Posted by Richard Harland Smith on November 8, 2013
We all have our blind spots and this is especially true in pop culture, where the decision to interact with one piece, one work, one movie over another is often driven by the most superficial, vogue-related thinking. I know self-professed horror aficionados who have seen every slasher movie ever printed to celluloid but are spotty at best at anything pre-1950, even Universal classics. I know people who make horror movies who haven’t seen the essential Hammer titles. But I’m not here to cast aspersions (or spells). Life is short and you can’t see everything, though you can certainly die trying. This past week some of us on Facebook were passing around that Time Out poll on “100 Best Horror Films” (the pitch: “The average human can only take seeing 13 of these 100 horrific films. How many ghoulish movies have you seen?”) I was down for a respectable 94/100 but even some of my missed opportunities (erm… Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS. Nope, never seen it.) would be considered shameful by the elite of the horrorati. I mention all of this to say that I have added yet another brick to the wall of my cultural aesthetic this week, and one which wound up adding color and contour to my ongoing horror mosaic… I speak, you will be fascinated to know, of TICKLE ME (1965)… the closest we will ever get to an Elvis-in-a-haunted-house movie.
TICKLE ME is not one of Elvis’ better-remembered (or better-regarded) vehicles. If anyone recalls it at all, it is usually on the strength or weakness of that horrible title, which places it in our collective memory in the dubious company of HARUM SCARUM (1966) and CLAMBAKE (1967), or movies that get sniggered at primarily because of their titles. Being a casual Elvis fan (albeit more of his music than his movies), I’d certainly heard the title in the past but I never wanted to know any more than that. I was assigned this week to write a little about the film for Turner Classic Movies and five minutes of research made me want very badly to see it. On the far side of that desire, I’m here to tell you that TICKLE ME certainly delivers the goods, Elvis-wise. Skip the selection of scenes on YouTube and try to see the film on DVD, where it’s widescreen aspect ratio is preserved and its insanely vivid color cinematography is freakishly rich. (It doesn’t hurt that E. Presley looks throughout like a damned god.) It’s no wonder people flocked to see this back in 1965 – the combination of widescreen cinematography, full color, beautiful women, and the King of Rock and Roll was certainly worth the price of admission. Elvis made the film on the heels of ROUSTABOUT (1964) at Paramount and GIRL HAPPY (1964) at MGM and the occasion marked a one-off partnership with the failing/flailing independent Allied Artists (which had risen, Phoenix-like, out of the ashes of the old Poverty Row outfit Monogram Pictures in the mid-1950s). The deal was the brainstorm of Elvis’ handler and Dutch uncle, Colonel Tom Parker (real name: Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk), who brokered a deal with AA to get his client for one film, which would have the benefit of providing the studio with a potential box office bonanza while paying out to Presley a handsome fee. Elvis got $750,000 to star in TICKLE ME (more than half the film’s shooting budget) and a fifty percent share in the profits. The gamble paid off — the film was a huge hit and allowed Allied Artists to stave off receivership.
It’s at this point, nearly 600 words in, that the horror fan will be asking “What’s in this for me?” In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that 90% of TICKLE ME looks like this – Elvis assing around a desert fat farm with a bunch of slimming starlets (among them THE HYPNOTIC EYE‘s Merry Anders). Though produced by Allied Artists, the film was shot at Paramount, where AA set up temporary offices. So it’s got a comfortably canned look to it, strictly soundstage and backlot. But it’s fun. Julie Adams (from THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) plays Elvis’ boss, always trying to get him in the sack while he’s chasing fitness trainer Jocelyn Lane (THE GAMMA PEOPLE). At some point it comes up that Lane’s character, Pam Merritt, is in possession of a map pointing towards a purported fortune in gold, cached somewhere in a nearby ghost town. TICKLE ME takes an unexpected turn for the sinister as one masked man after another attempts to abscond with her.
No, it’s not an especially creepy moment but the use of the mask (even though it’s a cowpoke’s bandanna) evokes the Old Dark House thrillers of the silent and early sound era, such as THE BAT (1926), THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), THE BAT WHISPERS (1930), and THE CAT CREEPS (1930), while the vivid chromatics certainly bring to mind Mario Bava’s related BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), which also was set in an environment heavy with alluring women and concerned a certain something which the villains wanted very badly, bad enough to winnow the supporting cast down to almost nothing. Obviously, TICKLE ME is considerably lighter in tone. The kidnap attempt fails and the film decamps for its final act to that ghost town where the gold is supposedly hidden. Elvis’ itinerant bronco buster/guitar man Lonnie Beale and his sidekick Stanley (Jack Mullaney, who played Igor to Vincent Price’s mad scientist that same year in DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE, whose sequel, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS, was directed by Mario Bava — but I digress) follow Pam to the ghost town and the three settle in for, you guessed it, a dark and stormy night.
It’s at this point that you start to have fun imagining Elvis playing the Nick Adams role in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965) or any number of full-on horror movies of this vintage? And why not? People would have gone to see them and how cool would it have been to pit the King of Rock and Roll against Boris Karloff, the King of Horror? (I’ll answer that for you: very cool.) But anyway. Lonnie and Pam bed down for the night (in separate rooms, of course) and all kinds of crazy Old Dark House stuff begins to happen, such as empty rocking chairs rocking themselves and sinister shadows appearing in ajar doors. Rain lashes at the window and lightning splits the sky.
It’s not a fit night out for man nor beast, but it’s not much better inside either. Troubled in her bed, Pam is heir to a time-honored Hollywood tradition of rudely awoken lady sleepers, whose company also includes Laura La Plante, Helen Twelvetrees, and Paulette Goddard (to name but a few). Meanwhile down the hall, Stanley is having a rough time of it…
It’s worth mentioning at this juncture that TICKLE ME was written by Edward Bernds and Ellwood Ullman. Both of these guys had resumes that stretched all the way back to the early talkies – in fact, Bernds’ boyhood fascination with ham radio ultimately won him work in the studios as a sound editor. Both Bernds and Ullman had past history with the Three Stooges and both had been involved in haunted house movies. Ullmann had cowritten the Olsen and Johnson vehicle GHOST CHASERS (1944) and penned the comedy shorts GHOST BUSTER (1952) and ONE SPOOKY NIGHT (1956) for RKO and Columbia, respectively. Ullman and Bernds collaborated on the script for THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS (1954), with Bernds directing. By 1965, the team was well-equipped to do a haunted house comedy (Bernds would have preferred directing this, too, but he was outvoted by Elvis and Colonel Parker, who preferred their go-to guy, Norman Taurog) and TICKLE ME has all of that French farce style merry mix-up running around and opening and closing doors, combined with some classic Gothic face-at-the-window, clutching hand tropes of your haunted house-style comedy. I know what you’re thinking – everything but Francis the Talking Mule, right?
How cool would it have been if this mule had said, in Chill Will’s voice, “You’re all doooomed!”?
There is what I take to be a veiled PSYCHO (1960) reference in the bit where Lonnie and Stanley find a strange figure sitting in a rocking chair in a closet…
I can’t imagine what else would have inspired this, though of course my mind jumps ahead to the big reveal at the end of BURNT OFFERINGS (1976). Whatever the point, I would have found, as a kid, this bit incredibly creepy because the specter in the closet actually does nothing but look out… and then Elvis closes the door and they move on. It has such an unnerving negative capability that it stays with you longer than if the figure had actually jumped out and said “Boo!”
There’s something decidedly low tech about the spooks in this alleged haunted house. They wear obvious masks…
… which doesn’t entirely ameliorate their effectiveness — that is, if you’re a proper horror lifer and you have a proper open state of mind about these things. You can sit there in your loge seat and call out “Fake!” and have a bellylaugh but I think if we’re honest with ourselves we can admit that we would be properly spooked to come across someone where we expected to come across no one, even if they were wearing a patent dimestore monster mask. And isn’t this what contemporary horror movies like THE STRANGERS (2008) and “YOU’RE NEXT” (2011) are telling us, that there are no real monsters, that horror and terror are the product of real human beings, albeit ones who are able to override their humanity and plumb that which is atavistic and feral — if only for a weekend? That true horror isn’t the descent into the maelstrom but the banality of evil? Actually, those movies weren’t saying anything that, say, William Castle’s THE TINGLER didn’t broach fifty years earlier. And how about that corking opening scene of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)? Masks are creepy, you don’t need me to tell you that.
By now you may well be asking: “What are you trying to tell us?” I only offer all of the above in the spirit of fun and out of a shared affection for horror, to whose, like me, are willing to step out of our comfort zones to see what fun stuff is out there, waiting for us to find it.
All this and a cameo by Allison ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN Hayes. She and Elvis died only six months apart back in 1977. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Criterion Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns