Spy Games – International espionage in… Nashville?!

One of the strangest spy spoofs to emerge from the sixties has got to be HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. This oddball musical comedy arrived in drive-ins in 1967 accompanied by the tagline, “If you’re a chicken come with plenty of feathers and a 0-0-0h-7 get-away car!” HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE is part espionage farce, part sitcom style comedy and a full-blown musical featuring performances from the movie’s three stars (Joi Lansing, Ferlin Husky and Don Bowman) along with appearances by popular country & western performers such as Merle Haggard, Molly Bee and Sonny James.

Today it might be hard for modern audiences to understand how a movie like this ever got made but in James Bond’s heyday country & western music was gaining a growing audience thanks to increased radio play and popular programs like THE PORTER WAGONER SHOW. At the same time rural television comedies including THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, PETTICOAT JUNCTION and GOMER PYLE competed with spy themed shows such as I SPY, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, THE PRISONER, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and GET SMART for ratings. B-movie producing brothers Bernard, Larry and David Woolner were eager to cash-in on this strange hodgepodge of pop culture trends and they must have thought they had a surefire moneymaker on their hands with HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. To seal the deal they gave their movie some extra drive-in appeal by setting the story in a haunted mansion and hiring three horror film legends (John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Basil Rathbone) to co-star.

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Tom Chantrell – Illustrator of Nightmares

Throughout Hammer studio’s long reign as Britain’s most infamous purveyor of horror films, Tom Chantrell became their unrecognized ambassador of goodwill. Chantrell was a talented artist who created some of world’s most memorable movie posters but his main body of work was done in association with the “studio that dripped blood.” Chantrell’s use of bright colors and bold type along with his use of dramatic framing and action oriented poses helped define the look of Hammer films. His true gift was his ability to breathe life into a movie before audiences had a chance to see it on screen. Frightening monsters and busty beauties became his forté and during the 1960s and 1970s Chantrell’s name was synonymous with nightmares.

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Summer Reading

Above: Actress Merle Oberon enjoying a book while lounging around the pool

I do a lot of reading all year long but during the summer months I tend to set aside some extra time to catch up with the books that have accumulated on my shelves. This is partially due to a habit I developed as a child. While other kids were outside playing and enjoying the bright sunshine I could often be found in my bedroom pouring over a good book. Even when my family would go on vacation I would always stick a book in my suitcase or duffel bag. For better or worse, many of my fondest childhood memories involve books that I read during the sweltering summer months while on camping trips and during long plane flights to visit grandparents. This summer I’ve started habitually reading some interesting non-fiction film related books so I thought I’d share some recent discoveries.

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The Children Are Watching

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The term ‘auteur’ is rarely associated with Jack Clayton. When critics and film scholars refer to the British director by name they usually describe him as being a “talented craftsman” or “skilled technician.” Credit for the extraordinary look and feel of Clayton’s best work is too often attributed to the skilled cinematographers (Freddie Francis, Oswald Morris, Douglas Slocombe, etc.) or screenwriters (Truman Copote, Harold Pinter, Francis Ford Coppola, etc.) that he teamed-up with but the director’s own vision is paramount. Andrew Sarris famously said that, “The only Clayton constant is impersonality.” But with only a handful of films in Clayton’s oeuvre I find it easy to link them together through their literary ambitions, parallel themes and stylistic directing choices. And of course there’s the remarkable performances he was able to extract from his actors. Clayton was particularly adept at directing women. Under his watchful eye renowned talents like Simone Signoret, Deborah Kerr, Anne Bancroft, Mia Farrow and Maggie Smith gifted us with some of their most memorable roles.

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Three Cases of Murder and One Uncredited Director

I love a good horror anthology so you can imagine how thrilled I was when I recently sat down to watch THREE CASES OF MURDER (1955) for the first time. This unusual British film seems to have gone relatively unnoticed by numerous horror film historians and if it does warrant a mention it’s usually dismissed without much afterthought. But with a cast that includes Orson Welles and a segment directed by one of Britain’s first female directors (Wendy Toye), THREE CASES OF MURDER stands out as a wonderful example of early British horror cinema that rivals the highly acclaimed anthology DEAD OF NIGHT (1945).

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Hammer’s Enduring Legacy: An Interview with Marcus Hearn

Last week I included Marcus Hearn’s latest book, The Hammer Vault: Treasures From the Archive of Hammer Films, in my two part list of Favorite Film Related Books of 2011. This week I got the opportunity to ask the author a few questions about his new book as well as discuss Hammer’s enduring legacy. The studio best known for its gothic horror films has continued to gain new fans and produce new movies including THE WOMAN IN BLACK, which is scheduled to be released in February of 2012.

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Do You Want to See Something REALLY Scary?

During the month of October I’m often asked to recommend my favorite horror films. But recommending scary movies can be a tricky business. What frightens me might make you merely shrug your shoulders and laugh out loud. And if you’re a serious horror fan there’s a high probability that you’ve seen a lot of well-regarded classic films such as THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), PSYCHO (1960) and Val Lewton’s various movies as well as Halloween standards like THE SHINING (1980), CARRIE (1976), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and HALLOWEEN (1978) so recommending movies can become rather redundant. Instead of simply suggesting some of my favorite horror films for you to watch I thought I’d share some of my favorite scary moments from films that have left a deep impression on me over the years. So pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable while I share something REALLY scary.

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“The Voices of Terror – Twisting Two Minds!”

On the surface, Kevin Billington’s VOICES (1973) is an unusual supernatural thriller involving ghosts and a haunted house but if you take the time to look beyond its spooky exterior you might be surprised by what you find there. This fascinating horror film has a rich history that first took shape in 1953.

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The House That Screamed… “Murder!”

Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s horrific thriller THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969) is often cited as one of Spain’s most important and influential horror films but its audience is typically restricted to genre fanatics. The highly sexualized content and graphic murders depicted in the film limit its appeal. But the commercial success of THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED during the late ‘60s helped pave the way for the post-Franco Spanish horror boom of the early ‘70s and its influence can be seen in the work of directors like Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA; 1976) and Massimo Dallamano (WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?; 1972).

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Hey You, Horror Actor, Know Your Place!

When one thinks of Spencer Tracy, Ray Milland or Jennifer Jones, the horror/supernatural genre rarely springs to mind and yet, each one of them was in a celebrated film in just that genre.  Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Ray Milland in The Uninvited and Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie.  Each one is a favorite of mine with The Uninvited being what I would consider the greatest ghost story ever put on film.

By contrast, when one thinks of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre or Hazel Court, the horror/supernatural genre instantly springs to mind even though all of them did plenty of non-horror work (well, Court not so much) before taking on the mantle of horror actors, especially Vincent Price.    Other actors, notably Jack Nicholson, did the reverse, starting out doing plenty of horror before graduating to bigger, higher profile, prestige movies in the seventies.

Finally, some actors, like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, had only a handful of movies not associated with the genre (The Lost Patrol or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, for example, for Karloff and Ninotchka for Lugosi) and seemed to inhabit horror to such a degree that their very names alone signify the horror genre to generations.

So after breaking down all of that, the question remains:  Is there a such thing as a horror actor?

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