Friday, August 17, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Classic Horror Films from the 1960s

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 1960s horror movies.

Last Halloween season, the Springmill Drive-In in Mansfield, Ohio held six all-night horror marathons, and unfortunately I was only able to make it to two of them. With the Halloween season swiftly approaching once again, I decided to dedicate some Worth Mentioning articles to covering the movies that were shown at last year's Springmill marathons. I have written about the movies that were shown at their marathon of '50s horror, so now I move on to their '60s horror selections.

7:30pm - CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

A dirt cheap indie made by one-time feature director Herk Harvey, Carnival of Souls is a film that has earned the reputation of being a true classic over the decades, but for me it's not really a standout film. I've never been able to fully get into it.

Candace Hilligoss stars as a young woman named Mary Henry, who is introduced as she and her friends make the bad decision to participate in a drag race against a couple guys. When the girls' car goes off the side of a bridge, Mary is the only one to rise from the water. Moving on from the incident, Mary takes a job playing the organ at a church in a different town. During the drive to this town, Mary becomes fascinated by the sight of the then recently abandoned Saltair II resort that stood on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, just outside Salt Lake City.

The same thing happened to Harvey when he drove past the resort while making his way home to Kansas from California. He saw the abandoned location standing there, and when he got home he pitched the idea of making a movie at the resort to his associate John Clifford, giving the man just one stipulation: the film had to end with "a whole bunch of ghouls" dancing in the resort's ballroom. Clifford knocked out the script in three weeks, the same amount of time it took to film the movie.

As Mary passes the Saltair resort, which is described as being an abandoned carnival within the film, that's also the first time she sees a vision of a ghostly apparition - Harvey in ghoulish makeup, playing a haunting character known only as The Man. While settling into the town she'll now be calling home, Mary will continue to hallucinate the image of The Man and other ghouls intermittently throughout the rest of the running time.

With poor production values, a story I don't find that interesting, and a pace that feels like it's moving along at a crawl, Carnival of Souls seems like a prime candidate for obscurity to me, not like a movie that would get acclaim and the Criterion treatment. But I'm all for genre movies getting positive attention, even if I don't understand why critics have chosen this one to champion.

8:55pm - THE TERROR (1963)

The Terror is a movie that I feel I should like more than I do, since it was directed by Roger Corman, co-written by Jack Hill (The Big Doll House, The Bird Bird Cage, Coffy, Switchblade Sisters), and stars Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson. But no matter how much I think I should like the movie, I just can't get into it - and it's not like this was a passion project for anyone involved. Corman just wanted to get a little more use out of some sets he had built, so he had screenwriter Leo Gordon write up the initial script and plunged into two days of filming with Karloff and Nicholson on those sets.

Karloff's work was wrapped after those two days, and after that Corman handed the film off to a series of young filmmakers he had working for him, having them each shoot a few days of footage that could be cobbled together into a feature. Hill directed some of the film, as did Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Dennis Jakob, Jack Hale... at one point during production, Nicholson was even directing himself.

But it's not that The Terror was a rushed and scattered production that puts me off of it, if it all cuts together right that can be irrelevant to whether or not a movie is enjoyable. I have trouble sitting through the movie because I find it to be extremely dull.

The setting is 1806 and Nicholson plays Andre Duvalier, a "weary, disillusioned" French soldier who is not at all French, but Nicholson will still bark out orders "in the name of the government of France" while using his normal voice. Andre has gotten separated from his regiment and lost on a European coastline, and he's nearly dying of thirst when he crosses paths with attractive young woman named Helene (Sandra Knight). Helene leads him to drinkable water, then wades into the ocean and vanishes.

Andre becomes determined to learn more about this mysterious woman, and his search leads him to the castle home of Baron von Leppe (Karloff) - where he's told this girl he saw died twenty years ago. This film does provide the awesome sight of Karloff and Nicholson sharing the screen with each other, so it does have that going for it. You also have the awesome character actor Dick Miller as the Baron's servant, Nicholson wandering around inside a sprawling, haunted location well before starring in The Shining, and a story that happens to involve twists and turns, a ghost, a witch, and mistaken identity.

If only any of it were presented in an interesting way. With all these elements in place, The Terror had great potential, but it turns out feeling like a missed opportunity to me. It probably has a lot to do with there being so many different directors involved, because it does have an odd structure.

Well, regardless, Corman got his extra movie made with some notable stars in it, and we're still watching it fifty-five years later, so that's a win. The Terror is a very easy movie to get a copy of, but unfortunately that's because it's public domain, so Corman isn't making any money from it. So it's also a loss.


While the previous week's 1950s marathon was the one I most regretted missing, the 1960s marathon was the opposite - if I were going to skip one of the weeks simply due to a lack of interest in the movies being shown, it would have been the '60s films, as you can probably tell from my unenthusiastic response to both Carnival of Souls and The Terror. There is one movie in the '60s line-up that I do greatly regret that I didn't get to see on the drive-in screen, and that one is Jack Hill's 1967 cult classic Spider Baby.

A tale of a group of mentally-regressed killers and cannibals who are in the care of a kind man played by Lon Chaney Jr., Spider Baby is a film that I love so much that I wrote a Film Appreciation article about it earlier this week.

To read my thoughts on Spider Baby CLICK HERE, and if you haven't seen the movie yet I highly recommend that you seek it out. It doesn't get nearly as much attention as it deserves.

11:45pm - DEMENTIA 13 (1963)

Director Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13 would have ended the drive-in's '60s quadruple feature on a decent note. Like The Terror, this was a movie that producer Roger Corman had slapped together quickly to take advantage of a situation - this time it wasn't the chance to make another movie on existing sets, but to make a movie with the $22,000 left over when another project that had secured funding of $165,000 came in under budget. That other movie had wrapped production in Ireland, so Corman told its sound man Coppola to stay in the country and knock out a movie. He wanted a horror movie that was like Psycho, so Coppola put together an idea in one night, wrote the script with art director Al Locatelli over the course of three days, and headed into production - raising an extra $20,000 for the budget along the way.

It's pretty clear in the film that it was a Psycho knock-off, although Coppola and Locatelli did remix the elements pretty well. Like Psycho, it starts off with a woman committing a criminal act - in this case it's Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) dumping her husband's body into a lake after he dies of a heart attack because she wants to take a shot at getting a piece of his family fortune and he had warned her that if he died before his mother Louise wouldn't be seeing any money.

As it is, Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) has it in her will that the money will be donated to charity in the name of her late daughter Kathleen. Every year Lady Haloran and her three sons gather together at the family home to have a memorial ceremony for Kathleen, but this year one of the sons isn't going to make it. This time Louise attends in her husband's place, having told the family that her husband was called away on business.

Things are quite strange at the Haloran home, where Kathleen drowned in the pond years earlier, and Louise intends to use this strangeness, along with the grief of the family members, to manipulate the situation to her advantage. But she didn't anticipate the presence of the axe-wielding maniac who is now stalking the property.

If you're familiar with the twists and turns of Psycho, the twists and turns of Dementia 13 won't hold much surprise for you.

Sometimes a cheap knock-off can rise above its cash-in roots and become a classic on its own merits, but Dementia 13 isn't quite that successful. It's still a cheap knock-off through and through. Still, it's not bad. It's interestin, and makes for a fine way to pass 75 minutes.

It's worth noting that three of these four movies were worked on by Jack Hill. Although Coppola had promised Corman that Dementia 13 would contain enough sex and violence to make people sick, he didn't come through on that promise. There's no sex to speak of, and Corman had to hire Hill to shoot additional scenes that add in a character who's there just to be an extra murder victim. Unhappy with the short running time, Corman then had Monte Hellman shoot a prologue in which a hypnotist takes a moment to warn the audience not to sit through the movie if they had a weak heart. That prologue was attached to the movie during its initial release, but hasn't been seen since.

Dementia 13 was also released with a gimmick where people attending screenings would take a D-13 Test to evaluate whether they were psychologically stable enough to endure the film. Without access to this test, I'm not sure if I should have watched this movie or not!

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