"QUITE SIMPLY, THE BEST HORROR-THEMED BLOG ON THE NET." -- Joe Maddrey, Nightmares in Red White & Blue

**Find The Vault of Horror on Facebook and Twitter, or download the new mobile app!**

**Check out my other blogs, Standard of the Day, Proof of a Benevolent God and Lots of Pulp!**

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Retro Review: Them! (1954)

Strangely enough, Warner Bros. didn't have very much confidence in this film--a prime example of the giant, radioactive monster craze of the 1950s that would go on to be their most successful picture of 1954. It would also become one of the classics of the so-called "silver age" of horror, and one of the most fun flicks a genre fan could possibly hope for.

It was supposed to be made in full color and 3-D--two of the very popular "gimmicks" used at the time with a lot of sci-fi and horror films. However, when the studio chickened out and cut the budget, it wound up in black and white and good ol' 2-D. You can still tell with many of the shots that the 3-D influence is there, and the title card of the movie is actually in color. But despite the short-sightedness of Warner's, who apparently didn't want to take a chance on a giant bug picture, Them! turned out to be just about as good as this subgenre got in the United States.

Warner's stalwart Gordon Douglas--a proficient thriller/western director who had cut his teeth with Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy at the Hal Roach Studio--here helms what may very well be his finest film. Genre favorite James Arness--a.k.a. the original Thing from another world--stars as government agent Robert Graham, on hand to investigate the strange goings on in the desert of New Mexico. But the most sympathetic performance of all comes from James Whitmore, a fine actor who made his one big mark on genre filmdom as doomed police sergeant Ben Peterson. And of course, we have Edmund Gwenn, best known as Kris Kringle in the original Miracle n 34th Street, as ant expert Dr. Harold Medford, the proverbial old scientist with the hot daughter, here played by Joan Weldon.

But let's be honest here--the real stars of Them! are the giant ants themselves. Long before the age of CGI, these massive monsters were created the old fashioned way, and the result is some of the finest creature work you're likely to see in this era. In fact, they might be the single most impressive mechanical monsters seen in American cinema prior to the rise of Stan Winston. And who could forget that unmistakable sound made by the giant ants as they approach--purportedly made using      
recordings of tree frogs? The ants in Them! are not only among the most impressive, but also the most downright frightening creations of the giant monster era of horror.

And that's certainly one of this movie's strong suits to be sure. Them! achieves what many 1950s creature features attempted to, but didn't always succeed at: it's actually very frightening. Perhaps this owes to the unique screenplay, which kicks off as a traditional police procedural whodunit and then verges off the road into the realm of horror. It doesn't fit the usual template, and although there's a fair share of light comedy and goofiness to be sure, it is also dead serious when it needs to be.

The world was preoccupied with the dangers of nuclear technology during this era, and it's no surprise that this film was released in America at the exact moment that Gojira was released in Japan. For whatever reason, someone got it into their heads that radiation would make things grow very large, and so we wound up with a rash of these giant-monster-on-the-loose epics. Think of it as Mother Nature getting her revenge against the arrogant human race for defiling her. It's a reckoning being visited on us by a natural order gone horribly awry. And what better emissaries for the natural world to send our way than cold, calculating, murderous, remorseless insects?

The fact that ants were chosen as the monsters in question certainly went a long way to making this a unique film of its kind--after all, this was at a time when the concept of giant radioactive creatures was still relatively new. The idea was originally brought to Warner Bros. in the form of a treatment by George Worthing Yates, who obviously had a great head for the genre, given that he had done the same for Sinbad the Sailor in 1947, and would later contribute stories and/or screenplays for the likes of It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. The Spider and King Kong vs. Godzilla. After being filtered through TV writers Russell Hughes and Ted Sherdeman, Yates concept was polished into a jewel. 

Although later very often imitated, Them! was one of the seminal entries in its subgenre, and set a standard that many later films would try to emulate, with various degrees of success. It had the perfect balance of special effects spectacle and grim terror, telling a social parable while also not being too heavy or morose. After all, this was still 1950s America, lest we forget.

Warners may have been doubtful of the success of Them!, but there can be no question that in the end, that doubt was unfounded. The horror movie genre was sort of on the ropes coming out of World War II, but this film is one of several, including the likes of Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and House of Wax, that helped put it back on the map and create another memorable era for fans of cinematic terrors.

If you're a fan of Them!, or better yet, if you've never seen it before, I invite you to come down to The Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut this Thursday night, September 27, when I'll be hosting a screening of the film, alongside its Japanese counterpart Gojira, in a little teamup I'm calling "Nuclear Nightmares". It's all part of Bedlam at the Bijou, a three-month-long series celebrating the fifth anniversary of The Vault of Horror. Join me, won't you?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Visceral Visionaries: Jennifer OZe

It's been a while since Visceral Visionaries has reared its eerily beautiful head here in The Vault of Horror, but this time I'm bringing you a particular creator whom I've been planning to interview for many months now. And now, it's finally come together, so it brings me great pleasure to bring her work to you.

Her name is Jennifer OZe (a.k.a. Ozehoski), and she is the mastermind behind Concocted Curioddities, a line of truly unusual and striking dolls and other toys that are just catnip to a fan of the bizarre such as myself. Described as "the marriage of a doll/bear maker and a certified special effects/makeup artist [Jennifer's husband Randy] who hope to bring a little strangeness to your world," Concocted Curioddities provides a delightful glimpse into a truly creative, horror-oriented mind--which is what Visceral Visionaries is all about...

How did Concocted Curioddities get started?
C.C. has gone through many ups and downs--rising from the ashes, so to speak. It started out simply as creating to keep myself busy, a hobby. Friends and friends of friends started noticing; soon, more people outside my circle wanted my concoctions. So it started off as presents (Handmade is way better than store bought, I think.) Then I actually had people offer to pay for what I created! So with a simple hobby comes product, then comes fans, they become customers and that starts business. That creates demand, and BOOM Concocted Curioddities was born!

What inspires you? Whose work do you admire?
There isn't enough space to blog on what inspires me! But, I'd have to say mainly it's scary stories--fairy tales like Brothers Grimm with their macabre morals and twisted views, half in fiction half in reality. They were the first horror writers! Legends, myths, vintage toys, taxidermy, old discarded stuffed animals, skeletons, flea markets. Pretty much anything I can do to evoke someone's inner child and bring sentiment or nostalgic thoughts back just by looking, feeling, or being around my creations, makes it well worth the effort! Adults should always be able to return to childhood again and that's the thought that drives me to create!

Who do you admire?
Mary Blair, Conceptual Artist for Walt Disney, created some of the most beautifully eerie art. Her use of abstracts and color really influenced me to keep my childish imagination intact!

Mark Ryden, for his impact on surrealism. He uses almost the same inspirations I do, which makes his art captivating and nostalgic, just as I try to do with my art and dollies!

Stephen King, probably the most important, saved for last! He had a humble start, and sheer persistance in knowing exactly what he wanted to do helped him expand himself in his chosen path until he did exactly what he dreamed! I only wish to have and keep the same focus and drive--always tweeking, always experimenting, and constantly adding just as much thought and detail into my creations as he has!

Do you consider your work to be art?
I would say it's Art. I get inspired, I daydream, I sketch, then research and hunt down exactly what I envision for materials. I work out how to do it, while sometimes reinventing or scrapping ideas along the way, then watch it come to life!

What are your favorite materials to work with?
My favorite materials are vintage fabrics, vintage buttons, bones and skulls, clays, vintage doll parts, dead things, old worn out tossed-away clothing, vintage jewelry and acrylic paints!

Of which creation are you the most proud?
I'd have to say my FAUXIDERMIES! Part upcycled doll parts, part crafted taxidermy, a sprinkle of vintage, a dash of something dead and ALL imagination!

Do you ever make things you wind up liking so much you can't part with them?
Of course! Everything I make I want to keep! It's birth, creation! Every time you make something new it's another piece of you outside yourself. Every piece makes you want to go bigger, badder, bolder! I'm proud of all my Concoctions, but pride sometimes takes a back seat to seeing someone else get to enjoy my work for themselves!

What has been the public's reaction to your work?
Public reaction has been great. I get praise, and requests for future projects or customs, and remakes of a lot of already adopted Creations! I have a decent amount of repeat customers and a steady stream of word of mouth. I always have awesome feedback on WIP (Works In Progress). They seem to enjoy my hands-on custom orders, and a lot of jaws drop when they find out that everything I do is 100% handmade, no machines. Handmade and designed seems to really get peoples attention, and they see it's worth every penny to collect OOAK Plushie Art!

Why do you think people enjoy dolls like the ones you make?
People enjoy what I do simply because it's unique. Yes, thousands if not millions of dolls and bears are made all the time, but I try to bring life and individuality to every thing I create. People feel that, with my customs especially. And it's hard to find dolls that are strange, weird, or scary! I don't do "cookie cutter"!

What are some of your favorite horror films, and do you think they've influenced your work?
I like a lot of hokey horror, and they are the ones that still make me hop into bed so the monsters won't get me. Like:

Dolly Dearest
Demonic Toys
Puppet Master Series
(Anything from Full Moon Features - as lame as that might sound)
Stephen King's IT (or anything Stephen King)
Pan's Labyrinth
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
She Creature
Snow White - A Tale of Terror
Jack Ketchum's Girl Next Door
Watcher in The Woods
Something Wicked This Way Comes
The Dark Crystal

And I know they are not movies, but if my childhood and  teen years lacked these TV shows I would be half lost :

Tales from the Darkside
Dark Shadows
American Gothic
Tales from the Crypt
Twin Peaks
Are You Afraid of the Dark
The Munsters
The Addams Family
Eerie, Indiana

Do you think they influenced your work?
To quote Picasso, "Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."
I've lived in fear of that exact horror scenario, but I'm staying true to my strong fixation with fairy tales as the intro to horror. Yes, I believe all my likes and favorites and inspirations have somehow always been influenced by horror in every sense.

Where do you see Concocted Curioddities headed in the future?
Someday I'd like my brain preserved in a jar on my family's mantle! But as far as the future and where I'd like to see C.C. heading... I'd like to be known, not insanely famous, or rich beyond my wildest dreams, just comfortable and happy making new and more detailed concoctions to push my limits and enjoy the simple pleasures that all people big or small enjoy! And maybe be posted on a site or published in a magazine or two!

Check out Concocted Curioddities on Facebook and Etsy!

Monday, September 17, 2012

TRAILER TRASH! Godzilla Edition, Vol. 2

For more GODZILLA goodness--come down to the Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport, CT next Thursday, September 27 for my special "Nuclear Nightmares" double feature of the original 1954 Gojira and the giant ant epic Them! It's all part of Bedlam at the Bijou...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Stay Tuned for the Greatest Horror TV Shows of All Time...

Some years ago, I made a bit of a stir with a series of posts gathering together a veritable cornucopia of illustrious horror bloggers and other online critics from far and wide to help me determine the best of the best in the horror genre. With tongue-in-cheek flair, I called our little group "The Cyber Horror Elite". Here are the lists we collaborated on back then:

The Top 50 Greatest Horror Films of All Time
The Top 25 Greatest Horror Films of the Modern Era
The Top 20 Foreign Horror Films
The Greatest Fright Fiction of All Time
The "Horror Canon"

One category I left out in those days was television series. In my naivete, I just wasn't sure there were enough quality choices to make for a captivating list. But these days, there is just so much quality stuff on TV, horror and otherwise, that I was led to reconsider my position. And so I reassambled the once vaunted Cyber Horror Elite for one more ride.

As we speak, I'm tabulating lists submitted to me by some of the coolest online horror scribes around, trusted friends and colleagues all. They have until Monday to get me their personal lists. From there, I'm putting together our definitive list of the Greatest Horror TV Series of All Time, which I'll be posting next week. So keep your eye on this space in the days to come, Vault dwellers. This one's going to get you talking...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Random Ramblings from the Vault...

  • So, The Possession. Very effective horror flick, in my estimation, and a much more sober and grave companion piece to Ghost House Pictures' other recent demonic possession release, Drag Me to Hell--that one a bold exercise in "horror whimsy", if there is such a thing. What is it with Sam Raimi and demonic possession--the guy is obsessed. Perhaps related to his religious upbringing as a conservative Jew?
  • For those who enjoyed the series of Vaultcasts I did with Miguel Rodriguez of Monster Island Resort on the Godzilla series of films, stay tuned very soon for a brand new series. This time our focus is the Universal monster movies. The first one, an examination of the first three films in the Frankenstein series, was just recorded last night!
  • NASA is having a student contest to name an asteroid orbiting in close proximity to Earth, so i decided to enter my kids. I explained to my son that most heavenly bodies are named for ancient gods. He then gave me his suggestion: Cthulhu. We're sending it.
  • Over the years, the Vault has become an admittedly cluttered and busy place, and so to reduce the chaos and provide a more ordered and structured arrangement, I've taken advantage of the new features in Blogger and created separate pages to house information like upcoming events, links, quotes and more. I invite you to take a look at the menu bar below the top banner and have a look for yourself. Hope you like!
  • After years of dutiful service, I've decided at long last to retire the ongoing feature known as "The Many Faces of..", mainly because I've run through just about everyone worth spotlighting! One more post (William Forsythe), and then I'll be rolling out something different: "Faces of Fear", a new department focusing on a different creature each time. Should be fun!
  • Speaking of William Forsythe, you can color me tickled pink to see the cult fave actor join the cast of HBO's Boardwalk Empire during the second season, which I finally caught up on thanks to HBO On Demand. It certainly is a far cry from The Devil's Rejects, but I am loving Forsythe in the role of the cold-blooded kosher butcher Manny Horvitz. Wondering if there might be a potential horror franchise there. "He Answers to a Higher Authority: Satan". "Manny's--Where the Meat Is to Die For!" I could go on for hours.
  • This is probably something best kept to my newly created "Other Appearances" page, but I'm proud to announce that the Ooze Cruise, the unique zombie cruise being promoted by Captain Cruella and me, is being featured in the current issue of Rue Morgue magazine (#126), which should now be on sale at most stores! Yet another magazine I grew up reading that I now get to appear in... Pretty cool.
  • Speaking of the Captain and me, we had a ghoul-riffic time last weekend at the The Year of the Dead's 2013 Zombie Model Meet and Eat in Hartford! It was fun rubbing rotten shoulders with some like-minded undead enthusiasts, hearing some great music and doing a little horror networking. Best of all, it gave me the opportunity to take this deliciously ludicrous photo with the lovely ladies of the Year of the Dead calendar. It's a fine piece of work, and I encourage red-blooded would-be victims everywhere to pick a copy of their 2013 calendar now.
  • I've been pining for a complete Lovecraft anthology for a long time now, and finally picked up a copy of the first-ever such edition just last week. H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction is one of those leather-bound volumes put out by Barnes & Noble, and at $20 for every single story Lovecraft ever wrote all in one place, it's the most unmissable deal this side of R'Lyeh. I took great pleasure in curling up on my couch the other night and delving into the Mountains of Madness, and I anticipate many more evenings spent with this gorgeous compendium of inspired weirdness. 
  • Halloween once again ominously approaches, and as I begin to browse the stores with my young ones, I come to one inevitable conclusion: Why the hell couldn't Halloween have been this cool when I was a kid?? 
  • UPDATE: I invite all you Vault dwellers to head over to Kindertrauma and check out the interview I did there concerning my horror film interests and influences. And Kindertrauma is an alarmingly kick-ass site in general anyway, so you should check it out regardless.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Nosferatu at 90: Florence Stoker, Vampire Hunter

The year is 1912. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, has passed away. Some attribute the cause to syphilis. Left behind is his beautiful wife, Florence Anne Lemon Stoker, née Balcombe, a demure and striking stage actress when she married the Irish theatrical agent in 1878 at the age of 20. Now a widow in her 50s, with one grown son starting a family of his own, Florence finds herself struggling financially--a sad burden compounded no doubt by the rumors surrounding her husband's death. Ironically, the one thing that remained to her as far as financial means was the copyright to her late husband's famous vampire novel.

Fast forward a decade. A relatively new entertainment medium, cinema, is finally hitting its full stride and one of the epicenters of the explosion is Germany, where an Expressionist movement is taking the country by storm. A small art collective known as Prana Films, spearheaded by artist and spiritualist Albin Grau, produces a vampire film called Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens, whose screenplay, penned by Henrik Galeen, has taken for its direct inspiration Stoker's Dracula. However, to avoid having to pay anything for intellectual rights, Prana Films never seeks permission from Florence Stoker, still alive and well in Britain. The names and places in the silent film are all changed from the novel in a naive attempt to avoid infringement. Count Dracula becomes Count Orlock.

Florence Balcombe, sketched by her former
love interest, Oscar Wilde.

On March 4, 1922, Nosferatu enjoys a lavish premiere at Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Gardens, complete with live musical accompaniment and sound effects. The following month, Florence Stoker receives an anonymous letter from Berlin, containing a program from the premiere. The program directly states that Nosferatu has been "freely adapted from Bram Stoker's Dracula". Having received no permission requests, nor even being aware of the film's existence up to this point, the 62-year-old widow, still depending on whatever income she can get from the novel's copyright, is outraged.

What follows is a one-woman crusade the likes of which has never been seen in film history, before or since. Represented by the British Incorporated Society of Authors, Florence Stoker, as literary executor for the estate of her late husband, files a sweeping lawsuit against Prana Films which calls not only for financial compensation for the use of her intellectual property, but also the complete and total destruction of the film itself.

The legal battle would rage for over three years. Prana Films declared bankruptcy due to legal costs, and also in an attempt to avoid making payments to Mrs. Stoker.  Meanwhile, the company's lone production, Nosferatu, continued to play throughout Germany and Hungary, but nowhere else, its international distribution halted by the litigious ruckus. Ironically, the success of the film in its homeland had made Stoker's copyright even more valuable than before. Prana would even try to make a deal with her, offering to cut her in on the film's profits if she would allow them to expand the release and use the Dracula name. She refused, insisting again on the torching of the film.

Hamilton Deane
While the suit took its course, Stoker was simultaneously negotiating with producer and Dublin neighbor Hamilton Deane, who sought to bring the novel to the stage. His officially licensed theatrical production of Dracula would premiere in Derby in 1924. It was an immediate hit, and its success helped boost the fortunes of Florence Stoker, who was also on the verge of winning her lawsuit with the doomed Prana Films.

In July 1925, the court ruled that Prana Films was in direct copyright infringement of the intellectual property of Florence Stoker. Financial reparations were ordered, but the failed company was unable to pay. The court also ordered that the negative of Nosferatu, as well as all known prints, be rounded up and promptly destroyed--the only known case of a "capital punishment" ruling on a major motion picture. It would be the only movie ever made by Prana, and had not been seen by anyone outside of Germany and Hungary--including Florence Stoker.

With Nosferatu seemingly destroyed, Stoker continued to reap the rewards of Deane's official stage adaptation. In fact, she granted the American stage rights to producer Horace Liveright in 1927 and Liveright hired John L. Balderston to adapt the play for U.S. audiences. It premiered on Broadway with virtually unknown Hungarian actor (had he seen Nosferatu during its release?) Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, and ran for a year on Broadway and two more on tour. However, in another case of intellectual property shenanigans, it turned out that Bram Stoker had never properly seen to the U.S. rights for his novel, and so it was in the public domain. This meant that Florence Stoker never received her full payment for the American production from Liveright, who was no longer even alive by the end of the play's run.

Meanwhile, it turned out that much like a vampire itself, Nosferatu the film was not exactly dead. Somehow, there were prints that survived the court-ordered obliteration. One of these made it to America in 1929, and it was then that the film finally made its US debut, against Stoker's direct wishes, screening in New York and Detroit. And when budding Hollywood movie studio Universal, nearly a decade after the film's release, sought to make their own talkie adaptation of Dracula based on the stage play, they also studied Nosferatu closely, and the influence can be seen in their 1931 film version, also starring Lugosi.

Florence Anne Lemon Balcombe Stoker died in London on May 25, 1937 at the age of 78, survived by her son Irving Noel, granddaughter Ann Elizabeth, and newborn great-grandson Richard Noel. In her later years, she no doubt enjoyed greater financial prosperity thanks to the stage production of Dracula, as well as other licensed properties like Universal's film and it's 1936 sequel, Dracula's Daughter. It's unknown whether she was aware of Nosferatu's survival, or how she felt about it if she did know.

The film remained an obscurity for decades, playing here and there, but never being fully embraced by audiences. It finally reached a wider audience in the 1960s, when it found its way to late-night television, along with whatever other public domain films were available at the time. Renewed interest in the film finally led to the resurfacing in 1984 of a complete print--the first found since its attempted destruction nearly 60 years prior. The uncut version played at Berlin's Film Festival that year, a stone's throw from where it had debuted in 1922. Free at last from the shadow of Florence Stoker's wrath, Nosferatu took its rightful place as the seminal vampire film that it is. It was released to home video for the first time in 1992, and the 2007 DVD release is the very first home video version to include the original music, all original scenes, plus the original color film tints.

Florence Stoker and son Noel,
circa 1882.
Whatever its merits, justification, or lack thereof, Florence Stoker's crusade had failed in the end. Nosferatu the film, in true Dracula fashion, could not be completely destroyed. And it's thankful for us that it wasn't--for as horror scholar David J. Skal wrote in his 1990 book Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, "Nosferatu mined Dracula's metaphors and focused its meaning into visual poetry. It had achieved for the material what Florence Stoker herself would never achieve: artistic legitimacy."

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...