Saturday, October 23, 2021

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965)

(This post is part of the Third Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Cinematic Catharsis)

Much to the irritation of fans of Hammer Films and Amicus Productions, the two studios are sometimes confused by the uninitiated. While the movies of both studios boasted a similar visual style and shared many of the same stars, there are some notable differences between the two. Most of Hammer's horror films were set at some time in the past, whether it was the 18th Century or the Victorian Era. Most of Amicus's films were set in the present. Further setting the two apart was the fact that most of Amicus's horror movies were portmanteau films. That is, they were anthology films in which various stories were all united by a single wraparound story. The first of Amicus Productions' many portmanteau horror movies was Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965).

In Dr. Terror's House of Horrors architect Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum), Bill Rogers (Alan Freeman), jazz musician Biff Bailey (Roy Castle), art critic Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee), and Dr. Bob Carroll (Donald Sutherland) each enter a train carriage. They are joined by Dr. Schreck (Peter Cushing), whose last name translates literally into "terror" in English. Dr. Schreck is a doctor of metaphysics and he has with him a tarot deck, which he refers to as his "house of horrors." To pass the time, he does a tarot reading for each of the men in the carriage with him, these readings providing the stories in the movies. As might be expected, these are horror stories, featuring everything from a werewolf to a sentient, creeping vine.

Amicus Productions was founded in 1962 by American movie producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. The company's first two films were the pop musicals It's Trad, Dad (1962) and Just for Fun (1963). Despite this, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg were no strangers to horror. Prior to founding Amicus Productions, the two men had worked together on the horror movie The City of the Dead (1960). Furthermore, they had planned to shoot Dr. Terror's House of Horrors in black and white in 1962, with Columbia Pictures providing financial backing. Columbia decided that the movie's $94,000 price tag (low even in 1962) was too much and pulled out of the project. It took two years for Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg to raise the money needed to make Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, which would now be shot in glorious Technicolor.

The inspiration for Dr. Terror's House of Horrors was the classic British horror portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945). Milton Subotsky had always admired the film and thought "..the time was ripe for another film like it." The stories in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors were drawn from five half hour scripts Milton Subostsky had written for the television version of the classic radio show Lights Out in 1948. Since the stories were not used for the TV show, Milton Subostky simply recycled them for his screenplay and wrote the framing story featuring Dr. Schreck to tie them together.

Much of the source of confusion with regards to Hammer Films and Amicus Productions is that the two companies often used the same actors. Indeed, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors features Hammer's two best known stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In the various stories it also features other veterans of Hammer Films. Harold Lang, who appears in the segment "Creeping Vine," had appeared in several Hammer movies, including Cloudburst (1951), Wings of Danger (1952), The Saint's Return (1953), The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), and Paranoiac (1963). Michael Gough, who plays Christopher Lee's nemesis in the segment "Disembodied Hand," will be familiar to Hammer fans as Arthur Holmwood in Dracula (1958) and Ambrose D'Arcy from The Phantom of the Opera (1962). While some of the members of the cast of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors had not yet appeared in a Hammer movie, they eventually would. Bernard Lee, best known as M in the James Bond movies, would appear in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors was very well received. In its March 3 1965 review, Variety wrote of the film, "Five short horror episodes, thinly linked, provide a usefully chilly package deal which offer audiences several mild shudders and quite a bit of amusement..." Robert Salmaggi of The New York Herald Tribune commented "..that each scary adventure will keep you watching, sitting on the edge of your seats one second, laughing the next (there are some deft touches of humour) and all in all, nicely entertained." Dr. Terror's House of Horrors also did very well at the box office on both sides of the Atlantic. It should be little wonder that Amicus would follow it with even more portmanteau horror movies over the years.

Indeed, Dr.Terror's House of Horrors is a very well done movie. Much of this is because of the various performances in the film. Peter Cushing is fittingly mysterious as Dr. Schreck (the "Dr. Terror" of the title). Christopher Lee is excellent in a role unlike those with which viewers are most familiar, playing a a smug art critic. Donald Sutherland excels in one of his earliest roles, playing a physician a bit of his depth. Of course, a good deal of credit must also go to Milton Subostsky's script. He deftly blends both horror and humour, so that Dr. Terror's House of Horrors is by turns frightening and funny. One of the best bits of humour is even meta in nature. In the segment "Voodoo" Roy Castle runs straight into a poster for, you guessed it, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors would set the pace for Amicus for the rest of its history. Over the years Amicus would follow it up with such portmanteau horror movies as Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Tales from the Crypt (1972), and Asylum (1972). And while it was the first of Amicus Productions' many horror anthologies, it also remains one of their best.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Cloudburst (1951)

(This post is part of the Third Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Cinematic Catharsis)

While Hammer Films is best known for the highly successful horror movies they released from the late Fifties into the Seventies, the company had existed for many years before the release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Before they found success with the horror genre, Hammer had seen some success with crime thrillers and film noirs. Starting in 1951, Hammer Film released such crime dramas as The Black Widow (1951), The Dark Light (1951), and The Last Page (1952). Among the most historically important of these crime thrillers released by Hammer in the early Fifties is Cloudburst (1951).

Cloudburst centres on cryptographer and a former Special Operations Executive agent John Graham (Robert Preston). When his wife (Elizabeth Sellars) is killed by a hit-and-run driver, Graham uses the skills he learned in the SOE during World War II to exact revenge.

Cloudburst was based on a play written by Leo Marks, today best known as the screenwriter of the classic Peeping Tom (1960). To a degree Cloudburst was inspired by Mr. Marks's own life. During World War II he worked as a cryptographer for the SOE on Baker Street in London. He would later write the book Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's Story 1941–1945 (published in 1998) based on his experiences as a cryptographer. It seems possible that even the hit-and-run death of John Graham's wife could have some basis in Leo Marks's life. During World War II he fell in love with a young woman named Ruth Hambro. Sadly, Miss Hambro would be killed in an airplane crash in 1943. While they were never formally in a romantic relationship (Mr. Marks was too shy to tell her how he felt), she served as the inspiration for one of his best known poems, "The Life That I Have." Beyond Ruth Hambro, Leo Marks also had female friends who were also fellow SOE agents who died during the war. Both Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan, with whom Mr. Marks worked and was close, were killed by the Nazis. If John Graham's grief and rage in Cloudburst seems genuine, it seems possible that it is because Leo Marks had experienced them himself.

Cloudburst was Hammer's first real attempt to break into the American market. It was co-produced by Hammer Films' own Anthony Hinds and Hungarian American producer Alexander Paal. It was Alexander Paal who brought Robert Preston onto the project. Mr. Paal paid 75% of Mr. Preston's fee and even his living expenses while in London in return for 75% of the film's distribution rights in the Western Hemisphere. Originally Eagle-Lion Films was set to distribute Cloudburst in the United States, but the company ceased operations before the film's release. Cloudburst was then distributed by United Artists in the United States.

In many respects as the first American co-production Cloudburst marked as great a shift for Hammer Films as The Curse of Frankenstein six years later. Robert Preston would not be the last American leading man cast in a Hammer movie, as the studio would do so repeatedly in following years in an effort to attract American audiences. It was following the release of Cloudburst that Hammer Films would sign a four-year production and distribution with Robert Lippert of Lippert Pictures. Essentially, Lippert Pictures would distribute Hammer Films in the United States and Hammer Films would distribute Lippert Pictures in the United Kingdom. Such films as Stolen Face (1952), Wings of Danger (1952), and The Last Page would be released under this agreement.

Aside from being one of Hammer's earliest attempts to break into the American market, it was also historic as the first Hammer movie to be filmed at Bray Studios, where such classics as The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959) were filmed. Bray Studios was originally Down Place, a private residence built in the 1750s. The house was vacated in the 20th Century and eventually fell into disrepair. Hammer Films shot portions of their film The Dark Light at Down Place. In need of a studio, Hammer bought Down Place and remodelled it as a movie studio.

Cloudburst stands out among Hammer's pre-horror films. The film presents the grief and anger at the death of a loved one in a way that few movies had done before. This is aided by the performance of Robert Preston,whose John Graham is about as far from the congenial Harold Hill of The Music Man as one can get. John Graham is a man consumed by the grief over his wife and the anger at her needless death. In any other film Graham might have been presented as a villain, but in Cloudburst  he comes off sympathetically, making it one of the earliest Hammer Films to do away with conventional morality. Indeed, Cloudburst is not light, popcorn fare. In their review of the film, the critic at Harrison's Reports wrote of the film, "Most picture-goers probably will find it too grim for enjoyment."

Cloudburst was a historic film for Hammer Films in many respects. It was their first American co-production and the first to be shot at Bray Studios. It set the pace for many Hammer movies to come, even once the studio shifted more towards the horror genre. Not particularly well known today, it deserves to be better known.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

A Brief History of Halloween Decorations

This year it is estimated that Americans will spend a record $10 billion on Halloween candy, decorations, and costumes. As hard as it might be to believe, this was not always the case. Not only is trick or treating a relatively recent development, but so too is decorating for Halloween. In fact, while trick or treating emerged in the late 1920s and the 1930s, decorating the outside of one's house for Halloween wouldn't really emerge until the late 20th Century.

Halloween was brought to the United States by Scottish immigrants in the 19th Century, and initially it was celebrated only in Scottish American and Irish American communities. By the late 1880s the celebration had started to spread beyond these communities. By the 1900s Halloween was being celebrated so widely across the United States that commercially produced Halloween decorations finally became available. At the time Halloween was a holiday primarily celebrated by adults, so the earliest Halloween decorations differed a bit from many of those available now. First, they were meant for indoor use only. Outdoor Halloween decorations had not yet been introduced. If for whatever reason one wanted to decorate the outdoors for Halloween, they would have likely used such home-made Halloween decorations as jack o'lanterns or scarecrows. Second, the earliest Halloween decorations were made of paper and were expected to be disposable. They were not necessarily meant to be used year after year.

Initially these paper Halloween decorations were largely manufactured in Germany, but American companies would get in on the action soon enough. Dennison Manufacturing Company was a manufacturer of paper products founded in 1844. It was in the 1900s that they began manufacturing paper Halloween decorations. In fact, their decorations would prove so popular that in 1909 they published their first Dennison's Bogie Book for Halloween. A new edition would be published in 1912. Except for years of World War I, Dennison's Bogie Book for Halloween would be published annually until 1934.

A Beistle joined skeleton
Dennison was by no means the only manufacturer of paper Halloween decorations in the United States. The Beistle  Company was founded in 1900. It was in 1920 that they first started making paper Halloween decorations. Their decorations proved so popular that by 1928 Beistle was even making games for Halloween. It was in the 1930s that the Beistle Company introduced one of their most popular items, a jointed skeleton. Over the years The Beistle Company made many of the Halloween decorations seen in classrooms across the United States. What is more, the Beistle Company still exists to this day and is still owned by the Beistle family. They are now the oldest continuing manufacturer or party goods and seasonal decorations in the United States.

It would the introduction of a new custom called trick or treating in the late Twenties that would largely change the character of Halloween in the United States. The first reference to trick or treating is in the November 4 1927 issue of the Herald (published in Lethbridge, Alberta) in the article "'Trick or Treat' is the Demand." Trick or treating appears to have spread from Canada to the western United States and then moved eastwards. By the late Thirties kids were trick or treating across the country.  Celebrated primarily by adults at the start of the 20th Century, trick or treating transformed Halloween into a holiday celebrated by children.

Decorating for Halloween began to take off several years after the end of World War II, largely due to a new technology. Blow molding is a process through which one can create hollow shapes made of plastic. The basic principles behind blow molding comes from glassblowing, a process which has existed for centuries.  It was in 1938 that Enoch Ferngren and William Kopitke created a blow molding machine, which they then sold to to Hartford Empire Company in 1938. Products manufactured using blow molding remained limited until various advances were made in the technology. Blow molding then finally began to take off in the Fifties.

A 1968 Empire Jack o'lantern bucket
with flashlight inside
It was the introduction of the pink flamingo in 1957 that spurred the popularity of blow mold decorations. Don Featherstone was hired by Union Products Inc. to create three-dimensional, blow mold decorations in the shape of animals. His second assignment was to create a blow mold flamingo. The pink flamingo proved extremely popular with families in the late Fifties and spurred the popularity of blow mold decorations in general. Seasonal blow mold decorations emerged in the wake of the pink flamingo, including Christmas decorations introduced in the late Fifties. Several companies took advantage of the blow mold craze sweeping the nation, including Empire Plastics Inc.,  Bernard Edward Co. (later called Beco), Poloron Products, Dapo, General Foam, and many others.

It was in the early to mid-Sixties that blow mold Halloween decorations emerged. Among the most popular were blow mold trick or treat buckets, but by the end of the decade there was a wide variety of blow mold Halloween decorations. Jack o' lanterns, haunted houses, ghosts, and other decorations were being manufactured by the late Sixties. The outdoor decorations (and even some indoor decorations) almost always included a light inside, so that they could be seen at night. Blow mold Halloween decorations remained popular through the Eighties, although gradually they would being to decline in popularity. That having been said, in the 2020s they seem to be making a comeback.

An inflatable jack o' lantern
It was the dawn of the 21st Century that saw the introduction of yet another sort of seasonal decoration. The novelty company Gemmy Industries had been founded in 1984. It was in August 2000 that they conceived a new sort of outdoor Christmas decoration. Their idea was an eight foot, inflatable Santa Claus. It was with this Santa Claus that Gemmy launched their Airblown Inflatables line in 2001. Their inflatable Santa Claus would be followed by other Christmas decorations, as well as Halloween decorations. Gemmy's Airblown Inflatables would prove to be popular in the 2000s, so that other companies followed them into the manufacture of inflatable decorations. A wide variety of Halloween decorations were and still are being produced. Inflatables of jack o'lanterns, ghosts, skeletons, witches, and other figures associated with Halloween have been made, as have inflatables associated with such licensed properties as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Disney, Scooby Doo, and others. While inflatables declined a bit in popularity in the Teens, they can still be seen around the country every year around Halloween.

Halloween decorations have evolved over the years. Paper decorations of the sort manufactured by Beistle have remained popular for indoor decorations over the years. Blow mold decorations became wildly popular from the Sixties to the Eighties and then declined in popularity, but appear to be making a comeback. Inflatables aren't as popular as they once were, but could one day make a comeback. One thing is for certain. People probably won't ever stop decorating for Halloween.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Late Great Betty Lynn

Of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show, perhaps no one was as beloved as Betty Lynn. For six years she played Barney Fife's one true love, Thelma Lou. In 1990 she started taking part in reunions of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show and various festivals devoted to the show around the country. She regularly attended Mayberry Days in Mount Airy, North Carolina. In 2007 she moved to Mount Airy, and she regularly met fans at The Andy Griffith Museum there. Of course, before she played Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show, Betty Lynn had a movie career during which she appeared opposite such big names as Bette Davis, Loretta Young, Maureen O'Hara, and Myrna Loy. She also made numerous guest appearances, particularly on television Westerns. Sadly, Betty Lynn died yesterday at the age of 95 after a brief illness.

Elizabeth Ann Theresa Lynn was born on August 29 1926 in Kansas City, Missouri. Her mother was a mezzo-soprano who had performed with the Chicago Opera. Her mother and father divorced while Betty Lynn was still young, and the father figure in her life was her grandfather, George Andrew Lynn. She was only five years old when her mother enrolled her in the Kansas City Observatory of Music. As a teenager she sang in supper clubs and on radio.

It was when she was 17 years old that USO scouts discovered her in Kansas City. It was then after she turned 18 that she began performing for USO Camp Shows in the United States. As part of the USO she was one of the first to visit newly released American prisoners of war in a Calcutta hospital. During  her USO career she travelled throughout China, Burma, and India.

After her service in the USO, Betty Lynn appeared on Broadway as Sylvie in the musical Oklahoma!. It was while she appearing the pre-Broadway try-outs for the musical Park Avenue that she was spotted by a 20th Century Fox talent scout. She made her film debut as Ginger in Sitting Pretty (1948). In the late Forties she appeared in such films as Apartment for Peggy (1948), June Bride (1948), Mother is a Freshman (1949), Father Was a Fullback (1949), and Cheaper By the Dozen (1950).

In the Fifties she made her television debut in a guest appearance on Schlitz Playhouse in 1951. She had a recurring role on The Egg and I in 1952. She was a regular on the sitcom Where's Raymond?, starring Ray Bolger. She made several guest appearances on Matinee Theatre. She also guest starred on the shows Revlon Mirror Theatre, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Studio 57, Fireside Theatre, Your Playtime, TV Reader's Digest, Cavalcade of America, Sally, The Gale Storm Show, M Squad, Lawman, Wagon Train, Bronco, Sugarfoot, Markham, Tales of Wells Fargo, Mike Hammer, and National Velvet. Betty Lynn appeared in the movies Payment on Demand (1951), Take Care of My Girl (1951), Many Rivers to Cross (1955), Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), Behind the High Wall (1956), Gun for a Coward (1956), The Hangman (1959), and The Louisiana Hussy (1959).

It was in 1961, late in the first season of The Andy Griffith Show, that Betty Lynn first played Thelma Lou. Initially it was not planned for Thelma Lou to be Barney Fife's regular girlfriend, but the character proved popular. As a result Betty Lynn was brought back multiple times to play Thelma Lou until Barney and Thelma's romance was an established part of the show. At the same time that Betty Lynn was appearing as Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show, she was also appearing as Viola Slaughter on a series of episodes on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour devoted to Texas John Slaughter. In fact, at the time she was cast as Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show, she was under contract to Disney. Later in the decade Miss Lee, Bill David's secretary on Family Affair, and Janet Dawson, Steve Douglas's secretary on My Three Sons. She also guest starred on the shows The Farmer's Daughter, The Smothers Brother's Show, and The Mod Squad.

In the Seventies Betty Lynn guest starred on the TV shows The Smith Family, The Mod Squad, Little House on the Prairie, Police Story, Gibbsville, and Barnaby Jones. In the Eighties she reprised the role of Thelma Lou in the television movie Return to Mayberry, on which Barney and Thelma Lou finally got married. She played Sarah, Ben Matlock's secretary, on four episodes of the first season of Andy Griffith's TV series Matlock. She guest starred on the TV show Shades of LA.

It is likely that Betty Lynn will always be best remembered as Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show. Thelma Lou was in many ways the perfect girlfriend for the sometimes fickle Barney Fife. She was intelligent, sweet, and patient, but willing to put her foot down where Barney was concerned when she needed to (which was fairly often, in all actuality). Betty Lynn did a wonderful job of bringing Thelma Lou to life. Of course, during her career Betty Lynn played many other roles. In the movie June Bride, she played Barbara "Boo" Brinker, the younger sister in love with her older sister's fiancé.In Mother Is a Freshman, she played the daughter of the mother of the title, who enrolls in college. Of course, Betty Lynn also played Viola Slaughter, the wife of Texas John Slaughter, on the Disney series.

Of course, in may ways it should be little wonder that Betty Lynn did so well at playing Thelma Lou, as in real life Betty Lynn was known for her sweetness and kindness. She loved her fans and they loved her back. She was known for remembering fans she had met and even their names years after she had met them. Fans who met her always remarked on her kindness, her generosity, and her positivity. Bette Davis, with whom she worked on June Bride and with whom she was close friends, once advised Betty Lynn to be more selfish if she wanted to be a star. Betty Lynn proved Bette Davis wrong. Betty Lynn never became more selfish, remaining the sweet, bright woman she always was, and still became a star.