Mistress of Menace: Barbara Steele in The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

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There was a depth to her. On the surface she was a beautiful brunette woman. Beneath that–and you could almost get poetic here looking into her eyes–you could see layer, upon layer, upon layer. I could probably best, and inadequately, describe it as a kind of exotic mystery.” – Roger Corman on Barbara Steele

There are many reasons why you should turn into TCM tonight (8 PM EST/5 PM PST) to catch The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) hosted by Roger Corman. First and foremost, it was the second film in Corman’s laudable Edgar Allan ‘Poe Cycle’ and it remains one of the director’s most frightening achievements generating a palpable sense of dread within its opening minutes with help from Les Baxter’s bone-chilling score. It is also one of American International Picture’s best looking productions displaying some sumptuous 16th century inspired set design by Daniel Haller who, with a minuscule budget, transforms a Hollywood set into a medieval castle draped in blood red and cryptic black velvet accompanied by glimmers of antique gold. Richard Matheson’s script is surprisingly innovative adapting Poe’s suspenseful tale told by a single nameless protagonist into a full-blown gothic drama with multiple characters and elements of mystery, romance and supernatural horror. In addition, Vincent Price delivers one of his greatest performances here as the ill-fated Don Nicholas Medina, a deeply troubled character who alternates between profound melancholy and all-consuming madness. Last but certainly not least, it has the distinction of being the first American horror film featuring the beguiling Mistress of Menace, Barbara Steele.

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Spotlight on AIP with Roger Corman

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Roger Corman is coming to TCM!

Every Thursday night throughout the month of May TCM will be spotlighting American International Pictures (AIP) with a block of films hosted by director and producer Roger Corman. Corman learned his trade while working with AIP, which was established in 1954 by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson. The Los Angeles based company was committed to making low-budget, independently produced B-movies aimed at the burgeoning youth market that were typically released as double features and shown at drive-ins.

During its heyday, AIP became a training ground for many future filmmakers and actors including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Nicholas Roeg, James Cameron, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Paul Bartel, Stephanie Rothman, Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hooper, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda and Robert De Niro. The company was responsible for reviving the careers of older horror stars neglected by Hollywood such as Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre securing them a new generation of fans. AIP also established working relationships with international film distributors introducing American audiences to foreign films by Federico Fellini, Mario Bava and Ishirō Honda. And they played an important role in creating popular genres such as Blaxploitation, Biker movies and the Beach Party movies that helped make Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon household names.

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Race to the Border

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This Thursday, May 5th, celebrate your Cinco de Mayo with The Fast and the Furious. No, not the recent franchise-spawning movie of same name directed by Rob Cohen starring Michelle Rodriguez (who has her roots in Puerto Rico, not Mexico). I refer, instead, to the 50’s version involving a prison escapee and a fast-car loving woman as they both make a mad dash to Mexico. [...MORE]

New on Blu-ray: Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967)

trip1 In 1966, Roger Corman was enjoying the surprising success of The Wild Angels (1966), a trailblazing biker film that he directed and produced for American International Pictures. The studio had made the film for a mere $360,000 and it netted more than $10 million at the box office thanks to a burgeoning counterculture eager to see the world they knew depicted on screen.

The Wild Angels starred Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, children of Hollywood’s old guard, along with a cast that included genuine Hell’s Angels. The plot is based on actual stories the rowdy bikers relayed to Corman on set and the nihilistic nature of the film, as well as the extreme violence and sexual deviance depicted on screen, sparked global outrage among American diplomats as well as sanctimonious film critics.

Naturally, American International Pictures wanted to further their headline grabbing success and asked Corman to helm a second biker movie but the independent minded director had other ideas. His follow-up film was The Trip (1967), another groundbreaking depiction of bohemian youth culture but this time he explored the effects of experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. Like The Wild Angeles, The Trip caused a minor uproar when it was released. Executives at American International Pictures were so concerned that the film might encourage LSD use that they decided to make some edits, including the addition of a message in the opening minutes that warned of the potential dangers of taking drugs. Nearly 50-years later the movie was finally restored and thanks to Olive Films, Roger Corman’s original psychedelic vision is now available on Blu-ray.
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Conversations with Ray Harryhausen (1998)

It Came From Beneath the Sea

One of my earliest and fondest movie memories has me watching a black-and-white double-bill creature-feature. I was about six years of age, armed with a melting bowl of ice-cream as I watched Ray Harryhausen’s giant sea monster attack San Francisco from the comfort and safety of an elaborate pillow-fort. It Came From Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon, 1955) was followed by Attack of the Crab Monsters (Roger Corman, 1957). Did I notice that Harryhausen’s “octopus” only had six tentacles instead of eight, so as to save money on the budget? Or the wheels and legs under Corman’s giant crabs? No. In both cases I was equally thrilled and terrified by these nightmarish visions of giant and deadly sea creatures attacking puny humans. Also thrilling to me is the idea that 25 years later that kid would “grow up” (something I still have to put in quotes even now) and fly Ray Harryhausen out to Boulder as a special guest to introduce a beautiful, mint-condition 35mm print of It Came From Beneath the Sea, alongside separate presentations of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Nathan Juran, 1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963). TCM will be screening those titles, and many others bearing Harryhausen’s fingerprints, this Tuesday morning on through the afternoon. [...MORE]

A Forgotten Film to Remember: Eyes in the Night

eyesopenerTomorrow, January 27, TCM will celebrate Donna Reed’s 94th birthday by showing a selection of nine early films, including her first feature The Get-Away. My favorite film on the list is the crime thriller Eyes in the Night, which I have singled out as a Forgotten Film to Remember.

MGM signed Donna Belle Mullenger to a contract in 1941, just after she graduated from Los Angeles City College with a secretarial degree. During the production of The Get-Away, the studio fumbled around for a more marquee-friendly name. Donna Adams was trotted out for size until it was discovered that another actress was using the same name; someone suggested Donna Drake, but that was too close to big-band singer/actress Dona Drake. Even Donna Denison was considered, because the actress hailed from Denison, Iowa. Finally, MGM casting director Billy Grady came up with Donna Reed, a name the actress never really liked. When Eyes in the Night was released in October 1942, it was Reed’s eighth film appearance, more or less. (Two of her roles were uncredited and don’t always show up in filmographies.)

In many ways, Eyes in the Night is a typical b-movie from the Golden Age. Though b-movies are low budget and small scale, they tend to make good use of the skills and talents of the cast and crew, raising the level of the material. This stylish crime thriller is tautly directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon; From Here to Eternity; Julia) and benefits from a solid cast of rising stars (Reed), returning stars (Ann Harding), established character actors (Edward Arnold, Allen Jenkins, Reginald Denny), and a scene-stealing canine named Friday the Seeing Eye Dog.

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KING BROTHERS KRAZY

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I really wish I knew French. I say that because I’m in possession of the Blu-ray box set of Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950), which is basically a hard-cover book with over 200 pages of essays, beautiful stills, and lots of interesting ephemera relating to Lewis’ most famous work – and all the essays (even the intro by film critic, author, and programmer of the Festival of Film Noir, Eddie Muller) are in French. It’s enough to make me want to take a crash-course in the language, but for now I’ll have to focus on the ephemera. [...MORE]

I’m not finished with you, MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD… not by a long shot!

monsterchallengedI’ve been grooving to the soundtrack to Arnold Laven’s THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957) for about 24 hours now (there was some sleep jumbled up in there, but not a whole lot), which was released by Monstrous Movie Music back in 2011. (It should come as no surprise at this juncture that it takes me a while to get to around to new things.) Heinz Roemheld’s full-bodied cues (orchestrated by Herschel Burke Gilbert) for this mollusk-on-the-loose classic are reliably immortal, full of blood and thunder (and slime), and making pioneering use of backmasking ten years before The Beatles got all the girls for doing the same thing. There’s lots of choice misterioso in the mix and moody string work, some of which might remind the older Monsterkids among us of Roemheld’s score for THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956). Anyway, Monstrous Movie Music has done an incredible job of assembling all of Romheld’s cues and providing context for each of them, deconstructing the composition and execution to give the curious a fuller appreciation of the work that went into this project, which I first saw as an impressionable lad of, oh, 10 or 11 or 12, when it was shown at my local drive-in on a triple bill with THE VAMPIRE (1957) and THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1957)– all projected in green, so that they could be sold to us rubes as color movies. I love the track titles that disc producers David Schecter and Kathleen Mayne have provided for our enjoyment, such as “Death by Fright,” and “Mollusk Mood Music” and “Slime.” But one track in particular caught my eye: “Scarf Found.” And it got me to thinking. (Cue flashback music.) [...MORE]

Happy Birthday, Torchy Blane

glendaopenerToday, June 30, marks the birthday of one of Warner Bros.’s brassiest blondes, Glenda Farrell. Farrell was a working actress from the age of 7 until she died in 1971 at age 66. She began her career in the theater, playing Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she ended it there, starring as the lead in 40 Carats on Broadway. However, Farrell made her greatest contribution to popular culture during the 1930s, when she was one of several tough-talking blondes under contract to Warner Bros.

The studio that used Depression-era headlines as a source for scripts catered to a traumatized working class, specializing in tales of gangsters, kept women, working stiffs, and tough-talking dames—especially blondes. Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, and Glenda Farrell all played characters described as wise-cracking dames, with each star putting their own spin on this archetype. Farrell was perhaps the brassiest—a fast-talking, bleached blonde who could never be accused of naiveté.

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Hammer Noir: Terence Fisher’s STOLEN FACE (1952)

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Classic movie enthusiasts usually associate Britain’s Hammer Films with horror, fantasy and science fiction but the ‘studio that dripped blood’ also released a significant number of crime thrillers. TCM will be airing four of the studio’s earliest films on June 16th in a tribute to Hammer Noir. The four films scheduled to be shown were all directed by Terence Fisher who’s responsible for many of Hammer’s most celebrated productions and include MAN BAIT (1952), BLACK OUT (1954), THE UNHOLY FOUR (1954) and my personal favorite of the bunch, STOLEN FACE (1952). These short, bleak, black-and-white films showcase Fisher’s early attempts at generating atmosphere and maintaining suspense on a minuscule budget. Noir fans will undoubtedly enjoy the June 16th line-up but horror fans should tune in as well, particularly to catch STOLEN FACE starring Paul Henreid as a Dr. Frankenstein prototype who attempts to use his surgical abilities to transform an ex-con (Mary Mackenzie) into the woman he loves (Lizabeth Scott).

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