Thursday, November 23, 2023

An annual moment of reflection (or, Send in the Clowns)

Every year around the holiday season, we take stock of where we’re at. Currently the U.S. is in an absolute mess — the economy sucks, we are funding one side each in two foreign wars that were absolute disasters from the word go, the divide between fellow citizens only get deeper and deeper, and mainstream culture is pretty much lowest-common-denominator garbage.

But it is Thanksgiving, and one must count one’s blessings on this commercial holiday (with the biggest, most commercial holiday coming up fast — start that Xmas music in October, boys, we want those suckers to start buying!). I surely was blessed to capture the moment where Robert Vaughn was mocked by clowns as he tried to read the U.S. Constitution at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

In the past year, the only Robert Vaughn-related news happened when his one-time costar (and the guy whose fame and following of young women eclipsed that of Vaughn, whose show The Man From UNCLE originally was), David McCallum (aka “Illya Kuryakin”), died at age 90. (Vaughn only reached 83.) Perhaps Vaughn is being eclipsed in the afterlife as well — but one thing will always be certain: David McCallum was never mocked by a group of makeshift clowns (whom I believe were Macy’s employees; perhaps someday someone can confirm or deny that). And if he was, we have no video proof of it. 

I should also note that yesterday (Nov. 22) was not only the 60th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination but also the anniversary of Robert Vaughn's birthday. (If he had lived, he would've been 90.)

Enjoy Mr. Vaughn, soldering through a minor show-biz disaster.

Monday, November 6, 2023

An Amicus horror-movie binge: notes (plus three non-horror Amicus reviews)

These blog posts were posted in sequence (well, sometimes out of sequence) on my Facebook profile as I watched the films in question. The binge began the week before Halloween and ended three days after the holiday. I’ve added three bonus reviews at the end of films that are not horror but were indeed produced by the two men who were Amicus itself, Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky. 

To celebrate Halloween, I’m in the midst of an Amicus binge. (I did Hammer last year for several weeks and ended up seeing dozens of films.) They had far less films and were much less productive than Hammer, because it was basically two (American) producers, not even a mini-studio. Their first outing together was City of the Dead (U.S. title: Horror Hotel). Milton Subotsky (producer No. 2) provided the screenplay, which in this case was really good (some of Subotsky’s work as a scripter was really corny, but sometimes it worked perfectly). 

With the always hoped-for Chris Lee as a teacher who is also a member of a coven, Hotel has a bunch of surprising elements, among them the fact that that female lead is captured by the coven at one point and is never seen again — we don’t see her die, but otherwise she is Janet Leigh in Psycho, a lead character whose disappearance becomes the guiding force in the plot (yes, that also was the case in L’Aventura; all three films were released in 1960). Nice atmospheric shots (with plenty o’ fog) created with a nothing budget, Hotel had the advantage of being in black and white — some of the budget problems were later visible in Amicus productions because the films were in color. 

The official start of the company (which was, again, really just two American producers, operating in England) was Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). Producer-scripter Milton Subotsky copied one of his favorite films, Dead of Night, and created this collection of tales, which are hit and miss, but are put across by the actors with much sincerity. The set-up was much copied in the years that followed: a psychic (Peter Cushing) enters a railroad compartment and tells the fortunes (all of which are tragic and supernatural) of the five men sitting there. 

Some of the "threats," as rendered by the great horror director Freddie Francis, are low-budget fun (a vine that takes over a house), but thankfully the menaces get better as the film goes on (with the Chris Lee section about an artist's disembodied hand being the best). The ending is very predictable but that is because, again, it was copied in the years after '65. 

The big success of Dr. Terror spawned the singularly scary/silly The Skull (1965), courtesy of horror masters Freddie Francis and Robert Bloch. It's put over at points by the cast, headed by the great British horror team, Cushing and Lee. Cushing is a collector of supernatural items who wants to buy the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Lee, who has already been "enslaved" by the skull, tells him to forget it, but that... well, you can figure out the rest. 

The most impressive thing about the picture is that the last quarter is nearly entirely dialogue-less (except for a few stray lines from Lee), with Cushing effectively becoming a silent-movie actor as he's menaced by the skull. The least-effective thing about the scene is the skull itself (you can see the strings vividly at one point — hi-def restorations reveal embarrassing details). The most effective elements are Cushing's acting (he always took his work seriously, even if it was the silliest stuff imaginable), and the bombastic and wonderful score by Elisabeth Lutyens. 

Robert Bloch revamps his Psycho formula with The Psychopath (1966), wherein the most memorable character is an old toy maker who lives amongst her dolls as her "children." Her son is clearly a Norman Bates type, and thus it isn't surprising that the film kinda falls into a "son of Psycho" mode. (Bloch blamed Freddie Francis and the producers for doing a shoddy job with his script, but it's definitely Robert in writer's-Bloch mode, redoing something he'd already done.) The dolls-found-next-to-murder-victims is a nice touch (at least the dolls made for the film look like the actors), but this one is a minor Amicus pic. 

The Deadly Bees (1967): So far, the lowest point in the binge in terms of actual artistry, but damn, it is dopey fun. Scripter Robert Bloch again blamed Freddie Francis and the producers for being cheap and working too fast, but this is not by any means a very, um... intelligent plot about the feud between two beekeepers in a remote town. The biggest problem is the cast — no horror stars (Bloch was hoping for Karloff and Lee) and one of the leads is "aged" to look older. 

The bee attack scenes are threadbare — images of the actors are overlaid with "bees go crazy!" footage and little fake bees were taped to their clothing. To show how Amicus hadn't picked up on the sexy-horror-star phenom (which made the female leads nearly as important as Lee and Cushing in the Hammer pics), the big sexy moment here is on the poster: one potential bee victim, Suzanna Leigh, is seen in her bra. 

Torture Garden (1967) solidified the Amicus approach to the horror anthology. This time the Freddie Francis-Robert Bloch combination turned in some very good thrills — and others in the "this is ridiculous, and we're going to play it that way" vein (when Bloch's ideas — like a living piano that wants to kill a grand pianist's girlfriend — got really nutsy). Burgess Meredith hams it up well as "Dr. Diablo," a sideshow emcee who promises a bunch of attendees that he will show them their future, all of which are tragic. 

The two stories that stand out are one where an actress finds out how a veteran movie star has remained in such good shape (he's robotic), and another where an Edgar Allan Poe collector (Jack Palance, in scary intellectual mode; Palance was always scary) is taunted by another (Cushing, indispensable in British horror) Poe devotee who has an even more complete collection. This format (which began in Dr. Terror) became the blueprint for Amicus' greatest successes. 

The 1970 poster for Scream and Scream Again freaked me out as a kid (when it was on the cover of Famous Monsters mag); the film itself is one of the weirdest things Amicus ever made. It's a combination sci-fi tale, a horror movie, and political paranoia fable. It was the first "union" of the big three (Price, Cushing, Lee), but there is only short scene at the end that contains two of them together. The plot oddly reflects Amicus' main strength, anthologies, by having different plot strands moving forward simultaneously. The one about a military-ruled nation (a seemingly Soviet country that has Nazi-like uniforms for its soldiers and cops) never quite gels, but the notion of a vampiric killer who is actually the product of a project the British government paid for does make it a memorably strange movie. 

In the end, we find that Vinnie Price is the surgeon who has masterminded the manufacture of supermen and women, but he makes clear when the hero tells him he's creating a super race, "... but not an *evil* super-race!" He also refers to the hero as "pointlessly savage." (Like Cushing and Lee, Price always played his roles to the utmost, committing his very self to even the oddest moments in these pictures.)

The House That Dripped Blood (1971) and the following Amicus film were a formative part of my experience growing up. My father, who had a broad mind about many things, knew I *loved* them friggin' monster movies. Famous Monsters duly promoted House That Dripped Blood and Tales from the Crypt, so, despite their being "adult" horror, he brought me as a lad of a scant few years to the double bill. (He told me not to inform my mother and made me assure him that I wouldn't have nightmares -- I did have nightmares subsequently, but they were gone within a day or two, and I had a moviegoing experience I still regard fondly.) Dripped Blood is from the period where Amicus really had hit its low-budget stride. 

The lovely Ingrid Pitt in
The House That Dripped Blood (1971).
Directed by Peter Duffell (Freddie Francis was apparently busy) and scripted by Robert Bloch, the film had an excellent balance of straightforward horror and tongue-in-cheek bits. This time, Bloch didn't just dash off any old crap — he did provide some solid stories. Denholm Elliott (a master at going crazy slowly) plays a horror author haunted by his serial killer creation starts things off with a bang. Then it's Peter Cushing in sad, forlorn mode as a retiree who discovers that the local horror house has a wax figure of his ex, dressed as Salome! On from that shocker to Christopher Lee (as essential as Cushing to any British horror pic) as a dad who is trying to shelter his daughter from her heritage of witchery. And, for the finale, a spoof of egomaniacal actors with Jon Pertwee as a horror-movie vet who takes himself seriously (with the always welcome Ingrid Pitt as his glamorous female counterpart). Dripped Blood is up in the must-see category of Amicus productions. 

Though better than Hammer's Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), I, Monster (1971) is notable for having Christopher Lee playing the dear doctor and Cushing playing one of his close friends. Unfortunately, the film contained a low-budget make-up job for Lee as the Hyde character (a bulbous nose, enhanced eyebrows, and a bad set of fake teeth). I, Monster is mercifully short, though, and does mostly stick to the events of the novel. The character names are changed from Jekyll and Hyde — presumably so as not to clash with Hammer's Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which opened the same year. (And, though not as perfect as it could be, Sister has some memorably camp moments.) A lesser Amicus necessary only for Lee and Cushing completists. 

Tales from the Crypt (1972) was part of the double bill that marked my childhood (along with House That Dripped Blood). Still at the peak of creepiness-mixed-with-dark-humor, Amicus was the perfect company to adapt E.C. Comics scripts by Gaines, Feldstein, and the superbly noirish Johnny Craig. Here producer-scripter Milton Subotsky gets the pacing right (which wasn't the case in Dr. Terror) and each story is a gem. 

It works from beginning to end, starting with the perfect Christmas horror story starring Joan Collins, to the tale of a car accident (that's doomed to happen — an E.C. special), to one of Peter Cushing's greatest turns as a sympathetic old toymaker who is hounded to suicide by his evil wealthy neighbor, to the finale in which Patrick Magee triumphs as the leader of a band of old blind men who have a colorful, classically E.C., revenge in mind for the man who has been mistreating them. Made for only 3 million dollars and featuring a terrific cast and stylish direction by horror master Freddie Francis, Tales was a strong part of Amicus' heyday in the early 1970s. 

A thriller that visually evokes the kitchen sink films at points, What Became of Jack and Jill? (1972) is an odd little number that seems to be a "youth culture" movie but has two utterly unlikeable characters at its center. Jack (Paul Nicholas) and Jill (Vanessa Howard) want to live together in his grandmother's house, but first they must kill off the old lady (Mona Washbourne). Thus, the film is comprised of two good-looking performers acting bitchy to a nice old lady (who may be a pain in the ass, but doesn't seem as much of a shrew as she should be to make us identify at all with the plans of the leads to scare her to death). 

There are some good twists at the end — there would have to be, otherwise you'd wonder why they made the picture at all. Amicus purportedly was embarrassed to have made this sucker and thus kept it on the shelf for two years. (Totally understandable.) The only Amicus "horror" flick to not be available in good condition "above ground" on the Web. (But that's okay...) 

Asylum (1972) has hands down the best frame device of any of the "portmanteau" anthology horror pics from Amicus, and its top-notch cast put over the material beautifully. A young doctor (Robert Powell) would like to be the head administrator of a mental asylum, so the warden (the always amazing, always seething Patrick Magee) proposes a game — if the doctor can tell him which of four inmates used to run the hospital, he can have the job. Robert Bloch's scripting here is the best of any of his work for Amicus, and movie/TV genre specialist Roy Ward Baker presents it in classic deadpan fashion. 

This time half of the stories are told by women — Barbara Parkins (in a classic kill-the-wife scenario) and the great Charlotte Rampling (as a woman who still has an "invisible friend") get that honor. Barry Morse and Peter Cushing (him again!) are in an excellent tale of a tailor's terror, and the pic ends with a small Herbert Lom robot doll (I want one of them!) and the resolution of the "game" Magee is playing with Powell. One of the must-sees among the Amicus horrors. 

Not as good as Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror (1973) focuses on a few of the more gimmicky E.C. plotlines — some seem chosen for their final twist, while others were picked because they are set in an exotic locale. One story signals "comedy" as it stars Terry-Thomas and Glynis Johns — the blackly humorous ending is a classic E.C. conclusion, but the segment isn't scary at all. 

Real-life sibs Anna and Daniel Massey get a better tale (about a town of vampires), while one-time Dr. Who Tom Baker gets to play a painter crazed by vengeance (who doesn't need voodoo dolls, since his paintings are his "weapons"). Pleasant fun, but one can see why we never got a "Haunt of Fear" third film from the lightness in this one — and why Roy Ward Baker is better known for the Hammer films he made (Quatermass and the Pit, The Vampire Lovers) than the ones for Amicus. 

Another minor Amicus production, And Now the Screaming Starts (1973), feels for the first two-thirds of its running time like an early '70s TV movie. (The scripter, Roger Marshall, was best known for his work on British TV.) Stephanie Beacham plays a new bride brought back to the family mansion who immediately suffers weird apparitions and then gets to ponder the eternal question: Will my baby be a devil baby? The last third is a bit better and less like a telefilm — especially a nasty flashback sequence where a sadistic Herbert Lom shows up. The two other guest stars — Patrick Magee and the always-sincere-but-sometimes-he-just-couldn't-save-the-picture Peter Cushing — are pretty much wasted. Hammer did period pieces better than Amicus. 

The end of the road for Amicus anthologies, From Beyond the Grave (1974) thankfully has some good twist endings, a solid cast, and this guy right here (below) in the frame device. (He owns an antique store that bonuses with each item bought — and even nastier ones with the items that are stolen...) Thus, we wind up where the Amicus anthologies began (with Cushing wearing equally crazy eyebrows on the train in Dr. Terror). Here the stories are all by British horror writer Robert Chetwynd-Hayes, and we start out with a bang with David Warner acquiring a mirror that has a Ripper-like killer inside it. 

Cushing in From Beyond the Grave (1974).
The second story has a terrific twist — it involves businessman and henpecked husband (but also kind of an asshole himself) Ian Bannen, his nasty wife Diana Dors, and a veteran who sells items for pence on the sidewalk (the always-sublime Donald Pleasance, with an onscreen-daughter, creepily played by his real-life daughter Angela). The third episode is very silly but Margaret Leighton steals it as a psychic who is initially thought to be fake but then opinions change.... The last story involves a door that brings along its own scary drawing room to a house that it is installed in. Amicus went on for five more films (two horror, three fantasy based on Edgar Rice Burroughs), but this was the end of its great run of anthology horror pics. 

The first and only time Vincent Price starred in an Amicus film, Madhouse (1974; he's essentially a guest star in Scream and Scream Again). It's a good vehicle for Price, yet nowhere near as crazily perfect as the first Phibes and Theatre of Blood. He plays a horror actor who went insane years ago and is making a comeback to play his movie monster role "Dr. Death" in a new British TV series. More murders continue to occur and everyone believes it's Vinnie — until we find out exactly who has been doing it in the film's last few minutes. Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry costar (and both appear in vampire outfits in a costume party scene). 

The film is decently paced, but it's pretty much a standard-issue murder mystery with horror trappings — although it is great to see VP watching himself torturing people in Corman pics from the '60s in the mid-Seventies. (The film was a coproduction of AIP and Amicus, so these clips cost nothing for the filmmakers.) And yes, a similar plot to this one is in the 1978 horror pic Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind by Jose Mojica Marins -- although red herrings are dispensed with in that film. 

The hybrid horror pic The Beast Must Die (1974) is basically both: one of MANY remakes of The Most Dangerous Game (the first one with an African American in the "hunter" role) and a "gimmick movie" of the kind William Castle specialized in. Here we have the millionaire hunter (Calvin Lockhart) throwing a several-day vacation at his mansion — because he knows (how? never explained) that one of his guests is a werewolf and he will kill him/her. Anton Diffring plays his security man, the mighty Cushing is a Scandinavian expert on werewolves, and Charles Gray and young Michael Gambon unofficially compete for who has the most impressive voice. (Answer: both.) 

The film actually does stop 15 minutes before the end to have a "werewolf break" where the viewer can choose who is the wolf (which is depicted in this el cheapo outing by a dog wearing extra fur). The answer is not all that surprising. This wasn't the last Amicus production — the two producers went on to make three medium-budgeted Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations and then, sadly, Amicus was kaput.

The above 17 films were all watched on site. As noted, the only middling copy up there was What Became of Jack and Jill? And now the bonus reviews, written specifically for this blog post: 

It’s Trad, Dad (1962) is a curious relic of a curious period: the pre-Beatles era in England when “trad” jazz (think: Dixieland) was a popular youth phenomenon. Thus, in the manner of certain B-pictures based on radio variety or music-oriented programs, the film is composed of wall-to-wall musical numbers punctuated by a comedy plot. That plot is pretty formulaic stuff: the teens in a small town (who all look 20-something) are bothered by the town fathers who hate their rowdy music (which consists of “trad” and American pop), so two of them (real-life pop stars themselves; the girl is the well-charted-in-the-U.K. Helen Shapiro) try to assemble a concert to show the old fuddy-duddies that their music is the best. 

Gene Vincent in It's Trad, Dad!
The only reason this film should matter to anyone outside of those studying the music charts of early Sixties Britain is that it is the feature debut of director Richard Lester. I’ve already discussed on this blog how some of Lester’s style emanated from the brilliantly warped mind of Spike Milligan (with whom Lester made “The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film”), but it is clear seeing his early work in Trad that Lester was also influenced by the French New Wave and, very much, silent comedy. Add to those influences a familiarity with modern technology (Lester was a TV director before he broke into film) and you have the style that became popularly known as “the Lester style” in A Hard Day’s Night.

Trad is curious, in that Lester was allowed to mess around with the visuals during the goofy little plotline and in about one out of every four musical numbers. So, you have the odd experience of seeing a pop-art “music video” that finds Lester experimenting with different styles of editing and camerawork, and then you see two or three more musical numbers in which nothing interesting happens on a visual level. Then there’s a “crazy” one, then a few more normal ones. I guess Lester considered himself lucky at this stage of the game to be able to do anything odd at all, but the combination of experimental visuals and drearily familiar camerawork and editing makes Trad even weirder for modern viewers. 

The most “prestigious” film in the Amicus canon was a film that was produced by Rosenberg and Subotsky without the Amicus name — it was released under the moniker “Palomar Pictures International,” because the producers felt they didn’t want their Harold Pinter adaptation to be released by the same entity that released The Deadly Bees. Sadly, The Birthday Party (1968), William Friedkin’s taut and disturbing film, failed at the box office and was considered a complete bomb financially, although it is one of the best Pinter films, along with Losey’s The Servant and Accident, and Peter Hall’s The Homecoming

Like The Caretaker and Homecoming, it is a filmed play, but vibrantly done so by young William Friedkin — who later showed his care with filming plays with Boys in the Band, Bug, and Killer Joe. Pinter wrote the screenplay, which, if one needs to nail it down, is about a man (Robert Shaw) hiding out from the Mob at a seaside boardinghouse, who one day is visited by two men (Sydney Tafler, Patrick Magee). This key aspect of the plot is present only in a few pieces of dialogue, as when Magee asks Shaw, “Why did you leave the organization?” (and one realizes this Pinter piece is treading on the same ground as the TV masterwork The Prisoner). 

The performances are all top-notch and Friedkin does an excellent job of adding modernist techniques to the traumatic moments (most notably, a scene where violence is occurring in the dark and we see “thermal” bits of imagery). The film was destined to be a cult affair, better regarded years on from its release, as the play itself is a disturbing piece of material that, like many of Pinter’s best works, has a claustrophobic, circuitous feel to it. 

I’ll close out with a film I’d always wanted to see, since I’m a big fan of Sandy Dennis and also of (still with us, at 85!) Eleanor Bron. The two were costars in the film that Milton Subotsky claimed was his favorite of all the films he produced, A Touch of Love (1969, released in the U.S. as Thank You All Very Much). Touch is a simple drama, a downbeat character study about a single woman (of the kind that Sandy Dennis excelled in) who ends up pregnant when she sleeps with a TV news presenter (a ridiculously young Ian McKellan, in his first movie role). 

The film is scripted by Margaret Drabble based on her novel The Millstone, and it is one of those works that reflected the late Sixties/early Seventies preference for films made for adults about adults. Dennis’s English accent is wobbly, but the film’s focus is squarely on her character’s changing emotions about being single and then pregnant (with much talk about the option of abortion, courtesy of Bron’s character outlining that it could be performed legally if it was done to preserve the sanity of the pregnant woman). 

Dennis’s performance is characteristically understated (and a bit neurotic, one of her specialties in both drama and comedy). Bron is the reliable friend who moves in with her when she is pregnant and who serves as a sounding board about the Big Decision that must be made. And, for those keeping count (and aware of SCTV’s “bun in her oven” theory of British kitchen sink cinema), this is indeed another brilliant British drama that does have a woman getting pregnant as its central dilemma.

Sandy Dennis and Ian McKellan
in A Touch of Love (1969).