Lovefest: The Creeping Terror

This article was written for Lovefest, a group project of the Dissolve Facebook community, in which individual writers step up to defend or promote films that flopped, were critically maligned, or are generally forgotten. My previous Lovefest entries can be read here and here; a list of all of the movies covered in past Lovefests can be found here.

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For me, it started with Gilda Radner: in one sketch in It Came From Hollywood, the 1982 homage/clip show celebrating old genre flicks (and an early inspiration for my love of monster movies), Radner plays a little girl excitedly describing and reacting to the latest monster shows she had seen, throwing stuffed animals around the room while pretending they’re the Fly, the Horror of Party Beach, and so on. “I call this one the carpet monster,” she says over a clip of a creature that does indeed look much like an ambulatory pile of carpet samples, or perhaps an oversized bedspread, invading a dance party. “He eats up ladies . . . except for their shoes,” she continues as a pair of shapely nylon-clad legs is slurped into the monster’s gaping mouth. After rediscovering It Came From Hollywood a few years ago, I set out to watch the complete “carpet monster” movie, whatever it was: ICFH ends with a list of the movies excerpted in the film, but doesn’t credit them in individual scenes. With the help of Google and IMDB I was able to narrow it down and found that I already owned a copy of The Creeping Terror (A. J. Nelson, 1963) that I hadn’t watched yet on a public-domain monster movie collection. (Only afterwards did I find out that The Creeping Terror had been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000; I could have saved myself a lot of trouble but I had stopped watching the show by the time that episode aired.)

It would be a stretch to say that I “love” The Creeping Terror, and even more of one to defend it on the basis of its quality, which veers from workmanlike to surreally inept. Like Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Creeping Terror was included in Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards; we’re long past believing that Plan 9 is actually the worst movie ever made, but The Creeping Terror . . . well, let’s just say it’s still awaiting its critical reevaluation. Made on a shoestring in 1963, the film features hopelessly crude special effects, amateurish acting, and a plot that’s beyond formulaic: it’s schematic. Yet I would argue that it is an interesting film in its own right, with some effective moments that are overshadowed by its reputation (and yes, there are some jaw-droppers as well).

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As the story goes in its 76-minute run time, Deputy Martin Gordon (Vic Savage), returned from his honeymoon with his new bride (Shannon O’Neil), sees a UFO land (an effect accomplished with some blurry moving lights and footage of a rocket liftoff shown in reverse). Joining his uncle, the Sheriff, to investigate the landing site, they find a spaceship with a monstrous creature locked inside; the Sheriff is the first to be eaten while exploring the ship’s interior. After that, the investigation is taken over by the military; a top space scientist, Dr. Bradford (William Thourlby), arrives to study the ship and, if possible, communicate with its passenger. Unbeknownst to them, a second creature had already escaped into the nearby woods, and it cuts a swath through the area population, (slowly) eating necking picnickers, a young mother, a boy and his grandpa, the participants at a “hootenanny,” and finally an entire community center’s worth of dancers. Once the monster hits the nearby lover’s lane, the authorities catch up to it and confront the creature; it gets shot up by a platoon of soldiers, and then eats them. The Colonel finally blows it up with a grenade.

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“Anyone who experienced that catastrophe and lived would never go there again.”

After finding electrical components in the creature’s carcass, Dr. Bradford returns to the ship and is nearly killed by an explosion that releases the second creature. Deputy Gordon rams his police car in to the monster and kills it. Bradford tells Gordon that he has solved the mystery: he believes that the monsters were sent by a distant civilization as test animals, “living laboratories” engineered to eat and evaluate whatever life forms they found. He guesses that, now that the creatures are dead (and humanity’s weaknesses known), the ship’s computer will transmit their findings back to their home planet. Gordon tries to smash the ship’s computer but fails. Before he dies, Dr. Bradford says there may yet be reason to hope: perhaps by the time the creatures’ alien masters can act on the information they collected, mankind will be more advanced and ready for the challenge. “Only God knows for sure.” The End.

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The first thing one notices is the intermittent sound: sometimes the characters’ voices are dubbed so they are speaking lines normally, but most of the time an omniscient voiceover narrates the film, paraphrasing the conversation the characters are having onscreen, their mouths still moving out of sync. There are reasons for this, having to do with the film’s fly-by-night production (see below), but the result is alienating; it would be death for a romantic comedy, but for a horror film it sort of works, and it lends a documentary gravity to the otherwise absurd plot: its very flatness is ironically a mark of verisimilitude. In one scene in which Martin’s friend, fellow officer Barney, deals with the emotional fallout of his buddy getting married and not wanting to hang out as much, the narration takes on the fatherly tone of a contemporary mental hygiene film, as if this were merely a case study for class discussion: “Life has its way of making boys grow up, and with marriage Martin’s time had come,” the announcer intones while Barney stews on the couch, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon making out in the kitchen. In other scenes, the effect is downright surreal as the sound engineers add layers of ambient sound and music after the fact to cover up the characters’ uncomfortable silence.

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The film’s isolated settings (filmed at the shabby Spahn Movie Ranch, a comedown from the intended Lake Tahoe setting) also contribute to its sense of menace: most of the victims are outdoors or near the woods, making them seem small and easy to pick off. One might think that almost anyone could outrun the slow-moving monster, but in one of the film’s more laughable conceits, the creature is so terrifying that most of its victims stay rooted on the spot, screaming in fear until it can catch up to them. The film’s money shot (repeated often) consists of a woman’s legs or feet dangling from the creature’s maw as it swallows them slowly enough that the actors could be crawling inside (which, of course, is how it was actually filmed).

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Other kills are more cinematically effective, either shown from the monster’s POV with the cowering victim in the center of the frame (the death of the young mother hanging laundry while her baby fusses inside is probably the most effective in the film; in addition to the weird effect of the creature wriggling into the otherwise mundane shot, at the moment of the woman’s death her scream cuts to the sound of her baby crying) or simply left for the audience’s inference (Bobby, the young boy fishing with his grandpa, leaves behind only a bit of torn cloth from his shirt). Scenes in which the monster kills with brute force are less successful: when sucking a pair of teenagers out of their convertible at lover’s lane, it appears to be humping the car; later, it eats all of the soldiers at once by dropping on top of them. Even at the dance, it’s impossible to imagine the creature killing everyone without them obligingly lining up to get in its belly.

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The film’s most elaborate set piece, the creature’s attack on the dance hall, shows The Creeping Terror at its best and worst. An uncharacteristically long buildup shows the dance in progress, the crowd made up of a range of ages; while the band plays a repetitive twist tune, dancers fill the floor while others sit at tables and the bar. It’s all very normal; the only element that might raise an eyebrow is the amount of time spent on close-ups of the legs and feet of several dancers in tight pants. On the sidelines, a few human dramas play out: a woman leaves in a huff, and a drunk swipes the drink she left behind; a fight breaks out. It’s possible that these characters were more fully fleshed out in the original script, but with only a few audible lines here and there all we get are snippets. It’s like going to a party where you don’t know anyone, observing people at random and only seeing disconnected glimpses of their behavior.

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Abruptly, we see a shot of the approaching monster outside, the music twisting away at a lower volume, as if heard from a distance, so we know it’s nearby. The narrator has already informed us that the community dance hall would be the next target, but the sequence, cutting between the oblivious dancers and the creature outside, getting closer, is almost suspenseful. A shot of a dancer’s jiggling bottom cuts to the writhing tendrils that crown the monster’s “head.” Subtle, it is not.

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Suddenly, without any transition or shot of the monster coming through a doorway, it is there, in the corner of the room! It is in this moment that the film’s weak grasp on continuity comes to resemble the anti-logic of the nightmare, and the scrambled soundtrack reinforces the confusion. A woman shouts, “My God, what is it!?”, her voice dubbed, but another woman screams without any sound added, her terror expressed only by the musical soundtrack, the relentless twist finally giving way to more typical horror music.

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The partygoers gather in one corner of the room while the monster, shot from overhead, awkwardly pushes past tables and chairs; they would obviously have time to reach the exits, but this is the kind of nightmare where your feet won’t budge, and they have no choice but to await their fate (in one overhead shot of the monster, a couple clearly approach the monster and the man even gives the woman a little push forward as if to say, “you first”). Insanely, the fistfight that broke out earlier still continues in the other corner of the room. We get plenty of close-up shots of pretty legs sticking out of the creature’s slit-like mouth, and if we haven’t figured out by now what the director’s main interest in the material is, then I don’t think we can say he’s the one who doesn’t get it.

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After years of contradictory information about the making of this low-budget oddity (so obscure at first that there’s no evidence it was even screened until it was sold as part of a TV package in the 1970s, leading to late-night broadcasts and sparking its notoriety among horror hounds), several facts came to light thanks to the research of fan Pete Schuermann (the story as I now relay it comes from Schuermann’s docudrama The Creep Behind the Camera and an article in Screem magazine no. 30 by Brian Albright). For one thing, leading man “Vic Savage” and director “A. J. Nelson” were one and the same person, a petty criminal and con artist named Arthur White. White had always wanted to be a star, and this obsession seems to have sprung from the same sociopathic narcissism that led him to abuse and exploit everyone around him, including his long-suffering wife Lois.

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It is unclear whether he intended The Creeping Terror to be a real movie or if it was a hustle all along, but in addition to making the movie as cheaply as possible, he funneled much of the funding he got from backers (including Thourlby, a former Marlboro Man) into his personal drug habit, and he spun the opportunity to make his film further by selling shares in it to cast and crew, effectively turning it into a pay-for-play scheme. (He had previously absconded with the profits from his first film, Street-Fighter.) According to some members of the film crew at the time, he would film the same scenes with different people multiple times because he had made so many promises, often without actually putting film in the camera. In any case, White disappeared before the movie was completed, possibly fleeing law enforcement (in addition to drugs, White had connections to a prostitution ring and Schuermann’s film implies he may have been involved in child pornography) and leaving Thourlby to piece together the existing footage and replace the missing (or possibly never-recorded) audio. By this time, writer Allan Silliphant had cut ties with White in disgust, so there was probably no longer a script to refer to and the actors had all gone their separate ways: thus, the voiceover was written to patch the scenes together.

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From these behind-the-scenes details, it is clear that The Creeping Terror works largely by accident and thanks to the hard work of professionals trying to salvage something out of disaster. It’s hard enough to make a movie on purpose: the fact that The Creeping Terror is as watchable as it is, flaws and all, is nearly miraculous. (Even as a patch-up, it compares favorably to the similar work of White’s contemporary, Jerry Warren, for example.) But what are we to make of Arthur White and his contribution? Aren’t there enough actual good movies in the world that we don’t have to feel obligated to give time to work made by scumbags? For what it’s worth, I had seen The Creeping Terror and found it interesting before I heard about its origins; I don’t think White’s scamming and abuse make his movie “cool” or “edgy,” and there were plenty of earnest, would-be professional filmmakers involved with the production. They were White’s victims, too, and they could have cut their losses, but they didn’t. (If it makes you feel any better about watching, White never made any more money from it after dropping out of the production, leaving it in a legal limbo; he died in 1975 and the film is now in the public domain.)

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But knowing the context does explain some of the more bizarre choices the film makes, and especially shines a spotlight on the sexual imagery that lies so close to the surface, on the obsession with legs and feet, with the blunt symbolism of a monster that combines both phallic and vaginal imagery, and especially with the film’s odd detours into the domestic sphere. Shannon O’Neil (her real name Shannon Boltres), the lead actress, was White’s girlfriend at the time, even while he was still married to Lois, who had returned to him with the promise of better behavior after one of their splits; were the scenes of newlywed bliss meant to rub his infidelity in Lois’ face, or was he imagining the married life–he upstanding and virile, she nubile and obedient–that he would have preferred? Or was it simply the writer’s take on a well-worn formula? Perhaps because she has an actual character to play, neither one of the screaming victims nor a stoic hero, O’Neil/Boltres comes off as the best actor in the film, with a few small moments that suggest she knew exactly what kind of movie she was in. She doesn’t have any later screen credits, so it’s hard to say what she might have done in a better film.

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Screenwriter Allan Silliphant later claimed that his script was intended to be a spoof, with a brain-dead plot and comically obvious symbolism, and that does line up with a certain kind of gleefully acidic L.A. satire; but the end product doesn’t scan as being funny (aside from the unintentional laughs) or even ironic. It’s too out there, more like the cut-up methods William Burroughs was exploring; the contemporary equivalent to its scrambled production method might be one of those scripts generated by an A.I. after feeding it x number of sample scripts, the results inspiring the nervous laughter of seeing ourselves reflected back at us by something completely alien. As Brian Albright describes it, The Creeping Terror is “almost an un-film.” But honestly, most genre movies involve some mental sorting of this kind, separating what works from what can be enjoyed in a humorous way and what can only be discarded. This may be an extreme example, but it’s short, rarely boring, and includes several memorable sequences.

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In the lover’s lane scene, there’s a guy sitting in his car by himself, smoking a pipe, apparently spying on the young couples parking and necking, or maybe just checking up on them. When the monster shows up and starts attacking teenagers, the pipe smoker just sits and watches in disbelief before driving off. He’s the only completely passive observer in the movie. I guess he’s a little like the audience for this film: he came to see one thing, possibly with a prurient interest, but he got a lot more than he bargained for.

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My 2016 in Film, Part Two: New Discoveries

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As I mentioned yesterday, I was more diligent this year in keeping track of my film viewing than I’ve been in recent years, allowing me to provide a more detailed retrospective of older films I watched. The non-2016 films listed below are listed in chronological order without ranking; they’re movies that thrilled me, sparked my imagination, or filled in gaps in my historical awareness. All are recommended, for curiosity value if nothing else.

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Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
This movie came to my attention as the source of several futuristic cityscapes inserted as background shots in the 1939 Buck Rogers serial. It’s a fascinating production in its own right, and a time capsule of 1930’s ideas about both science fiction and pre-Code musical comedy. New York in the far-off year 1980(!) is a gleaming mass of skyscrapers bound together by orderly lanes of sky traffic, but scientific progress has commanded a high price in individuality and freedom: people have numbers rather than names, and marriages are chosen by the state for optimal matches (the plot centers on the unapproved romance between J-21 and LN-18, a young Maureen O’Sullivan); married couples have children by selecting them from a sort of vending machine; food and drink are taken in pill form; and the planet Mars is full of beautiful, savage women given to elaborate dance routines. The comedy of 1930 is mostly personified by the “Svedish” accent shtick of El Brendel, who plays a man of 1930 revived by science. It’s all corny as hell, but endearingly so, and with its visual flair and brisk, busy plot, it’s worth seeing for fans of retro-futurism and Hollywood musicals alike.

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Bedelia (Lance Comfort, 1946)
Margaret Lockwood plays the title character, a recently remarried widow; during her honeymoon in Monte Carlo, her bland new husband strikes up a chance encounter with a painter who appears to know too much about her. When they return to England, the painter follows. As the mystery of Bedelia’s past (and the death of her first husband) emerges, her web of secrets threatens to come unraveled. The resulting film is a mixture of noirish suspense and doomed romance.

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The Alligator People (Roy Del Ruth, 1959)
If Tennessee Williams wrote a monster movie, it might come out something like The Alligator People, a Southern Gothic tragedy of secrets and mad science. Lon Chaney Jr. as a crazy, gator-obsessed swamp rat is the icing on the cake.

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The Telephone Book (Nelson Lyon, 1971)
The strange odyssey of a young woman determined to track down the man who transported her with an obscene phone call, The Telephone Book is a surprisingly sweet portrayal of a time and place–the sexual revolution in New York City in the early 1970s–that are usually depicted in sleazier terms. Alice (Sarah Kennedy) is both naïve and alluring to the colorful characters she meets along the way, but once she finds the right “John Smith” (Norman Rose), he takes over the story with his commanding monologues, seducing the audience the same way he seduces the women (“I have over thirty regular clients,” he says) he calls. In writer-director Nelson Lyon’s vision, obscene phone calls aren’t just about sexual release, they are an implicit critique of a repressed society, but the film is too wrapped in layers of irony to present such a pat solution without complication. Intercut with “confessions” from reformed obscene callers and the doctors and police who deal with them, The Telephone Book is thrillingly visual for a film about talking, showing off a pop art sensibility that gripped me from the beginning. With its deadpan humor and emphasis on the power of words, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was one of Steve Martin’s favorite films.

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Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
Sam Neill has the honor of appearing on both yesterday’s and today’s lists. Is Possession a movie about mental illness? Divorce? Nuclear war? All of the above? What the hell can you even say about this movie? It must be seen.

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Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
Unlike many of the movies listed here, I was aware of this movie and even remember when it was released, but for one reason or another (its reputation as a flop, or that it was too dark for its intended audience) I didn’t get around to it until this year. All the reasons not to watch it back then make it all the more interesting now, and in addition to its mixture of whimsy and dread (in many ways more faithful to L. Frank Baum’s creations than the 1939 classic), I was pleased to discover a forgotten trove of lavish production and practical effects at their pre-CGI 1980s peak.

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Split (Chris Shaw, 1989)
At first, Starker (Timothy Dwight) appears to be just another homeless crackpot wandering the streets of Los Angeles, but it soon becomes clear that he’s a man of many disguises, secreting extra clothes in dumpsters around the city and taking on new personalities as he hides out in a diner and crashes an art gallery opening. His elaborate routines prevent an omnipresent surveillance network from tracking him: paranoid fantasy, or chilling glimpse of a future that was right around the corner in 1989? Featuring then-cutting edge computer graphics and a “handmade” (i.e., low budget) production style, Split is a quintessential cult film, proto-cyberpunk closer to A Scanner Darkly than Blade Runner.

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Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
I was able to see several Studio Ghibli films for the first time this year thanks to a film series at Wichita’s Palace Theatre (other first-time views included My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Princess Mononoke). Perhaps I’m choosing to highlight Howl’s Moving Castle above the rest simply because it doesn’t seem to be quite as well-loved as those others (all of which were great, of course). As lumpy as it is, its mixture of European fairy-tale fantasy (it’s based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones) and Japanese anime style makes it unique.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)
A spiritual descendant of Orson Welles’ meta-documentary F for Fake, Exit Through the Gift Shop begins with compulsive filmmaker Thierry Guetta’s quest to document and participate in the exploding street art scene in Paris and other cities. The first half of the film introduces a cast of daring cat burglar-like graffitists who go to great lengths to place their artwork on the sides of buildings, on streets and sidewalks, and on billboards, usually under cover of night, and the more inaccessible the better. Once Guetta is introduced to the elusive Banksy, the film takes a strange turn as Banksy takes over editing the project and Guetta assumes the name “Mr. Brainwash,” setting up his own ridiculously large art show. Whether the whole thing was a scheme for Guetta to cash in on the hot street art trend from the beginning, or (as some have claimed) a put-on designed to expose the hollowness of the art world, the film itself is as daring and exciting as the wall-climbing provocateurs who inspired it.

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Lazer Us: The Legend of Jimi Lazer (Mann Munoz, 2013)
An odd mash-up of contemporary Christian film and rock-and-roll mythologizing, Lazer Us tells the story of Jimi Lazer, a would-be star who made a deal with the devil to become famous but walked away from it all and essentially disappeared. Now, twenty-seven years later, he has returned to set things right, reuniting the scattered members of his band and rescuing a mysterious young woman (named Zmoothie, in keeping with the film’s square idea of rock culture) from the same fate. The film is essentially a parable building on the “crossroads” legend like The Soldier’s Tale or “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but throws in references to The Red Shoes, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Johnny Cash, and the “27 club,” not to mention the Biblical figure whose name is suggested by the awkward title. Edgy and “in your face” but ultimately safe, I have no idea whether this movie will lead young rockers to Jesus, but it’s worth seeing on its own quirky merits.

October is the Coolest Month

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Or is it the cruelest? There’s always too much to do and too many events to take advantage of them all during October, between post-season baseball, family Halloween activities, school and work, rehearsals and performances. (I should also mention that The Lost Worlds of Power, which was supposed to be released on Halloween, has been delayed, for reasons best explained here. No worries; I’ll update as I get information.) This year my wife dressed as the Queen from Snow White, and we thought of a costume for me that (I think) came together really well:

"Mirror, Mirror, on the wall . . ."

“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall . . .”

Then there are the movies: a lot of people plan to watch 31 horror movies during October, a movie a day; I knew I would have a hard time reaching that number (and as the month went on I remembered why I had never done it before), but this year I made an effort to catch up on some I had never seen (while revisiting a few favorites). I made it to 21 and still felt like I was cramming them in; as enjoyable as it was, I doubt I’ll try to keep up this pace year-round.

I didn’t plan ahead, for the most part, and for those I saw on the big screen the programmers of the October at the Oldtown horror series made the decisions for me. For my own choices, I defined “horror” pretty broadly, and included some examples of fantasy and thriller, depending on my mood. (Pulp Fiction, which I rewatched in order to write an article on its twentieth anniversary, is the real outlier.)

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Barbara Kellerman in The Monster Club

The movies I covered are listed below with their year of release and director, as well as a key pointing out a few repeated elements. For example, five of the movies I watched in October were adaptations of stories by H. P. Lovecraft (I wrote about two of them at The Solute, and intend to write about the remaining three in the near future), and considering I didn’t watch any martial arts movies there were a surprising number of samurai sword attacks.

1. The Call of Cthulhu (2005, Andrew Leman)* a, g, hpl, w
2. ParaNorman (2012, Chris Butler and Sam Fell) b, c, v
3. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988, James Signorelli) b, m
4. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964, George Pal)
5. Tentacles (1977, Ovidio G. Assonitis as “Oliver Hellman”) v (diving masks–I guess that counts)
6. The Whisperer in Darkness (2011, Sean Branney) a, g, hpl, v
7. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)* ss, v
8. Basket Case (1982, Frank Henenlotter)** c, t
9. The Gate (1987, Tibor Takács)* g
10. The Hole (2009, Joe Dante) c, g
11. Grand Piano (2013, Eugenio Mira) m
12. The Monster Club (1981, Roy Ward Baker) c, m, v
13. The Gates of Hell aka City of the Living Dead (1980, Lucio Fulci)** d, g
14. Demons (1985, Lamberto Bava)** ss, v
15. The Haunted Palace (1963, Roger Corman) a, b, hpl, p
16. Die, Monster, Die! aka Monster of Terror (1965, Daniel Haller) a, hpl, w
17. The Visitor aka Stridulum (1979, Giulio Paradisi as “Michael J. Paradise”)* c, p, w
18. The Dunwich Horror (1970, Daniel Haller) d, g, hpl, t
19. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)** v, w
20. Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch) c, g(?), m
21. Donovan’s Brain (1953, Felix Feist) p

* rewatch
** seen in theater

a: Arkham setting
b: character burned at the stake (or threatened with burning)
c: monstrous or supernatural child
d: Dunwich setting
g: gateway or portal to otherworldly realm opened
hpl: H. P. Lovecraft adaptation
m: musical number
p: possession or domination by a disembodied intelligence
ss: samurai sword attack
t: twins
v: masks
w: character in wheelchair

Did I miss anything? And did you watch anything in the last month that you would recommend or that made an impression on you?

Scarefest: The Visitor

“Maybe this just isn’t the right time to bring children into this bad, mixed-up world. Some of them are confused: they think that the forces of evil are stronger than the forces of good.” –Jane Phillips (Shelley Winters), in The Visitor

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This article was written as a contribution to Scarefest, a series of pieces by commenters on film website The Dissolve, organized by commenter Miller. The week before it ran, I alerted Miller that I was changing my Scarefest entry to The Visitor, and another commenter asked, “Are you writing about how scary it is that it’s so bugnuts insane?” I assume he was kidding, but my short answer is yes. Yes, I am.

The 1979 film The Visitor, directed by Giulio Paradisi (as “Michael J. Paradise”), has long had a reputation as a hard-to-find cult oddity; after a restoration and rerelease by Drafthouse Films in 2013, it became more widely available on disc and VOD. TCM ran the restored version as part of its “TCM Underground” series last summer, and that’s where I saw it. I didn’t know a lot about it, other than having seen the bizarre trailer Drafthouse put together for it, and knowing that the film was considered extremely weird even among cult horror aficionados. I was prepared to have my mind blown, but I wasn’t prepared for The Visitor to actually be, you know, scary.

The plot isn’t easy to summarize except in broad outlines: businessman Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen) has made a deal with a shadowy organization dedicated to perpetuating the bloodline of an evil alien being referred to as Sateen. His girlfriend Barbara (Joanne Nail) has one child, Katy (Paige Conner), now eight, but Barbara is afraid of Katy and reluctant to have another child. Because of this, the organization pressures Raymond behind the scenes—their plans for world domination require that Katy have a brother—and Katy, in whom Sateen’s influence is already strong, alternately wheedles and punishes her mother for her obstinance. In the mean time, Jerzy (John Huston), the “visitor” of the English title, stalks Katy on behalf of Franco Nero’s character, a Christ-like figure who lives somewhere (in outer space? or is it Heaven?) with a congregation of bald children and who is opposed to Sateen. Is the visitor’s mission to kill Katy or save her? A lot of other stuff happens in the margins, but that’s basically it: a blend of New Age contactee mysticism and 1970s devil-child horror. So far, so good.

I: The Sleep of Reason

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So why did this movie, much of which is absurd on its surface, freak me out? For one thing, the film’s late-‘70s style took me back to my childhood, and not in a good way. I’m just over 40, so my memory of the 1970s is filtered through the subjective haze of being a young child then. The ‘70s were pretty strange to begin with, and even more so when you have no reference for much of the adult world. Much of what was considered “grown-up” moviemaking (and a lot that was aimed at kids) back then was characterized by, to use President Carter’s infamous term, the “malaise” of the time, and for me that resulted in a lot of free-floating unease, even when watching things that were ostensibly light. You just never knew when things were going to take a dark turn. The gauzy, soft-focus cinematography, cheesy cop show music, and swinging suburban styles of The Visitor were all intimately familiar to me, to the point that I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t seen this movie as a kid (I’m still not sure).

My reaction is a subjective one, but is there anything more subjective than fear? Like laughter or arousal, the fear reaction is fundamentally irrational; it can be controlled on the viewer’s part, and there are techniques filmmakers can use to evoke it, but at a base level it touches something that cannot be reasoned with. In my case, that reaction has always been close to the surface: I could hardly watch scary movies or TV shows as a kid, even tame fare like The Twilight Zone, because being afraid or tense wasn’t a pleasant sensation for me like it is for many kids. I was drawn to fantasy, but even something that wasn’t scary at first could come to haunt me, taking on a life of its own as I lay in bed, waiting for sleep, which in many phases of my childhood had its own terrors in the form of realistic nightmares. The Visitor falls flat as a vehicle for ideas or even as a story: too many things happen without explanation, there are abrupt tonal shifts and weird distortions of sound and image, and it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. But is that not an accurate description of a dream?

In dreams, anything can happen, and ordinary events and objects can be invested with emotional power greater than they have while awake. The very first scene, a (possibly allegorical) confrontation between Katy and Jerzy in a gold-lit field, is overtly surreal, and typical of the over-the-top visual flourishes in the movie’s more fantastic sections. As Katy approaches, thick snowflakes swirl around and stick to her face; eventually, only her eyes are visible. It’s spooky, like something from Altered States or Ridley Scott’s Legend (Scott also came to mind later in the film when the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta are seen through a smoky haze, like the future Los Angeles of Blade Runner).

But the first scene that really threw me is relatively mundane: at her birthday party, Katy eagerly opens a box which was supposed to contain a mechanical bird purchased by her aunt in an earlier scene. Through Sateen’s power (or something), the box contains a gun, which Katy excitedly waves around and then tosses onto the couch, where it goes off and hits Barbara in the back. Katy shrugs, like, “oops?” Barbara spends the rest of the movie in a wheelchair, paralyzed by a bullet to the spine. It’s a crazy scene, but part of its nightmare power is how casually it occurs, and the mismatch of typical “suspense” build-up with gleefully committed violence that literally comes out of nowhere.

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Later, after Barbara has recovered and started getting back to a normal life, she is stranded with Katy while driving at night. A semi truck, of which we can only see the lights, pulls up on the side of the road in front of their car. Barbara is worried, and Katy openly mocks her fear. Barbara is right to be afraid: the truck is a mobile operating room, and after she is rendered unconscious agents of the conspiracy artificially inseminate her to speed up their plan. The imagery is straight out of an alien abduction report: stranded motorists, lost time, the dim memory of an operation (I suspect that it is this sequence, and a few scenes of glowing lights in the sky, that led to criticism of The Visitor as a knock-off of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and a surprise pregnancy.

Upon discovering her condition, Barbara goes to her ex-husband (played by Sam Peckinpah!) and pleads with him to help her get an abortion. When she returns home from that operation (still in her wheelchair), Katy savagely attacks her. No pretenses now! And again, the sudden eruption of violence, while motivated by character and plot, is surprising in its intensity. Even Damien usually cloaked his actions in the plausible deniability of a “freak accident.”

II. The Sound of Nightmare

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The Visitor’s Italian title, Stridulum, is appropriate: Latin for “whizzing or hissing,” and surviving in English in the word “stridulation,” for the buzzing sound insects make by scraping their legs together, it’s a clue to how important sound is in The Visitor. Both Sateen and his enemy (a spaceship-flying “Commander Yahweh”—shades of Chariots of the Gods!), have birds as an important part of their back story; Katy keeps a hawk called Squeaky who obviously represents her diabolical heritage and with whom she communicates, and the visitor summons a flock of birds during the climax of the film to scourge Katy of Sateen’s influence (I think). I suspect that birds are so important to The Visitor because they’re a convenient artsy symbol for the soul, and also because, post-Hitchcock, birds are creepy. Either way, the soundtrack is full of echoing, distorted screeches and bird calls (in addition to analog synthesizer sounds—another skin-crawling part of my childhood—and the aforementioned funky cop show music). Whenever Katy is about to use her psychic powers (as at the birthday party), we hear the eagle cry, or see a glimpse of Squeaky, or both.

Then there’s the mechanical bird that was supposed to be in the box: it’s a gold and blue knick-knack that says “I’m a pretty bird” in a synthesized drone, followed by a whine of feedback, on a constant loop. Even in the first scene, when Katy’s aunt buys it, I’m not sure how anyone could hear that and think of the bird as anything other than a prop in a horror movie. Later, when a detective (Glenn Ford!) is trying to figure out where the gun at the party came from, he finds the bird and takes it with him in his car. It’s still talking as he drives his car down the freeway with it on the passenger seat. “I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo,” et cetera, until Squeaky attacks the detective and he drives the car off the road, where it bursts into flame before he can escape. Squeaky strikes again!

Sound also plays a role in the scariest scene in the film, the scene that I actually had to turn off for a few minutes to get myself together before I could finish watching it: early in the film, Katy is shown playing Pong on a big-screen TV, hidden by the chair in which she is sitting. The electronic blip of the game is the counterpoint to the conversation she has with her mother. Much later in the film, after Katy has been institutionalized for her violent behavior, Barbara returns home to her empty house and hears: blip . . . blip . . . blip. The game is turned on, Katy is in her chair. After Katy’s brutal attacks, just her presence in the house again is scary, but the whole sequence following is . . . well, it scared the hell out of me, but it is also much stranger than anything I’ve described yet, so I won’t spoil it.

III. All in the Family

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Paige Conner doesn’t look like she’s eight years old in this movie: maybe ten. It could be that she’s big for her age or I could just chalk it up to the precocity of child actors. In any case, her Katy Collins is a miniature tyrant, controlling and profane. Her poor mother is constantly put-upon, and her would-be stepfather mostly stays out of her way. Even when Katy’s words are pleading, her tone is commanding or threatening. Only Jerzy and a suspicious housekeeper (Shelley Winters) really see her for what she is, but take opposite approaches to dealing with her.

By coincidence, I had an older sister who would have been about Katy’s age in 1979, and while she wasn’t the holy terror that Katy is in the movie, I’m sure it affected my reception of this movie. The trappings of a late ‘70s girlhood cheek-by-jowl with the freaky events of the movie was unsettlingly close to my childhood nightmares and brought to the surface more anxiety than I realized I still carried with me.

Domestic abuse was an issue that got a lot of attention in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, as if the lid had finally come off a closely-held secret and now everyone was free to sort it out in public. I’m fortunate that I didn’t grow up with firsthand experience of family violence, but it was something I became aware of thanks to the new openness about it. Nowadays, when I hear about Mommie Dearest at all, it’s as a camp classic: “No more wire hangers, ever!” et cetera. It wasn’t funny to me as a kid, however: Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford terrified me. I might have chosen that movie for Scarefest, except I haven’t gone back to watch it since then.

The Visitor pushes some of the same buttons for me. I’m not kept up at night by its cosmic battle of good and evil, or the slow-motion mayhem, or even the bird attacks: those are par for the course with science fiction and horror movies. I enjoy that stuff. What really shocked and disturbed me was the sudden eruption of violence in otherwise very mundane settings, worst of all between family members. For such an unreal movie, it feels an awful lot like someone’s issues being laid bare.

Now that I’m an adult, I see my childhood anxieties from the other side: my daughter is eight years old. I love her. She’s a good kid. But even in the best of relationships there are moments: children can be shockingly amoral and single-minded about getting what they want. As a parent, it’s natural to wonder about and be frustrated by those moments, and fearful not of our children but for them. I’m also not proud to admit that there are moments I feel like Shelley Winters’ Jane, just wanting to slap some respect into the “bad” kids. Is that what this genre of horror boils down to? Is that the root of The Bad Seed and The Good Son and “It’s a Good Life” and The Omen and all the rest? Is it simply the recognition that children can be brats, taken to the nth degree?

Possibly. But I think it’s more general than that: even the people closest to us have sides to them that are unknown to us. They share our lives and homes, but their thoughts are no more visible to us than those of strangers halfway around the world. The Visitor taps into the fear that we don’t really know the people around us: the “Visitor” could be a stranger, or someone we’ve known our whole lives.

When Stock Footage Roamed the Earth

“Why, if I had half the chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage!” exclaims Johnny Depp as the title character in the 1994 film Ed Wood as he examines film clips of explosions, military maneuvers, and stampeding buffalo.  Although Wood never went quite that far, later filmmakers would take up that challenge, and the scene illustrates just how much movies in the black-and-white era depended on footage of stunts, special effects, and locations culled from other sources in the studios’ extensive libraries to cut costs.  (Even into the 1970s and ‘80s it wasn’t uncommon for low-budget directors to build films and TV episodes around footage of car crashes and stunts, matching the actors’ clothes to the pre-existing clips.) As a kid in the 1980s, I was indirectly exposed to a great deal of older movies and television by the flood of repurposed stock footage on TV at that time.

Certainly it was more common to find old movies, shorts, and black-and-white shows on television as part of cheap daytime syndication packages (I watched Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Little Rascals after school—can you imagine that today?) and the “late late show.”  Sunday afternoon was reserved for the “Creature Feature,” a phrase that in my naiveté I thought the local station managers had come up with themselves.  Creative editing into new formats such as music videos, commercials, and interstitials was just the next step for this material, much of which, before the explosion of cable channels and the revival of TV shows on DVD, was considered nearly worthless.

An appetite for old film clips excerpted from their context began to develop in the 1970s with the emergence of full-length “docutainment.”  The pioneer of the nostalgic clip movie was That’s Entertainment!, a celebratory look at movie musicals made in 1974 to commemorate Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s fiftieth anniversary.  In addition to editing together highlights from both classic and obscure MGM musicals, That’s Entertainment! brought together a large number of the stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age to talk about their experiences filming such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and reminisce about the good old days.  (A recurring theme of both the film and its marketing was that this would be the last time so many stars would be gathered in one place—although there would be two sequels—and even the trailer emphasizes its escapist quality in the Watergate era, ending its ballyhoo with a hilariously downbeat “That’s Entertainment! Boy! Do we need it now.” Ah, the 1970s.)

That’s Entertainment! is a film that I’ve returned to several times over the years, but 1982’s It Came from Hollywood was more my speed at the time: comics Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner, and Cheech and Chong introduced clips from dozens of science fiction, horror, and cult movies, ranging from cheap B movies and serials to the monster classics of the 1950s and focusing on such niche categories as drug panic, juvenile delinquency, and even musicals.  In addition to the skits setting up each category (which also included “Monsters,” “Gorillas,” “The Brain,” and “Aliens,” among others), they offered a running commentary, often razzing the cheapness or tastelessness of the films in a manner that echoed the audience participation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the mockery of The Golden Turkey Awards (in fact, Golden Turkey winner Edward D. Wood, Jr. is the subject of his own segment in It Came from Hollywood, the only filmmaker so “honored”) and anticipated the format of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

It Came from Hollywood is doubly nostalgic for me now, hearkening back both to an era of drive-in double features and Saturday matinees I only experienced second-hand, and to the early 1980s heyday of the hip comedians (younger at the time of filming than I am now, and two of them sadly since passed away: seriously, did anyone in 1982 think that of all these comedians, Cheech Marin would have the strongest career in 2014?) I considered the height of cool back then.  Unlike That’s Entertainment!, It Came from Hollywood didn’t bother to name most of the films it excerpted (except in a long list during the end credits), lending a dissociative, dream-like quality to the proceedings (and often leaving me unable to place a particular image for years, until the internet made it easier to find such information, not to mention the films themselves).

Another film that must have had a considerable influence on me was 1977’s Gizmo!, produced and directed by Howard Smith, which, unlike my two previous examples, drew most of its footage from films that purported to be true (or were at least staged for publicity: mostly Depression-era newsreels, from the look of it).  Many of the clips are of gadgets and contraptions made to solve the petty problems of life—a dog-powered washing machine, a self-rocking cradle, and a spaghetti fork mounted on a hand-held drill so as to twirl automatically—in the truest Rube Goldberg spirit.  Gizmo! casts a wide net, however, including many examples of “self-invention” as well, people with strange talents or driven by obsession: human flies and high wire walkers, a “human camel” drinking gallons of water and washing it down with kerosene, feats of strength and endurance.

Obsession and invention come together in the numerous doomed-to-fail flying machines, each presentation inevitably preceded by the delusional inventor’s proclamation that “what we are about to see will change the world.”  The succession of disastrous ornithopters, “triphibians,” rocket planes, and bat-winged flying costumes fizzling, burning out, or simply tumbling off the ends of their take-off ramps was probably the inspiration for a similar passage in Airplane! (1980) in which former pilot Ted Striker suffers the most pathetically hilarious flashback in all of film.

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In fact, the Airplane! sequence is just one of many examples of footage that was insinuated into public consciousness through its reuse: while it may not have been the first film to revive them, Gizmo! contains many images that have become iconic, such as performer Frank “Cannonball” Richards being shot in the belly point blank by a cannon.  If they didn’t see Gizmo!, viewers in the 1980s might have seen this image in numerous other contexts such as commercials or music videos; it was ubiquitous enough that when The Simpsons parodied it in “Homerpalooza” they could assume that the majority of their audience would get the reference.

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As it happens, I did see Gizmo! several times: in addition to appearing on HBO (like both of the other films I’ve mentioned), it was a favorite of my middle school shop teacher, good old Mr. Lundquist (who would often joke that he couldn’t use a typewriter because he had lost his “typing finger” in a bandsaw accident—he was truly a shop teacher of the old school).  Whenever we had an inactive day (for whatever reason), Mr. Lundquist would pop Gizmo! into the VCR for us to watch, on the pretense that we might glean some insight into mechanical engineering from it: I must have seen the damned thing at least half a dozen times in school.

Although now mostly forgotten, Gizmo! (along with other docutainments) led to such programs as That’s Incredible! and Real People with their mix of weird talents, record-breaking attempts, and magazine-like pieces on strange subjects, kicking off a brief “reality TV” craze twenty years before Survivor.  In a more serious vein, the obsessed oddballs of Gizmo! are the forefathers of Errol Morris’ subjects in the similarly anthology-like Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

It was on basic cable that stock footage became almost a medium in itself, continually reshaped and recombined by editors, filling in the cracks in programming and propping up commercial messages like the media equivalent of duct tape.  Rick Prelinger, collector and curator of countless educational and industrial films, was one source, financing his more serious preservation projects by supplying film clips to cable channels and other buyers.  Nickelodeon and the Comedy Channel frequently ran old shorts in the late 1980s when their own programming was thin on the ground. And it’s a cliché by now to complain that MTV no longer runs music videos, but what I really miss are the incredible variety of cult films and the kind of sponsored films that Prelinger specialized in: safety, hygiene, and civil defense films from the 1950s and ‘60s, presented uncut but ironically juxtaposed with the rest of the channel’s programming.

Black-and-white footage was especially felicitous for film collage: just as the low-budget filmmakers of the time had reused stunts to cut costs, counting on the consistency of the film stock to hide discrepancies, modern editors could draw on a vast body of film to assemble an original world from spare parts: in It Came from Hollywood, the invaders of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers could share the screen with the alien masterminds of Mars Needs Women and the ape-like Robot Monster could trade places with the gorilla from The Perils of Nyoka, making the visuals as archetypal and interchangeable as the storylines.  Later filmmakers could, and would, go much farther in assembling collages (the work of Craig Baldwin, for example, deserves a write-up of its own, to follow at a later time); the uniformity of black-and-white film bears comparison to the Victorian engravings that Max Ernst turned into the surreal graphic novel La Femme 100 Têtes, the consistency of the illustration style allowing for a greater suspension of disbelief than more typically disjunct visual collage.*

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In fact, my memory of the 1980s is so colored by the reuse of kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley routines, death-defying stunts, and proto-steampunk flying machines set to new soundtracks, that they largely run together in my mind.  For example, I had completely forgotten that Gizmo! has a voiceover, yet the announcer talks over the clips almost continuously.  I wonder, too, how much effect this had on other members of my generation: I was beguiled by these hints of an older world, touched by both history and fantasy, and I eventually had the opportunity to dig deeper, to watch complete films.  But the emphasis on dippy inventions and quaint habits of the past might have equally fueled the perception that old movies (and even the world they represented) were uniformly corny, boring, and dumb—an attitude that can be hard to overcome.

Similarly, the use of editing to present only the highlights—a pattern that is already evident in That’s Entertainment!, but which would accelerate with each passing year—both artificially juices the excitement level and misrepresents the more leisurely pacing that was the norm in old films.  (That’s not to say that editors of the 1930s and ‘40s never used quick cutting—they did—but over the length of a feature intense and exciting passages were generally balanced with slower sequences.) From a modern perspective, one of the most interesting sequences in That’s Entertainment! edits together the numerous examples of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the so-called “Backyard Musicals” series, saying “Let’s put on a show!” (or a dance band, or a rodeo) in rapid succession, a predecessor of the supercuts that now thrive on YouTube.

Perhaps like any fad, the use of stock footage on television began to fade; by 1994, Turner Classic Movies was on the air, providing a more respectable home for both feature films and ephemeral short features that could be presented original and uncut.  Likewise, many of the original sources from which features like Gizmo! drew are available online now and can be easily seen; it isn’t as necessary for them to be edited together for general viewers.  What is needed is context, and curators like TCM or Criterion are able to provide that.  With the availability of this footage has come easy-to-use editing software, so that anyone can create the kind of collage that was once trendy on television.  As for the low-budget producers, they are now more likely to lean on the crutch of CGI for their features, which may not be any more believable than stock car crashes or explosions, but can be quickly produced and can be tailored to their specific needs.  And MTV?  Well, everyone knows they don’t show videos any more, anyway.

* In this connection, the most intriguing example of this from the 1980s is Tom Schiller’s 1984 film Nothing Lasts Forever, a black-and-white homage to Golden Age Hollywood that uses stock footage to lend authenticity to the trippy journey of a young would-be artist.  More popular was Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a film noir parody in which Steve Martin played the detective, interacting with characters from classic movies through the magic of intercutting.

Who Will Love Me As I Am? Chained for Life, Side Show, and the Cult Movie/Musical Overlap

I recently watched Chained for Life, the 1951 oddity/star vehicle featuring conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1969).  In the movie, the sisters star as thinly-disguised versions of themselves, Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton, on trial for the murder of Dorothy’s husband-of-convenience Andre Pariseau (the story unfolds in flashback as the pair tell their side of the affair). In the film, Pariseau (played by Mario Laval) is a marksman performing in the same Vaudeville revue as the Hamilton sisters; when their manager gets the idea of staging a love affair to boost publicity, Pariseau goes along with it for an increased share of the profits, even going so far as to propose marriage (even as he continues to carry on with his assistant).  But Dorothy’s feelings are all too real, leading to conflicts between the sisters who are literally inseparable.

Chained for Life has been called an exploitation film, and if any performers can be described as exploited, surely the Hilton sisters are at the top of the list: born to an unwed mother in Brighton, England, the twins were more or less bought by the delivering midwife, who put them on display from infancy and continued to “manage” them for decades, until the sisters won their independence after a contentious trial.  Even after that, they were unprepared for the difficulties of life on their own and continued to be ill-served by subsequent handlers.  The low point, and the end of their career, came when they were unceremoniously abandoned in Birmingham, Alabama, where they took a job at a grocery store and lived until succumbing to the Hong Kong flu years later.

The term “exploitation film” often brings to mind gratuitous sex or violence, but Chained for Life is quite tame on both fronts, and like many films of the era it at least purports to be instructional; it’s more thought-provoking than edgy.  In reality, it is the audience’s curiosity and desire for titillation that are exploited, and whether through posters that resemble tabloid front pages or trailers that teasingly edit together the most shocking parts of the movie, “exploitation” is often a byword for films that promise more than they deliver.  Although more polished and coherent, Chained for Life reminded me of an Edward D. Wood production, particularly Wood’s attempt at a “message movie,” Glen or Glenda?  Chained even opens with a portentous, Criswell-like monologue from the judge in the murder trial, who invites the audience to ask themselves how they would mete out justice in such a case.  We hear from doctors on the limits of surgery and we witness the legal difficulties in procuring a marriage license (both problems the real-life sisters had experience with).  A kindly reverend makes a case for the dignity of all lives created by God, whatever form they take; and in his closing remarks, the defense attorney alludes to the bigotry, cruelty, and, yes, exploitation that the sisters faced throughout their lives.  Although the central puzzle of the film (how can the court punish the guilty twin without wrongly imprisoning or executing the innocent one?) is left unresolved, there is no question that the audience is meant to conclude that Pariseau (a smooth Latin lover type who is only in it for the money) got what he deserved.

The marriage under false pretenses calls to mind Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, which also turns on the callous exploitation of an outsider’s affection by a pair of “normals” (and in which, incidentally, the Hilton sisters had also appeared, albeit as secondary characters).  The difference between the two films is striking, however: Freaks is a one-of-a-kind blend of horror, pathos and melodrama, an expressionistic fable with long wordless stretches, compelling images, and a genuinely shocking ending.  Despite a few stylistic flourishes (such as a dream sequence in which Dorothy imagines herself separated from her twin, free to dance with her beloved), Chained is content to tell its story in businesslike fashion, consistent with its courtroom setting and air of social uplift (it does, however, include the newspaper headline SIAMESE TWIN TO WED VAUDEVILLIAN, which is in my opinion in the running for Best Headline Ever).  They are essentially films of different eras: the cruelties visited on the Hamilton sisters are less overt than those depicted in the side show world of Freaks, but are no less painful for being covered by a veneer of politeness.  The level of craftsmanship is quite different as well: while the Hilton sisters had a long-running musical act, singing duets in harmony, their acting is stiff and artificial, calling attention to the staginess of their banter (their scenes really do play like something by Ed Wood). In short, Freaks is a classic; Chained for Life is a curiosity.

Having said that, Chained for Life has its rewards.  I always enjoy films that feature genuine acts of performance, whether music, dance, martial arts, or the kind of talents usually filed under “variety,” and Chained for Life’s Vaudeville setting provides numerous opportunities.  In addition to the sisters’ musical act and Pariseau’s marksmanship (including playing a pipe organ activated by rifle shots, in one of the film’s most baroque sequences), we get an accordionist tearing through the William Tell Overture, a juggler, and a clown with a trick bicycle act.

One might accuse the filmmakers of trying to pad out an already brief running time, and it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong (the trick bicyclist is pretty dull, even if you’re into old stage acts), but the performances (and many like them in movies of the era) provide a glimpse of live entertainment as it was experienced in times gone by.  A great deal of surviving footage of entertainers of the past comes from film excerpts, either from features like this or from shorts meant to accompany the longer films.  (The contrivance by which the story halts and a famous artist is invited to perform their signature act is still with us, of course, whenever an appearance by a guest star needs to be justified; staging their performance as a show within the show is an obvious solution, but not the only one.)

Chained for Life is also a cult film, a label often applied to movies so singular that they fascinate a small number of viewers, even as they drive large audiences away.  There are so many types of cult film—from trashy exploitation and low-budget amateur productions to expensive, little-loved flops and insane, auteur-driven visions—that it would be impossible to cover them all, but one thing they all have in common is the perception on the part of the audience that this movie was made for them personally: for those of us on their wavelengths, cult films speak to the weirdness in our souls.

Mulling over the show-biz milieu of Chained for Life, I wondered: are there cult operas?  Cult stage musicals?  After a moment’s thought, the short answer was yes, of course there are, and for many of the same reasons that films develop cults.  There are musicals notorious for their epic failure (like Carrie, based on the Stephen King book, which closed after only a handful of performances) or for their troubled production history (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark will surely not soon be forgotten), and until recent years most flops would leave only a cast recording behind, if that.

Of course, many cult films are also musicals; in some cases they are adaptations of stage works, such as the ur-midnight movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was already a phenomenon as The Rocky Horror Show in London before being turned into the long-running film.  Little Shop of Horrors exhibits a complete life cycle, originating as a quickly-filmed Roger Corman horror comedy, being turned into a stage musical, and finally returning to film in a big budget adaptation (which replaced the original film’s and stage musical’s bleak ending with a happy one; if you haven’t seen the original ending that was scrapped after poor audience testing, it’s really something).  But many original movie musicals have cult appeal for their singular vision and the heightened qualities inherent in musical theater.

Just as original cast albums can keep Broadway shows in circulation, motion picture soundtracks can serve as advertisements for the films they come from, or take on lives of their own: to name one example, I was intrigued by the soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s 1968 comedy Skidoo, in which stars from the golden age of Hollywood collided with a druggy flower power satire.  As great as that sounds, when I finally saw the movie, I found it mostly unfunny and, dare I say, square.  (Interestingly, while a straight play or movie can have the air sucked right out by the kind of “Hey, why don’t you sing us your hit song?” interruption I mentioned above, the songs are often the only places where musicals come alive.  I’m sure it’s at least partly a matter of context and expectation: if you’re watching a movie starring Elvis, you just know he’s going to pick up a guitar sooner or later.)

Musicals, like film, are a collaborative medium, and the expense involved in producing one often leads to the rough edges and idiosyncrasies being sanded down, but personal visions can still come through.  For example, the same year Chained for Life was made, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, lyricist for such hits as The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow, collaborated with composer Sammy Fain on Flahooley, a satire of consumerism and conformity inspired by Harburg’s blacklisting in Hollywood (Harburg was never a Communist party member, but for his refusal to name names he was blocked from working in Hollywood from 1950 until 1962, and also had his passport revoked during that time).  Despite numerous changes made to tone down the political references (originally, the talking doll of the title was supposed to say “Dirty Red!” instead of laughing), Flahooley is truly a strange mixture, combining boardroom satire of the kind Stan Freberg specialized in; an Oriental fantasy version of Arabia, including a genie in a lamp and exotica star Yma Sumac as an Arab princess; and marionettes devised by puppeteer Bil Baird (the puppets were the American people—get it?).  Flahooley closed after forty performances on Broadway, but after reading about it, how could I not track down the soundtrack?*

Of course, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call operas and musical theater cult interests to begin with: like cult films, musical stage works attract an intensely devoted fan base that is only a small part of the larger public.  Operagoers are apt to have strong opinions about what they like and what they don’t, taking seemingly small matters very personally.  Both art forms have much in common with the films that draw cult audiences: there are outré scenarios with lurid hooks, exotic locations, larger-than-life characters, and the often-campy artifice of the stage.  How many operas include deceptive lovers or mismatched marriages as plot devices?

Even going back to its origins, opera featured personalities that would be recognizable to modern cineastes.  The divas of seventeenth-century Venetian opera had adoring fans, carefully-managed public images, and behind-the-scenes clout, much like celebrity entertainers today.  (And much like today, opera stars would demand ego-flattering changes to productions: in addition to the common practice of aria substitution, which continued until the nineteenth century, there are examples like castrato Luigi Marchesi, who insisted on entering the stage on horseback, wearing a helmet festooned with multi-colored plumes, regardless of the role.)

In the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner’s operas took on a quasi-spiritual dimension, and the “cult” designation was almost literal: fans of his work were referred to as “Wagnerites,” and if they were at all able they would make the “pilgrimage” to Bayreuth, where Wagner’s work could be performed in a theater custom-built to his specifications.  Before the birth of motion pictures, it was the theatrical stage on which craftsmen perfected the arts of captivating, even manipulating, the moods and desires of audiences.

If there is a cult within the cult of musical fandom, it is probably to be found Off-Broadway, where productions can be a little more transgressive without scaring away the big crowds demanded on Broadway.  In fact there is a consistent pattern of Off-Broadway successes moving into the mainstream, beginning with The Fantasticks and including such shows as Little Shop of Horrors and Urinetown, and in many cases the smaller budgets and narrower appeal of such shows allow their creators the freedom to speak more frankly than was possible in traditional Broadway.  It is intriguing to note the absorption of Off-Broadway talent into both Broadway and Hollywood musicals.  Alan Menken and Howard Ashman moved from Little Shop of Horrors to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and by all accounts were instrumental in raising the level of ambition for Disney’s animated feature films at the time, leading to the early ‘90s blossoming of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before Ashman’s untimely death.  More recently, Robert Lopez has gone from co-creating the musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon to co-writing songs for Disney’s Frozen (another story of a pair of sisters who want very different things from life).

Given the intense identification with outsiders fostered by the last few decades of musical theater (and popular culture in general) and the continued fascination with both freaks and the machinery of the entertainment industry, it should not be surprising that Daisy and Violet Hilton have been the subject of a Broadway musical.  1997’s Side Show, by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, makes a useful contrast to both Freaks and Chained for Life: moving from the carnival freak show to the Vaudeville circuit, it too includes a staged marriage, but unlike its predecessors there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys.  Despite the twins’ stage appearances portraying angels, songbirds, and Egyptian princesses, they are simply human, making compromises to get through life as best they can.  There is still glamour and beauty in Side Show, but the tone is one of regret and world-weariness rather than the gothic excess of Freaks or the noir-tinged procedural of Chained for Life.  Naturally, the theme of duality is present, and some characters can be described as two-faced, but the conflict between the outgoing Daisy and retiring Violet is placed front and center.  Side Show also more closely examines the men in the twins’ lives and their difficulty in accepting what a commitment to one of them would really mean, without letting faithless or cowardly lovers off the hook.  In the show, the one man who truly loves Violet, Jake, is African-American, but he knows the world would never accept them together, dramatizing another barrier that could only be considered as subtext in the lily-white Chained for Life.

Other subtexts aren’t hard to find in either the musical or the cult film.  For the most vital, but not only, example, the identification of musical theater and being gay is so ingrained as to be a cliché, but there is truth to it.  A primary convention of the theater is its camaraderie and acceptance of everyone as they are—one of the standard tropes of show business, second only to “The show must go on,” is that the troupe is a family, no matter what—and the distancing, unreal effect of the theater has historically allowed its practitioners to express themselves in coded language, even when their love “dare not speak its name.”  This frequently came through in gay theatergoers’ identification with the divas and the idealized (heterosexual, until very recently) lovers onstage.  Outsiders frequently recognized themselves in cult films as well: whether gay or straight, it seems plausible that while the glamour of the theater may seem preferable to ordinary life for many audiences, there’s a similar identification with the monsters and misfits of the horror and science fiction films that also attract cult audiences.  Outwardly opposite, they appeal to the same impulse, intertwined in such figures as the Bride of Frankenstein and Vampira.

The goal for audiences, just as it was for the real-life Hilton sisters and their fictionalized counterparts, is acceptance: self-acceptance first, and then the acceptance of a partner, if one can be found.  Traditional happy endings often end on the latter, but sometimes the former is enough.  Consider Frozen, radical (at least for a Disney movie) for its embrace of sisterhood as the real true love, and ending without a romantic match for Elsa, the Snow Queen.  Some interpret her anthem “Let It Go” as a metaphorical coming out of the closet; it needn’t be, of course–taken at face value it’s a powerful statement of independence, comparable to singer Idina Menzel’s other big song, “Defying Gravity” from Wicked–but such an interpretation is more than tenable.  Musical theater and film continue to be powerful for the ways in which they give voice to yearnings that cannot (yet) be put into words: as Daisy and Violet sing in Side Show’s most intimate and powerful number, “Who will love me as I am?”

 

* Those soundtracks can keep the flame alive for underperforming shows: Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins baffled audiences in its initial Broadway run, but it has gone on to be a favorite of college and regional theaters.  Away from the financial pressures of Broadway, Carrie has been revised and revived a few times, and even Flahooley has had at least one revival.