August 10, 2014

THE UFO INCIDENT (1975) - the mother of alien abduction stories

(1975, U.S. TV movie)

First recreation of a reported alien abduction - never been on DVD

This a compelling, well-produced TV movie that features an early conception of what 'grey' visitors look like and introduced the 'alien abduction' to millions of viewers, presenting it as actual events on prime-time. Whether or not all of it's true, the cultural influence of this story is huge. Before it, there'd been documentaries about UFO sightings, but here it's powerfully dramatised. First contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation, presented as a factual possibility.

Betty and Barney Hill were driving home from Montreal to Portsmouth, New Hampshire at night, when they saw an unidentified flying object. A few miles on they heard a beeping sound and both suffered amnesia (an unusual phenomenon in itself) about what happened next, arriving home in a daze two hours later than planned. After two years of nightmares and anxiety-related illness, they sought professional help and, through hypnosis, recovered memories of the lost hours from that night. They remember being stopped in the road and led into an alien spacecraft...

Many films say they're based on a true story, then distort the truth to make a better story. But The UFO Incident doesn't need to invent anything to be a gripping drama. It's based on a book containing many of the actual transcripts of the Hills' hypnosis sessions. The Interrupted Journey (1966) is written by the psychiatrist himself, who saw his job as evaluating what happened to the couple, but mainly to alleviate their anxieties over these repressed memories. The book and the film is open-minded to the possible truths behind their memories. Much of the script is taken word-for-word from their taped psychiatric sessions. As films based on true stories go, this is one of the most faithful there is.

It's up to the viewer to decide what the Hills are remembering under hypnosis. Flashbacks recreate their memories, but are they dreams or experiences? The emotional reactions from them not wanting to remember and the shock realisation over what they saw is down to James Earl Jones' and Estelle Parsons' extraordinary performances, filmed in very long takes.

According to the full-page review in Cinefantastique magazine (volume 5, number 1, 1976), James Earl Jones (above) bought the rights to the story and spent two years trying to get it made as a feature film, before settling for a TV movie. His work isn't reflected in the brief onscreen credits though. Jones even travelled the roads around the abduction site in preparation for the part.

The film packs in as many of the book's highlights and conjectures as possible, but I was clearer about the timeline of events after reading the book as well. It adds some consistent details about the visitors' motives. The aliens have no concept of age or dying (which fits in with extended years of space travel) and are only visiting Earth to collect a few samples - they say they won't be back! Betty's recovered memories are so rich in detail, the internal logic is too good to be from a dream. For instance Betty wants to stay with Barney while he's being examined, but she also wants to leave the spaceship as soon as possible. The alien leader argues that if she is examined at the same time as her husband, she'll be out of there faster!

It's a dramatic, involving and frightening movie that derives its strength from close ups of the couple under hypnosis, far more than what they actually see. Their memories are often seen only in flashes, which also means we don't dwell on the costumes and special effects too much. The budget certainly isn't Close Encounters, but it's better than Project U.F.O. because of the superior performances that sell the shocks. There are some beautiful lighting effects used to infer the pursuit by the ship that I'd love to see clearer (the YouTube files are quite vlurry). Incidentally, Greg Jein, one of the main modelmakers on Close Encounters, built the spaceship forest diorama glimpsed in The UFO Incident (below).

The significance of this case is wide-ranging, and the book and film are definitely important culturally, if not scientifically. This may not be the first reported story of an alien abduction, but because there are two witnesses it was taken more seriously. It fed into a widespread UFO paranoia, predating many similar reports and variations of abductions, and popularised the use of hypnotic regression. It also champions the idea that aliens won't harm us - the view soon to be expressed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and by 'visitor' cults and religions.

Two years on, Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) turned the tables again and 'abductions', a weird term for an event where you're borrowed for a few hours, turned hostile again. Despite the warm fuzziness of E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, most spaceship interiors signified terrifying experiences, as seen in Communion, Fire In The Sky and The X Files.

So, The UFO Incident is an important milestone of the genre and worth watching as a drama, but is it a true story? The Hills (pictured below) weren't motivated to make this all up for personal gain. Both of them had steady jobs and Barney was also involved in civil rights campaigning. They didn't want the story getting out because of ridicule. They didn't sell their story and worked hard to keep it out of the public eye. The book was only published to set the record straight after the story was leaked to the press.

As with many stories of UFOs, I think the context of human perceptions framed by public knowledge and popular culture holds many answers, possibly revealed in the earlier cultural timeline. The film was made in 1975 but the abduction took place in 1961. (Why did it take so long to become a film?)

Betty and Barney Hill were driving home on September 19th, 1961 when they spotted a light in the sky. The way it was moving ruled out that it was a light aircraft. They thought it might be a helicopter though they couldn't hear a motor. Barney looks at it through binoculars and thinks its a UFO. But their conclusion is already being formed by many earlier reports of UFOs in that area. Betty's sister had already seen one, so they were already primed to conclude that that's what it was. 

The Twilight Zone episode 'Hocus Pocus and Frisby' 
premiered May 1962, between their abduction and hypnosis

On TV, many episodes of The Twilight Zone featured spaceships and alien visitors similar to the ones they describe, not to mention hundreds of pulp novels with imaginative cover art, cartoons and the sci-fi feature films of the previous decade. This Island Earth (1955) and Invaders From Mars (1954) both feature abductions, the latter a table examination with a needle probe. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) has the same circular corridors and ramp that they described inside the spaceship. These films and TV episodes could all provide a library of visual experiences to be remembered later on. Whether the Hills saw any of these or not, the images might also have been on posters, in newspapers and TV guides.

While they claim amnesia for most of the ride home, Betty had very vivid dreams over the next few weeks, detailing her walking into the spaceship and speaking telepathically with the alien visitors on board. She then writes down these dreams.  I don't know what extra detail she remembers under hypnosis, other than that it was real rather than a dream. She also contacted her sister, who had seen a UFO, and then Project Blue Book takes a statement of their sighting. Those guys may also have quizzed them with leading questions, adding detail to what they could have seen. Barney also read a book about UFO experiences (Donald Keyhoe's 'The Flying Saucer Conspiracy').

All this happens in the two years before the taped hypnotisms, the couple have potentially filled themselves up with memories by December 1963. By which time, The Outer Limits is also on TV - featuring a different alien creature every week! (The episode 'The Bellero Shield' featuring a grey alien with a streamlined head premiered the week before the Hills' second hypnotic session.) Their two missing hours could also be explained by their repeatedly stopping the car and getting lost on the way home.

While their experiences are broadly the same, this could be explained that Betty has been talking about her nightmares with Barney. In any case, the psychiatrist doesn't cross-examine them closely on the details once they're inside the ship (Betty mentions that the examiner took out Barney's false teeth, but the psychiatrist fails to check if Barney also remembered that incident). The opportunity to get two distinct accounts is further tainted when he plays back all their trance-like recordings back to them, once they're awake.

I was struck that their descriptions of the abduction is dreamlike, mirroring their state under hypnosis - they are barely awake when they are dragged into the ship. The aliens also use hypnotic suggestion on them to cooperate. Betty mentions that the aliens talk to her without talking (infering telepathy) but also much like we communicate with characters in our dream.

The psychiatrist questioning Betty parallels the alien leader interrogating her. There's even a moment in the book when Betty is in an alien waiting room while Barney is still being examined (this is when she asks about the star map). A parallel experience with her hypnotism session happening after Barney's.

But these stories are fascinating, and the film and book stress the possible multitude of reasons for their recalled experiences. An extraordinary case dealt with sympathetically though intelligently. The abduction experience overshadows what just happened when they were conscious - a UFO that they observed over several miles that seemed to be following the car. Barney even stares at it through binoculars, observing a window with several figures inside!

I wish it were a true story. But projecting wishes onto what I've seen in this movie is probably the same mechanism that started this all in the first place.

The cover scans I've seen of this on sale online make me think that The UFO Incident has never officially been on DVD. All the art looks like bootleg. Though there's this NTSC VHS sleeve (above) that indicates it had a home video release. But it should really be on DVD, rather than the fuzzy, jumpy TV recordings that are currently on YouTube.

August 02, 2014

MONSTER MAG rises from the grave with two new issues!

It's Back! Bloodier Than Ever!

The goriest movie magazine of the 1970s - a cover gallery including the brand new issues...

Of the few horror movie magazines available in Britain in the 1970s, Monster Mag was the most outrageous. Gory publicity photographs all in full bloody colour on glossy paper. Once seen, never forgotten, but it's time for a little reminder now that two more editions have been published, 39 years later!

Early issues had more text, less colour, but great posters!

MM 2 was confiscated and destroyed, but MM 3 was even bloodier!

Censored from British and American versions, this scene has only just re-appeared in the newly-restored blu-ray edition of Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (MM 3)

 MM 6 had a foldout poster from Ken Russell's The Devils

MM 6 covered Amicus' The Beast Must Die, with this graphic shot of a throat wound effect that still baffles me. The graininess of the image made me think it could be an optical effect?

From 1973 to 1975, these monthly magazines were the clearest images from current and recent horror movies available at pocket money prices. Each edition had photo-heavy 'articles' that folded out with a huge tasteless (creased) poster on the reverse. 'Poster magazines' later became more popular as movie tie-ins, like Doc SavageIsland at the Top of the World, and a monthly series for Star Wars.

Monster Mag mostly covered European and British horror films that were in cinemas in the mid-seventies. Light on text, often leaving many photos uncaptioned, they alerted horror fans to the existence of many movies we had no hope of seeing unless they turned up on TV.

According to publisher Dez Skinn's website, Monster Mag was edited by husband and wife team Roger and Jan Cook. Apparently Jan's mission was to find the goriest movie photos that were around at the time. This was a full five years before Fangoria magazine began, and also learned of the power of gory photos on their circulation.

I discovered my first Monster Mag in a local newsagents when I was about thirteen! (My first issue was six, I might still have been twelve). Buying them sometimes took a couple of tries because I was refused a few times. The front cover had a strip saying 'For Adults only', a warning usually only printed on softcore porn mags. I'd return to the shop on a different day, when someone different was at the till, and try my luck again. Thought I was being ingenious by covering up the 'adults only' banner with my thumb. Didn't always work.

Inside MM 7, Willard, Ben and Blood Island!

MM 8 had a startling spread covering Paris' Grand Guignol theatre, and a photo-free article on The Exorcist.

MM 9 has more Euro-horror with The Claws of Lorelei and Horror Express

MM 9, had this mystery poster, probably from the Grand Guignol stage production that they covered in MM 8.

MM 10 has two pages on When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth and this great publicity photo of Vincent Price as Dr. Phibes

MM 12 has more great photos, but the poster features Hammer's worst ever fake head, from Twins of Evil!

This shot of sting make-up from The Deadly Bees is barely glimpsed in the film (MM 12)

As you can see from all these covers, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were Britain's kings of horror!

Grisly giant poster of Dracula frothing blood!

Excellent shot from Vampire Circus - again, I can't tell if this is a fake head or a camera trick (MM 14)

Volume 2 had a slightly smaller format and the posters were diminished down to two big photos

Vampire Circus gets a four-page spread in volume 2, no. 2

Volume 2, no. 3 was the last of the Monster Mags (or was it?)
Includes a great spread of photos from Scars of Dracula

At the time, horror was barely recognised as a serious genre, and violent thrillers like Bonnie and ClydeDeath Wish and A Clockwork Orange, westerns like The Wild Bunch and A Fistful of Dollars were the main worry of censor-happy moralists like the Daily Mail. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre hadn't opened in British cinemas yet (not until Christmas 1976), but I think that's when low-budget horror started being perceived as a threat. 

But just before then, there wasn't any fuss in the papers over Monster Mags being sold in the newsagents. The threat of 'high street horror' didn't hit hard until video rental shops opened everywhere.

For the rest of 1975, I collected most of the Monster Mags (12 of the 17), failing to backorder the gaps in my collection. But for decades, no-one was able to complete their collections because issue two was never on sale in the UK, though they were available abroad, in German and French... 

Problem was that the English editions were also printed in Europe, but on arriving in England, Her Majesty's Customs seized all copies of issue two, destroying every last one! It was only a few years ago that I first saw a photo online of the French edition (above), but never ever a copy for sale. Only last month did the publisher officially reprint it in English (below). Hurrah!

It's a mad thrill to be able to buy a brand Monster Mag again, after all this time. At the end of July, publisher Dez Skinn followed up the resurrection of issue 2 with the 'XX issue' that was promised in the last ever Monster Mag in 1975! So that's two new editions that are now on sale, both selling for cheaper than any secondhand vintage editions. But there are also these babies...

After Monster Mag folded (sorry), a toned-down foldout poster mag appeared throughout 1976 called Legend Horror Classics. A bizarre mix of creepy comic strips and movie photos, aimed at a younger, but still bloodthirsty, reader. The comic artwork was too simplistic for me at the time, and the first two cartoony covers put me off. 

However, I bought this one with the astonishing photo from Death Line on the cover. This was even gorier than the Monster Mags!

Also bought no. 3, that tied in nicely with a reissue in cinemas of Ray Harryhausen's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The plot was adapted as a comic strip and there was this four-page cyclops poster (above) too. In all, there were nine issues of Legend Horror Classics that were mostly comics inside.

But, the last three issues returned to an 'all photographs' format like Monster Mag. The titles were Vampires (above), Werewolves and Frankenstein. Here are all twelve covers of Legend Horror Classics on the Monster Magazine Gallery site.

Welcome back, Monster Mag. It's been a while! Looking up your history, I've learnt more about the tempting Legend Horror Classics series too.

Get the new Monster Mag editions from Dez Skinn's website
or from his eBay shop.

More about Dez Skinn's adventures in publishing on his website (the story of Monster Mag is near the bottom of this page).

And here's my look at the other horror movie magazines on sale in Britain in the 1970s.

July 26, 2014

DRAKULA HALALA (1921) - a Dracula movie before NOSFERATU

(1921, Hungary, Drakula halála)

So you think you know the history of horror films? I don't!

There I was, thinking Nosferatu (1922) was the first ever Dracula film. It was a surprise to see on Twitter a photo of an actor playing Dracula in an earlier film! This is definitely a movie worth highlighting, despite The Death of Dracula currently being a lost film. On reading more about it, I discovered I should have known about it already...

My interest in horror films stretches back to the origins of the genre. Early zombie movies, demons, werewolves, vampires... and like with the first existing silent Frankenstein film (1910), you can then delve back further to Mary Shelley's novel and her inspirations, the mythologies and technologies around her as a teenager.

Many elements of horror films are predated by plays, novels, newspaper serials, art, folk stories and legends and back and back... but the first film in any genre holds a special place. While vampire-like creatures appeared in silent films as far back as Georges Méliès' short films in the late 1890s, when did the character of Dracula make his screen debut?

After years of reading about vampire movies, I presumed that the first Dracula movie was Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau's unauthorised German adaption released in 1922. While the names in the novel had been changed to try and dodge a lawsuit, the film lifts most of its story and characters from Bram Stoker. When his widow successfully sued the filmmakers, it was ordered that all prints of the film be destroyed. Luckily for us, they missed a few and Nosferatu has now been released on blu-ray!

But for decades, there'd been a search for the lost Hungarian film Drakula halála (translated as The Death of Dracula). While there was no trace of any surviving footage, a researcher found a 'filmbook', a novelisation (pictured above) in the Hungarian National Library in Budapest. This, together with magazines of the time, have given us the story and a few photographs, proving that there was a film based on the Dracula novel, first released in 1921.

Released in 1921, it was directed by Károly Lajthay (above) and starred Paul Askonas as Drakula and Lene Myl as Mary, the haunted heroine. Lajthay had written the script with Mihály Kertész, better known to us when he moved to America and changed his name to Michael Curtiz (!), directing classic Hollywood films such as Mystery of the Wax Museum and Casablanca! It was shot on location in Vienna and in studios in Budapest.

The novelisation probably gives us the full story of this fifty to sixty minute film, (the existing photographs match two scenes in this book). The virginal Mary is haunted by the demonic Drakula after she encounters him in a lunatic asylum. The man (possibly deluded that he thinks he's Dracula) recoils from the cross, but later kidnaps Mary for a satanic 'wedding' back at his castle.

While the plot doesn't follow Stoker's novel, many situations are familiar from it. Dracula's immortality, his castle, his brides, Mary's suffering health after meeting him, the asylum... possibly the story elements were juggled to dodge any copyright issue?

The filmbook's cover art shows Drakula with fangs, talons and a 'bat ear' hairline, but the portrait of Paul Askonas as Drakula (above) only shows us his cape, wild hair and eyebrows, with a hairline that looks a little like bat ears. There's a chance to see Askonas in action in The Hands of Orlac (1924), where he plays Conrad Veidt's butler.

In this photo of the central character, Mary Land, actress Lene Myl is barely visible. There are reports that her part was also refilmed with another actress when the film was re-released three years later! So, maybe two versions of the film, both missing, presumed lost, in the second world war...

But why didn't Florence Stoker also sue the makers of Drakula Halala? One theory is that she never got to hear of it, let alone see it. But maybe it was too dissimilar from the novel. Vlad Drakul was a local historical figure, so it would be hard to base a lawsuit on the name either. It's also intriguing that Bela Lugosi, born in Hungary, could have seen the film, ten years before he played Dracula.

Looking back through my books and magazines - I discovered that I should have known about this film all along. Radu Florescu included it in the filmography of the revised 1994 edition of 'In Search of Dracula'. Only a small mention, but Alan Frank had also noted it in his 'Monsters and Vampires' (above), which I've had since 1976! Perhaps I repeatedly dismissed the film's existence because it could never be seen? But just because we can't see it any more doesn't discount its place in horror history.

My most unforgiveable oversight is forgetting about the massive three-page article in the October 1998 Cinefantastique magazine (volume 30 number 7/8) which carries the full story on the discovery of the filmbook in the Budapest library. Perhaps I was too excited about the next season of The X Files... 

The lesson. Read and re-read your chosen subjects. The answers might already be around you!

Incidentally, there's this even more extensive article about Drakula Halala by Gary D Rhodes. Published in 2010, this free-to-download PDF also includes the first ever English translation of the entire filmbook - the only way to enjoy this lost movie, as well as better versions of the surviving photographs.

This Hungarian site includes other artefacts, like adverts for the film.

(Thanks also to Emilio J Fernandez @EmilioJFernndez for resetting my horror knowledge with a single tweet!)