Friday, December 31, 2010


Old World vampire gothic meets New World Southern Gothic in SON OF DRACULA. It's an interesting idea, right? Transplant the Germanic expressionism of the Carpathian foothills to the Dark Oaks plantation in the Deep South and let's see what happens...

For me, a lot of it works: the cellar under the Caldwell mansion is a great place to stash coffins, as is the old playroom in the disused attic and the swamp drainage flumes. And then there's the great ambiance of the family graveyard on the estate and the old shack of the hoodoo conjure-woman Queen Zimba. Kay Caldwell (Louise Allbritton)-- all jet-black bangs and diaphanous gowns and a "morbid" (as we're told a bunch of times by different characters) obsession with the occult-- is some sort of character that you might find threatening the heroine in one of those pre-Anne Rice gothic romance potboilers. In general, I think the Southern setting works a helluva lot better in SON OF DRACULA than it does in THE MUMMY'S CURSE (1944).

Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale, IL, July 1, 1960

The relocation of the vampire from Europe to the USA may have had something to do with the motion picture being a wartime production. There are a couple times in SON OF DRACULA when the comment is made that the vampire has left the Old Country because the land and its people are barren, weak and exhausted; America, by contrast, is a "younger country, stronger, more virile" (in the words of Dr. Brewster). Alucard materializes and confirms this theory in his conversation with Professor Lazlo: "I am here because this is a young and virile race, not dry and decaying like ours," he tells the Hungarian. "They have what I want...what I need...what I must have." For a bit of historical context, recall that the Kingdom of Hungary was run by a right-wing, pro-fascist Axis government when SON OF DRACULA was in production; when the movie first appeared on TV as part of SHOCK!, Hungary had been very recently invaded and occupied by the USSR after a failed attempt by its people to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime there. I don't want to make too much of this, but it seems like an interesting way to re-imagine the vampiric threat: America's youthful vigor, vitality, and virility menaced by a symbol of fascism during WWII and then later by a symbol of Stalinism during the Cold War. (This latter connection for SHOCK!-era viewers of SON OF DRACULA also makes me think of that other vampire-from-behind-the-Iron-Curtain movie from the same time, THE RETURN OF DRACULA [1958] from Gramercy Pictures and United Artists.)

"Hey, wait a minute... I wonder if...?"

"Nah, it just couldn't be..."

"But that's what the TV guide in the El Paso Herald-Post for June 28, 1958 says! It must be!"

I can't help but think what this film would have been like if someone other than Lon Chaney, Jr. played Count Alucard (or, as Frank Stanley [Robert Paige] sometimes sounds like he's pronouncing it in this movie, "Count À La Carte"). This is another instance of Chaney being painfully miscast. At "six foot, three and one-half inches tall and weighing 220 pounds" (according to the SHOCK! promotional book's news release on Chaney), this doesn't look like the starving, desperate vampire refugee from a weak, dry, decaying race. Chaney goes for the mysterious, dangerous European vampire look by sporting that suave John Waters mustache from the "Inner Sanctum" pictures and spouting contraction-less English (as opposed to the article-free pidgin English he used to play a Native American in the 1957 series "Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans"), neither which are very effective in making anyone think that he's someone other than Lon Chaney, Jr. One positive thing that I will say about Chaney's Alucard, though, is that his hysterical outburst at the end of the movie (bellowing at Frank : "Put it out! Put it out, do you hear me?!") makes me think of the ways that Christopher Lee would play a more ferocious, feral Dracula in the Hammer films starting in 1958.

I need to say a little something here about director Robert Siodmak. Just as his brother Curt has his fingerprints all over the development of the classic American horror film, Robert Siodmak was a key figure in film noir, directing important movies in that highly-stylized manner like PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE KILLERS (1946), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), CRISS CROSS (1949), and THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN (1950). In each of these movies (and in his other quasi-noir melodramas, like THE SUSPECT [1944], THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY [1945], and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE [1945]), Siodmak includes a scene or two where he goes all-out to craft an almost haunted, symbol-laden mise-en-scène of space and shadow that says a lot about the interior world of the characters on the screen, and you can see some of this skill in parts of SON OF DRACULA.

This movie was Siodmak's first after signing a long-term contract with Universal in 1943 (within a year, he would direct Chaney in Technicolor in COBRA WOMAN) and just a few months prior to his exquisite work with cinematographer Woody Bredell on PHANTOM LADY. With this mind, I like to watch SON OF DRACULA with an eye to its film noir elements: as we learn in the jailhouse scene, Kay is the femme fatale who has been deceiving Alucard in order to gain immortality; she confesses that she really has loved Frank all along, despite her whirlwind romance with and wedding to Alucard. Frank, the typical masochist noir protagonist who is ruined by guilt, teetering on the edge of insanity, and in jail for murder, is love-sick and isn't turned off at all by this revelation. Kay convinces Frank to destroy Alucard so that they can be together forever. Frank does away with Alucard, but then double-crosses Kay and destroys her as well, but not before he lovingly slips a wedding ring on her finger. What a sap. It's not hard for me to imagine Louise Allbritton's Kay as Yvonne De Carlo, Robert Paige as Burt Lancaster, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dan Duryea in some alternate-universe version of Siodmak's CRISS CROSS, or as Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, and Richard Rober in THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN. SON OF DRACULA lacks the claustrophobic sexual tension and overdetermined Freudian mumbo-jumbo of Siodmak's later work, but I still think it's an interesting near-crossover of horror and noir sensibilities.

"Behind the Frisco fog lurk treachery and death. See the exciting thrill of the underworld battling the CHINATOWN SQUAD on Shock over this channel. It's an action-filled feature film premiere that will keep you gripping your seat with excitement."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN was re-released by Realart in 1949 and frequently ran in movie theaters right up until its appearance on TV as part of the SHOCK! program beginning in 1957. It was most often paired with DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, but it turned up as well alongside THE MAD GHOUL, THE MUMMY'S CURSE, and THE MUMMY'S GHOST. FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN was also a familiar offering in those years at cinemas that ran late-night spook shows and kiddie matinees.

Daily Times-News, Burlington, NC, April 28, 1951

Hamilton [OH] Daily News Journal, March 16, 1957
That's not a bad way to spend a quarter on a Saturday afternoon...

Like GODZILLA VS. KING KONG (1962), the title alone would be enough to drum up excited anticipation for FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN; the prospect of seeing Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man whale the tar out of each other almost certainly sold a lot of tickets. Maybe seeing it in a movie theater with a lot of rambunctious kids hopped-up on refreshment-stand goodies on a Saturday afternoon or with nervously giggling popcorn-munching teenagers on a date-night makes all the difference with this movie, but watching it by yourself on television only emphasizes its faults.

Lima [OH] News, February 14, 1959

(...still, I'd rather watch FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN on WTOL-Toledo on Saturday night's Shock Theater than WTVN-Columbus' option of ENEMY AGENT. Channel 10's mystery movie WHO IS HOPE SCHUYLER? [1942] is not so bad, though... )

I'm not sure who to blame for this messy, de-centered movie-- Curt Siodmak's script is sloppy, but maybe producer George Waggner forced some last-minute changes that account for the biggest disappointments here. Tom Weaver and the Brunas brothers explain in Universal Horrors that one of the major changes was the excising of all the scenes of dialogue between Béla Lugosi's Monster and Lon Chaney, Jr.'s Larry Talbot; in so doing, a lot of plot exposition goes missing (I don't know how many times I had seen the movie before I realized that the Monster was supposed to be blind from the previous Frankenstein film). It also explains many of the odd aspects of Lugosi's performance as the Monster-- let's give the guy the benefit of the doubt and say that the edited-out dialogue would've made him appear less bizarre in his acting than he seems in the pantomime version that was released. Editing out those scenes make this already Wolf Man-centered film even more so, raising the question as to why this wasn't called THE WOLF MAN MEETS FRANKENSTEIN. (That this film is included in Universal's 2004 "Legacy Series" DVD set for the Wolf Man rather than Frankenstein underscores this.)

The germ of the idea that Talbot is searching the ruins of Frankenstein castle for the means of death after being buried alive for four years is good and grim, and this should give the movie a pop-existentialist tang. But that gets crowded out by all the other threads of the story, none of which are given much development, such as the changes that the Baroness Frankenstein (Ilona Massey) goes through in the course of the film and, even more mysterious, the motivations behind Dr. Frank Mannering's (Patric Knowles) actions. (What's more highly compressed in this movie? Mannering's decision to give up his post in a Cardiff hospital to chase Talbot? His switch to completely believing Talbot's "Oh, but I'm a werewolf!" story after all rather than continuing to insist that it is a lycanthropic delusion? His love affair with the Baroness? His decision to become a monster-maker?)

In addition to the holes and confusion within the story itself, there are also problems with FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN being able follow the larger story-line arcs laid out in FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. But that's really not worth squabbling about-- a couple weeks back in comments to my post on THE MUMMY'S HAND, the argument came up that the non-chronological showing of films in the SHOCK! package meant that viewers experienced these films as discrete, stand-alone stories that couldn't be tied to any sort of narrative continuity that carried from one film in the series to the next. And that's probably the only way to view FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN in the end.

What works best about this movie for me, though, are some of the sets in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN which create such an iconic monster-movie mood when I see them. For example, the Hollywood gothic Llanwelly cemetery might be the best graveyard scene in the Universal horror movie canon. (By the way, does anyone know how Talbot got from the cemetery to Cardiff and how he got that nasty head wound in the first place?) I also groove on the Frankenstein ice caves and the burned-out ruined cellar laboratory. And even though it is such a hokey-looking miniature, I still always love the castle at the foot of the dam-- just seeing it conjures up the sheer thrill of watching this movie on TV despite all of the disappointments.

NEXT: "Alucard or Dracula? It doesn't matter which way you look at it when Shock brings to your screen SON OF DRACULA. You won't want to miss Lon Chaney and Louise Allbritton in this chill-drama about that famous vampire. It's a feature film presentation."

Monday, December 27, 2010

More ad mats/new clippings for SF's NIGHTMARE

Michael Monahan (Doktor Goulfinger) graciously sent this blog more ads and a newspaper clipping for San Francisco's NIGHTMARE Shock showings. Note the plans for a "Tales of Frankenstein" TV show with Boris Karloff. This eventually became the Hammer/Screen Gems pilot starring Anton Diffring.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


"Two of the world's most fearsome horror creatures combine their wickedness to provide a double measure of chills and thrills in the Shock full-length feature FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. See it on this channel!"

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Probably as a result of the popularity of SHOCK!, rumors began to spread in 1958 that a number of horror and sci-fi shows were being planned for the new Fall season. When autumn came, some TV writers mentioned how surprised they were that so few of these programs actually turned up on the small screen. One of those that did was a half-hour British television series that had been picked up by CBS called "The Invisible Man." CBS first began airing it in early November 1958, not too long after Universal's THE INVISIBLE MAN first appeared on TV as part of SHOCK! films.

Indiana [PA] Evening Gazette, Wednesday December 3, 1958

Directly below that listing, this movie theater double-feature ad appeared:

What a fun couple of days that must have been in Indiana, PA!

Unlike Universal's remarkable horror film of the same name, the TV series "The Invisible Man" was a fantasy-spy show. Rather than a crazed chemist going on a murderous rampage, the scientist in the television series is a respectable, trusted, and stable chap who agrees to do Cold War missions for British intelligence after he has been irreversibly rendered transparent in a lab accident involving radioactive materials. Originally, CBS had intended to follow "The Invisible Man" on Wednesday nights with a second fantasy-spy series called "World of Giants"; produced by Ziv, "World of Giants" featured a secret agent who had been miniaturized down to six inches following his exposure to experimental missile fuel while behind the Iron Curtain, an obvious take-off on THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957). The pairing of "The Invisible Man" and "World of Giants" on CBS never happened because of the programming emergency that erupted in 1958 when a series of corruption scandals connected to TV quiz shows forced abrupt cancellations that had networks scrambling to fill slots. ("World of Giants" ended up being first-run in syndication in Fall 1959 rather than on network telecast.)

"The Invisible Man" show was the creation of Ralph Smart, who later went on to make the great "Danger Man" ("Secret Agent" in the US) series with Patrick McGoohan. A young Brian Clemens worked as a writer on "The Invisible Man," as well; Clemens is responsible for a number of classic action-adventure British TV series of the 1960s and 1970s, such as "The Avengers," "The Protectors," "The Professionals," and "The Persuaders." Despite such an impressive pedigree, however, "The Invisible Man" didn't impress: one syndicated TV columnist dismissed it out of hand as "juvenile" fare, while another writer for UPI called it "really more of a short-circuit" than "a shocker." The critic goes on to say that "it's not that there isn't a kernel of an idea in the Invisible Man bit. Witness the crackly old Claude Rains movie." The TV series, however, is "completely uncrackly" because the writing "is simply absurd-- heavy-footed and clodpated."

I admit that I wasn't too sure what was meant by "crackly" in this context, but after looking it up (I also had to look up "clodpated," which I first read as "coldplated," for some reason), I think that it is a good adjective to describe Uni's THE INVISIBLE MAN: the writing of the dialogue and the action is crisp, sharp, sprightly, neat, and clever. Even on television and interrupted with commercials, the movie clips along nicely and keeps you engaged. The same can't be said of the episodes of "The Invisible Man" that I watched on-line-- television, of course, has always been (and still is) a stiflingly conservative medium, so it's probably unfair in the first place to even think that a TV show about a heroic British spy could compete with the late-night movie lunacy of this James Whale motion picture.

In addition to the crackly writing, you also have to marvel at some of the performances that Whale drew from his cast. Claude Rains' Jack Griffin dominates the proceedings with his manic mood swings from growling threats to hysterically over-the-top proclamations ("Even the Moon is frightened of me!"), all of which is punctuated by his tittering cackles and megalomaniacal braying. I find these outbursts to be equally unnerving and funny during his freak-outs, and it's hard to keep your eyes off of this see-through terrorist. But I also really like William Harrigan's performance as Kemp in the almost totally wordless scenes when he first encounters the unseen naked maniac. Harrigan's physical reactions as he interacts with another actor that is not actually in his study (as well as the later scene where he walks from the car to the Lion's Head to retrieve Griffin's notebooks) is a very convincing performance (Harrigan's later hysterical scenes with the police aren't at all as interesting).

Whale's film is dense with these kinds of fabulous things, all of which add up to make THE INVISIBLE MAN so compellingly watchable. Watering all that down into a half-hour spy show is just a bad idea all around since comparisons would be inevitable, and one needed only turn in to SHOCK! to see the superior original.

Gazette-Mail, Charleston WV, November 15, 1959

A final note: the other day I saw TCM's annual musical memorial montage listing many of the prominent film folks who have passed away during the previous year. Naturally, TCM editors chose something from TITANIC to commemorate Gloria Stuart (who died in late September at the age of 100) and that's a completely understandable decision. But wouldn't it have been great to show her in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM or THE INVISIBLE MAN? Whale doesn't give her much to do in THE INVISIBLE MAN except look luminescent and outrageously desirable, but she does that so well...

NEXT: "Two of the world's most fearsome horror creatures combine their wickedness to provide a double measure of chills and thrills in the Shock full-length feature FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. See it on this channel!"

Monday, December 20, 2010


"Now you see him --- now you don't! That's what you'll see or think you see in Shock's THE INVISIBLE MAN telecast on this channel!"

Saturday, December 18, 2010


I'll say it again: THE MAD GHOUL is the best PRC horror movie that Universal ever made. It's every bit as strange and oddly engaging as any Poverty Row monster movie of the 1940s that you can name, but it's got all the brand-name (B-unit) trappings of Universal Studios to give it that little bit extra and deliver a lasting, satisfying, and fun film. Although it was probably pretty forgettable as the second-banana feature in the cinemas in 1943 to SON OF DRACULA, THE MAD GHOUL--- complete with grave robbing, corpse desecration, and the best treatment ever of an unfunny, wisecracking, comic-relief news reporter--- might be the ideal, archetypal selection for a horror movie shown on late-night TV.

Creepy middle-aged chemistry professor Alfred Morris (George Zucco) is sexually obsessed with young, beautiful concert singer Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers); he delusionally thinks that the feelings are mutual, and so to move things along, he sets out to dismantle Isabel's engagement to a promising surgery student named Ted Allison (David Bruce). Morris hires Ted as a laboratory assistant and deliberately exposes him to a nerve gas vapor that had been developed for religious rituals by the ancient Mayans. Anyone who inhales these fumes is robbed of his consciousness and his will, and he is left as a sort of living-dead zombie slave. To pull the dead-alive out of this eventually terminal state of being, the Mayans had concocted a blend of herbs and the blood-clotting agents extracted from a recently-deceased heart, and Morris has mastered this ancient secret as well.

Once Ted has been zombified, Morris figures that he can order him to break off the engagement with Isabel. But his plan to move in on the singer gets sidelined when he discovers that the remedy's effects are only temporary: it appears that Ted collapses back into zombie-slave mode following a period of intense emotional stress, and that forces Morris to march Ted off to the nearest cemetery and dig up a fresh heart to revert him back to his normal self.

Rather than simplifying his love life, Morris finds that he's made things more complicated for himself. Ted insists on following Isabel around on her concert tour like a stalky puppy dog and Morris tags along. Isabel, meanwhile, has fallen in love with her smarmy-suave Continental accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey), but she hasn't worked up the nerve to tell Ted about it because of his spells of unexplained illness. In between attending Isabel's recitals and plundering the graves of the recently deceased to steal the corpses' hearts, a desperate Morris finally decides to use Ted to kill Eric so that he can pounce on Isabel, but by then a couple of wise-ass reporters and a couple of clueless police detectives have started to close in on this morbid lovers' quadrangle.

My summary of THE MAD GHOUL doesn't come close to explaining how grisly and weirdly delirious the whole thing gets, and it is those quality that brings to mind some of the "suspenstories" that might be found in the old EC anthology titles like The Haunt of Fear or The Vault of Horror. But like I said at the outset, THE MAD GHOUL also makes me think of some of my favorite Poverty Row monster & mystery movies of the early 1940s. I have a genuine affection for many of those low-budget quickies churned out by the likes of PRC, Monogram, Republic, and Invincible/Chesterfield; there's a sort of underdog charm that always wins me over when I watch these movies that allows me to accept whatever bizarre and unlikely scenario is being presented therein and leaves me admiring their audaciousness--- for the sake of illustration, let me mention some favorite stuff of mine like THE CORPSE VANISHES, BLUEBEARD, FOG ISLAND, and THE FLYING LIZARD.

In previous posts on this blog, mention has been made of the movies hosted by Swami Drana Badour (Chicago's WBKB, 1950-52) and Vampira (LA's KABC, 1954-55) as a kind of pre-history of SHOCK! broadcasts. And if you look at those lists, you'll see that Poverty Row mysteries & horror films constituted the bulk of what was shown on TV before SHOCK!'s release in 1957. But even in the 1970s and 1980s, when there was so many more movies available for telecast on the weekly horror/sci-fi movie programs, there was still a stubborn smattering of Poverty Row horrors that would turn up and still satisfy--- as a recent example, there's the appearance of PRC's DEAD MEN WALK (1943) on TCM's "Underground" in November 2007. There's something so primitive and dreamlike about these claustrophobic soundstage-bound pictures that seem to work so well on late-night TV... it was as if they had been specially made to be seen by someone alone at night on a small television screen. This is the same vibe that I get off of THE MAD GHOUL: it feels like it had been produced as a made-for-TV movie designed to be shown on branded showcases like "Shock Theater" or "Creature Features" of the late 1950s and early 1960s where it would blend in easily with some of that other Poverty Row fare. Other B-movie Universal titles with a similar Poverty Row feel include NIGHT MONSTER (1942), MAN MADE MONSTER (1941), THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946) , HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946), and THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX (1942), all of which were included in SHOCK! and will be discussed in the weeks to come.

Gazette-Mail, Charleston, WV, Saturday November 8, 1959

As a footnote, I want to mention that at same time that THE MAD GHOUL was first appearing on television, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was released into theaters. In most of the ad mats, one of the tag lines coincidentally trumpeted: "Mad ghoul rules terror villa!" But in terms of theme (young person cruelly exploited by mad mentor), there are strong similarities between THE MAD GHOUL and AIP's I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957) and BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957).

NEXT: "Now you see him --- now you don't! That's what you'll see or think you see in Shock's THE INVISIBLE MAN telecast on this channel!"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Shock" Host Christopher Lee Introduces THE MUMMY'S HAND

A couple of decades late as a true Shock horror host, but Christoper Lee did introduce horror films on TV for Sci-fi Channel's "Classic Monsters Month" in 1994.

You can pick up the thrilling vibe that monster kids must have felt in Shock Theater times when the film (this time THE MUMMY'S HAND) actually starts, with the Universal logo, the familiar score kicking in, the credits....

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Nowadays if we were to compare THE MUMMY'S HAND to Universal's original THE MUMMY (1932), we would say that the 1940 film is neither a remake nor a sequel but rather a reboot of the franchise. Rebooting is what Hollywood studios do to re-center and re-engage with a property that they feel can still make money. The studio had recently undergone a fairly serious re-organization and the new regime was faced with a number of new commercial, aesthetic, and social realities. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) and THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) had been successful reboots of first-generation Uni monsters; THE MUMMY'S HAND was hoped to be a similar fresh start that could provide a new story arc : Im-Ho-Tep's atmospheric menace was replaced by the unstoppable supernatural killer Kharis; the thick, dreamlike gloom & doom of THE MUMMY was stripped out and replaced by the rough & tumble action-adventure of THE MUMMY'S HAND. Gone was the brooding Germanic dark Romance and in its place was substituted a plot line more akin to a Saturday matinee serial.

New York Times, October 8, 1958

But all this analysis is probably too esoteric and of little general interest for viewers of this film on TV. It was only much later that I was able to piece together why there were parts of THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY'S HAND that were so similar (the recycled hand-cranked-silent-film-looking origin scenes of the Mummy, for example) yet so completely different. But who cares? It was a Mummy movie--- how much more really needs to be said? When I first saw THE MUMMY'S HAND on television in the early 1970s, I had already seen mummy rampages on re-runs of my favorite cartoons, all of which were obviously inspired by the Universal Kharis series rather than the Im-Ho-Tep film, so everything looked like it should be to me.

"Curse of Anubis," from "Jonny Quest," originally broadcast in October 1964

Screen Gems had bundled together THE MUMMY (1932), THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940), THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1942), and THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944) for SHOCK! (THE MUMMY'S CURSE [1944] would show up on TV beginning in 1958 as part of Son of SHOCK!), but as yet I have not found a single station that aired the films of the SHOCK! package in the order of its theatrical release. Thus, if you were seeing these movies for the first time ever as a regular viewer of SHOCK!, then there was no telling what order you would see them in. It was probably just best in the interests of coherence to treat them as individual, stand-alone films rather than try to decipher them as part of a series. Leave chronologies and arc mythos to the detail-obsessed fanboy bloggers fifty-something years in the future.

As mentioned around here somewhere, kids really seem to connect somehow with Mummy movies and there's a lot to thrill young viewers here. (But let me get sidetracked for a minute: I watched this the other night with a nine year-old and her first question was: "But I thought the Mummy was ordered to kill everyone in the tents... how come he grabs the lady instead of killing her like he's supposed to?" She's right, of course--- at no point does Andoheb explicitly change his instructions; Kharis sort of improvises, roughs up Solvani, abducts Marta, and brings her back to the Temple of Karnak, where, out of nowhere, Andoheb decides to embalm her, marry her, and make her high priestess. Where did that plot point come from?) Kids probably also like the grating comic-relief sidekickery of Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), though I wonder if I ever did.

But as an adult, I think my favorite thing about this film is George Zucco. I always like his fanatical criminal style in movies from the 1930s and 1940s--- quiet, measured, articulate, intelligent, but always nuts. When it comes to movie villainy, it's no use competing against such a visually arresting figure as Tom Tyler's Mummy, so you would have to take a different road entirely, which is just what Zucco does with his urbane but insane Andoheb. But rather than scaring me, Zucco's bad guys bring me a kind of malevolently familiar comfort, like Vincent Price's Captain Robur or Gert Fröbe's Auric Goldfinger. (And put me down as a fan of Zucco's work in DARK STREETS OF CAIRO from the same year as THE MUMMY'S HAND.)

The score of THE MUMMY'S HAND (much of it rehashed from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN) really adds a lot of atmosphere to the picture, as does the the detailed ruins from GREEN HELL (1940) which are pressed into duty as the exterior and interior of the Temple of Karnak. Russell Gausman and Jack Otterson were busy together doing art direction and set design for THE MUMMY'S HAND, GREEN HELL, DARK STREETS OF CAIRO, and a bunch of other movies at Universal in 1940, so it's not surprising to see so much of their work being reworked for maximum efficiency and minimum cost on a wartime budget.

GREEN HELL, by the way, is a jungle adventure pic about some heavy-breathing explorers probing Brazilian rain forests at the Amazon's headwaters; in addition to having ugly run-ins with some laughable natives from Central Casting, they also encounter the forgotten ruins of an ancient city that hide some treasure. It's amusing to see that the crackerjack archeologists in THE MUMMY'S HAND are nonplussed by the discovery of all this Egypto-Incan architecture and art; perhaps they all adhere to the "ancient alien astronaut" theory of world civilizations popularized by Erich von Däniken which explains such similarities and connections as the result of an extraterrestrial cargo cult from thousands of years ago --- that's why everyone is so nonchalant about the bizarre cultural cross-pollination on display in the Valley of the Seven Jackals. All that silliness aside, though, it still looks cool as hell in this movie and it is used to good effect. I remember the climax being particularly suspenseful when I first saw it on TV.

Brazosport Facts, Freeport, TX, Sunday August 23, 1959

I've reproduced this Freeport, TX listing only because I find it so evocative of what used to be so weird and wonderful about late-night television. These days, of course, many cable channels re-run shows at these hours that they had telecast earlier in the day, or else they sell off these blocks of time to that nemesis of us night-owl TV watchers--- infomercials and paid religious programming. Looking at this listing from 1959, you see that, for one thing, stations used to "sign off" of the air; if you stayed up to watch "Shock" on this Sunday night, there followed five minutes of news headlines and then the sign-off with the anthem (if you've never seen one, here's a recreation featuring a pre-1959 National Anthem film). I'm especially intrigued by Channel 13's one-minute "Wanted by the FBI" broadcast at 2:15 AM-- I want to imagine that it was a different profile of some hunted desperado that the station provided every night just before sign-off: "...and is sought in nine states for a series of horrific and random axe murders. Please contact the FBI if you have any information. Good night and pleasant dreams!"

NEXT: "For spine-tingling thrills tune in to this channel when Shock presents the full-length feature film THE MAD GHOUL. George Zucco plays a crazed scientist who brews a poison that terrorizes a nation. It's exciting entertainment so don't miss it!"

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Speculative History of the "Shock Monster" Mask

At the end of 1957, the ratings data strongly indicated that there was a Monster Culture revolution brewing. SHOCK! had boosted the ratings for KTLA-TV in Los Angeles from seventh to second place; WABC-TV jumped from sixth to first place in the NYC market. Most famously, KRON-TV in San Francisco had increased its ranking 807% with the SHOCK! films. It wasn’t long before the popularity of monster movies on television spawned other media manifestations, the most beloved of which were monster movie magazines for kids.

One such mag was Famous Monsters of Filmland, launched in February 1958 by publisher James Warren and editor Forrest J. Ackerman. FM's pages were crammed with reproductions of publicity stills and promotional material for horror movies going back to the age of silent movies. Brief articles covered the work of classic horror movie actors and provided extended explanations of movie plots as well as some production notes. FM was wildly popular with the younger generation of monster-movie lovers, many of whom caught the bug by seeing these films for the first time on SHOCK!--- the first issue of FM had an article called “TV’s Monster Parade,” in fact.

publisher James Warren in a Topstone mask on issue #1 of FM

Warren Publishing set up its own in-house mail-order service, Captain Company, which advertised in the pages of FM and the subsequent other titles of the Warren publishing line. For kids who couldn’t find any monster-related goods at their local department stores, Captain Company mail order must have seemed like paradise: posters, monster novelties, model kits, magazines, costumes, Super 8 reel versions of monster movies, and other fascinating outré items.

Warren expected to turn a much higher profit with Captain Company items than he did with the 35-cent magazine itself. It is not uncommon today to hear old-timers complain that they had been bilked out of their hard-earned allowance money because the Captain Company’s sensationalistic come-on ads were not always completely accurate accounts of the item purchased. (Personally, my bitterest rip-off memories involved sending away for a completely cool “giant life-size moon monster” for a $1 in the summer of 1969, but that scam wasn’t the work of Captain Company.)

Masks made by the Topstone company were among the most popular items sold by the Captain Company in the pages of FM. Topstone’s full-face latex masks were inexpensive ($2.00 plus .25 postage) and usually avoided movie studio licensing fees by presenting monsters and fiends who were not directly tied to specific motion pictures, such as “Gorilla Monster,” “Lagoon Monster,” “Horrible Melting Man,” “Savage Cannibal,” and “Girl Vampire.” One of the masks was called “Shock Monster.”

According to the Topstone catalog from 1956, the mask was originally called “Horror Zombie.” “Horror Zombie” was designed (and perhaps also sculpted) by commercial illustrator Keith Ward (1906-2000); some of Ward’s other creations that left an impact on US pop culture include the drawings of Elsie the cow (Borden’s Milk) and Elmer the bull (Elmer’s Glue, originally owned by Borden as well). But once “Horror Zombie” began appearing as an item for sale in the Captain Company advertisements in FM, the name of the mask was changed to “Shock Monster”; some collector cognescenti argue that it was Warren himself who was responsible for the name change in 1958.

With the close relationship between Famous Monsters and the SHOCK! broadcasts, I think that we can explain the name change from “Horror Zombie” to “Shock Monster” as an attempt to tap into the enthusiasm that the Captain Company’s customer base had for the SHOCK! movies. In other words, the “Shock Monster” mask sold through Warren’s mail-order operation was specifically meant to be SHOCK!’s monster mascot.
original color image from the 1960 Topstone company catalog

a private collector's foamed Topstone "Shock Monster" mask

Of course, the actual mask itself was a bit of a disappointment compared to Ward’s fantastic illustration. Nevertheless, there is a kind of bizarre art brut primitivism to that mask that is compelling and disturbing. Putting aside its historical/nostalgia value, the mask is interesting to look at because it is so childlike in its creepiness. In many ways, I would find a person wearing this cheap $2.00 mask to be more upsetting than one sporting one of those elaborately-designed and realistically-rendered monster masks that sell for a couple hundred dollars at high-end costume shops every Halloween.

Into the 1960s and even the 1970s, the Shock Monster became a recognizable and iconic face of the FM vanguard’s stake in the Horror Culture Revolution, appearing in Warren magazine graphics, t-shirts, decals, and other items--- you can easily imagine it painted on a hot rod in the mid-1960s. Unlike a t-shirt with a Frankenstein Monster face or a Dracula face design, the Shock Monster could not be identified with any specific film story. The Shock Monster was an unknown, free-floating symbol of excitement for monsters rather than a plug for any specific horror film product. He was, in a sense, an indie monster whose only connection was to the experience of the weekly “Shock Theater” or “Creature Feature” or “Nightmare” movies.

{Information for this blog post was culled from the pages of the Universal Monster Army forum and the Halloween Mask Association forum. Both of these sites are frequented by collectors of all kinds of Horror Culture memorabilia; I have found that many of the folks there are knowledgeable and can be very forthcoming with information about these items.}

Thursday, December 9, 2010


THE FROZEN GHOST is the fourth of the six "Inner Sanctum" pictures made between 1943 and 1945. These films were were popular money-makers for Universal and were re-released and in theatrical circulation right up to their appearances on TV in 1957 and 1958. Personally, I don't think that the series was very good and I don't think that they warrant consideration as "horror films," but to include them in the Screen Gems SHOCK! assortment makes sense because these were titles with a proven track record of attracting viewers.

Of the six movies, I think that I dislike THE FROZEN GHOST the most. It really exasperated me the last time that I saw it (about fifteen months ago)--- I lost my patience with it and dismissed it as sloppy, shoddy, apathetic filmmaking from professionals who know better but obviously just didn't care.

Salina [KS] Journal, April 7, 1959

Stage hypnotist Alex Gregor “the Great” (Lon Chaney, Jr.) blames himself for the death of a heckler who he had tried to entrance on his top-rated radio program. Feeling guilty that he murdered the man by squinting and staring at him, Gregor breaks off his engagement with his performance partner Maura (a pregnant Evelyn Ankers, trying not to show) and quits his show. To help Gregor get back on his feet again, his business manager George Keene (Milburn Stone) arranges a job for him as a researcher and tour guide at Madame Monet’s wax museum. Valerie Monet (Tala Birell) has the hots for Gregor and is jealous of Maura; she’s also jealous of the attention that her assistant (and niece) Nina (Elena Verdugo) gets from the mopey, dopey Gregor. To make the romantic entanglements even more absurd, add in Rudi Polden (Martin Kosleck), a disgraced and de-licensed plastic surgeon who does all the sculpting at the wax museum and who is obsessed with Nina and resentful of Gregor.

Monet disappears after a quarrel with Gregor; Gregor can’t remember exactly what happened because he blacked-out (or had an amnesiac episode or something or other), so he naturally assumes that he killed her by screwing up his eyes at her like he did the heckler. Police inspector Brant (Douglass Dumbrille) investigates, but he seems far more interested in impressing Rudi with his command of Shakespearean monologues than he is in finding the body of Monet. And then Nina disappears, but for some reason Gregor doesn't blame himself for that one. A knife gets thrown at Gregor while searching for Nina, but he sort of shrugs it off and runs off to Maura's apartment instead of trying to figure out who had just tried to kill him. In the end, Gregor reunites with Maura for more telepathic squinting and the truth is revealed.

The "hypnotic eyes...crawling with madness!" promised by the theatrical poster

Despite the title, there is no ghost in the movie. Nor is there anything frozen. At best, there's a corpse that's kept cool in an air-conditioned room, but that's a far cry from the Chaney-in-a-block-of-ice ballyhoo that Universal recommended to theater operators in 1945:

ridiculous publicity stunt suggestion from Universal in 1945

If I had seen THE FROZEN GHOST for the first time on television in the late 1950s, I may have blamed its multiple gaps in narrative logic and continuity on interruptions by commercial advertising--- perhaps the TV station needed to cut holes in the movie to make room for the commercials and that's why it doesn't make much sense, I would've guessed. But watching this now on DVD reveals how generous an excuse that would have been.

More than likely, though, I would've overlooked the faults in basic story-telling because of the wax museum setting. Warner Bros.'s HOUSE OF WAX, a 3-D film starring Vincent Prince as the owner-operator of a sinister wax museum, had come out in April 1953 and had caused a bit of a sensation; presumably some of the SHOCK!-watchers in the late 1950s had seen and remembered HOUSE OF WAX, so maybe the eerie lure of haunted waxworks would've made up for the gaping plot deficiencies.

Wax museums are unsettling places, after all. They seem like an ideal setting for a horror movie because of all the not-alive-but-not-dead figures that populate them. Sigmund Freud wrote an interesting essay about this in 1919 called "The Uncanny," and it may be one of the things that he actually got right. Puppets, mannequins, waxworks figures, animatronic robots, ventriloquist dummies, hyper-realistic lifesize sculptures... there's something "not right" about these things that can be disturbing on a really deep psychological level, and a good horror movie can exploit that. Out of curiosity, I checked IMDb under the key word "wax museum" and came up with a bunch of titles: MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, TERROR IN THE WAX MUSEUM, MIDNIGHT AT MADAME TUSSAUD'S, NIGHTMARE IN WAX, MIDNIGHT MANHUNT, the "Waxworks" segment of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, CHARLIE CHAN AT THE WAX MUSEUM, DAS WACHSFIGURENKABINETT, and many others.

I've seen a lot of those films, and the "chamber of horrors" stuff done in them is often quite atmospheric, but unfortunately, Madame Monet's wax museum in THE FROZEN GHOST is not all that interesting or creepy. It would appear that Monet's house of wax features random (if not haphazard) tableaux from history (Attilla the Hun, Genghis Khan, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette) and literature (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Lady MacBeth), as well as scenes of very recent squalid local domestic homicides that Inspector Brant worked on. It's a less than impressive collection, and it is that kind of squandered opportunity for chills which underscores the general frustration that I feel with a number of elements in THE FROZEN the very least, they could have gotten the creepy wax museum part right, you know? Still, I hope that it was enough to spook SHOCK! viewers in 1958.

El Paso [TX] Herald, July 12, 1958

The SHOCK! promotional book's material on THE FROZEN GHOST included a "TV News Release" story--- perhaps since the SHOCK! movies ran in many markets immediately following the evening news, it was hoped that such a fake story would provide a lead-in for the newscast viewers and coax them to hang around for the movie. The news story for THE FROZEN GHOST is titled "Lon Chaney Without Horror," and reads in part:

"It isn't often that Lon Chaney is given an opportunity to play a sympathetic part on the screen and to appear without the disguise of 'horror' makeup. This opportunity is given him in THE FROZEN GHOST, the Shock feature film presentation to be telecast on this channel [...] As a further change from custom, he gets the girl--- in this case, blonde and beautiful Evelyn Ankers [...] Harold Young directs an excellent cast in support of Mr. Chaney in this topnotch mystery thriller."

As I read this news release, I could only imagine the bubble-headed newsreaders on my local TV station in 2010 delivering this item and then engaging in light, pseudo-extemporaneous banter about THE FROZEN GHOST as the closing theme music began to roll and the weather forecaster pipes up with a quick reminder about tomorrow's outlook. Imagining such a scene amuses me far more than viewing the film itself does.

" 'All Who Entered Are Doomed' was the curse of Ananka's tomb! Yet they dared enter to solve a terror-ridden secret 3000 years old. See Dick Foran in THE MUMMY'S HAND on SHOCK on this channel. You won't want to miss this exciting feature film. Tune in!"