Sunday, October 30, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: 13 GHOSTS (1960)

Modern viewers probably won't watch this William Castle haunted house feature with Illusion-O viewers, the way original audiences did, but 13 Ghosts (1960) is still a treat for classic horror fans. It's quintessential Castle fare, with low-budget thrills, a nutty gimmick, and all the features - or failings - of its genre and era, right down to its painfully stereotypical American family and pseudoscience mixed with the supernatural. Castle fans, however, embrace his pictures warts and all, and they have an enduring charm that makes them perfect picks for long Halloween evenings. 13 Ghosts boasts a baker's dozen of grotesque ghouls, some of whom are delightfully weird, along with performances by child star Charles Herbert, Martin Milner, and Donald Woods, but the icing on the creepy cake is the appearance of Margaret Hamilton as the family's inherited housekeeper.

Donald Woods plays Cyrus Zorba, the patriarch of a family with perpetual financial problems. Just as the Zorbas reach the bottom of their bank account, Cyrus inherits a furnished house from his reclusive uncle, who spent his life trying to see and interact with ghosts. Cyrus moves his wife and two children into the house but soon finds that the ghosts are inhospitable housemates. His uncle's attorney, Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner), urges the Zorbas to abandon the home, but young Buck Zorba (Charles Herbert) makes a startling discovery that holds both opportunity and danger for the family.

The movie revels in contrasts between the normal and the bizarre. The Zorbas are an aggressively typical clan, struggling to hold on to middle class aspirations even as the furniture is repossessed. Older sister Medea (Jo Morrow) is pretty and unambitious, despite her provocative name, while mother Hilda (Rosemary De Camp) just wants the ghosts to stop wrecking her kitchen. Cyrus, who works in natural history at the Los Angeles County Museum, is a devoted father and husband, if a little too inattentive to paying the bills. Only Buck possesses an interest in the supernatural, but his fascination with ghosts is passed off as perfectly normal for a young boy and not at all macabre. This is the family thrust into the freakish drama unfolding in the old house, where a headless lion tamer grapples with a ghostly lion, an Italian cook confronts his faithless wife with a cleaver, and old Dr. Zorba himself moans and walks out of his portrait. There's no psychological suspense here, and even with a looming death threat the Zorbas maintain their usual bedtimes and leave their kids alone in their own rooms. The whole situation recalls Eddie Murphy's old joke about white people and haunted houses.

The Zorba family might be dull, but the household ghosts are something else entirely. They can be ridiculous; the Italian ghosts, for example, talk like Cousin Itt, and the lion tamer seems determined to stick his headless neck into his lion's mouth. Others, like the ghosts that menace Cyrus in a secret room, are scarier, while the hanging ghost and the executing arms are more unnerving. We only get snatches of backstory for most of the spooks, just enough to pique our imaginations, although the biggest mystery is the identity of the 13th ghost, since there are only a dozen inhabiting the house when the family arrives. Which of the living characters will join the dead? If you're paying attention you'll see it coming a mile away, but it's all part of the fun. Occupying a space somewhere between the ghosts and the mortals is Margaret Hamilton's medium turned housekeeper, Elaine Zacharides, who warns the family of the peril the house brings. The film relishes a running gag about Elaine being a witch, an unsubtle nod to Hamilton's iconic role in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but Hamilton is game for the gag. The best moment of the whole picture might be its last, when Hamilton breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience and her own stunt casting.

If goofy, fun horror of the Castle variety is your favorite Halloween treat, try The Tingler (1959) and House on Haunted Hill (1959) for more, or check out the 1993 love letter to kitsch horror, Matinee, which stars John Goodman as a Castle style showman. You can see Charles Herbert in The Fly (1958) and Houseboat (1958), although he mostly worked in television. Look for Donald Woods in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Mexican Spitfire (1940), and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Martin Milner, best remembered for television roles on Route 66 and Adam-12, makes other big screen appearances in Life with Father (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

13 GHOSTS is currently streaming on Shudder.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

Ostensibly a sequel to the 1942 horror classic, Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) is in reality a completely different kind of tale. It's not really a horror movie and not really a sequel to the original film, even though it brings back most of the characters from the earlier outing and carries over some of their concerns. RKO producer Val Lewton, along with directors Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise, engage in cinematic sorcery to weave this sad, sweet story out of the leftover bits of a psychosexual nightmare, but there are still some moments of terror to be found, especially in the sinister performance of Elizabeth Russell as a daughter scorned to the brink of madness.

Ann Carter plays our young protagonist, Amy Reed, whose loneliness and dreamy ways frustrate her father, Oliver (Kent Smith), largely because of his obsession with normalcy after the tragic death of his strange first wife, Irena (Simone Simon). Amy's mother, Alice (Jane Randolph), also worries about Irena's legacy, which she thinks of as a curse visited on Amy, but both parents are counseled by Amy's teacher (Eve March) to have more patience with their only child. Longing for friends, Amy visits an eccentric old lady, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), but she also begins to see the kindly ghost of Irena, who comforts her when she feels most rejected and alone. When Amy follows Irena into a winter storm, she encounters real peril, especially when her arrival at Mrs. Farren's house leads to tragedy.

RKO wanted a sequel to Cat People to cash in on the low-budget horror's success, but as always Val Lewton had something different in mind. Instead of another story of sexual repression and bestial transformation, The Curse of the Cat People offers a ghostly fairy tale that delves into the psychology of children and their imaginary friends. Amy is a sad Alice wandering through a dismal Wonderland, where adults make little sense with their contradictory commands to believe and not believe what they tell her. Rejected by other children and keenly aware of her failure to be the child her father expects, Amy feels drawn toward Irena, who becomes a friendly playmate and confidante. We never know for sure if Irena is real or imaginary; she tells Amy things that suggest knowledge that Amy couldn't possibly have, but the ambiguity is typical of Lewton's best films.

Whether she's a cat woman, an imaginary friend, or a sympathetic ghost, Irena is never the source of terror in this story. The most frightening characters are Mrs. Farren and her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), who make for a Gothic duo of feminine domestic dysfunction. Mrs. Farren likes Amy, but she's clearly mad, fashioned in the Miss Havisham mold in her creepy Victorian home. Russell, who had appeared briefly as a fellow Serbian cat woman in Cat People, here has a larger and more tragic role as the daughter whom Mrs. Farren rejects as an impostor, claiming that her real daughter died years ago. Jealous of Amy and driven to the edge of insanity by her isolation and suffering, Barbara swears she will murder the little girl for usurping Mrs. Farren's affection. Ironically, Barbara serves mostly as a foil for Amy, showing the consequences of parental rejection and neglect. Unless Oliver and Alice change their ways, Amy might become as damaged as Barbara, even if Barbara doesn't kill her. The ending underlines the ways in which Irena, Amy, and Barbara are all connected, and if it doesn't put a lump in your throat you haven't been paying attention.

Oddly enough, The Curse of the Cat People is also a Christmas movie, and it hints at Lewton's deeply literate sense of story with its references to Irving's Sleepy Hollow and the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson. For more of Lewton's eerie best, see I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), and Bedlam (1946). Ann Carter's other work as a child actor includes The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and Song of Love (1947), but she made her final film appearance at the tender age of 16. Look for the bewitching Simone Simon in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and La Ronde (1950), and see Kent Smith in The Spiral Staircase (1945) and The Damned Don't Cry (1950). If you want more classic horror with Elizabeth Russell, try The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Weird Woman (1944); she also has an uncredited role as a ghost in The Uninvited (1944).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Classic Movie Haunted Houses for Halloween

Last week we spent a few days in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where, at the insistence of my teenage daughter, we visited a commercial haunted house. It's called Mysterious Mansion, but there's nothing very mysterious about it. Visitors pay $16 a pop for 15 minutes of being jumped at and chased around by people in weird makeup and masks. There was the obligatory scary clown, some girls covered in fake blood, and a guy in a Grim Reaper outfit wearing jeans under his robes. My daughter had a good time, but for the adults the most entertaining part was watching a teen girl in the group ahead of us totally lose it and bail a third of the way through the house. The rest was just darkness, narrow spaces, and some irritating strobe lights. The underwhelming experience left me thinking about my favorite haunted houses in classic movies and why they're so much better than these attractions that pop up all over the place come Halloween.

For me, a good haunted house movie has several elements. One is atmosphere that I'm given time to appreciate. Another is a compelling narrative that explains the supernatural phenomena and creates a reason to care about the characters (including, ideally, the dead ones). I like weird effects more than gore; in fact, I'm not much on seeing anyone's intestines or brains, which is why I don't watch slasher films. I want my haunted house to have ghosts, not psychopaths (but I'll forgive the occasional psychopathic ghost). With those criteria, it's probably no surprise that my top shelf haunted house movie is...


Robert Wise's neurotically eerie horror classic wins hands down in the Haunted House Hall of Fame. It has everything, including deliriously Gothic atmosphere and a heroine who is going completely off the rails. Who can forget that moving door, an effect so simple and yet so unbelievable when you see it? I think everyone who runs a haunted house ought to be made to watch The Haunting a dozen times first (and don't let them anywhere near the dopey 1999 remake).


The slow burn of this ghost story might bore some viewers, but for me it's one of the best of the genre, combining elements of classic mystery with its spectral terrors. Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Gail Russell star as three people whose fates become entwined with that of a house inhabited by the spirits of the dead.  The Criterion Collection release of this film makes a grand Halloween treat for your plastic pumpkin.


OK, so this William Castle classic is not a very serious haunted house movie, but it's just so much fun, and it does offer a couple of great jump scares. That blind housekeeper gets me every time! Besides, Vincent Price and William Castle have to be on this list somewhere. It's just not Halloween without them. This is the go-to pick for a Halloween party where you want to laugh and shriek in equal measure.


Speaking of Vincent Price, I love the haunted house atmosphere and his Gothic villain in this supernatural tale, even if the adaptation of Anya Seton's novel has some structural issues. Gene Tierney plays Price's new bride, who only slowly comes to understand the ghostly terrors of her husband's home. This is a good one for Jane Eyre fans in particular; it was part of a wave of creepy Gothic romances that followed the 1940 success of Rebecca.

So, if you're looking for haunted houses this Halloween, I suggest you start with one of these instead of standing in line to hand over your cash for fifteen minutes with scary clowns. These are the movies whose worlds I wish a haunted house would take me through, where ghostly music plays and the things you don't see are a lot more terrifying than the things you do.

Looking for related classic horror posts? Try "The Gothic Influences of Disney's Haunted Mansion" and "The Housekeeper in the Gothic Film Tradition."

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Drug Store Delilah: Audrey Totter in TENSION (1949)

Audrey Totter is one of many actresses we naturally associate with noir; her best remembered films include noir classics like Lady in the Lake (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), and she also appears in a supporting role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Less well known than these other pictures is director John Berry’s 1949 MGM film, Tension, in which Totter stars as one of film noir’s nastiest femmes fatales, an adulterous wife who drives her milquetoast husband to change his identity and contemplate murder. While noir devotees may disagree about the overall merits of the picture, Tension undoubtedly provides Totter with a fabulously unrestrained example of the bad girl type, and her Claire Quimby merits a place in the film noir hall of dangerous dames right alongside Phyllis Dietrichson, Kathie Moffat, and Elsa Bannister.

Totter’s character, Claire, is the wife of Warren Quimby, a mild-mannered pharmacist played by Richard Basehart. While Warren works the late shift at an all-night drug store, Claire carries on an affair with a hairy lug named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough) because he has money and a more macho personality, and eventually she leaves Warren altogether. Humiliated by a confrontation with his wife’s lover, Warren plots an elaborate scheme to murder Barney, but his plans falter when he meets Mary (Cyd Charisse) and begins to fall in love with her, just as he finally realizes that his wife is no good.

From her very first appearance Totter oozes malice and selfishness; her viper’s eyes brim with disdain for her husband and the life he provides for them. Even the way she eats a sandwich reveals her crass, wasteful nature; she only takes a few bites of it before moving on to pie. For reasons we never quite grasp, Warren lives only to serve her, but she gives him the cold shoulder and sends him scurrying back to his customers. Freddie, the soda fountain jerk, recognizes her ability to wreck men’s lives without a second thought and begs her not to flirt with him. “Don’t stink me up,” he implores. Claire finds his fear of her amusing. “OK, Junior,” she says, even as she makes him lie to Warren when she leaves with another man.

Like many of noir’s bad women, Claire cares most about material possessions and status. “What’s better than money?” she asks early on, and she isn’t being sarcastic. Her eyes linger lustfully on a fur coat in a magazine, but she does nothing to help earn the money she wants to spend. She expects men to give her everything that she desires, and it’s clear that her husband isn’t measuring up. When Warren protests her appropriation of an expensive bottle of perfume from the pharmacy’s stock, she retorts, “A big guy would spend this much on me in one evening,” and then she proceeds to more or less take a bath in the stuff, daring her unhappy spouse to stop her. Claire dominates her husband with a baleful glare, constantly belittling and abusing him, even as she puts on her best, most feminine airs for Barney and, later, the homicide detective Collier Bonnabel.

In another key scene, Totter embodies the femme fatale’s rejection of bourgeois feminine ideals of domesticity and motherhood. Warren has secretly saved his money to buy the couple a real home in the suburbs, which he naively assumes is the kind of life Claire wants. When they arrive at the house, however, Claire refuses even to get out of the car. Once again giving Warren a poisonous stare, Claire drowns out his remonstrances and pleas by leaning on the car horn. She wants no part of middle-class monotony, and very shortly afterward she decamps with her lover, whose beachfront property offers something more like the constant party Claire imagines as the good life.

Audrey Totter’s performance really sells the depth and intensity of Claire’s rotten heart. She never lets us think that Claire has any real class; she’s a two-bit tramp through and through, ready to jump from one convenient lover to the next in order to look out for her own immediate interests. Like the painted doll she carries around with her, Claire is pretty but vulgar, and we’re not surprised late in the picture to learn that she has a long criminal record lurking in her past. Totter plays Claire without any redeeming qualities; she’s a lethal combination of vanity, greed, and deception. AndrĂ© Previn’s score also provides Claire with a slinky theme that highlights her lack of subtlety; whenever she enters a room the music reminds us that she’s all kinds of trouble, especially for Warren. Unlike many of noir’s other deadly dames, Claire never comes across as a strong character; instead, she is grasping and vicious because she is weak. A human parasite, she needs men to earn money for her, protect her, and lie for her, but even as she feeds off of them she poisons them with her own venomous nature.

Totter’s drug store Delilah makes Tension essential viewing for those interested in the femme fatale archetype, and the character provides a pointed contrast to Totter’s turn as the anguished, sympathetic wife in The Set-Up. Totter also offers a different take on the bad blonde in The Unsuspected (1947), in which she plays Claude Rains’ duplicitous, gold-digging niece. Although Audrey Totter never became a huge star, and her film career stalled in the 1950s, she made an indelible mark on film noir with her performances. When it came to being a bad girl, she was truly one of the best.

This essay originally appeared in The Dark Pages, a newsletter devoted to film noir. Follow the link to subscribe.