For Your Consideration: Psycho is the Best Horror Series

Most horror film franchises start out great and end up crashing and burning into absurd garbage. Michael Myers eventually got pulled into some cult/curse ties, Jason got sent to space and the Amityville Horror ended up consisting of a haunted lamp. Rare is the horror series that doesn’t go off the rails at some point, making it hard to really judge which one is the “best.” It almost comes down to which series started the best and which ended not as horrible as the others. With all that in mind, I offer for your consideration the best horror series: Psycho. It’s one that started fantastic and featured sequels that were all enjoyable.

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The idea of creating a sequel to Psycho must have seemed crazy at the time (almost as crazy as making a shot-for-shot remake of the film). Psycho is, after all, not only one of the best horror films of all time, but one of the best films period. Making a sequel after Hitchcock’s his death and at the height of slashers sure looks like a cash-in in the surface. But that’s far from how it turned out. Prior to the film being made, original novel author Robert Bloch already wrote a sequel. A great book in it’s own right, the studio understandably didn’t want to adapt it, since it was a brutal satire on gory Hollywood movies. Instead, they made their own sequel, one which did an outstanding job of living up to the original.

Both Vera Miles and Anthony Perkins reprised their roles in Psycho II. Miles is furious that her sister’s killer is being released from prison, while he is just trying to lead a normal life. She’s good in her role, but it’s Anthony Perkins’ reprisal of Norman Bates that makes the film. He steps right into the role as if he never left, exploring a new sympathetic side to this complex character. And it is a complex look at the character, once it appears Norman’s mother may be back. Norman Bates is seen in a new light, someone who is trying to be normal while dealing with the possibility that he’s sliding back into his old ways.

Without giving away more of the story, it is the perfect fit for a sequel some twenty years on. The film acknowledges the time that has passed, and it feels like a natural continuation of where the first film left off. Despite being made at the height of slashers, the film still sticks to the interesting psychology and tension established in the first one. It’s a perfect tribute and continuation of the original, and Anthony Perkins is simply mesmerizing.

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Psycho III is certainly a step down from the first sequel, and it doesn’t even really feel necessary. It’s heavier on gore than the first sequel, and does tend to feel more like a run of the mill slasher. That being said, it’s still enjoyable mostly due to Anthony Perkins. Perkins, much like Donald Pleasance in lesser Halloween films, is immensely fun to watch in the role (and it’s better than most Halloween sequels anyway). His portrayal of Norman Bates once again very well done, enough to make the film watchable on it’s own. On top of that, Perkins actually directed the film as well. With him at the helm, the film is handled with a respectful eye to the first two.

Overall, combined with the strong lead and an interesting enough story, Psycho III is enjoyable enough. It’s not memorable like the first two, and isn’t likely to leave much of a lasting impression. Still, it’s a fun movie with a familiar character that does no harm.

Psycho IV, a prequel, was the final installment. Perkins still appears in the film, and it notably brings back original screenwriter Joseph Stefano. There are some continuity issues since the other sequels are largely ignored, but this is yet another enjoyable if not very memorable film.

Overall, in the batch of four films, there isn’t a bad one among them. How many other horror series can you say that about? And the first two are more than just “not bad.” The original and it’s sequel are classics, while the final two provide a good supplement that doesn’t take away from the original at all.

Psycho II in particular is recommended, as are Robert Bloch’s unrelated book Psycho II and Psycho House.

Slasher Films: The Types and The Tropes

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We talked on here last year about the birth and evolution of the slasher film. Although the time before the peak contained slashers and many more have been made since then, the actual peak was a very short period filled with tons of films. That’s because, like with a certain movie studio and their comic book films, the industry will take a popular idea and say hey, let’s run this popular idea into the ground as quickly as possible. That is exactly what happened to the slasher film. 1974 may have brought two of the best slasher films in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas, but neither caused the explosion of films that Halloween and Friday the 13th caused. Coming out in 1978 and 1980 respectively, that means the real rush of other slasher films didn’t last more four or five years. The traditional slasher star burned out very fast.

Anyone who’s seen even a couple of slashers is very familiar with the cliches. A good deal of time, you can figure out right from the start who will live, who will go first and each and every murder will be telegraphed (like a couple right after they have sex). But even within that formula, there are some other specific types of films or tropes. Before we look at the specific elements and where they came from, let’s look at the different types of slashers:

The holiday/killer returns on a specific day
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This could very well account for most slasher films. If there’s a holiday or special event, there’s probably been a slasher film made about it. Halloween nailed down the market for films actually taking place during Halloween, but Christmas has made up for it with a few films. There’s also My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day, Happy Birthday to Me and New Year’s Evil, among others. And then there’s others that focus on other “important” days, like Prom Night and Graduation Day. Some films like The Prowler even made up major events.

In a lot of cases, the holiday or event are setups for a killer to wreak havoc on a town. They might, as is typically the case, be out for revenge over something that happened to them in that day. Or the holiday might be used for no real specific reason.

The camp slasher
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Although the camp slasher is mostly associated with the Friday the 13th series, it also spawned other series like Sleepaway Camp and numerous standalone films like The Burning. It’s the ideal setting for a slasher film, since it easily packs the typical teenage cast into one setting. It also gives plenty of opportunity for tropes like the promiscuous teens getting killed off while the “innocent” ones live. As with the first category, revenge for past actions is usually the motive for the killings. In that sense, these really don’t veer that much in a main plot from the others. It’s really just a different setting and time of year.

The killer is a member of the cast in disguise
Obviously, most of these films overlap with the two categories above. But there are two distinct categories of killers in slashers: those who’s indentity we know, and those that are a mystery. The films that are part of a series make no secret who the killer is (although there is one later Friday the 13th film that tries to change that. The killers are established characters there, but the killers are sometimes known entities too in other films. The Burning, for example, makes it known from the start who the killer is, with the only payoff being what his face looks like. Other films try to hide it, leading to a Scooby-Doo like mask ripping off the end. Some films handle the end reveal great (Sleepaway Camp), while others make it a little obvious (The Prowler).

So where did all those common elements start? Almost all can be traced back to the early ones:
The Final Girl: Both Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas predate the use of this element in Halloween. It can be seen in the vast majority of all slashers, with a few exceptions.
Having sex leads to death: First seen in Halloween, this ended up being a particular favorite in the Friday the 13th series, which loved to use this scene to telegraph deaths.
The menacing phone calls: The urban legend of “the calls are coming from inside the house” was first featured in Black Christmas and then later in When a Stranger Calls. Halloween also features menacing calls, although not from in the house. Sorry, Wrong Number, a suspense film from 1948, used the phone call idea long before any of these films.
The killer isn’t really dead: It wouldn’t really be a slasher film without the killer looking dead, only to jump back on the attack again (for one more jump scare). This is another one that predates the slasher film. 1967’s Wait Until Dark handles it better than pretty much any other film.

The Stories Behind Some of the Worst Horror Films

A while back we looked at why Ed Wood films are funny, and shared the strange stories behind films like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Manos: The Hands of Fate. Some of the worst films of all time (the hilariously bad kind) are those awful, poorly made B horror films. A lot of those poor excuses for use of celluloid just have fantastic backstories behind them. Let’s take a look at the bizarre ways some of these miserable productions got made.

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Monster a Go Go
For my money, this is easily one of the top five worst movies ever. It may even be the worst. This one isn’t even funny at all. It’s just 70 minutes of incomprehensible babble that concludes with a non-ending that leaves you furious over all the time you wasted. The “plot” revolves around an astronaut returning to earth. As he’s been exposed to radiation, he has turned into a monster that stalks and kills people.

If that sounds mildly entertaining, don’t worry. You barely see any of that. Instead, you mostly see fake science talk where scientists discuss how his radius and danger zone are increasing. But that’s the least of this film’s problems. It’s shot horribly. In one scene in particular, the character’s faces can’t even made out. Sometimes, including that scene, the dialogue can’t even be completely made out. When it comes time for the phone to ring, someone off camera makes the noise with their mouth. The soundtrack usually consists of just bizarre, repetitive, awful noises. And there is an even bigger problem afoot.

When I first saw this film, I dozed off and when I woke up, I couldn’t follow the plot. I thought this was because I must have missed something important. It was a fair question, seeing as there were suddenly new characters all over the film. But no, that wasn’t my fault. It’s so confusing because people just leave and enter the film constantly. Characters you’ve watched just disappear while others take their place. That leads us to the weird story behind this film.

Original director Bill Rebane ran out of money, and production was stopped. Years later, Herschell Gordon Lewis bought the footage, figuring he could complete it and add it on a double feature. Given that it was four years later, most of the cast couldn’t resume the parts. One that could had lost his hair in the intervening years, and thus had to play his own brother. As for the inconsistency of all the characters changing, no matter. Surely, Lewis thought, some narration can fill in the holes (more on that later).

The end result was a film that looks terrible, can’t even be heard correctly and changes characters on the drop of a dime. Scenes stretch on for ages and nothing ever happens. And as stated, the ending is appalling and makes the rest of the film even worse.

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The Creeping Terror
Do you love narration? If so, this is the film for you! Boasting one of the worst monsters this side of The Giant Claw, The Creeping Terror has more narration than you will probably ever see. Throughout the film, the characters’ lips move, but rarely are they heard. Instead, the narrator usually just jumps in to explain what they’re talking about. There are conflicting reports as to why there’s little dialogue. It may be because the soundtrack was lost, or simply because it was cheaper to film without sound. Either way, it sure is odd.

The production of the film is more interesting than the film, which mostly consists of a plodding, boring monster moving around. Director/producer Vic Savage allegedly swindled most of the people involved in the film. Instead of paying cast and crew, they fronted money with the promise profits would be received after release. Instead, he ran off when faced with several lawsuits and was never seen again. Not many productions can claim to be as outwardly skeevy as this one.

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The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies
This film brings to mind many questions. What’s with the long title? Why are the so many terrible dancing scenes? Who is the second male lead who can barely speak English properly? Why did Ray Dennis Steckler have a career making movies whilst having no talent?

As for the title, Steckler claimed he had to alter the original title (The Incredibly Strange Creatures, or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-Up Zombie) after threats of a lawsuit over being too similar to the full Dr. Strangelove title. This seems ridiculous on the surface, purely for the fact that Steckler being anywhere near the radar of Columbia Pictures just sounds silly. Plus, Steckler was clearly not very attached to the title, as he released the film several times under different names.

The production and release include a virtual who’s who of awful films. It was filmed in some of the same studios used for The Creeping Terror. It was initially released on a double bill with a film by king of nepotism Arch Hall Sr. Later, it travelled around with The Beast of Yucca Flats, directed by legendary awful filmmaker Coleman Francis and starring everyone’s favorite wrestler turned incomprehensible actor, Tor Johnson.

The numerous dancing scenes, terrible and pointless, do have an interesting story behind them. The lead dancer was fired after she went off to do something else one night. Steckler grabbed one of the other girls and declared her the new star. But since she had already appeared as a background dancer in other scenes, her appearance was altered to hide that it was the same person.

But what about Atlas King, the Greek actor who gives some of the worst line readings ever buried beneath his thick accent? All that’s known about him is that he appeared in one other film, another Steckler production. Even Steckler later said he lost track of him. But one thing is known for sure: he had an all time great name.

And speaking of Coleman Francis . . .

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The Beast of Yucca Flats
This film, already mentioned above, has more in common with other bad films than just Tor Johnson. It falls into the “screw the sound, we’ll fix it in post-production” category. But Francis proved to be even lazier than some of his counterparts. Sure, Manos: The Hands of Fate has only three people dubbing all the voices, but at least the effort is out into to dub. Francis, as if he knew he wouldn’t be bothered to do the work later, actively avoids showing the characters’ lips while they speak. That way, he just skipped the work of syncing the words perfectly. It’s like that one scene of the lip reader episode of Seinfeld, except for an entire film.

And what about the random opening scene, where a nude woman gets murdered by an unidentified man and is never mentioned again? The answer is very simple. Apparently, Francis was just a fan of nude scenes.

Are There Any Other Living Silent Film Actors?: A Follow Up

A while back, we featured an extensive look at all of the remaining silent film actors. Only a handful remain, and almost all of them are child stars. But there is some further exploration that can be done. Namely, the beacon of information known as Wikipedia lists one other confirmed living person who was in silents, and several cases of people who are possibly alive. So, let’s delve a little deeper into whether or not these other people are living silent film actors.

Shep Houghton
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The person who is definitely alive is Shep Houghton. Houghton has appeared in minor and insignificant roles in a number of major pictures, most notably The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. IMDB gives him credit for three silent films: Underworld, The Last Command and Ramona. But was he actually in those three films? That is where the issue gets a little trickier. Houghton’s roles are all listed as uncredited, which should come as no surprise. Silent films are notoriously bad at giving full cast lists in credits. Anyone outside of the main stars usually didn’t get a mention. The kinds of roles Houghton is listed as playing (strangely, both a Russian and a Mexican youth) never would usually get a screen credit.

At the very least, there is further confirmation that he appeared in the latter two films. Houghton was interviewed in an article about his hundredth birthday earlier this year. The article references both The Last Command and Ramona as early film roles. As that article was compiled from interviews with him and from an unreleased manuscript, those roles can pretty much be confirmed. Houghton is another silent film actor still living.

The people that follow are the ones who are listed as possibly living.

Vonda Phelps

Phelps only appeared in two films, both in 1922. Although her exact age at the time isn’t known, she played a baby in one of her two roles despite passing for a little girl in her other role. She worked on stage for a couple of years afterwards, after which point she disappeared from the public eye. Despite the claims that she is possibly living, records show that Phelps passed away in 2004.

Priscilla Moran
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For a four year period starting in 1922, Priscilla Moran was a major child star. Her debut, The Toll of the Sea, was one of the first technicolor features, and 1926 saw her star in her first and only leading role. Her time in the spotlight was short-lived due to no fault of her own. A custody battle that lasted for years pulled her from various homes and left her unable to appear in films. Long after the dust settled in that regard, she played several bit parts in 1937.

Moran is likely still alive at the age of 96. There are no death records for anyone with her date of birth, and Young Hollywood Hall of Fame lists her as still living.

Helen Rowland

Sometimes known as Baby Helen Rowland, she appeared in a total of nine films over a span of five years. Despite being a few years old at the time, it looks like she may have played an actual baby in some of her films. Unfortunately, only two of her films survive, so there is very little footage of her around. Not much information about her outside of these films are available.

Rowland may be alive. Multiple sources list her birthdate as October 23, 1919. The Social Security Death Index does show a Helen Rowland who passed away, with a birthdate that is six days off. It does seem likely that this is a different person. This other woman is listed as having died in Ohio, which connects with a woman of the same name in Ohio in 1940 census records. An Ohio news article from 1938 discusses a highly successful local decorator of the same name.

Given that the actress Helen Rowland was born in New York, it looks like she is more than likely still alive. If that is correct, she is 94.

Virginia Marshall

Marshall’s acting career also didn’t last long, but she was a lot more active than the others in her brief time. Over a span of five years, she appeared in 18 films. Some of these were major films: The Younger Generation (an early Frank Capra film), Flesh and the Devil and several Tom Mix westerns.

Even though she had a more notable career than the previous people mentioned, there is significantly less known about her. She was born some time around 1919, but it can’t be narrowed down any more than that. There were dozens of people with the same name born around that time, so whether or not she is alive cannot be determined.

Maggie Calloway

Even less is known about Calloway. She did appear in a few films in the Philippines, but beyond that it’s not known if she did any other work. An article about early films in the Phillippines notes that she was one of the first major film stars in the country. Aside from that, there is almost no information about her, including when she born. There is almost no way to find it if she is still alive with so little information.

With all of that information, it can safely be said that there are likely three additional living silent film actors, which brings the total up to 15.

An updated list of all the living silent film actors:

Manoel de Oliveria (105)
Mary Carlisle (100)
Shep Houghton (100)
Fay McKenzie (96)
Priscilla Moran (96)
Diana Serra Cary (95)
Dorothy Morrison (95)
Helen Rowland (94)
Louise Watson (94)
Lassie Lou Ahern (94)
Jean Darling (92)
Billy Watson (90)
Kathleen O’Malley (90)
Dickie Moore (89)
Mildred Kornman (89)

Don’t Touch TCM: The Importance of Classic Film’s Driving Force

If you’re reading this right now, you know that the humble writer of this blog is a classic film fan. And if you happen to follow me on twitter, you would be aware that I’m young. Almost all of my film knowledge is about films prior to the 1970s. The number of new releases I’ve seen in this decade could probably be counted on both hands. This certainly isn’t a normal thing for someone my age. So what is responsible for my film preferences?

Turner Classic Movies is the sole reason.

It was TCM that first introduced me to classic films just a few years ago. I tuned in a lot during October one year, as at the time I enjoyed horror films. Psycho opened the door to my love of Alfred Hitchcock, and in no time I was trying out tons of other films on the channel. Who cares if other people complained that the movies moved too slow, or were too old, or were in black and white. These movies were good. Really good.

TCM provided me with a crash course in film history, taking an oblivious young man and exposing him to all kinds of films I’d never seen before. These films were more heartbreaking, funnier and thrilling than any films I’d ever seen before. They touched on subjects better and more important than in most films I’d ever seen. I fell in love with musicals, foreign films, silent films and so much more.

I also joined a community of film lovers, people who love to watch movies together and make commentary. Coming to “meet” these people changed my whole movie watching experience, making it more enjoyable than ever.

TCM is the reason why the classic film community thrives to this day. It is the reason young people like myself have any knowledge of the classics. People of my generation would have no exposure to these films otherwise, as no other place is willing to show films like this uncut and commercial free.

The preservation of film is an idea that’s never gotten respect. Throughout history, films weren’t saved properly, stars were forgotten and legendary moments vanished. TCM has given life to stars and films that otherwise would have been completely forgotten. In short, it has saved and given life to a vibrant community of classic film fans.

If TCM is the victim of Time Warner cutbacks and dies, the classic film community may die with it. We can’t afford for that to happen. TCM is a national treasure, one of historical and cultural significance. Film history cannot die with it. It’s just about time classic films get the respect they deserve.

Make your voice heard on twitter with #DontTouchTCM and contribute to the letter writing campaign.

TCM Silent Film Schedule: October

5th
The Blot: This is one of the more interesting “message” films of the period, tackling poverty. Realism is the draw here: not only was it filmed at real locations, but many of the actors were not professionals. Lois Weber wrote, produced and directed it.

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6th
The Adventures of Prince Achmed: Unusual for its time, this is an animated German film. In fact, it’s the earliest surviving animated feature.

12th
The Boy Friend: This Hal Roach comedy is directed by Fred Guiol, who is best known for working with Laurel and Hardy.
Charley My Boy!: This short stars Charley Chase, an incredibly prolific actor and director in the silent era.
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Just A Good Guy: Another Roach short, this one stars vaudeville actor Arthur Stone.
Jailed and Bailed: This short stars James Parrott. Parrott, the brother of Chase, was another prolific silent comedy star who worked with Laurel and Hardy.

14th
The Vanishing American: Another message film, this one tackles the unfair treatment of Native Americans in America. Richard Dix, the star, would also play a Native American in Redskin.

15th
The Temptress: This is an early Greta Garbo film, her second for MGM. Strangely, theaters at the time were given a choice between either a happy or sad ending.
Our Modern Maidens: This is Joan Crawford’s final silent role, and one of many times she played a flapper. The film includes synchronized sound.

19th
Kean: Based on a play by Alexandre Dumas, the film was made in France but has a Russian director and cast.

26th
The Monster: Lon Chaney stars in this one as a mad doctor. Director Roland West is well known for his steady stream of horror films in the silent era.

28th
Nosferatu: Actually an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, this remains maybe the most famous silent horror film. It is best known for one distinctive image:
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31st
London After Midnight: London After Midnight is one of the most sought after lost films, and with good reason. It features a combination bound to create creepiness: Tod Browning as director and Lon Chaney as the star. And yet, it still remains lost. What TCM will be airing is an authorized reproduction of the film. It uses production stills from the film, along with information obtained from the script.<