This short article is in the spirit of the crowded ad-mat advertising blurbs that, once upon a time, would show up in the newspaper for horror- related features. The particular composite just below is a fantasy, but since all films back then were for General Audiences, a stack like it is entirely credible. Here, it’s an excuse for a trio of personal Savant anecdotes, vividly remembered from fifty-odd years ago.
Not Bad! Charlie Largent assembled this convincing triple bill ad paste-up,
customized for San Bernardino in 1964.
Don’t listen to Gen X’ers or Millennials, kids: the REAL era to be an adolescent moviegoer was in the 1950s and 1960s, when downtown movie palaces had regular Saturday kiddie matinees, just as seen in the nostalgic Joe Dante movie. Theaters in most towns functioned as ad hoc babysitters, with kids dropped off in clumps. In many cases the oldest squab in a carload was given the responsibility of bringing the smaller tots back alive. Things weren’t as rowdy as in Matinee, but it was an adventure to fight for a good seat and then fight to get served at the candy counter. If you weren’t big and pushy, you had to be fast. I was a regular participant in this weekly melee. At age twelve I could be counted on to have a clean nose, but I didn’t always button my shirt correctly or wear the same color of socks.
As this is Halloween, in the Trailers from Hell spirit of cooperative malice I’ve brought a trio of haunted movie-going stories to tell. An older self-indulgent article about my childhood movie adventures gave the general picture, but there must be Eight Million Stories in the Naked City Movie-going Memory. I’ve got one at age eight, one at about twelve and another at sixteen, which is more an atmosphere piece than anything scary.
Remember, movie-going back then was one of the few non-school experiences we less worldly middle class kids had away from our parents. This was major freedom time. Our parents often had no idea of the weird stuff we were seeing. We didn’t give them full reports for fear that the privilege would be revoked. But that also meant that we had to live with some of the things we saw . . . and some of the disturbing things we saw are still not forgotten.
First up on the Halloween fantasy triple bill is a picture I saw at a military theater at age Eight — the notorious English shocker Horrors of the Black Museum. How I got into a Saturday showing of that picture I’ll never know, and why the military projectionist didn’t stop the movie ten minutes in to usher out 150 screaming kids, I don’t know either. If you haven’t heard of this Herman Cohen opus, it’s little more than a series of lurid murders by bizarre means, committed by a sadistic mad author. While some imagination-challenged cops putter about, hammy Michael Gough chews scenery and foams at the mouth as he slays people with electricity, an acid bath, etc. One old lady gets it right in the neck, with A giant pair of ice block grabber tongs.
Each of those murders elicited shrieks from the mostly kiddie audience, but the first murder was the one that traumatized us, one of the most horrible killings I can remember seeing in a movie. It is committed from afar, when a woman is sent a pair of binocular opera glasses in the mail. But the binocs have been fiendishly rigged so that when adjusted, long spring-loaded spikes stab backwards, doing a Lucio Fulci number on the unfortunate woman’s eyes. That’s what happens. The camera cuts away, there’s a blood-curdling scream, and then the shot above, fifty feet wide in shocking color.
You’d have thought someone had hit me with a sledgehammer — I’d give anything to have a photo of the first three rows of kids staring at the screen, not believing their eyes. Maybe the teenagers a few rows back were unimpressed, but I don’t think so — this was strong stuff. This first shock launched a solid sixty seconds of screaming, which lasted into the next scene … I remember hearing kids crying.
At age eight, the horror of this was the appalling realization that such sadism even existed in the world — remember, a great many middle class kids in America back then were surrounded by a culture-bubble of NICE. I wondered how anybody could imagine such a grisly idea, let alone make a movie about it . . . and what if things like that happened in real life?
How I got into that particular show I don’t remember, but I sure as heck didn’t tell anybody about it, and didn’t even talk about it in school. Just knowing or thinking such a thing was BAD — no teacher or relative would understand if I tried to explain the experience, and they might decide I had been irrevocably tainted by it. Was this a sheltered, American-kid version of Original Sin? It was as if I already bore a guilty Mark of Cain, on-the-brain. Chalk up Horrors of the Black Museum as a picture I didn’t want to see again. Maybe the complaints about this picture is what prompted A.I.P. to put ‘not recommended for children’ blurbs on their ads for the next year’s Black Sunday.
Perhaps I’m just hypersensitive to eye trauma? At the time I couldn’t understand how such a movie could be tolerated. Then later on I saw the musical Oklahoma! on TV. In it the Persian traveling salesman played by Eddie Albert demonstrates a little monocle viewer, supposedly a novelty with a girlie picture inside, that’s rigged with a similar spring-loaded blinding spike. And it’s a light-comedy joke!
The second Halloween fantasy leaps ahead to high school. Roger Corman’s House of Usher came out when I was eight as well, but I didn’t see it when new. In 1960 I only experienced the poster, which is a beauty. The single image tells a story of its own — one starts at the top and works downward through the mostly black graphic. A creepy staircase leads under the earth, zigzagging lower to a dungeon where a woman in a coffin has been buried alive. Edgar Allan who? All I knew is that it must be scary stuff. Even the typeface on the poster was scary-looking.
Believe it or not, I saw not a single Corman/Poe picture in the theater, either by accident or because in San Bernardino most A.I.P. shows played at drive-ins, the Baseline or the Mt. Vernon. When I first saw House of Usher it was on a Mormon hayride to which I was invited by a friend, Howard Cowlishaw, who was a buddy in school. The Mormons were really social within their church community; their church musical play of Li’l Abner was hilarious and it was fun seeing Howard do comedy on stage. I also think that the Mormons liked the idea of their kids pairing off early in life, for this hayride was quite a production and only very loosely chaperoned.
Is this how an old-fashioned hayride party is supposed to work? If so, it needs to be revived. They first took us on an hour’s ride in a real horse-drawn wagon, more like a barge, actually. My date was my girlfriend, a lovely and proper German-American girl whose family were all educated Methodist ministers, quality people. We ended up in a fancy barn that was far too clean and nice-smelling to be a working livestock facility. I don’t know what the Mormon rules were but I don’t believe they approved of soft drinks. Yet this barn was make-out central for the evening — with all these ‘churchy’ kids that we assumed were more straight-laced. We thought we were a little progressive but we had nothing on this crowd. I miss Howard — the son of a doctor, I’d known him as a true friend since the third grade. He went to USC, I went on scholarship to the rival school UCLA, and that was the end of that.
This is where House of Usher comes in. They showed it on 16mm in this make-out parlor barn, see? The show was great except for one problem — it was a squeezed ‘Scope print projected flat. The actors were very skinny, barely recognizable. The effect was that the movie became more of an abstract experience. When the stylized ‘haunted dream’ sections played, the barn filled with blue light from the screen. In the echo-y interior, the eerie music and Vincent Price’s voice told us how to react. The story was hard to follow but we were duly impressed anyway.
I don’t think I saw House of Usher in a form anything like it was supposed to be seen until a 1990s laserdisc, with stereo sound. But guess how I best remember it?
My third Halloween triple bill fantasy jumps back to a film I saw in downtown San Bernardino in the summer of 1964. The triple bill artwork mockup is for the Fox California, which was the fanciest downtown venue (it had a balcony) until a modern palace was built in 1967 to premiere You Only Live Twice. But William Castle’s The Night Walker showed at a smaller downtown theater. It must have been on a double bill with a monster or sci-fi picture I wanted to see, but I can’t remember what. Like most Castle films, The Night Walker is a fairly disorganized mess of interesting ideas and effects. I saw none of the early Castle classics in the theater either, but I remember staring at the posters for all of them — the coffin of Macabre, the skeleton of House on Haunted Hill and the promise of an electric shock (?) for The Tingler. My older sister saw 13 Ghosts with friends but wouldn’t take me — and when she brought back her Ghost Viewer I didn’t get an explanation of how it worked. I had to wait for articles in Famous Monsters magazine to learn about all that inspired nonsense. Forry the Ackermonster first showed me the face of William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus, which to young me was the scariest makeup I’d ever seen. It wasn’t quite as effective in the film itself, seen years later.
From what I remember The Night Walker is a diabolical mystery with people pretending to be dead and a romantic murder scheme for money. At age twelve that all went over my head. What I couldn’t process were the film’s disturbing, non-literal visuals. These began with the poster, which showed a horrid demon hovering over a reclining woman. Also, an arm making a fist, with a staring eyeball in its grip. At age twelve these images didn’t process properly. I knew that the movie had something to do with nightmares, because a prologue narration said so, but I didn’t realize that the artwork was meant to evoke the feeling of a nightmare. I had no exposure at all to surreal imagery, which Castle proceeded to throw at the screen by the bucket-full. The dead guy with a roasted head and white eyes was pretty cool, but the visions of fists holding eyeballs, unexplainable decapitated heads, etc., just didn’t add up and were therefore very disturbing. The booby-trapped binoculars of The Black Museum had been a concrete bugaboo, but the jumble of disconnected eerie images in The Night Walker just hung around without explanation, ready to pop up at random in my personal nightmares.
I much later saw The Night Walker and was surprised to find out it was a fairly dreary and draggy thriller, with Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck taking late-career romantic leading roles. But those alarming images were my first memory of macabre imagery presented with a hint of surrealism. The mental segue from horror movies to art films was a natural. When Luis Buñuel unspools a surreal dream scene or alternate-reality vision, his uncanny images really hit the spot — Los Olvidados, Ensayo de un crimen, La mort en ce jardin, El Ángel Exterminador — and my brain slips back to that eyeball in the fist from The Night Walker.
So you can have your tame modern movie experiences, where we pretty much know what we’re getting before we sit down, and nothing is really shocking, just tasteless. Grade school kids weren’t street-smart computer heads with access to an Internet that divulges the secret of every taboo known to human flesh. We were blissfully ignorant of most of the ugliness in the world, which made movie experiences special, unique. Impressive scenes exploded in our faces and then went away, sometimes not to be seen again for forty years. Movies are certainly not everything, but they often made our dull childhoods worthwhile.
I still have friends that happily look forward to seeing nothing but horror favorites this time of year. My idea of Halloween fun is baking up a batch of cookies and then sitting with kids on the floor to watch some tame but exciting monster movie. My wife has no special affinity for horror pictures, but she remembers being invited to the Italian family downstairs on Saturdays to do just that — to watch Chiller Theater on Channel 11 and eat cookies!
— Happy Halloween!
By Glenn Erickson
October 24, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson