Horror film director Larry Fessenden lets us in on a few little secrets to keeping moviegoers on the edge of their seats. H/T National Geographic
Today’s Trillion Dollar Movie is the 1933 horror thriller The Secret of the Blue Room. If you like stories about haunted houses full of secret passageways and plagued by longstanding curses, give this one a try. The picture is a staple of that genre, first released by Universal Pictures and remade at least twice by that same studio as The Missing Guest and The Murder in the Blue Room.
The premise: Three different suitors are all in hot pursuit of Irene Von Helldorf, a rich, eligible debutante played by Gloria Stuart (seen some 50 years later as the old Rose in Titanic.) There’s a decorated soldier (Paul Lucas), a veteran reporter (Onslow Stevens) and a brash young man who isn’t as accomplished as the other two men, but is the most cocky in pushing his cause as Stuart’s best potential soulmate. To prove his mettle and courage, and also to show up his rivals, he issues a boastful challenge, that the three of them each spend a night in the ill-fated “Blue Room” on the Von Helldorf estate. It’s been locked up for 20 years for a reason — the last few people to stay there all died mysteriously.
I won’t give away the plot twists but the mysteries, the bodies and red herrings all begin to pile up. Some of this Gothic gimmickry has become so conventional, you can see where it’s headed long before it gets there. But considering its age, this isn’t as creaky as you might think. The cast is exceptional, including two of the most memorable characters actors from the 1930s, the urbane horror film fixture Lionel Atwill as Stuart’s wealthy father and the acerbic Edward Arnold as a police investigator poking around into eerie happenings in the Blue Room.
Enjoy and do return again next Friday for another Trillion $ Movie.
Italy in the 1960s produced two enduring classics of Gothic horror cinema — both starring Barbara Steele. One of those pictures, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, is today’s Trillion Dollar Movie. It’s got style and atmosphere to spare, over and above a controversial theme and the always-appealing presence of Steele.
In his book Cult Movies, Danny Peary described Steele as “The most fascinating actress ever to appear in horror films with regularity…Her beauty is mysterious and unique: her large eyes, high cheekbones, jet-black hair, thick bottom lip, and somewhat knobbly chin don’t seem synchronized, and as a result her face can be looked on as being either evil…or sweet.” Usually, she was cast as an evil figure, frequently a witch, as in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, the 1960 masterpiece that launched her career as an icon in Italian horror. The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, made two years later, reveals her sweet side, although in a most macabre and sinister story, with echoes of Ann Radcliffe and Edgar Allan Poe, touching upon the morbid and taboo subject of necrophilia.
Steele plays Cynthia, the second wife of Dr. Bernard Hichcock, a highly respected surgeon with truly perverse personal habits. His first wife dies satisfying his kinky whims. As part of their bedtime rituals, he injects her with an anesthetic that causes her heartbeat to drop, simulating death, before proceeding to make love with her limpid “corpse.” One night, he administers an overdose, and she doesn’t appear to regain consciousness.
A similar fate awaits Cynthia once Dr. Hichcock marries her many years later, spiriting her away to his same mansion that was the site of his original transgression. She does harbor premonitions of doom. Not only does the ancient housekeeper give her the chills, but she hears shrieks in the night, sees an apparition on the premises and pictures her new husband as an ogre. Is she neurotic and losing her mind? Or should she run for cover as soon as possible, perhaps enlisting the help of the doctor’s young, dashing assistant?
Much of what’s here is stock-in-trade for haunted house movies, but director Riccardo Freda (using the pseudonym Robert Hampton) kicks the visuals into hyperdrive, caressing each ornate fixture with his camera in a way that transforms the house into a delirious embodiment of the not-so-good doctor’s psycho-sexual fantasies. He’s called “Hichcock” for a reason — references abound to the thrillers of Albert Hitchcock, especially Rebecca, but also Suspicion. The performances by Robert Flemyng as Hichcock and Steele are powerfully expressive, even though some diehard Steele fans pooh-pooh her in this outing, because she does more screaming and batting her haunted eyes rather than flashing them in a menacing fashion.
One fun note of trivia: Harriet Medin, who plays the maid, moonlighted on the side as the English-language dialect coach for Italian starlet Gina Lollobrigida. Do enjoy, and return next Friday for another Trillion $ Movie.
Today’s Trillion Dollar Movie, Phantom of the Opera, is the signature film of Lon Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Both of his parents were deaf and mute, so Chaney developed uncanny, non-verbal communication skills, rivaling comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as the silent era’s most expressive pantomime. Making the most of his mastery of makeup, Chaney gravitated toward horror. He personally created the hideous, skeletal look of the Phantom he portrays here. The original came out in 1925, but this trimmed-down 1929 restoration is less clunky, with fewer distracting sideplots.
Owing to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, and scores of remakes and parodies, most everyone knows the story. A physically deformed, emotionally stunted beast dwells in the catacombs below the Parisian Opera House. The arrival of a radiant understudy named Christine (Mary Philbin) brings the Phantom out from the shadows. He dotes obsessively on her, and is determined to make her a star. But he also wants her as a lover — a prospect that repulses her no end, leading to great melodrama and tragedy.
Although newer versions have boasted more gore and special effects, the Chaney classic remains the definitive screen adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s Gothic tale. It’s not just his macabre performance that towers above all others, but also the spectacular sets — the eight-ton chandelier, subterranean torture chambers and hidden lairs — that still command our attention.
The feature racked up $2 million at the box office, such a boffo hit that its studio, Universal Pictures, became Hollywood’s horror specialists. Truly, without Phantom of the Opera, we might not have Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man or The Invisible Man. Enjoy, and do return again next Friday for another Trillion $ Movie.
Today’s Trillion Dollar Movie isn’t a movie, per se, but an extended teleplay — arguably the creepiest and most memorable episode from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour series that ran from 1962 to 1965. The series encompassed 93 episodes, each introduced by the master of suspense, employing his inimitable dry wit, and each boasting a surprise final twist to shock and entertain viewers.
The Jar, a Southern Gothic-flavored tale, introduces Charlie Hill, who becomes the toast of Wilder’s Hollow in the Louisiana swamp country after he shells out $12.25 to buy a freak sideshow relic from a carnival barker. The relic, a mysterious jar, contains a deformed, pulpy creature floating in formaldehyde. Charlie has never gotten much respect in Wilder’s Hollow — least of all from his slutty, two-timing wife Thedy Sue — but his acquisition gives him new status. The townsfolk gather nightly in Charlie’s parlor to gaze at the jar. Everyone takes something different away from the experience, coming to project their long-held fears and traumas.
What makes The Jar so eerie? It holds a powerful, primeval appeal, growing out of “The Thing” in the jar. Ray Bradbury wrote the original 1944 short story upon which the teleplay was based, and he described the creature as “one of those pale things drifting in alcohol plasma…with its peeled, dead eyes staring out at you and never seeing you.” Bradbury later wrote many more carnival-themed horror stories, collecting this one in his anthologies The October Country and The Dark Carnival, before going on to complete his masterful carnival opus Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Besides its strong narrative arc, the episode also benefits from an exceptional cast, mostly veteran TV performers who got a chance here to show much more dramatic range than we associate with them. Pat Buttram, Mr. Haney on Green Acres, plays Charlie and George Lindsey, Goober on Mayberry RFD, appears as the dumb-bunny Juke. Other players include Slim Pickens, Jane Darwell and Joceyln Brando, Marlon’s sister.
Norman Lloyd, who directed, was one of the original members of the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles and John Houseman. Lloyd originally came Hollywood at Hitchock’s invitation to handle a small role in Saboteur and remained a lifelong associate, advancing to executive producer for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He obviously had a taste for the macabre, as besides Hitchcock, he counted Christopher Lee as a close friend.
Unfortunately, YouTube doesn’t host The Jar intact, so you’ll have to watch it in four short segments. When the picture freezes at the end of each segment, that’s the signal to move on to the next chapter. Hope you enjoy, and do return next Friday for another Trillion ($) Movie.