Lost Horizons: Beneath the Hollywood Sign | A darkly comic memoir on some of Tinseltown’s forgotten faces
From Universal’s classic monster movies of the 1930s to the fleshpot romps of Russ Meyer in the 1960s, and the European arthouse antics of Fellini and Visconti in the 1970s, cult movies have become part of the fabric of contemporary culture, and we all have fond memories of them.
But what of the actors and actresses you recognise, but whose names you can’t quite remember? We’ve all heard of the King of Horror, Boris Karloff, but can you remember any of the players he starred with in The Mummy, like the exotic Zita Johann or the charming David Manners?
Remember when the late veteran actress Gloria Stuart became the oldest person to be nominated for an Academy Award for Titanic back in 1997? Did you know she worked for Universal in the 1930s (in classics like James Whale’s The Old Dark House), a period which also saw actresses like Gale Sondergaard at their peak before being caught up the McCarthy blacklisting fiasco in the 1950s. Remember her? And what about that great scene in 1978’s Damien: Omen II when Elizabeth Shepherd‘s reporter gets her eyes pecked out by crows. Did you know she was one of Britain’s leading stage actresses in the 1960s. Whatever happened to her?
From writer, historian and one-time agent, David Del Valle comes the darkly comic memoir, Lost Horizons: Beneath the Hollywood Sign, which follows his own personal journey over 25 years, meeting and befriending many of the old-time and obscure players whose dreams of fame and fortune never quite worked out the way they quite intended.
The late, great Vincent Price described Hollywood as one of the most evil cities on the planet, and he had witnessed enough in his lifetime not to kid around – unlike some of his contemporaries, who got burned on their journey through Tinseltown’s stratosphere. Reading Del Valle’s entries, you certainly get the picture – Hollywood is a Hell of a place to make a living.
Some tragic, some suprising, some plain shocking, the stories are many – too many to explore here in detail here. But whether they’re ancient silent movie actors whose only stage in later life are the cocktail parties they host or attend; or big name veteran stars like John Carradine, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price giving their honest take on living in this Hollywood Babylon, survival is the key theme.
One of the saddest must be the tragic story of Johnny Eck, best known as the Half-Boy in 1932’s Freaks. After retiring from acting, Eck turned his hand to art and photography, but was left traumatized following a brutal home invasion. The incident left him housebound and fearful for the rest of his sad life. Then there’s Les Baxter, the undisputed king of Exotica. Baxter was living a lonely life in music exile when Del Valle met him. Depressed over unsuccessfully suing John Williams for lifting some of his music for his ET score, Baxter died before his style of lounge music became cool again.
There’s also some deliciously gossipy entries, including one in which Del Valle describes actress Hermione Baddeley and singer Martha Raye entertaining the patrons of a leather bar in West Hollywood, only for the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder wanting to meet these grand dames. What a sight that would have been.
Del Valle also has some intimate encounters with some truly offbeat heroes. He gets high on gin and joints watching The Loved One with the film’s writer Terry Southern, the cool hipster immortalized on the Sgt Pepper’s album; trips on LSD with Timothy Leary over Charlie Chan movies; and gets a tour of Russ Meyer’s home, filled with memorabilia from his saucy sex films, including a giant bra.
It all makes for some revealing reading. And, despite the odd typo, I couldn’t put it down as each chapter offered a glimpse into the private lives of an actor, actress, writer, director, musician or muse who have given cinephiles everywhere such joy and excitement over the past 70 years. Less salacious than Kenneth Anger’s infamous trash bible Hollywood Babylon, but no less gossipy, Del Valle’s memoir is a truly touching portrait of the people that were very much a part of old Hollywood. Thankfully, Del Valle has given these fading characters their proper dues, making them shine for us film fans once more.
To mark the 16 February UK Blu-ray/DVD release of The Comedy of Terrors from Arrow Video (reviewed at the bottom of the post), here’s a look back at the vintage horror farce.
‘You’re invited to a funeral’
Welcome to the Hinchley & Trumbull funeral parlour, the only establishment of its kind that has found the secret of increasing business – by furnishing its own corpses! From Jacques Tourneur, director of the horror classics, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Night of the Demon, comes the 1963 horror spoof, The Comedy of Terrors, starring four masters of the macabre – Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff.
‘What place is this?’
Inebriate undertaker Waldo Trumbull (Price) is running a New England funeral home business owned by his ageing father-in-law (Karloff)… straight into the ground. Hounded by his penny-pinching landlord Mr Black (Rathbone) for non-payment of rent, Trumbull and his put upon assistant Felix Gillie (Lorre) hatch a plan to boost business. But murder is not their forté, especially when their latest ‘client’ refuses to stay dead…
‘Every shroud has a silver lining when old friends get together for a real swinging blast of grave robbery… poisoning, and multiple mayhem!’
So declared the promo poster for American International Pictures‘ The Comedy of Terrors, which famously brought together four great names from the horror hall of fame. In the early-1960s, AIP were riding high with their winning formula of director Roger Corman, star Vincent Price, screenwriter Richard Matheson, composer Les Baxter, et all. Following their full-on Colorscope Gothic horrors, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum, AIP added some comic relief in 1962’s Tales of Terror, in a segment called The Black Cat, whose highlight was an improvised wine tasting scene between Price and Lorre.
Because the two spooks gelled so well, director Corman gave Price and Lorre the chance to do it all over again in his 1963 fantasy spoof, The Raven. Out of that was born a gruesome twosome comedy duo that were like an Abbott & Costello for the drive-in generation. Wanting to tap those funny bones again, AIP gave Matheson free reign to conjure up another vehicle for them. The result was The Comedy of Terrors (originally called Graveside Story), which was shot over 15 days, starting 4 September 1963, and released in US cinemas on 22 January 1964.
‘Comedy and terror are closely allied. My job as an actor is to try and make the unbelievable believable and the despicable delectable’ Vincent Price
As the roguish Waldo Trumbull, Price is at his ‘delicious boozy hammiest’ – according to the New York Herald Tribune – and has a whale of a time making the most of Matheson’s venomous dialogue – in particular his sardonic put-downs on Lorre’s wanted fugitive Felix (who is a terrible coffin-maker, I might add), while their slapstick misadventures evoke Laurel and Hardy – Price even gets to reappropriate their famous catchphrase: ‘A fine mess you’ve made of things again!’
Sadly, this would be the last time that the two pals got to act together, as the 59-year-old Lorre was in poor health during the shoot (his regular stunt double Harvey Parry did all of his action scenes wearing a mask), and died just two months after the film’s release. Fittingly, it was Price who delivered the eulogy.
Interestingly in this film, Price and Lorre reverse the roles they played in Tales of Terror, and again there’s Joyce Jameson playing a buxom mistreated wife with a drunk for a hubby. As Amaryllis, an unfulfilled opera star with the ‘vocal emissions of a laryngitic cow’, Jameson hits a real high with her ‘off-key’ singing during a funeral service, while her verbal sparring with Price is eminently quotable. David Del Valle’s audio commentary in the Arrow release is dedicated to Jameson, a great friend to the film historian who tragically took her life in 1987, aged 59.
Veterans Rathbone and Karloff are also game for a laugh in this Arsenic and Old Lace-styled affair (and shares a similar structure as that classic 1941 play which famously sent up Karloff’s horror screen persona). Rathbone is exceptional as the Shakespearean-spouting cataleptic who refuses to ‘shuffle off his mortal coil’, while he also gets to play up his thespian image and swashbuckling days (the sword play being an homage to 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.)
At 76, and suffering from arthritis, Karloff was not up to playing Mr Black, a role which was originally offered to him. But as the endearingly senile Amos, who somehow manages to avoid the poison that Waldo offers him at every turn, Karloff is only one who keeps the farce from taking full flight.
The downside to Tourneur’s film, however (it was the director’s second-to-last feature before some TV work and then retiring), is that it’s rather stagey and old-fashioned (especially for the 1960s teen crowd that it was aimed at). It remains, however, a firm favourite of mine – a gleefully ghoulish slapstick affair with a classy never-to-be-repeated cast of old Hollywood greats.
DID YOU KNOW?
Richard Matheson scripted a follow-up called Sweethearts and Horrors, that was to feature the fearsome four once again, but it was shelved due to Lorre’s death and the film’s poor box-office takings. The unfilmed screenplay ended up being released in 2009 as part of Matheson’s collected works, entitled Visions Deferred.
The music is by celebrated composer Les Baxter (who also did the US scores for Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and The Evil Eye in 1963, as well as Corman’s The Raven). The complete mono session which was recorded in November 1963 at Goldwyn Studios was uncovered from the MGM vaults last year and released on a now sold out CD.
RHUBARB | THE CAT IN THE HOUSE OF UNHOLY HORROR
Cleopatra is played by one of Hollywood’s most celebrated animal stars, Rhubarb (aka Orangey) – a 12-pound marmalade tabby who won two American Humane Association’s PATSY awards for 1951’s Rhubarb and 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (in which he has almost seven minutes of screen time), and who also appeared in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). In The Comedy of Terrors, Rhubarb gets an inspired scene in the closing credits.
THE ARROW UK BLU-RAY/DVD RELEASE
The Comedy of Terrors is presented its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with mono 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on Blu-ray). The HD master was made available by MGM via Hollywood Classics, and includes optional English subtitles. The extras include:
• Audio commentary with David Del Valle and Rapid Heart TV’s David DeCocteau
• Vincent Price: My Life and Crimes: This is the unseen alternate cut of the 1987 David Del Valle interview that was previously released on DVD in 2002 as The Sinister Image
• Whispering in Distant Chambers: informative 17-min video essay by David Cairns, exploring Tourneur’s work.
• Richard Matheson Storyteller – Comedy of Terrors; this featurette on late screenwriter also appears on the Shout! Blu-ray and on the older MGM Midnite Movies DVD.
• Unrestored original US theatrical trailer (this makes the film look more racy and scary than it actually was).
• Collector’s booklet featuring a critical analysis of the film by Chris Fujiwara, author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, plus archive stills and posters.
• Artwork by Paul Shipper.
OTHER BLU-RAY RELEASES
Also available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory (from October 2014), an imprint of Shout! Factory, with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1 and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, as part of their Vincent Price Collection II bundle, and includes a Iowa Public Television introduction with Price, but no audio commentary. Blu-ray reviewers have also praised Arrow’s transfer over this one, both for its excellent print and audio transfer. A German Blu-ray was also released in May 2013.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) | Mario Bava’s Hitchcockian ABC of terror gets a re-mastered HD release
What Does It Want? What Will Satisfy Its Cravings?
Young American secretary Nora Davis (Letícia Román) loves reading murder mystery novels, but never dreamed she’d end up in a real life case. Whilst visiting an elderly aunt in Rome, she witnesses a murder on the steps of Piazza di Spagna. But with no body, the police and a young doctor, Marcello Bassi (John Saxon), refuse to believe her story. Nora then starts researching a 10-year-old case involving the Alphabet Killer, only to end up his next intended victim. Can she convince Marcello that she isn’t imagining things before the bodies start piling up?
The first true Giallo?
Mario Bava is credited with inventing two of cinemas most iconic genres: the giallo (in La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo aka The Girl Who Knew Too Much) and the slasher (A Bay of Blood aka Twitch of the Death Nerve). This inventive 1963 thriller was a new direction for the director, who had previously helmed the gothic shocker Black Sunday (1960) and peplum adventures like Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). Intended as an homage to Hitchcock and a macabre twist on fluffy European vacation romcoms like 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain, La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo ended up laying the blueprint for all those gory Italian thrillers that followed in its wake. Now it was the killings that took star billing rather than the mystery, and Bava would continue to hone this stylistic device from his 1964 shocker Blood and Black Lace to 1971’s A Bay of Blood (the ultimate slasher template for Friday the 13th and its ilk). Indeed, if it weren’t for this for The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Dario Argento may never have had the career he’s had.
Bava’s striking chiaroscuro lighting and masterful camerawork certainly comes to the fore in this, his last black and white feature, while his innate style makes this thriller something special indeed. The original Italian film was re-edited, re-scored and re-titled as Evil Eye in the US by American International Pictures, and is much darker in tone as it dispenses with much of the comedy that Bava envisaged. Which begs the question: which version is the better? Well, I prefer the moody original, although I love how Les Baxter’s score on Evil Eye makes the comedic elements shine through. Bava’s next effort, Black Sabbath, was also re-edited for the US market (read my review of the Arrow release here).
Star Letícia Román ditched acting five years after making this film and went on to make her fortune in the property market. BTW: The catchy theme tune, Furore, is sung by Italy’s best-selling male singer Adriano Celentano.
THE UK DUAL FORMAT RELEASE
Digitally re-mastered from the original pre-print film elements, Arrow presents the film in both its original Italian version (La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo) and the longer US cut, entitled Evil Eye. Both versions contain new English subtitle track, and a High Rising featurette in which filmmakers Luigi Cozzi and Richard Stanley and authors Alan Jones and Mikel Koven reflect on Mario Bava’s first true giallo.
• High Definition Blu-ray and Standard Definition DVD presentation of The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Evil Eye
• Uncompressed 2.0 mono PCM audio for both versions
• Optional English subtitles on both titles
• Audio commentary by Mario Bava’s biographer Tim Lucas (this was originally included in the Anchor Bay/Starz DVD box-set release in 2007)
• Introduction by Alan Jones (also on the Anchor Bay/Starz release)
• Remembering the Girl: Interview with John Saxon (also on the Anchor Bay/Starz release)
• International and US trailers
• Reversible Sleeve featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys
• Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kier-La Janisse
Black Sabbath (1963) | Mario Bava’s trilogy of terror starring Boris Karloff now even more nightmarish in HD
THIS IS THE NIGHT OF THE NIGHTMARE… THE DAY OF THE UNDEAD
Boris Karloff plays master of ceremonies in 1963’s Black Sabbath, an Italian trilogy of terror from director Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Lisa and the Devil). The Telephone, set in the 1960s, is a giallo-inspired story in which a prostitute gets blood on her hands when she asks a friend to help her escape from her former pimp. The Drop of Water, adapted from a tale by Ivan Chekhov, concerns a Victorian-era nurse who gets her comeuppance when she steals a ring from the corpse of a clairvoyant. While the final sequence, The Wurdalak, adapted from a Tolstoy story, stars Boris Karloff as the patriarch of a 19th-century Russian family who turns out to be a vampire that feeds on the blood of his loved ones.
NOT SINCE ‘FRANKENSTEIN’ HAVE YOU SEEN SUCH HORROR!
Mario Bava, who kick-started the golden age of Italian horror with 1960’s Black Sunday, followed his monochrome masterpiece with this colourful horror anthology that has since become a firm favourite among horror fans.
The first two stories are atmospheric ‘sting in the tail’ thrillers featuring Bava’s unique camerawork and lighting, while the final one is a remarkable stylistic achievement that is pure Bava thanks to its comical ending. The US release was edited to make it more of a spookfest and replaced Roberto Nicolosi’s music with a score from Les Baxter (who also scored many of Roger Corman’s Poe films). But UK fans can now see both versions in Arrow Video’s deluxe release.
THE UK DUAL FORMAT RELEASE
The Arrow Films dual format (Blu-ray/DVD) deluxe edition features I tre volti della paura, the European version with the Nicolosi score, and Black Sabbath, the re-edited and re-dubbed US version with the Les Baxter score. Also included is a brilliant new featurette explaining the differences between the two versions, new subtitles, artwork from Graham Humphreys, collector’s booklet, plus the same extras that were included on the 2007 DVD release. Region 2/B. Cert 15.
DID YOU KNOW?
It was in 1969 that a certain British heavy metal band from Birmingham adopted the film’s title (they originally called themselves Earth) and changed their music style after seeing fans queuing up to see Bava’s film at their local cinema. The rest is history.