Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Chapter Twelve: "The House of Horrors Became the House of Horrors: Fright Fest 2011, Part I - 'Murders in the Zoo'/'House of Horrors.'"

That’s a confusing title, but I’m rolling with it.

It’s cliché as everything that can be cliché in the world, but I rarely watch horror films during any other part of the year other than October. Halloween is my favorite holiday – the only holiday, really. As soon as the wind turns wind-breaker cool and the nights become slightly longer giving into a penchant for red wine and stews, I immediately think about Halloween. I think as a child, my Mom and Pa reveled in my addiction to Christmas, but somewhere along the line my soul left me, heeding a call from the Pagans, and here I sit, a Halloween fan long in the tooth. As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the “holidays” can take a leap, including you, Christmas. (Well, except for cheesy Xmas-time music, which I do enjoy far more than a sane person should, but that’s a story for another day).

My anchoring of horror movies to October has nothing to do with disrespecting the genre, or not admiring it. Some of my favorite films are horror. However, at some point in my life I definitely left the genre behind. The fact is, I have become somewhat picky about horror films. Much like Blues Music, I have certain parameters that need to be met for me to really enjoy a horror film. And much like Blues Music, the older and creepier, the better for me. I think my softening on horror films began somewhere in my teen years, and I know one aspect of the genre that empowered my lack of interest was that I rarely got scared by them. Once my mind wrapped around the fact that Satan was not actually waiting for me in my bedroom, the thrill was gone, my courage upped, and well…horror films got boring.

It’s actually strange to me that, of all the films I love, I did not consider horror a genre I cared much for; my Mother seemed to obsess over them as I was growing up. No matter the time of year, when we made a trip to the video store, my Mother seemed to lean toward a scary VHS above all else. Due to my Mother’s exquisite abilities at Avon sales, she was awarded an early VCR near the dawn of the 1980s. Besides “9 to 5,” the first films I remember her recording off of a new channel called HBO were “Ghost Story” and “Poltergeist.” And, well, when I finally snuck and watched them with my Brother, those films scared Hell out of me and probably damaged me a bit.

And then there was “The Exorcist.” I don’t remember the first time I watched it, but like most kids my age who viewed this monstrosity on tape, I stayed awake for approximately 30 days protecting myself from possession. Raised Catholic, the threat of Satan was a real thing to me, and it ate into me far more than it should have. I have real issues to this day with that film, which I consider the only horror movie that really needs to exist. It remains the pinnacle of fear in my life, having branded a creepy feeling that we are not safe sitting in our living rooms, drinking quarts of butter with small amounts of popcorn to help us digest it.

We watched other horrors together as a family: the early “Nightmare on ElmStreets” and “Friday the 13ths”. But nothing ever got me like Linda Blair’s gutter voice, or the priest hurling himself out the window.

And that might be where I parted with the horror genre. Horror seemed to become this genre that was about action and laughs; I could not take slasher films seriously, and most other possession films seemed to simply rip-off “The Exorcist” in their attempts to corner and take control of my soul.

Thus, my version of the overdone Fright Fest idea. Realizing how much I had ignored the genre, I vowed with a contract in blood and a Black Mass some ten years ago to catch up, re-study, immerse, and well, just plain give horror films their fair chance. Every year I cram as many as I can into the 31 days of my favorite month. And it has made me understand, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, some gruesome and amazing things I have missed. From the beginnings of the genre back in the 1890s, to nostalgic meanderings in the 1970s and 1980s, to the newest material being cranked out.

So, as much of an introduction as that can be, I’ll try and review/consider/discuss/promote some of the films I bring myself to watch this October in the Year of the Golden Rabbit, 2011.

I begin with two from the Turner Classic Movies collection, “Universal Cult Horror Collection.”

I began October 1st with an early wintry wind and a friend sitting at a pond in Cave Hill Cemetery dodging attacks by murderous vampire ducks and swans. 

It seemed an apt start to the Halloween season. I ended the day at 1 AM with “Murders in the Zoo,” a movie that nearly swims near the surface I’d call HACK. But, it does have Lionel Atwill in it, so it can’t be discounted.

“Murders in the Zoo” is the oldest film in the collection, being released in 1933, the same year as “King Kong” and a year after “Freaks.” Horror had proven it could be a big seller two years earlier with the releases of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” so, much like today, studios were cranking out scary flicks left and right to capture that market.

Atwill was a common face in the horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. His most famous movies include “Mystery of the Wax Museum” and “Son of Frankenstein.” “Murders in the Zoo” features Atwill playing creepy millionaire zoologist/hunter Eric Gorman, who is as delusional as any mad scientist. Gorman’s madness gurgles from his complete obsession with his young wife Evelyn, played Kathleen Burke. Burke was a dental assistant-turned-actor known for her appearance as the Panther Woman in “The Island of Lost Souls,” the first film adaptation of HG Wells’ novel, “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”

Originally made by Paramount Studios and later sold to Universal, “Murders in the Zoo” was a pre-Hays code film, allowing for the gruesome opening scene to exist, and to later be edited during television showings during the 1950s. The opening sequence depicts Gorman working furiously over what is presumed to be an animal he has caught, but within minutes it is revealed to be a lover of his wife. Gorman has left the man to roam the island with his mouth sewn shut, making for a nightmarish image to start the movie.

Atwill’s portrayal of Gorman is plain sadistic as a psycho-murder who hunts big game but is simply obsessed with not just his wife, but anyone who makes eyes at her at all. The pre-code elements shine (or murk) through here and there, especially one scene when the twisted Gorman shakes Evelyn violently, threatening to hurt her. She responds coolly, “Oh, NOW you’re going to make love to me.”

There is also a very violent scene in which the captured big cats all attack each other in what could only be a real fight. I assume some amazing training was employed, but the scene looks a bit too realistic to think some of the animals weren’t actually hurt.

The studio found the film to be too dark and decided it needed to be a horror-comedy, bringing in the bumbling town-drunk character of Peter Yates, a PR man hired by the zoo to help promote the arrival of the new animals being shipped in by Gorman. While I don’t normally care for horror-comedy, Charlie Ruggles’ performance as the fumbling Yates is pretty priceless. Throughout the film he misspeaks as a good alcoholic should, and is scared senseless at any mention of lions, tigers or bears. 
Still, “Murders in the Zoo” becomes more of a thriller-comedy than anything else. It was directed by Edward Sutherland, one of the original Keystone Cops for Mack Sennett. It did make me an Atwill fan by the end. Like many pre-code films, it only ran a quick hour and five minutes.

Atwill about to poison an unassuming victim...well, she's starting to assume.

Leading me to flick two: “House of Horrors,” half of the inspiration of my title for this series of entries.

“House of Horrors” was directed by Jean Yarbrough, and was released on April 10, 1946 (my birthday! I remember it well…). Among many horror movies, Yarbrough also directed one of my favorite Lugosi films, “The Devil Bat” (1940), as well as an early werewolf talkie, “She-Wolf of London” (1946). By the time it was released, the golden age of Universal horror-monster movies was coming to a close.   

I will say straight-away that I enjoyed “House of Horrors” more than “Murders at the Zoo.” It presents itself as a bit more of a classic creepy film. The plot centers on struggling sculptor Marcel DeLange (Martin Kosleck) who is plagued by poor reviews in the NYC art scene. As he nearly commits suicide, he finds a drowning man in the river and saves him. The man (Rondo Hatton) becomes his muse, despite his reputation as a deformed killer of prostitutes known as The Creeper. Eventually, Marcel begins to use the Creeper to kill his detracting art critics. On his case are art critic Joan Medford (Virginia Grey), artist Steven Morrow (Robert Lowery) and Detective Larry Brooks (Bill Goodwin).

To me, immediately, I was reminded of the 1959 flick "A Bucket of Blood."

Part of my allure, partially, was watching Marcel complain to his cat while eating bread and cheese about the criticisms leveled at him by his art critics. The mad artist who finds art criticism to be such cutthroat business that he finds a way to strike back. Hey, who among us struggling artists haven’t felt that, right? Kidding. Don’t Von Trier me.

I enjoyed the sarcastic-flirtatious exchanges between Grey and Lowery. Her critic is aggressive and quick, while he’s the macho cheesecake sketcher who for the most part, seems to always be at a canvas while a model (with an almost see-through shirt…not sure how that escapes the Hays/Breen Code that was in full-swing at the time) poses with a tennis racket in front of him. Grey and Lowery’s dialogue reminds me of some of the best fast-paced noir exchanges between dames and dicks I’ve ever heard. “I have much to live for,” She says, out late to catch some scoop. “And you’re my biggest much.” Nice.

The Hays Code, known as the Breen Office at the time, did step in several times during the making of the film to make sure the Creeper did not look at the females with any sexual desire.

This brings me to the Creeper. This movie has a wonderful Halloween atmosphere. It’s dark; it’s got fog; and it’s fucking got Rondo Hatton as the Creeper. The Creeper was poised by Universal to become the next full-blown monster star and revive the monster/horror genre. If Hatton had lived, I believe it would have worked. This is my first true film exposure to Hatton’s Creeper character, but his image is one that I have seen used over and over throughout the years, putting him nearly on-par with the other iconic Universal Monsters.

Hatton was diagnosed with a disease known as acromegaly, which produces excess growth hormones, sever disfigurement and early death. It’s believed he contracted it from poisonous gas while he fought in World War I. Basically, he wore no makeup in his portrayal of his thuggish typecasts. He was a reporter in Florida when he was “discovered” and cast in the film “Hell Harbor” (1930).  He played the role of the Creeper in the 1944 film “The Pearl of Death” and another 1946 Universal film, “The Brute Man,” as well as several other minor roles similar to the Creeper in various films. He died months before either “The Brute Man” or “House of Horrors” was released in 1946.

The character, and Hatton’s likeness, seems to have permeated horror films throughout the rest of history, as far as I’m concerned. Hats off to Hatton, who seems to me, to be as iconic as Karloff in the realm of horror films and popular culture.

One more moment: one of my favorite images in “House of Horrors” is when the Creeper is off on his way to kill a prostitute. While walking down a NYC street, he passes a shop that has a huge sign advertising “Desks to Rent.” My question: was that a common business in the 1940s? Renting desks? Sign me up. I’ll take one.   

Next: The origin of the "the house of horrors became the house of horrors" title! And more scariness!

Turner Movie Classics Vault Collection DVDs, “Universal Cult Horror Collection” (2009)

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