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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Nostalgia: Black and White Halloween Horror Hits

When it came to my father's movie theatres in the small western Illinois towns of
Carthage and Warsaw, I was one puerile youth who bubbled over with promotional ideas on how to locally ballyhoo the low-budget horror films he played.
The Warsaw Theatre, a Quonset hut building on Main Street in a town of two thousand people overlooking the Mississippi River, was, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, open only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights and sometimes played a different picture each night. The Woodbine Theatre in Carthage, twenty miles east of the river and with a larger population, tried to remain open every night, but rarely played a single film as long as a week. In the Warsaw Theatre, my father often ran double-feature material - older films and re-issues, eighty minute color westerns billed with black-and-white "lower half" films. Occasionally, when he listened to my pleas, he would run horror films, and these were the films I would go out of my way to promote. This was a very small town, so our limited resources left me with a few opportunities to be imaginative, creating lobby displays, storefront cardboard displays, and telephone posters - all made of cardboard and ink.
Some horror films of the era, however, came equipped with their own promotional gimmicks - the most well-known being those created by schlock director and producer William Castle. His first gimmick was in 1958, a promo involving a Lloyd's of London insurance policy covering the movie patron in the unlikely event that he or she died of fright while watching MACABRE.
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MACABRE is a small-budgeted but tightly paced black-and-white thriller with a few shots inserted for obvious shock value: a bloody faced corpse which falls over inside a mausoleum, a small dummy corpse with a skull face in a casket shown during a funeral at night, the sudden hand on the shoulder of a doctor who is searching through a cemetery for his daughter who has supposedly been buried alive. The final resolution is perhaps the biggest shock of all, perhaps because it is quite plausible. Greedy human beings, such as in the next Castle film HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, are the real horrors, not supernatural beings. Nonetheless, the shocks are still effective - at least for audiences not requiring gore (as in the remake of the film with the same title). To this date, only two Castle films have been remade with updated gore: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and THIRTEEN GHOSTS. Teen audiences today, at least in America, would probably find the original versions of the films to be quite tame.*
When Allied Artist's MACABRE played at the Warsaw Theatre, I ordered extra 8 x 10 still photos from the film from National Screen Service and decorated the window of a local drug store with a cardboard cut-out cemetery. I drew my own tombstones, but the druggist balked when I wrote the names of local people on the graves. I meant it as a joke, but black humor (sick humor) was not in.
* In the same year, Hammer Films released its version of the Dracula story with the title, in the US, HORROR OF DRACULA. In 1958, it was startling to some audiences and quite tame to others. When I showed the film in the 1990s to a college class in Atlanta, they found it to be slow-paced in spots and not very frightening or shocking. However, when I showed the film to a British literature class in China in 2004, several college girls asked to be dismissed from the classroom. They were thoroughly frightened, and I was shocked by their reaction.
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Despite my cardboard artistry, however, the film attracted only a small portion of our small population. We had the usual football games as competition.
For a Halloween midnight showing one year, Dad played two hokey horror films geared for teenage audiences: I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN and THE RETURN OF DRACULA. For this late 1950s double-bill, I constructed a cardboard castle over one of the inside exits next to the screen and ran a wire from it to the projection booth. I draped a section of white sheet over a hangar and tied a string to the hanger. During a high point of one of the films, I stood in the exit and pulled on the string, hoping to pull the ghost across the top of the audience. The ghost came out of the projection booth window on cue, but the hanger stuck halfway down. I jerked harder on the string and it snapped, leaving my deus ex machina suspended above the audience until the end of the showing when the houselights revealed my attempted stunt.
More successful was my huge cobweb made out of regular white yarn that I draped over the doorways and the one-sheet and 14 x 36 frames in the lobby.
Both I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTIEN and THE RETURN OF DRACULA feature their own internal gimmicks - the use of color in otherwise black-and-white films. One may recall how a short color segment was used in the 1940s films THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and THE PORTRAIT OF JENNY; in each case, only the portrait of the title character was shown in color in sharp contrast with the rest of the film. Both inserted shots are quite effective. Less can be said the use of color in the aforementioned Halloween hits. In the Frankenstein film, color is used only at the end when the monster destroys himself through shock therapy. The scene is not shocking, only surprising (as in Why?).
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The Dracula film, a much more frightening film (because of skillful directing and editing, not internal gimmicks), uses color for the close shot where vampire hunters plunge a stake into the heart of a female vampire. Color gushing out of a heart wound in this black-and-white film is much more effective as a shocking contrast than the sudden jolt of color used in Castle's THE TINGLER, which shows a bathtub filled with blood and a human arm reaching out to a woman who is deathly afraid of the sight of blood.
In 1960, Nikolai Gogal's short story "The Vij" was transformed into an Italian horror film by shock-for-shock's sake director Mario Bava. The film was released in the US as BLACK SUNDAY (and THE MASK OF SATAN in Europe). BLACK SUNDAY was later used as the title of a John Frankenheimer film which dealt with pre-9-11 terrorists trying to decimate a football stadium full of fans. The first BLACK SUNDAY was released by American-International Pictures, a company famous for producing its own low-budgeted but heavily promoted quickies like I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN.
The 1960s BLACK SUNDAY, however, is unlike other formula flicks for teens at the drive-in theatres. Clever if self-conscious camera work utilizes an abundance of zoom lens shots and focuses our attention on the gamut of gothic trappings brought to life in low key black-and-white; some of the scenes feature stark imagery as crisp as anything shown in Antonioni's L'AVVENTURA, while others effectively use soft focus to create a nightmarish world. It is almost a textbook of gothic examples: black-robed hooded figures executing witches with a spike-studded mask before the titles are even shown, paintings changing and rotating to reveal secret passageways, trap doors opening onto pits with long spikes at the bottom, lanterns floating in mid-air, corpses found hanging in corridors, and huge bats flying around in the crypt.
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Barbara Steele, identified in many Italian horror flicks (and even in Fellini's landmark film 8 ½) and Roger Corman's The Pit and the Pendulum, plays two roles in BLACK SUNDAY, a witch executed in the pre-title sequence and a lovely princess menaced by her look-alike witch ancestor who is accidentally brought back to life. When the witch is brought to life two hundred years after her execution, her lovely face, and the face of her vampire lover, is covered with the holes made by the spikes in the mask. A doctor visiting her tomb discovers her coffin and unwittingly breaks the glass over her mask-encased face by striking at a large bat. He cuts his hand on the broken glass, creating an unlikely chain of events: blood from his cut drips conveniently into the eye socket of the reposing witch, the cross over her coffin has been accidentally demolished, and her coffin is blown free as if dynamited.
Zoom lenses are used effectively throughout - an unusual feat in itself since the temptation is to overuse that lens, something that the Italians became famous for doing in later films. When the witch's vampire-lover glides into a room, the father of the innocent princess holds up a cross. The camera zooms back from the cross, and as the vampire is repelled, the camera lens zooms in on the door as it closes behind him.
The greatest flaw in the film is the poorly post-dubbed dialogue, reminding small-town theatre and drive-in audiences that even the presence of Brits Barbara Steele and John Richardson portraying characters with long Russian names cannot conceal the fact that this is an Italian film. By this time, they were gradually being exposed to the long-running series of films made in color from Edgar Allen Poe stories, so the foreign cast and black-and-white footage might have been comparatively disappointing. The Poe films needed no ballyhooing, but for BLACK SUNDAY, I did take illustrations from the large press book and paste them onto large cardboard posters accompanied by my hand-lettering.
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One American film produced many years before BLACK SUNDAY and promoted with the usual ballyhoo - the title and advertisements having little to do with the content - was the ultra low-budget Roger Corman film THE UNDEAD (1956). For example, the title would hardly suggest that this is actually a type of time-travel film, one that I showed in a science-fiction time-travel class.
Once again, witches are on hand. Instead of being dispatched by spike-studded masks, however, they are beheaded by a muscular (but still hooded) executioner. Readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" might be surprised to see Satan make an appearance during a Walpurgis Night orgy of corpse dancing and soul-trading. To welcome Satan to the festivities in his honor, the severed head of a tavern-owner must be delivered by buxom witch Allyson Hayes. She and her gnome-like friend Billy Barty can transform themselves into black cats or flying bats whenever they find it necessary to do so.
Despite the presence of shape-shifting witches, the film's theme includes reincarnation and regression (a form of time travel). Pamela Duncan is regressed through her past lives to medieval England where she is falsely accused of being a witch. She is faced with the choice of putting her head down on the execution block with other accused witches and thus allowed herself to be reincarnated in future lives, or of escaping with her handsome knight lover and alter the future. This execution scene, with only the thump of the basket to suggest the beheadings, is well-done, particularly for a low-budget film.
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Some local stations and some cable networks might occasionally run these films that were once part of dusk-to-dawn drive in movie fare or special Halloween shows like my father used to run. If you are fortunate, you might be able to find these old black-and-white classic horror films in DVD catalogues. Then you can have your own living room dusk-to-dawn marathons for those friends of yours who appreciate films that are frightening in a subtle way and didn't need to be grossed out with gruesome NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13TH killings. You can even make cobwebs out of string and hang them about the sofa.