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.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Gorgon (1964)

I remember seeing Clash of the Titans (1981) in a movie theatre when it was brand new. For those who may not know, this was the last movie to feature Ray Harryhausen’s ground breaking stop motion animation special effects. Ray Harryhausen had done effects for such #NotQuiteClassicCinema classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), and, perhaps most famously, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and the Sinbad movies, beginning with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and including my personal favourite Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). Harryhausen produced Clash of the Titans, which felt like a continuation of what he’d been doing with Sinbad… and Jason…(bringing mythological creatures to life, etc.) and retired (more or less) shortly thereafter. 

By 1981, Harryhausen’s style of special effects were a little old-school next to the likes of the Star Wars movies, but they still had me completely captivated as a kid. Seeing the film again, just a couple of years later, I noticed the difference. But that first viewing was magical. Perhaps the most memorable sequence to me, was the one in which Perseus, our hero, confronts the Gorgon Medusa in her lair. Being a fan of horror movies, even at that young age, I found the portrayal of Medusa, with live snakes for hair, to be delightfully monstrous. Anyone who dared to look directly at her was turned to stone (as evidenced by the collection of stone statues all around her), and that was frightening and exciting all at once. Over the years, i have rarely encountered a cinematic creature more memorable than Medusa.

Over the next two decades, I spent a lot of time in video stores, examining movie boxes and renting as many as seven tapes at a time (thanks to a special deal at Movie Village, my store of choice during and after my university days). I recall seeing the box for The Gorgon (1964) on the shelves, but for some reason I was never moved to rent it. It certainly did not have the effect on me that the box for Vice Squad (1982) had had. I wonder why?

I had loved Medusa in Clash of the Titans, and I immediately recognized her style of snake-hair on the front of the box. But maybe that was the problem. Maybe I felt like I had already seen the ultimate Medusa movie, and I didn’t need to se this one. Or maybe I felt like it was something that I had liked as a kid, but that I had no real interest in now that I was older. Or maybe I noticed that it was a Hammer Film that didn’t feature vampires or Frankenstein and I didn’t see the point in that. Who knows?

Of course, all these years later, the fact that The Gorgon is a Hammer Horror that doesn’t feature vampires or Frankenstein is precisely what makes it interesting to me. And so I watched it, for the first time, last Friday. And the first thing that I must clarify is that it is NOT a Medusa movie after all. It’s about another Gorgon named Megaera. Why? Perhaps because Medusa had been famously killed centuries ago, so how could she be in Europe in relatively modern times turning townspeople to stone? 

But wait! It gets weirder. According to Greek mythology, Megaera is not a Gorgon at all. She is an Erinýe, or Fury. There were three of those, just as there were three of the Gorgons. And the Erinýes also had snakes for hair, so perhaps the filmmakers figured six of one, half dozen of the other. Or maybe it was as simple as the name Megaera sounds a bit like Medusa, and is slightly easier to pronounce than Stheno or Euryale, the actual other Gorgons. Who knows? 

None of this really matters, because The Gorgon is an entertaining monster movie that has more in common with a classic werewolf story than an ancient Greek epic. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I hate spoilers and I think people should experience movies for themselves to get the full effect. Let’s just say that there have been a series of murders in a small European town in the early 20th century. And the town’s doctor, played by Peter Cushing, is covering up the fact that the victims have all turned to stone. Christopher Lee plays a professor and friend of our young hero, Paul (Richard Pasco), who comes to town to help find out who murdered Paul’s brother and father. 

Apparently The Gorgon was the first movie to feature both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee since The Mummy (1959). If that’s true, this film is certainly proof that a reunion was long overdue. They are both excellent, and their performances make The Gorgon (1964) required viewing for all fans of horror, Hammer Films, and #NotQuiteClassicCinema. Either one of those men, on his own, would be a good reason to spend a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. Both of them together make it essential.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Scream of Fear (1961)

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to watch scary movies. Before I could even read the TV listings, I asked my Dad to tell me whenever there was a scary movie coming on the TV. This is how I first saw films like King Kong (1933) Frankenstein (1931) Dracula (1931) and Phantom of the Opera (1925). Sometimes a movie was on too late at night for me to stay up and watch. I remember one morning my Dad saying “It’s a good thing you didn’t see that movie last night. It was pretty scary.” This only made me feel like I’d missed out. Scary is what I wanted. I asked my Dad for details, hoping that hearing about it would give me the same thrill that watching it would have. All he would say was that it had something to do with a house. To this day I don’t know what that movie was.

I also remember one Sunday afternoon, my Dad calling me up from the basement because something scary was about to start. I sat in front of the TV and watched the first twenty or thirty minutes of a movie that just didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It was about a family living on a farm. They had a bunch of horses inside a big old barn, and one night that barn caught fire. The horses were trapped inside, going crazy. As the family formed a chain and passed buckets of water from the well to the burning barn, I remember my Dad shaking his head and saying “I think I was wrong. This isn’t a scary movie.”

I refused to give up hope. “Maybe the horses will die and then the barn will be haunted,” I suggested.

My Dad looked skeptical, but he said “Maybe.”

I don’t remember if the family saved the horses or not. I do remember that nothing much seemed to be happening after the fire, and eventually I gave up on watching that movie. My Dad felt bad for giving me a bum steer. “The TV listings made it sound like it would be scary…” he explained.

            

In those days, we didn’t have a lot of places we could look if we wanted to find out about a movie that was coming on TV. If it was a famous movie, like Dracula, Frankenstein, etc., then we already knew what we were getting into. But if it was a title we’d never heard before, all we had to go on was a one or two sentence description published in our local newspaper’s TV guide (in our case, called TV Scene). Sometimes the descriptions weren’t very accurate. One famous example from several years later (and not from our local paper) was this description of The Wizard of Oz (1939):

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.

Almost sounds like a horror film, doesn’t it?

The other thing our local TV guide did, was to assign a star rating to all movies. Really good, classic movies like Casablanca (1940) or The Maltese Falcon (1939) would tend to get three or four stars (four being the highest rating possible).

One day we found a listing for a movie called Scream of Fear (1961). I don’t remember what the description said, but it was clear from the title alone that this was a scary movie. The only problem was that the TV Scene only gave the movie one star! One star?! I’m not sure if I had ever seen that before. Boring, unfunny comedies tended to get two stars. How bad did a movie have to be to get one star?

My Dad and I were unsure if we should watch this movie. With a rating of one star, it was bound to be terrible. But, we had suffered through the first part of the horse fire movie and turned it off. We figured we could stop watching if this movie was as bad as the TV listings claimed.

To make a moderately long story somewhat shorter, we both loved Scream of Fear, and we kept commenting to each other as we watched, with variations of “How can this movie only get one star?” and “What’s wrong with the guy who reviewed this movie?”

And that brings up a good question: Just who were these guys who wrote blurbs and assigned star ratings to movies in local TV listings? Did they really watch all of the movies? Or did they just make assumptions based on the type of movie, or it’s reputation (or lack thereof)?

I think it’s fair to say that I never trusted a star rating in the TV Scene again.

My Dad and I judged Scream of Fear to be an excellent movie, with suspense, atmosphere, mystery, and – yes – scares. It’s been compared to the much lauded French film Diabolique (1955), which is a film my Dad told me to tape off of late night TV once we had a VCR. We also loved that movie, and I think we could see the comparison, but each was still their own film. Scream of Fear is a Hammer film (perhaps the first one I ever saw, I’m not sure…) written by Jimmy Sangster, who wrote (and directed) a lot of films for Hammer. It was directed by Seth Holt, who is somewhat lesser known (at least to me), perhaps because he died young (at age 47, in 1971).

Jimmy Sangster on the set with Susan Strasberg,

I wanted to see Scream of Fear again for many years, but for some reason it was hard to come by. I never saw a VHS tape that I could rent or buy. And it was never again listed in the TV guide. I started to wonder if it had vanished into the ether, or if perhaps my Dad and I had imagined watching it all those years ago. I found other Hammer films like Paranoiac (1963), Nightmare (1964), and Fear in the Night (1972) – all written by Jimmy Sangster, by the way – which seemed similar, and I wondered if I could be remembering the title wrong. And yet none of these films were quite the right one, upon closer examination. 

When I bought books like Terror On Tape by James O’Neill, I was relieved to see that Scream of Fear was included, and therefore not a figment of my childhood imagination. O’Neill gives the movie three stars, by the way, and calls it “a first rate shocker.” Too bad he wasn’t rating movies in my local newspaper…

Seeing Scream of Fear again after all these years only confirmed my opinion of it. I’m sure that I would list it as a personal favourite if I had managed to see it more often over the years. I look forward to doing exactly that in the future, whether on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn, or any other day of the week. Scream of Fear (1961) is a #Certified #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic!

Friday night at the home drive-in: The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960)

I’ve seen a lot of versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde over the years – including the notorious play (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: A Love Story) that bombed right across Canada in 1996 – but until last Friday I’d never seen this Hammer take on the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story.

My favourite version has always been the 1931 film adaptation by Rouben Mamoulian, starring Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have an interest in Pre-Code Hollywood movies – and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is about as Pre-Code as Pre-Code gets. Put simply, it is very open about the sexual nature of this story. Movies that came out later, in the 1940s and ’50s, were much more restrained (under the watchful eyes of Will Hays, Joseph Breen, and the rest of the merry bunch of censors at the Production Code Administration. I spent a few years writing a three hour musical about all of this (which unfortunately never saw the light of day), so I won’t write any more about it now. If you want to learn more about Pre-Code Hollywood, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll AKA Jekyll’s Inferno (1960) by Terence Fisher feels like a return to the Pre-Code spirit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Sex is a big part of Jekyll’s Inferno, and one of Mr. Hyde’s main motivators. The movie is quite explicit for 1960, and a nice change from some of the more “respectable” versions of the story. It features a love triangle between Dr. Jekyll, his wife, his friend, and Mr. Hyde (okay, it’s a love square) that must be seen to be believed.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is probably still my favourite version of his story. But in light of how much I enjoyed The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll AKA Jekyll’s Inferno (1960), I just may have to add it to the always growing playlist of #NotQuiteClassicCinema.

Friday night at the home drive-in: The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

As I discussed in my #NotQuiteClassicCinema post a while back, my Friday nights at the home drive-in are all about trying to relive the joy of the Not Quite Classic Theatre television show I loved as a teenager. And if there is one phrase that might sum up the contents of that show it would be “old monster movies’. I seem to recall that they screened sequels to movies like Dracula (1931), and The Wolfman (1941) – not the originals, mind you, but their lesser known offspring. The great Hammer films of the 1950s and ’60s would have been a perfect addition to the lineup, but I don’t recall any of them being shown. As a result, my exposure to Hammer films was sadly limited in those days.

I do, however, recall seeing The Evil Of Frankenstein (1964) on late night TV, and it inspired me in the same way as many of the films on Not Quite Classic Theatre. So, I have chosen to include Hammer films in my #NotQuiteClassicCinema library, at the risk of upsetting someone who might rightfully say “but those movies ARE classics!” I agree with you one hundred percent, unknown angry person. But as I said in my initial blog post: “Many of my Friday night choices are movies that I love – some of them are personal favourites of mine.” The hashtag is merely a tribute to the old TV show that I loved so much.

It could also be argued that most of these movies, and perhaps horror and monster movies in general, are often not viewed as “classics” by the mainstream – even though they should be. So perhaps Not Quite Classic could simply mean that the movies are not afforded the same respect as, say, Citizen Kane (1941) or Casablanca (1942). In the glory days of video stores, movies like those would be filed under “Classics”, whereas movies like Frankenstein (1931) and certainly The Evil of Frankenstein would have been filed under “Horror”.

When using old review books to guide me in my rental choices (back in the 1990s), I noticed that some of my favourite movies were only given two and half stars (out of a possible four). The four star movies were often slick and technically flawless; movies that everyone would agree were good. The two and a half star movies, however, were often more unusual. They could be edgier, rougher around the edges, or more challenging in some way. They weren’t always for everyone. But some of them could be a whole lot of fun. And I would find myself re-watching them more often than some of the four star movies. Don’t get me wrong. Many of the four star movies are masterpieces and deserve many repeat viewings. But I find that it’s the movies that aren’t perfect that inspire me the most. So, whenever my favourite review book gave a movie two and half stars, I would think “This might be a movie for me.” And it often was.

Parental_Advistory_Logo_(old)So, maybe being Not Quite Classic is a badge of honour – just like warning stickers on old heavy metal records: “This movie might not meet the standards of mainstream approval” – or “This movie might not be suitable for all viewers.” Quite frankly, nothing makes me more suspicious of a movie than universal praise. I’m probably more intrigued if at least one person says “This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

I can’t say that The Evil of Frankenstein is the worst movie I’ve ever seen (not even close – it’s really very good), but I can say that it’s a #NotQuiteClassicCinema favourite – and coming from me, that’s a recommendation.