creature feature: the skull (freddie francis, 1965)

Amicus Productions came out of England in 1962, but it was founded by Americans. Their horror films are a lot like Hammer, probably on purpose. The Skull is directed by Hammer stalwart Freddie Francis and stars Peter Cushing and, in a smaller role, Christopher Lee. It is based on a short story by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade", and the title of that story pretty much explains the plot. After his death, the Marquis' skull is stolen from his grave, and it carries with it an evil that travels across time to the present day (I was surprised when people in The Skull turned on lights and rode in cars ... I didn't realize we'd moved past the 19th-century prologue).

The whole thing is loony nonsense, but Cushing effectively makes us believers, at least for the 83-minute running time. (Even at 83 minutes, The Skull is stretched thin ... there's a lot of filler.) Francis gives us some ingenious looks, in particular some shots from a point-of-view inside the skull. While the effect of the skull floating ominously in space sounds silly, it's actually effectively scary. The music is by Elisabeth Lutyens, an interesting figure of some note. She was a composer of some repute, and the first woman to score a British film.

None of the above raises The Skull much beyond the norm for 60s horror, but it's reasonably entertaining.


creature feature: strait-jacket (william castle, 1964)

Not all Creature Features are the same. This one stars Joan Crawford, and that right there is a big difference from the norm. It wasn't the only time Crawford worked in the "Psycho-biddy" (aka Hag Horror) genre. In fact, she was there at the beginning, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? While they weren't psycho-biddy, her last two movies were called Berserk! and Trog. Point being, Crawford gives Strait-Jacket some star power, but the end of her career stuck her in several similar pictures.

The screenplay was by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel on which Hitchcock's Psycho was based. Beyond Crawford and Bloch, though, the key figure in Strait-Jacket was the legendary producer/director William Castle. Castle was best known for his promotional gimmicks, which he gave names to: "Emergo", "Percepto", "Illusion-O". "Percepto" was used for The Tingler, one of the stupidest movies ever (the title character was a parasite attached to human spines that emerged whenever someone was really scared). Stupid, yes, but the gimmick was classic: at some theaters, a vibrating device was placed under some seats, and when, in the movie, a Tingler escapes in a movie theater, those seats vibrated. The odd thing was, growing up and watching these movies on TV, minus the gimmicks, they were still enjoyable.

Strait-Jacket was relatively low-key in this context: audience members were given cardboard axes as they entered the theater.

As for the movie, Crawford gives her all, even managing on occasion to avoid the kind of hammy overacting you expect from a camp picture like this. She doesn't embarrass herself, and that's probably all we can ask. An uncredited Lee Majors makes his first big-screen appearance. Diane Baker is fine as Crawford's daughter. Crawford had a lot of control over the movie ... she made sure to stick a six-pack of Pepsi in one scene, and the man who plays her doctor in the film was non-actor Mitchell Cox, who was a Vice-President at Pepsi. Other than completists, I don't know that fans of Crawford need to see this, but fans of William Castle will enjoy it, if they haven't already seen it.


creature feature: abbott and costello meet the mummy (charles lamont, 1955)

People who have never seen it probably don't believe that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a good movie. By a happy coincidence, Universal had Abbott and Costello under contract and all those Universal horror characters needing a new outlet. So you take the two comedians, toss in Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's monster, toss in Lenore Aubert as a femme fatale, and voila! They had the original Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr., reprising his classic role. And most notably, Bela Lugosi made only his second (and last) appearance as Dracula. There were some classic A&C skits, and the scares were actually real. And Abbott and Costello were still in the prime as one of the most popular comedic duos around.

This set off a series of "Abbott and Costello Meet" movies. There was Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, and Meet the Invisible Man, and Meet Captain Kidd, and Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Meet the Keystone Cops.

Which takes us to Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. It was the last picture they made with Universal, and their next-to-last movie, period ... Lou Costello died in 1959.

It wasn't very good. The Mummy was played by stuntman Eddie Parker, and he wasn't scary. The other stars were people like Michael Ansara and future Mel Cooley Richard Deacon (he wasn't scary, either). Marie Windsor livened things up a bit, and the last fifteen minutes or so are fun in a frantic way. But Bud and Lou look tired. In the credits, their characters are listed as Pete Patterson and Freddie Franklin, but during the film, they just call each other by their actual names, as if it didn't really matter (it didn't). The whole thing plays like a Crosby-Hope-Lamour Road movie, only a weak one. Peggy King popped in for a song, and in an incongruous moment, there's a giant lizard of some sort (it wasn't scary, and the special effects weren't special).

So it's easy: if you have a hankering for something like this, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is out there. Don't bother with The Mummy.


creature feature: the curse of the werewolf (terence fisher, 1961)

Decent Hammer film, but no more than that. Oliver Reed plays the title character ... he only got second billing, though, and was paid only £90 a week. Of course, he doesn't even turn up until halfway through the movie, so maybe the billing and the paychecks were appropriate. Probably the most interesting other person in the cast was Anthony Dawson, who was a bad guy in 3 of the first 4 Bonds, twice as Blofeld.

This is the only werewolf film made by Hammer Studios. It was also the first werewolf film to be shot in color. It looks OK, as most Hammer films did. As I said about The Brides of Dracula, "the Hammer films were a step above the usual" for late-night Creature Feature TV shows. But this fact, plus the presence of Oliver Reed (who admittedly makes a good werewolf), don't make The Curse of the Werewolf into a good movie. It drags, especially during the first half, and characters that seem important disappear later in the film. Worst of all, the film takes place in "Spain", so while everyone speaks with a British accent, their names are Don Alfredo and Leon and Christina Fernando. Once in a while, someone calls someone "Señor," and it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.


what i watched

Quite a mix of things over the last few days, so I'm stuffing them all into one post.

Julius Caesar. We've enjoyed watching our friend Arthur over the years in various plays, but since he moved down south (more jobs!) we only get to see him when he gets a spot on a TV series. So it was fun to watch a production of Julius Caesar by the Evergreen Theatre Collective, which was shown live on Facebook, with Arthur as Marc Antony. The production was quite inventive in using the quarantine effectively, with the cast showing up on the mosaic screen we've all gotten used to in the Zoom-meets-COVID era. Caesar was cut to fit a running time of about 90 minutes, but continuity was always clear. Arthur kicked ass on Antony's famous orations ... as I said, he is the first person I know who played a role previously done by Brando. Caesar was played by an African-American woman, which gave a different spin, more because it was a woman than because she was black. We knew we would like seeing our friend, but the entire production was quite good. [edited to add YouTube video of performance]

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1958). I had watched Part I ten years ago (Ivan the Terrible, Part I), which is to say, I didn't remember much of what happened in that earlier film. I read up a bit and then jumped into Part II. Eisenstein had planned a Part III, but it never happened. He finished Part II in 1946, but the Party didn't like it and it wasn't released. Eisenstein died in 1950, Stalin in 1953, and the film was finally released in 1958. Part II is magnificent to look at, and Prokofiev's score was great, but for me, everything was static. Eisenstein loved his close-ups and his montage, but in this case, I was unimpressed. #228 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

One section of the film is in color, and this dance vibrates with movement. (When you click on the video, you'll be asked to watch on YouTube.)

Creature Feature: The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960). Has there ever been a more apt example of sublime-to-ridiculous? From Shakespeare and Eisenstein to Roger Corman. This is the original quickie that later spawned the musical. The making of the film has become legendary over time, and who knows what is true and what is exaggeration? The budget was $30,000, give or take a few grand. They shot it in 2 1/2 days, give or take a day. Corman saved money by making full use of Charles B. Griffith, who wrote the screenplay ... Griffith also appeared on screen in two different roles, did the voice for Audrey Jr., and managed to get his grandmother, his father, and other relatives in the picture. Jack Nicholson has a brief role as a pain-loving dental patient. Is it any good? For as cheap as it was to make, sure, it was good. It has become a cult classic, certainly worth a view if you've never seen it and have 72 minutes to spare. But I wouldn't go overboard.


creature feature: curse of the demon (jacques tourneur, 1957)

I'll let the IMDB explain the variations in the versions of this film:

This film exists in three English language versions: (1) The original British release under the title "Night of the Demon," (2) Columbia's edited version for release in the U.S. under the title "Curse of the Demon" and, (3) over 20 years later, Columbia replaced their edited U.S. version with the original British version but with the title also changed to "Curse of the Demon."

I watched the TCM version, and their explanation is more detailed, but ultimately ironic:

One last comment about Curse of the Demon: the film has existed in two versions ever since its release in 1957. The British release, entitled Night of the Demon, had a running time of approximately 95 minutes. The U.S. version, released as Curse of the Demon, was trimmed by some thirteen minutes, reducing its length to 82 minutes, and placed on a double bill with The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), a Hammer horror production.... The trim 82 version is certainly an entertaining funhouse ride but the "fat" that [American producer Hal E.] Chester pared away makes the original British release a much richer and satisfying experience.

I call this "ironic" because TCM seems to be arguing in favor of the British original, but the version they showed was the U.S. one.

This was nonetheless probably appropriate for the nostalgia angle of watching Curse of the Demon in 2020. I'm sure I saw it more than once as a kid, and the version I saw was certainly the American edit, so TCM did me a favor.

Curse of the Demon is a decent picture with some pedigree. Director Jacques Tourneur had done such pictures as Out of the Past and I Walked with a Zombie. Dana Andrews had appeared in Oscar winners like The Best Years of Our Lives and Laura. Peggy Cummins was great in Gun Crazy. The production design was by Ken Adam, at the beginning of a career that included two films with Kubrick, seven Bond movies, and two Oscars.

All of which helps lift the movie above the usual Creature Feature. It's on a par with The Revenge of Frankenstein. But it is nowhere near the level of an Out of the Past. The demon looks silly, and Tourneur didn't want to show it anyway (he was overruled by the studio). It's a low-key thriller, better than some but not really a classic. #753 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which is nonsense.


creature feature: the brides of dracula (terence fisher, 1960)

An early horror effort from Hammer, and a sequel to their very popular Dracula (Horror of Dracula in the States). While the Brides are a staple of Dracula movies, Dracula himself does not appear in this one, despite the title. Explanations vary, but the most common one is that Christopher Lee, who made such a great Dracula in the first film, didn't want to be typecast. (He later changed his mind, and eventually played Dracula another six times.) So Hammer trotted out Peter Cushing to repeat his role as Van Helsing, and hired David Peel to play Baron Meinster, who was the primary vampire in the film. There are various Brides, with the female lead played by French actress Yvonne Monlaur.

The nice things about Hammer in those days was that their movies generally didn't suck. Fairly low standards, sure, but compared to some of the schlock coming out of America in the 50s, Hammer were welcome, especially on TV Creature Feature shows ... the Hammer films were a step above the usual for those shows. As if to illustrate this, when The Brides of Dracula was released in the U.S., it was on a double-bill with The Leech Woman, which later became an episode of Mystery Science Theater.

The Brides of Dracula is sluggish at times, but it was nice to look at. The print we saw had been restored, and the difference was noticeable. Cushing is properly serious throughout. There is a special-effects bat that looks crappy ... the IMDB tells us "The prop department put a lot of effort into making a realistic model bat. It got lost and had to be replaced on short notice. This explains the rather unconvincing look of the model that got actually used in the movie." (We also learn that "The ending was to have originally had the vampires destroyed by a swarm of bats. This ending proved too expensive to stage and shoot." Hammer did well with their low budgets, but some things were just beyond their resources.)

I can't remember when we got our first color TV, so I'm not sure if the first times I saw The Brides of Dracula it was in black-and-white. Also, since our local Creature Feature show was on late on Saturday nights, I often fell asleep halfway through the movie. The Brides of Dracula isn't a great movie by any means, but watching it now was a more enjoyable experience than whatever I put it through when I was a kid.


creature feature: godzilla raids again (motoyoshi oda, 1955)

The original Godzilla was a big hit, and Toho Studios wasted little time (less than six months) getting a sequel out. The logic behind bringing Godzilla back from the dead is handled with a reasonable amount of believability, considering we're talking giant monsters here. Turns out the H-bomb tests that awoke the first Godzilla managed to bring more back to life. So in this movie, we get a second Godzilla, along with Anguirus, a quadrupedal monster who gets the privilege of being the first monster to fight Godzilla (in the original film, Godzilla was the only monster). Their battles are OK, given the limitations of having two guys in suits pretending to be monsters. Godzilla dispatches Anguirus, although not before much of Osaka is destroyed. The subtext of Japan being destroyed due to the detritus of nuclear bombs is less clearly a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... there is no explicit anti-American sentiment.

There isn't anything to make Godzilla Raids Again into a classic, but compared to some of the later entries that emphasized kids, it's a tolerable time-waster. There is some silly humorous banter a few times, but mostly, you get two monsters fighting, a city destroyed, and then a novel way to kill off Godzilla once again (this time it involves an avalanche).

The Americanized version was bizarre, as might be expected. It was dubbed instead of subtitled (the version I watched now was subtitled and from the Criterion Collection), with constant narration. For reasons that are not clear, Godzilla is named Gigantis, and the movie is titled Gigantis, the Fire Monster. The American version wasn't released until 1959, on a double bill with Teenagers from Outer Space.


creature feature: the man who could cheat death (terence fisher, 1959)

This is a mediocre Hammer film, directed by Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula). Christopher Lee is the biggest name in the cast, but he isn't the lead ... he's not even the villain. That job goes to Anton Diffring (Circus of Horrors), who was in everything back in the day. Perhaps the most notable member of the cast is Hazel Court, one of the first Scream Queens, and an early example of the kind of actress Hammer liked to put in their movies (i.e., cleavage). Court says they even filmed a brief nude scene "for the European market" ... she's modeling for a sculptor. No copies of that version exist. All we have is one still of a topless Court, which was a big deal in 1959. (In fairness, Court in the nude is still a big deal.) The censors may have succeeded in burying the nudity, but throughout the movie we see a bust of the sculptor's work, which shows Court's assets off quite clearly.

The movie is almost all talk, and thus, almost entirely dreary. The plot is a mishmash of mad scientist and Dorian Gray. None of it is particularly interesting. Among the films it played with in the theaters: The Evil That Is Eve (aka A Kiss for a Killer) and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. The Man Who Could Cheat Death will cheat you out of 83 minutes of your life, time that is better spent using Google to find that still of Hazel Court (you'll still have 80 minutes left over to do what you want).


creature feature: rodan (ishirô honda, 1956)

I chose this for the nostalgia factor, as I usually do with these Creature Features. I watched Rodan many times when I was a kid, and while in my memory it was just another crappy Japanese monster movie, that's what I was in the mood for.

But I'm not entirely sure that's what I ended up with. For I noticed the Criterion Channel had Rodan, their version was 10 minutes longer than the one on Amazon I was going to watch, and, well, it was Criterion after all. So I checked them out, and what I saw was not the movie I watched as a kid. This was subtitled, the print had been improved ... in short, it was Rodan the way it was intended. (Afterwards, I peeked at the Amazon version for a few minutes ... the print was crappy, it was dubbed, and the opening was an invention for the American market. In other words, it was the movie I grew up on. I'm glad I chose Criterion.)

Now I don't want to go too far. I've watched a lot of kaiju movies, so I have a tolerance for them, but I don't think of them as great movies. Rodan came from the 50s, when the movies were still taken fairly seriously, so it's a decent film ... this isn't Son of Godzilla. But it's decent, no more. While eventually we get the usual brief explanation of events being related to nuclear bomb testing, there is a moment early on when a scientist suggests maybe climate change is to blame ... which was surprising, to say the least!

It's hard to recommend Rodan. If you're the type who can handle subtitles, you're likely not that interested in Rodan. And if you just want nostalgia, the dubbed version on Amazon is a mess. Still, I enjoyed myself.

One last anecdote. We had a friend who was an artist, and one day we were driving in a car and I was in the backseat with his kids. They had some toys to play with, one of which was a little pterodactyl. I picked it up and said, "Rodan!" Our artist friend in the front seat immediately launched into a discussion of the great sculpture Rodin. It was pretty interesting, too. I didn't have the heart to tell him I was talking about a Japanese monster. Or maybe I just didn't want to expose my love of junk culture.

Here's a trailer for the American version: