Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Horror Movies of Val Lewton

With the possible exception of Hammer Films, Universal Pictures is probably the studio best known for its horror movies. After all, from the Thirties into the Forties they produced such classic films as The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula's Daughter, and The Wolf Man. For a time in the Forties, however, among the best horror movies were made at RKO. From 1942 to 1946 producer Val Lewton headed up a unit at RKO which made some of the greatest horror movies of all time.

Val Lewton was born Vladimir Leventon in 1904 in the Ukraine. At age six, his mother immigrated to the United States with his sister and himself. His aunt, actress Alla Nazimova, suggest that his name be changed to the more American sounding "Val Lewton." Lewton majored in journalism at Columbia University. Before his film career had already begun, Lewton was already quite accomplished. He worked as a journalist and also wrote short stories and novels. One of his books, No Bed of Her Own, was even adapted (although very loosely) as the film No Bed of Her Own. Lewton entered the film business in 1934 when he was offered to work on the screen treatment for a screen adaptation of the Russian novel Taras Bulba. By 1935 he received his first screen credit, for arranging scenes of the French Revolution in David O. Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities. He also worked on Gone With the Wind and Rebecca.

It was in 1942 that Val Lewton was given the chance of a lifetime. At the time many of the films made at RKO had failed. Clearly the studio had to do something to increase their cash flow. Looking at the renewed interest in horror movies sparked by such Universal Films as Son of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man (after all, this was the Second Golden Age of Horror Movies), RKO decided that low budget horror movies could be just what the studio needed to bring in much needed cash. It was for that reason that RKO's head of the time, Charles Koerner, offered Val Lewton the chance to head a head a special production unit at RKO.

Koerner's offer to Letwon was a novel one. He gave Lewton complete artistic freedom on his productions provided that he agreed to make horror movies with budgets under $150,000, to use titles developed by RKO through their marketing research, and to only work for a salary of $250 a week. Lewton agreed, realising that with complete artistic freedom he could make a completely different sort of horror movie from the sort that Universal had made for years. Of course, part of this was also due to economic necessity--without the budgets of the Universal horror films, Lewton could not make movies that relied heavily on makeup and special effects. Instead, Lewton would create horror films that relied more upon the suggestion of horror than anything horrible itself. I was very rarely in the horror films that Lewton made for RKO was the source of the characters' fear ever shown.

No better example of this could be found in any of Lewton's films than his first horror movie, Cat People. The plot concerned a woman, Irena, who when aroused, transforms into a panther. Among the most famous scenes in the film featured a co-worker of the Irena's husband, Alice, at an indoor pool late at night. She becomes alarmed when she notices the shadow of a rather large cat cast upon the pool's wall. Another famous scene was Alice walking in Central Park, in which the sound of her high heels on the sidewalk was intercut with the growls of a large cat. In the film there were only a very few shots of the black panther into which Irena allegedly transformed. In fact, RKO's head, Koerner, was a bit apprehensive about the film upon its completion. Regardless, Cat People became a smash hit. A film made on a shoestring budget eventually grossed $3 million.

The success of Cat People largely rested in the fact that it was very much a psychological horror movie. Beyond the fact that audiences were only given glimpses of the panther and the film relied more upon the suggestion of horror than anything horrible in and of itself, the movie was steeped in sexuality. Irena only transforms into a panther if she is sexually aroused or aroused in some other way (such as through the jealousy of her husband's co-worker Alice). To this end, Irena is emotionally distant to her husband, perhaps driving him into the arms of Alice. Cat People was sophisticated in a way that very few of the Universal horror movies had been since the Thirties.

Lewton's next film was I Walked with a Zombie. For the script veteran screenwriters Curt Siodmak (who had written the screenplay for The Wolf Man) and Ardel Wray adapted, of all things, the novel Jane Eyre. Siodmak and Wray did thorough research into voodoo, making I Walked with a Zombie the most accurate film on the subject yet made. Despite its subject matter, I Walked with a Zombie followed in the footsteps of Cat People in relying more upon the suggestion of horror than horror itself. In fact, there is an ambiguoity in how much of what unfolds in the film can be interpreted. Indeed, it is questionable in one sequence in the film whether the character of Jessica has become a zombie or simply entered a catatonic state due to her husband's indifference to her. Among the most terrifying sequences in the film was a trip made by Betsy, the nurse hired to care for Jessica, and Jessica herself through Haitian cane fields. I Walked with a Zombie is considered by some to be the best of the Lewton films.

For Lewton's next film, they turned to the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. Despite its title, The Leopard Man was not about a man who transforms into a leopard. Instead, it was one of the earliest films about a serial killer. Although it was not as psychologically complex as either Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man is still very effective as a horror movie. Like the others, it relies heavily on suggestion, although it features at least one scene of actual violence. Perhaps the most terrifying scene in the movie involved a young girl returning from the store. Her angry mother refuses to let her in the house, even as she is screaming in terror. The mother only rushes to the door as the girl's blood begins to seep under the door.

The success of Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man resulted in RKO giving Lewton a promotion from B movies to major feature films. The producer and the studio came to heads, however, when Lewton wanted film editor Mark Robson as the director on his first film. RKO wanted someone more experienced, and as a result Lewton asked to return to his B movie unit. Mark Robson would direct Val Lewton's next film, but it would be another low budget horror movie. Namely, it would be The Seventh Victim, one of the first movies to deal with Satanists (called Pallidists in the film to avoid offending Bible Belt sensibilities). The film centred on a young woman, Mary, desperately searching for her sister who has run afoul of the Pallidists.

Although some might argue that I Walked with a Zombie was Lewton's best horror film, arguments could be made for The Seventh Victim as well, Indeed, there is one scene in which Mary, while in the shower, is approached by a woman (seen only in shadow) who warns her to cease looking for her sister. The scene may well have influenced the infamous shower scene in Psycho. Another scene revolved around Mary's sister, who flees the Palladists through dark alleys, only nearly avoiding a man with knife stalking her. Not only does The Seventh Victim rely heavily on suggestion for its sense of horror, but it feeds upon what could be the most primal of man's fears: the fear of death. Indeed, one memorable scene involves a conversation between Mary's sister and a woman who believes that she is dying, but is afraid of death. The Seventh Victim is perhaps the darkest of Lewton's horror films, even ending unhappily, in stark violation of the Production Code of the time.

Due to budget constraints, Lewton was often forced to borrow sets from previous RKO productions. This was particularly true of his next horror movie, The Ghost Ship. The sets for the ship had originally been used on the 1939 RKO feature Pacific Liner. The film centred on a ship on which members of the crew are dying mysteriously. Eventually, one of the officers suspects that the deaths are the work of a serial killer. Like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship was a deeply psychological film in that it actually delves into the madness of its killer--alongside Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt it was the first film to do so besides Fritz Lang's M. And like Lewton's other films, he used the power of suggestion as a source of terror in this film. There is perhaps no better of example of this than a scene in wihch the hero, knocked out while saving a fellow crewman in a fight at a port, awakens about the ship with the faintest of memories and the suspicion that he is going to be the next victim.

Sadly, The Ghost Ship would be kept out of circulation for nearly fifty years. Two playwrights, Norbert Faulkner and Samuel R. Golding, sued RKO and Val Lewton for plagiarism. They claimed that they had submitted their play The Man and His Shadow to RKO and they had turned into The Ghost Ship without their permission. Despite there being little resemblance between the two, Lewton ultimately lost the suit and the film was withdrawn from distribution until 1991.

For Lewton's next film they obviously wanted a sequel to the highly successful Cat People--the title he was assigned was Curse of the Cat People. Val Lewton was none too happy. The movie Lewton ultimately created does include some of the same characters from the first film. Irena's husband Oliver and Alice, now married, both play major roles. In the end, however, it is a very different film. The movie centres on Oliver and Alice's daughter, Amy, a child who spends much of her time in a fantasy world, or another world that could be all too real. Curse of the Cat People also broke with Lewton's previous efforts in the horror genre. It is less a horror movie or a suspense film than it is a movie about childhood daydreams. This caused problems for Lewton with RKO's publicity department. Lewton wanted to insure that the public knew this was not a horror movie. To this end he decided up the font Calson Old Style for the titles, a font very uncharacteristic of the horror genre. He also asked the publicity department to follow suit in avoiding any fonts associated with horror or suspense movies. Despite this, the RKO publicity department insisted on advertising the film as a horror movie and even indicated that the "cat people" of the original film would play a major role in the new one.

Lewton also had problems while making the film. He thought the film's original director, Gunther Fritsch (who would go onto direct in television) was moving too slow, so he replaced him with Robert Wise (up until then a celebrated editor, best known for his work on Citizen Kane). It was Wise's second film as a director (the first being Mademoiselle Fifi, also produced by Val Lewton.

The studio heads at RKO were not terribly happy with Curse of the Cat People. They had wanted a sequel that was firmly in the same vein as the original and Lewton gave them a quiet film about childhood and fantasy. Despite only a tenuous connection to the first film and less horror than Lewton's previous entries in the genres, Curse of the Cat People was warmly received by audiences and critics alike.

Through the early films Val Lewton had dealt directly with the head of RKO himself, Charles Koerner. Unfortunately for Lewton, although the films still did well at the box office, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, and Curse of the Cat People did not do as well as the first three films. There can be no doubt that much of this was due to the fact that the horror cycle of the early Forties was winding down. Regardless, RKO decided that Lewton needed supervision. Initially, executive Sid Rogell, who had produced such films as Murder My Sweet and Zombies on Broadway, was assigned to oversee Lewton's work. Lewton and Rogell did not get along very well, however, so Lewton asked Charles Koerner to replace him. He replaced him with Jack J. Gross. Gross had worked as a producer at Universal on the W. C. Fields films My Little Chickadee and The Bank Dick, as well as the horror movies The Wolf Man and Son of Dracula. The two men came from two wholly different schools of horror (Universal's monsters and Lewton's horror by suggestion), so they naturally butted heads. Indeed, Gross went so far as to sign Boris Karloff, the actor perhaps most identified with Universal's horror movies, to a deal in which he would star in Lewton's next few movies.

Initially, Lewton was not happy with having to use Karloff. Lewton's primary concern was that Karloff's reputation as the star of the more obvious Universal horror movies would undo Lewton's more subtle approach to horror. Lewton was pleasantly surprised to learn that he need not have been concerned. Indeed, Karloff had left Universal because he was unhappy with the route that the Universal horror movies had been taking. Karloff felt that the studio's offerings in the genres were not nearly as good as what they had done in the Thirties. In the end Lewton discovered that Karloff was much more in tune with his more subtle approach to horror than the more obvious one that Universal had taken in its more recent films.

Not only was Karloff set for Lewton's next film, but so would Bela Lugosi (best knwon as Universal's Dracula) be. Despite their low budgets, Lewton's films were actually a step up from what Lugosi had largely been doing the past several years. Aside from a few Universal horror movies, Lugosi had been playing in Poverty Row productions (such as Return of the Ape Man). For Lewton's next film, then, he would be working with Universal's two most legendary horror actors.

With Jack J. Gross in the position of executive producer, Lewton was forced to do something he had never done before--he had to submit script proposals for RKO's approval. Initially Gross approved two proposals. The first was an idea based Arnold Böcklin's painting "Isle of the Dead." The second was a film based on Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "The Body Snatcher." The first to begin shooting was Isle of the Dead. Unfortunately, the movie had not been shooting long before Boris Karloff's back once more started giving him problems. Ever since playing the Monster in Universal's classic Frankenstein, Karloff had difficulties with his back. Eventually, the pain became so severe that Karloff had to go to hospital for a spinal fusion. The operation and his recovery took six weeks. By the time Karloff was recovered enough to go before the cameras, The Body Snatcher was ready to start shooting. Isle of the Dead was then shelved for a short time as production was under way on The Body Snatcher.

Like the short story, The Body Snatcher concerned a doctor in 19th century Edinburgh who employs grave robbers as a source for his cadavers. And like the short story, this business deal eventually leads to murder. The subject matter proved to be a hurdle in getting a script past Joseph I. Breen, then in charge of enforcing the MPAA's Production Code. Initially Breen rejected the script "because of the repellent nature of such matter..." Lewton rewrote the script so that it conformed more with the Production Code of the time. Simultaneously, he was being pressured by Jack J. Gross to up the ante on the film's horror content. Despite this, Joseph I. Breen approved Lewton's revised screenplay.

Boris Karloff was cast as Cabman Gray, the grave robber or "body snatcher" of the title, while character actor Henry Daniell (perhaps best known for his roles in such films as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, and Jane Eyre) as the unethical Dr. MacFarlane. The end result was two of the best performances in any of Lewton's horror movies, as Karloff's Gray and Daniell's MacFarlane squared off against each other. Lugosi had a smaller role as Dr. McFarlane's assistant and his performance is not as impressive as either Karloff or Daniell's, but he still proved he could deliver the goods, particularly in a scene in which the assistant, Joseph, tried to blackmail Gray.

Ultimately, The Body Snatcher does rely heavily on Lewton's trademark horror by suggestion. In one memorable scene an old chanteuse is followed by Gray's cab as she enters a dark alley. At the same time, however, it also contained scenes of more blatant terror. There is one scene in which a body, ostensibly dead, stirs back to life. The Body Snatcher did very well at the box office. What is more, critics loved the film. Today it is considered a classic. In fact, there are some who number it among the best of Lewton's horror efforts.

With The Body Snatcher completed, production resumed on Isle of the Dead. It would not be the happiest of experiences for Lewton. Charles Koerner was fighting leukaemia, so Lewton was forced to deal even more with Jack J. Gross. Gross wanted several revisions in the script. Isle of the Dead would also be the costliest of Lewton's horror movies, ultimately costing $246,000. It would only make $13,000 at the box office. The end result, if not as good as The Body Snatcher, was one of Lewton's better films. Karloff played Greek General Nikolas Pherides, on an island of quarantined people during an plague outbreak in World War I. Like The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead combined Lewton's horror by suggestion with more blatant horrors. Perhaps its most terrifying sequence involved a cataleptic woman, presumed dead, who is buried alive.

It was in February 1945 that RKO studio head Charles Koerner died from leukaemia. This meant that there was a total change in regime at RKO. Lewton would not have the influence there that he once did. Worse yet, Karloff had to go to the Pacific to entertain the troops. When he returned to the States, Universal wanted to make a deal with him to appear in three movies. Karloff was not happy when he learned the first film would be another Frankenstein and ultimately only did one movie for Universal. Regardless, it would be a while before Lewton and Karloff go to work together again.

Lewton and Karloff's next project was initially called Chamber of Horrors. In the end it would be titled Bedlam. It used sets left over from the 1945 feature film The Bells of St. Mary’s, so it looked a bit more lavish than Lewton's other features. Bedlam would also be the most intense horror movie that Lewton ever made. The film took its inspiration from William Hogarth's final prints in his series A Rake's Progress. These last prints, entitled "Bedlam," depicted conditions at Bethlem Royal Hospital. even then the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world. The movie Bedlam. was set in 1761 at a fictionalised version of Bethlem Royal Hospital. Karloff played the apothecary general of the hospital, Master George Sims, who may well be be on the edge of sanity himself.

Even today Bedlam remains a very disturbing film. In fact, I rather suspect that if it was submitted to the MPAA ratings board today, it would be rated PG-13 for Mature Themes. Sims beats one patient and later paints him gold to represent the spirit of Reason. In another scene the character Nell is placed in a cell with a crazed murderer. The film is made all the more terrifying by its mixture of darkness and light. In the mental hospital, the shadows are never far away.

Bedlam would be another hit at the box office for Lewton. It also got good reviews. Unfortunately, it would be the last of the low budget horror movies Val Lewton would make at RKO. Lewton had long wanted to make major feature films and was given his chance to do so at RKO. He was put in charge of the film Woman on the Beach, to be directed by cinematic legend Jean Renoir. Sadly, Lewton would not remain on that picture. In fact, he would not make movies for some time. In November 1946, Lewton suffered a heart attack. He would make a few feature films for studios other than RKO (Paramount, MGM, and Universal) before another heart attack ended his life March 13, 1951.

In the Fifties the French cinema magazine Cahiers du cinéma would argue that the films of any given director should reflect the creative vision of that director. In the auteur theory of Cahiers du cinéma it was the director who should be the primary driving force behind films. It would seem that Val Lewton is one of the very few instances of a producer as auteur. Lewton took an active part in the creative aspect of all the horror films he made at RKO. Even when he was not given credit, Lewton often wrote a good deal of the screenplays for his movies. And he was almost always on the set overseeing the creation of his films. Indeed, while the horror movies Lewton produced at RKO were directed by different men (Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise), they show a unity of vision that could perhaps only have come from one man. Every film relied more upon Lewton's horror by suggestion than anything blatant. Nearly every film delved into some rather sophisticated subjects--the repressed sexuality in Cat People, man's fear of death in The Seventh Victim, and the nature of madness in both The Ghost Ship and Bedlam. In many ways Lewton's films are more terrifying than other horror movies of the era because they are so much darker in their subject matter. Lewton's son, Val Edwin Lewton once expressed the idea that his father was actually very pessimistic, and this pessimism was expressed in the horror movies he made for RKO.

Of course, Val Lewton did not make his movies all by himself. Part of his brilliance as a producer was in assembling one of the best units ever in the history of North American film. Among these were the men he chose to direct his films. Robert Wise was a veteran editor by the time he took up directing, having edited The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane, and The Devil and Daniel Webster. Mark Robson was also a veteran editor. Not only did he work on such films as The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey into Fear, but he would be Lewton's editor on Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. Jacques Tourneur was an experienced director by the time he came to Lewton, and had worked with Lewton as a second unit director on A Tale of Two Cities. That Lewton had chosen his directors well can be seen in their careers after Lewton's stint at RKO had ended. I often think that both Robert Wise and Mark Robson are underestimated as directors. While both directed their fair share of clinkers, they also produced some truly great films. Robert Wise directed The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, The Haunting, and Run Silent, Run Deep. Mark Robson directed Peyton Place, Von Ryan's Express, and Daddy's Gone A-Hunting. Despite his reputation in some circles, I think that only Jacques Tourneur did not live up to the promise he had shown with Lewton. Following his stint with Lewton, his only notable films are Out of the Past, Night of the Demon (I have not seen the film, so I do not know if it is actually any good), and The Comedy of Terrors.

And while Lewton wrote many of his own films, he also worked with some of the best writers in the business. Curt Siodmak, who co-wrote I Walked With a Zombie, had written several classic Universal horror films and would go onto write novels, the most famous perhaps being Donovan's Brain. Philip MacDonanld, who worked with Lewton on The Body Snatcher, had done uncredited work on The Bride of Frankenstein and wrote some of the early Charlie Chan films at Fox. Of course, Lewton himself had been a journalist and novelist before entering the film industry.

Val Lewton's legacy to the cinema can still be seen today. In insisting on suggesting horror rather showing horror, Lewton's films relied heavily on light and shadow, contrast in sounds, and plenty of atmosphere. In this respect Lewton's films would have a lasting influence on experienced directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and future directors such as Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma. But Lewton's influence went even further than this. Prior to the horror films Lewton made at RKO, the best known horror movies were those made at Universal. And while Universal produced some of the greatest horror films of all time, nearly all of their films relied heavily on the supernatural, featuring vampires, werewolves, and other monsters. Lewton expanded the repertoire of horror movies considerably, making films centred on serial killers (The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship), grave robbers (The Body Snatcher), Satanists (The Seventh Victim), and outright madness (Bedlam). His films were also sophisticated in a way that only a few horror movies (the films made by Fritz Lang and other Europeans, as well as the very best films of Universal, such as The Bride of Frankenstein) had been before. In the horror movies he made at RKO, Val Lewton explored repressed sexuality, the fear of death, the thin line between reality and fantasy, and the nature of madness. With the exception of Universal in the early Thirties, no one else had ever made a string of such truly great horror films. And until Hammer Films in the Fifties and Sixties, they would not do so again.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Deborah Kerr and Joey Bishop

Deborah Kerr and Joey Bishop both died recently. Both were important individuals in their respective fields.

Deborah Kerr died Tuesday at the age of 86. She has long had Parkinson's disease.

She was born Deborah Kerr-Trimmer in Helensburgh, Scotland. She studied acting under her aunt, Phyllis Smale, at Hicks-Smale Drama School in Bristol.She would make her acting debut at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park, London. From 1939 to 1940 she was a part of the Oxford Repertory Company. By 1943 she made her debut on the West End in Heartbreak House.

Kerr made her debut in film in an uncredited, bit part in Contraband in 1940. In 1941 she received her first credited role in Major Barbara. Kerr swiftly graduated to lead roles, in such films as Love on the Dole, Hatter's Castle, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Arguably the Fifties were her decade. Kerr began the Fifties appearing as the female lead in King Solomon's Mines. She appeared in high profile roles in such films as Quo Vadis, The Prisoner of Zenda, The King and I, and An Affair to Remember. Perhaps her most notable role was in From Here to Eternity. Playing Karen Holmes, she appeared in the memorable love scene on the beach with Burt Lancaster. From the Sixties to the Eighties she appeared in such films as The Sundowners, Casino Royale, The Arrangement, and The Assam Garden.

Kerr did not appear on stage often, although she received a Tony for her role on Broadway in 1953 in Tea and Sympathy. She later appeared on Broadway in Seascape in 1975.

Deborah Kerr was a versatile actress. Early in her career she often played the dignified British woman or simply complimented male leads in adventure films. At the same time, however, she could convincingly play her smouldering role in From Here to Eternity or the alcoholic wife in Edward, My Son. There have certainly been few actresses like her.

Comedian Joey Bishop died Wednesday at the age of 89. He was perhaps best known for being part of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack.

Bishop was born Joseph Gottlieb in the Bronx on February 3, 1918. While still he was still an infant, Bishop's family moved to Philadelphia where he was raised. He entered show business as part of a vaudeville act with his brother. He later formed an act with two friends, calling themselves "the Bishop Trio;" hence he adopted Joey Bishop as his stage name. During World War II Bishop served in the United States Army, where he rose to the rank of sergeant.

After the war Bishop began his career as a stand up comedian. Appearing in New York clubs, television producers took notice and Bishop made his debut on the small screen in an episode of Cavalcade of Bands in 1951. Throughout the Fifties Bishop made appearances on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Frank Sinatra Show, and Keep Talking, as well as several appearances on both The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. He starred in his own sitcom, The Joey Bishop Show, from 1961 to 1965. He was also a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show and guest panellist on What's My Line. In 1967 he recieved his own short lived, late night talk show--the American Broadcasting Company's attempt to take on NBC's The Tonight Show. It only lasted a few months. From the Sixties into the Seventies Bishop appeared on such shows as The Jack Benny Programme, The Andy Williams Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh In, Match Game '73, The Tonight Show, and Murder She Wrote.

Bishop also had a film career. He made his cinematic debut in The Deep Six in 1958, and appeared in the films The Naked and the Dead and Onionhead. It would be the films he made with his fellow members of the Rat Pack for which Bishop would be best known. Alongside the rest of the Rat Pack he appeared in Ocean's Eleven andSergeants Three. Bishop would continue to appear in films into the Nineties, including A Guide for the Married Man, Valley of the Dolls, Delta Force, and Betsy's Wedding. Bishop also appeared on Broadway in Sugar Babies in the early Eighties.

Although a very talented comedian, it may have been for being part of the Rat Pack that Joey Bishop was best known. He had met Sinatra in the early Fifties when Sinatra saw his act at a club. He soon began opening for Sinatra and his career took off. Bishop was the least flashy member of the group, Rather than partying all the time, Bishop was a dedicated family man. He was married to the same woman for most for 58 years. His idea of fun was playing golf. Like the rest of the Rat Pack, Bishop was a fixture in Las Vegas. He regularly played the Sands and other casinos. It was Bishop who wrote most of the material for the Rat Pack in their appearances. Perhaps because of his more sedate lifestyle, Bishop lived longer than any other member of the Rat Pack.

While he may be best known as part of the Rat Pack, Joey Bishop was a very talented comedian. He had a gift for improvising jokes, to the point that he never bothered to memorise them. His delivery was brilliant and deadpan. In fact, at the height of his success he was known as "the Frown Prince." Joey Bishop may not have been the best known member of the Rat Pack, but he was definitely one of its most talented members.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Twenty Years Ago My Father Joined the Black Parade

I know that A Shroud of Thoughts is usually dedicated to pop culture, but today I would like to go off topic a bit for something that is very important to me. Namely, today it will have been twenty years since my father's death. It was on October 16, 1987 that my father passed from this world.

I realise that I am probably biased, but I have always regarded my father as a most remarkable man. He never went beyond the 8th grade in school, yet he was one of the most intelligent men I ever knew. Without the benefit of college, my father knew a good deal about veterinary medicine, civil engineering, and even ecology. He was the first conservationist and ecologist I ever knew. My father was never a very big man in size. He was only five foot nine inches tall and I doubt he ever weighed more than 150 pounds soaking wet. Despite this, he could work men twice his size into the ground. My ex-brother in law, who stood six foot four inches tall, had difficulty keeping up with him!

Most importantly, however, my father was perhaps the most honourable man I ever knew. He always kept his word, always paid his debts, always saw that his family was cared for, and sought never to wrong anyone. He passed these values onto my siblings and myself. Anything good in me at all stems directly from his influence.

Sadly, my father developed lung cancer when he was 65 and battled the disease for four long years. He remained active for most of that time, only spending the last six months of his life bed ridden. I always thought that last six months was six months too much. My father had always been active, always working, so that being bed ridden must have been a nearly intolerable situation for him. During that time I helped my mother care for him.

My father's taste in music hardly ran to rock music. I doubt he would care much for My Chemical Romance. Still, I feel that this song is a fitting tribute. My Chemical Romance's album The Black Parade centres on a young man in the early 20th century who is dying of cancer. Among the ideas in the album is that death comes to us in the form of our strongest memories. For the young man who is dying, his most powerful memory is having attended a parade with his father when he was a child. When death comes to him, then, it comes in the form of the Black Parade. Having always liked parades myself and having attended many with my father, and liking the idea of death coming in the form of a parade rather than a death march, I like to think that my father passed from this world as part of the Black Parade. As I believe in an afterlife, I believe that his passing was not so much a time for sorrow (although my mother, my siblings, and myself were no doubt sad--I still am), but as a time for celebration.

Dedicated to my father, then, here is the video to "Welcome to the Black Parade."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Charles B. Griffith Passes On

Charles B. Griffith, the man who wrote many the screenplays to some of Roger Corman's best known movies, died on September 28 at the age of 77. The cause was a heart attack.

Griffith was born in Chicago on September 23, 1930. His grandmother was vaudevillian and radio actress Myrtle Vail. It would be his grandmother who would draw him to Hollywood, in an effort to start a career for her in television. Vail never would have a career in television, although her grandson would find a career of his own. It was in 1954 that actor Jonathan Haze introduced Griffith to producer and director Roger Corman. By 1956 Griffith would write his first screenplay for Corman, a low budget Western starring Beverly Garland called Gunslinger.

Griffith would go onto write some of Corman's best known pictures. Over the years Griffith would either contribute to or write the entire screenplays for such movies as It Conquered the World, Not of this Earth, and Bucket of Blood. Perhaps the most famous film for which he wrote the screenplay was the original Little Shop of Horrors. The black comedy, the bulk of which was shot in two days, would become a cult film and later a Broadway musical (which he helped write). In addition to writing the screenplay, Griffith also played many of the minor roles and included his relatives (including Myrtle Vail) in many of the other parts.

Griffith would prove to be a pioneer when it came to B movies. Aside from creating early American black comedies like Little Shop of Horrors and Bucket of Blood, he also wrote the biker films Wild Angels and Devil's Angels--the ancestors of the classic biker film Easy Rider. Griffith was also a pioneer when it came to the redneck exploitation films of the Seventies, both writing and directing Eat My Dust. Perhaps his most famous film aside from Little Shop of Horrors was Death Race 2000, the classic sci-fi b-movie in which hit and run driving has become the national pastime.

Charles B. Griffith was not simply a screenwriter, he also directed a few films. The first of these was Forbidden Island in 1959. He would go onto direct Eat My Dust, Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype, and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II.

There can be no doubt about it. Charles B. Griffith was a master of B movies. Indeed, it was largely due to Griffith that a large dose of black comedy was introduced into the exploitation movies of the Sixties and Seventies. He certainly created some of the true classics of the genre: Little Shop of Horrors, Bucket of Blood, and Death Race 2000 among them. It is little wonder that Quentin Tarentino dedicated to the Death Proof portion of Grindhouse to him.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Top Ten Greatest TV Villains of All Time (IMHO)

Like any other medium, the stories told on American television often rely on villains. After all, on TV shows ranging from Westerns to police dramas to spy dramas, there often has to be some villain with some scheme to set events in motion. Despite the fact that American television has been dominated by series with continuing characters, however, the medium has only produced a few memorable villains. I thought, then, that I should create a list of the top ten greatest television villains of all time. These are the baddest of the bad, those villains I feel will go down in the annals of television history.

In creating this list I set down some ground rules. First, the villains had to originate on television. For that reason you won't see any Batman villains listed here. After all, they originated in comic books. It is also why Albert Swearengen of Deadwood did not make this list--he is a historical personage. Second, the villains had to appear more than once on a television series. It is for that reason that Khan Noonien Singh (played beautifully by Ricardo Montalban), the villain of both the Star Trek episode "Space Seed" and the movie Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan does not appear on this list. Although a great villain, his second appearance was in the movies. Third, they had to appear on American television. Certainly British television has created its share of great villains, but I wanted to limit the scope of this article to villains originating on American TV series.

Anyhow, without further ado, here are the top ten greatest villains of American television....

1. Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn--The Wild Wild West): On the majority of spy dramas of the Sixties, most of the villains would appear only once. They would develop some scheme to threaten national or even international security, have their scheme thwarted by the heroes, and then they would never be heard from again. An exception to this rule was The Wild Wild West, a spy drama that was also a Western and a Jules Verne fantasy. On that series two villains did make return appearances to battle Secret Service Agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin). One was Count Manzeppi, played by Victor Buono, who faced the two Western superspies twice. The other was the Napoleon of the West, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, who squared off against West and Gordon no less than eight times in the course of the series.

The creation of producer Fred Freiberger and writer John Kneubuhl, the idea of Dr. Loveless came about because they thought actor and singer Michael Dunn would make a great villain for the show. The character they created for him was that of a mad scientist, bent on conquering the world (starting with the American West). Although it was never outlined on the show, the back story of Dr. Loveless was that he was the son of a Mexican woman descended from Spanish dons and an American man who ultimately robbed Miguelito of his rightful inheritance. Robbed of what was rightfully his and diminutive in stature, Dr. Loveless is then angry at the whole world. Although small in size, Dr. Loveless is both colossal in his intellect and in the extent of his evil. Among other things, he created the world's most powerful explosive, plotted to wipe out humanity with a potion that causes madness, and schemed to destroy all life in the West with a special chemical. The plots of Dr.Loveless were literally Bondian in scope, and they have remained unmatched in the history of television. When it comes to bad guys, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, West and Gordon's archnemesis, could put Goldfinger and Dr. No to shame.

2. Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar--Profit): In the history of American television, I suspect there is only one villain who was also the protagonist of his TV show. That villain would be Jim Profit, the main character of the all too short lived TV series Profit. Airing briefly on Fox in 1996, there was never a TV show like it before and there never has been a TV show like it since. And there has never been a villain like Jim Profit before or since. Profit was educated, intelligent, handsome, and charming. He also happened to be a sociopath. Worse yet, he was a sociopath with real power. Growing up under the worst of conditions. Profit finally worked his way into the position of President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen, a large multinational corporation. From there he would do literally anything, no mater how immoral or even illegal, to attain his goals--namely becoming the power behind the throne at Gracen and Gracen. Although he sometimes failed in his schemes, he was never caught. Cunning to the core, Profit always managed to cover things up.

Among other things, Jim Profit murdered his own father, framed the former President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen so that he would spend a long time in jail, and blackmailed his archnemesis's psychiatrist. And that is the just the tip of the iceberg. It is little wonder that Profit lasted so briefly. The show was perhaps far too shocking for audiences in 1996. Even now, after Deadwood and The Sopranos, it can be very strong stuff.

3. Simon Barsinister (voiced by Allen Swift--Underdog): Mad scientists have always made the best villains. Captain Marvel's archnemesis, Dr. Sivana, was a mad scientist, as was Superman's archnemesis, Lex Luthor. It should come as no surprise, then, that the primary opponent of that champion of champions, Underdog, would also be a mad scientist. In both voice and appearance, Simon Barsinister was designed after Lionel Barrymore, perhaps most famous for playing Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. But Simon Barsinister had a mean streak that made Mr. Potter look positively kind in contrast. Assisted by his oversized henchman Cad, Simon's goal was world conquest. To this end he developed some of the most nefarious inventions ever seen on television: a shrinking potion, a net that induces amnesia (the "Forget-Me-Net"). a machine that turns people into Valentines, and even a vacuum gun. Perhaps only Simon Barsinister could united all of Underdog's rouge's gallery to battle the champion of champions. While other supervillains might be content to rob banks, Simon Barsinister would not rest until he ruled the world, even if he had to kill Underdog to do it.

4. Charles Montgomery Burns (voiced by Harry Sheareer--The Simpsons): Not all supervillains want to rob banks or rule the world. Some are content to simply run a nuclear power plant and make wads of money. This is certainly the case with Charles Montgomery Burns, more simply known as Mr. Burns. By far the richest and most powerful citizen of Springfield, Mr. Burns ignores safety when it comes to his employees' work place, shows absolutely no concern for the environment, has no qualms about cheating honest citizens out of their money, and at one point even manufactured biological weapons. He routinely bribes, blackmails, or threatens important officials to get his way. Like Jim Profit, he represents the worst of Corporate America. Perhaps his greatest plot was blocking the sun from the city of Springfield so as to force the citizens of the town to use even more energy. References to Mr. Burns' association with the Devil occur from time to time--he once sold his soul to Satan for eternal life and incredible wealth, and Mr. Smithers once said that Burns had an appointment with the "Prince of Darkness." Given the magnitude of Mr. Burns' evil, he probably has a direct hot line to Hell.

5. Spike (James Marsters--Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel): Not all villains are driven by greed for money or lust for power. Some simply want to have fun. this is the case of Spike, the vampire who would battle both Buffy and Angel in their respective series. Spike is perhaps best described as extremely individualistic, living by his own rules rather than that of society. Of course, if this means taking a few lives or harming a few innocents, what does that matter? Despite these flaws, Spike is perhaps more human than any vampire on either Buffy the Vampire Slayer or its spinoff Angel. Despite his tendency to live life by his own rules, Spike does have his own sense of honour. He also has a strong sense of loyalty and even the capacity to love. Indeed, many of his actions are even guided for his love for various women (at first the vampire Drusilla and then later Buffy herself). It is perhaps for this reason that Spike eventually became a hero and even aided Buffy and later Angel in their battle against the forces of evil. Unlike many on this list, Spike is not a good villain because of a penchant for evil doing, but because of his capacity to do good.

6. The Brain (voiced by Maurice LaMarche--Pinky and the Brain): The past many years there have many who have voiced concerns about genetic engineering. And here is a concern that is not often expressed in the newspapers or on television news programes--we could well genetically engineer a mouse with the genius to take over the world... Such is the case of the Brain, a genetically altered mouse with a genius IQ and a lust for power. Every night, from his cage in Acme Labs, the Brain launches some plot to conquer the world. Among other things, he has tried to use a voice modulator to control the minds of humans (becoming a radio actor to do so), founded his own island nation to finagle the United States out of millions in foreign aid, created a hypnotic "Noodle-Noggin Doll" in an attempt at world conquest, and even tried to create an army of his own clones. The Brain might well have succeeded in any of this schemes were it not for his hencman, Pinky. Given Pinky's lack of intelligence, one has to suspect the only alteration to his DNA was the gift of human speech. Again and again, Pinky foils the Brain's plans, either through his own stupidity or his own good nature. One has to suppose that if the Brain has one failing as a villain, it is that he insists on keeping Pinky as his employee...

7. Siegfried (Bernie Koppell--Get Smart): The Vice President of Public Relations and Terror for criminal spy organisation KAOS, Siegfried was the archnemesis of Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 for Control. More often than not, Siegfried was trying to kill Max. Despite this fact, the two seem to have real affection for each other, talking about various subjects even as they were engaged in battle. This was perhaps a most unusual relationship for two opponents, but then in the world of Get Smart, it must be pointed out that both were just doing their jobs. In the case of Siegfried, this was carrying out the various schemes of KAOS, of which there were many. Among other things, Siegfried held the Chief of Control for ransom, put out a $25,000 contract on Max's life, used a duplicate of Max to infiltrate Control, and attempted to use a chemical that will wipe out almost all of the United States' potato crop. Like many villains, Siegfried had a none too bright henchman in the form of Shtarker. Unlike many villains, Siegfried's schemes sometimes went awry because of his own ineptitude rather than that of his henchmen...

8. Angelique (Lara Parker--Dark Shadows): Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. In 1895 Barnabas Collins was happy mortal. who just happened to have an affair with a woman named Angelique while in Martinque (yes, I know that rhymes--blame the writers of Dark Shadows). Sadly, Angelique would later turn up as the maid of his betrothed, Josette du Pres. Worse yet, Angelique also happened to be a witch. Angered that Barnabas was to marry Josette instead of her, she initially does such things as curse Barnabas' sister Sarah and then tries to blackmail Barnabas into marrying her. Ultimately, Angelique would curse Barnabas, resulting in the poor bloke becoming a vampire. Unfortunately, that was not the end of Angelique's schemes. She would later show up in 20th century Collinsport. plotting revenge against Barnabas. In this she was aided by warlock Nicholas Blair (another great television villain), who even had meetings with the Devil (not unlike a certain Charles Montgomery Burns...). Among other things, she killed the Frankensteinian creation Adam, turned Barnabas back into a vampire after he had been cured, and cursed Maggie Evans (the woman Barnabas loved). Without Angelique, Collinsport would not have been nearly as interesting a place.

9. Ray Luca (Anthony Denison--Crime Story): Unlike many of the villains on this list, Ray Luca could almost have existed in real life. In fact, he was loosely based on Chicago mobster Anthony Spilotro. Like Spilotro, Luca started out committing burglaries for the Outfit (the Chicago criminal organisation). and like Spilotro, Luca also rose swiftly in the ranks of the Outfit, ultimately becoming their representative in Las Vegas. Unlike Spilotro, Luca went farther than many in the Outfit in reality ever have. The archnemesis of Detective Mike Torello, head of the Chicago Police Department's CIU, Luca rose from head of a burglary crew to one of the major players of the Outfit. Ultimately, his talent for crime would lead to Luca becoming the Las Vegas head of the Outfit. Naturally, Torello would follow him, this time in charge of a Department of Justice task force investigating organised crime in Las Vegas. Among other things, Luca blew up a number of rivals in the mob, murdered the father of attorney David Abrams, had an affair with the wife of one of his lieutenants and then tried to kill that lieutenant, raped his best friend's girl friend, and even survived an atomic bomb test. More so than other villains in this list, Luca is frightening because he could actually exist and because he is more than willing to use the most extreme violence to achieve his ends.

10. Scorpius (Wayne Pygram--Farscape): Scorpius is man with a mission. A hybrid of the humanoid Sebaceans and the not so humanoid Scarrans, he is a Peacekeeper officer bent on capturing Earth man John Crichton and drawing the secret of wormhole technology from his brain. Gifted with an extreme intellect and the patience of Job, Scorpius' plans for wormhole technology is essentially to use it in weapons. To this end, he not only tortures Crichton, but even implants a chip in his brain to discover the secret of wormhole technology. And while Scorpius later allies himself with Crichton and the crew of Moya, he is still only looking out for his own interests. Scorpius is a villain essentially out of his own selfishness and his own single minded desire to achieve his goals. Although not particularly violent, he is not a particularly pleasant individual either...