Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Maniac (1963)

As an avid movie renter, first on Beta then later on VHS, I noticed that there were three films called “Maniac” available to me. The one that I’d heard of and read about, and was super excited to see, was of course Maniac (1980). This was one of the holy grails of the slasher genre, with groundbreaking, eye-popping special make up effects by Tom Savini. The other two movies were Maniac (1934) and Maniac (1963). When I was a kid, these two Maniacs looked old – I mean, really old. They were black and white for crap’s sake! There was no possible way that they were going to feature groundbreaking, eye-popping special make up effects (I.e. gore). I made it a mission to make sure I didn’t accidentally rent one of them.

VHS of Maniac (1963)VHS of Maniac (1934)VHS of Maniac (1980)

 

Fast forward a few years and I realized that Maniac (1963) was a Hammer movie. This made it somewhat more interesting, although it somehow didn’t look as exciting as any of the Dracula or Frankenstein movies. And it was still in black and white.

Don’t get me wrong. I had loved old black and white monster movies since I was a kid. My dad had also introduced me to movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) when I was young, so I had an appreciation for all kinds of black and white films. Not to mention the fact that our first TV was black and white so everything I watched for the first few years was black and white.

Still, when it came to paying money to rent movies – horror movies, in particular – I wanted to see something that I couldn’t see on TV. Something a little more extreme, or R-rated. And I believed that any movie called Maniac should be in blood red colour.

So, I didn’t rent Maniac (1963) until much, much later. And I think my first impression was that it was one of a handful of Hammer films that came out in the wake of Psycho (1960), trying to emulate that black and white, low budget, psychological horror-thriller style. It wasn’t as good as Psycho, and it wasn’t as good as Scream of Fear (1961), another Hammer film in that style which I had seen years earlier. So, I think I more or less dismissed it and went back to watching my VHS copy of Maniac (1980).

Watching Maniac (1963) again now, for the first time in more than twenty years, I can honestly say that I didn’t remember anything about it. I found myself doubting that I had ever watched it before – but I know that I did. I guess this is just another sign of old age creeping up on me. I’ve noticed that a lot of the movies that I only watched once back in the 1990s or early 2000s are completely new to me now. Movies that I watched more than once, I tend to remember. And movies I saw in the 1970s and 80s are far more likely to remain burned into my brain – even if I only saw them once.

I suppose this phenomenon could party be due to the sheer volume of movies that I watch now, which is a trend that started back in the ’90s. I watch at least one movie a day. Some days I watch two or three. Back in the ’80s I probably only saw one or two movies a week.

This could be the old man in me talking, but I also feel that the average level of quality was much higher in the movies that I was watching back in the ’70s and ’80s. So many of them are now certified classics – or #NotQuiteClassics as the case might be. I can’t imagine that very many of the recent movies I watch (and by recent I mean anything made in the past 20 years or so), will be remembered with the same reverence as Halloween (1978), Dawn of the Dead (1978), or even Maniac (1980).

I’m not saying that there aren’t great movies being made today (or within the past 20 years). There are, of course. But there are just so many MORE movies in general, and sometimes the truly great ones get lost among all of the mediocrity. It will be interesting to see which current films get remembered and talked about in thirty or forty years (not that I will be around to find out).

So what does this have to do with Maniac (1963)? Well, it’s an older movie (that was already older when I first came across it) that doesn’t get talked about very much. When people think of Hammer Horror, or Hammer movies in general, I don’t think this is one of the top ten movies that pops into their minds. It’s part of a sub-genre, or sub-category of Hammer films, that includes movies like Scream of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963), Nightmare (1964) and maybe Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960). Maniac (1963) is probably the weakest of all of these movies. However…

Watching it again after all these years, I found that quite enjoyed it. Maniac (1963) has enough of the good qualities that make movies like Scream of Fear great, to make it a pretty decent little noirish psychological thriller. It’s a slow burn, for sure, spending a lot of time building up characters and relationships. It’s almost more of a drama in the first half, so hardcore horror fans will need a bit of patience as they wait for the payoff. And that payoff likely won’t be big enough for those, like 12 year old me, who might be looking for some blood red gore.

But if you like black and white suspense thrillers, with likeable characters and a growing sense of creepy dread, you might just find Maniac (1963) to be a pleasant addition to your next #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. While not the best example of its kind, it’s somewhat forgotten #NotQuiteClassicCinema that’s worthy of rediscovery.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Snorkel (1958)

The Snorkel (1958) is labelled as a horror film by the IMDb.  It was made by Hammer Films, and they are certainly best known for their horror films. I would go so far as to say that most people think of them as a horror film company. Hammer Horror is a well loved phrase and #HammerHorror is a well used hashtag.Poster for The Snorkel (1958)

DVD box set of Hammer Film Noir. It does not include The Snorkel (1958).The truth is that Hammer also made films that were not horror at all. For example, Hammer made quite a few crime films, such as the ones included in DVD sets like Hammer Noir Collector’s Set #1. In some ways, The Snorkel fits in better with those movies, and the IMDb does also use words such as crime, mystery and thriller to describe it.

Still, The Snorkel isn’t quite film noir, either. It’s more of a suspense film, possibly closer to something that Alfred Hitchcock might have done. In fact, Hammer made several Hitchcock style suspense thrillers in the wake of Psycho (1960). I may have a said a few words on that topic when I wrote about Scream of Fear (1961), which is one my all time favourites. Or maybe it was Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960)…? No matter. The point I’m working my way around to, is that The Snorkel came out two years before Psycho so it can’t really be categorized as one of those post Psycho black and white suspense thrillers (but it is black and white).

I suppose horror is as good a label as any to hang on this movie – especially when accompanied with other words like crime, mystery and thriller. Not everyone will agree with me, however. Some people make a really big deal about what is horror, and what is not horror. They say things like “That movie isn’t a horror film. It’s not horrific or scary at all.”

Not horrific? What does that even mean? I watch horror films almost every day of my life and I can’t recall ever saying “That was horrific!” I think of horrific as something that’s really unpleasant, like a brutal industrial accident that tears someone apart. If I try to think of a movie that is horrific, I tend to come up with films like Irreversible (2002), which Roger Ebert described quite accurately as:

“…a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.The camera looks on unflinchingly as a woman is raped and beaten for several long, unrelenting minutes, and as a man has his face pounded in with a fire extinguisher, in an attack that continues until after he is apparently dead. That the movie has a serious purpose is to its credit but makes it no more bearable. Some of the critics at the screening walked out, but I stayed, sometimes closing my eyes…” — Roger Ebert, from his review.

I watched the movie once, was perhaps impressed by the skill that went into making it and the performances of the actors, but I felt no desire to ever watch it again. I certainly would not have said that I enjoyed it. I might have said that it was horrific. Interestingly enough, the IMDb refers to it as crime, drama, mystery, thriller – not as a horror film.

What I experienced when watching Irreversible is NOT what I am generally looking for when I watch a horror movie. I am more often looking to have fun. Friday the 13th Part (whatever) is fun – and I think that most people would agree that those movies are horror films. They aren’t horrific (n my opinion). They aren’t even really scary (at least not now, after seeing them many times over the years). They might include the odd jump scare, or a few moments that create suspense and/or tension. But I watch them with a smile on my face, not cowering under the covers afraid of what might be coming next. And still I think of them as horror films.

Horror is a broad genre that includes everything from comedies, to period pieces, to children’s stories, to romances – even hard core pornography. Pretty much every other genre you can think of, can also be the setting of a horror film. Why would anyone want to put limits on what can be called horror? Why would anyone want to have a narrow definition of the genre that would leave out many great films? Within the overarching genre of horror, there are also many sub-genres, such as zombie movies and slasher films. These sub-genres CAN have much more specific rules and narrow definitions (although not necessarily, in my opinion). I believe that one of the things that makes horror such a powerful and timeless genre is it’s ability absorb almost anything from other genres and make it its own. If it was too narrow and unbending, it probably would have died out years ago, as times and tastes changed and it did not.

But I digress…

I had never heard of The Snorkel before, and the title certainly didn’t conjure up feelings of fun or horror (at least in me) – but fun it is.  It’s the story of a man who commits a murder in a very clever way and gets away with it – except for the fact that his step-daughter immediately suspects he’s guilty and tries to tell anyone who’ll listen. No one believes her, but she vows to prove it. And this, in good Hitchcockian tradition, puts her in peril.

It’s an effective little thriller – not as good as, say, the best of Alfred Hitchcock, but an effective suspense film nonetheless. It includes a great performance by child actress Mandy Miller, and it’s often referred to as her last movie. This is a bit misleading, because she continued to appear on television – including acting in at least one made-for-TV movie – for the next five years or so. She retired from acting at age 18.

The Snorkel (1958) is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic – that could have been a real classic if it was just a little better known. Things being what they are, it would make for a perfect addition your next double or triple bill of black and white chillers and thrillers on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Jimmy Sangster wrote a lot of movies for Hammer Films, including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). When he was asked to write a sequel called The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) – which the producers had already sold based on the title and poster art, Sangster reportedly said “I killed Frankenstein in the first film.” The producers said “you’ll think of something” and told him he had six weeks before shooting started. 

I love stories like that. As a writer, nothing gets my creative juices flowing more than a bunch of strange requirements and limitations. Give me a box to work in, and a deadline, and odds are I’ll come up with something fun and interesting. On the other hand, if you tell me to write whatever I feel like – and to take as along as I want to do it – I will probably never deliver anything. There’s something about the challenge of taking an idea that seems impossible and trying to make it work that I’ve always found irresistible. And deadlines are not only helpful, they’re practically essential. I don’t know how many times I’ve been forced to deliver something that I didn’t think was ready – like a song for new children’s musical a few years back. In spite of not being happy with what I had, I brought it to rehearsal and discovered that it not only worked, but people LIKED it. Left to my own devices, I probably would have kept tinkering with that song for days, trying to make it better. I might have even thrown the whole thing out and started fresh with a different idea. Would it have been better? I don’t know. But I can tell you that after I heard the cast perform that “flawed” version a few times, I couldn’t have imagined it being anything different.

I’m not sure how Jimmy Sangster felt about the results of The Revenge of Frankenstein, but the general consensus is that it’s a very good sequel. Sangster found a fresh story to tell – as opposed to just repeating the events of the first film, as so many sequels seems to do. It almost feels more like a  compelling art-house drama than a monster movie – although the horror eventually comes. 

Jimmy Sangster has to be one of the most prolific writers of horror films, and other thrillers, of all time. He’s got 75 credits listed on the IMDb. They’re not all horror films, of course. He also wrote the made-for-TV comedy The Toughest Man in the World (1984), starring Mr. T as a bouncer named  Bruise Brubaker. I remember seeing that one when I was a kid, but I had no idea who Jimmy Sangster was at the time. Sangster wrote a lot of made-for-TV movies after his time with Hammer Films had ended (or was winding down). My friend Brian and I watched one called A Taste of Evil (1971) during one of our annual movie marathons a couple of years ago (as I may have mentioned before, we have taken to exploring made-for-TV horror in recent year). About halfway through A Taste of Evil, I suddenly realized that it was kind of a remake – or maybe a rewrite – of an earlier script that Sangster had written for Hammer. I won’t say which one, as I don’t want it spoil either film, but it’s proof that Sangster really knew how to get the most out of a good idea. 

Sangster also wrote episodes of TV shows, including The Six Million Dollar Man (1974–1978), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–1975), and Wonder Woman (1975–1979) – which were all important shows of my childhood. Okay, I didn’t actually see Kolchak: The Night Stalker until later, but it would have been important if I’d seen it back then, believe me. I’m not sure if Sangster ever reused any of his old movie ideas on these TV shows, but it’s certainly possible. I’ve heard of TV writers from that era reusing the same basic plot on three or four different shows, so why not reuse a movie plot?

To be clear, I’m not criticizing this approach. In fact, I admire it. I’ve read the same advice in relation to freelance magazine writing. If you’re going to spend time and energy researching a topic, don’t just pitch one article that makes use of that research. Pitch five different articles to five different magazines. I suppose nowadays, they might  talk about websites, podcasts and blogs more than magazines. Whatever the case, the advice is still good. I’ve often wondered if I could somehow apply it to my own writing. Like say, for instance, I was commissioned to write a play about a very specific period of Canadian history. I study that period intensely for a couple of years, reading every book I can put my hands on, and I now know more about that period of history than I could ever use in a single two hour play. So, why not write two or three plays? They could have completely different stories and characters, and/or focus on different aspects of that same period of history. Or, even better, I could write a screenplay or pitch a TV series based on that same research. Or, when the theatre that commissioned me in the first place decides not to produce my play, I could turn it into a screenplay or TV series, or whatever I want. Of course, this is all completely hypothetical. Or theoretical. Or 100% true – I get the proper terminology mixed up…

I’ve never been good at getting the most out of the work I’ve done, although I did reuse one song I wrote in a second musical, so I guess that’s something (although honestly I think it might have been a mistake, for various reasons – but that’s another story). I guess what I’m trying to say is that I find Jimmy Sangster to be an inspiration. I only hope that one day the inspiration, and admiration, will somehow translate into determination and action as well.

Oh, and in case I haven’t been clear, Sangster knocked it out of the park with this Frankenstein sequel. Not that it’s all about him. Director Terence Fisher delivered a beautifully shot, atmospheric movie and Peter Cushing was as brilliant as ever in the title role. Eunice Gayson, best known for playing James Bond’s girlfriend in Dr. No (1962)  and From Russia with Love (1963), is also very good as the sympathetic Margaret Conrad. If you’ve enjoyed The Curse of Frankenstein, or any other Hammer horror films, you will definitely want to see The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). A good deal more classy and classic than the average #NotQuiteClassicCinema, it’s the kind of movie that can take an ordinary #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn and turn it into something special.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960)

Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960) is not a movie that I was in any way familiar with before I watched it last week. I acquired it as part of a Hammer Films Collection on DVD. I had heard of, if not seen, all of the other films in the five movie set. One of them, Scream of Fear (1961), is among my absolute favourite Hammer Films, and I wrote about it in a previous blog post.

Stop Me Before I Kill! is not a typical Hammer Horror movie. In fact, it is more like an attempt at Alfred Hitchcock style psychological suspense. I couldn’t help but think of Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) as I watched this film. Both films involve a psychiatrist helping an amnesiac to recover his memory. In Hitchcock’s film, the patient is a man accused of murder. In Stop Me Before I Kill! it is a man who has a strange impulse to commit a murder (by strangling his wife). Stop Me Before I Kill! was apparently based on a novel called The Full Treatment by Ronald Scott Thorn, which was published in 1959.

The cast of Stop Me Before I Kill! is very good, but not a typical Hammer Films cast. There are no regulars like Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. In fact, when I first looked at the title and the names of the stars (Claude Dauphin, Diane Cilento, Ronald Lewis), I wondered if this movie really was a Hammer Film – or just something that Hammer had picked up fro distribution (the way Troma picked up Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) for instance). I honestly don’t know what its production history was, but Hammer Film Production is one of the companies listed in the credits. 

Stop Me Before I Kill! is a film that seems to fit in among the other black and white horror/thrillers that Hammer made after Psycho (1960) and perhaps Diabolique (1955), This film is partly set in France, and features a French star (Claude Dauphin), so one can’t help but think of Diabolique. Some other examples of Hammer’s foray into the black and white thriller world include: Maniac (1963), Paranoiac (1963), Nightmare (1964) and my aforementioned favourite Scream of Fear (1961). 

I like these black and white horror/thrillers. In a way, they are like the low budget, more realistic flip-side to the somewhat more lavish monster epics involving Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. They tend to be short and to the point (80 minutes, 81 minutes, 83 minutes, 86 minutes) – and for the most part, they tend to work.

Stop Me Before I Kill! clocks in at 108 minutes! This is a full 28 minutes longer than Paranoiac and 22 minutes longer than Maniac – the longest of the other examples. This might be understandable if Stop Me Before I Kill! was an epic story of some sort. It’s not, really. Spellbound was 111 minutes, so maybe the makers of Stop Me Before I Kill! were taking their cue from that. In any case, it feels a little too long for the amount of story that it is telling.

This is not to say that Stop Me Before I Kill! is not an entertaining movie. I enjoyed it quite a bit. The actors are all good. The story is good, although somewhat predictable. It features great black and white cinematography and has some legitimately suspenseful sequences. It takes a little too long to get where it’s going, but if you are in the mood to relax, it could provide a satisfying #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. If, however, you are in a hurry for horror, you might want to choose one of the other fine black and white Hammer thrillers.

Stop Me Before I Kill! looks and feels a bit like a actual classic – like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, for instance. The running time seems to imply that it’s going for a more serious, respectable kind of cinema. Herschell Gordon Lewis admitted that he tried to do it with the 117 minute A Taste of Blood (1967). Schlockmeister William Castle famously produced (but was not allowed to direct) the 137 minute Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Was a bid for more mainstream respectability what Hammer, or director Val Guest, had in mind when they made Stop Me Before I Kill!?

I have no idea. But I think it’s fair to say that Stop Me Before I Kill! failed to achieve the classic status of films like Rosemary’s Baby. So did A Taste of Blood for that matter, but that’s another story. And so Stop Me Before I Kill! will have to settle for a place alongside the many other fine examples of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that we can all appreciate and treasure for years to come. 

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964)

When I was a kid, my Dad would come home from work and lie down on the living room couch with a newspaper in his hands. If I came into the room a few minutes later, I would often find him asleep, with the newspaper still open. If I spoke, or made a noise, he would wake up and tell me that he was just resting his eyes.

I often wondered how he could be sleeping at 5:30 PM. I would go to bed at 9:30 PM and lie awake reading for hours some nights.

Nowadays, I go to bed much later, after having watched a movie long after I should have been asleep. I still try to read, but often can’t make it through an entire page before I need to give up and turn out the light. During the day, I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer, trying to figure out what to type next or how to solve an editing problem. And I must admit that sometimes I find myself waking up with a stiff neck, having fallen asleep sitting up with my head hanging down at an awkward angle. I’m never sure how long I’ve been out, but if I didn’t work at home alone I might tell people that I’ve been resting my eyes.

So, the secret to falling asleep during the day might be not getting enough sleep at night. Or it might just be getting older. I’m sure that some combination of the two is what works best for me. I used to laugh at one of my university professors who once said “I don’t know about you, but when I wake up from a deep sleep, I get up, stagger around, and don’t know where I am.” Now, I would simply nod my head in agreement (if my neck wasn’t too sore).

And speaking of waking up from a deep slumber…

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) was Hammer Films’ second attempt to revive the legendary monster first unleashed by Universal Pictures in The Mummy (1932). Unlike most of the monster franchises, like Dracula and Frankenstein, the Mummy movies tend to be about different mummies every time. The original Mummy, played by Boris Karloff, was arguably the best and, unfortunately, only a one-off character. The Universal sequels, such as The Mummy’s Hand (1940) were all about a different mummy named Kharis. They had a very different feel from the original film as well. Kharis was a shambling, stumbling monster who did the bidding of others. And he never spoke. Karloff’s Mummy was intelligent, and much scarier in a way. The Kharis films were still entertaining, but they lacked the creepiness of the first film.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is more related to the Kharis films than Karloff’s. The monster is a mummy named Ra-Antef and, like Kharis, he is a shambling, bandaged figure who seems to be controlled by whoever holds a certain amulet.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is not Hammer’s best film. It’s a little slow to get going, and even features a long sequence recreating (if one can recreate an imagined historical event) the theatrical unveiling of Ra-Antef to an eager crowd. It’s convincing, and interesting, but seems to take forever to get to the point. However, once Ra-Antef starts to bring his own brand of justice to those who violated his tomb, the movie becomes quite entertaining. There are some very effective moments, and one particular entrance that would make Jason Voorhees proud.

In some ways, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is a perfect example of #NotQuiteClassicCinema. It’s a monster movie from years gone by, which might have played on late night TV back in the 1980s (and probably did). It’s not The Mummy (1932), or even The Mummy (1959) – Hammer’s first foray into the series. It’s one of the less revered sequels, and as such, it would have been right at home on Not Quite Classic Theatre (the much revered TV programme of my youth). They never showed Dracula (1931), but they did show Dracula’s Daughter (1936). If they had bought a package of films from Hammer, I could imagine that this one would have been a part of it.

In any case, I’m glad I finally saw The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), and I would happily watch it again on a future dark and stormy #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.