Saturday, October 22, 2011

Halloween at "Horror Hotel"

Although set in February, the month of Candlemas Eve, Horror Hotel is a perfect movie for Halloween. From 2006, here are my thoughts on one of my favorite chillers.

The poster for the 1963 U.S. release of Horror Hotel, a tiny reproduction of which appears on the cover of Navarra’s Triple Feature Horror Classics, Volume 5, was one of the most misleading pieces of advertising ever devised for a film’s marketing campaign.

“Just ring for doom service!” the tag line reads. A key on which the film’s title is imprinted dangles from a skeleton’s hand surrounded by a grotesque face with fangs, saliva visible in its open mouth.

The poster gives no clue to the atmosphere that director John Moxey and cinematographer Douglas Dickinson bring to this tale of modern day witchcraft in the village of Whitewood, Massachusetts. A movie that basks in morbidity and sends chills down the spine is depicted as a grade B scream fest on the order of a William Castle production, something like The Tingler that inspires more giggles than groans. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which gives its seal of approval to films and their advertising, may have rejected an ad campaign that hinted at the movie’s portrayal of human sacrifice. When released in the U.K. as City of the Dead in 1960, this chiller may have benefitted from a more honest and effective promotional campaign, but I’m sure children were forbidden from attending even with parents.

By the early ‘60s, horror films were generally regarded as kid stuff in the U.S., fodder for Saturday matinees and drive-in triple features. The U.K. had a ratings system long before Hollywood introduced their self-policing system in 1969, and the colorfully gory titles produced by Hammer were frequently slapped with an “adults only” label in their native country of Great Britain. Once they traveled overseas to the States, they were open to all audiences, perhaps due to simple economics. The early Universal horror films, Dracula and Frankenstein, which established the horror genre, appealed to adults, as well as younger audiences. As the genre deteriorated into less sophisticated territory (Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman), the fan base narrowed to teens and kids.

By the late ‘50s, when Universal released its backlog of pre-1949 titles to television, Hammer was reviving the moribund genre with full color remakes. At the same time, Forrest J. Ackerman began publishing Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine devoted to horror and science-fiction films, soon to be followed by the competing Castle of Frankenstein whose approach was more sophisticated, geared more to film buffs who admired horror and science-fiction, and less to kids who simply liked monsters.

But the kids who liked monsters, and preferred building Aurora model sets of Dracula and Frankenstein to slapping the glue on plastic airplanes, won out, so Horror Hotel’s advertising campaign was directed at them, as were the ads for The Head, the German film that comprised the second half of the double bill when Horror Hotel opened stateside in June 1963, just in time for summer vacation and the start of the drive-in season.
I saw it at the Pearl Road Drive-In in Cleveland, Ohio with my family, and it made a strong impression on me that was only strengthened when I saw it again a few years later on the Friday night late movie hosted by Houlihan and Big Chuck on WJW-TV8. It was a mainstay on local television throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, then disappeared in the ‘80s, its owners having failed to renew the copyright. But it continued to haunt the imagination of those who saw it on television, usually in the wee hours, the perfect time for a film that casts such a macabre, creepy spell.

Horror Hotel was finally released on home video in the ‘90s, and I checked in again in 2004 to find it every bit as effective as I remembered.

Horror Hotel is a triumph. Filmed entirely on a soundstage at Shepperton Studios by Vulcan Productions, which would change its name to Amicus for such future shockers as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The House That Dripped Blood, it is unmatched for its atmosphere. The fog machine never worked harder than it did when used to create the crypt-like ambience of Whitewood. The Raven’s Inn, the private hotel built on the exact spot where Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake on March 3, 1692 (a dramatic sequence that opens the film), is dark and deathly quiet except for the ticking of the clock in the lobby and the solemn chanting that visiting college student Nan Barlow tells the proprietor, Mrs. Newliss, she hears coming from beneath the trap door in her room.

“There’s nothing under there but earth,” Mrs. Newliss says, and points to the trap door’s lack of a ring as evidence. The ring later appears dangling in the window shortly before the film’s most frightening moment: Nan Barlow’s descent via the cobwebbed stairs beneath the Raven’s Inn where she meets her terrifying fate.

Horror Hotel
has a few hokey moments. When Professor Barlow (Dennis Lotis) invades the witches coven below the Raven’s Inn, he empties his handgun into his foreboding colleague, the undead witch, Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee). The bullets have no effect, so what does Barlow do? The same thing the gangsters did on TV’s The Adventures of Superman when realizing the Man of Steel could not be deterred with mere bullets: Barlow throws his gun at Driscoll! Even more laughable is Driscoll’s reaction: he ducks!

Then there’s that bookstore operated by the granddaughter of the reverend who warns visitors to Whitewood that the devil lives and is worshiped there. Considering that the aligning church has no congregation, and all of the townsfolk appear to be witches, who is the clientele? Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) stops in seeking books for her college thesis on the history of witchcraft in Whitewood, but she only borrows a dusty antique volume (A Treatise on Devil Worship in New England) that she can’t afford to buy. Ken Jones’ jazz that is heard as Barlow drives to Whitewood has been criticized, but since it seems to be emanating from the car radio, it’s not inappropriate. Still, it contributes nothing to the film, quite unlike Douglas Gamely’s eerie choral music that opens the film and is heard during the witches rituals. It has the effect of a cold, dead hand on your shoulder.

The acting is excellent, much better than required for a low-budget horror show, an indication that the producers envisioned a quality project and sought only the best talent.

Venetia Stevenson, the perky blonde whose disappearance while researching witchcraft for a college assignment paves the way for the fiery climax, has an innocent charm that contrasts well with the saturnine Patricia Jessel, whose strong features attract and repel at the same time. Despite her fourth billing, Jessel is the true star of Horror Hotel, and her performance as Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newliss would have been a mere caricature of a witch in lesser hands. But Jessel was a Tony Award winner as best supporting actress in the 1956 Broadway production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, and her performance suggests she did not regard her role in a “horror movie” as a lark.

When Nan Barlow asks Mrs. Newliss if Elizabeth Selwyn was really burned as a witch on the site where the Raven’s Inn now stands, Jessel doesn’t merely say “She was,” but answers with a mix of pride and pain with a facial expression to match. She conveys both the haughty delight she takes in having been condemned for her beliefs, as well as the sorrow she feels about her persecution.

Christopher Lee as her accomplice is no mere boogeyman, but a weary sort, impatient with those, like Professor Barlow, who mock and condescendingly dismiss his teachings as nonsense. Dennis Lotis, previously known as a pop singer, is also impressive, never more so than when he follows his sister’s trail and, in the cavern below the Raven’s Inn, discovers the corpse of Lotti, the mute servant sympathetically played by Ann Beach, whose attempts to warn the guests of their host’s true nature leads to her doom.

Tom Naylor as Nan’s boyfriend, Betta St. John as the heroine of the second half of the film, and Norman Macowan as Reverend Russell are also excellent.

Then there’s Valentine Dyall as Jethro Keane, who hitches a ride with Nan Barlow on her way to Whitewood, only to disappear into mist when they reach the cemetery. Dyall, a character actor with a distinctive baritone, later played the caretaker in 1963's The Haunting, a more prestigious horror film that would make for a perfect double feature with Horror Hotel.

Horror Hotel is a superbly crafted thriller that received scant attention from critics (The New York Times panned it, along with The Head, in a review so brief that I suspect the critic didn’t bother to see the movie), but it has inspired devotion among those who discovered it, quite unexpectedly, through its television airings, and now regard it as the scariest movie they’ve ever seen.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bob Dylan, Art Thief?

Since when is it considered plagiarism to make a drawing or painting of a photograph?

Bob Dylan came under fire this week when it was revealed that several of his paintings on display at the Gagosian Gallery in New York were based on photographs, many retrieved from Flickr, and at least one of which copies the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Other than Dylan's dubious claim that "I paint from real life," and that the paintings are a "visual journal" of his travels, my reaction is, so what?

Drawing from photographs is a fairly standard practice among high-school art students, as well as for artists without access to live models. Dylan is neither, but if creating a painting from a photograph is theft, then it could be argued that a photographer is a thief whenever he aims his camera at any subject other than himself.

If he photographs a bridge and doesn't acknowledge those who built it, well, he's a plagiarist, is he not?

If he photographs a building and does not acknowledge the architect, as well as receive his permission to duplicate his work on film, he's stealing the architect's work, right?

If that's the case, a photojournalist who captures a crowd scene on film needs the permission of every individual in the photo, all of whom have the right to decide if that photo can be published. They are also entitled to financial compensation if the photographer is paid for that published work. It's even been said that the camera steals the soul of its subjects. If that doesn't entitle a photographer's subject to damages, well, there's something wrong with our legal system.

If Dylan is a plagiarist, he's in good company.

Did Andy Warhol request permission from the Campbell Soup Company before creating his legendary "soup can"? Did Campbell's share in any profit that Warhol made from selling his work or reproductions thereof?

What about the manufacturers of Brillo, whose box became another memorable Warhol piece? Somebody created the original design, although it's doubtful Brillo gave him credit or anything but a flat fee or paycheck.

How about Warhol's piece depicting an electric chair? Should he have acknowledged whoever built it and been required to pay a licensing fee?

And let's not overlook Warhol's silkscreens of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, two superstars whose images are worth millions and who did not agree to pose for him. Warhol depicted Elvis in a scene from the 1960 Twentieth Century Fox film, Flaming Star, and Monroe from the same company's 1957 film, The Seven Year Itch. Not only was Warhol stealing from Elvis and Marilyn, he was ripping off Twentieth Century Fox, as well as the photographers, film directors, and even the screenwriters who might be able to claim ownership of those images.

As for music, where's the name of Lennon and McCartney on David Bowie's 1975 song, "Young Americans," which quotes "I read the news today, oh boy" and its accompanying melody from the Beatles' "A Day in the Life"?

Joe DiMaggio earned a mention in Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson." Was DiMaggio consulted beforehand? Did he have the right to demand that the line in which his name appears be excised? For that matter, what about all of us who comprise the “nation” whose lonely eyes Simon said were turned to Joltin’ Joe? What right does Simon have to suggest my eyes are lonely or that they are turned to a baseball player?

Dylan has written songs about several famous public figures, including Billy the Kid, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, mobster Joey Gallo, and Hattie Carroll and her alleged killer, William Zantzinger. Do they or their descendants have the right to demand a share of the royalties as well as a credit on the songs that told their stories?

What about an artist who makes a collage using photos from various newspapers and magazines. Is he a plagiarist if he hasn't received permission from those publications?

The answer to all of the above questions is NO!

Dylan should have been more straight-forward about where he found his inspiration for those paintings, but they're still HIS paintings. Even if an old photograph was the catalyst, they are new creations. This controversy probably has less to do with giving credit where credit is due than it has to do with money, and the possibility of milking a millionaire in a plagiarism lawsuit.

Like the brouhaha over Dylan's concerts in China earlier this year, this is much ado about nothing. Oops, that's a quote from Shakespeare. "It's plagiarism, pure and simple," Rob Oechsle, the owner of that Flickr account told The Los Angeles Times regarding Dylan's use of photos posted online. "If a writer were to use a phrase from Shakespeare, and not credit him, or attribute it in any way," Oechsle said, "that's what they'd be accused of."

Well, not really, Mr. Oechsle, or "Okinawa Soba" as he calls himself. (That sounds a little like Kimosabi to me, and Mr. Oechsle does not acknowledge Tonto or the Lone Ranger on his Flickr page.) Many of Shakespeare's phrases are so common that it's possible to quote him without knowing it, just as I don't know the origin of the phrase I quoted earlier about the soul-stealing capabilities of a camera. I've heard it plenty of times, and never from anyone who cited its author. Some quotes are so famous that attribution isn't necessary. In jest, a film buff might quote Clark Gable's famous line from Gone With the Wind ("Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn") or the line many people believe Humphrey Bogart said to Dooley Wilson in Casablanca ("Play it again, Sam") without mentioning the films, simply because it's assumed everybody knows them. And naming the movie might not be enough for Mr. Oechsle. You'd also have to list the screenwriters and the author of the original book or play from which the screenplays were adapted, and maybe the director and film company, too. Of course, to do so would be utterly ridiculous, much like the controversy over Dylan's paintings.

If the Gagosian Gallery were presenting an exhibit of Dylan photos, and it turned out those photographs came from Flickr or the portfolio of Henri Cartier-Bresson, that would be a scandal worth examining. But paintings from photographs? If a picture is really worth a thousand words, it's also worth a painting or two, and when the painting is by an artist of Dylan's standing, the photographer should feel complimented.

(By the way, the accompanying photo is an ink drawing I made of Dylan 21 years ago from a photo I found in a book. I don't know who took the original photo. If anyone does, let me know and I'll give him credit, lest I piss off Okinawa Soba.)

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks