hangs it to death, only to be horrified when an exact duplicate – down to the rope mark on its neck – arrives to haunt him). The actors do a fine job of playing the horror for laughs, and Lorre is particularly adept at being both funny and menacing, but the title character (first scene atop a sign as Herringbone walks home) is not one of the most memorable screen felines – more innocuous than ominous, it is an object of Herringbone’s hatred more than a symbol of his guilty conscience. Fortunately, the nameless pet (known as Pluto in Poe’s story) does provide a memorable final close-up when discovered on the head of its dead mistress, wailing with rage.
Despite the comedic liberties, the adaptation is closer to Poe than either of the two films that Universal Pictures named after the story (in 1934 and 1941 respectively). One might gripe that Lorre’s Herringbone is a drunken lout from the moment we meet him, so we never see his descent from normalcy, but Corman does capture the essential element: driven by drink, a man brings about his own self-destruction, aided by a cat that – deliberately or accidentally – exacts vengeance for being mistreated. Also noteworthy: scenes of Lorre carousing in bars – and being tossed out for not paying – seem to have inspired similar footage in Stuart Gordon’s more faithful 2006 version.
Producer-director Roger Corman’s fourth Poe film (the third starring Vincent Price) benefits greatly from the anthology format, which allows Edgar Allan’s Poe’s stories to reach the screen with relatively less embellishment; consequently, the strengths of the previous films (atmospheric camerawork and production design) are retained, while the weaknesses (limited settings and padded stories) are overshadowed. Price is given three distinct characterizations to show off his range, including one that showcases his comedic talents; the script by Richard Matheson (who previously dramatized HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) introduces a touch of comic relief, an element that would emerge more fully in the follow-up THE RAVEN. Also, the success of the previous Poe films led to a budget increase that allowed for a stronger supporting cast, which included horror veterans Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Overall, the film is a lavish-looking, stylish piece of work that can still hold an audience’s attention. The fear factor, however, is decidedly mild, mostly taking the form of a general sense of dread and decay; the two major shock sequences (Morella’s attack on Locke and Valdemar’s attack on the hypnotist) are not bad, but neither one is a match for the pendulum sequence in PIT AND THE PENDULUM.
Three half-hour episodes are linked together with brief snippets of narration from Price: “Morella,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Case of M. Valdemar.” The first segment plays out like a condensed version of the previous version of Matheson’s first two Poe scripts, with Price as Locke (his name in the credits, which is not heard on screen), yet another obsessive agoraphobic (a la Roderick Usher), locked in an old house visited by an unwelcome guest, in this case an adult daughter whose birth caused his wife’s death decades ago. Locke’s late wife returns to possess her daughter and take revenge on her husband—a variation on a plot element from Poe’s “Ligeia”—before the ancient manor inevitably burns down (using stock shots from HOUSE OF USHER).
The episode exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of Corman’s previous Poe adaptations: nifty tracking shots, good sets (by Daniel Haller), atmospheric photography (by Floyd Crosby), and Price’s performance; counterbalanced by the weakness of the supporting players. Maggie Pierce, who plays Locke’s daughter, is adequate, and Leona Gage is stunningly beautiful as Morella, but she is unable to register a convincing level of menace on screen (where, oh where, is Barbara Steele when you need her?).
“The Black Cat,” which incorporates elements from “The Cask of Amontiallado,” was an intentional effort by Matheson to inject humor as a change of pace in the middle of the three-part film. Peter Lorre (the title character in Fritz Lang’s M) plays an inebriate whose search for wine leads him into a tasting contest with Fortunato Lucresi (Price). Forced to bring the drunken Montresor Herringbone home, Fortunato begins an affair with his wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson). Realizing what has happened, Montressore kills Annabel and walls her up, along with Fortunato who is still alive. Unfortunately for him, he also walls up the titular feline, whose screeches reveal the hidden bodies to the police. Price and Lorre, along with co-star Joyce Jameson, do a good job of playing the script for laughs. The tasting contest, in particular is a highlight, thanks to Price’s outrageous facial contortions as he savors each mouthful of wine, which contrast with Lorre’s off-handed throwaway lines (e.g., “from the better slopes of the vineyards”).
Of working with Lorre, Roger Corman recalled, “It was great! I must say Peter Lorre was one of the funniest people you would ever meet. And highly intelligent and very well educated. So you’re talking with a man who could come up with great ideas for full-out farce, and at the same time justify it intellectually and thematically in terms of Poe. It was immensely stimulating. Peter Lorre’s background was different from Vincent’s. Vincent had gone to the Yale School of Drama; he was very much trained as a classical actor. Peter came out of Germany, had worked with Bertol Brecht, and was very much into the German version of the Stanislavsky method, which was very close to the American. Their styles were distinctly different, but they were both intelligent and very sensitive actors, and they were able to work together very well, particularly in the wine-tasting sequence. In that scene, I said, ‘Peter, it is totally improvisational; you’re off the wall. Vincent, you’re totally classical.’ When the film first came out, that scene got a great reaction from the audience. I said to the semi-expert [wine taster], whoever he may have been—I don’t even remember—‘Talk to Vincent; stay away from Peter.’”
Price, on the other hand, recalled his co-star as “a sad little man,” adding. “He wasn’t very happy: he’d put on too much weight; he was not well. He never really learned the script; he felt he could improvise and make it better, and in many cases he did. He had been an actor once, but by this point he had become a caricature: he’d do his own imitation by holding his nose. He’d become this character, ‘Peter Lorre,” and he figured that’s what the audience wanted to see, so that’s what he would give them.”
The final episode, “The Case of Mr. Valdemar,” features Basil Rathbone (famous as Sherlock Holmes in films and on radio) as a mesmerist who hypnotizes Price’s character on his deathbed, thus prolonging the actual moment of death. The script adds a twist, with the mesmerist using his influence over his patient to try to gain control of Valdemar’s wife (the beautiful and desirable Debra Paget). Fortunately, Valdemar comes out of his trance and manages to throttle the evil mesmerist before melting into a “liquid mass of loathsome…detastable putrescence.” Despite decades as a horror star, this appearance as a living corpse represents Price’s first supernatural monster character. The eerie sense of death delayed but not averted is effectively conveyed, and the resurrection scene is reasonably well done, with some blurry lap-dissolves preventing the camera from viewing the makeup too closely; the scene feels slightly truncated, however, and therefore anti-climactic (the camera cuts away before Valdemar actually gets his hands on the hypnotist). The script shows some evident Matheson touches (Valdemar thanks his wife for sharing “the sweat measure of her soul” with him—a line Matheson would paraphrase in his novel WHAT DREAMS MAY COME), and David Frankham and Paget provide solid support in the acting department, making this a reasonably powerful climax to the three-part film.
Price recalled that his co-star Rathbone had changed over the decades (Price and co-starred with Rathbone and Boris Karloff in 1939’s THE TOWER OF LONDON). Rathbone, like many aging actors from Hollywood’s Golden Era, found it difficult to keep working in an industry now looking to appeal to the drive-in youth market.
“I think he was very disillusioned, very bitter, because he really had been a great star. People forget that, because they think of him as Sherlock Holmes, or they think of him as a villain. But he had been a great Shakespearian actor, a great star in the theatre and in movies. And he suddenly found himself—as we all did when Jimmy Dean and Marlon Brando and those people came out, and there was a kind of speaking in the vernacular, and all of us spoke with trained accents and trained English—if you wanted to stay in the business, you bloody well went into costume pictures. And Basil rather resented that.”
Roger Corman had this to say about working with Rathbone: “Basil would be immensely well prepared, with a fully developed performance and would play the script to the letter, so that just a small amount of discussion [was needed]. A very meticulous and a very consistent actor—from take to take it did not vary.” Also shot, but never shown, was a brief sequence of Valdemar’s soul trapped in Limbo. “It didn’t work,” Corman has said. “I shot it, put it together, and for whatever reason I made the decision to take it out. It was a short sequence, and I was dissatisfied with it, and I don’t even remember why. It may have been for this reason: these pictures really were rather low-budget films. We tried to make them look more expensive than they were, but they really were quite low-budget. I think when I looked at the Hades sequence, for five minutes, it really didn’t look right.”
Corman added, “We used certain colored gels and filters. The work we did, we thought was good for the 1960s; it pales by comparison to what can be done with the press of a button with computer graphics today. There were two reasons for the Hades sequence: one was to illustrate what Valdemar was going through. Also—and this was a problem with all of the Poe pictures—they were very much interior; they were shot in one or two rooms, and I was always worried about a claustrophobic feeling, that you were almost having a stage play photographed. I would take any possible way I could to break out of the confines of those rooms. That is the reason for some of the [dream/hallucination] sequences and one of the reasons for the ‘Hades’ sequence.”
Although successful, the profits did not match those of previous films. “TALES OF TERROR did well, but not as well as the others, and we felt it was because we had gone to the trilogy format,” Corman recalled. “We did a little research and found that in general the multi-part films had not been a successful genre. In the age of television, the audience maybe—I don’t know—thought they were seeing three half-hour television shows.”
Price, Lorre, Rathbone, and Jameson would reteam, along with Boris Karloff, in the 1963 film COMEDY OF TERRORS, also written by Matheson.
The two-part Poe anthology TWO EVIL EYES, from Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA) and George Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) is virtually a two-thirds remake of TALES OF TERROR, featuring episodes based on “The Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Black Cat” (although done in contemporary, not period, settings).
DVD & HOME VIDEO DETAILS
TALES OF TERROR has never been released on Blu-ray. Fortunately, the film is available as a stand-alone DVD and also as one of MGM’s Midnight Movie Double Bill DVDs, paired with TWICE TOLD TALES (an obvious imitation, with Price starring in three episodes based on stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne). The disc offers TALES OF TERROR in a good widescreen (2.35 aspect ratio) transfer. The soundtrack is monophonic with English dialogue, with options for Spanish, French, and German subtitles. The only bonus features are coming attractions trailers for both films. TALES OF TERROR is also available on Netflix Instant View. TALES OF TERROR (AIP, 1962). Produced and directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Joyce Jameson, Debra Paget, David Frankham, Leona Gage, Maggie Pierce, Wally Campo. Allen DeWitt. NOTE: This article copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski. Some of the material herein is derived and adapted from the cover story on Vincent Price that Steve Biodrowski co-authored with David Del Valle and Lawrence French for the January 1989 issue of Cinefantastique magazine.
Malcolm McDowell discusses Kubrick’s scathing film version of the Anthony Burgess novel.
Producer-director Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel is a strangely overwhelming experience–at time contemptible, and yet always valid in its sardonic outlook. We`re forced to identify with a young, violent droog, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) as he rapes, brutalizes, and murders; after an experimental treatment conditions him to become violently ill at the mere thought of sex or violence, his karma is leveled as, one by one, those he wronged have their chance at revenge. The sick joke of the movie is that everyone else, indeed the very state itself, is as morally corrupt as our `friend and humble narrator.` Burgess`s point was that destroying someone`s free will, his ability to make moral choices, was as immoral as anything Alex did; in the novel (at least in England, where its last chapter was not shorn off), Alex eventually outgrows his youthful penchant for violence and finds himself aware of a desire to settle down. For Kubrick, life moves in cycles, endlessly repeating; thus the film ends with Alex returned to his previous state, presumably ready to embark on another spree as soon as he`s released from hospital (`I was cured all right`). A cynical film, without redeeming characters, and yet it makes its point. Read More
Two scenes are indelibly impressed on the memory, thanks to late night television, home video, and horror movie anthologies: in the first, a woman removes a cloth from her husband’s head to reveal not a human face but the head of a fly; in the second, a tiny fly trapped in a spider’s web screams in a human voice, “Help me! Help me!” as the spider moves in for the kill. The film is, of course, THE FLY, released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. The two scenes are so indelibly impressed on the public imagination that few people remember the rest of the film: for instance, there is a common misconception, shared by whoever wrote the notes for the old VHS videocassette release, that Vincent Price played the role of the unfortunate scientist. This neglect is rather undeserved because the film, though hardly a masterpiece, stands in many ways above the level of B-movie science fiction common in the 1950s.
The saga of THE FLY began with the publication of George Langelaan’s novella in the June 1957 issue of Playboy magazine. Langelaan, an Englishman reared in France, was a British Intelligence agent in World War II. In his autobiographical account The Faces of War, he described his adventures, which included parachuting into occupied France, being captured and condemned to death by the Nazis, and escaping and returning to England to participate in the Normandy landings. The title of the book refers to the fact that he underwent plastic surgery more than once to disguise himself from the enemy — an experience that perhaps provided the inspiration for the somewhat more radical change of appearance that the scientist undergoes in THE FLY.
Langelaan’s story begins with Henri Delambre receiving a phone call from his brother’s wife informing him that she has just murdered her husband, Andre. The calm way in which she insists upon her guilt while refusing to explain her motive results in her incarceration in an asylum for the criminally insane. After much prodding from the police inspector assigned to the case, who suspects her of feigning insanity, she writes a confession, which forms the bulk of the narrative.
Andre, she explains, was performing experiments in which he would disintegrate solid objects, project them through space, and reintegrate them. After an initial failure with his pet cat Dandelo (the feline disintegrates but never reappears), he perfects the process to the point where he experiments on himself; unfortunately, he emerges with the head and claw of a fly that was in the matter transmitter with him.
When a search for the fly with his head and arm proves futile, his wife convinces him to go through the transmitter again without the fly, hoping that will be enough to restore him. The attempt proves a disaster: Andre emerges mixed not only with the atoms of the stray fly but also with those of the lost cat. With no hope now of restoring himself, Andre destroys his matter transmitter and instructs his wife to kill him by crushing his head under a steam hammer so as to leave no trace of what happened.
Helene Delambre commits suicide after writing her confession, which Inspector Charas interprets as proof that she was indeed insane. Henri, however, informs him that he visited the cemetery with a matchbox, which he buried near his brother’s grave:
“Do you know what was in it?”
“A fly, I suppose.”
“Yes, I had found it early this morning, caught in a spider’s web in the garden.”
“Was it dead?”
“No, not quite. I…crushed it…between two stones. Its head was…white…all white.”
The story won the Playboy Best Fiction Award and was selected for the “Annual of the Year’s Best Science Fiction.” Also, it was read by Kurt Neumann, a director and sometimes producer of low- to medium-budget films such as Secret of the Blue Room, Return of the Vampire (1943, co-directed with Lew Landers), several Tarzan films, and The She Devil (1956). Neumann had been born in Germany in 1906 and worked there as a director of comedy shorts and foreign versions of Hollywood films before moving to America in the 1930s and becoming a feature director.
Realizing the cinematic potential of the story, Neumann brought the property to Robert Lippert, for whom he had produced and directed Rocketship-XM (1950). Lippert had been an independent producer and distributor, but at this time he had a contract with 20th Century Fox, which allowed his production company, Associated Producers, Inc. to act as a sort of B movie unit. Fox would provide finances and distribution but had nothing to do with the films until Lippert handed over a finished product. According to an interview in Fantastic Films magazine with Edward Bernds, who wrote and directed the sequel, RETURN OF THE FLY, for Lippert, “Fox didn’t even have veto power over the cast, and I don’t think they even looked at the finished pictures!”
One control that Fox did maintain was the right of approval over any project Lippert wanted to do. According to Harry Spalding, a story editor and screenwriter who worked with Lippert at the time and for many years thereafter, “Lippert put up an option on the property and brought it to Fox. Fox liked THE FLY so much it went out as a Fox picture. Lippert put the picture together and got a financial benefit, but it had the Fox label.”
The decision to handle the film as a full fledged 20th Century Fox production was unusual, in that Fox had produced nothing resembling a science fiction film up to that time; most probably, Fox production chief Buddy Adler sensed the commercial potential in the story that would capitalize on the currently popular sci-fi genre, and his company was in need of a box office hit. Whatever the reason, the decision insured that the film would be shot in color and Cinemascope on a budget of $400,000 – relatively small by Fox standards but much larger than the $90,000 allotted to Lippert’s independent productions. Lippert had no further involvement with the film, but Kurt Neumann remained as producer and director.
To write the screenplay, producer-director Kurt Neumann obtained the services of James Clavell, an Australian who had been educated at Birmingham University in England and served as Captain of the British Royal Artillery in World War II. Clavell had come to the United States in 1953 to start a career as a writer. THE FLY was his first feature screenplay; later credits include The Great Escape and The Satan Bug.
As Harry Spalding described it, “Clavell gave it that serious touch the British give to the unserious.” Clavell’s adaptation stuck closely to the Langelaan story, with a few exceptions. The setting is changed from France to Montreal, Canada. The flashback structure is retained, but the film begins with Helene Delambre discovered next to the huge press in which she has just crushed her husband; Clavell then uses her confession to segue back in time, revealing the events that led up to Andre’s death.
Several character development scenes are added to humanize Andre (who barely speaks in the novella – except for his typewritten remarks to his wife after his mishap with the fly renders him speechless). Dandelo the cat never becomes mixed up with the fly head — he merely disappears into a “stream of cat atoms,” accompanied by an illogical but nonetheless effectively ghostly wail on the soundtrack. Consequently, Andre’s decision to destroy himself is based on the fact that finding the fly no longer provides the chance of restoring himself; instead, he is driven by the fact that his human intelligence is gradually being overwhelmed by the animal – and possibly murderous – instincts of the fly.
Clavell’s script manages to provide a Hollywood happy ending: Helene is never confined to an asylum; she is merely kept under observation by Inspector Charas until he can decide whether or not she is insane. Besides being gruesomely horrific, the famous “Help me! Help me!” scene, in which Andre’s son draws his uncle’s attention to the human-headed fly trapped in the spiderweb, also serves a dramatic purpose, convincing Charas that Helen’s story is true and thus saving her from incarceration and suicide, as in the novella.
One of the most interesting aspects of Clavell’s approach, an element that helps to set the film apart from many of its contemporaries, is the avoidance (except for a few awkward concessions) of the standard “I meddled in things man must leave alone” mentality. Andre’s transformation is not a moral retribution but a tragic accident (the story could almost have been titled “The Bug in the System”). Helen does express fear about technology’s overwhelmingly rapid advances, and Andre finally concludes, “There are some things man was not meant to experiment with,” but at the conclusion Francois describes his brother as an explorer like Columbus, who sacrificed himself for the sake of discovering something that would benefit future generations.
THE FLY was shot in eighteen days on a noticeably limited number of sets: most of the film takes place in the Delambre’s house, with only a few studio exteriors and no location es¬tablishing shots (the Montreal location is apparent only through a few dialogue refer¬ences). Nevertheless, cinematography by the late Karl Struss gives the film a glossy studio look: Struss, along with Charles Rosher, had won the first Academy Award for photographing Sunrise in 1927; his other credits include Rocketship-XM, Limelight, The Great Dictator, Island of Lost Souls, and the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Neumann’s direction is very straightforward, mostly avoiding B movie melodrama and thus giving an understated tone that lends a decent sense of credibility to the incredible proceedings.
The cast is small but strong. For Vincent Price, this film would help cement his association in the public mind with horror. In the 1940s, he had been a contract actor at Fox, where he played many supporting roles in classics like Laura and Leave Her to Heaven (both with Gene Tierney). He had played a couple of sinister leads in films like Shock and Dragonwyck (again with Tierney), but his previous appearances in horror films were limited to the 1939 version of Tower of London (a sort of historical horror film); The Invisible Man Returns and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (he played the Invisible Man in both); and House of Wax and The Mad Magician during the early fifties 3-D craze.
Producer-director Kurt Neumann cast Price as the sympathetic brother-in-law of Andre Delambra. Fox studio chief Buddy Adler reportedly had doubts about the actor’s marquee value, but Neumann insisted that he could help draw a horror audience to the picture. (A television appearance on The $64,000 Challenge had earned Price a new degree of popularity with young viewers unfamiliar with his older films.)
Decades later, Price looked back on THE FLY with a certain fondness. “I thought THE FLY was a wonderful film – entertaining and great fun,” he said. “It had a sense of suspense,” he said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen. When you saw the Fly, you only saw him for a short while. Jeff Goldblum wrote me a letter when his version came out and said, ‘I hope you like it as much as I like yours’ – which I thought was terribly sweet. I’d never met him, and I wrote him back. I kind of like the new version. It was wonderful right up to a certain point. It just goes too far. I didn’t believe the end of it – it became laughable because too much happened. There is such a thing as suggesting something. It’s like nude women: very few women should be caught nude.”
Patricia Owens, who retired in 1967 after The Destructors to raise her family, is properly convincing as Andre’s wife — actually the film’s largest role in terms of screen time and dialogue; she once claimed the film had helped her overcome an insect phobia: “Now when I see a beetle or something crawling, I just tell myself, ‘Why, that’s only that nice Al Hedison playing a new role.’ Then all fear leaves me.”
Herbert Marshall, a British actor who had been on stage in England and America before appearing in such films as Foreign Correspondent, Razor’s Edge, and Duel in the Sun, does a marvelous job of elevating Charas from a mouthpiece asking questions into a human being; his horrified reaction shot, after crushing the human headed fly in the spider’s web, gives no indication that he and Price were laughing themselves sick during that day’s filming.
“We never could get it all out,” said Vincent Price of the scene’s filming. “We were playing this kind of philosophical scene, and every time that little voice [of the fly] would say ‘Help me! Help me!’ we would just scream with laughter. It was terrible. It took us about 20 takes to finally get it.” Cast in the role of Andre Delambre was Al Hedison, a young New York stage actor who had appeared in only one previous film, The Enemy Below. “I had first read the story in Playboy, and I thought it was thrilling. Shortly after that, Fox got the rights, and several actors who were under contract turned it down; when they asked me if I wanted to do it, I was thrilled — I thought it could be a terrific picture. Of course I was a little younger then and they tried to make me look older — put gray in my hair.”
Taking his cue from Clavell’s script (which he calls “a very sympathetic story of two people very much in love”), Hedison plays Andre as a conscientious scientist, not an obsessed fanatic:
“He’s really discovered something pretty marvelous, because he was talking about being able to do wonderful things for humanity: being able to transport food to another place — he had all these wonderful ideas. I thought that was a very important point that James Clavell had made.”
Unfortunately, the finished film doesn’t live up to Hedison’s ideal of what it could have been: “I was a little disappointed in it. When I read the story, I was really thrilled because I’d always loved that story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and this had something of that in it. I ran to [Fox chief] Buddy Adler and said, ‘I think you’re gonna have a terrific picture here, but it must be done with progressive makeup.’ When she first pulls the cloth off, there’s got to be enough to frighten anyone — you know, like half his face. But instead they used this mask, which I fought and didn’t like at all. Unfortunately they wanted to use it and thought it was fast. I thought if they had used progressive makeup and spent a little more time on it, it could have been an even better picture. They could have done more with it in that way and strengthened the human relationship, which would have been terrific. Then it would have been really horrifying.”
Unlike what often happens in scenes involving masks, Hedison played all his own scenes, even though his face was completely obscured and a double could easily have been substituted. At the time, Hedison said that acting through the mask was like “trying to play piano with boxing gloves,” but years later he had softened his opinion.
“I think I did my best work under the mask,” he joked. “I went into makeup several times before the film started, and they got a plaster cast of my head — I went through that for hours; then the finally got the mask to fit my face. I thought, for all that time they could have done it the other way — my way. So then I would go in, in the morning, and they would put it on — it would take about a half hour. They would put these little things in my mouth that would move [the mask’s proboscis]. As masks go, it wasn’t bad, but it didn’t scare me much. I think the mask could have been the final stage, but at the beginning it could have been wonderful if they’d come up with something really frightening.”
Another disappointment involved post-dubbing dialogue, a practice with which Hedison was unfamiliar since this was only his second film:
“They bring you into a dubbing room, and you try to recapture the moment,” he explains. “Well, I was a total failure. I had a plane leaving that afternoon to go to England to shoot a film, a piece of drek called Son of Robin Hood. They just had me for a couple of hours, and I had to do that scene — it was a love scene in the garden with Patricia Owens, which I had filmed, and it was terrific, I thought — a very moving scene. Then I went in to dub it, and I saw the cut version, and I was so unhappy because it was gone; it was totally gone. I mean, it was there — the words were there — but it was a fake and it was cold and didn’t work. That to me was very upsetting.
“And while we’re at it,” he continues, “the other thing that was upsetting was — well, people do an imitation of it all the time: ‘’Help me!’ They had me in the net, and they pasted me white. In the dailies, when I saw that scene it was horrific — the sound of a man who’s gonna be eaten by a spider — I mean, it’s terrible! But they chose to go with that effect — heighten my voice to make it sound like a chipmunk or something — which to me made no sense at all. What they should have done was move the camera in closer and had my own voice screaming, ‘Help me!’”
Hedison smiled. “It’s good to get these things off my chest — thirty years too late!”
The pale, gaunt makeup that Hedison wore in that famous scene was the work of Ben Nye, Sr., who made simple but effective use of highlight and shadow to achieve the death — like appearance. Nye, regrettably, passed away this February 1986. His career spanned five decades, from Gone with the Wind to Planet of the Apes (1969), and included such films as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Dr. Doolittle. At the time of THE FLY, Nye was the makeup director at 20th Cen¬tury Fox, a position that he held for twenty three years before retiring from the screen to produce his own line of theatrical makeup — a business continued by his sons Ben, Jr. and Dana.
For the effect of a spider web, Nye took two pieces of a 2×4 wood, each about eight inches long, and put white glue between them; then, by rubbing them together and pulling them apart, he could create long thin fibers, which he would lay over Hedison’s head.
“I was concerned that the actor would suffer some in the removal stage,” Nye recalled in an unpublished autobiographical account of his years at Fox. “However, at the end of the day’s shooting, it slipped off of his head completely. Luckily, I only had to do this makeup once. The effect was super.”
For the spider that menaces Hedison, Nye asked the prop department to supply him with a hollow facsimile that could be operated like a hand-puppet. “They got in over their head though, when they tried to put hair on it. We took it over, and my apprentice Dick Blair layered crepe wool evenly with light- to dark-brown hair. We also glued the eyes into place.”
Combining the miniature spider with Hedison, as well as providing the bright blue light seen when the matter transmitter is at work, was the job of L.B. Abbott, who later went on to work on several Irwin Allen disaster films (The Towering Inferno) before his death in 1985.
Nye’s greatest challenge on the film, of course, was creating the fly mask. When first given the script, he was told to read it in a hurry, because the film was scheduled to begin production within two months, and producer-director Kurt Neumann was anxious to know how much time and money it would take to complete the mask.
“Unfortunately, that was never covered in my apprenticeship, and so I told him I didn’t have the foggiest,” Nye recounted. “However, they thought I could do it and they gave what could be called an unlimited budget. Before long, I was meeting with the art director, who was showing me his ideas. They didn’t conform to what I had in mind, but they were good for a start.”
Although Dana Nye recollects that the research department at Fox came up with a color transparency of a fly to aid his father, Ben Nye’s own account indicates that he relied mostly on his imagination. He and his able assistant Dick Smith (not the famed makeup artist of The Exorcist) agreed to create a tightly fitting skin on which would be glued the various components of the insect’s face. After settling on the design and sculpting the fly head, they produced latex sponge pieces and secured them on the mask, which then had a zipper sewn in the back by the wardrobe department.
“When we began to decide what the eyes would be like, I could only imagine,” Nye wrote. Knowing there were multiple cells in the eye of a fly led Nye to a beaded look, so he had the prop department constructed metal frames covered with a fine wire mesh in a convex curve. Then Nye, Blair, and assistant Richard Hamilton applied 14mm pearl-type beads to the mesh.
“We were a little like Laurel and Hardy to begin with. After completing several pairs individually, we discovered, to our chagrin, the beads had been layered in conflicting patterns.”
Once that problem was sorted out, Nye painted the eyes with an airbrush, using iridescent colors: beige, yellow, and green. “This was all done in two very crazy weeks. I was even coming in during the weekend. Meanwhile, I still had all the other responsibilities of running the department. We had three or four features being made on the lot at the time.”
Next a proboscis was sculpted in clay. Its sponge rubber exterior, with a sucker tip on the end, was supported internally by a wooden core. Held in Hedison’s mouth, it provided the mask’s only animation. On each side of the piece were feelers cut from turkey feathers to give an airy look
“This was again what I thought a fly would look like. I painted the feathers a metallic green, blue, and black to get a variegated coloring effect. Finally, at the top of the proboscis, I added little hairs which were constructed out of tiny plastic rods. We learned that by holding them over a flame for an instant, the rod could be pulled apart, and the plastic looked like little hairs.”
A week before the camera test, Nye painted the entire head with metallic green, blue, and black, using more black under the “jaw line” to give the mask better definition. Over this were added coarse whiskers made from the plastic rods held over flame. With the eyes in place, the proboscis ready, and the mask colored, Nye ordered a special wig from Max Factor.
“It was probably the strangest order they had ever received,” he wrote. “We had to send them a plaster head of Hedison so that it would fit him perfectly. What was actually different was the pattern into which the hair was layered. I wanted a sparse effect, and I ordered the individual hairs knotted in the netting about three-eights to one-half inches apart. We could see through it when it arrived, and this gave it a surreal look.”
Since the wig arrived uncut, Nye gave it a haircut while Hedison was wearing it. The wig was then glued to the mask and cut up the back along the path of the zipper.
After all this preparation, there was only one day for a camera test to check for lighting and angles. Unfortunately, although the mask looked great in rushes, close-ups revealed that the eyes looked exactly like what they were: beads. Nye had to come up with a new concept very quickly.
After several days’ experimentation, he decided to create convex eyes out of plastic shells. He discovered that, if he used two thin shells, one could be set within the other and painted to look semi-lucid. After getting the final version made by the prop department (they had to conform to the eye spaces left in the mask for the wire mesh frames), he began using luminous paint: light orchid on the inner shell, light gray on the outer, and yellow and green around the edges to give “an even more mystical effect. ”
The second camera test pleased everyone except for Hedison. The wire mesh eyes had allowed enough air and light to enter so that it was easy for him to breathe and see; the plastic eyes, however, were semi-opaque, and Nye couldn’t lighten the coloring without revealing Hedison’s eyes to the camera. During the test, Nye slightly opened the lower part of the shells to give a bit of ventilation; Hedison asked if they could be left open — this provided him just enough space to look down and walk without falling. The claw on Hedison’s right hand was supplied by the special effects department. Nye made a rubber sleeve to fit over the rear of the claw and painted it to match with iridescent black, blue, and green, after which Dick Blair applied the hair. The claw plays a part in some action that may actually seem more memorable in retrospect: the warring nature of Andre Delamabre’s fading human personality and growing insect instincts are visualized in scenes of the character fighting with his clawed hand, which almost seems to take on a life of its own – a bit of business that foreshadows a similar predicament suffered by the title character (played by Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Summing up the experience, Nye had this to say: “This was a most difficult assignment since had nothing to start with. However, after I got onto what my imagination told me to do, the concepts unfolded one by one, and the mask and its components were most gratifying. My only disappointment was that the producer thought the mask was too scary for the average child or perhaps adult. Therefore, he ordered that the scenes in the lab be lit very dimly. This was supposed to make sure the audience was not ‘too scared.’ I was mad because much of the detail could never be seen. In the sixties, Irwin Allen moved onto the lot and produced a number of sci-fi stories; we had many special type makeups, but I never did anything as sophisticated or original as THE FLY.”
CRITICAL REACTION AND AUDIENCE RESPONSE
Upon its initial release, THE FLY became an immediate success, grossing nearly $34,000 on its opening day in Los Angeles. According to Lippert’s story editor Harry Spalding, 20th Century-Fox executives were so impressed that they took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety, which stated, “THE FLY opens to astounding results.” However, the ad was immediately pulled because the rather obvious pun was considered in poor taste. The gross increased to a million dollars in the first week and eventually ended up somewhere over the three million dollar mark — making it, after Peyton Place, Fox’s only other box office hit of the year.
Critical reaction to the film was somewhat mixed. Carlos Clarens (An Illustrated History of the Horror Film) stated, “It stands out from ordinary movies in nearly creating an authentic science fiction monster,” but then goes on to accuse the film of botching its own potential. Ivan Butler (Horror in the Cinema) calls THE FLY “the most ludicrous, and certainly one of the most revolting science-horror films ever perpetrated. […] Nothing, anyway, could excuse the head-crushing business.” (Butler tends to be rather squeamish.) Many detractors, including filmmaker David Cronenberg, who directed the 1986 remake, question why the fly’s head and claw appear suitably enlarged on Andre Delambre instead of their normal size — a point neither the story nor the film addresses. Somewhat unfairly, many also question why Andre retains his own personality after losing his head — even though this point is addressed, since Andre’s human personality is gradually being eclipsed.
Of course, the film has earned some praise as well, and not just from sci-fi fans who discovered it on television as kids. In his book of capsule reviews, Movies on TV, Steven H. Scheuer (who was hardly a fan of the genre) praised THE FLY as a “superior science-fiction thriller with a literate script for a change, plus good production effects and capable performances.” Frank McConnell (“Rough Beasts Slouching: A Note on the Horror Film”) wrote: “It manages a profound kind of shock: exactly because the flat, third-person camera angle imposes a tacit equivalence of human and inhuman which is the obverse of Kafka’s vision” (in his famous short story “Metamorphosis”). And John Brosnan (The Horror People) calls THE FLY “a totally ludicrous film but a very enjoyable one, especially since the cast manages to appear to take it all so seriously.”
SPAWN OF THE FLY: Quick-Buck Sequels
Whatever the critical reaction, the box office success ensured a sequel. “I think Fox was very surprised when it made the money it did,” Hedison recalled. “Anyway, it made a lot of money, and I’m sure Fox were very happy. Of course, they made another film called RETURN OF THE FLY to capitalize on the first one – and they went even further into the ridiculous: they had a mask that was six times the six of the first one. I don’t know what they had in mind.”
For the follow-up, Fox chief Buddy Adler turned to the man who had brought the property to him in the first place: Robert Lippert. Lippert’s associate Harry Spalding recalled the reason: “Fox was not interested in a sequel, and Lippert had paid additional money for sequel rights from the author.” If Lippert did in fact own sequel rights, those rights apparently reverted on his death to 20th Century Fox, who claimed to own all rights to the franchise when they produced the remake in the 1980s.A more likely explanation came from writer-director Edward Bernds, who believed that the decision to entrust the sequel to Lippert was an economic one: “Fox was short of money, struggling financially, and they wanted a quick profit with as little financial risk as possible.”
1959’s RETURN OF THE FLY, produced by Lippert’s Associated Producers and distributed by Fox, was almost entirely divorced from its predecessor in terms of cast and crew. THE FLY’s producer-director Kurt Neumann died after completing Watusi (also scripted by Clavell) in 1958. Bernds thinks that James Clavell was unhappy because he wanted to make his directorial debut on the sequel. “He never said that, but I got that impression whenever I came across him — an unfriendly aura. But perhaps that was just his way.” Clavell later got chance to direct (as well as produce and write) several films, notably To Sir, With Love (1967) before becoming a best-selling novelist with Shogun.
Vincent Price reprised his role as Francois Delambre, earning top billing as the only returning cast member from the original. Bernds wanted Herbert Marshall, too, but was told he was too ill; however, since Marshall made several other films before his death in 1966 (including The List of Adrian Messenger), Bernds thinks cost may have been the real factor.
As with other Lippert productions, Fox gave no interference after handing over the money. Atypically, the film was shot on the deluxe Fox Westwood lot, entirely with Fox personnel, so that the production would absorb some of the Fox overhead; consequently, the low-budget black-and-white B-picture had sets and production value on a par with the original.
Brett Halsey stars as Philip Delambre, now an adult with a fear of flies, who resumes his father’s experiments, with predictably dire results. The story suffers from a sense of fait acompli: the raison d’etre is obviously to reprise the fly transformation from the original – although in this case, not through accident but espionage: a murderous thief (David Frankham), seeking to steal the secrets of the matter transmitter, intentionally sends Philip through with a fly. The last act turns into a typical monster movie: the mutated Philip (with a fly head several times larger than his father’s) goes on a killing rampage, before being restored to his original form for a happy ending.
As Henry Spaulding explained of the contrived plotline, “This was a slightly different job as story editor; Bernds and I worked a lot more closely because we were fabricating a story. It was up to us to find some means of getting it to work. It wasn’t that easy — there was no reason to have a sequel. It was a one-idea story — how to get an excuse to make the mistake again. By the time of the third film it was pretty damn hard!”
The result is a melodramatic rehash that lacks whatever credibility the earlier film had. Price adopts the furrowed-brow expression that would become a trademark, indicating that he was not taking the film seriously – and inviting the audience to do likewise. The new inspector is a weak replacement for Marshall’s Charas, and the attempt to portray a fly with a human head, by superimposing Halsey’s face onto an actual fly, yields ridiculous results. Yet, despite the limitations of the story, Bernds managed to deliver a serviceable B-movie with enough thrills to earn a profit for the ailing Fox, helping to establish Price as a star of genre films. RETURN OF THE FLY is not genuinely frightening, but the monster scenes are nicely staged, and there is a certain satisfaction in seeing Philip kill off the bad guys.
“It wasn’t a bad film, but it was ridiculous to shoot it in black-and-white,” Price lamented years later of the low-budget follow-up. “I love black-and-white, but you do two pictures in color – not one in color and one in black-and-white.”
CURSE OF THE FLY, the final sequel in the original trilogy, was not made until 1965. After his deal with Fox ended, Lippert grew disenchanted with the cost of making films in America and moved to England, where he produced a series of modest pictures. Spalding said that CURSE OF THE FLY was made simply to cash in on the title: “Lippert had a deal to make pictures for $90,000, so he thought ‘Why not a third FLY picture? With that budget, anything that had any kind of value that you could tag on would be a help.”
The film was written by Spalding (“Every so often I’d talk out a script with Lippert — he gave me things anybody else wouldn’t do”) and directed by Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire). Brian Donlevy starred as Henri Delambre, a role written with Claude Rains in mind. The film is seldom screened, and in the 1980s (when the FLY remake was in the works) Spalding himself claimed, “I haven’t seen it since the screening when it first came out twenty years ago.”
Despite an extremely negative critical consensus, the film has at least two defenders: Phillip Strick (Science Fiction Movies) and David Pirie (A Heritage of Horror), both of whom acknowledge the plot weaknesses but praise Don Sharp’s handling of the point-of-view of the unstable heroine (Carol Gray), who escapes from a mental asylum, marries Henri’s son, and gradually discovers that her husband and father-in-law are continuing Andre Delambre’s experiments.
REBIRTH OF THE FLY: Three Decades Later, A Sophisticated Remake
CURSE OF THE FLY brought the original FLY saga to a close; the idea really wasn’t sufficient to support an extended series. However, it was good enough to inspire a new film nearly thirty years later – one of those rare remakes that actually exceeds the original. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, who had released the original, the remake was actually produced more or less as a modestly budgeted independent production by comedian Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilm company – recreating the facts behind the making of the original.
Curiously, 20tb Century Fox made no attempt to contact anyone involved with the 1958 version of THE FLY. Hedison himself found out only by running into the remake’s producer: “I was sitting in the commissary at 20th Century Fox, where I was doing a television show at the time – just guesting – and Mel Brooks came up to me and said, ‘We’re doing THE FLY,’ and I said, ‘No kidding!’”
Writer-director David Cronenberg, who had earned the sobriquet “King of Veneral Horror” for such effective low-budget thoughtful shockers as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood before moving on to high-profile projects like Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, reimagined the concept with some help from screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue. In the new version of THE FLY, scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) does not emerge from his matter transmitter with the head of a fly; instead, his genetic structure has been merged with the insect, so that he begins a gradual but inevitable transformation into a human-fly hybrid. With no real hope of a cure, Seth’s story is a depressing tragedy, as sad as it is horrific, and Cronenberg makes it work by staying true to the drama even while supplying the shocks.
The result is a thoroughly engrossing film that works as a f metaphor for untimely death, whether from a disease like cancer or from or from some self-destructive character trait like addiction. Through the eyes of the Geena Davis character, a reporter named Veronica Quaife, who becomes Seth’s lover, we watch like a helpless friend or family member as Seth declines, losing not only his human appearance but also his personality, until he is little more than a ghastly mockery of his former self. Cronenberg’s penchant for gross-out horror (Seth vomits acidic digestive juices on the hand and foot of one opponent) occasionally comes close to pushing the film into excessive, almost campy territory, but the performances by Golblum, Davis, and John Gertz (as the unfortunate recipient of said juices) help keep the story anchored in some sense of believability to the bitter end.
The success of THE FLY led to an inevitable sequel three years later. Unfortunately, Cronenberg had no involvment, much to the film’s detriment. But then, even he might have found the challenge an impossible one: as with 1959’s RETURN OF THE FLY, 1989’s THE FLY II proves that the concept is just too limited to support a sequel, which inevitably is forced to re-run what happened the first time around. As if that were not bad enough, the sequel jettisons the serious storytelling of the original in favor of making an all-out special effects extravaganza that has no integrity.
As in RETURN OF THE FLY, THE FLY II focuses on the son of the unfortune scientist from the previous film, this time played by Eric Stoltz (one wishes the produces had simply used the title SON OF THE FLY). This time, Martin Brundle does not recreate his father’s mistake; he simply inherits the curse genetically. The obvious problem with the story is that Veronica Quaife was clearly planning to get an abortion in THE FLY, so young Martin should not even exist if the writing were to stay true to the characters. Even worse, Veronica dies in childbirth before the opening titles – an example of lazy Hollywood screenwriting, in which audience identification with important characters is sacrificed on the alter of soulless franchise filmmaking. With this callous disregard for what made the first film work, THE FLY II emerges as a mindless piece of by-the-numbers genre filmmaking, whose only achievement is to recreate the human-to-fly mutation of THE FLY with equally extensive makeup effects – but without any of the credibility that made the previous film heart-wrenching as well as gut-wrenching.
Thankfully, THE FLY II fared poorly enough to prevent the embarassment of futher sequels. Unfortunately, the passage of time seems to be leading to yet another attempt at jump-starting the franchise, with a remake of THE FLY scheduled for 2006. With Veronica Quaife listed as one of the characters, the film seems to be a remake of Cronenberg’s version, not the original. But there is no legitimate reason to remake Cronenberg’s film, which is almost entirely successful on its own terms. The 1958 version of THE FLY may have left room for improvement, so that Cronenberg was able to deliver a remake that stood on its own, as something more than just a rehash. It’s hard to imagine what a new version could accomplish, except recasting the roles for younger viewers with no memories of the unbeatable Cronenberg film.
Seen today, the 1958 version of THE FLY is a bit of a quaint artifact from an earlier era. It’s a sincere attempt to tell a frightening science-fiction story with tragic consequences, but the scare scenes work most effectively on young children. Structuring the story like a murder-mystery helps hold interest on first viewing, but once you know why Helene Delambra killed her husband, subsequent viewings reveal a lack of suspense in the early scenes (although there are some remarkable scenes, such as the almost surreal sight of Helene, a beautiful woman in a lovely dress, standing in a darkened factory at night, poised in front of the press that has just crushed her husband to death – an image that would have made Luis Bunuel proud). At times the script seems almost prescient (early on, Francois wonders if his brother Andre is working on “flat screen” television), but much of the science raises unanswered questions (like how the fly’s head got suitably enlarged when it ended up on Andre). Especially in light of David Cronenberg’s sophisticated remake, the original comes across as a bit mild and even a touch naïve. It’s a sort of archetypal ‘50s science-fiction movie, with a scientist who pays dearly for his experiments. But the production values hold up, and the cast helps sell the story, making it worthwhile entertainment for sci-fi and cult fans.
Thanks to the remake, home video, and occasional revival screenings, THE FLY remains a memorable icon in the history of screen monster movies. The original film has maintained its cult popularity among enthusiasts, and its first sequel rides on the coattails of that success (the two films are packaged together on a nice double-bill DVD that includes trailers – but not CURSE OF THE FLY). The Cronenberg remake has entered the pantheon of truly great horror films – one of the best ever made by one of the genre’s most distinctive auteurs. It is available as a two-disc collector’ DVD that includes an audio commentary by the director, George Langellan’s story, Charles Edward Pogue’s original screenplay, Cronenberg’s rewrite, photo galleries, featurettes, trailers, teasers, and other bonuses. And the newly proposed remake of the Cronenberg version seems to lend confirmation, if any were needed, of the enduring popularity of the concept.
That the relatively modest 1958 film would have such a long-lasting impact was beyond the wildest dreams of David Hedison, who changed his name shortly after THE FLY came out in 1958 (“I was under contract to Fox at the time, and they didn’t like the name Al, so I said, ‘Lets just use my middle name…’”) and later went on to star as the captain of the submarine Seaview in the Irwin Allen TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
“I just thought it would be wonderfully amusing and entertaining — and maybe make some money — but I certainly didn’t think it was going to become a cult science fiction film,” Hedison admitted in 1986. “What I should have done actually, is maybe five years ago try to remake it myself … It’s amazing – I’ve gotten more calls, from New York and even Europe, because people had gotten wind that THE FLY is being remade.”
Regarding the original, Hedison maintained his sense of disappointment decades after the fact: “I saw it about five years ago, on Channel 5,” he recalled, “and all the things I felt at the time stood out even more.”
To what, then, did he attribute the film’s reputation as a science-fiction cult classic? “The story,” he stated. “The basic story is wonderful, and that worked. It goes to show, the story’s the thing. Get a good story going, and sometimes even if it’s only in competent hands it’ll be very successful.” THE FLY (1958). Produced and directed by Kurt Neumann. Screenplay by James Clavell, based on the short story by George Langelaan. Cast: Al (David) Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall, Kathleen Freeman, Betty Lou Gerson, Charles Herbert.
This article is based on material that originally appeared in Cinefantastique magazine in 1986. This version copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski
A Surreal Meditation on Love, Jealousy, Identify, and Reality
By Frederick C Szebin and Steve Biodrowski
David Lynch. The name is synonymous to film-goers around the world with the cinema of the abstract, the surreal, and the obtuse. The director of ERASERHEAD, DUNE, and BLUE VELVET, offers his first feature since TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. This latest work, LOST HIGHWAY, is a dual-storied (or is it the same story?), noirish tale of lust and murder.
Or is it?
Lynch co-wrote the script with Barry Gifford, whose novel Wild at Heart provided the basis for the director’s 1990 motion picture of the same title. Bill Pullman (INDEPENDENCE DAY) stars with Patricia Arquette (ED WOOD), Balthazar Getty (MR. HOL¬LAND’S OPUS), Robert Loggia (INDEPENDENCE DAY), Robert Blake (IN COLD BLOOD), Gary Busey (SILVER BULLET), and Richard Pryor (STIR CRAZY). The film received a limited release in February with a nationwide release in March.
LOST HIGHWAY follows Fred Madison (Pullman), a jazz musician convicted of murdering his wife, Renee (Arquette). But this plot mutates (along with its protagonist) into the story of Pete Dayton (Getty), a young mechanic who may or may not be another version of Fred, who carries on a dangerous liaison with the mistress of a gangster (also played by Arquette who). This all takes place in an imaginary Los Angeles that seems to have emerged from a parallel uni¬verse, and is overseen by the Mystery Man (Blake), a ghostly figure who may (or may not) have supernatural powers. Film noir, German Expressionism, and French New Wave meld to create a story that may never have happened, could be a dream, or a representation of madness.
WRITING THE SCRIPT
If you expect the film’s ultimate meaning to be defined by its director and co-writer, you’d be sorely disappointed. While talking about his latest film, Lynch prefers to be vague about its meanings, choosing to emphasize the effectiveness of cinema as an art form, rather than commenting on the meaning of his own work.
“I had been thinking about identity,” he said. “This came up in my discussions with Barry Gifford and is one of the things LOST HIGHWAY is about.” Which is as concrete as the director is likely to be.
This is the first time Gifford and Lynch collaborated on a script face to face (Lynch adapt¬ed WILD AT HEART on his own). “It was great,” Lynch says of actually writing with Gifford. “Everybody is different. When you have Person A writing with Person F, it goes a certain way. And if Person A writes with Person G, it goes another way. The interaction is based on the individuals in their room, and the process is interesting. I trust Barry’s instincts. We like similar things and had a great time.”
For a film steeped in technique and style, its origins were surprisingly low-tech. Gifford, who does not use a word processor, said he “would just write on long, yellow legal tablets, and an assistant would type it up. We’re both very hard workers, and we concentrate well. We begin, and we just go through it and knock ourselves out.”
Gifford calls Lynch’s film of WILD AT HEART “a great big dark musical comedy. What David managed to keep was the focus, the tenderness between Sailor and Lula, the integrity; it also inspired him to go off into different directions.”
Judging from those differences between the novel and the film, one might assume that LOST HIGHWAY fit a similar pattern, with Gifford supplying a basic, solid narrative, and Lynch inserting those identifiably Lynchian touches. Actually, both writers claim the collaboration was far more integral than that. According to Lynch, when one of them came up with an idea, it was instant¬ly reshaped by the other per¬son, then checked and re¬checked by each other. One idea can have repercussions on what has come before, and all previous work had to be changed because of it. Lynch referred to the collaboration as “an unfolding, beautiful process.”
Gifford concurred, saying, “I really wouldn’t work with anybody I don’t respect. That doesn’t mean you always love the result. But in this case, it’s a challenge.” That challenge consisted of trusting Lynch to visu¬alize the outrageous ideas they were putting on paper. “There’s a thing, where Michael Massee as Andy gets stuck on the table-that’s so amazing the way David filmed it!” Gifford enthused. “We wrote it, think¬ing, `If a guy launched himself at somebody like that, could his head get imbedded?’ Remember how your mother told you to be careful around the corners of a glass table? We were taking that fantasy, like `Don’t play with that BB gun; you’ll shoot your eye out.’ It’s the same kind of thing: what’s the most horrific thing that could happen, and could it real¬ly happen? David said, `Don’t worry about it; just write it. I’ll worry about how to make it happen.’ Having complete confidence in him that way is very liberating.”
As horrible as this particular image is, the precision of the execution renders it almost comic, in a strange way. “It’s all just fantastic,” said Gifford. “It’s sort of beyond black humor. Because we had this freedom of being in a fantasy world, more or less, we could do anything. If spaceships came down, which they practically did, it wouldn’t be out of con¬text, given where we’re at. That’s a tremendous structure; I don’t know if everyone under¬stood it once we sprang it on them.”
Indeed, many have been perplexed by LOST HIGHWAY. Gifford, however, insists that there is a completely rational explanation for the apparently surreal events on screen. [See sidebar] According to Gifford, Fred Madison is suffering a kind of psychological fugue, a condition in which a person creates another identity for him¬self. This is manifested in the film when Fred literally trans¬forms into Pete, a younger character with his own identity and past history, for the film’s second plot. This is far too much analysis for Lynch, who prefers to leave interpretation to viewers.
“Barry may have his idea of what the film means,” said Lynch, “and I may have my own idea, and they may be two different things. And yet, we worked together on the same film. The beauty of a film that is more abstract is everybody has a different take. Nobody agrees on anything in the world today. When you are spoon-fed a film, more people instantly know what it is. I love things that leave room to dream and are open to various interpretations. It’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t do any good for Barry to say `This is what it means.’ Film is what it means. If Barry or any¬one else could capture what the film is in words, then that’s poetry.”
Still, Lynch insists he isn’t being deliberately obtuse; he may not favor advancing a specific interpretation, but he does want the film open to interpretation. “There is a key in the film as to its meaning,” Lynch continued, “but keys are weird. There are surface keys, and there are deeper keys. Intellectual thinking leaves you high and dry sometimes. Intuitive thinking where you get a marriage of feelings and intellect lets you feel the answers where you may not be able to articulate them. Those kinds of things are used in life a lot, but we don’t use them too much in cinema. There are films that stay more on the surface, and there’s no problem interpreting their meaning.”
One key to interpreting the film may – or may not – rest in the character known only as the Mystery Man. Played by Robert Blake, best known for realistic, streetwise characters such as BARETTA, the Mystery Man is the first overt moment in the film when the picture steps beyond the bounds of reality. He’s a ghost¬ly figure who can call himself on the phone and possibly direct Fate. He may even be Fate personified or Fred’s conscience. Or not.
“The Mystery Man came from an old idea I had,” said Lynch. “I told Barry a version of what ended up in the film. I was halfway through the story, and it looked like he wasn’t listening to me. He just said, `That’s it!’ and started writing stuff down. The character came out of a feeling of a man who, whether real or not, gave the impression that he was super¬natural.”
Blake may seem an odd choice for the role, but Lynch admires the Emmy and People’s Choice Award-winner not only for his skill as an actor, but, for his uncompromising honesty. Wanting to work with Blake for quite a while, Lynch cast the actor against type even though Blake admit¬ted that he didn’t understand the script. “He was willing to take a chance,” says Lynch. “Somewhere in talking and rehearsing, there is a magical moment where actors catch a current; they’re on the right road. If they really catch it, then whatever they do from then on is correct and it all comes out of them from that point on.”
Helping Lynch visualize his surreal Los Angeles were two long-time collaborators: producer-editor Mary Sweeney (BLUE VELVET, WILD AT HEART, TWIN PEAKS) and cinematographer Peter Deming (HBO’s HOTEL ROOM, ABC’s ON THE AIR).
PRODUCING THE FILM
A year and a half before LOST HIGHWAY was written, Sweeney had been preparing to begin work on another Lynch script. The producer didn’t like the rewrites as much as the first draft, and told him so. “It kind of took the steam out of his enthusiasm for the project,” said Sweeney. “It was a little tough for me to be honest with him, and it was hard for him to take it. So, it was with no little trepidation that I read LOST HIGHWAY, and I ripped through it. It was a great read, and I was so excited in doing it.”
Sweeney is producer with Tom Sternberg and Deepak Nayar, who served as on-set producer, while Sweeney picked up the reins during post¬production, when her editing skills came into play. Despite the free-flowing nature of the film, Sweeney admits to no problems piecing the work together. “Working with David is just great,” she said. “He’s an all-around filmmaker, very involved every step of the way, certainly in editing, which is very important. We work together very well. There was absolutely no fear; I told him what I thought all the time, and sometimes he wasn’t thrilled. I’ll make a first cut during production; he gives me many notes and goes on his way. I’ll make the changes, and he comes back. He had confidence in me, and our communication was good enough that he could tell me what he wants, knowing he’ll get it. If it doesn’t work on the cutting end, he accepts that. We do collaborate, but he is very much the director in the cutting room.”
Conventional films can be restrictive in their linear narratives, but those restrictions provide guidelines for the filmmakers to follow: the leading man wouldn’t disappear in the middle of the picture, and the film wouldn’t end in the middle of a car chase. Still, editing LOST HIGHWAY was not as wide open as one might imagine. “All of that’s in the script,” said Sweeney. “David knew exactly what he wanted, and it’s enhanced beautifully by the way he shoots things and how visual the film is. Working with him and getting dailies makes every day Christmas-all of the crew shows up; you can’t believe what you’re seeing; and it’s all so exciting. It wasn’t a walk on the wild side for me. The film is very close to the script.
“What’s interesting with David is you have to cut knowing how you’re going to work it out, which I do know very well,” Sweeney continued. “You can trust certain things that feel awkward. He knows exactly what he’s going to do, and it’s going to be full of sounds. David does the sound design for LOST HIGHWAY. You just know the footage is going to be greatly enhanced. It’s as old as the hills in film¬making; the way you cut a scary sequence with music enhances it. There are sequences like that in the film. The transformation from Fred (Pullman) to Pete (Getty) has got terrific sounds.”
Musical is another element that enhances a film, and LOST HIGHWAY mixes existing material from David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, Lou Reed, and Marilyn Manson (who appears in the film as ‘Porno Star #1’), with an origi¬nal score by Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti (BLUE VELVET, TWIN PEAKS).
For LOST HIGHWAY, most of the score was recorded in Prague, with additional com¬positions done in London. “David and Angelo work together in such a way,” says Sweeney, “that long before they went to Prague, they had a couple sessions where they sat down and came up with some melodies that Angelo eventual¬ly translated to orchestral arrangements. Some of the music, like the end title music by David Bowie, was chosen by David in pre-production. He knew right away that’s what he wanted for the end titles. Billy Corgan, Trent Reznor and some of that other stuff came in at the eleventh hour, and we had to figure out a place for them. We actually replaced a song with a song from Smashing Pumpkins.
“Music came in different stages,” Sweeney continues. “All through post-production, David listened to music. He listens to music while he thinks about writing. It’s really integral to him. He knows when something is completely ready and when it’s not. We use temporary music tracks, but the problem with temp tracks is you aren’t using what you want in the end. The music will change, and your picture changes in how it’s cut, which changes the internal rhythm of a scene and how it feels. We only use temp music as part of the process of selection. Once a song is in there, it’s pretty much going to stay, except in that one case.”
PHOTOGRAPHING THE DARKNESS
Another important key to the film’s effectiveness is its cinematography. Unlike the brightly-lit comedies Peter Deming has worked on, such as MY COUSIN VINNY, LOST HIGHWAY offers a grayish, murky world of all-encompassing darkness. During the 1940s and 1950s, the heyday of film noir, black-and-white film stocks were used that were much slower and rendered shadows much more effectively that color stocks.
Lynch originally hoped to shoot LOST HIGHWAY in black-and-white, but the financial realities of releasing a monochrome picture to a color-spoiled audience kept that from happening. “In retrospect,” said Deming, “I don’t think filming in black and white would have been the right way to go.” To realize his noirish world, Lynch let Deming shoot LOST HIGHWAY in varying levels of darkness. The film is a little creepier than something that has contrast, with few exteriors or daylight scenes. Whenever he could, Deming consciously used hardly any light at all to keep contrast down.
“There are many places in the movie where I would normally use a back light, but didn’t,” Deming laughed. “So you have people kind of melding into the background. It’s kind of an extension of when Fred walks down the hallway and disappears; it’s keeping that feeling through the rest of the movie. In another film, a director would say, `What about a back light?’ and 90-percent of the time I’d put it there, but not for this movie. That was kind of fun.
“Sometimes I did things that, in other films, would be looked at as a mistake,” Deming continued. “In this film, it may have been a mistake to begin with, but you embrace it!” – he laughed – “I took the look as far as I could. I’ve been watching David’s work since ERASERHEAD, and had a feeling of images that he likes, both in watching his work and talking with him.”
To ensure their planned darkness wouldn’t be `corrected’ by a well-meaning processing lab, Deming kept in daily contact with the lab developing LOST HIGHWAY. He would warn the lab that they would be getting more of the same either under or over exposed and told them not to adjust the contrast. Deming was going for a “thought-out” darkness based on talks with Lynch, who usually left final lighting-or lack of it-up to his cinematographer.
“We talked about two or three scenes before we started shooting,” Deming said. “Basically, we just talked about color and things like that. Once we rehearsed a scene, we discussed how dark he wanted to go. He would rehearse while I watched. Then he would go away as I lighted the scene. If he had any comments about the lighting, he would always mention them. Fortunately it wasn’t too often, but it did happen. It’s not something I dread. I kind of look forward to it.”
Deming relied on spot metering and cranked-down F-stops when shooting dark scenes. Some sequences became so dark that viewers have to lean for¬ward and squint to see what is happening on screen. “I remember when Oliver Stone’s JFK came out,” said Deming. “[Cinematographer] Bob Richardson did a lot of cool stuff with over exposure, burning people out. I joked that maybe I’ll do the same thing with underexposure. Somehow, I don’t think it will take off quite as much. The thing I wanted to achieve was giving the feeling that anything could come out of the background, and to leave a certain question about what you’re looking at. The film is working under the surface while you’re watching it.”
This modus operandi sets up the Mystery Man who at first seems almost a subliminal presence, until he makes eye contact and steps forward. Another image that LOST HIGHWAY offers to keep viewers talking is Fred’s transition into Pete. Not only do main characters change (or do they?), but the plot goes off into another direction (or does it?). Deming did several things to visually distinguish Fred’s and Pete’s stories.
“Fred’s story is certainly darker than Pete’s,” Deming said. “For Pete, we did a little more with weird compositions. To try to get inside his head, David kept throwing the focus out of scenes by pulling the lens in and out while we were shooting. I think we also backed off the color a little bit from the richness in the beginning of the movie. But we didn’t want to drastically change looks because for most people who see it, the first connection is that these two guys are the same guy. Because of that, you don’t want to distinguish the two sections of the film too much.”
Pete’s story comes across as the more classically narrative of the two (or is it just the one?) stories. Fred’s story takes place primarily in his house, whereas Pete’s tale is a bit more mobile. To further confuse clarity, which gleefully seems to be Lynch’s forte, Fred appears to become Pete, then switch back again. More of the transformation was shot than actually used. Lynch’s sensibility is not to give audiences too much information about what is really happening, preferring to let them imagine details from the snippets offered.
With all the planning, a few happy accidents during production did catch Lynch’s fancy. One such happenstance occurred during the rehearsal of a dolly shot. At the end of the rehearsal, Lynch saw the image on a monitor as the dolly was being brought back to its original position, while the camera remained stationary. The director liked the resulting image better than what was planned and wound up using it.
Another time, first assistant director Scott Cameron was changing lenses, as Lynch sat by looking at the monitor. The screen went from sharpness at one focal length, to blur, to focus, at a new focal length. He was impressed with the image and decided to experiment with it while shooting. But for all the planning and lucky breaks in the world, film-making, at best, is a perfect physical representation of Murphy’s Law, and Deming found himself challenged by LOST HIGHWAY’s excursions out¬doors, where scenes were suddenly bright and contrasty, compared to the created murk of the film’s interiors. The biggest challenge came with the nighttime desert scenes, when aesthetics became secondary to mere logistics.
“The weather alternated between cold and wind, dusty and dirty,” said Deming. “We had a lot of different lighting elements with us. The rig for Fred’s drive at the end was pretty elaborate; we had a semi with two generators pulling us in order to have enough power to do what we needed. It was a pretty interesting image as it drove through the middle of nowhere, with everything around it black as night.”
The first cut of LOST HIGHWAY ran two-and-a-half hours. Mary Sweeney hand-picked an audience of 50 people of varying backgrounds and ages to get a variety of impressions. Lynch knew the film was too long, and realized what had to be cut, and the comments of the 50 solidified for him what had to go, even though some of the decisions were difficult to make.
“There was a lot of stuff about Pete’s life with his buddies,” said Sweeney. “There were a couple of great scenes that were visually so fantastic that I hated to lose them, so we kept them in. Pete goes out with his friends, first to the drive-in, then to the bowling alley, where he’s dancing with Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner), and both of those scenes are significant. We lost a lot in that area, and immediately after the transformation there are a couple of things that weren’t moving the story forward. It all had to do with Pete’s life, which were scenes that weren’t going to give people the answers they were looking for. Those scenes were just hanging there.”
The film was eventually cut down to two hours, ten minutes. An earlier scene that was lost illustrated the tenuous relationship between Fred and his wife. It was one of those character-revealing scenes that could be done without. If it happened to be a clue as to the ultimate meaning of LOST HIGHWAY, we’ll never know. The film is meant to cause discussion, but such films can lead well-intentioned amateur philosophers astray as they lock onto insignificant scenes or actions, thinking them to be genuine clues. If viewers do that with LOST HIGHWAY, Sweeney and Lynch will be quite pleased to have stirred the viewer anyway.
“David sings praises to those people,” says Sweeney. “He gives a lot of details. People give the film a signifi¬cance that tells part of their own story, and that makes David so happy. I’ve had people give very funny reactions. There are all kinds of explana¬tions for who Patricia Arquette (playing both Fred’s wife and Pete’s girlfriend) is; Fred is having a dream about the type of person he’d like to be with, or someone he used to be with, or she’s his alter ego. People come up with great stories and I can’t say if they’re right or wrong. Students write their theses on David’s movies, and they write fascinating things, but it’s not what David was thinking when he made the film. People read a lot into his work. I think it’s great. You stimulate people. That’s very satisfying for an artist.”
Sweeney hopes audiences will embrace LOST HIGHWAY for the intentionally irresolvable puzzle it was meant to be, and don’t resent the lack of concrete answers. Lynch’s intention was to bring dreams into the theaters that viewers can connect with on their own terms, not on the filmmaker’s.
“David has a very strong vision, and in other ways he’s very reckless,” says Sweeney. “He has no fear. The more well-known you get, the more difficult that becomes. I’m very proud that he’s still `out there.’ He’s always lamenting that he wants to change his name, get a wig, grow a beard, make a movie as a complete unknown and see how people take it. His films are so recognizable that he couldn’t do that, but could another person come along and make something like this? It’s an interesting question.”
Lynch’s reputation certainly precedes him on everything he does, but he finds that to be a good thing.”You find out when you screen a movie for people how it’s going,” he says, “but you don’t really know how large a section of the population is going to take it. You have to check things within yourself, let that be your guide and hope for the best when it’s finished. The only thing you can do is make your film and not worry about what will happen. Just stay true to yourself.” Copyright 1997 by Frederick C. Szebin and Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Nuber 10)
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.” Read More
Most of the classic movie monsters are derived from folklore (the Wolfman), literature (Frankenstein), or a combination of the two (Dracula). Only a very few are original products of Hollywood. Of these latter creatures, one of the most memorable ever to leave its indelible impression upon the popular psyche is the Blob. Let’s face it: the Blob has become part of our popular consciousness, an instantly recognizable pop icon; whether you have not seen the film in years, or never saw it at all, you know what the Blob is – quite an achievement for a monster that has no literary or mythic antecedents.
Generally regarded as a classic among fans of old sci-fi flicks (especially those who first saw the film as children), THE BLOB owes its status to two factors: the presence of star Steve McQueen in his first feature film starring role, and the originality of its truly unique monster. The film itself is an amusing little effort that adheres closely to the reactionary sexual and political themes prevalent in most genre items of its era, as Robin Wood outlined in his essay “The American Nightmare” (“Two teenagers kiss enter the Blob”). The established order of American life (represented by parents, police, war veterans, etc.) at first seems to be threatened by hedonistic teenagers who show little respect for authority, but these two opposing groups join forces when faced by the threat of the Blob. By the end of the film, all the teenagers have proven themselves to be good solid American citizens who will probably grow up to be just like the authority figures now in power.
The Blob itself is quite an interesting monstrosity. Devoid of personality and intelligence, it is so primal as to be open to any number of interpretations, but it has one undeniable characteristic: it devours human flesh. In effect, it comes across as a punishment for the sins of the flesh, as in memorable garage scene. Two attendants talk about their plans for the weekend. The one lying beneath a car brags about leaving his wife behind while he goes off for a wild time other leaves to go home to his wife. Of course, it is the one beneath the car who is devoured. And, reinforcing the metaphor, the creature is defeated with cold — like the proverbial shower.
The human element of the film is the most part not as interesting as Blob itself. Much of the dialogue is overstated and melodramatic, serving to fill-in for shots and which could not be visualized. The acting is variable. McQueen and Corseaut come across well, but Keith Almoney (as Corseaut’s younger brother) makes us wish the Blob had devoured him in the first reel.
Also, production values were obviously limited. The film tends to be more effective in its early scenes, when the Blob is small. By the conclusion, when the Blob has grown large enough to engulf a diner, the film is visibly straining to do justice to its concept, holding on reaction shots of actors while the audience is left to imagine what the Blob is doing off screen.
Still, flaws notwithstanding, THE BLOB is a classic of a kind. Though not a masterpiece, it is one of those movies that somehow accidentally struck a chord that continues to reverberate in the popular consciousness five decades later (aided, of course, by awareness of a big-budget remake in 1988).
BEHIND THE SCENES
The production story behind the original is almost as interesting as the film itself. It all started when Irvine H. Millgate met Jack H. Harris, a distributor who wanted to become a producer. “He [Millgate] was head of visual aids for the Boy Scouts of America,” said Harris. “They had made a feature film, and they asked me to be consultant on the national distribution.”
While promoting the film, Harris and Millgate toured the country together. “On our trips, we would talk about the great movie that I was gonna make one day, because that’s what I wanted to do,” recalled Harris. “Millgate said, ‘What is your formula?’ I said, ‘It’s gotta be a monster movie. It’s gotta be in color instead of black and white. It can’t be a cheapy creepie — it’s gotta have some substance to it. It’s gotta have characters you can believe in. And there’s gotta be a unique monster — never been done before. And the method of killing the monster would have to be something that grandma could have cooked up on her stove.’”
With those specifications in mind, Millgate went to work. Almost a year later, Harris was awakened one morning by a long-distance phone call from an excited Millgate. “He said, ‘I’ve got it — I’ve got it — Oh Lord, I’ve got it! THE MOLTEN METEOR!’ I asked, ‘What the hell’s that?’ He said, ‘A mineral form of life that consumes human flesh on contact.’ I said, ‘That sounds good, but how do we do it in?’ He said, ‘You can’t burn it; you can’t reduce it with acid; you can’t shoot it. There’s only one thing you can do: freeze it — makes it immobile.’ So that was the basic notion.”
Millgate developed this notion into a treatment, which Harris took to Valley Forge Films, a production company in suburban Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, headed by Irvin S. (“Shorty”) Yeaworth, Jr. Under Yeaworth’s direction, Valley Forge Films had made hundreds of low budget TV shows and numerous 16mm films. Along with producer Lou Kellman (The Burgler), Yeaworth had been trying to co-produce a feature, but they were unable to raise financing for a script they had developed — “a Bridie Murphy kind of situation,” according to Yeaworth. The real-life case of a woman who became famous for allegedly recalling past lives under hypnosis had led to a brief vogue with reincarnation, but other films had already cashed in (e.g., Roger Corman’s THE UNDEAD in 1957). When Kellman approached his friend, distributor Jack Harris, for help raising money, Harris suggested making THE MOLTEN METEOR instead.
Although initially reluctant, Yeaworth eventually decided that science-fiction might not be a bad genre for a feature debut. “Science-fiction wasn’t where we lived,” he recalled. “We were not buffs, but it was a safe area for a first venture. We knew we weren’t ready for a serious dramatic film.”
Harris’s distribution company, Screen Guild (soon renamed Tonylyn Productions, after the producer’s two children) entered into a contract with Valley Forge to produce the film. Harris, his partner Mike Friedman, and Yeaworth each put up one-third of the $120,000 budget.
“The three of us were partners,” Yeaworth recalled. “We hired my company to produce the film, at a contracted price. The contract, written in legalese, hired ‘one Yeaworth and his company to produce.’ Harris got the producer’s credit because we knew eventually someone had to be the spokesman who went out and sold this film, and he was good at that kind of thing.”
A screenplay was developed from Millgate’s treatment. The script went through several drafts at Valley Forge, including uncredited input from the director’s wife, Jean Yeaworth, with a final draft credited to Theodore Simonson and actress Kay Linaker (who had written “Scandal at Peppernut,” an episode of The United States Steel Hour, under her pen name, Kate Phillips, in 1955).
“Ted worked with us on story,” Harris recalled. “With all due respect, I think he supplied more of a plot. I kept throwing in what I needed in the way of thrills. Once he did that, we hired Kate Phillips, who was an established writer, and she put the finishing touches on it.”
After the script was completed, Harris had “the serious job of running around trying to corral financing – and that was not as easy as it sounds. Since I had never made a picture before, I had to go to people who knew me as a publicist, distributor, exhibitor. First, I tried all the studios. Rejected out of hand. By all of them – including Paramount, which eventually took the picture. It was heartbreaking. I hocked what I had, and I went out and got a couple of partners who were distantly involved in the motion picture business. One was in the laboratory end, so we could get printing. That’s how we got it together.”
Months of pre-production went into preparing the film so that it could be complete on its limited budget. Harris felt that intense advance planning was the key to keeping the budget in check. “To me the most important part is preparation – that’s where it all happens. We had about three-and-a-half months preparation, besides story development. [It was] the best-prepared movie I’ve ever done; I thought they were all that way. I’ve found out since that time, they ain’t all that way.”
Much of this was devoted to engineering the techniques required to portray the Blob – which was actually a ball of silicone. “The thing that took time was the special effects,” said Harris. “They’d never been done before, by anybody. It wasn’t like you could say, ‘How do I do this?’ You had to find out how to do it by doing it. Fortunately, Yeaworth had this art studio, and he had a bunch of brilliant amateurs that just kept experimenting until they found out how.”
One of these “brilliant amateurs” was Thomas Spalding, who had photographed several short subjects for Yeaworth. “Being the director of photography, I was given the assignment of testing methods to figure out how we would actually make the Blob movie,” Spalding recalled. “What was designed was a gimble device. A miniature of each real set was built. Into this set, we’d put this little ball of silicone, and on this gimble device we mounted lights, perfectly locked off, and a camera. The whole thing could be tilted any direction and turned upside down.”
Working with silicone presented its own challenges. “We were lucky,” said Harris. “3-M got a kick out of it – they were the principal suppliers of silicon in those days, and they sent a research scientist to stay on the set with us and help us with the problems. We had silicon of every consistency, from running water to solid glass. This was important to them – they could point to it, and it would help their business.”
The appearance of pure silicone was not enough to give the Blob its memorable on-screen look. “Adding colors was another problem,” said Harris. “Silicone didn’t come in colors; it was clear. We had a deal with Standard Oil: they would send us different pigments to use, and we finally found one that photographed well, but it didn’t stay in solution. So we had an effects grip who kept mixing it up and mixing it up.”
Because the silicone was like a piece of thick, molten glass, the tests were shot single-frame, speeding up the apparent motion of the Blob. Tilting the gimble device would make the Blob roll forward. Turning the device upside-down made the Blob appear to rear itself up. Pulsating movements were achieved by altering upside-down and rightside-up.
The cast was assembled mostly from local unknowns, with one notable exception. Yeaworth had met Steve (then Steven) McQueen the year before, when McQueen had visited the set for a day to see a girlfriend appearing in one of Yeaworth’s short films. Despite this previous connection with Yeaworth, Harris claimed he insisted on casting McQueen over the director’s objections.
“Totally obnoxious,” Harris proclaimed of McQueen. “Nobody liked him; nobody wanted him.”
Harris, however, had enjoyed McQueen’s performance as an understudy for Ben Gazzara in a play. “I wanted somebody that had reality about him, somebody that was the character.”
In Harris’s version of the story, Yeaworth resisted the casting. The following Monday Harris saw a television show in which McQueen played a delivery boy accused of murder. “He walked through the whole thing, but the last ten minutes he lit up the TV set! I called the director and said, ‘He’s got the part!’ He said, ‘You’ll be sorry. I said, ‘Well, maybe.’ So that was my lucky piece of casting.”
The film began production early midsummer of 1957. Most of the scenes, whether interior or exterior, were shot on the three sound stages at Valley Forge Studios. The only locations were the interior and exterior of Jerry’s Supermarket, the exteriors of the Colonial Theatre, the doctor’s office, and the diner, as well as a few shots of cars on the road. The tight budget and short schedule left little margin for error and no room for on-set experimentation; fortunately, the pre-production planning helped compensate for this. Harris admits to being a little anxious about pulling off location shooting on their limited budget. “I was scared to death,’ he said. “I had everything on the line, and I didn’t want to be broke when we finished the film. ”
THE BLOB was basically an in-house production, utilizing all the crew of Valley Forge Studios. “We had seminars on how to make films and improve ourselves,” said Yeaworth. “It was remarkable that we could mount a feature film.”
The exception to this rule was Vin Keyhoe, a member of the professional makeup union. (Sharp-eyed viewers will note the initials “S.M.A.” after his name in the credits, indicating his membership.) Explained Yeaworth, “I was concerned about how a 27 year-old’s face would come across on the big screen, so I hired Vin. He wrote the book on makeup and did a fantastic job. But still, reviewers like Hollis Alpert couldn’t help but note that THE BLOB boasted ‘the world’s oldest teenagers.’ We obviously had to cast around Steve, so all our teens were on the mature side.”
It was not until the second day of shooting that Harris learned he had cast a twenty-seven-year-old actor as a nineteen-year-old character. “The director came up to me and said, ‘You see – he’s twenty-seven!’ So I said, ‘Shut up and direct the movie!’ McQueen was a pain in the ass, but – boy – I’ll take that pain any time I can get it. He did a helluva a job. But it was very easy for me: Yeaworth had to work with him; I didn’t. But Yeaworth was happy once he saw the film cut together.”
For the most part, filming was an exercise in achieving results with very little. Luckily, the crew was willing to put in a maximum amount of effort for a minimum amount of money. “We were interested in the progress of our studio; therefore, we were all really participants in the project, even though we’re not participants in the profits,” said Spalding.
Shooting was a grueling experience involving many twenty hour days, often six or seven days a week, in order to cut down on equipment rental expense. Said Spalding, “We already owned the lights and sound stages and bad built all the sets; it was all our equipment except the cameras. None of us had ever shot a full length feature. I’d been shooting quite a while, all 16mm. I’d never operated a 35mm camera, never used a gear head. Three weeks later, we had the basic film shot; then we started doing the special effects.
“The thing I remember most about the picture,” Spalding added, “was that you had to use so much light. At that point, film speed was very slow. The A.S.A. was 25; today we use 400. That required 1000 foot-candies. Today I can shoot with six foot-candles. Using regular household lights didn’t show up — the movie lights overpowered them; therefore, you had to have boosters on the bulbs. So everything was more of a hassle to make it look real.”
These lighting difficulties were the main reason the film avoided location shooting as much as possible: real locations often looked “phony” because Spalding was unable to light them properly. “The hardest thing was to light at a distance to see two cars, because we didn’t have enough power to properly light two or three blocks of street,” said Spalding. “We didn’t have the time or money. That’s one of the things I don’t like, because it doesn’t come off as well as it should. Today that would be duck soup, because you can use the available fight that’s there.”
One of the trickier in-camera effects involved the “forest” for the scene near the beginning of the film wherein the old man finds the meteor that brought the Blob to Earth. Actually a set, the woods took up 40 feet of a sixty-five foot soundstage. In order to give the impression that the woods were going on much farther, a miniature of the old man’s house was built at the far end of the stage, so that, with the actor in the foreground, it appeared to be a full-scale house at a great distance. The responsibility for achieving this effect was shared by the team’s production designer Bill Jersey, art director Karl Carlson, and special effects director Bart Sloane, who crafted the crater as well as the meteorite from which the Blob oozed after its crash landing.
Combining the Blob with live actors was done mostly in editing. There are no rear-screen or process shots in the film. When the Blob is seen in the same shot with an actor, a variety of simple techniques were used. In the supermarket, when the Blob is seen sliding by at the end of an aisle and McQueen chases after it, a weather balloon was used. When the Blob envelops a victim, such as the projectionist and the doctor, a plastic bag was placed over the actor’s head and a huge glob of the Blob material was dropped on him. When the Blob sneaks up behind the garage mechanic lying on the floor, a large chunk of silicone was actually pushed across the floor.
Jack Harris’ economy-mindedness resulted in a rather intriguing double feature for the sequence in which the Blob attacks the Colonial Theatre. In order not to have to pay for the rights to use a film, Harris supplied two movies that he already owned as distributor: DAUGHTER OF HORROR and MY SON, THE VAMPIRE, the latter starring Bela Lugosi. Sharp-eyed viewers will note what appears to be a FORBIDDEN PLANET poster outside the theatre. “We hadn’t developed a poster on the Bela Lugosi picture,” said Harris. “One of the [alternate] titles was THE VAMPIRE AND THE ROBOT. We took a FORBIDDEN PLANET poster and made THE VAMPIRE AND THE ROBOT out of that, but DAUGHTER OF HORROR was an actual poster. ‘Not a word is spoken, not a terror left untold!’ — that was the catch line. I can’t tell you the catch lines of the exhibitors who ran the picture! That’s why I made THE BLOB — to get out of that life! It’s fun to be creative, and not be at the mercy of other people’s mistakes.”
The clip of the film-within-the-film being shown at the Colonial Theatre is from DAUGHTER OF HORROR, a film made in 1953 by John Parker, originally titled DEMENTIA. Filled with bizarre shadows and tilted angles, it is just intriguing enough to make one wonder what the whole film is like. “I’ll tell you something interesting about that,” said Harris. “I found the film. It was made without any dialogue. The film didn’t make much sense. At the time, I was pretty friendly with Ed McMahon. I got a hold of Ed. We went into a little stage and put a stocking over his head ‘ so you wouldn’t see his face. He was the Spirit of Death, and he would come in every once in a while and bridge the action with a couple lines of dialogue. It was almost a movie; it just didn’t work. The other one was pretty bad too. But my distribution company needed product, and they were a couple of available titles. They were never distributed together; the only place they ever played together was on that marquee!”
Shooting was often slowed by arguments between Yeaworth and McQueen. “Even then, Steve McQueen was a prima donna – or what you would call a son of a bitch!” Spalding recalled. “The director and the actor spent a great deal of time behind the stage, arguing about the script. They butted heads over many reasons, but it was mostly interpretation. McQueen didn’t wish to be told how to do it, which is what the director’s there for. I knew both of them well enough to know neither one wanted to give in to the other. Therefore, we reached a near impasse. It was a tough shoot. We had to work long hours, and that becomes a strain on everybody.”
Yeaworth disputed this recollection, pointing out that, on the film’s short schedule, there was little time to waste arguing with his lead actor. The director attributes his disputes with McQueen to the “tight design control and in-camera editing” necessitated by the film’s limited budget. “McQueen used a natural, improvisational style and hated the limitations that the pre-designed scenes required, but given the budget there was little choice.”
Yeaworth added, “He was always a very unusual person. Steve was an insecure guy — he’d been through some hard times when he was younger, so he had to create this identity as a defense. That was his nature. He enjoyed being a bad boy, but his bark was worse than his bite. He was not so tough as he liked to act. He was like his dog. He owned this attack dog named Thor that he wanted everybody to be terrified of, but the dog would walk up and put its head in my wife’s lap, like a puppy, and this infuriated Steve.”
One problem was McQueen’s insistence that his German Shepherd Thor be allowed to roam the set freely. “The inquisitive and crafty dog found an endless number of ways to sneak onto the stage: behind a workman, though a window, over fences — much to his master’s delight, even though it often resulted in a ruined take, costing precious film stock,” said Yeaworth.
“He [McQueen] also liked to practice target shooting at tin cans from our commissary,” said Yeaworth, “and we had to express concern because children played in that area. But Steve insisted he was careful. One day he put a tin can on Thor’s head and shot it off cleanly. But several months later, he tried it again and missed, killing Thor and bringing Steve deep remorse.”
Besides the director, McQueen also clashed with his co star Aneta Corseaut. According to Spalding, “They hated each other. Of course, the love scene was the very last thing we shot; by that time, they were really confirmed in their hatred. Aneta Corseaut had a bad time. She had a blemish on her face that made it tough trying to make her look glamorous.”
One scene written but never shot was the standard ’50s scientific explanation scene. Harris recalled, “We wrote a beautiful scene that took fifteen minutes explaining how it could go through the atmosphere and land unscathed, why it was the way it was, and so on. I said, ‘You know, fellas, this is the thing that gives me indigestion more than anything: the obligatory expository scene. We don’t need it. Let the audience figure it out.’ So the scene was never shot.”
Once the three weeks of principal photography were completed, work began on the Blob effects. Still-photographer Vince Spangler took pictures of the set at the direction of Sloane, and miniatures were constructed from them. “They were made from black-and-white stills and hand colored,” explains Spalding, “because color stills were too expensive and difficult to do under the circumstances.’
Sloane recalled, “The miniatures were photographic models, actually, each was a very distorted photograph. Since you’re only seeing it from one point of view — it wasn’t three dimensional — we distorted it in such a way that when we put the silicone in, it seemed to be in proper perspective and appeared three-dimensional. We had a platform mounted somewhat like on a telescope, about six feet long and three feet wide. We had our miniature sets on that, and the camera and the lights. We had to invent the lights because you couldn’t turn a regular studio bulb upside down. It blew out if you didn’t burn it face down. It’s a shame we ran out of time on the thing. We went with a lot of material I felt could have been improved. We’d no sooner perfected our system than, because of time constraints, we had to go with what we had. ”
The talented Sloane also supplied several animation effects for the Blob. When the nurse throws acid on the creature, Sloane’s cel animation, rotoscoped onto the silicone, ball provides the effects of the acid evaporating harmlessly. And, the dramatic climactic shots of the Blob engulfing the diner and of the Blob frozen to immobility, were products of Sloane’s animation skills. The diner was a black-and-white photo hand tinted; the Blob was a static cell element, and other animation effects were layered on top of these, such as sparks when the police try to electrocute the Blob. “Bart is the most creative artist/designer/ animator I’ve ever met,” said Yeaworth. “On all of the projects he did with us, he demonstrated a wide range of talents: designer, illustrator, special effects designer and builder, artist, animator, and cameraman.”
Much of the Blob’s movement was the result of trial and error, doing several takes until it happened to move in a convincing manner. Although several of the effects could theoretically have been achieved full-scale, such as squeezing beneath a door, almost all of them were done in miniature, because the silicone was easier to control in small amounts.
Shots of the Blob tend to be fleeting — just enough to make its presence known. This served both an aesthetic and an economic purpose, as Spalding explained, “We didn’t want the audience to see too much, because less is more. The illusion and what you don’t see is sometimes as important as what you do see. That continues to be my way of doing such things. Some people overdo it — you see too much of the effect and it loses its impact. With the time and money we had, we cut corners, and sometimes having that kind of effect is better than having a bad effect that you see. That’s the secret to me — especially when you don’t have much to show! You really could not show the Blob very long because you’d pretty soon see that it’s stuck to the floor. The only thing that moves is the top of it — it will end up with a tail behind it.”
As the Blob devoured more victims and grew larger, it also deepened in color. “It gets redder and redder as it absorbs more blood,” explained Harris. “But that’s subtle — we didn’t announce that. In those days, there were no splatter movies. If you’ve seen the picture recently, there’s no gore. I wanted it, but I was fought tooth and nail by my associates. When the doctor gets it, it’s very sotto voce. That’s as much as I could get my people to do. I wanted the thing to be on him; I wanted him to be writhing in pain. I didn’t want to tear his flesh away, which is one of the things [we did in the remake]. So we did it that way; it was acceptable, and it worked. I can’t knock it at this stage of the game. The picture did so much business, I figured, ‘Maybe I’m wrong.’ Then along comes all this garbage that we face these days – I can’t say there’s not a market [for gore].”
With the completion of the effects work, the next major hurdle was choosing a title. THE MOLTEN METEOR had never been seriously considered. During the production, crewmembers were invited to write any title they could imagine for the film. “The one that used to get all the laughs when people repeated it,” recalled Harris, “was THE GLOB THAT GIRDLED THE GLOBE. We had another one: ABSORBINE SENIOR. I liked that. And, THE NIGHT OF THE CREEPING DREAD. We were really serious about that one, because it was a ‘tuxedo’ title; THE GLOB THAT GIRDLED THE GLOBE was a ‘dumb’ title. I love one-word titles, having distributed many of them, so I said, ‘Let’s call it THE GLOB.’ Finally everybody agreed. We were applying for copyright, and somebody had done a little investigation and found there was a book called The Glob, by Walt Kelly, the cartoonist. I didn’t know any better then. Today, I know I could have called the picture THE GLOB, because you can’t copyright titles.
“We already had the title card [another Bart Sloane cel animation trick] made up,” continued Harris. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll make a new title. A l o b doesn’t spell anything. B 1 o b: Blob. C l o b … Wait a minute. What’s the matter with ‘Blob’? That’s the title!’” said Harris. “It happened in three minutes, because I had a train to catch to go to New York. I can’t say it was anything other than an economy move, because it was less expensive to change the one letter.”
Harris recalled an amusing incident at the cast screening held after the film’s completion: “McQueen comes to see it. I had a handshake agreement with him on future pictures, and I never picked up on it because he was such a pain in the ass. He said to me, ‘Boy, you’re a lucky guy.’ I said, ‘Why is that?’ He said, ‘Because you got me on a flat rate; I should have held out for a percentage.’” Harris laughed. “Who would have given it to him? I’d have hired somebody else. I didn’t need any percentage actors. Especially when his name on a marquee wouldn’t have drawn flies.”
Although Harris had his own distribution company, the film went out under the Paramount banner. “My partners were satisfied with me distributing, but I felt there was an obligation to see what could be done,” said Harris. “I went to a buddy of mine who was a district manager for Paramount, on the distribution end, and I said, ‘I got this picture I think your company would make a lot of money on.’ He showed it to the committee, and they said, ‘Get out of here with that picture!’”
Harris was gearing up to distribute the film himself, creating trailers and posters, when he received a call from Paramount, requesting to see the film again. After the second screening, he received another call telling him Paramount wished to acquire the film. Harris made two offers: one for them to distribute the film for seven years, the other to buy the film outright. Paramount accepted the first offer.
“It was very gratifying that they picked it up,” said Harris. “I didn’t know they were buying it as insurance policy for turkey they made called MARRIED A MONSTER FRO OUTER SPACE. They figured if they had another picture to go with it, trying to copy American International, they’d have two for the price of one. I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE top billing; THE BLOB second feature. They put them out as a package, and they found everybody was calling the theatres to find out what time THE BLOB came on; nobody asked about the other picture. So, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE disappeared, and THE BLOB was top gross in every city. It fought its way. No big campaign, no big money spent. The audience found the picture. So did Steve Allen, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny. Any time they needed a laugh, they’d say, ‘Well, I went to see THE BLOB,’ and the audience would break up. That didn’t hurt us.”
According to Yeaworth, selecting a title that could be “kidded” was intentional “Ray Van Buren who drew the cartoon series ‘Abby and Slats’ devoted several weeks of his comic strip to a spoof of our film including showing the picture being shot in a little Pennsylvania town,” said Yeaworth.
One result of having Paramount as distributor was a change that pleased none of the principals, although it did become an indelible part of the film’s mystique. Bart Sloane’s opening titles were originally synchronized to a slowly building, heavily dramatic bolero by the film’s composer Ralph Carmichael, which reached an ominous crescendo as the title appeared.
“The picture was finished, in the can, and delivered to Paramount,” said Harris. “I got a call. They said, ‘We want to add a title song, because it will help the picture. We have the right to do so, but we want you to agree, which would make life easier for everybody. ‘So I said, ‘What have you got in mind?
At the time, Paramount had a contract with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, paying them a monthly wage in exchange for first refusal rights to any song they might come up with. According to Harris, Paramount said, “‘As long as you don’t object, we’ll try them. If they don’t have anything that works, well buy ‘Purple People Eater’ and stick that on the picture. ‘Burt and Hal went to work; they were back in three days with the song. The rest is history,” said Harris.
The amusing calypso theme song became a top forty hit and went on to become a camp classic. Although it lessened the dramatic impact of the film, Yeaworth, Harris and Spalding agree the song probably did help sell the film to its intended audience. “I bumped into Burt at the premiere of YENTL,” said Harris. “He put his arm around me and said, ‘Jack Harris — THE BLOB! Everybody used to make fun of me, but I thought it was great. He made a lot of money out of that song.”
THE BLOB earned $8.5 million dollars over the next two years, when ticket prices were just thirty-five cents apiece. Despite this financial success (and despite a closing title card that read “The End?” suggesting the story was not really over), producer Jack H. Harris avoided making a quick sequel. “I would think about it,” the producer recalled. “What else could the Blob do? It just couldn’t do anything else! So forget it!”
Instead, he and Yeaworth worked on two subsequent science fiction films: THE 4 D MAN and DINOSAURUS. The first of these was completed at Valley Forge, utilizing the same crew that worked on THE BLOB; the second was shot in Hollywood at Universal Studios, with a union crew. Both films use a formula somewhat similar to that of THE BLOB. As Yeaworth described it, his three genre films all feature a single fantasy element that intrudes upon an ordinary situation filled with everyday characters, helping to lend a sense of believability; there is no imaginative technological gizmo that defeats the monster, leaving the heroes to use whatever ordinary tools are available. (This leads to the amusing duel between a T-Rex and a steam shovel at the end of DINOSAURUS – an idea that really deserves to be remade.)
Shortly after the completion of DINOSAURS, Yeaworth and Harris parted company. “Jack wanted me to stay in California,” said Yeaworth. “I had gone out there to help him get started in production on the West Coast, but I had the studio back here. I wanted to make challenging ‘idea’ films, not just science fiction or exploitation subjects.”
Although THE BLOB launched several careers, not all of them continued in feature films. Yeaworth went on to designing multi-sensory productions for Worlds Fairs, Theme Parks, etc. Bart Sloane eventually left filmmaking to concentrate on his work as an artist. Aneta Corseaut never appeared in another feature, although she did play Andy Griffith’s wife on the MAYBERRY, RFD television show. Tom Spalding came to Hollywood to work as a cinematographer for both film and TV, including episodes of the revived ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS in the 1980s. Russ Doughten went on to found his own production, distribution, and exhibition company. Bill Jersey became an Academy Award nominated director. Jean Yeaworth worked as a writer and a musical supervisor on several films. And Jack Harris became a successful Hollywood producer.
But of course the most famous career was that of Steve McQueen, who went on to become a major star before his untimely death from cancer in 1980. In fact, when Harris re-released THE BLOB in 1964 on a double bill with DINOSAURUS, McQueen’s name was featured prominently above the title on the new posters, in much larger type than originally. (Curiously, there was another change: during the subsequent years, McQueen had shortened his first name from “Steven” to “Steve.’)
It was not until 1974 that Jack Harris finally got around to producing another BLOB flick, BEWARE, THE BLOB! (a.k.a., SON OF BLOB). Barely a sequel, BEWARE THE BLOB features little connection with its predecessor except the titular monster: the original film ended with the Blob being deposited in the arctic; the sequel begins with actor Godfrey Cambridge watching THE BLOB on TV, who mentions having brought back some weird thing he found frozen in the snow during a recent expedition.
Directed by Larry Hagman (an actor best known at the time for starring in I DREAM OF JEANNIE), the film feels more like a spoof, but the attempt at parody is weak, neither scary nor funny, despite cameos by reliable character actors and comedians like Shelley Berman, Gerrit Graham, Burgess Meredith, Bud Cort, Carol Lynley, and Hagman himself. Despite the recognizable names and a bigger budget, the sequel was not as memorable as the original, certainly not the kind of film that would inspire a remake some 30 years later. In fact, probably the funniest joke connected with it is the tagline that was retroactively added to the video release: after Hagman became famous as J.R. Ewing on DALLAS, BEWARE THE BLOB became known as “The film that J.R. Shot!” — a reference to the famous season-ending cliffhanger that left viewers wondering, “Who shot J.R.?”
One rather odd offshoot of the 1988 remake was the transformation of the original version of THE BLOB into a comedy. At the time, L.A Connection (an improv-comedy group in Sherman Oaks, north of the Hollywood Hills) was doing a series called “Mad Movies,” in which the cast would perform live dialogue in place of the soundtrack during screenings of campy old films. With the remake putting the title back into public awareness, the L.A. Connection unleashed their comedic talents upon THE BLOB, even though it was a cut above the their usual targets (e.g., CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, REEFER MADNESS).
In the L.A. Connection retelling, the old man who becomes the Blob’s first victim sounds like Elmer Fudd. The fireman with the Italian-looking face becomes the Pope, and the woman screaming for him to save her child is over-dubbed to say, “Why won’t you let women into the priesthood?” And for reasons inexplicable yet funny, the Blob is a comedian who delivers one-liners in a Henny Youngman voice whenever it appears.
After attending the performance at the venerable Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, producer Jack H. Harris gave permission for the L.A. Connection to preserve their version on video by overdubbing their dialogue onto the film, much as Woody Allen had done with WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? Unlike the live performances, the video version tampers editorially with the original film, and also uses rotoscope animation to create lips for the Blob when it speaks. Titled BLOBERMOUTH (1990), the result is a cult item more of interest to comedy fans than to sci-fi enthusiasts, but it is nice to have the Connection’s truly inspired comedy preserved in a way that makes it available for those not fortunate enough to have seen it performed live.
Seen today, the 1958 movie that first launched the Blob onto movie screens, is a bit of a museum piece, perhaps more important for its place in cinema history than for its own humble artistic achievements. THE BLOB can no longer scare an audience over ten years old, and the limits of its production values are so obvious that it’s hard for even a forgiving viewer to overlook them totally. And yet, somehow, the movie’s monster lives on public awareness as one of the most frightening ever conceived. As recently as 2006’s SLITHER, the old film was receiving an obvious on screen homage: when a pair of characters finds the fragments of a tiny meteorite, one picks up a stick and pokes it, exactly like the old man at the beginning of THE BLOB.
That THE BLOB managed to embed itself in the public memory to such a degree, was a source of amazement to those who worked on the original film. “At the time, the only thing we were proud of was that we got it made,” said Irwin Yeaworth when interviewed in 1988. “ Now people still come from all over the place to talk to us about it.”
Producer Jack H. Harris also expressed surprise. “I sure guessed wrong on that,” he said. “THE BLOB was not my forever movie. My forever movie was DINOSAURUS. It was Cinemascope, Technicolor. It was made with Universal; they put muscle behind it. I thought, ‘Dinosaurs are here to stay.’ Forget it! It did fine, but it ran its course and that was it. Certainly not a classic movie. There’s nothing you can do to make that happen. It happens because people discover it.” Copyright 1989 by Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 1989 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 19, Numbers 1 and 2).