Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Shock of Horror Paperbacks

If you were a reader of the early FAMOUS MONSTERS magazines, the back pages would introduce you to a wondrous assortment of monster goodies available through the "Captain Company," located in Philadelphia. Aurora models, 8mm horror films, posters, and more were available for mail order. One of the most seductive offerings was for horror paperbacks, which were published with an envious frequency in those days from companies like Belmont, Ace and, perhaps the biggest publisher of the lot, Ballantine. The Ballantine horror series is memorable for not only being offered via FM's Captain Company, but for its covers, chiefly done by Richard Powers. It's difficult to describe Powers' style, but it was clearly a then modern take on horror illustration, one that abandoned traditional gothic elements to focus on weird design that was near abstract, and at times completely so.

Here is an example:

This is probably not a Powers cover, but this will give you another sense of the modernistic design of the Ballantine series:

The following will be an updated list of these Ballantine horror paperbacks, which some online websites call Ballantine's "Chamber of Horrors" series, a term I've seen used in a FAMOUS MONSTERS ad, but one that I've yet to see in a Ballantine paperback. I'm using old FAMOUS MONSTERS magazines, the actual paperbacks, and some online hunting to generate this list.

THE GRAVEYARD READER (1958, BB 257) - ed. Groff Conklin. Twelve stories and introduction.
DEALS WITH THE DEVIL (1959, BB 326) - ed. Basil Davenport
TALES TO BE TOLD IN THE DARK (1960, BB 380) - ed. Basil Davenport
INVISIBLE MEN (1960, BB 401) - ed. Basil Davenport
ZACHERLEY'S VULTURE STEW (1960, BB 417) - ed. Zacherley
THE DOLL MAKER (1960) - Sarban
SOME OF YOUR BLOOD (1961) - Theodore Sturgeon
THE OTHER PASSENGER (1961, BB 480) - John Keir Cross. Short stories.
THINGS WITH CLAWS (1961) - ed. Whit & Hallie Burnett
ZACHERLEY'S MIDNIGHT SNACKS (1961) - ed. Zacherley
NIGHTS BLACK AGENTS (June 1961, BB 508) - Fritz Leiber
TALES OF LOVE AND HORROR (1961, BB 522) - Don Congdon
THE CLOCK STRIKES 12 (1961, BB 531) - H. R. Wakefield
SARDONICUS (1961, BB 540) - Ray Russell
NOT LONG FOR THIS WORLD (1961, BB 542) - August Derleth
ALONE BY NIGHT (1961, BB 563) - Michael & Don Congdon
RINGSTONES (1961) - Sarban
NINE HORRORS (1962) - Joseph Payne Brennan
SURVIVOR AND OTHERS (1962) - August Derleth, H.P. Lovecraft
SHADOWS WITH EYES (1962) - Fritz Leiber. Six short stories.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Shock of Famous Monsters

The first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS appeared in 1958--February to be exact. The magazine was designed as a one-shot publication. Or so legend goes....

The special publication of the first "collector's edition" of FAMOUS MONSTERS by Ray Ferry's Filmland Classics gives everyone a ghoulden opportunity to own this replica in a durable format and study its contents and evaluate the magazine's importance in the Shock! Theater phenomenon. (You must have a copy, if you don't already. Order it here.)

The magazine followed by several months the dissemination of the Shock! TV package from Screen Gems to stations across the country. Without doubt, if not for the countrywide popularity, if not frenzy, for Shock!, the magazine known as FAMOUS MONSTERS would probably not have been attempted. The first issue of the magazine contains not only an article on the Shock! television phenomenon (titled "TV Means Terrifying Vampires"), but also lists on one full page the television stations that played the films from the Screen Gems catalog. Even the cover acknowledges Shock! by ending the list of magazine contents with "TV's Monster Parade."

Publisher Jim Warren must have been aware that offering a first of its type monster magazine to a public that was now watching monster films on TV and seeing them in the theater in such productions as I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF and INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN would be meeting a demand that was not being addressed by anyone in the publishing world. Such a publication could strike gold--and it did. The first run of the issue completely sold out, and a second printing had to follow to keep the horror-loving hordes satisfied. Warren also realized that the new horror phenomenon was being generated by young kids and teenagers, and so he had the magazine's editor, Forrest Ackerman, write to that audience, insisting on puns and levity to deter the magazine from being too dry and not fun enough. And that was the delightful template. The magazine was not just there to inform (which it did), it was also there for its readership to have a good time, while merging all in one community of budding monster kids.

[As an aside, let me state that this is the charm of FAMOUS MONSTERS, and a template that the magazine's current publisher/editor, Ray Ferry, has successfully adhered to. Make FAMOUS MONSTERS too laden with serious research and sophistication, and it is not FAMOUS MONSTERS any more. Make it too pun-filled and sophomoric, and it becomes a travesty. As in life, everything is a balance. Tip something to one side, and it falls--and fails.]

Now, as the legend goes, the first FAMOUS MONSTERS was intended as a one-shot. I don't believe that 100%. Let's look at the evidence. Pick up your copy of FM #1 and go to the back, page 66. Look at the bottom. There you will see a section from "The Monster Keeper" which asks several questions of the reader: "Which were your favorite articles in this magazine?" "What did you like least?".... and "Would you like to see another issue of a similar magazine?"

So FAMOUS MONSTERS was a "feeler," a way to gauge if the audience was there and then, if it was, to give them more. And more, much more was given. Till now we are closing in on issue #250, over fifty years on.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Inner Sanctum Mysteries

As Doubleday had its Crime Club series, so too did publisher Simon & Schuster have the Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Begun in the 1930s, Inner Sanctum Mysteries was a popular brand name for Simon & Schuster under which the company could release its books of mystery and suspense. On January 7, 1941, an Inner Sanctum radio program premiered. The radio show became quite successful, lasting for over ten years and featuring such actors as Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Orson Welles and--Frank Sinatra! The original Inner Sanctum radio show finished its run on October 5, 1952. Of critical importance was the host element of the show. At first it was "Raymond" (Raymond Edward Johnson), who could make audiences both shiver and laugh nervously with his wicked and sometimes pun-filled introductions and bridging segments. Later, "Raymond" was replaced by "Your Host/Mr. Host," played by Paul McGrath. (Raymond Edward Johnson had asked for too much money to continue, so....)

[Here's a page of free Inner Sanctum radio shows.]

The horror host show angle, which was also found in such horror radio programs as The Witch's Tale, was certainly laying the groundwork for the horror hosts during the SHOCK! THEATER television days. And much like traveling Spook Shows of the 1940s and 1950s, these horror radio shows became a thing of the past once television became popular and the public could watch horror movies instead of listening to dramatizations.

The Inner Sanctum brand name infiltrated very easily into the SHOCK! programming, as Universal had made six Inner Sanctum films in the 1940s, all starring one of the studio's top resident horror stars, Lon Chaney Jr., and all but one of these films was part of the SHOCK! package offered up by Screen Gems (which, of course, should be called Scream Gems for this post).

The six Universal films in the Inner Sanctum series were:


STRANGE CONFESSION was the film that didn't make it into the SHOCK! package. It is these films that, after the popular classic monster films, are the most remembered by SHOCK! THEATER devotees.

Universal's Inner Sanctum films were made available on DVD two years ago in a very nicely presented set and are much recommended. Though the films are not masterpieces, they are good old-fashioned B-film entertainments that are fun to watch (Lon Chaney Jr. gets major kudos here) and even intriguing and atmospheric at their best.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Shock! Theater Classics Magazine

A new magazine, SHOCK! THEATER CLASSICS, will make its debut June 28 (tomorrow). The publisher/editor/art designer is Ray Ferry, who has handled similar duties on FAMOUS MONSTERS for nearly fifty issues. The new magazine venture from Ferry was already known, but today the title was finally revealed on the Famous Monsters website and its companion Google group. Clearly a homage to the Shock Theater days, SHOCK! THEATER CLASSICS will cover the films and experiences that made the late 1950s and early 1960s so memorable to the "monster kids" growing up in that time.

For more about Ferry's vision for the magazine and ordering info go here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Crime Club Connection

In the late 1930s, Universal made a deal with book publisher Doubleday to use the publisher's The Crime Club imprint for a series of mystery films. Eleven in number were produced. Three of these, THE LAST WARNING, THE MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM, and THE WITNESS VANISHES, made it into the Shock! package. This is Universal's The Crime Club series:


Saturday, June 7, 2008

Before Shock!

I'm fascinated by what came before SHOCK! in the 1950s--what primed audiences to accept into their hearts and nightmares old Universal horror and mystery films when the SHOCK! package made its television debut in October, 1957.

This is a time-line, updated at times, of important horror film events that came before SHOCK!

Pre-1950s - 1950s: Spook Shows. One never hears of their influence upon the monster craze of the late 1950s, but surely spook shows, typically hosted by a magician, were the horror film host events of their time, drawing in packs of young people in theaters across the United States. Even Bela Lugosi had his own spook shows during this time. Perhaps not unexpectedly, spook shows began to die down as more and more monster fans sat home watching horror hosts and horror films on television.

1954 (April 30) - 1955 (April 2): THE VAMPIRA SHOW, airing on KABC-TV from Los Angeles. Soon after its premiere, major news magazines like LIFE and NEWSWEEK contained features on the show and its star, Maila Nurmi. TV GUIDE also devoted an article on the show. THE VAMPIRA SHOW appears to be the first horror hosted film show on television. 50 episodes were shown, with the films being of the public domain variety, like REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER, and FOG ISLAND. In the SHOCK! promotional book, a suggestion was made to have that package hosted by horror hosts.

1956: THE VAMPIRA SHOW is revived on another Los Angeles station, KHJ-TV.

1956 (May): A television showing of KING KONG in the NY City area was watched by about 90% of people with television sets, an extraordinary feat. This event may have been the prime influence for Screen Gems to get together their SHOCK! package.

1957 (June 19): I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF premieres, double-billed with INVASION OF THE SAUCER-MEN. The film will become a huge hit, one of the ten top grossing films of 1957. It's unlikely that the film had a chance to influence the release of the SHOCK!, considering that only four months separated the two events, but it certainly may have prepared audiences for the SHOCK! television package.

1957 (June 25): A week after the premier of the above, Hammer Films' CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN makes its first USA showing. It also is a significant success.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)

Shock Theater presents THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET....

As most Universal horror films, THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET starts off with delicious chiller atmosphere, expectantly foreshadowed by Hans Salter's familiar monster music played over surprisingly dull opening credits. It's gloomy and raining on Market Street, as a lone man stops on the corner and then proceeds cautiously to the ground floor office of a Dr. Ralph Benson. Within the office, he is greeted by Benson, played with his usual slimy efficiency by Lionel Atwill. We learn that the man is here to be used as an experimental subject for suspended animation. His payment: one thousand dollars for his starving family. Dr. Benson assures him that the experiment will be successful. Of course, it isn't, and as the police arrive in the morning, alerted by the man's wife, Dr. Benson makes his escape through a window....

It's difficult not to feel annoyed that Universal could not maintain the same level of tension and atmosphere throughout the rest of the movie. With an ever-growing emphasis on the more humorous characters of the film whom we are introduced to on a ship in which Dr. Benson makes his escape from England, MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET struggles to find a focus. In his last starring role, Lionel Atwill is the film's only welcome presence, but his devilish intensity and fiery briskness is depressed by the lackluster story. The male "hero" (hard to call him that as the character is emasculated from the start), played by Richard Davies, is the worst such male lead character in any Universal horror film I have seen.

In its original theatrical run, MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET was the lower half of a double bill toplined by THE WOLF MAN.

All of the film's effective moments come in the early Market Street scenes, which last perhaps a scant seven minutes. Clearly, the Mad Doctor should never have left Market Street.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Where are the Shocks?

While the majority of the films in the SHOCK! package have been released on DVD, a good number are only available on out-of-circulation videos or bootlegs--and a few are unavailable anywhere.

Shock films missing in action on DVD, but not on video:

House of Horrors
The Mad Ghoul
The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Shock films only available from select "grey-market" dealers:

The Cat Creeps
Chinatown Squad
The Great Impersonation
The Last Warning
The Mad Doctor of Market Street
The Man Who Cried Wolf
The Mystery of Marie Roget
Mystery of the White Room
Reported Missing!
The Secret of the Blue Room
Secret of the Chateau
The Spider Woman Strikes Back
The Spy Ring
The Strange Case of Doctor Rx
The Witness Vanishes

Shock films currently unavailable:

Danger Woman
A Dangerous Game
Destination Unknown
Sealed Lips

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The SHOCK! Package

Pictured above is the front cover of the promotional spiral-bound book released by Columbia's television division, Screen Gems, for its original SHOCK! package. The SHOCK! library consisted of 52 films, all from Universal's vaults:

The Black Cat
Calling Dr. Death
The Cat Creeps
Chinatown Squad
Danger Woman
A Dangerous Game
Dead Man's Eyes
Destination Unknown
Dracula's Daughter
Enemy Agent
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
The Frozen Ghost
The Great Impersonation
Horror Island
House of Horrors
The Invisible Man
The Invisible Man Returns
The Invisible Ray
The Last Warning
The Mad Doctor of Market Street
The Mad Ghoul
Man Made Monster
The Man Who Cried Wolf
The Mummy
The Mummy's Ghost
The Mummy's Hand
The Mummy's Tomb
Murders in the Rue Morgue
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
The Mystery of Marie Roget
Mystery of the White Room
Night Key
Night Monster
Pillow of Death
The Raven
Reported Missing!
Sealed Lips
The Secret of the Blue Room
Secret of the Chateau
She-Wolf of London
Son of Dracula
Son of Frankenstein
The Spider Woman Strikes Back
The Spy Ring
The Strange Case of Doctor Rx
Weird Woman
Werewolf of London
The Witness Vanishes
The Wolf Man