Monday, October 17, 2016

Springmill Drive-In: '50s Horror Film Festival

Cody went to a drive-in for a quadruple feature of 1950s horror movies.

From 2001 to 2013, I attended theatrical horror marathons in Columbus, Ohio every year. They changed venues, they changed duration (sometimes they were 12 hour marathons, sometimes 24 hour marathons), but I was always there, no matter what. I wrote about a few of them here on Life Between Frames. In 2014, a marathon in Cleveland tempted me away from my usual marathon by scheduling a screening of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. I bought a ticket to that Cleveland marathon... and then circumstances prevented me from going. I didn't go to any marathons that year. The streak had been broken.

Both the Columbus and Cleveland marathons were held again last year, but I opted out, instead choosing to go to a drive-in that was having horror triple features two weekends in a row. I went to the first triple feature and due to projection issues it wasn't ideal, so I didn't go back for the second triple feature the week after.

This year I've done it again, opting for a drive-in marathon over my former theatrical tradition. It's just easier to go to the drive-in, less involved. I can use my phone without bothering other viewers and I can take my dog Zeppelin with me.

The Springmill Drive-In is a place that I've attended a marathon at before, an all-nighter in September of 2010. That was an awesome experience, the movies that were shown were Jaws, Tentacles, Demons, Burial Ground, and Laserblast, taking us almost until dawn. The hope at the time was that horror marathons at Springmill would become a regular thing, but that never panned out. When I saw that the drive-in was getting back in the marathon business six years later, I jumped at the chance to spend another night watching horror movies there.

They're taking an interesting approach to the marathon concept this time around, scheduling three weekends of horror quadruple features where the theme is the decade they were released in: movies from the '50s the first weekend, '60s the second, and '70s the final weekend.

I was there for the '50s weekend, and this is how it went.

7:30pm - HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)

I arrived at the drive-in around 7, picked my spot to park in, and Zeppelin and I got set up for the night. When the first movie was about to begin, I got a drink from the concession stand and returned to my car just as the voice of the drive-in's owner came over the radio to welcome us to what may be the first annual Springmill Drive-In Horror Film Festival, depending on how well this one goes over with patrons.

While a double feature of Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life and Masterminds got started on the drive-in's second screen at the back of the lot, the horrific fun on screen one kicked off with a bona fide classic, House on Haunted Hill from legendary showman producer/director William Castle. Given that the film was remade in 1999, Priscilla and I might cover it for The Remake Comparison Project sometime down the road.

Vincent Price stars as Frederick Loren, a wealthy man who rents a supposedly haunted mansion, the site of seven murders over the years, so he and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) can host a Haunted House Party for five guests. The party is more like a challenge - if the guests can survive being locked up in the house from midnight to 8am, each of them will be rewarded with $10,000. If anyone dies, the $50,000 total will be divided among the remaining guests. As a "just in case" security measure, all of the guests are provided with guns.

Each of the guests need the money for one reason or another, whether they're simply greedy or want to use it to gamble with, but the one who needs it the most is Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), a young woman who is trying her best to support her family. When the ghostly activity starts up, it oddly seems to be targeting Nora, the most fragile of the bunch...

The highlight of this film is the interaction between the Loren couple. Frederick and Annabelle may be married, but they clearly don't like or trust each other very much. They are amusingly antagonistic to each other, with Frederick openly accusing his wife of having poisoned him in the past and Annabelle feigning innocence. Frederick suspects his wife is trying to kill him, but she has reason to be worried herself - she is his fourth wife, and the previous three all died. Despite being young and healthy. Watching these two is a lot of fun, with their behavior bringing up the suspicion that there might be more to this situation than meets the eye.

With a few exceptions, haunted house movies aren't typically my favorite kind of horror, but House on Haunted Hill is one that I would rank among the top haunted house movies of all time. Castle was great at conjuring a spookshow atmosphere, and there are a lot of cool tricks on display as the story goes through its twists and turns. One of the most memorable scares is when an old crone pops up in front of Nora and floats across a room, an image that clearly had an indelible effect on Sam Raimi and his filmmaking.

With an interesting story, which was written by Robb White, and a fun tone, House on Haunted Hill still holds up as one of the greats 57 years after it was first released.

8:55pm - A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)

Some popcorn was required before the second film, with which we transitioned from the great William Castle to the great Roger Corman. To be honest, I was a bit worried about how this one would be received. I'm a fan of A Bucket of Blood, but it's not exactly widely accessible and certainly not an example of well-polished filmmaking. This cheapie was filmed in just five days. I was afraid that once my fellow marathon attendees got a taste of Bucket's rough production value and quirky sense of humor there would be a mass exodus from the drive-in. A couple cars did leave during the movie, but thankfully no more than you would usually see leave during a second feature.

Written by frequent Corman collaborator Charles B. Griffith, who wrote such films as Death Race 2000 and The Little Shop of Horrors (which was shot on the same sets as A Bucket of Blood, in just two and a half days), A Bucket of Blood is a satire of the beatnik culture of the day, and the goofy way in which these beatniks act and talk isn't too far off from what a satire of hipsters would play like today.

The central character is Walter Paisley, played by the fantastic Dick Miller, who has gone on to play more characters named Walter Paisley over the course of his career. An awkward busboy working at a beatnik coffee shop, Walter very badly wants to move up the beatnik social ladder. He's an aspiring sculpture, but he's just not any good at it.

He creates his first work of art by accident. When he kills his landlady's cat while trying to help it, he covers up the death by coating the cat's corpse in clay. When he shows this clay-coated dead cat to the beatniks, they lavish Walter with praise. Soon he's a rising star whose works of art are going for high prices. Unfortunately, these sculptures are actually just the clay-covered bodies of people Walter has murdered.

At first, we're on Walter's side. The cat's death was an accident. His first human victim is killed in self defense. But soon he has gone out of control and must be stopped.

A Bucket of Blood is a weird little movie, but very entertaining if its humor appeals to you and if you can get wrapped up in the story of that poor wannabe Walter Paisley.

Like House on Haunted Hill, A Bucket of Blood was remade in the '90s. The Bucket remake was part of a series of remakes Corman produced of his own works for Showtime in the mid-'90s, the others being The Wasp Woman, Not of This Earth, and Piranha.

10:05pm - I BURY THE LIVING (1958)

Directed by Albert Band (father of Full Moon founder Charles Band), I Bury the Living is a bit more obscure than the beloved House on Haunted Hill and the cult favorite A Bucket of Blood, but I truly believe that it deserves the same level of classic status Haunted Hill has. This is a gem of a film that deserves more attention than it gets.

The movie begins with Robert Kraft (Have Gun - Will Travel star Richard Boone) being shown around a cemetery by Andy MacKee (Theodore Bikel), the lovable old caretaker who has been taking care of the place for forty years and is now in his final days of working there. Kraft has just been appointed to the committee that oversees the cemetery, and one of the first things we see MacKee showing him is a map of the all the plots in the graveyard. Plots owned by living people are marked with white pins, while occupied plots have black pins in them.

You have to admire how quickly some of these old films get the exposition out of the way and get to the point. House on Haunted Hill begins with the guests arriving at the house. Within the first four minutes of I Bury the Living, we have been told all the most important information we'll need to know as the movie goes on. We know exactly what this map and its pins mean, and these things are at the center of the story.

Within a few more minutes, we'll see Kraft stick pins in a pair of plots that have been purchased by a newlywed couple. By the 11 minute mark, those newlyweds have died and Kraft realizes that he accidentally put black pins in their plots instead of white. It gives him the feeling that he had inadvertently marked the couple for death. He is so troubled that he replaces another white pin on the board with a black one at random, to show himself he's not to blame. When the owner of that plot also dies, Kraft becomes even more convinced that he is causing the deaths with the black pins.

I Bury the Living is only 77 minutes long, but you may be shocked by the number of people who end up dead along the way because of Kraft putting black pins in their burial plots on the map. He never does this maliciously, he becomes more and more tortured over it, he gets the police involved and tries to put a stop to it, but other people - people who don't believe that there is any sort of paranormal force at work here - keep forcing and/or persuading him to use those black pins, trying to prove that it doesn't really mean anything. Death keeps proving them wrong.

Written by Louis Garfinkle, who also produced the film with Band, I Bury the Living makes the most of an awesome, intriguing concept and Band directed it with style. There are shots I love in here where it looks like the map is glowing - shots that only could have worked this well in black and white.

Maybe the film's conclusion could have been a little better, maybe it could have even been cut down a bit, but it is terrific just the way it is, and I feel that this movie should be getting a lot more love from the horror community.

11:25pm - THE BAT (1959)

While House on Haunted Hill and A Bucket of Blood were both remade decades later, The Bat is itself a remake of a movie made decades earlier. In fact, it was the third cinematic adaptation of a story that began as a novel called The Circular Staircase, written by Mary Roberts Rinehart. That original story served as the basis of a silent film that was made in 1915 and has since been lost. With Avery Hopwood, Rinehart used elements from her novel to craft a play called The Bat in 1920. Director Roland West made The Bat into a movie twice - first as a silent film released in 1926, then as a talkie called The Bat Whispers in 1930. (And the villain in The Bat Whispers helped inspire the creation of comic book hero Batman.)

This third film version of The Bat was written and directed by Crane Wilbur, and as the final movie in this drive-in quadruple feature it made perfect bookends with House on Haunted Hill, since it stars Vincent Price and is about people being terrorized in one mansion location.

That mansion has been rented by Cornelia Van Gorder (Bewitched's Agnes Moorehead) and is located in a town that is infested with rabid bats and is home to a serial killer known only as The Bat, a man who wears a black outfit and steel claws that he uses to tear out the throats of his victims. This isn't the ideal vacation spot.

If all that weren't enough, over a million dollars has been stolen from the local bank and there's suspicion that it may have been stashed in the place Cornelia is renting. When The Bat invades the house, slashing anyone who gets in his way, one can assume that he's searching for that hidden treasure.

The Bat was the movie that I was least familiar with of the four that were shown at the drive-in that night, and it was the one that I enjoyed the least. Although it has interesting ideas at its core, the movie didn't really pull me in, I found the way the story was presented to be kind of dull.

What struck me more than anything is the fact that this 1959 adaptation was the last time The Bat was filmed. I'm surprised no one has returned to this story, because it could serve as the foundation of a really good slasher movie. The story is begging to get the slasher treatment - it's just people getting picked off one-by-one, and you could play up the murders committed by The Bat, who is a visually interesting character and could be re-designed to be even more so. A slasher version of The Bat could be very cool. The Bat could become a new slasher icon. Get on it, Hollywood.

The marathon had a good turn-out at first, but as it neared its end around midnight there were only three cars left in the lot, including my own. I stayed for the duration, and when the four movies were over I headed home with visions of a Bat slasher in my head. The marathon wasn't a perfect presentation - the movies were just being projected from DVDs and/or Blu-rays, and there were no vintage trailers like I usually expect to see at this sort of thing - but I still enjoyed the time I spent sitting in my car, my dog at my side, watching these films play on the big screen.

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