Thursday, May 29, 2014

Terror In The Haunted House – Filmed In Mind Altering 'Psycho-Rama'

By Steve D. Stones

This 1958 curio employed the gimmick of a process called “Psycho-Rama” to lure patrons into the theatre. This gimmick may have been influenced by the many gimmicks director William Castle employed his 50s and 60s films, such as “Percepto” and “Illusion-O.” 

The process involves subliminal images and messages flashed on the screen for less than a second at key points in the film. Images of skulls, snakes, ghosts and creepy heads were flashed on the screen. The process was later banned.  Rhino Video, who distributed the film on VHS in the 80s and 90s, inserted their own subliminal message in the film – Buy Rhino Movies!

Sheila Justin, played by Cathy O’Donnell, is a newly-wed who lives in Switzerland with her husband, a man approximately twenty years her senior. She visits a psychiatrist regularly to discuss the fears she has of an old house and ghosts that haunt her in her dreams. Her husband Phillip, played by Gerald Mohr, takes her to the United States to live in a big house in Florida. When the two arrive in Florida, Shelia has a mental breakdown, fearing the house is the one from her dreams. 

Sheila’s biggest fear is the thought of having to go upstairs in the attic to confront ghosts that haunt her, as they do in her recurring dreams. Whenever she confronts her fears, the “Psycho-Rama” process of the film kicks in as quick images flash across the screen.

The couple attempt to leave the house, but discover that their car is missing an engine distributor. Sheila later finds the distributor cap in Phillip’s suitcase.

The owner of the home, Mark Snell, arrives to find out why the couple came to the house. Snell informs Sheila that Phillip is the last of the “mad Tierneys,” a family that lived in the home for many generations.  Sheila also discovers that she had been to the house before as a child, and that Phillip had carved their initials in a tree in the front yard because they were in love with each other. Snell insists that Sheila leave the house.

Snell turns out to be a cousin of Phillip. The two have an argument in the attic, and Snell is accidentally killed. Sheila and Phillip leave the house for good. Sheila has confronted the source of her nightmares for good after having gone to the attic.

Terror In The Haunted House was produced by Howco International, the same studio that brought movie goers other great 50s cult classics, such as Attack of The 50 Foot Woman and The Brain From Planet Arous. O’Donnell’s acting is a bit overly dramatic in places, but the film is fun entertainment. Happy viewing!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bio of ill-fated starlet Barbara Payton is a horrifying Hollywood tale

Review by Doug Gibson

"Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story," 2007, Bear Manor Media, by John O'Dowd, is a horrifying story. It's very tough to read, particularly if one knows the very public fate of the very beautiful early 1950s Warner Brothers starlet Payton, who rivaled Marilyn Monroe in beauty. The actress, who was once earning several thousand a week, was a mere 10 years later a street hooker in the shabby sections of Hollywood, perpetually intoxicated, frequently stoned, and dispensing blow jobs to derelicts for $5. Payton didn't live long; her heart and liver gave out at 39.

As mentioned, it's a horrifying tale; author O'Dowd has chronicled Payton's life in an interesting manner. He deserves credit for compiling a tremendous amount of information. Payton's remaining family members, an ex-husband, a former booze and sleeping partner, film executives, former lovers, people who only knew the ill-fated actress a few minutes, all are eager to share their memories. (This can be carried to a fault. Did we really have to hear from the scuzzy former low-low level employee of the old Hollywood Citizen-News newspaper who recalled paying Payton $5 for oral sex outside the newspaper office?)

Nevertheless, O'Dowd is fond of his subject, even as the disgusting details of Payton's unfortunate life are splayed on the pages. The author sees Payton's life as a morality tale, in which the subject is both perpetrator and victim of her own downfall. Barbara Redfield, born in Minnesota and later raised in Odessa, Texas, was blessed with tremendous beauty. Her life seemed to be moving toward success. She married John Payton, an World War II pilot and a war hero. The attractive couple moved to Los Angeles County, and had a baby.

Not long after, Barbara, who had began modeling, left her husband, taking the baby with her. She began a successful quest in films, earning roles in western shorts and bit parts in larger studios. She was a contract actress. She also began what would be a long series of affairs with stars. Her first major lover was Bob Hope, who set her up in an apartment with an allowance.

Eventually, Payton's beauty and acting talent led to a major role with James Cagney in the film "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye." That led to the Warner Brothers deal and wealth for the 20-something Payton. That should have meant a long, prosperous acting career. Instead, it was the peak of Payton's career. While she would become far better known over the next several years, it was bad publicity, that gradually destroyed her career. Warner Brothers loaned her out for minor films, including the cult film, Bride of the Gorilla.

As described in her biography, Payton liked to party, and she liked to hook up. She might have survived the occasional bad publicity if she had not met Tom Neal, a low-budget acting "hunk" with a bad temper. Payton initiated an affair with Neal when she was engaged to actor Franchet Tone. One day Neal savagely beat Tone, who was hospitalized. Despite the aggression, Payton continued her affair with Neal, even after she married Tone. After the divorce, Payton and Neal tried to be a team, making a few films and doing plays, but they eventually broke up. (Neal would eventually go to prison for the manslaughter death of his later wife.) (The much-older Tone would spend the rest of his life not thinking about Payton. He would die 17 months after Payton.)

That was it for Payton's career. She stayed beautiful for the rest of the 50s, living a bohemian life, marrying a much younger man and living in poverty in Mexico. In LA, she was Vampira's neighbor in a roach-infested apartment complex. She may have plied a trade as a high-priced hooker in Chicago. She lost custody of her young son, John Lee Payton, and only saw him once more.

In the late 1950s, Payton, slimmed down, made a final attempt to get back in pictures. It was a failure. The only star who tried to help her was Raymond Burr, whom she had helped get a role in "Bride of the Gorilla." Burr wanted her to guest on his TV show "Perry Mason," but the producers said no. At that point, Barbara Payton slipped out of respectable society and drowned in the filth of the streets.

Except for a pathetic, exploitative, mostly fictional "autobiography" "I Am Not Ashamed," published in 1963, and the recollections of bit movies actor John Rayborn, who lived with Payton in the mid-1960s, there's not much insight into what caused Payton to choose a life of degradation. She had family in southern California, her parents and her brother's family as well. She would make occasional stops at her parents' home in San Diego but return to the streets, where she could earn money for booze by prostituting.

Her body finally gave out, and she was discovered early one morning -- next to a drug store/market -- unconscious. After several weeks in a hospital, she was sent to her parents' home. Not long afterwards, she died there in May 1967.

Payton likely suffered mental illness, exacerbated by her alcoholism and periodic drug abuse. Much of her intellect -- she had been an intelligent woman, a talented actress, and a superb cook -- was likely destroyed by her addictions. O'Dowd theorizes that Payton hated herself and believed that her fall was appropriate, that she had lived a wicked life.

The seeds of Payton's problems may have began early. Her family was dysfunctional. Both her parents, Lee and Mabel Redfield, were severe alcoholics. Barbara suffered from a lack of warmth from her father, who acted as if she disgusted him. Some wonder if Barbara was abused by her father. There's strong evidence that Barbara was statutorily raped by a middle-aged man in her teens. She also eloped as a teenager with a friend. It was quickly annulled. It's possible that these crises engendered deep self-loathing in the actress.

If Payton had been born a generation or two later, she might have received help. Instead, the gossip magazines, forerunner of cheap reality shows, exploited her. The top gossip columnists, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and others, savaged Payton with glee, often ignoring the male celebrities she coupled with. The 1960s was not a great time for celebrities' redemption.

O'Dowd's biography is superb, even if I criticize him for throwing in even the kitchen sinks of the sordid details. According to the Bear Manor Media website (here) it will become a movie. If it has a capable director and a strong star, it could be Oscar material. The story is that compelling, and tragic.

What happened to Payton happens all the time to hundreds of thousands of others every decade. But her story is unique. She was a Hollywood star, and she was so very beautiful. Find one of her films of the early 1950s and you'll see. Cult film fans might enjoy Bride of the Gorilla. The hell this beauty descended into was far worse than a quick overdose death or even a violent end. Those would have been merciful compared to the last several years of her life.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Edgar Ulmer's 'Detour' remains a fascinating film

By Doug Gibson

I watched Edgar Ulmer's 1945 Producers Releasing Corporation film Detour. I've seen it often but it never fails to provide a punch-in-the-gut tribute to great film noir. What director Edgar Ulmer was able to capture on a shoestring budget with PRC is better than 99 percent of the major studios' efforts. Detour, by the way, would be a great double feature with Gun Crazy.

The casting of the two leads helps make the film so successful. Tom Neal, as Al Roberts, luckless pianist whose life is destroyed crossing the country to hook up with his girlfriend, is a good-lucking luckless anti-Humphrey Bogart. His fatality, fear and hesitance makes him, for most of the film, an easy foil to abuse for Vera, played by Ann Savage -- what an appropriate name!. Savage's performance is even more critical to the film than Neal's. She is pure hostility and real anger. Observing her, one can imagine Vera as being able to chew barbed wire to a cud and spit it out as masticated metal.

Yet there is a vulnerability to Vera. Observe the scene where she oh so subtly tries to seduce Neal's Al. It's a subtle moment of vulnerability from an ice woman. When Neal, in whiny fashion, appropriately rejects her overture, anger results so quickly that the initial hurt is barely observed.

The ending of Detour will always be debated. Did Al turn himself into the cop he abruptly meets? Did the cop arrest him, or is the cop just approaching what looks like a beaten down drunk? Or is the whole saga of Al's Detour a fantasy of a deeply disturbed man?

I am reading a biography of Barbara Payton, and it's sad that both Neal, and Payton, ruined their lives through violence and substance abuse. Neal eventually went to prison for manslaughter, long after he had split with the volatile Payton and died not long after he was released. A sad end to a once-promising actor whose dysfunctions and mercurial temperament badly damaged his career.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mark of the Vampire -- Bela turns out not to be a vampire!

By Doug Gibson

MGM's 1935 thriller, Mark of the Vampire, directed by Tod Browning, is such a marvelous film for 50 minutes that you just want to scream at what Browning did to cheat viewers in the final 9 minutes. Yeah, I know it's a sort of remake of the 1927 London After Midnight, (now lost) and Browning stubbornly refused to mess with that plot. But nevertheless, it was a big mistake to turn this supernatural fantasy into a murder mystery. There's a reason Mark of the Vampire is not discussed in the same revered tones today as Dracula, Frankenstein, or even White Zombie ... it's because that cheat of an ending.

First, the plot: Sir Karell Borotyn, master of an estate in central Europe, is found dead, bloodless, one night in his reclusive castle. The villagers are sure it's the work of a vampire, but Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) scoffs at such a theory. And inquest declares the death from causes unknown. A planned wedding between the Sir Karrell's daughter, Irena, and a young man named Fedor Vicente, has been postponed. Baron Otto Von Zinden (Jean Hersholt) is handling the late man's estate.

Move forward nearly a year. The murder is unsolved. The castle is decaying, full of vermin and insects. Suddenly, two vampires are seen by villagers and other. They are described as the undead bodies of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter, Luna (Carroll Borland). Fedor and Irina are both attacked, presumably by the vampires. The villages are in an uproar. The skeptical Inspector Neumann is joined by eccentric Professor Zelen, played by Lionel Barrymore in an outstanding performance of a very chewy, Van Helsing-like role. Zelen supports the vampire theory. Through further investigation, it is revealed that a personage who resembles the dead Borotyn has been seen roaming the castle and heard playing the organ. A visit to his crypt reveals an empty coffin. Baron Otto Von Zinden is getting very nervous.

The gothic, horror atmosphere in this film is superb. Lugosi is at his best. His vampire performance, short though it is, rivals his Dracula performance. The beautiful Borland radiates screen presence as Luna. Inexplicably, she had a very small film career but her image became iconic because of this role. A scene where she swoops down, in batlike fashion, to the castle's floor, is one of the finest scenes I have seen. The ghostly, filthy decay of the castle is better than Browning's depictions in Dracula. As mentioned, Barrymore is great with his dedicated persistence as the "vampire seeker."

The final 10 minutes reveal the whole affair to be an elaborate practical joke to enable the actual killer, Baron Otto Von Zindon, to recreate the murder on the actor playing Sir Karell. That's bad enough, but Browning also turns Lugosi and Borland into actors and provides silly dialogue at the end. One reason the film maintains such effective mood and atmosphere for so long is because Browning only revealed the trick ending near the end of shooting. Legend has it that most of the cast was furious. In his biography, "The Immortal Count," Lugosi's biographer, Arthur Lennig, mentions Lugosi suggested that the real actors for Mora and Luna arrive at the very end, apologizing for arriving late. That sounds like a great idea that would have retained more fame for this otherwise excellent film, but Browning, and MGM, said no.

The short running time, 59 minutes, was trimmed from an original 75-minute film (the excess is lost). Some say that village humor scenes were cut, Others claim that a subplot, where it's mentioned that Mora committed incest with his daughter Luna, and later killed her and himself, was taken out.It is ironic that Lugosi's Mora has a clear bullet wound on the left side of his forehead/temple. As mentioned, Mark of the Vampire is a remake of Browning's London After Midnight, in which the faux monster is played, with truly horrifying makeup, by Lon Chaney Sr. A 45-minute version of that lost film has been gathered into a movie comprised entirely of still shots. It has played on TCM and turns out to be much better than it would seem to be.