Hessler and Price are together again (for the first time) for a Poe adaptation that actually has a little something to do with Poe, or at least as much as any AIP Poe film has to do with Poe. Poe’s short story, “The Oblong Box,” has to do with a man who witnesses the obsession of an artist friend on a ship with an oblong shipping crate. So committed is the man, seeming delirious and mad, to this box that when the ship is wrecked during a storm, he sinks to the bottom of the ocean with the box rather than abandon it. Not to spoil the surprise, but it was a coffin containing his dead wife, though no one knew of the contents lest they refuse to travel overseas with a corpse. Hessler’s film does indeed contain a coffin that is referred to as an oblong box. And there is an artist, though he himself has no coffin. Beyond that, this film has as much to do with Poe as does the average movie in which someone inherits a wily, diaper-wearing ape that solves a crime.
I’m guessing child protection agencies today would cringe at the thought of a wee sprout staying up until two or three in the morning just so he can thrill as Boris Karloff lurks in some shadows or Vincent Price bugs out his eyes at some fantastic and horrible sight. But for you Teleport City readers, such behavior should be par for the course, and I figure it’s healthier than watching realty television, where there is just as much family dysfunction but far fewer werewolves. The first AIP horror films I remember seeing were Cry of the Banshee and The Terror. I would see Cry of the Banshee pop up once every couple of years, and then when I got cable television, The Terror seemed to pop up every other night. Cry of the Banshee I first saw on a wildly enjoyable night that also boasted broadcast of the Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and Darby O’Gill and the Little People, from back when children’s movies used to be fun and imaginative and sometimes even dark, scary, and not filled with sassy pre-teens driving go-carts and having sleepovers. instead, they had drunks dancing jigs and Sean Connery punching people in the face.
The world’s first manned expedition to Mars has vanished, and men in sparsely appointed offices are concerned by swirling newspaper headlines. When the rocket reappears, the world breathes a collective sigh of relief — until it’s discovered that only two of the four members of the crew are alive. On board the returning rocket is unbuttoned shirt aficionado and expedition leader Col. Thomas O’Bannion (a particularly sleazy Gerald Mohr), who has been incapacitated by some horrifying alien growth, and scientist Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden), known to the crew as Irish and in a state of shock that prevents her from remembering any of the details of the nightmarish fate that befell the crew. A third crew member, Doctor Morbius lookalike Prof. Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne, War of the Worlds) is aboard the rocket but dead. And requisite blue-collar Joe Brooklyn guy Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen) is missing entirely. Making matters worse, all records of what happened to the crew while on Mars have been erased. The only way to save O’Bannion and discern what the heck happened on Mars is to snap poor, semi-catatonic Iris out of her fugue state…
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
Before we get into this article, let me get something off my chest and, in the process, confess to you all that I am going into this movie with a considerable chip on my shoulder. You see, as can be ascertained from the title, this movie deals with a journey to the planet Uranus, and as anyone can tell you, it is the God-given right of people discussing this planet to make as many “Uranus” jokes as they can (and believe me, I can make a lot of them). Especially when a movie turns out to be as dull and uneventful as this one, we who regularly engage in discussion of such films need those Uranus jokes to make it through to the end credits. Now some movies will try and head you off at the pass, using the alternate “Urine Us” pronunciation, but as you can see, even though it is less versatile, that pronunciation comes with its own cargo of hilarity.
H.P. Lovecraft may not be one of the best writers in the world, but he’s certainly one of the most fun to read — not to mention imitate. For this reason, I got it in my head that it would be a great idea to read The Dunwich Horror aloud to my wife. She not only loves to be scared, but is so committed to the endeavor that she’s even on occasion been willing to meet Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror movies halfway. That’s a perfect attitude to bring to Lovecraft, in my opinion, because he’s an author you really need to be willing to work with. In cracking open one of his stories, you’re making an implicit agreement to be scared; otherwise it’s just not going to work. Of course, Lovecraft does his part to help you along in that regard, always letting you know exactly how afraid you’re supposed to be, even when the object of that fear remains somewhat sketchily defined, and also modeling the desired behavior by populating his stories with characters who launch into paroxysms of terror at the faintest fetid odor.
With the combination of my wife’s gameness, Lovecraft’s semaphore-like emotional cues, and the fact that the mildewed pages of the 1970s paperback edition of Dunwich I’d found gave off a scent that, with a little imagination, could be interpreted as being primordial, we were, as far as I was concerned, all set. However, after five solid pages describing the blighted landscape of Dunwich town, my wife made clear that she wasn’t having it, saying something to the effect of, “What is this shit?” All of which is not to discourage you from reading Lovecraft to your own spouse or significant other; but it’s certainly important to make sure you’ve done the proper amount of prep work.
By the way, the old Jove paperback of The Dunwich Horror that I purchased features a cover illustration that is a very literal depiction, based on Lovecraft’s description in the story, of Wilbur Whateley in his true form, which looks like the upper half of Golem from Lord of the Rings grafted onto something that looks like a cross between the lower half of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a pineapple, and one of those cat-shaped wall clocks whose eyes move from side to side with the second hand.
I imagine that Lovecraft’s tendency to devote more words to telling his reader how scared he or she should be than to describing the thing to be feared posed a problem to those filmmakers initially assigned the task of bringing his work to the screen. After all, until the advent of modern J-Horror — whose sensibility is pretty much right in line with Lovecraft’s — the common wisdom would have been that you were supposed to scare your audience by showing them something scary, rather than by just showing them a bunch of people being scared, or, even worse, showing a bunch of people talking about how potentially scary some vaguely defined thing might be if it it actually existed. Furthermore, such filmmakers might understandably conclude that a film whose every character was in a constant state of near-wordless cowering for no clear reason might quickly forfeit audience interest.
It is this last conviction that might explain the casting choices made in connection with director Daniel Haller’s first Lovecraft adaptation for AIP, Die, Monster, Die!. A veteran art director, Haller had also worked in that capacity on AIP’s initial Lovecraft outing, The Haunted Palace, directed by Roger Corman. While by no means a close adaptation of its source material, Die, Monster, Die! did an admirable job of achieving Lovecraft’s patented mood of mounting dread and creeping, formless horror. The only departure from that — and it’s a radical one — was the placement of American actor Nick Adams at its center, probably the most un-Lovecraftian protagonist imaginable, who would be much more likely to call the great Cthulu a “jerk” and punch him in the nose than to simply be driven mad by the impossibility of his existence.
When it came time for Haller to make his second Lovecraft adaptation, 1970s The Dunwich Horror, he and screenwriter Curtis Hanson chose to add another very un-Lovecraftian element to their quintessentially Lovecraftian tale with the introduction into the mix of a sweaty dose of eroticism. Lovecraft’s stories, with all their references to tentacles and other undulating protuberances coming out of things at all angles, were certainly sexual — if in a repressed/hysterical way — but they were far from sexy. In fact, judging from the man’s writings alone, I’d imagine that any attempt by him to describe any normal type of human sexual congress would be one of the most excruciatingly awkward, squirm-inducing things you could possibly read. If there does not exist somewhere a porn parody written in Lovecraftian prose, or myriad examples of erotic Lovecraft fanfic, then the internet truly has no right to exist. It’s not for me to put the effort into finding out, though. Of course, the concept seems less strange when you consider that it was no doubt partly a result of AIP fulfilling their early Seventies mandate to serve up at least some explotational content with every offering. But the whole enterprise rockets back into the realm of the unnamable when you consider that the actors they chose to place at the center of all this heat and steam were Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell.
The Dunwich Horror was something of a landmark for Sandra Dee, in that the Gidget star was required by its action to spend much of her screen-time writhing and moaning orgasmically on a sacrificial altar while in a state of near undress, and even to treat the audience to a brief flash of her — possibly body-doubled — breasts. Of course, Dee was at an unavoidable crossroads in her career by this time. The wholesome, girl-next-door image that had propelled her to stardom in the early sixties was now not only hopelessly out of sync with the times, but also impossible to maintain now that she had undergone a very public divorce from her husband Bobby Darin. Given these factors, that she would slam her knockers out in an AIP picture was probably as inevitable as it was surprising.
On the other hand, Dean Stockwell’s transition from sweet-faced to unsavory had been accomplished long before he arrived on the Dunwich set, with any memories of the adorable child star he used to be forever tainted by roles such as that of the effeminate child murderer in 1959′s Compulsion. To say that Stockwell comes off as a “little” creepy in The Dunwich Horror would be the Mona Lisa of understatement. From the nervous sidelong glances, to the unwavering hushed monotone, the speech riddled with odd pregnant pauses, and the intent, wild-eyed staring, his performance is, in fact, the whole creepiness package, without one unsettling tick left behind. Of course, given he was charged with portraying a character who, in the original story, was depicted as being a goat-like, preternaturally intelligent, prepubescent eight foot giant who conceals beneath his garments a body that is part T. Rex , part pineapple and part cat clock, you could forgive him for over-compensating.
By the way, my writing this review gave me the opportunity to allay a misconception about Dean Stockwell that I’ve been entertaining for quite some time. I’ve long had this vague notion, which I had the nagging feeling wasn’t true, that he had some kind of strong Walt Disney affiliation. This turns out to be due to me confusing him with that star of countless, animal-themed, live action Disney movies from the sixties, Dean Jones, a man who is creepy in his own right, though in a quite different, more Disney-like way than Dean Stockwell. Now, thanks to Teleport City’s stringent research standards, I can tell you with utmost certainty that Dean Stockwell absolutely, positively did not star in That Darned Cat!, The Ugly Dachshund, Monkeys, Go Home! or The Million Dollar Duck. In fact, during this period in Dean Jones’s career, Dean Stockwell was playing roles like that of an acid-tripping Haight-Ashbury hippy in Psych-Out. So, how wrong can you be, really?
Aside from being the movie that tried to generate sexual heat between Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell, The Dunwich Horror is notable for being one of the AIP Lovecraft adaptations that — like The Haunted Palace, but unlike Die, Monster, Die! — directly addresses the author’s much vaunted Cthulhu Mythos. Granted, it may not do so with enough authenticity to satisfy fans of the author, but much lip service is indeed given to such touchstone concepts as “Yog-Sothoth”, “The Old Ones” and the “The Necronomicon”. However, as alluded to above, both the Old Ones — that ancient race of unimaginable non-human creatures who, according to Lovecraft, once ruled the Earth and are itching to return — and their followers are portrayed as being much hornier than in any of Lovecraft’s tales. Their most fully-formed emissary in the human world, the unnamed “thing” locked up in a mysterious upstairs room in the Whateley house, seems to be most concerned with first ripping off all of its victim’s clothes when it encounters its first human prey. Similarly, the rituals that Wilbur (Stockwell) must perform in order to summon the Old Ones back into our dimension seem to mostly involve him feeling up a drugged and prostrate Sandra Dee and reading incantations while standing between her splayed legs.
There is a familiar feel of that smarmy, late-to-the-party seventies version of hippie free love to all this, though, of course, in a much more overtly sinister form. It’s a tone that’s driven home even by Les Baxter’s main theme, a narcotically swooning swinger’s revelry with a decadent European sensibility that could just as easily have come from the mind of Serge Gainsbourg or Michel Legrand. Mind you, I don’t think this quality detracts from The Dunwich Horror. I think that an adaptation of Lovecraft’s work for a more permissive age would have no choice but to address the creepy sexuality that underlies it, and Haller’s take here is indeed suitably creepy. That this imperative was put in the hands of a studio like AIP, who was more than happy to deliver on the required nudity and implied sexual shenanigans, just represents a fortuitous dovetailing of interests.
The potent sex magic that Dean Stockwell wields in The Dunwich Horror — at least as it applies to Sandra Dee — is shown to be pretty much in full effect from the very opening moments of the film. It is at this point that we meet Dee’s character, Nancy Wagner, a student at venerable old Miskatonic University. Her professor, Dr. Armitage, has entrusted her with the between classes errand of returning his surprisingly crisp looking copy of the ancient book of forbidden knowledge, The Necronomicon, to the school’s library. The mention of the book’s name attracts the twitchy attentions of the proximately lurking Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell), a visitor to the university from the nearby town of Dunwich whose consummate creepiness is matched only by his single-mindedness. Wilbur follows Nancy to the library and asks her to let him see the book before she replaces it in its case. She resists at first, but it is only a matter of Wilbur making whammy eyes at her for a few seconds before she relents, despite the objections of her obviously unaffected friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala). Wilbur makes off to hungrily devour the tome’s contents, only to be intercepted by Dr. Armitage, who rents it from his grasp with a stern rebuke. This bit of awkwardness does not preclude the four of them from going out for a drink at the pub later, at which time Wilbur engages Dr. Armitage in a conversation that goes more or less like this:
Wilbur: Can I see the book?
Wilbur: Can I see the book?
Wilbur: Oh, Okay, but… can I see the book?
Dr. Armitage, by the way, is portrayed by the veteran character actor Ed Begley, a man who played supporting roles in almost as many classic film noirs as Elisha Cook Jr. He’s a great, if unusual, choice for the role, because, while he’s appropriately gray and distinguished, his history of playing tough guy roles gives him a two-fisted air decidedly at odds with the tremulous demeanor of the typical Lovecraftian academic. That may not make his character authentic to the text, but it certainly makes him a more credible opponent to the forces he’s up against, and when he and Wilbur face off to shout incantations at one another at the movie’s conclusion, you get the sense that you’re seeing a dramatic showdown between more or less equally matched adversaries — a markedly more satisfying and movie-like conclusion than if the makers had stuck with the finale as presented in the book, in which a bunch of frightened old men cower in the rain while shouting spells and praying that Yog-Sothoth doesn’t kill them.
Wilbur eventually manipulates circumstances so that Nancy has to give him a ride back to his creepy old house in Dunwich, and, once there, sabotages her car so that she has no choice but to spend the night. Nancy is already falling increasingly under Wilbur’s sway by this point, so she raises little objection to this turn of events, but Wilbur still drugs her drink just to be on the safe side — possibly because, in her chemically-induced stupor, she will be less likely to notice the ominous gurgling sounds coming out of the locked room at the top of the stairs. That night, as she slumbers, Nancy dreams that she is being groped and chased by a bunch of hippie mud people who caper around and mug at the camera as if they were auditioning for the Broadway production of Yog-Sothoth: Superstar. This experience seems only to increase Wilbur’s hold over her, and the one night’s stay extends to a series of days, as, all the while, it becomes clearer that Wilbur is grooming her for a very specific purpose, a purpose that is more than hinted at when Wilbur shows Nancy the ancient sacrificial altar perched atop a desolate hilltop near his home.
Once Wilbur has finally gotten his mitts on the Necronomicon and set in motion the rituals necessary to bringing the Old Ones back into the world of men, The Dunwich Horror, like the story it’s based upon, sees out its final act as a pretty sweet little monster on the loose story. The film is helped greatly in this regard by the fact that Lovecraft described the unnamable thing locked up in the Whateley house, once freed, as being mostly invisible to human eyes. This enables the filmmakers to represent it through some pretty effective shots of trees being rent about by unseen forces, an interesting use of negative effects, and reaction shots of the monster’s horrified victims (one of whom is played by a very young Talia Shire). All in all, it’s a satisfyingly apocalyptic payoff to the slow-burn piling on of unease that makes up the film’s first hour, and even survives the fact that, once we do catch a fleeting glimpse of the beast, it appears to be Dean Stockwell wearing a mask made out of plastic snakes.
While the sleazy, swinger’s leer that The Dunwich Horror affects certainly dates the picture — and may go some way toward undermining its scare factor for modern audiences — the film in most respects still holds to the high standard set by AIP’s earlier gothic horrors drawn from the works of Poe and Lovecraft. As with those films, the modest budget is compensated for by both a handsome production design and a studious attention to the creation of a pervasive atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Bolstering that is a range of reliable, if somewhat over-the-top, performances by a cast made up of stolid old troopers, among them Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s grandfather and Lloyd Bochner as Armitage’s ally, Dr. Cory. Only Sandra Dee, out of all the performers, seems to be holding back, but the fact that she comes off as a bit narcotized is actually in keeping with her character’s situation. Still, it’s a bit odd that Dee, who had not all that long before been a fairly major star, agreed to take a part in a film in which she really ends up being more of a prop than a character.
And pondering that image of Sandra Dee, lying prone and half-conscious while being the subject of all kinds of uninvited groping, I might be inspired to reconsider my previous statement about what might constitute The Dunwich Horror‘s true source of horror for modern audiences. After all, isn’t the thought of being groped by a leering, permed and mustachioed Dean Stockwell really the definition of horror at its most profound and unnamable? More courageous souls than I have doubtless been prompted to tear off and eat their own faces at the mere thought. In fact, if that’s the only way to purge that image from one’s mind, I recommend that we all do that right now.
See you on the other side of madness!
Release Year: 1970 | Country: United States | Starring: Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Sam Jaffe, Joanne Moore Jordan, Donna Baccala, Talia Shire, Michael Fox, Jason Wingreen, Barboura Morris, Beach Dickerson, Michael Haynes, Toby Russ, Jack Pierce | Writers: Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, Ronald Silkosky | Director: Daniel Haller | Cinematographer: Richard C. Glouner | Music: Les Baxter | Producers: Roger Corman, Jack Bohrer
In 1960, AIP’s go-to director for cheap, quickly produced science fiction and horror double bills convinced the powers that be to gamble on letting him make a stand-alone film, in color, with double the production time and more money. Granted that, compared to other studios, this still meant an incredibly lean budget and an incredibly short production schedule. The result was Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, a landmark film in the history of American horror and one of the best Gothic horror films from any country. Although more sedate and slower paced, finally the United States had an answer to the wild, Technicolor horror films from England’s Hammer Studio.
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
By 1965, the year this film was released, American International Pictures had enjoyed considerable success mining the works of Edgar Allan Poe for a series of films starring Vincent Price (and Ray Milland, once) and directed by Roger Corman. The streak began with Corman’s low-budget but lavish looking adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher and continued with The Premature Burial, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Raven, Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia. These films represented something new and relatively risky for AIP, then a studio that specialized in making cheap, fast black and white double features. Corman, inspired by the work that was happening at England’s Hammer Studio, convinced AIP to let him shoot in color, a single film, with a bigger budget (though still tiny) and longer shooting schedule (though still incredibly fast). The resulting film, The Fall of the House of Usher, did big time box office for AIP, is considered one of the all-time great horror films, and convinced AIP of a couple things. First, that color films with more money put into them were a worthwhile investment, especially when someone as good as Corman at turning out expensive looking results for pennies was on board. Second, that they should tack Edgar Allan Poe’s name onto everything and plumb his works mercilessly.
Although all the films in the first AIP Poe cycle were good, and most of them were great, several of them had very little to do with the Poe poem or short story from which they took their name. The Raven, for example, uses the Poe poem for its opening scene, with Price being plagued by a mysterious raven. But as soon as the raven starts wisecracking in Peter Lorre’s voice, you can guess that the Poe material is out the window. The Pit and the Pendulum takes the Poe source material and extends it with a number of subplots original to the screenplay or snatched piecemeal from other sources. And in the case of The Haunted Palace — one of the very best films in the Poe cycle — it wasn’t based on Poe at all. It was actually based on The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft. But AIP felt that audiences wouldn’t know who the hell Lovecraft was. Distributors agreed. And so, despite Corman’s protests, it became an Edgar Allan Poe movie.
Dubious connections to the source material not withstanding, all of the films were very good (well, I’m not that fond of Tales of Terror, but that’s because I don’t care for anthology films), thanks to the line-up they enjoyed: Corman as director, Price (and Milland once) as star, and Richard Matheson as the screenwriter (most of the time). Matheson was to AIP horror what Jimmy Sangster was to Hammer horror: consistently wonderful. In 1965, AIP decided to stretch Poe’s connection even further, tapping one of his short tales called The City in the Sea as a source for War Gods of the Deep. But other than having Price read some of the story for the opening credits, War Gods of the Deep has very little to do with Poe. AIP would take a similar approach during it’s second round of Poe horror films, with The Witchfinder General being retitled Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm — a title justified by having Price read some of the original poem before the film launched off into a plot that has pretty much nothing to do with the poem or Poe. In that case, however, the movie was good.
In the case of War Gods of the Deep, the results were…not as impressive. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Although Roger Corman wasn’t directing, AIp assigned Jacques Tourneur to the film. Tourneur is perhaps best known as the director of such films as Night of the Demon and the Val Lewton produced films Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. All of them are considered classics, and deservedly so. On top of that, he directed one of the all time great noir films, 1947′s Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum. And then there was the classic Burt Lancaster swashbuckler epic The Flame and the Arrow. By the 1960s, however, Tourneur’s best years were perhaps behind him, and he found himself working in television and at AIP, first as director of the Poe-esque Comedy of Terrors which features one of my all-time favorite idiotically hilarious scenes (when awful opera singing causes Vincent Price’s undertaker top hat to pop off wit a “boop!” sound effect), and then as director on War Gods of the Deep.
And while the film isn’t written by Richard Matheson (most famous for being the author who penned I Am Legend, the book that inspired everything from Night of the Living Dead to Last Man on Earth to The Asylum’s I Am Omega), AIP did get Charles Bennett, who was no slouch in the screenwriting department. Among his sundry credits are the very first filmed version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the black and white version made as part of the Climax! television series, where James Bond goes by Jimmy and was played by Barry Nelson. Bennett also wrote plenty of classic scripts, including work for Hitchcock (Sabotage, Secret Agent, and Foreign Correspondent), the adventure classic King Solomon’s Mines, and Tourneur’s own Night of the Demon.
He was also frequently tapped by producer Irwin Allen both for movie (The Lost World, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and television (Land of the Giants, the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series) scripts. Of course, there are a few turkeys in his resume, including the epic misfires The Story of Mankind (Irwin Allen’s attempt to tell in sweeping epic fashion the complete history of mankind, from caveman times to the present and starring pretty much every B lister and has-been ever, from the past their prime Marx Brothers to Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Heddy Lamar, and of course, Vincent Price as Ol’ Mr. Scratch) and Cecil B. DeMille’s sweeping and often dull tale of piracy and romance on the 19th Century Georgia coast, Reap the Wild Wind. On the other hand, that’s the movie where Bennett was smart enough to write a scene where John Wayne battles a giant squid, so that counts for something. Still, that’s a basically solid resume, especially for this type of film.
Despite the presence of Vincent Price and the shaky Poe tie-in, War Gods of the Deep isn’t considered part of the Poe cycle, not so much because it wasn’t directed by Corman, but more because it plays out less like a gothic horror film and more like the Clif Notes version of a Jules Verne fantasy adventure film. Of course, Disney had already made pretty much the be-all and end-all Jules Verne fantasy adventure film in 1954 with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Anything else was going to pale in comparison to a film that had the benefit of Disney’s vast financial resources and Kirk Douglas shaking his bon-bon while singing sea chanties and wearing a jaunty little cap. But that never stopped AIP, or anyone else for that matter. And so, in 1965, Tourneur, Bennett, Price, and AIP took us under the ocean for what we all hoped would be a really cool adventure film.
And things start off well enough. Beautiful Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Pajama Party) is minding her own business in her castle by the coast bedroom when, all of a sudden, she is attacked and kidnapped by a hideous gillman who looks like that dude who helped Lando fly the Millennium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. Perturbed by the kidnapping of his beloved by this uppity haddock, square-jawed hero Ben Harris (reliable Tab Hunter) and his nebbish, ferret-faced sidekick Harold Tufnell-Jones (Disney live-action film regular David Tomilson) follow in leisurely pursuit. And for some reason, Tufnell-Jones (presumably an ancestor of legendary heavy metal guitarist Nigel Tufnell) insists on bring along his trusty pet: a chicken in a basket. Why exactly, this guy goes everywhere with a chicken is a mystery. Why he is a bachelor, of course, is not. Tufnell-Jones and his chicken are there to provide frequent comic relief. Guess how many times you will laugh at their shenanigans!
Ben and the chicken lover soon find themselves in a maze of sub-aquatic (but never the less dry) caves inhabited by a population of long-lived men ruled over by the mad Captain Hugh (Vincent Price). It seems that Price and his men were once smugglers and, while fleeing from the authorities, stumbled upon this network of sub-aquatic caves leading to the remnants of a city constructed by a highly advanced civilization. By the time Price arrived, however, the society was centuries into decline, the secrets of their technology being lost and the former inhabitants being reduced to nothing more than animalistic gillmen. Price and company made themselves at home amid the decaying remains of the city under the sea, and something about the air down there and the lack of exposure to UV light has resulted in them living for hundreds of years.
Price commands the gillmen, for they consider him their god for one reason or another (no problem — I sort of consider him a god as well) and he had them kidnap Jill for the usual reason: she is the exact spitting image of the captain’s long dead true love. When our heroes arrive to rescue her, they promptly get captured but stave off execution by pretending to be geologists who can help Price out with the big problem: the volcano. Everyone spends some time stalking around the cave-palace, which like pretty much every undersea kingdom in the history of movies about undersea kingdoms, is threatened by a nearby underwater volcano that is going to erupt any moment now. Eventually, Ben, Jill, and their comic relief load are forced to don unwieldy Victorian-style scuba gear (which, for some reason, demands gigantic helmets into which you can fit a man’s head and his accompanying chicken) and flee for their lives with Hugh and his murderous followers in hot pursuit.
And by hot pursuit, I mean…well, let me explain this in detail. You see, everyone is underwater. When you are in water, you swim. It’s really the best way to get around. That’s why all fish do it. That’s why pretty much everyone does it except for those sprinters who practice by trying to run underwater. That established, we then move on to the fact that watching people swim in movies is usually boring. The pitfalls of scuba scenes in cinema are well documented. So how could you take a scene — scuba diving underwater — that could be really boring even if properly done, and ensure that it’s even more boring than you could possibly imagine? Well, instead of swimming, the people could be walking underwater. Yes, indeed. War Gods of the Deep is one of the only movies that thought what people really wanted to see was a foot chase on the floor of the ocean, with people flopping about awkwardly and moving incredibly slowly. But that’s not really enough, you also have to make the scene go on for like ten minutes, and pad it out with dialog-free close-ups of Tufnell-Jones and his chicken looking around.
Now keep in mind that I have a pretty big tolerance for underwater scenes, owing largely to my fascination with what Cousteau referred to as “the silent world” and my love of diving. So trust me when I tell you that this underwater foot chase scene is one of the most horribly boring scenes I’ve ever seen. They try to spice things up by having guys shoot crossbows from time to time, but since no one ever actually gets hit, that never pays off. And every now and then, some of the gillmen swim up and mess around with Ben and the crew, presumably confused by the fact that these humans are walking underwater instead of swimming (thus the ability of the gillmen to swim circles around them). Despite the fact tat the gillmen can swim, breathe underwater, and aren’t weighed down by cumbersome iron helmets, they aren’t very effective at attacking our slowly fleeing heroes. You can pretty much defeat them by swatting at them in that slow-motion way that occurs when you are underwater. It’s a tremendous relief when everyone resurfaces inside some weird temple. The volcano explodes, a giant hand falls on Vincent Price, and a singularly terrifying moment occurs when the heroes put their scuba gear back on. Dear God, no! Please! No more scenes of people awkwardly walking around underwater! This time, however, we’re in luck, because the good guys crawl out of the water and the movie ends.
I’m not sure what went wrong. Good director, good screenwriter, a good cast. I mean, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure, but he’s fine in this role, even though a lot of people pick on his performance. He’s a one-note character, but so is everyone else. And Hunter proves adept at singing the note “stiff straight man.” Susan Hart is vapid and has nothing to do, but she does that nothing well. There’s no chemistry at all between her and Hunter, and once again, as I did with Arabian Adventure, I can’t help but think that this movie would have been greatly improved if our lovers were played by Doug McClure and Caroline Munro. But Hunter and hart are acceptable. Heck, even comic relief guy is unfunny but relatively inoffensive and easy to ignore. To some degree, the blame for this misfire falls on the producer, Louis Heyward, who insisted on monkeying with the script endlessly and much to Tourneur’s annoyance. But AIP sided with Heyward in the conflict, and his changes remained despite the protests of Tourneur, Vincent Price (who had great respect for Tourneur and very little respect for Heyward), and original screenwriter Bennett. But that can only go so far in explaining things — the nail in the coffin of an already flawed work, as it were.
And you know, if I’m replacing cast members, we might as well get rid of David Tomlinson and replace him with Terry-Thomas.
Maybe the whole thing played out better on paper, and no realized how boring it was going to be when actually committed to film. Actually, let me alter that. This movie really isn’t terrible up until the underwater foot chase. It’s no classic of fantasy adventure cinema, but it’s harmless enough. But the underwater footage deep sixes the rest of the movie, which just isn’t buoyant enough to stay afloat with the dead albatross of the underwater foot chase around it’s neck. Is that enough seafarin’ allusions for ya? Then let’s stop beating that dead seahorse and move on to some of the film’s other problems. First and foremost is, and I never thought I’d say this, Vincent Price’s performance. We’ve seen Price play it cool and reserved before to great effect, but the decision for him to play mad Cap’n Hugh with Fall of the Hous eof Usher style reserve was, in my opinion, a tremendous mistake. This movie could have survived its dreadful underwater chase scene if Price had been hamming it up and playing Hugh as crazy and nutty as the script alludes to him being.
Instead, Price’s Hugh comes off as dull. The script is too thin to lend the character a sense of gravity, so there’s no real emotional reaction to him. He’s a villain you hate, or love to hate, or relish, or grow to sympathize with. He merely exists on film for a duration of time, and then a big stone hand falls on him. I mean, this is a mad sea captain living in an undersea city that looks like a crumbling Victorian castle and commanding an army of mutant gillmen while giving speeches about the end of the world. Why on earth would anyone think to play that character with quiet reserve? Vincent Price is, as I think I’ve written before, one of my favorite actors. Quite possibly, he’s my most favorite actor. He never gives less than 100%, and he doesn’t give less than 100% here. But the character is so boring, and Price plays it so straight, that War Gods of the Deep becomes perhaps the only film in which Price is upstaged by a irritating guy with a chicken in a basket.
Speaking of the chicken — what the hell was that about? It’s not like the chicken ever does anything wacky, or like it jumps out and pecks Price on the foot or something. It is simply carried around for the entire movie, having no point at all. Even within the realm of unfunny comic relief, surely no one thinks the mere presence of a chicken is hilarious. A monkey, sure. But a chicken? I don’t get it. This was apparently one of Louis Heyward’s most important contributions t the script, and it’s obvious why everyone else involved with the film thought the guy was a jack-ass. It’s just another way to pad out a really threadbare script. It seems like Bennett got a great concept but quickly wrote himself into a corner, possibly because of budgetary constraints — but I’m not going to buy that considering how many exciting and imaginative films were done with as little or even less money.
Not being able to come up with anything for anyone to do, the movie falls back on repetitive dialog scenes in which Vincent Price explains to us that the glowing,pulsating volcano is a threat (because we wouldn’t have figured it out after the first warning) or in which Tab Hunter and the guy with the chicken ask other people if they remember how to get to the surface. The sudden presence of a beautiful woman who is to be the sole property of the captain amid an undersea kingdom populated entirely by men lends itself to potential conflict, but that’s never bothered with. Or the use of the dim-witted gillmen as thugs and sacrificial lambs who perhaps begin to resent the captain’s manipulation of them? But no, it never goes in that direction either. Like the characters in the movie, it just sort of half-heartedly wanders around the same caverns over and over, until the volcano finally erupts.
Still, as dull as this film turns out to be, there are some redeeming qualities. Well, there’s one. The sets are really nice. And the gillmen are kind of cool looking, even if they end up having very little to do. Tourneur — accustomed to working in black and white and employing shadows to great effect — turns out to be equally adept at manipulating th candy colored Technicolor hues. Although War Gods of the Deep isn’t a good film to watch, it’s a great film to look at. Tourneur’s direction coupled with cinematography by Stephen Dade is gorgeous to behold. And as with the sets, War Gods of the Deep has excellent costumes and the look of a much more expensive production than it actually was.
But that’s precious little to go on, especially when you could be spending your time with far superior aquatic adventures, like the aforementioned Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the Japanese film Atragon (from which this film steals some scenes, incidentally). This is also a sad film to end up being the last in Tourneur’s career. If only a giant squid had attacked the city or something, but no. That would have been something interesting, and this film is committed to making sure nothing interesting happens. It’s all, as I said, a tremendous disappointment given the talented cast and crew assembled. But it’s one misstep after another, making War Gods of the Deep the extremely rare crappy fantasy film I actually can’t recommend. Well, maybe watch it once…but just once.
Release Year: 1965 | Country: United States and England | Starring: Vincent Price, David Tomlinson, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, John Le Mesurier, Harry Oscar, Derek Newark, Roy Patrick | Writer: Charles Bennett, Louis Heyward | Director: Jacques Tourneur | Cinematographer: Stephen Dade | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: George Willoughby | Alternate Titles: City Under the Sea
So far, our examination of old fashioned vampires in modern day settings has covered Dracula, in the Hammer Studios films Dracula AD 1972 and Satanic Rites of Dracula, and some guy named Count Sinistre, from the previously obscure British horror film Devils of Darkness. But this trend of placing traditional vampires in a modern (well, 1970s) setting actually started in America, with a low-key film called Count Yorga, Vampire.
After the runaway success of Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, Corman was growing dissatisfied with his AIP contract. He had proven to be a profitable director, and now he was a critically acclaimed director as well. His two films had more or less single-handedly lifted the reputation of AIP out of the realm of the drive-in circuit and established them as a genuine studio that made genuine movies with genuine class. Corman’s two Poe films also lifted the flagging reputation of horror, which since its heyday at Universal during the 1930s had sunk lower and lower until it was basically considered schlock, then almost replaced entirely by science-fiction and Communist paranoia films. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had gone a long way to revitalizing the horror genre, but Corman’s Poe films undoubtedly contributed a great deal to solidifying the resuscitation, at broad but especially in the United States where theater owners were proud to see that yep, we could make ‘em just as good here as they could over there.
So while Corman was basically getting along with AIP head honchos Sam Arkoff and John Nicholson, he thought that maybe in light of his more or less revolutionizing the way he, the studio, and horror films were regarded in America, he might be entitled to a better contract. AIP politely disagreed with him, and so Corman took himself and his idea for the third Poe film elsewhere. Because Vincent Price was under contract to AIP, he couldn’t cast Price in the lead role, and so he set about looking for a new actor to fulfill the spotlight in his production of The Premature Burial. Corman eventually came up with Ray Milland. Milland was blissfully ignorant of the fact that one day in the future AIP was going to graft his head to Rosie Grier, and so he agreed to take on the Poe-perfect role of a man obsessed with the belief that he will be buried alive, as was his cataleptic father. Because Richard Matheson was also under contract to AIP, Corman turned to screenwriters Charles Beaumont (7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). The essence of the films, however, came with Corman. Like the previous two films, The Premature Burial would come steeped in the signature atmosphere of the Poe films: billowing fog tumbling across eerie landscapes, tormented souls, a psychedelically-tinted nightmare sequence, creepy old houses, brooding characters, and as is obvious from the title, a thing or two about being buried alive.
The day Corman was to begin principal photography, he was pleased to see Arkoff (or maybe Nicholson, or maybe both of them) show up on the set to wish him good luck despite the differences they’d had over Corman’s new contract. Differences, hell! It turned out that AIP had just purchased the studio for which Roger Corman was making the picture, so it was going to be an AIP film after all. Granted it was too late to recast the lead, but Milland was still thought of as an Academy Award winning actor, and not as “the white guy from The Thing with Two Heads,” so his casting in the lead was something to crow about, even if the part, like all other leads in the Poe films, was tailor-made for Vincent Price.
Milland plays Guy Carrell, an upstanding and intelligent member of the gentry who has a small quirk in the form of a near crippling fear of being buried alive. Now no one wants to be buried alive, except maybe show-off escape artists and people competing for fifty bucks and a burger on the latest reality show, but Guy’s fear of being entombed while still among the living goes way beyond the usual healthy fear of having dirt piled on top of you. So obsessed is he with the concept that it threatens to ruin his newly minted marriage to Emily Gault, who is played by Hammer Studios veteran Hazel Court (The Curse of Frankenstein, and she would appear later in two more Corman AIP Poe films, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death) — and if you know Hazel Court, then you don’t want to derail anything involving her in your bedchamber. Guy shuns his wife and friends in favor of building the most elaborate tomb ever devised.
I’m not exactly certain what Guy’s occupation is, but it must have something to do with being an architectural, engineering, and mechanical genius, because the failsafe tomb he constructs for himself is a marvel. If I set out to build my own premature-burial-proof tomb, it would probably end up looking like a couple of pieces of plywood nailed together with a hole cut in the back so I can crawl out if I should happen to find myself mistaken for a corpse. Buy Guy’s tomb is utterly lavish. In fact, it’s seems even nicer than his home. It comes stocked complete with a break-away coffin so that should one wake up and find oneself in such a pine box, one need only tap the side to have the whole thing spring open or fall to pieces. A variety of levers sound various alarms to let everyone know he’s been mistakenly buried, just in case the half dozen or so escape hatches don’t open. And should that happen and he has to wait for someone to her the bells, he can while away the hours reclining in plush overstuffed chairs, drinking brandy, and flipping through the tomb’s selection of reading material. And should these ten thousand redundant escape plans all fail, he’s also stocked the tomb with poison, so that when he’s finished all his sausages and books, he can just kill himself rather than be bored. I’ve seen fewer failsafe devices on the nation’s nuclear arsenal! Not that I’ve seen the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but I can’t imagine it’s as well thought-out as Guy’s crypt.
You’d think that would be the end of it, but various things keep happening to keep Guy preoccupied with being buried alive. Additionally, his wife and the local quack think that if he’s ever going to make any progress in combating his phobia, he needs to, among other things, ditch the tomb. You’d think that since the tomb has brought him an unparalleled peace of mind, they’d just let it be. I mean, it is a nice crypt, after all, so why not keep it around? Even if he isn’t buried alive, it’ll be a swell place to just be buried regular and dead. This being a Corman Poe picture, it’s no great leap to figure out that someone is plotting to use Guy’s fear of premature burial to drive him mad and thus achieve some small sort of financial or property gain that hardly merits such a lavishly complex and psychologically difficult scheme. Some people would just whack him on the head with a candelabra and blame it on Colonel Mustard, but these people always have to construct intricate “drive them mad” intrigues that are as complicated as Guy’s crypt.
Like the previous two Poe films, The Premature Burial has a tendency to get bogged down beneath the weight of its own exposition-heavy plot. Unlike the previous two films, however, it doesn’t have Vincent Price on hand to liven up the material. Milland gives it the ol’ college try, but he seems lost with this type of material despite his commitment to delivering a solid performance. Where as Price would have had no problem taking the script and making it work for him, Milland’s portrayal comes across as excessively whiny at times and dreadfully dull at others. Still, at least Milland put effort into the role and manages a few strong scenes, which is more than could be said for the shameful display put on by Jason Robards when, some years later, he too found himself filling in for Vincent Price in a Poe film, that one being Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.
If nothing else, The Premature Burial proves that it wasn’t just fan bias toward Vincent Price that kept Milland and the movie from earning a more cherished spot. Price was more than a fan favorite: he was an integral ingredient in making the films successful. Without him, it wasn’t just that “things just aren’t same.” His absence from the Poe films very nearly causes them to cease being Poe films. Exactly why Price is so indispensable to Corman’s Poe pictures is a little difficult to explain, but if you see them, well then you just understand. Part of it, naturally, has to do with the fact that Price was a marvel at turning a bad script into a good movie, and while the script for The Premature Burial isn’t bad per se, it is perhaps something much worse: dull.
Corman pours on the atmosphere – there is more fog here than in the previous two films combined, and believe me those films had a lot of fog in them – but Ray Milland simply doesn’t have Price’s knack for making you want to listen to him talk even during the slow spells. He never manages to invest the character with any sort of spark, and as such no real sympathy for him or his story ever develops in the viewer. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance, and Milland has nothing to be ashamed of (unlike you, Jason Robards!), but, well — just watch the end, when Guy emerges from his inevitable getting buried alive scene and has thus gone completely bonkers and launches into a gleefully mad bout of revenge. Milland is OK, but you just can’t help thinking how great the whole scene would have been if Price was given a chance to do it.
The rest of the cast performs with the usual competency one has come to expect by this point from both AIP and Hammer films, though some of the characters seem to be involved in subplots that never really go anywhere or get fully explained (why was Guy out there helping steal a corpse in the beginning of the film anyway?). Besides Hazel Court, who gets more of a chance to act here than she did in Curse of Frankenstein (and has one of the best scenes in the movie, during which she explains to Guy that he’s already dead, and his obsession with being buried alive has, in a way, already buried him alive), familiar faces like Alan Napier (Alfred the butler from the old Batman television series) and Dick Miller (The Terror, Truck Turner, Gremlins, and about ten million other movies) are on hand to round out the cast with their solid character acting. Unfortunately, the script tends to let the performers down, and almost all the characters are either undeveloped, underdeveloped, or just plain unlikable.
Without Price around to liven things up, the weakness screams at you like one of those screaming skulls. You know the ones. The ones that scream. I don’t know enough to know how closely the movie clings to the original 1844 story, but by all accounts, it sticks to the source material pretty tightly. Poe himself was possessed of a very similar fear of being buried alive, which is why it figures so frequently into his stories and thus so frequently into the Poe movies. Still, after seeing a buried alive plot in both of the previous films, one can’t help but hope for something a little different the third time out. Instead, we get the “total package” buried alive movie, one in which interment of the living isn’t just a part of the plot, but the entire plot. And speaking of plots, did I miss the part where they tell us exactly why shadowy characters are attempting to drive poor Guy insane? Plus, you’d think that after the guy has gone on and on about catalepsy for the whole movie, when he actually does lapse into a cataleptic state, they’d do more than just shrug and go, “Well, looks like he’s dead. Let’s get to burying’”
The lack of freshness combined with some gaping lack of explanations keep The Premature Burial situated firmly around or maybe, if I’m feeling good, slightly above the mediocre mark. Plus, it’s just not scary. Even with the gnarled old trees and fog, there are never any chills, and certainly nothing on par with the rampaging sister Usher in House of Usher or any number of scenes in Pit and the Pendulum. As such, Premature Burial remained for a long time the ignored entry into Corman’s cycle, more or less skipped over as people hastened to get from Pit and the Pendulum on to Tales of Terror, Masque of the Red Death and The Raven, when everything was back as it should be and Vincent Price was once again stalking across the screen in period costumes. Premature Burial feels like a misfire – not a dreadful misfire, or an entirely unwatchable one, but a misfire never the less. The pieces — Corman, Poe, Price, Matheson, and musical composer Les Baxter — clicked so perfectly in the first two films that it becomes obvious something is amiss in The Premature Burial. The film does have its moments — chief among them Milland’s exquisitely enthusiastic tour of his “buried alive-proof tomb” — but the whole thing never fully gels. It was obvious that there just shouldn’t be any tinkering with the formula, so AIP made sure everything was back in place for the fourth film, the anthology Tales of Terror.
Release Year: 1962 | Country: United States | Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney, Heather Angel, Alan Napier, John Dierkes, Dick Miller | Writer: Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell | Director: Roger Corman | Cinematographer: Floyd Crosby | Music: Ronald Stein and Les Baxter | Producer: Roger Corman