Thursday, October 31, 2019

Happy Halloween 2019

Here at A Shroud of Thoughts I realise that many people might appreciate some cheesecake with their Halloween candy. It is for that reason that every Halloween I post classic pinups. Without further ado, then, here is this year's collection of pinups!

First up is June Knight, who is apparently riding a broom to a Halloween shindig!

Next up is one of the prettiest witches you'll ever see, Janet Leigh!

Witch Kathleen Case is communing with her black cat among the corn shalks and jack o' lanterns.

Anita Page is cradling a jack o' lantern.

The lovely Ann Rutherford and a jack o' lantern.

 June Haver amongst her Halloween decorations.

And, of course, it wouldn't be Halloween (or any other holiday, for that matter) without Ann Miller!

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

My Five Favourite Foreign Horror Movies

This past Sunday, October 27, the talented Alicia Malone of TCM tweeted that each day she was going to tell us one of her five favourite foreign horror films. She also encouraged her followers to chime in with their favourites. To this end, then here are my five favourite foreign horror movies. Here I must stress that I am defining "foreign" as any movie not made by an Anglophone country. For that reason horror movies made in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand don't qualify!

Nosferatu (1922): The first and arguably the best adaptation of Dracula. It was also an unauthorized version. Bram Stoker's widow won a successful plagiarism suit against the makers of Nosferatu, one of the conditions of which was that all copies of the movie be destroyed! Fortunately for future generations, some copies escaped destruction. By the way, to show you how influential Nosferatu was, the idea that sunlight destroys vampires originated with this movie, not from folklore! While in folkore vampires were creatures of the night, they were never particularly photosensitive prior to Nosferatu.

Gojira (1954): Today when Americans think of Godzilla movies they are apt to think of campy movies from the Sixties and the Seventies in which Godzilla defends humanity against other giant monsters and even aliens. It wasn't always that way. The movie that started the franchise, Gojia, is a deeply philosophical film that capitalized upon a fear the Japanese were all too familiar with, the fear of nuclear destruction. Because of this, the movie is not only genuinely frightening, but disturbing as well.

Les diaboliques (1955): Before Peeping Tom (1960) and Psycho (1960), there was Les diaboliques, better known simply as Diabolique in many Anglophone countries. Les diaboliques is genuinely frightening and would inspire a whole slough of similar movies in the Sixties, Psycho merely being the most famous of them.

Sei donne per l'assassino (1964) Known as Blood and Black Lace in English speaking countries, along with Peeping Tom, Sei donne per l'assassino was a forerunner of the slasher movies of the late Seventies and early Eighties. It not only has a high body count, but was graphic in a way that no other films at the time were. The film was so influential that, along with Mario Bava's earlier film Black Sunday, the entire subgenre of giallo exists because of it.

El laberinto del fauno (2006): Know as  Pan's Labyrinth in Anglophone countries, El laberinto del fauno is set during the early years of the Francisco Franco regime in Spain. Because of this, the terrors of reality are sometimes more frightening than the film's fantasy elements. El laberinto del fauno blends elements of mythology, fairy tales, folklore, and history to create a wholly unsettling film.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Witch's Tale

Old Time Radio is remembered for many of its suspense/horror programs, including such classics as Lights Out, Inner Sanctum Mystery, and Suspense. Not so well remembered is a radio show that debuted before all of them. The Witch's Tale was quite possibly the first ever horror radio show. What is more, it was successful in its time. In fact, it ran for seven years.

The Witch's Tale debuted on WOR in New York City on May 21 1931. The show as not a large affair by any measure. Its creator, Alonzo Deen Cole, also wrote and directed the show. His wife, Marie O'Flynn, played the female characters on the show. Its supporting cast consisted only of Mark Smith and Alan Devitte. The undisputed star of the show was its host, Old Nancy, the Witch of Salem. It was Alonzo Deen Cole himself who provided the sounds of her cat, Salem.

Old Nancy claimed to be well over one hundred years old, although her exact age would vary from episode to episode. Originally Old Nancy was played by stage actress Adelaide Fitz-Allen. Miss Fitz-Allen died at age 79 in 1935. She was replaced by Miriam Wolfe, who was only 13 years old. While Miss Wolfe was only 13, she had already had plenty of experience on radio, having appeared on the CBS children's show Let's Pretend. On that show she had played plenty of witches.

Most of the episodes of The Witch's Tale were original, although the show did feature some adaptations of classic horror stories and novels over the years, including "La Vénus d'Ille" by Prosper Mérimée (as "The Bronze Venus") in 1931, "The Bottle Imp" by Robert Louis Stevenson (adapted as "The Wonderful Bottle") in 1934, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in 1935.

The Witch's Tale was popular enough to have a pulp magazine based upon it. The Witch's Tales was published by Carwood Publishing Co. It would not repeat the show's success, lasting only two issues. Much of the reason for the failure of The Witch's Tales may have been because, with the exception of one original story by Alonzo Deen Cole in each of the two issues, the stories were entirely reprints from the American version of Pearson's Magazine.

Originally aired on WOR, The Witch's Tale would receive nationwide exposure when it was aired on the Mutual Radio Network starting in 1934. The show ended its run on June 13 1938. That is not to say that The Witch's Tale was gone. An Australian version of the show with a different cast and crew was syndicated to Australian radio stations from 1939 to 1943. The Australian version of The Witch's Tale adapted scripts from the original, American version.

Sadly, very little in the way of The Witch's Tale has survived. In 1961 Alonzo Deen Cole destroyed much of the show's episodes when he moved from New York to California, convinced that there was no market for old radio shows. Fortunately some episodes have survived, as have the 332 scripts for the show.

In On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, author John Dunning wrote of The Witch's Tale, "The effects were crude by later standards, and the stories were one-dimensional affairs, calculated for a single effect." Regardless, The Witch's Tale must have been effective to have run seven years. What is more, it was influential. Old Nancy was the first of many hosts of horror-suspense radio shows, predating Raymond of Inner Sanctum Mystery and the Mysterious Traveller of the radio show of the same name. The Witch's Tale may only be remembered by fans of Old Time Radio today, but it would leave a lasting impact on radio shows to come.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Crow (1994): Putting the Wrong Things Right

(This blog post is part of Dark and Deep: The Gothic Horror Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer)

"People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can't rest. Then sometimes, just sometimes, the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right." (Sarah in the movie The Crow)

In 1989 the movie Batman proved to be a smash hit. Its success led to a a whole cycle of superhero movies that lasted through the early to mid Nineties. It was a little over twenty five years ago, on May 13 1994, that a superhero movie was released that differed from any other superhero movies of the time. First, it was darker than even the movie Batman and its sequels proved to be. Second, it was much more violent. Third, it was nearly as much a work of Gothic horror as it was superheroics. The Crow (1994) drew upon folklore, superhero comic books, and Gothic horror movies to create a tale of revenge that was different from any other films out at the time. Not surprisingly, it would also prove to be a cult film.

The Crow centred on rock musician Eric Draven (played by Brandon Lee in his final role). Eric and his fiancée Shelley planned on getting married on Halloween. Unfortunately, on the previous night (known as Devil's Night) a gang breaks into their apartment, assaults Shelly, and murders Eric. Shelly later dies at the hospital. This was not the end of the story, as a year later a crow brings Eric back from the grave to exact his revenge on the gang. 

The Crow was based on the comic book of the same name by James O'Barr. Mr. O'Barr was only 18 years old when his fiancée Beverly was killed by a drunk driver. As a means of dealing with his grief he began working on The Crow, taking further inspiration from a story he had seen in a Detroit newspaper about a young couple murdered for a $30 engagement ring. It would take James O'Barr nearly ten years to find a publisher for The Crow. It was finally published in 1989 by Caliber Press. It has since become possibly the best selling independent comic book of all time.

It was only as the third issue of The Crow came out that James O'Barr was approached by writer John Shirley and producer Jeff Most about adapting The Crow as a movie.  Impressed by their enthusiasm and retaining the copyright to The Crow, Mr. O'Barr decided to sell them the film rights even though their offer was less than some previous ones he had received. John Shirley began work on the screenplay while Jeff Most shopped the film treatment around to various producers. Ultimately it was independent producer Edward R. Pressman, who had worked on films from Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to Talk Radio (1990), who signed onto the film. He worked out a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. It was also Mr. Pressman who brought director Alex Proyas, who had directed the Australian film Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989), on to the project. 

The screenplay for The Crow would see some changes from the comic book. Chief among these was setting the film at Devil's Night. The screenplay also centred more upon the love story between Eric and Shelley than the comic book had. One major change is that in the movie Eric is a rock musician, while in the comic book his profession is never actually specified. Not all of the changes would remain in the screenplay. At one point James O'Barr thought too many changes were being made and so he wrote a 10-page outline that explained Eric Draven's motivations. Eventually David J. Schow was brought in to rewrite the screenplay. It was Mr. Schow who reduced the number of villains in the film and also gave them a central motivation beyond murder and mayhem.

In casting Eric Draven, the producers wanted someone who had both acting talent and athletic ability. It was for that reason that Brandon Lee was ultimately cast. Brandon Lee read the comic book and made several suggestions, the biggest of which was the removal of an Asian character trying to steal Eric's power that Mr. Lee felt was a stereotype. 

As to casting the crow that appears in the film, the bird is not actually a crow, but instead a raven. What is more, multiple ravens were used in the film. The movie did present animal trainer Larry Madrid with some problems. Ravens are diurnal, meaning they sleep at night. Since The Crow was shot at night, he had to accustom the birds to staying awake when they would otherwise be asleep. He also had to train them to fly in both the rain and in a wind tunnel. Fortunately, ravens are very intelligent birds and easily trained.

Unfortunately, filming on The Crow would not go smoothly. In fact, the movie would experience accidents from the first day of shooting. That day, February 1 1993, a carpenter received burns to his face, chest, and arms when the crane on which he was working hit live power lines. It was that same day that an equipment truck caught fire. Still later a construction worker accidentally drove a screwdriver through his hand. It was then on March 13 1993 that a storm destroyed some of the sets for The Crow, as well as some of the sets of The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

Sadly, the most famous accident on the set was yet to occur. It was on March 31 1993, with only a few days of shooting left, that a flashback scene portraying Eric Draven's death was filmed. The scene called for Eric to be shot at close range. The gun was loaded with dummy cartridges for close-up shots of the weapon. Unfortunately, once the close-up shots were finished, a prop assistant failed to check the gun's barrel for any obstructions before loading it with blanks. As it turned out, a dummy cartridge had lodged in the barrel. Worse yet, there was still enough percussion primer at the rear of the dummy cartridge that when the gun was fired, it was propelled out of the barrel. The round struck Brandon Lee in the abdomen, wounding him severely. He was rushed to the hospital where he underwent six hours of surgery. He died at 1:03 PM Eastern Time on March 31 1993. 

Brandon Lee's death presented the producers with the decision of whether to continue production on The Crow or not. With only three days of shooting left, it was ultimately decided to complete the film. The screenplay was reworked and ultimately one whole character, the Skull Cowboy (who acts as a spirit guide for Eric Draven) was cut. Any uncompleted scenes using Brandon Lee were completed using doubles, CGI, and scenes that had been shot already using Brandon Lee. Despite claims otherwise, the footage of Brandon Lee's death was reportedly destroyed. Mr. Lee's death was determined to be accidental. Brandon Lee's mother and Bruce Lee's widow Linda Lee Caldwell did file a wrongful death lawsuit, and it was settled out of court.

Because of the delays in shooting, the producers would not be able to deliver The Crow in time for its then scheduled August 1993 release date. If the producers could not meet the delivery schedule, then Paramount had the right not to accept the film. After viewing an early cut of the film, Paramount ultimately decided not to take The Crow. That having been said, Edward R. Pressman suspects that Paramount may have been "scared off" by a possible public relations nightmare. 

It was only three months later after Paramount had rejected The Crow that Miramax picked the film up for distribution. Miramax also provided $8 million to complete production of the film. When The Crow was released to 1200 theatres on May 13 1994 it became the largest release at that point in the history of Miramax. The film ended with the dedication "For Brandon and Eliza" (Eliza being Mr. Lee's fiancée).

Regardless of the controversy over Brandon Lee's death, The Crow proved to be a success. It opened as no. 1 at the box office in the United States. In the end it grossed $50,693,129 in the United States and £1,245,403 in the United Kingdom. It also did well in Europe and Asia. The Crow also received generally positive reviews. 

The success of The Crow led to three sequels, The Crow: City of Angels (1996), The Crow: Salvation (2000), and The Crow: Wicked Prayer (2005).  The latter two sequels were both released direct-to-video. None of them were well received. In 1998 a TV show inspired by the movie, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, debuted. While the show received relatively good ratings, it ended after one season following the sale of Polygram Television to Universal.

The Crow would prove to be influential. Certainly the look of the film drew upon both the neo-noir look of Blade Runner (1982) and the superhero Gothic look of Batman (1989). That having been said, what set The Crow apart from both Blade Runner and Batman (1989) was that Detroit as portrayed in the film could actually exist. This combination of Gothic and realism in The Crow would prove to have a lasting impact, influencing such films as Spawn (1997), the Blade Trilogy, Sin City (2005), and even The Dark Knight Trilogy. Not only did The Crow bring a sense of Gothic to superhero films, but it also brought violence and rawness to them as well. Most comic book and comic strip movies of the early Nineties were generally family friendly affairs, such as Dick Tracy (1990) and The Rocketeer (1991). The Crow paved the way for superhero films that were grittier and more violent.

Of course, The Crow is as much Gothic horror as it is a superhero film. What makes it unique as a Gothic horror film is that it takes the well-used trope of the newly returned dead and flips it on its head. It is not Eric Draven who is the source of horror, but instead his flesh and blood opponents. The villains of The Crow are particularly brutal and quite capable of senseless violence. To give an example of how terrifying they are, they murder Eric and Shelly in their own apartment, a place one would generally feel safe. This is in sharp contrast to Eric, who metes out vengeance to those who have wronged him while genuinely caring for truly good people. In The Crow it is not the undead who is the monster. It is the living.

It is perhaps because The Crow was a decidedly different superhero film and a decidedly different Gothic film upon its release that it would become so successful. That having been said, its appeal goes far beyond the film's look and atmosphere. The comic book The Crow grew out of James O'Barr's grief over his fiancée's death. Central to both the comic book and the movie is not only grief and death, but also the idea that love is eternal. In interviews James O'Barr has said that over the years many fans have told them how reading the comic book has helped them deal with their own grief. Having experienced my own personal tragedy last year, I certainly think that is true of the movie as well. Last October I watched The Crow as I am usually inclined to around Halloween and it was an entirely different experience for me. For the first time in my life I fully knew how Eric Draven felt. As a result The Crow acted as a catharsis for my grief, if only temporarily. It also reminded me that good can defeat evil. Of course, perhaps more than anything else I appreciated its message that love transcends death. In Sarah's last bit of narration in The Crow, she remarks, "If the people we love are stolen from us, the way they live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever." 

The Crow has proven to be a lasting success, exerting an influence on films to this day. And while The Crow has stunning visuals, its appeal goes well beyond its look. Despite being a Gothic tale of revenge from beyond the grave, it is ultimately a tale of the victory of good over evil and of love over death. That sets it apart from many superhero movies released today.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Five Movies for Halloween

When people think of movies to watch around Halloween, they generally think of horror movies. That having been said, there are movies in which Halloween does play a significant role. One could think of these films as "Halloween movies," much as one might think of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), or Holiday Affair (1949) as Christmas movies. Here are five movies that are perfectly suitable for viewing on Halloween.

1. Boy Friend (1939): This delightful comedy starring Jane Withers climaxes at Halloween. In the movie Jane Withers plays Sally Murphy, whose older brother Jimmy is a police officer. When one of Sally's friends is murdered, she decides to solve the murder herself. Ultimately she finds herself at the Golden Parrot Club with gangsters on Halloween. As might be expected, even with gangsters involved, the Halloween party has all the traditional trappings. This makes it quite suitable to watch on the holiday.

2. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944): In my humble opinion, Arsenic and Old Lace is to Halloween what It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street (1947) are to Christmas. The movie is set at Halloween. It features what is the first scene of trick or treating in a mainstream film. It centres on two maiden aunts with a disturbing secret. It also features a serial killer in the form of Jonathan Brewster (played by Raymond Massey), who looks a lot like Boris Karloff. Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those films that is both funny and frightening at the same time. Quite simply, it is perfect Halloween viewing.

3. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): Perhaps because of the iconic scene involving the classic song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" sung by Judy Garland, many people think of Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas movie. That having been said, the Halloween sequence is actually longer than the Christmas sequence and in some ways more significant to the plot. Set in St. Louis in 1903, it also features some interesting Halloween customs from the start of the 20th Century. While there are those who think of Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas movie, there are also those of us who think of it as a Halloween movie!

4. Halloween (1978): I suppose that this would be an obvious one for many. It was certainly influential, starting a cycle towards slasher movies that lasted for much of the Eighties. Despite its title, there are those who have argued that the movie does not have that much to do with the holiday. This is not quite the case. Many of the trappings of the holiday appear in Halloween, including trick-or-treaters and jack o'lanterns. As a horror movie set on the holiday, Halloween then makes perfect Halloween viewing.

5. The Crow (1994): Let's face it, regardless of when it was set, The Crow would be suitable viewing in October. The movie centres on Eric Draven (played by Brandon Lee), a musician who, along with his girlfriend, is murdered by a gang. This is not the end of Eric's story, however, as he returns from the dead to wreak vengeance on the thugs who killed him and his girlfriend As if being a macabre superhero movie wasn't enough to make it suitable for viewing on Halloween, it set on October 30--Devil's Night in Detroit. Given the roots of Halloween go back to the Celtic pagan festival called Samhain in Irish Gaelic and and Samhainn in Scottish Gaelic, a festival in which it might have been believed the dead return to the world of the living, The Crow is then very suitable to watch at Halloween.