Friday, June 15, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Classic Horror Films from the 1950s

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody tries to make up for missing a marathon by having a quadruple feature of 1950s horror movies.

Back in October of 2016, the Springmill Drive-In in Mansfield, Ohio had a trio of all-night horror movie marathons, with the quadruple feature pairings being based on the decades the films came out in. They had a '50s horror film festival, a '60s one, and a '70s one, and I was there for each of them. In October of 2017, the marathon weekends expanded as the drive-in made their way through classic horror films from the 1940s, the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, and then ended with a marathon of old zombie movies. Unfortunately, my world fell apart in 2017, and I didn't have time to attend the marathons each weekend. I only made it out to two of them. But I kept a note of the movies that were shown at the ones I missed so I could have my own marathon viewings of them someday.

Those personal marathons will be covered in Worth Mentioning articles here on Life Between Frames. Of course, I couldn't even come close to replicating the experience of actually going to the drive-in to see these films. Watching movies in my sister's house is far from sitting in my car and watching the films play out on an outdoor screen while munching on food and drink purchased from a concession stand. But still, I will be watching the movies in succession, and I have started doing so with the films of the '50s marathon.

7:45pm - DIABOLIQUE (1955) 

2017's marathon of 1950s films got started off with director Henri-Georges Clouzot's French film Diabolique (or Les Diaboliques), a movie that is highly respected and widely regarded to be one of the greatest horror films of all time, although it's one of those classics that a lot of horror fans probably haven't seen yet.

Diabolique was based on a novel written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac that has a title which translates to She Was No More. Apparently Alfred Hitchcock had been interested in making an adaptation of the novel himself, but Clouzot bid-sniped him and won the rights just hours before Hitchcock could make his move. I don't think anyone would have blinked if Hitchcock had decided to make an English version sometime over the next couple decades; he wasn't a stranger to remakes, and Diabolique has been remade (or the novel re-adapted) multiple times since 1955. But Hitch chose not to.

The film is set at a French boarding school that's owned by a Venezeulan woman named Christina Delassalle (Clouzot's Brazilian wife Véra Clouzot), who is a teacher at the school, and run by Christina's husband Michel (Paul Meurisse). Michel is a Grade A prick, stern and rude in general, emotionally and occasionally physically abusive to his wife. Christina is ailing from a weak heart and Michel openly roots for her to die, both in secret and right to her face, telling her he'll feel better once she's gone. He's also carrying on a public affair with another teacher at the school, Simone Signoret as Nicole Horner.

Despite being in intimate relationships with Michel, neither of the women like him. In fact, Nicole is friends with Christina and is trying to get her to join her in a plot to kill him and free themselves of him by slipping him a sedative, drowning him in a bathtub, then dumping him in the school pool so it looks like he drowned accidentally. A religious woman who grew up in a convent, Christina is hesitant at first - the reason she hasn't even divorced Michel is because she believes divorce is a sin, so how can she be expected to help kill him?

But Christina can only take so much. Soon enough the murder plot moves forward, the decision to kill Michel and the execution of the scheme taking up the entire first half of the 117 minute long film... And then things get very strange and intense for the women in the second half. I won't go into what happens in that second half, especially since the film ends with text asking the viewer not to spoil the ending, but the events make for an intriguing, involving mystery thriller.

Diabolique does feel very Hitchcockian in tone and structure, it's easy to imagine the movie being pretty much the same if Hitchcock had directed it, except it would have been in English. It feels quite similar to Psycho.

I hope the lucky attendees who got to see this film at the drive-in last year appreciated having the opportunity, because it is truly one of the greats. Although some may debate whether or not it should be called a horror movie.

9:50pm - THE TINGLER (1959)

Producer/director William Castle was the master of the gimmick presentation, doing things like offering audience members life insurance policies before screenings of his film Macabre in case they died of fright, floating a skeleton over the audience during showings of House on Haunted Hill, and providing special Illusion-O filters they could use to either see the ghosts or, if they were too afraid, block out the ghosts in his movie 13 Ghosts. His film The Tingler also came with a gimmick, and while those other gimmicks can be replicated (I have even been to a screening of 13 Ghosts where Illusion-O filters were provided), it would be trickier to replicate The Tingler's gimmick. That's because this fim was released in "Percepto!", which would allow certain viewers to experience the sensation of fear that was being felt by the characters on the screen... a sensation that would hit them in the form of a tingling feeling. Castle appears on screen at the beginning of the film to address the audience and let them know the way to make that tingling feeling go away is to let loose with a scream.

If anyone in the theatre actually did feel a tingling sensation, it wasn't because they were experiencing the fear of the characters. It's because Castle had theatres install vibrating devices in select seats. It's tougher to make the average theatre seat vibrate that it is to float a skeleton over the audience or to hand out pieces of paper or colored plastic, so I assume screenings of The Tingler that offer the "Percepto!" experience are probably pretty rare. Springmill Drive-In certainly wasn't vibrating car seats when they showed The Tingler during their marathon, nor was my seat shaking when I watched the movie at my sister's place.

Whether seen in "Percepto!" or not, The Tingler is still a great movie, and one of my favorites of the many genre movies Vincent Price starred in. Here Price plays coroner Warren Chapin, and he lays out the concept of the film right up front - for years he has been fascinated by something he has noticed while performing autopsies on people who had experienced a great fright right before dying. The force of fear, which sends a tingle down your spine when you're mildly scared, can become so intense that it can shatter a person's spinal column. Fear causes tension in the body and if you can't relieve that tension, through a scream, for example, then it can become strong enough to kill you. What causes this spine-shattering force to appear and disappear is a mystery... But by the end of the film, Chapin will know exactly what damages the spines of people who die frightened. That's the title creature, a multi-legged parasite that looks quite like a centipede, although a centipede designed to fit perfectly over the human spine, with its legs between the vertebrae.

Chapin is so determined to set his eyes on this thing that he even pulls a gun loaded with blanks on his unfaithful wife (Patricia Cutts) and fires it at her. She faints, and he quickly takes x-rays of her back before she can regain consciousness.

The doctor is finally able to see a tingler and remove it from a body when he doses a deaf and mute woman, Martha Higgins (Judith Evelyn), with a hallucinogenic that gives her hallucinations so intense that she is literally scared to death. She sees furniture moving on its own, hideous maniacs approaching her with bladed weapons (sort of adding a bit of slasher flavor in there long before the slasher craze), and even a hand rising from a bathtub filled with blood. The bathtub vision is especially effective, because the movie is black & white but the blood in that tub is in full color. Since Martha wasn't able to relieve the fear tensions by screaming, she would usually pass out when scared. But this time the fright was too much, the tingler grew too strong and it got her. And since she wasn't able to make it retreat with a scream before death, the thing remains inside her.

The tingler is removed from Martha's corpse, but that's not the end for it. It continues living outside her body, attacking people, and in a highlight sequence manages to escape into the movie theatre run by Martha's husband Ollie (Philip Coolidge), crawling amidst the chairs, latching on to the legs of audience members, and setting up an opportunity to have those vibrating devices going off in the theatres showing The Tingler. The only way to stop the tingler is for everyone in the audience to start screaming.

This movie is sort of equally cool and silly, and it's that way from the ground up; the basic idea that a fear creature called the tingler could grow on spines when people are scared is cool, but silly, and the same goes for the story screenwriter Robb White crafted around that idea. Castle brought it all to the screen in a way that's highly entertaining, though. I have seen The Tingler several times, and I always enjoy watching it.

Given Chapin's dysfunctional, nearly homicidal relationship with his wife and the way the death of Martha is handled, the programmer at Springmill did a great job when they decided to schedule Diabolique and The Tingler back-to-back. Of course, Diabolique didn't have fear creatures in it, but they have enough similarities to make a perfect pairing.

11:15pm - MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953) 

Director Hugo Fregonese's 1953 film Man in the Attic is based on Marie Belloc Lowndes's Jack the Ripper novel The Lodger, which was first published in 1913 - just twenty-five years after the Jack the Ripper murders were being committed in London. The Lodger has received multiple cinematic adaptations over the last century, including a silent film version made by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1920s, but this one stands out from the pack by not using the title The Lodger and by being a film that could be described as "Jack the Ripper Meets Aunt Bee".

American actress Frances Bavier played one of the most downhome American characters ever on The Andy Griffith Show, but here she plays London resident Helen Harley, wife of William Harley (Rhys Williams). The Harleys have fallen on some tough financial times and have had to open their home to lodgers at pretty much the worst possible time imaginable, because it's 1888 and someone referred to as Jack the Ripper is in the midst of a killing spree. The first person to rent a room from the Harleys is eccentric pathologist Slade (Jack Palance), who carries around a black medical bag and needs the privacy of their attic to conduct his experiments in.

Man in the Attic is meant to be a mystery, but it's one of the most obvious mysteries ever made because there's only ever one character who ever comes off as being a Jack the Ripper suspect, and they play up that person's suspiciousness big time. The end reveal may be obvious, but it is nice that Fregonese and writers Barré Lyndon and Robert Presnell Jr. dug into the suspect's story and showed his emotional response to being accused of doing such terrible things, so at least we have some degree of sympathy for the character throughout.

While staying in the Harley home, Slade grows close to their niece Lily Bonner (Constance Smith), a stage actress. Even though Slade is quite introverted and has a strong distaste for actresses, the pair are drawn to each other - Lily even finds his apparent shyness charming, and is quick to care about him.

Man in the Attic is a really solid and interesting film, carried by a strong performance from Palance.

12:45am - 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) 

Overall, the 1950s marathon is the one I most regret missing when it was held at the Springmill Drive-In last year, and of all these '50s movies, 20 Million Miles to Earth is the one I most wish I had gotten the chance to see at the drive-in. This is an epic sci-fi creature feature that was crafted solely to showcase the amazing stop-motion effects crafted by Ray Harryhausen - and as a special treat, the movie is even set in Italy because Harryhausen wanted to spend some time there.

The story begins off the coast of Sicily, where Harryhausen is able to create the effect of an American spaceship crashing out of the sky and into the sea. Fishermen who witnessed the crash board the ship to save any crew members they can before the ship sinks completely. This is a great way to get a movie started, feeling like something out of a modern blockbuster that would cost millions to pull off these days.

The spaceship was returning from Venus, where most of the crew caught a disease that killed them on the way home. The only survivor of the crash and illness is Robert Calder (William Hopper), and as soon as he regains consciousness his major concern is what became of the animal specimen they were bringing back with them. Found by a local child, that creature, known as the Ymir, has been sold off to a zoologist... And what starts out as a small hatchling grows at an incredibly fast rate, soon reaching a height somewhere between ten and twenty feet tall.

The Ymir escapes from the cage the zoologist put it in and goes rampaging across the Italian countryside. Circumstances eventually lead it to Rome, where the climactic action takes place - action that includes a fight with an elephant (which the creature encounters in a zoo) and a visit to the Colosseum.

Much like King Kong, the '33 version of which being the film that inspired Harryhausen to get into stop-motion animation, 20 Million Miles to Earth is one of those monster movies where you feel sorry for the monster. It's huge and hideous, but the Ymir is truly only dangerous because it's out of place in our world. It's not aggressive unless provoked, but that's what the people and animals it crosses paths with do, provoke it - try to capture it, attack it, cage it.

I love stop-motion animation, and as always Harryhausen's effects are a marvel to behold. I would have had a great time watching this movie at a drive-in. I'm sorry I missed it... but maybe someday I'll get another chance to watch 20 Million Miles to Earth on the big screen.

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