Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Horror Hall of Fame: A Monster Salute, The (1974) (TV)

... aka: ABC's Wide World of Entertainment: The Horror Hall of Fame
... aka: Horror Hall of Fame, The

Directed by:
Charles Braverman

Here's a real curio item from years ago. A videotaped TV production which debuted on the late night variety program ABC's Wide World of Entertainment, this seems to have been filmed in front of a live studio audience and is a fun, silly and dated (cue Let's Make a Deal, Kay Ballard and Liberace jokes), yet informative, 70-minute salute to the horror genre. Our host, the delightful and enthusiastic Vincent Price, shows up on a graveyard set to open things with a pun-filled comic monologue. His hunchback sidekick Zuckman (a funny Billy Van, from the Canadian series The Hilarious House of Frightenstein) is the curator of the Horror Hall of Fame and foil for many of the jokes. Price enters "The Horror Hall of Fame Room," whose walls are adorned with pictures of his "old fiends" Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre ("The lord high minister of all that is sinister") and Bela Lugosi. He then sits down for a chat with our first or several special guests; comedian Frank Gorshin, who does great impressions of Lugosi's Dracula, Karloff's Frankenstein Monster and The Mummy (if played by John Wayne). Price calls Karloff a brave and wonderful man and says even though he was badly crippled in his later years, he loved the genre so much that he'd get out of wheelchair just long enough to do his scenes.

Next up is a trip to a "special wing" of the mansion, which honors more recent horror stars such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Price himself, and then we get to see scenes from THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971), BLACULA (1971) and THE EXORCIST (1973). Off to the laboratory Price goes to have a chat with Dr. Murray Frankenstein, who promises us a monster by the end of the show. Price then goes on to discuss classic silent horror films, and we see clips of such films as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919), DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920), THE GOLEM (1920), NOSFERATU (1922), THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). The next guest is John Carradine, who discusses doing one of the very first horror plays on Broadway ("The Duchess of Mal..."), says he turned down the role of the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN and claims John Barrymore's pet vulture liked to get right in his face because of "alcoholic breath."

John Astin shows up to discuss how psychiatrists found The Addams Family to be the healthiest family on television (which isn't hard to believe), look at some horror merchandise (including a copy of creative consultant Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland, "one of the world's best selling magazines") and move into clips from the short BAMBI MEETS GODZILLA and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970). In the dungeon, Price encounters special make-up fx artist William Tuttle, whom he says won the first ever Oscar awarded for make-up. Tuttle discusses his first ever job on MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) and is given an assignment to transform up-and-coming actress Candy Clark into a monster.

Raymond T. McNally, author of "In Search of Dracula," is up next to talk about the history of vampires and where all of the mythology stems from. Astin comes back to do a This Is Your Life style segment on Price, where he says THE RAVEN (1963) was the most fun he had shooting a film and how THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) was "the best horror movie I ever made." Astin then reads a Kevin Thomas (of the Los Angeles Times) quote praising the movie and saying if horror films were taken seriously in America like they were the rest of the world, the film would win an Oscar. We then get a clip from the soon-to-be-released MADHOUSE (1974).

Throughout, we see great clips from MAD LOVE (1935), THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), HOUSE OF WAX (1953), THEM! (1954), I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957), THE BLOB (1958), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), THE RAVEN (1963), DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) and SCHLOCK (1973).

According to this special, from 1897 to 1973 there had been "over 7 thousand pure horror movies made." This was never issued on video, but you can see the whole thing over on youtube.


Hand of Death (1961)

Directed by:
Gene Nelson

A mailman stumbles out of his car and collapses, and as the camera cleverly pans back we see discover he's not the only one to have fallen, but so have a couple of sheep. Seems he's stumbled onto a small government facility (located in the desert) where scientist Dr. Alex Marsh (John Agar, from TARANTULA, THE MOLE PEOPLE and lots more) and his college-aged assistant Carlos (John A. Alonzo) are conducting some kind of top secret experiment. What starts as an attempt to create a "spray anathyesia" that can be absorbed through the skin turns into a nerve gas that has the potential to be combined with another drug to create a substance capable of putting people into a hypnotic state for days or even weeks at a time. Alex wants to go forward with the experiment in the belief that it could obliterate the threat of nuclear war, but his finanacier, wheelchair-bound Dr. Frederick Ramsey (Roy Gordon, from the cult classic ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. WOMAN and others) of the Los Angeles Research Facility, warns of possible "frightening consequences" if he's not careful. And he should know, he was crippled for life while trying to find a cure for polio years earlier. Still, Dr. Ramsey agrees to let Alex continue on in his experiments.

After a month passes, a very dedicated (to the point of obsessive) Alex is still busy at work trying to perfect his formula. In fact he's been working so hard, he's barely been sleeping and accidentally nods off at his desk, knocks over one of his test formulas and gets some of the liquid on both of his hands. He then passes out, has a nightmare of beakers, syringes and mice floating around his head and then awakens with both a darker complexion and (he thinks) possibly an immunity to the chemical substance he's just created. When Carlos returns to the lab and attempts to touch some contaminated mice, Alex grabs his arm and instantly kills his young assistant. Yes, Alex has somehow acquired the literal touch of death and with just flesh-to-flesh contact victims are transformed into a charred, unidentifiable mass. Alex promptly splashes some chemicals around and then burns down the lab, then retreats to Dr. Ramsey's in hopes that he or his smarmy colleague (and romantic rival) Dr. Tom Holland (Stephen Dunne) can come up with a serum to help. By the it's too late and our hapless scientist turns into a monstrous, bloated, wrinkly creature.

Paula Raymond (previously in the classic THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and later in the silly BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE) co-stars as Alex's neglected girlfriend Carol, who works as Dr. Ramsey's secretary and is upset her man gets more excited about scientific breakthroughs than he does her. Joe Besser (who had replaced the deceased Shemp Howard in The Three Stooges comedy team in 1956) appears in one scene as a chatty gas station attendant who gets a little too touchy with Alex and Butch Patrick (who'd go on to play Eddie on the The Munsters) makes his film debut as a little boy playing on the beach who almost touches the creature. Director Nelson was then best-known as an actor (he'd even won a "Most Promising Newcomer" Golden Globe back in the early 50s) and went on to become a prolific TV director. Co-star Alonzo went on to a respected career as a cinematographer and received an Oscar nomination for shooting CHINATOWN (1974).

It's a pretty cut-and-dry low-budget quickie that doesn't offer much in the way or originality or technical innovation, but is a sufficient way to kill a little time, I suppose. Strangely, the build-up portion is stronger than the second, rushed monster rampage portion, and since the film clocks in at just 58 minutes, one gets the impression that they either didn't shoot enough material or the filmmakers ran out of time and / or money. The theremin heavy score is from Sonny Burke (the music supervisor on the classic western THE WILD BUNCH) and it was shot by Floyd Crosby (D.O.P. on many Corman films). One other interesting tid-bit; when Alex / Agar (in creature form) tries to head out into public incognito, he wears a top hat and trench-coat; the same exact get-up the similarly-malformed Ben Grimm / The Thing wears. Hand of Death was filmed in May 1961, the same year The Fantastic Four comic debuted.

Hand was thought lost for over forty years until a copy recently surfaced. It has never been officially released to VHS or DVD, though several grey market dealers offer the title (the one I viewed was from some outlet called Retro Entertainment Sinema). It also sometimes shows up on American Movie Classics or the Fox Movie Channel. The print quality isn't very good, making it a bit difficult to see the monster.


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