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From the Necromantic to the Psychophantic

September 5, 2011 by The Belated Nerd

It’s always interesting to find out what the squares in 1961 were thinking of the trifles some of us obsess over half a century later. Thanks to Hammer Studios in the UK  and AIP’s Roger Corman in the US, horror films were undergoing a huge revival in the summer of ’61.  The genre was meeting with such success that even mainstream periodicals had to take note.  The following article appeared in the Arts section of the September 1, 1961 edition of  Time magazine.  The wonderful thing about the uncredited author of this piece is that while he makes fun of the films and their stars (“Vincent Price, a sort of sissified Bela Lugosi”), you can tell he enjoyed watching them nonetheless. And isn’t that what most of us fans of these movies do ourselves?  

Cinema: Blood Pudding

 

Time magazine, Sept. 1, 1961. Images added by The Belated Nerd


 Terrible-eyed, a father rose up from his coffin one night last week, rushed after his beautiful young daughter and with bloodthirsty screams attempted to sink his fangs into her throat. Poor stiff. Some other vampire, succubus, lamia, boggart, barghest, uturuncu or related fee-faw-fum had already drunk the poor girl dry. The U.S., as summer moviegoers may have observed, is crawling with the bloody things. The horror industry is in the hideous throes of what may be the biggest necromantic revival since Count Dracula was a nipper.

Monsters are out. After almost a decade of gigantic grasshoppers, monstrous mollusks and vicious vegetables, the menace merchants have surveyed their shrinking returns and concluded that overwork at last had killed the pterodactyl that laid the golden egg. With that the world’s leading gooseflesh peddlers—American International Films of Hollywood and Hammer Film Productions Ltd. of London—decided to go back on the ghoul standard. The bats were summoned from the industry’s well-stocked belfry, and in recent months they have been sucking the green stuff out of the public at an impressive rate. Three of the new horrors, made for less than $300,000, will gross more than $1,000,000 first time around; another (Homicidal) is already werewolfing its third million. What’s more, a surprising number of the new blood puddings have been cooked up with skill and can be swallowed without appreciable nausea.

Black Sunday (Galatea-Jolly; Al), for instance, is a piece of fine Italian handiwork that atones for its ludicrous lapses with brilliant intuitions of the spectral. Taken from a tale (Fry) by Nikolai Gogol, Black Sunday tells the story of a female demon who once every century rises from a moldy old Moldavian crypt to terrorize the countryside. Director Mario Bava makes subtle use of a Gothic setting—much of the film was shot in a medieval Italian castle—to enhance the Gothic mood. One shot is pure black magic. The vampire’s coach, black as a hearse and carved with demoniac exuberance, careens through the night like a colossal bat out of hell—but soundlessly, and in slow motion, so that it seems to be floating tunelessly through an interminable nightmare.

Curse of the Werewolf (Hammer; Universal) is a routine, competent British fang opera filmed, as many of the new scare shows are, in a color process that seems peculiarly sensitive to red. The picture contains an inspired scene. As a priest holds a pretty little baby (destined to be a werewolf) over a baptismal font, a fiendish face appears suddenly in the depths of the font and the holy water bubbles to a rolling boil. The scriptwriters have also provided an unwittingly hilarious line. After slaughtering five sheep and draining them of blood, the werewolf, now a fat little boy, is called to lunch by his fond stepmother. “Aw, mother,” he pouts, just like any other little boy called in from play, “I’m not hungry.”

Dr. Blood’s Coffin (Caralan; UA), another nasty trifle from Britain, is a skillful piece of suspense writing that might be described as a woman’s horror picture—it’s about a man who wants a woman’s heart. When he can’t get it, he takes somebody else’s and transplants it into a corpse that—heh, heh—has some nasty ideas of its own.

The Pit and the Pendulum and House of Usher (Al) are a couple of literary hair-raisers that are cleverly if self-consciously Edgar Allen Poetic. Both pictures are filmed in redolent colors, both feature Vincent Price, a sort of sissified Bela Lugosi, and both are crowded with drafty castles, dismal tarns and what the press-agents call “torturous passageways”—which in The Pit have been sprayed with 20 gallons of a rubber-cement solution that makes the darnedest lavender spider webs.

Blood and Roses (Paramount), a gently eerie tale of “the most recent life” of a lady vampire, is the most subtle, careful, beautiful and expensive ($750,000) of the current crop of chillers—a small black pearl of a picture. It was directed by Roger (And God Created Woman) Vadim, and stars Mel Ferrer. It was filmed at the Emperor Hadrian’s Villa, just outside Rome, by Cameraman Claude Renoir, the gifted nephew of the painter, who has laved all this hushed horror in lights and colors as mild and creamy as viper’s milk.

Snake Woman (Caralan; UA) is a hypodermic horror with a striptease gimmick. A mental patient, injected with cobra venom while she is pregnant, produces a terribly strange child with cold blood and no eyelids. At seven, the child disappears from her home, and soon thereafter villagers start to die of cobra bites. Then one day the hero, a detective assigned to catch that cobra, finds the skin of a girl, all in one piece, as though it had been shed like a snake’s. A gleam in his eye, he hurries after her, tootling on a little fakir’s flute . . .

Homicidal (Columbia), financially the most successful of the new shockers, may well point a new trend in terror: from the necromantic to the Psychophantic. The picture was obviously made in imitation of Hitchcock’s thriller (which has already returned the highest percentage of profit in film history—$14,000,000 on a $780,000 investment). Just as obviously, it surpasses its model in structure, suspense and sheer nervous drive. Simply, directly, the camera watches a homicidal maniac (Jean Arless) proceed through a carefully premeditated series of ferocious murders. Those who cannot bear the tension may be grateful for the Fright Break, during which they may “follow the Yellow Streak to the Coward’s Corner and have the admission sneerfully refunded.”

 


1 Comment »

  1. [...] Belated Nerd reprints a 1961 Time review of Hammer and American Intertnational horror, including The Pit and The Pendulum,….  “Those who cannot bear the tension may be grateful for the Fright Break, during which they [...]

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