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House on Haunted Hill (1959) at the Silver Scream Spook Show

Yesterday, we were back in Atlanta for another trip into the past with the boys and ghouls of the Silver Scream Spook Show, although our son was wishing for another monster movie. They always promise that they’re going to scare the yell out of us, and this time, they delivered. The film was William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, starring Vincent Price, Elisha Cook Jr., and Carol Ohmart. I’d never seen it before, and I just had a ball. It’s a terrific haunted house movie, and I enjoyed every frame of it.

I told our son that it was an old horror movie, and probably not all that scary. Boy, was I mistaken.

So this one’s about a creepy party held by an eccentric millionaire at his even more eccentric wife’s behest. If any of the five guests can stay the night in this spooky old mansion – the exteriors were filmed at the downright bizarre Ennis House, which Frank Lloyd Wright designed to look like a Mayan temple – they will earn $10,000. The five guests were chosen because they are all strangers who need the money. The windows are barred, there is only one door, made of steel, and after the caretakers leave at midnight, there is no escape, and no way to phone the police when the eccentric wife hangs herself to death.

So yes, I thought it was great, and really enjoyed a startling reveal about twenty-five minutes in, when the camera lets us know that there’s somebody else in a room with actress Carolyn Craig. From there, it was half an hour of solid shocks for our kid, who was without comfort blankets and the rest of his menagerie and curled up in a tight ball next to me.

He missed the last fifteen minutes. Craig gets the wits scared out of her again when a rope somehow enters her room and she looks outside to see that on the other end of it, the ghost of the wife is outside, lit by the lightning, still with the noose around her neck. I heard a whimper and a moan and I leaned over to hear him tell me “I am really, really, super scared,” and told him to head for the lobby. I didn’t need to tell him twice. So Marie went to join him, and, after the hosts had provided one little interactive element of the movie, Professor Morte commiserated with the otherwise heroic eight year-old. Turns out when you’re that age, this really is a tremendously terrifying film.

I knew this was going to be a great presentation, because I was betting that the Spook Show gang was going to incorporate a famous element of the movie’s original release. Now, if you’ve Googled your way here without knowing anything about the Silver Scream Spook Show, quickly pop back and read our story about our first Atlanta trip for the show. This time, the show started with a silly bit of business about a haunted mirror. I’m still chuckling about Atlanta’s beloved Jim Stacy, dressed as a pirate ghost, bellowing “Turns out I’ve got a fetish for Alice in Wonderland fightin’ like Popeye!”

When House on Haunted Hill was originally released, it was with the promise that it was made in EMERGO, which meant that at a critical moment in the climax, a pulley system in the theater would activate and a skeleton would swing out from the rafters above the crowd. Well, the Plaza Theater didn’t have a pulley system, but they did have the next best thing, which was Professor Morte and one of his pals using a big wire puppet setup using the two aisles of the room. They raised a skeleton from a box placed below the screen, and with Morte in one aisle and his assistant in the other, they stalked the length of the room, with the skeleton dangling over the audience.

To say that the crowd loved this is an understatement. This was the most packed we’ve ever seen the Spook Show, with the room very nearly filled with classic film lovers. Let’s be fair: a whole lot more people want to see Vincent Price than Gorgo. And as for this film? I remember reading about EMERGO in middle school and never, ever thought I’d get the chance to actually see it played out in person.

It’s a shame that our kid missed out on the skeleton, but we visited friends and had barbecue and ice cream and got to see the dolphin show at the Georgia Aquarium and he otherwise had a great day. He’ll be telling his friends down the line that this sixty year-old movie was the scariest film he’s ever seen, but he had a great day. This was the Spook Show’s last performance of 2019, but we thanked Professor Morte in the lobby and said that we’d see him again next year.

Image credit: LyricDiscorde

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The Night Stalker (1972)

I wished my son pleasant dreams tonight and got an earful. “I am NOT going to have pleasant dreams! You showed me a vampire movie and I am NINETY-NINE POINT FOUR PER CENT CERTAIN that I’m going to have nightmares tonight!”

Yes, our son did not like tonight’s movie one little bit. He made his feelings very clear by telling us that his favorite scene was when our hero, Carl Kolchak, puts a cassette in his little tape player about ten seconds into the picture and presses play. It was all downhill from there. He didn’t like the fights, he didn’t like the shootouts, he didn’t like the car tires squealing on the roads around Las Vegas, because he was freaked out, frightened, and scared out of his wits by this great, great TV movie.

I sometimes wonder how ABC promoted this movie back then, because they did something right. It’s not like vampires couldn’t have been seen in dozens of films over the previous decade, and as much as we all like the great Darren McGavin, it’s honestly not like he was television’s biggest draw. But the stars lined up and I guess that CBS and NBC had a lousy evening, because when the Nielsens came in, The Night Stalker proved to be the highest-rated TV movie the industry had ever seen to that point, with a mammoth 48 share. The film was produced by Dan Curtis, directed by John Llewelyn Moxey, and scripted by Richard Matheson from a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice.

I think it’s one of the very best, and sometimes I think it’s the all-time greatest vampire movie ever made. Sometimes I pick this and sometimes I pick Christopher Lee’s first Dracula movie for Hammer. But I love the way that Carl Kolchak is the hero here, and the vampire is a dark, silent killer. And Carl Kolchak is one of television’s greatest characters, a ten-time loser who’s too proud and too smug to play by the rules and is the architect of his own undoing. We aren’t told what got him fired from papers in Washington, Chicago, New York, and Boston, but we see it here: his attitude. Kolchak’s been fighting City Hall, and losing, for years, and this time, when City Hall is covering up a vampire, City Hall isn’t going to take prisoners.

Joining McGavin in this debut adventure, there’s Simon Oakland as his long-suffering editor Vincenzo, and Claude Akins as the first of many policemen to have had it up to here with this nosy reporter. Carol Lynley plays Carl’s doomed girlfriend – but not doomed in the way that girlfriends in vampire movies are typically doomed – and there are small roles for Larry Linville and Elisha Cook Jr.

He protested that he hated this, but our son did come to life when the vampire – named “Janos Skorzeny,” unforgettably, and played by Barry Atwater – started throwing around orderlies in a hospital. “He’s as strong as a dozen men!” he marvelled, and he wowed when one man is thrown through a window to his apparent death. The vampire stuff is incredibly well done, with the climactic search through the home where Skorzeny has holed up going on for what feels like forever since the tension is so incredible. Yes, our son was behind the sofa. I didn’t think he was ever coming out.

My copy of the two Kolchak TV movies is Anchor Bay’s old double-sided release, and both my player and my laptop are unhappy with it. The player stretched it into widescreen – even the Anchor Bay logo and the menu – and no setting would restore it, and the laptop’s navigation slider was disabled. The films have since been given a new 4K restoration and the editions that were released last October have a lot of positive reviews. I might upgrade them, but I may have some expenses this month and so our next visit with Carl will be on the same edition. I assured our son that when we meet Carl again, there will not be a vampire. “Well, who does he fight? Frankenstein?” I said we’ll see.

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The Maltese Falcon (1941)

So: The Maltese Falcon. Terrific novel, even better movie. John Huston’s first film, not to mention Sydney Greenstreet’s, and a picture that made stars of all its major players. Humphrey Bogart is amazing, Peter Lorre is oily and creepy, and Mary Astor’s inability to make eye contact with anybody to whom she is lying is one of the great cinema “tells.” With all love and respect to Dashiel Hammett, there are many detective novels that I enjoy more than this, but none of them – nothing by Sayers, Chandler, Doyle, anybody – has ever had a screen adaptation this perfect.

The point might surely be raised that seven’s a bit young to understand, let alone appreciate, The Maltese Falcon. And I knew that going in, and wasn’t either surprised or disappointed to see our son genuinely struggle with this story. It’s a complex one, not helped by every character in the picture other than the cops and a couple of cab drivers telling one lie after another. So I’ll give the kid a few years before I force The Big Sleep on him. Anyway, he struggled, and became restless, and got so sick of Sydney Greenstreet that he started pointing his finger guns at the screen and “shooting” him.

Kind of rough for a kid to recognize that a character is a villain awful enough to want to shoot without being able to explain why. But I’m sure part of it was that Greenstreet’s character, Kasper Gutman, just does not stop talking. Seven year-olds prefer men of action. Well, The Maltese Falcon wasn’t made for seven year-olds. Marie and I have loved it for years and years and seen it dozens of times. It’s one of a handful of “drop everything” movies if I hear it’s playing on a big screen somewhere nearby. But then again, she and I were each a little older when we first discovered it.

So it isn’t really geared toward seven year-olds and we showed it to him this morning knowing that he wouldn’t enjoy it all that much, and I’m illustrating it with a photo of the back of Elisha Cook’s head. Some of you good readers know perfectly well why we exposed our son to this confusing movie for adults, and are probably asking “you’re showing him High Noon next, right?” (The answer’s no; that would make him completely miserable!) The rest of you, check back later. All will be revealed.

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Batman 2.60 – The Duo Defy

Did you know that Batman keeps live fish in his utility belt? Now you do.

This is dire. It’s the end of the season and there’s no money left. There’s stock footage with voiceovers and old film clips of icebergs. The most entertaining thing that happened tonight was that Daniel repeated his “iceburglars” pun, which really wasn’t funny last night.

It is kind of unfortunate that each Mr. Freeze was less entertaining than the previous one, but Eli Wallach’s “daffy old scientist” take got really old really quickly. Elisha Cook spent all of this part recovering from having dry ice injected into his veins (!) and frozen at 200 below zero (!!), because this show doesn’t make any sense, and fumbled around with a goofball expression and his mouth hanging open and his eyes all bugged out like the producers actually wanted Don Knotts for the part. It’s pretty awful.

We did learn that Bruce Wayne has a municipal ice rink named after himself, which is kind of surprising. We were also reminded that Commissioner Gordon has a daughter at college. Her name is Barbara. Are you listening, audience? This might turn out to be important one day.

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Batman 2.59 – Ice Spy

My wife and her father share this disquieting, horrible habit of making terrible, terrible puns. Every so often, I get a little evidence that genetics are passing this down to my son. Tonight, summoning his troops for the fight, Mr. Freeze calls them “icemen.” Daniel replied, “He means ICEBURGLARS!” He then repeated this about ten times during the brawl, because four year-olds do that when they come up with something that they think is clever.

Mr. Freeze is played by Eli Wallach for this installment, making him the third actor to play this villain. Allied with him is a besotted ice skater, Glacia Glaze, played by Leslie Parrish. We saw her back in season one as Dawn Robbins in the very first Penguin story. Rounding out the notable guest stars, none other than Elisha Cook Jr., who had played Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon 25 years previously, and had been doing a heck of a lot of television in the mid-sixties.

This episode features one of the all-time goofy phone gags, in which Commissioner Gordon rings Batman at the same time that Chief O’Hara rings Bruce Wayne, and the cops listen in while Adam West talks to himself in slightly different voices into each receiver, and the police are clueless, as usual. When I do go bad and turn into a criminal, I’m moving to Gotham City.

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