Friday, February 29, 2008

Required reading!

Did you ever own a copy of the magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, which debuted 50 years ago this week?

If you did, then you MUST read the entry "You Asked For It!" at the VIDEO WATCHBLOG page that I've linked to below, or I'll never speak to you:

You Axed For It!

Some readers have rewarded me...

...I think!

In honor of this blog's anniversary, various friends sent me poetry and droll anecdotes. (Okay, one friend sent two limericks he made up, and another friend sent a "blog anniversary joke" about a pirate, evidently because I remind her of the infamous outlaws of the high seas.) I am gratified by this immense outpouring of affection-- serves as a fine excuse for me to drink early!

Here's the limericks from friend Packy Paul:

What the Severed Head says - worth repeating.
Twelve months to the day - happy reading!
But the drunkenness part
Gave a dubious start
To his speech at the last A.A. meeting!


One day ol' Max made a mistake
Fell asleep in a pan meant to bake
Later on they pretended
All along t'was intended
Max should EAT his way out of the cake!

(Paul-- wanting to see ME pop out of a cake-- instead of a stripper-- is a serious sign of mental maladjustment. Please get help soon.)

Now, as the big finish to this post, I present friend Linda's blog anniversary joke:

A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel attached to the front of his trousers. The bartender says to the pirate, "Hey, you have a steering wheel on the front of your trousers!" And the pirate says, "Arrr! It's drivin' me nuts!"

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thanks to these fiends

When I wrote yesterday's post, I was rather sleepy from all the celebrating I'd been doing, and stupidly forgot to say thanks to all the people who have assisted me with this blog, or contributed to it, or were especially encouraging. I am very grateful to this passel of positive people:
Richard Olson
Ted Newsom
Jane Considine
Jim Bertges
Linda Miller
Mark Redfield
Conor Timmis
Don Glut
Raymond Castile
John Cozzoli
John Rozum
Terry Ingram
Pierre Fournier
Michael Foley
Tim and Donna Lucas
T. J. Thorne

Everyone of them is a beautiful person inside (some even outside!) and I blow air kisses to all of them.

You're probably thinking, Is that all they're gonna get, you cheap bastard? No, no. I have something much more substantial to bestow on my benefactors. Every one them gets this:

It's "The Macabre Masque of Distinguished Service", a medal previously used to honor member service to the internet forum Universal Monster Army. Being a moderator there, I've got a ton of 'em layin' around-- I might as well use 'em. So in addition to my thanks and this medal, all the people above who aren't already in the UMA become honorary members! Congratulations!

These medals not only will look great on a lapel or pinned to one's face (that's how I like to wear mine when I pretend I've done something good for the UMA), they're also an inexpensive high! Being made in China from cheap plastic, the fumes are overpowering and cause mild euphoria and weak hallucinations. What fun!

Post script: Oops! I forgot that the FTC sent me a letter ordering me not to distribute these medals. Sorry about that! Well, enjoy the photo of the thing, my friends!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

This blog is ONE YEAR OLD!!

Yes, it doesn't seem possible, but this blog is ONE YEAR OLD TODAY!!! (Who knew that Blogger would allow this mess to continue so long?!!) Old enough to be moldy!

Of course my dear wife Jane (the Voodoo Queen) and I celebrated the occasion in high style. We went out to a local Polynesian bar and grill called The Stinky Tiki. The waitress below brought us a very large flaming cocktail called a Mystery. (I think it's called that because after you have one, you're clueless.)

Once we awoke and went back home, Jane and I kept toasting the occasion:

As Homer Simpson might say, "Mmmmmmmm. Alcohol."

But, knowing I had a post to make, I limited my drinks to a reasonable number-- any number below pi squared. (Too much drinking and I become an irrational number.)

In its first year, the blog is nominated for the prestigious Rondo Award! That is an honor I did not expect. I certainly don't expect to win, but I do hope to get more votes than Ralph Nader does in the November general election! (That shouldn't be too hard.)

To be reeeeeally honest, I'm happy and psyched to be nominated, but if I got enough votes to make "honorable mention" (which is, like, fourth place), I'd be sublimely ecstatic! (Hey, I gotta have enough votes to place, so I can drink at least 4 toasts after the announcement of the winners.)

Vote here by midnight March 8. Or write David Colton and change your vote. (You can until the deadline, hee hee!) And while you're at it, consider writing in Terry Ingram for "Monster Kid of the Year" and Ben Chapman for Monster Kid Hall of Fame.

LUMP IN MY THROAT DEPT.: In a year's time, this blog's had hits from the following countries--
Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cyprus, England, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Iran (a major surprise), Iraq, Ireland, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, the Phillipines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and Turkey.


I'm also happy to know that people like to goof off at work by visiting my blog. I've had hits from the offices of several blue-chip companies: businesses like Dow Chemical, General Electric, Federal Express, and others. Government workers, too-- many hits have come from various municipal and state governments (a shout out to whoever works in the state government of Nebraska who regularly checks this blog), as well as NASA, and the Office of the Securities and Exchange Commission! The Ivy League schools, too, have people dumb enough to read my junk: I've had several hits from both Harvard and Princeton.

Wowee wow!

Also impressive (to me, anyway) is the fact that the reading level of this blog went from junior high level to high school level, according to The Blog Readability Test. (It's a website where you plug in a URL and the site you submit is analyzed for the reading level necessary to comprehend the average post.) Incredibly-- I've caught up with the intelligent and famous site Video Watchdog (! (Gotta question TBRT's reliability if they put me on the same level as VW! Must be a fluke.) Especially as everyone knows my humor is, at best, junior high level-- and I'm proud of it!

Was very surprised that Tim Lucas' Rondo-nominated Video Watchblog wasn't rated at least at college level. But my friend Pierre over at Frankensteinia should be happy-- his site's gone from "College Post Graduate" to "Genius" level, according to TRBT. Congrats, Pierre! (Me like your blog! It goood!) Both Frankensteinia and Video Watchblog are nominated for Best Website or Blog, and I won't be surprised if either win; both are excellent.

Hey, even if me no write good, people come for the visuals. I've gotten hits by the hundreds (maybe higher-- this first year has seen over 13,000 hits) for the topless picture of model and Cindy Pucci that was featured in this post:

Don Glut, noble patron

The second most frequently seen post at this blog is this one showcasing the pictures of artist Linda Miller:

The art of Universal Monster Army's LINDA MILLER

Both posts feature impressive women! (I like my readers taste.) Perhaps I should get Linda to paint a 3-D Cindy Pucci portrait and REALLY drive up my hits!

Thank you to everyone who has ever looked at this blog. Gratitude-and-a-half to everyone who has ever posted here! Platinum gratitude to anyone who's ever linked here!

Monday, February 25, 2008

How Monsters and Golf Made My Valentine's Day

The Voodoo Queen and I have been suffering from bronchitis for a month (and I don't even have lungs-- amazing!) For Valentine's Day, tired of listening to ourselves hack (we sound like patients in a TB ward, or a casting call for Camille)-- we decided to get out of the house. So we doped ourselves up with cough syrup and lozenges and went to the local franchise of MONSTER MINI-GOLF, an indoor miniature golf site all done in blacklight. (I've previously mentioned this fairly new miniature golf chain in this post.) It was our first time there. We had fun playing a round of 18 holes and took lotsa pictures-- and thought I'd share them with you.

What? What was the score? Well--if you must know, Jane beat me by one stroke. (There's an obvious joke there, but fill in the gag yourself, or beat it!)

Okay, starting the photo tour (click on photos to enlarge):

We must have come at a bad time, as this employee (below) was obviously dead tired!

(Passing out putters and pencils puts a strain on you after several hours, I guess.)

We passed through the corridor and into the play area, where several teens and parents with little ones were already puttering away:

There was some fun, well-done monster art on the walls:

Jane quickly got into the spirit of things:

As did I...

One customer there asked me my handicap. I said, "I'm a severed head!"

I had told the owner that we would not be taking any pictures with a flash on. Well, accidentally, Jane became a flasher (thank goodness no impressionable children were around!):

Here's more of the decor without my mug showing:

The figures you see in the photos below MOVE!

The final hole is in a clown's mouth:

After playing, I went to the see the upstairs private party rooms. Here's pictures from the passageway to those rooms, and some of the rooms themselves:

While I was checking the fearsomely furnished party rooms, Jane went to play the various video and pinball games in the front area, such as the one below:

But the pinball games weren't her favorite. Here's a part of her description of our evening, from her Live Journal account:

"The best game was called Carn Evil. Basically, you shoot at zombies and circus freaks on the screen with a pump action shotgun, that uses a light for scoring. You have to keep track of your ammo rounds in your peripheral vision, and when they are low, pump the shotgun and shoot some more.

"I LOVED IT! While Max was doing other things, I kept running over and saying 'Okay, gonna go shoot some more zombies!' Which is appropriate, since we live in Pittsburgh.

"All in all, in was a very fun Valentine's outing."

(It was for me as well, but I would have had even more fun if I hadn't had to continually struggle to keep other customers from knocking day-glo golf balls into my mouth!)

While Jane continued to play games, I got to spend some time talking to Gary Lee (pictured below) who, along with his wife Sally Lee, owns the local Monster Mini-Golf franchise. (It's located in Monroeville, a Pittsburgh suburb). He was a very affable, easy-going sort. After a career in the automotive industry, he and Sally set up this franchise, and he's very happy with his new business. He told me he's been pleasantly surprised with both the success of the franchise and the fact that "I've never had to throw anyone out!" (Fortunately for Mr. Lee, I was a sober severed head that night, or he might have had to toss someone out for the first time!) Teenagers who might get rowdy don't, he said, because they are usually there in couples and on a date, and the business closes by 10:00 p.m..

While Jane and I were there, we saw teenagers and parents with smaller kids. On weekends, there's young DJs who have trivia contests and other activities, and the music is kicked up several notches ("No Top 40", I was told-- on the night we went Jane and I heard mostly '80s music.)

Mr. Lee also related that only three pieces of the three dimensional decor are the same at every Monster Mini-Golf franchise, (something different to see at each location) and that local artists are chosen to paint the walls with whatever theme the local franchise owner(s) choose. (They all do have black walls and blacklight lighting.) As cars were his past business, and because Pittsburgh has many bridges and tunnels, these three elements make up much of the Monroeville location decor. Mr. Lee seemed very pleased with the independence he and his wife have as franchise operators, and certainly the successful results show he and his wife have made good choices.

The Voodoo Queen and I recommend you get to a local franchise and play a round!


Times, directions, and phone number for the Monroeville location can be found here.

The national webpage for Monster Mini-Golf is located here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Goodbye to the Gillman...

Yesterday the sad news came that Ben Chapman died at age 79. He was the man who played the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the first film of the series.

The outpouring of grief over the internet has been amazing. People are saying that the news brought them to tears. Mr. Chapman frequently attended conventions and saw so many fans over the years that people felt they got to know him, and universally the opinion of Ben Chapman is a glowing one. I met Ben Chapman a couple of times at the Monster Bash convention here in Pittsburgh, and always found him cheerful, gracious and just a down-to-Earth guy.

He often would dine or have a drink with fans. Once at the Bash, when I saw him drinking alone, I invited him to join a group of us in the Universal Monster Army having drinks. This time, he politely declined, saying that he preferred to be near the entrance and watch people. And that is what he did-- and he seemed to be enjoying viewing the panoply of chattering people in front of him. (He may have been amused to see all the people who would glance his way, then turn back smiling to see "The Creature" in the bar with them, nodding in his direction.)

His appearance at the last Monster Bash was cut short by illness, and he was genuinely sorry that he had miss seeing his friends and fans.

I'm not sure that I've seen as much emotion for the death of a figure in horror film history since the death of Boris Karloff, who was also a beloved figure.

Chapman is being eulogized as a man generous with his time, friendly, funny, kind to kids, and always at ease with his fame for playing a monster. To see candid, funny photos of Chapman (including photos of his return to the Universal sets where "Creature" was shot) and read anecdotes and remembrances from his friends and fans, visit these message board threads:

Universal Monster Army

Classic Horror Film Board

An extended reminiscence of Chapman can be found at this blog:

The Global Collector

At Ben Chapman's website is this message: "We are going to put up a page of memories from his fans. If you have a memory you would like put on this site, e-mail: kenroar (at)"

Chapman was a resident of Hawaii. The online version of the paper "The Honolulu Advertiser" has an article on his passing:

Aloha, Ben.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A History of Evil

Three of the West's most famous monsters appear in this clever, droll short.

The classic monsters are undying metaphors!

Odd science and technology news

Robot baby dinosaur: fancy toy or "artificial life form" pet?

Newly discovered species of giant rat found!
(Would make a great pet!)

(Photo above from the Flickr account of James Calder. Bill Gates photo from the Flickr account of niallkennedy.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The horror that is CLANKY!

Here's a video that I find highly disturbing : ;^)

(If you can't see the embedded video above, go here.)

Thanks to Jimchig at CHFB.

Video Pick of the Voodoo Queen

Jane, while poking 'round the 'net, found this 2005 video by Vast called "Pretty When You Cry". For her, it's one of the creepiest short films she's ever seen-- she called it "the dreamstuff of a serial killer."

The video IS creepy, although I wasn't as struck by it as my wonderful witchy wife. I found it to be a mix of original and cliched images, but it certainly does have some memorably unsettling shots and scenes. The language and theme of the video are certainly not safe for work or for children.

As an ol' severed head, I like the final scene indeed. More work for us in the bodiless minority.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Great severed head toy!

Here's an action figure that really can be called a classic! It's a Marie Antoinette doll with an ejector head! (Click on the photo for a link to the site where you can order your own!):

A doll Wednesday Addams would love!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Maine invaded by a giant blob!

As reported at the ABC News WMTW tv website:

"A large, mysterious blob has taken over a major sewer line in the city of Lewiston, leaving public works crews stumped as to how to budge it."

More here.

MAD magazine founder's life to hit the screen!

And genre director John Landis will direct!

As reported at the excellent VAULT OF HORROR blog:

"Variety reported last night that John Landis, best known to horror aficionados as the director of An American Werewolf in London, will be stepping in to helm the biopic "Ghoulishly Yours, William M. Gaines," based on the life of the famous EC Comics and Mad Magazine publisher.

"...The picture is expected to focus on the rise of EC Comics in the '50s, and in particular the First Amendment battle that ensued when his horror comics were targeted by the U.S. Senate for their "harmful influence" on kids like my dad. As another life-long fan of EC and classic horror in general, I'm hoping for Landis to knock this one out of the park."

This is incredible news-- or should I say, "Good NOOSE!"?

Good for a laugh

But a gory one!

What if Captain America had remained frozen in ice until 2007?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I've posted previously about how much the deaths last year of Yvonne DeCarlo and Bobby Pickett bummed me out, but one of the most notable passings in 2007 for fans of genre films (hell, fans of all films) was the death of Freddie Francis. (Previous entries on Mr. Francis are found here and here.) As the director or director of photography of some of the 20th century's most visually arresting films, he left behind an impressive body of work.

Ted Newsom, the filmmaker behind the notable horror film documentaries 100 YEARS OF HORROR and FLESH AND BLOOD, and the man responsible for the spoof/schlock classic THE NAKED MONSTER, wrote a retrospective article on Mr. Francis for the May 2007 issue of the magazine VIDEO WATCHDOG. It is rightly nominated for a Rondo Award, and I am recommending it for your vote. As Jeremy Richey of the excellent film blog Moon in The Gutter says of the article, "Ted Newsom does a great job here in respecting Francis' directorial career and still being honest about it. It's a solid tribute to a very important figure."

I was lucky enough to get permission from Ted and the editors of VW (Tim and Donna Lucas) to reprint the article here. (Wow! Brings some class to this site and raises the average reading level of the blog, too.) You can buy the award-winning VIDEO WATCHDOG at Borders, as I do, or in other outlets. (Check out the VW website, and Tim Lucas' VIDEO WATCHBLOG, both of which are in my links section.) Ya gotta spend that coming rebate check on something to help the economy, and a subscription to film and horror magazines is a great way to do it.

Now, before I ramble any further, here is Ted Newsom's appreciation of the work and the person of Freddie Francis.

In Remembrance of Freddie Francis

By Ted Newsom

Freddie Francis died on March 17, 2007, at age 89, from complications following a stroke. His was a life in the cinema, famously as a cinematographer, remaining in demand long past the point most people retire or have been forgotten. In 1999, David Lynch tapped Francis, then 82, to shoot THE STRAIGHT STORY; Francis had previously lensed THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980, his first work as a DP since 1964) and DUNE (1984) for the director. Francis twice won an Oscar for his camerawork (SONS AND LOVERS in 1960, GLORY in 1990) and had multiple BAFTA nominations (Martin Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN).

An obituary written by a Sheila Whitaker in London’s GUARDIAN said, “Francis returned to cinematography with THE ELEPHANT MAN after several attempts at direction.” Such arch snobbery implies repeated failed attempts. In truth, Francis worked continuously as a director from 1962 through 1980, although in films that apparently were beneath Ms. Whitaker’s radar. His features ranged from stylish and eerie (notably THE SKULL and THE CREEPING FLESH) to visually arresting (DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE) to the “Well, we did the best we could” (TROG, destined for release on DVD summer 2007 as part of Warner’s new “Camp Classics” imprint).

His name is familiar to a couple generations’ worth of horror fans, a reputation which he understood and affably resented. He admitted no affinity for the genre, yet was immutably typecast as a specialist of that sort of film. His last directorial credit was a 1996 episode of HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT (a series at least partly inspired by his own 1972 filming of the EC horror comics) made when he was 78 years old.

I’m the wrong guy to write an article about Freddie Francis and his horror movies. I liked the movies he directed, but I never loved them. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen one that didn’t feel to me like a Chinese dinner: you’re left wanting more an hour later. Or a chocolate bunny: empty on the inside, but tasty and pretty and fun while you’re scarfing it up. Which, I guess, makes me exactly the right guy to write this article. Because he didn’t much love them either.

That’s not to dismiss them— and nor did he, while he was doing them. THE SKULL (1965) for Amicus is one of the most imaginatively photographed horror films of the 1960s, and has the benefit of a solid Robert Bloch story underlining it, plus a terrific cast. EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), although unconnected with previous Hammer Frankensteins, is rousing fun and a favorite of the series in many people’s eyes, as is the phantasmagoric DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968). Portmanteau films like TORTURE GARDEN (1967) show a neat variety of approaches appropriate to the individual stories: the haunted piano episode is different from the “eternal movie star” story, the Poe collector segment looks and feels different from the carnival linking scenes—yet the film is overall cohesive and suspenseful.

Francis was a brilliant, imaginative, and capable filmmaker who loved making movies. As a camera operator under Freddie Young, Oswald Morris, and Christopher Challis, some of his career high points are THE SMALL BACK ROOM (1949), GONE TO EARTH (1950), and THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951) for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BEAT THE DEVIL (1953), and MOBY DICK (1956) for director John Huston, among dozens of others. Francis’ own DP credits were no less formidable: Joseph Losey’s TIME WITHOUT PITY (1957), ROOM AT THE TOP (1959, which founded his working relationship with director Jack Clayton), SONS AND LOVERS (1960, directed by TALES OF HOFFMAN DP Jack Cardiff), Karel Reisz’s SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (1960), and THE INNOCENTS (1961). When he forsook a dead-ended directorial career and returned to camera work, his film credits were equally prestigious: THE ELEPHANT MAN, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN (1981, another collaboration with Karel Reisz), GLORY (1989), and CAPE FEAR (1991).

But between 1962 and 1980, Francis worked as a director. The projects he was offered were almost exclusively genre films, one way or the other. He brought them in on schedule and with visual flair, but after the first few suspense and horror movies, he felt typed—and he was. Whether he was capable of directing a “great” mainstream film like the ones he shot, who knows? The only project in his later years which came close to such an opportunity was THE DOCTORS AND THE DEVILS (1985), a long-aborning film version of Dylan Thomas’ 1953 play about Dr. Knox and his meat-packing pals Burke and Hare (under different names). ELEPHANT MAN producer Mel Brooks produced the film; as a long-time horror buff (and film fan in general), he felt Francis was the right man for the job—because he had directed horror movies. Likewise, Martin Scorsese chose Francis to shoot CAPE FEAR not on the basis of his obvious experience in lights, lenses, and filters, but because he knew, from Francis’ work as a suspense and horror director, that he could supply the right visuals.

I only had the pleasure of Mr. Francis’ company once—in June 1993, while shooting an interview for my documentary FLESH AND BLOOD, THE HAMMER HERITAGE OF HORROR. Francis was in California, working as a DP on a TV film of David Mamet’s A LIFE IN THE THEATER. He struck me as a focused, affable, working-class guy, knowledgeable but unpretentious. We spoke for about a half-hour on various things, but primarily about his movies— which meant primarily about monster movies.

From his work on films like ROOM AT THE TOP, he got a reputation for establishing a “look” for British New Wave, “kitchen sink” dramas: black-and-white, available light, dingy, gritty. It was simply appropriate for the subject matter, not a personal preference. One of his most notable changes from this style occurred in Jack Clayton’s excellent version of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” called THE INNOCENTS.

“We shot the exteriors in Sheffield Park,” he recalled, “what exteriors there were, anyway. Mostly we were on a very intricate stage. One thing that was forced on us was the use of CinemaScope, because we did the picture for Fox, and they’d said all their films had to use CinemaScope. The problem was the restriction of the lenses, which were not very fast, and of course the frame, which neither of us thought was right for what really was a small little personal story, about these children and their governess.” To make up for some of the lenses’ lack of definition, Francis instructed the art department to paint highlights and shadows on trees and bushes to make them “pop” more visually, without increasing the overall light level. “I liked that,” he said, “because doing things like that reminded me of the crazy things I used to do back in my 16mm days. I still do crazy things.”

To get around the other major problem—a widescreen presentation of an intimate story— Francis developed a set of amber-colored neutral density filters which slightly obscured and darkened the sides of the frame, concentrating the viewer’s attention on the personal drama rather than the width of the sets. The story, both the James novel and the film, remains ambiguous about whether the two “ghosts” are real or imaginary. When asked what he thought, Francis grinned, “Well. That actor who was in it. Peter Wyngard? He was a bit ghostly.”

This was a transitional time for Francis. The first directing job he got— sans screen credit— was a patch-up job on Steve Sekeley’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS in 1962. He had crossed paths with Hammer Films’ Anthony Hinds two years earlier, shooting a moody drama about sexual predation and small-town hypocrisy, with Cyril Frankel directing. Based on a play called THE PONY CART, it was released under the more obvious title NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER (with the word “Candy” substituted for “Sweets” in the US; presumably Yanks didn’t know what “Sweets” were). The serious, subtle, and well-done drama was excoriated by critics, who castigated Hammer for capitalizing on pedophilia. “That’s right, that was the only film I photographed for them, which I thought was a very good film. I think that’s the trouble; if you have a sort of trademark like Hammer, you have to keep producing the same films.

“Tony [Hinds], who became a very dear friend, was a very shy man, and didn’t get involved in films on the floor; he was a real behind the scenes guy. We became quite friendly, which was most unusual; he never became friendly with anybody involved. We became quite friendly. Just after doing NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER, I got an Academy Award for SONS AND LOVERS, and people started asking me to direct, which I did. My first film [TWO AND TWO MAKE SIX, 1962] was an abject disaster, and I thought I’d better do another film in a hurry. Tony Hinds offered me... What was it? PARANOIAC, that’s it. And I enjoyed working at Bray so much, they asked me to do another film and another film and another film. Next thing I knew, I was something I didn’t want to be—a horror film director! For somebody who loved making films as I do, it was great. But in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t done it. It got me pigeonholed. Once you’re a success in a specific sort of movie, nobody wants you to go outside it.”

As for Hammer: “It was set up on business lines, not artistic lines. If any of us could get artistic points in, we could. But the whole overall operation was a sort of business/financial situation. You had six weeks to make the movies. I don’t think I had any reservation about the schedule. You know the budget, you know the schedule, so the Ready Reckoner—if you’ve got a Ready Reckoner in your mind—that sticks over and you know exactly which line to take. So, no, I wasn’t concerned about the time or the schedule. If I had been concerned, then I probably I wouldn’t have done it. And we never went over budget or over schedule.”

Francis directed two Hammer thrillers scripted by Jimmy Sangster: PARANOIAC (1963) and NIGHTMARE (1964), both of which came in the wake of Sangster’s genuinely creepy variation on Clouzot’s DIABOLIQUE, TASTE OF FEAR (called SCREAM OF FEAR in the US). “Jimmy’s scripts were great,” Francis said, “I used to love them. If an audience thinks about Jimmy’s scripts, you’re dead. But Jimmy used to get the audience rattling along at such a pace that the audience didn’t have time to think about them! My wife and I were spending Christmas with Jimmy in the south of France, and we were fooling around, and my wife suddenly said to him, ‘Jimmy, you’re always writing these scripts about somebody people trying to send people mad. Why don’t you write a script about somebody trying to send himself mad?’ And Jimmy really started thinking about this!”

Though both Francis “mini-Hitchcocks” (as well as the Robert Bloch-scripted THE PSYCHOPATH for Amicus Productions) were bastard offspring of the horrific French mystery, Francis said, “I don’t think it was any sort of influence on me, not as a director. DIABOLIQUE was a very good film, but I really don’t think any other director’s style influences me. I just like making movies.”

Between 1962 and 1980, he worked exclusively as a director, and his assignments were almost all horror and suspense subjects. The one exception was shooting another film for Karel Reisz, NIGHT MUST FALL (1964)—about a mad young man (Albert Finney) who keeps a head in a hatbox.

Francis was selected to direct the third outing of Peter Cushing’s Baron Victor Frankenstein, EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, in 1964. The first and second film in the series had been directed by Terence Fisher. “I suspect that Terry was unwell at that time,” Francis surmised. “He got unwell and got progressively worse. I saw the Chris Lee make-up [from 1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN], and I hated it, just hated it. And by this time, Hammer had cleared with Universal, so they could use the original makeup. I’d seen the original FRANKENSTEIN with Boris Karloff, which nobody will ever top. I don’t know that they asked Christopher to play the monster. I suspect—I don’t know this, but I suspect that, by this time, Christopher was looking for a little better conditions.” As for who made the choice of New Zealand wrestler Kiwi Kingston as the Monster: “Rightly or wrongly, I did. I thought we needed somebody more physical than dear old Chris, and our man was physical. But if I had to do it again,” he smiled, “I’d choose someone who could act a little better.”

A long flashback sequence showing the “original” creation of the Monster was written by Hinds totally without dialogue, which seemed to suit Francis’ sensibilities. “One always tries to think of a right way to do it, and the most effective way, and obviously I usually think of the most effective way visually. Because, having been a DP and still am, I always think visually first.” Francis and Hinds had a standing joke about the difference between Hammer’s modern psycho-thrillers and the Gothic horrors: “You can always tell if it’s a Gothic horror. The plot moves twice as slow.” Nevertheless, Francis’ period horror films move along at a good clip.

It wasn’t a big leap from Hammer to Amicus, the American team of writer Milton Subotsky and financier Max Rosenberg who made films in the UK. Francis directed a slough of films for them, including DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), TORTURE GARDEN (1967), THE PSYCHOPATH (1966), THE DEADLY BEES (1967), THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE (1967), and THE SKULL (1965). “The problem with Amicus was, they’d have an idea to do a picture and budget it out to be X, then find they could only raise minus-X for the budget and try to do the picture for less money. The Hammer and Amicus films get kind of confused in my head. On the Amicus films, we used to almost write the script on the floor. One of the two producers fancied himself a writer. I always got along with Milton, but he used to write these scripts that were about 50 pages long, which was about 30 or 40 pages short! But that turned out sometimes not to be a bad thing at all, because I’d have that much more room to do things visually.”

Hammer planned yet another Dracula sequel, and again Francis stepped into the shoes of Terence Fisher, who had directed the company’s first three vampire movies. “I know that on that one, Terry was definitely not fit, so there was never any question of asking Terry to do it. And I suspect that had he been fit, they would’ve asked Terry to do it. Maybe I was the Flavor of the Month, or maybe they just liked what I’d done.”

As with EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, Hammer’s Tony Hinds penned the script under his “John Elder” pseudonym. Asked how he would judge “John Elder” as a writer, Francis said, “He knew exactly the words to put on the paper, and he was fine. I wouldn’t say he was a great writer, but he was absolutely perfect within that framework. Tony would never complain if one altered a little bit here and there. As opposed to when we were doing the Pinter scripts. If the director wanted to change a comma, he’d have to ring up Pinter’s agent and ask, ‘Can we change a comma?’ And he’d call back in an hour and Pinter would say, ‘Yes,’ or ‘No, you can’t change a comma.’ The same is true with Mamet. But their things are about the words and dialogue, it’s important to them.”

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was produced by Aida Young, a diminutive fireball whose eye was always on the clock. “I always got on with Aida,” said Francis. “Slave-driver. I don’t know about slave-driver. When we were doing these little horror films—which we all knew were little horror films—we treated them seriously. While we were doing them, we were dedicated to them. I don’t think she had the feel for films that we all had. I don’t think Aida was as dedicated as we were—rightly so, in a way. Her idea was just to get the film through.”

The film is a visual feast, even if it does not have the creepy fairy tale ambiance of the Fisher films. One thing that sets it apart is its near-psychedelic use of color and canted angles. Shots of the two priests trudging through fog-covered woods and mountains look like moving photos of period woodcuts; shots of the castle and the village rooftops have a gaudy, comic-book flamboyance. The influence of Dracula—even when he is offscreen—is visually represented by an unhealthy amber color on left and right sides of the frame. “Dear old Arthur Grant was a great fan of mine when I was a cameraman. I let him use my filters from THE INNOCENTS for that, with a sort of graduating colors coming in from the side.”

Interestingly, one sequence with Christopher Lee approaching Veronica Carlson is shot without these filters, and the expressions of both actors are correspondingly softer. “I wanted to accentuate the romantic interest between the boy [Barry Andrews] and the girl [Carlson], which I did do in the shooting. But as I say, once I finished shooting, the film is put in the mincing machine. I went away for a weeks’ holiday, and when I came back, they’d finished editing it! It was probably due out in another two weeks at any rate. You couldn’t complain. Well, I suppose I could’ve complained, but they wouldn’t have taken any notice of it.”

Freddie’s son Kevin Francis served as a general gofer on the film. Seven years later, in 1975, he would attempt to revive the company’s style under his own production banner, Tyburn Films, with THE GHOUL and LEGEND OF THE WERE­WOLF. Despite a long-standing antipathy between the often-abrasive son and laid-back father, the younger Francis hired Freddie to direct both films. “Kevin is the greatest Hammer fan in the world,” said his father patiently. “I’m sure if he made a film on the life of Christ, it would be based on Hammer Films!”

During the production of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, Hammer received the Queen’s Award for Export, a prestigious award for which James Carreras had lobbied for quite some time, though not undeservedly. “Well, I’ve been to more elaborate award ceremonies,” Francis chuckled, reminiscing. “They had the Sheriff of whatever county it was where Elstree was, come down and do this little presentation. But one felt glad that a film company had been acknowledged in this way.” The low-key ceremony provided two anecdotes that point out the low esteem with which Hammer was held in the real world, and Carreras’ awareness of it. The decision-makers as well as the presenter of the award apparently knew nothing of Hammer’s output, and Jimmy Carreras assured them that his company made films in the style of Hitchcock, and not, Heaven forbid, those grisly “horror” movies everyone loathes so much. At the official presentation on the DRACULA set, the local sheriff parroted this claim back—after which he stayed around to watch a scene being filmed: Christopher Lee as Dracula, impaled in the back by a huge golden cross, covered in gore, eyes bloodshot, waving his arms spastically and screaming at the top of his lungs. The presenter, with severe understatement, was heard to whisper to his wife, “I say! I believe that man belongs to my club.”

After being hired by David Lynch to photograph THE ELEPHANT MAN, Francis re-embraced his destiny and stayed mostly behind the camera rather than beside it. The films were high-budget and prestige productions in the main, something that always eluded him as a director. One of the closest to outright horror was Martin Scorsese’s brutal remake of CAPE FEAR. With no sense of irony, Francis said, “It’s a terrible thing to say, but I’m against onscreen violence. I can honestly say I was not aware of the onscreen violence while we were shooting. I don’t watch many horror films... but don’t tell anyone.”

Freddie Francis’ work as a cameraman was rightly praised as exemplary during his lifetime and after his death. His work as a director, despite supercilious dismissals from non-fans, was enjoyable and successful. He brought serious craft and professionalism to the movies he made.

Originally published in Video Watchdog #130, May 2007.

(Many thanks to Ted Newsom, Tim Lucas and Donna Lucas for allowing me to reprint the article.)

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Monster Kid on Jay Leno TONIGHT!!

Just found out that Karlos Borloff (Jerry Moore), a horror host of the program Monster Madhouse-- and a guy you've probably seen at Monster Bash, Cimena Wasteland or Horrorfind, will be interviewed briefly by Ross the Intern on the TONIGHT show tonight!

"If I only had a brain..."

Dor-- I almost typed "dorking"!-- drinking buddy and pal-for-life Richard Olson created the above image on a whim. Iloz Zoc of Zombos' Closet of Horror supplied a publicity blurb: "SEE the horror as a couple of MONSTERS want to get ahead, and stumble across MAX instead!"

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Voodoo Queen speaks!

As this blog nears its first birthday later this month, I'm trying to catch up and post things that either were delayed or I put off posting. Recently, my bitter half Jane (I mean buttered half!) completed a review of a convention in Warren, Ohio she attended last November called Dark Xmas . It was apparently not so well attended this year (even Conrad Brooks of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE infamy didn't show, and that says something), but my wife wound up so charmed by guest Tony Todd (CANDYMAN, FINAL DESTINATION, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake), that she had a good time.

Here's the comments from Juju Jane:

The Dark X-mas Xperience

(With apologies to Jimi Hendrix)

I’ve contemplated making this entry for a while. A couple of months in fact.

There was plenty of buzz both before and after this con. I wanted to wait until the dust settled before making my observations. I’ve read the blog of the event organizer, and he seems to have handled the situations that arose very well. That said, onward.

I was looking forward to this con for several reasons. It was close enough to Pittsburgh to be a nice road trip - which I love. It was in an historic hotel in a small town - also a plus in my book. The area turned out to be really interesting, the mapquest directions sent me in the opposite direction once I got off of the main road. So I got to see a bit more of Warren, Ohio than I had originally planned.

The hotel was on the old town square, I found a parking space close by. Right next to the hotel there was a radio station. The DJ and control room/board were right there inside a big picture window on the street. The music was being pumped outside. It was all very “American Graffiti” and very cool. I can’t say I’ve ever been in or seen a station like that except in old movies.

I was also looking forward to the guests. The guest list ended up slowly unfolding to be different than expected. More on that later.

I’ve never met Tony Todd at any of the various and several conventions I’ve attended. I love the Candyman character. He brought to life a great conflicted, darkly tragic protagonist. I like pathos in my stories, and Mr. Todd brought that in abundance. Plus, I love his voice. Hearing it in person was going to be a real treat. I could listen to him read the phone book, which is what I ended up writing in his guest book.

Kelli Maroney is in one of my favorite cult films of all time, “Night of the Comet”, and she is the main reason I love that film. Her character is so real and genuinely funny, in an apocalyptic situation (apocalyptic situations being my other favorite cult film thing).

On arriving at the hotel, I enter in anticipation of the fun, (I know, I’m a geek, but I am one with my geekiness, OOOOHHHHMMMM...) The immediate impression as I walked in was...

Hmmmmm... (Oh, the things that make ya go hmmmmm...)

I looked past the registration desk and saw what looked like a very small dealer room. After getting my admission, I entered. Yup – really small. I made one circuit, as is my habit, just checking it out. Tony Todd, check. (“Yaay!” said the fan girl!) But no Kelli Maroney. Hmmm.. As I exit I see another small room across the hall. Maybe she is in there, I say to myself. I entered and scanned the room.

Nope. I didn’t find out until later what had happened. A friend of a friend told me that she had an event that came up with her children. That’s cool, and very understandable. (Previously announced guest Brinke Stevens also backed out, earlier.)

I did see a friend, Mr. Gravely MacCabre, at his table for Castle Blood. We talked for while, then I decided that based on my observations, I had some time to kill before I made the drive home.

I settled on honoring a great convention tradition, and hit the bar. I’d purchased a book on Voodoo, and one on voodoo queen Marie Laveau in the second dealer room, and thought I’d peruse them while I had a cocktail.

This is where it got really interesting.

There was only one bartender, and the bar was crowded. At one end of the bar sat almost all of the members of a local police pipe and drum corp, and she was busy just keeping up with them.

I finally got to order and it went like this:

“Hi! I’d like a martini please.”

Blank look on the part of the barkeep. Puzzled look. “What’s that?”

“Ummm, gin and dry vermouth...”

Shrug from the barkeep, then her eyes lit up. “We have gin,” she said hopefully”

“And dry vermouth,” says I.

“We don’t have that.”

“Okay, how about a gin and tonic?”

“We don’t have any tonic.”

Struggling to not bang my head on the bar, I say “Never mind the gin, I’ll have a Bourbon and Coke.”

She says...”Is that like whiskey?”

I start channeling my inner Basil Fawlty and squeak, “Forget it! Just get me a beer!”

I won’t even get into the fact that I had two choices there. Bud and Bud. Heh.

So, I had my beer, scanned my books, and decide to take my bit of liquid courage upstairs and talk to Mr. Todd.

He turned out to be incredibly nice. What is it about actors that play not nice guys being directly proportionate to the opposite in real life?

I first chose a photograph-- Candyman of course-- and said I’d had a beer, so now I little less nervous about talking to him. This produced a smile, and I mentioned that I had recently viewed his version of “Night of the Living Dead”. “What did you think?” was his immediate response. I liked it, I like the twist at the end. I mentioned that I live in Pittsburgh, and that I see Tom Savini at the grocery store sometimes. Mr. Todd laughed, and said he couldn’t imagine the Tom Savini at the grocery store. I admit I agree, picturing the stoic and somewhat intimidating tough guy shopping is a bit of a stretch, but true nevertheless.

I then signed the guest book, and we made small talk about the con. After that, I launched into my conversation at the bar downstairs, I had to vent, and something told me I would get some commiseration here. I did.--WE both laughed pretty hard at that. Mr. Todd told me that he had tended bar for 5 years, and that would have never happened on his watch!.

I then asked for a photo op, and was obliged. When Mr. Todd walked around the table, my nervousness had to go and state the obvious...”WOW! You are tall!” Which is true, at 5'4" the top of my head hits him about chest level. I got another attendee to snap a photo, and I hear Mr. Todd’s deep voice rolling out somewhere above my head. (“Cool!” said the fan girl).

After that, I took my leave, hit a booth that had some kitty toys (for my fur-faced dependents), and went back to give Mr. Todd the blog address where I planned to post this here review. He was genuinely appreciative, which is refreshing in someone who has his celebrity status.

All in all, I had a great time, snapped some cool pictures that I didn’t expect, (The police band, the radio station) and had an uneventful and pleasant drive back to Pittsburgh. Although I was surprised by how poorly attended it seemed to be by both guests and convention-goers, Tony Todd's charisma made the trip worthwhile.


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