October 26, 2010

Monster Mags! Horror movie magazines in 1970s England

Life before Fangoria, without even Famous Monsters of Filmland...

This is a follow-up to
my first horror movie books. A snapshot of some of the first books on the subject in the mid-1970s, when interest in the genre was only just being recognised and exploited.

As a schoolboy, I had to ask for those books as birthday or Christmas presents. More affordable, but just as rare, were horror movie magazines. At the time, I ran (well, cycled) around local newsagents looking for Marvel, DC and Charlton comics. They often only had a couple of copies of each edition, making collecting a set almost impossible. Many of my titles only started at 2 or 3 rather than number 1. Ten years old and already collecting...

At first, these American comics would have a large English price stamped in ink on the cover art - ruined! They were later reprinted for the UK with an English price on the front (these are now less valuable than the originals). I followed a few superheroes, my favourites were Batman and Jack Kirby's futuristic New Gods and Mister Miracle. I also enjoyed the spooky comics like House of Mystery, Creepy, Eerie, Tales of the Zombie, Where Monsters Dwell... I remember having some independent (non-code) horror comics confiscated off me in school when I was ten! Hang on, I feel a new post coming on...

I was also reading horror and sci-fi paperbacks. While digging around for secondhand copies and old comics, I started getting movie tie-in 'novels', the covers of which you may have spotted already in these pages.

But I really wanted to find out more about monster movies and horror films. I'd daydream about what they were like based on the promise of the photos. Books on special effects were fascinating, but of course weren't up to date.

I've heard that other Brits had better luck finding them, but for me there was an almost complete absence of copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland. My childhood perception of the genre developed very differently than kids in the US, where that magazine defined the appetites of generations of horror, sci-fi and monster fans. Without it, and years before Fangoria started being published and internationally distributed, this is what I found instead...

Searching through American comics it was a fluke that I found For Monsters Only (1972) - my first American horror movie mag. Scream and Scream Again was on the cover, with a long article summarising the plot with a dozen large graphic and atmospheric photos. This built up my expectations for eventually seeing the film on TV. The insanity depicted on the cover made me almost dread seeing the film.

Most of its other monster movie photos were only included with jokey balloon dialogue added, but they whet my appetite for the creatures from The Alligator People, I Married a Monster from Outer Space and many more. This was the only edition I found.

A more serious magazine but with less threatening cover art, Movie Monsters only ran for four issues over 1974/75, but had long valuable retrospective photo articles on many genres and horror stars. This and For Monsters Only were printed on pulpy black and white paper, apart from the cover. They were both obvious rivals to Famous Monsters of Filmland, focusing on traditional monster movies and classic horror. My next find was something different...

British magazine The World of Horror made more of an impact because of the large amount of glossy colour photos inside. I caught it from issue 1 - a mixture of photos and articles, some cartoons and a short story. It started off covering Amicus and Tyburn films and the last gasp of Hammer horror, fleshed out with sci-fi movies like Zardoz, and TV shows. The photo spreads were wonderful, issue 5 had three pages for Tales from the Crypt that made me even more desperate to see it.

In retrospect, there were valuable mentions of stage show revivals of Dracula, and Phantom of the Opera (which I saw) and even Jack the Ripper (the musical!), plus a colour spread on The Rocky Horror Show as it hit the stage for the first time on the King's Road in Chelsea.

But with issue 6, the magazine was the perfect place to feature new horror hits like The Exorcist and Young Frankenstein, then Flesh for Frankenstein, Phantom of the Paradise, and a great centre-spread for Flesh Gordon, plus my first glimpse of Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. Issue 7 looked at the animatronic effects work of Roger Dicken with behind the scenes shots of Land That Time Forgot, The Creeping Flesh, Scars of Dracula and Blood Beast Terror - this was a few years before his astonishing work on Alien (for the Chestburster and Facehugger).

The World of Horror ran a balancing act. Its Doctor Who and Star Trek covers would appeal to younger viewers, but was supposedly aimed at an older audience, with many photos of partial nudity and memorably gory colour shots from Frankenstein - The True Story,(bloody arm in a bag), Tyburn's The Ghoul (sacrificial dagger in the head), Sisters (really messy blood drinking) and Tommy (Robert Powell's burnt face).

But then it downgraded to more pulpy paper in issue 8, and despite an interview with Sheila Keith and a spectacular cover from Frightmare for issue 9, that was the last of the wonderful World of Horror.

The even gorier Monster Mag lasted a little longer. A full-colour, foldout poster magazine - poster on one side, vivid and graphic gory photos on the other. This controversial publication was showing blood-spattered corpses and decapitations five years before Fangoria got started. Issue 2 was famously banned, confiscated and destroyed by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise (en route to England from the printers in Italy) and not a single issue seems to have survived!

I discovered it in 1974 at issue 6 (I was twelve or thirteen), but could only buy it if the newsagent wasn't paying attention. In small writing on the cover, it said 'For Sale To Adults Only', which I'd try and hide with my thumb across the corner (ahem). This didn't always work, leaving a few holes in my collection. The infuriating lack of captions also meant that I didn't know all the films the photos were from. It was years before I worked out that the foldout poster of the skeleton on a wheel was from Ken Russell's The Devils.

Hammer, Amicus and Tyburn provided the juiciest photos and poster material, including a repro of the Horror of Dracula poster in one of the last issues. They seemed to have problems getting photos from American films like The Exorcist, using silly artwork instead. But the poster in issue 14, one of Christopher Lee's many Dracula death scenes, struck me as horrifying. Just a little blood, rotting skin, bloodshot eyes, and smoke pouring through his hair, but he looked like he was dying and disintegrating in a truly violent horrible way. Of course, it went straight up on my bedroom wall.

The text was almost irrelevant, mainly plot descriptions. But those photos! Issue 6 had a torn-out throat from The Beast Must Die that was almost medical. Issue 8 had an extraordinary look at the gory stage shenanigans of the Grand Guignol theatre of Paris. Eating 'intestines' on stage! Issue 2 of volume 2 had a wonderful spread of bloody photos from Vampire Circus. Then, for its last issue, Monster Mag ran a full page ad for a new magazine, The House of Hammer...

A mention here for Legend Horror Classics, another foldout poster format running at the same time, but mostly filled with a black and white horror cartoon strip. The cartoony covers put me off most issues. But the Death Line cover (1974)! Bloody hell! I got that one for the cover alone! When TV eventually showed a dark, shadowy print of Death Line, it couldn't possibly live up to the impact of this photo.

I finally lucked into a couple of copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, my first being 117 in 1975 (at an indoor market in Sheffield). For years, I only had three issues! Of course I wanted more, but couldn't find any. 117 and 118 had a photo story of 20 Million miles to Earth which I took to a schooltrip to Rome to specifically compare the climax of the film with the actual Colosseum. I'd not even seen the film yet...

I also found two issues of Monsters of the Movies at the same stall. Issue 7 devoted most of its space to telling the story of Horror of Dracula in text and dozens of photos, some of which weren't even in the final print (like Harker's vampiric corpse)! Again, this was years before I got to see the film on TV, after I'd seen two of the sequels! The article used many frame blow-ups to be able to illustrate the whole story.

Then the British magazine, The House of Hammer started up in 1976, hyping Hammer films but also reporting on the latest horror and sci-fi films. This was rewarding for providing regular, up to date news and reviews of current releases. Through issue 6, I even got to see a preview screening of Squirm despite being underage.

This was also where I first saw extensive coverage of emerging classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although most cinemas weren't allowed to show it in the UK. Other reviews included The Crazies, The Omen, Suspiria, oh yes and Star Wars. Sci-fi was about to obliterate horror magazines in the UK for a few years...

Hammer fans chase this mag because of the dynamic comic adaptions of some of the classic films, notably with better artwork than some of the covers. Importantly, it also imagined (unfilmed) sequel stories for the vampire hunters Father Shandor and Captain Kronos.

The contents were on black and white pulpy paper, but there was usually a glorious poster reproduction on the back cover. It found time for horror films from other continents and great retrospectives of early classics by Denis Gifford, author of A Pictorial History of Horror Movies.

At 15, I started heading into central London, to find the stores advertised in the above magazines. There they stocked more specialist magazines and imported some from America, though they were quite expensive. My first treasure was Photon, a glossy fanzine that looked extensively behind the scenes and interviewed filmmakers and genre stars, spending just as much time on older films as new. An interview with Kenneth Tobey and the making of The Thing From Another World, David Allen talking about animation in fantasy films, an in-depth look at the two versions of Curse of the Demon, Brian De Palma talking about Phantom of the Paradise - all solid information, long articles and no adverts. The glossy black and white format was perfect for great reproduction of rare photos.

My first were a back issue of 22, and a new copy of 26 - each one had a free 10 x 8 print included of one of the featured films. I got them from The Cinema Bookshop in Great Russell Street - but despite being devoted to films, this had a very small section on horror, focusing instead on classic movie stars and auteur directors.

Soon afterwards, I dared to enter Soho, reputedly a morally-bankrupt den of vice! Through a maze of streets, far away from the bustle (and security) of Oxford Street, I found Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed halfway along an alley, St Anne's Court. (Little did I know that, decades later, I'd be working just around the corner!) It was a large, open split-level store mainly devoted to sci-fi paperbacks.

Here I found Cinefantastique, like Photon it was a fanzine turned pro, applying professional criticism and analysis to a similar mix of classic sci-fi and horror. But with regular issues and plenty of colour, it endured to document genre film and TV until 2007. In 1976, I only bought the issues about films I wanted to learn more about - my first being Logan's Run and Carrie. I couldn't afford to get every issue (until much later), but the Star Wars and Close Encounters double issues were must-haves, giving unprecedented coverage about their production, not even covered in such detail in the promotional tie-in magazines and books.

The sci-fi boom had started, a dozen new space-oriented movie mags appeared (like Starburst, Starlog and Sci-Fi Now) and certainly distracted me for a while. But with effects-heavy slasher movies on the rise, the splattery coverage of Dawn of the Dead and Phantasm were about to launch Fangoria into international success. I never had trouble finding copies in the newsagents! So in 1979, my hunt for a regular supply of horror magazines was over...

Hungry for more classic horror mags? Here's a wonderful blog all about these and other Monster Magazines, featuring more of these terrific front covers.

October 22, 2010

THE GATHERING (2002) - overlooked Christina Ricci horror

(2002, UK)

An effective throwback to the heyday of British horror

Despite being that rare thing, a British horror movie with a decent budget, this took years to get a US DVD release and won't surface on DVD in the UK until March next year. Surely its one good chance of getting a warm reception. Given the film's copyright year, it'll have been a ten-year wait to see it in the country where it was made! It appears to have had a patchy release in South East Asia and around Europe, but possibly only on DVD. I don't think it was seen much outside of film festivals and TV showings.

Set near Glastonbury, but mostly shot on the Isle of Man, it's a country tale - not quite as creepy and remote as The Wicker Man or the village of The Slaughtered Lamb, but the same vicinity.

The Gathering starts with two music festival punters stumbling across the remains of an ancient church. The discovery has far-reaching implications for both archaeologists and the established church, as it could actually have been built at the time while the New Testament was still playing out. Meanwhile, an American tourist (Christina Ricci) has an accident on a country road, emerging unscathed but with total memory loss. She begins to see images of death amongst the strangers she meets...

A solid and creepy plot that strongly reminded me of the atmosphere of The Omen, and even of Quatermass and the Pit in terms of an unfolding mystery rooted in an ancient discovery. Even for a film of the early 2000s it feels dated, but in a good way. Almost an 80s' homage. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the last horror film not to use CGI. Having said that, I was impressed by the way the mysteries developed, playing on modern fears and adult themes.

Before i bought it, I didn't know it was made in Britain. I just wanted see Ricci in a modern-day horror film. Her screen persona in The Addams Family could have doomed her career to genre films, so it's understandable why she's avoided them for a while, though I was pleased to see her in Tim Byurton's excellent Sleepy Hollow (1999). While she holds the movie together, her talent isn't stretched by her character.

It's great to see Robert Hardy in there, as The Bishop. The actor is no stranger to oldschool Brit-horror, having played detectives in Psychomania (1973) and Berserk (1967). A concerned local, a pre-Fantastic Four Ioan Gruffudd, offers to help Ricci's character to regain her memories. A pre-Pirates of the Caribbean Mackenzie Crook gets screen time but no lines, presumably just hired for his creepy appearance.

I enjoyed seeing The Gathering on a Thai DVD years ago, and then tracked down a widescreen release from Germany. There seem to be at least two running times out there - a short version of a little over 80 minutes (like both my Thai and German DVDs), while the current US DVD release (pictured at top) is listed at 92 minutes. If the US DVD definitely is longer, I'll probably buy the film a third time! The only clue to what's missing is in the trailer - a sex scene.

Here's an original trailer on YouTube... it's in German, but you'll get the drift.


October 19, 2010

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974) - a very New York thriller

(1974, USA)

The original.

This has been remade twice, as a 1998 TV movie and the 2009 Tony Scott remake. But hey, enough. I'm giving up ranting about remakes, even when they pick my favourite movies. Time to take a deep breath and say, "to each their own".

I'm guessing that your favorite version of, say, Dracula is the first one that you saw. Once something has impressed you, other versions rarely measure up, whether they're older or newer. I first saw Christopher Lee as Dracula. He's the best Count. Not Bela Lugosi, not Gary Oldman, not Leslie Nielsen. A large part of enjoying a movie is where and how you see it, and the reactions of the people you're with. Anyone else's opinion of the film can't compete with that.

But grant me this: 'newer' doesn't automatically mean 'better'. This deal works both ways.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was a best-selling book, and then almost immediately a hit movie. While on holiday in New York in 1973, my parents had been too scared to travel on the subway, even during the day. Only later, after seeing films like Death Wish and The Warriors did I come to understand more about Manhattan's reputation in the early 70s. I first saw Pelham in London in, I guess, early 1975. It gave me more reasons to be scared of the New York subway. But of course, it's only a movie.

At a time when airplanes were regularly being hijacked, this story provided a landlocked twist. A group of gunmen hijack a busy subway train. Before the transit authority has time to react, the gang has locked down a carriage full of passengers, stranded it in a tunnel, and are threatening to kill them one by one if their demands aren't met. There's only an hour for the mayor, the police, everyone to cooperate to meet the deadline...

It's a deadly situation, but the approach is to make it look realistic - with people reacting as themselves rather than representatives of institutions. The Mayor is more concerned about the flu than the press. When the hijackers first make contact, the supervisor shouts at him for screwing up the intricately timetabled transport system! It's surprising that it's grimly funny, especially the use of New Yoik black humour - they've seen it all and are ready for anything.

I still really enjoy this, from start to finish. David Shire's opening theme music grips instantly and the story kicks in immediately with the crime already in progress. The story keeps on giving right up until the final shot. This isn't one of those caper movies where the team is slowly assembled and they think up their plans. We learn about the hijackers as the crime progresses, but in subtle dialogue references rather than flashbacks.

The tight script delivers suspense all the way, both in the race to meet their demands as well as inside the train. I don't remember so much of the swearing, making me think that it may have been toned down in the UK to get an AA certificate (no one admitted under 14 years old).

The events look totally realistic, I don't think there's even any back projection. The subway carriage looks like it's the real deal parked in a real tunnel. The extensive location filming above ground, on the streets of Manhattan, add to the realism and the excitement, especially when a police car speeds through the busy streets.

Some familiar faces fit snugly into their characters - Dick O'Neill (The Wolfen), Jerry Stiller and Walter Matthau (pictured) all look the part as cynical transit supervisors, all sitting in what look like the actual subway control rooms. This is one of Matthau's semi-tough roles at a time when he bounced between comedies (The Front Page) and tough guy thrillers (Charlie Varrick).

Robert Shaw (Jaws, Black Sunday) shines by underplaying the leader of the gang - although he's recruited a crew of armed thugs, he subtly kills time with a book of crossword puzzles during the height of the siege. Martin Balsam (Psycho) works effortlessly with shaw, while a young Hector Elizondo plays a memorable racist lowlife amongst villains, though he's almost unrecognisable in his 'tache and specs' disguise.

Julius Harris (Tee Hee in Live and Let Die) adds weight as the police commissioner, though doesn't have too much to do.

Thankfully the casting breaks the mould and doesn't resort to using minor TV celebrities for the hostages, unlike many disaster movies of the time. No need for backstories, these are a realistic, only slightly stereotyped cross-section of New Yorkers, played by practically unknown character actors. Their lines, often funny, are almost thrown away as background dialogue in all the chaos. In the end credits they're listed by appearance and not names - just don't ask me which one The Homosexual was, he wasn't even stereotypical enough to stand out.

In a long career in film and TV, Joseph Sargent also directed the gritty Burt Reynolds moonshine thriller White Lightning and the sci-fi cult classic Colossus: The Forbin Project. He's still directing TV shows. Bravo.

This was a major hit at the time, almost perfect as a thriller, and continued to be re-released for several years afterwards. I saw it again as a support film for Burnt Offerings!

I think this has long been out of print on DVD in the US and UK - I watched a ten-year old disc (pictured)! It's 2.35 widescreen but non-anamorphic, and is disgracefully overdue for a re-release.

More of my favourite subway stories, here.

A New York perspective on the film - review on Bright Lights Film Journal.

An original trailer is here on YouTube...

October 12, 2010

KONGA (1961) - attack of the giant hypno-gorilla-chimp

(1961, UK/USA)

UPDATED, November, 2013

Years of late night TV showings have kept Konga alive in the memories of 'bad monster movie' fans. Less gruesome but just as enjoyable as Horrors of the Black Museum, this was made by much the same production team, at the same studio. It may be a pale rendition of King Kong, but even official Kong movies continued to use a man in a suit for 25 more years. Furthermore, I believe Konga is the first giant gorilla to grace the screen in colour, debuting the year before Toho's King Kong Vs Godzilla.

While many horror reviewers rate it very low (like half a star), I think they're missing the point. Konga shouldn't be taken so seriously. For the continuously fractious antagonist, the restrained and polite teenage students, the completely ignored science (a baby chimp mutates into a giant gorilla), and the explosive overacting duels between Michael Gough and his co-stars.

Dr Decker returns from a disastrous African research trip with some rare plants and a baby chimp (no problems with customs, strangely). After making some outlandish, long-winded claims to the press about crossing the scientific divide between plants and animals, he soon finds himself in conflict with the Dean of Essex College, where he lecherously lectures. Continuing with his researches to prove his claims, he breeds his giant plants and injects their sap into the monkey.

But I'm telling you the plot. Needless to say, the chimp/gorilla can easily be hypnotised to sit in the back of a van and leap out and murder the doctor's rivals. But everything goes tits up when a giant-sized Konga rampages through suburbia...

Michael Gough is as over-the-top as the strain on his heart will allow, but still gets upstaged by the gorilla suit. Young pop singer Jess Conrad plays the student rival for the object of his affections, and a young Steven Berkoff (with hair!) is one of his college colleagues. Jack Watson (Vault of Horror, Tower of Evil, The Wild Geese) plays a rather wooden detective with the worst line in the whole movie (it's in the trailer). George Pastell, fresh from ordering Christopher Lee about in The Mummy, again flashes his turban. Probably cast because he's good at getting throttled...

The tone is alternately sedate and dramatically frantic. Schizophrenically switching between wholesome family values, and as much outrageousness as producer Cohen can get past the censor - with a teacher ravaging his buxom student, the doctor shooting a cat at point blank range (twice), as well as murder, mayhem and the wanton destruction of modelwork.

While Gough acidly pontificates on what he does and doesn't like in a relationship (I'm reminded of Kenneth Williams without the laughs), it's all a bunch of lies to keep his assistant off the subject of marriage while he lusts over a double-D student. I also realised that Gough talks for most of the movie. Loudly.

But there's isn't a dull moment with all the bad science, bad drama, man-eating plants (well, woman-eating plants) and many of your favourite plot points from many other Cohen productions. Heavily influenced by the strong-headedness of Dr Frankenstein, acting above the law in the name of science, this at least beats Willard to the routine where the murderer chauffeurs around killer animals.

Some of the compositing matte work is still impressive - to this day, you still can't easily say how they did every single shot. But the obvious modelwork and repetitive use of the limited techniques are what stick in the memory. Oh yes, and the gorilla suit. Besides the extremely expressive eyes, lit better than Joan Crawford, this shows precisely what's lost when you don't have a dedicated gorilla expert inside a gorilla suit. He shrugs, he strolls, he rolls his eyes, just like a grumpy stuntman... every close-up of Konga makes for great comedy. He always cracks me up.

The carnivorous plants in Dr Decker's greenhouse are also impressively animated. Not quite as bizarre as the shadowy mutations in Die Monster Die! but these get much more screen time. Some snap, some wiggle, some just look extremely phallic in an otherwise repressed post-1950s atmosphere.

OK. It's a bad movie with a monkey-suit, but it can't be dismissed as a kiddie flick because of its barely restrained sexual obsessions, and occasional sadistic violence. The ending even achieves a little poignancy. After all, in everything bad, there's always a little good.

I get an extra kick from this film, knowing that it was shot near to where I live. The locations include the streets around Merton Park Studios (see the previous entry), Croydon High Street (standing in for Westminster), a college in Putney (for 'Essex College'), and of course the forest field trip to Hammer Studio's favourite, Black Park. I think I'm even starting to recognise certain trees in there.

Part of Konga's rampage can still be visited here - over the road from what's left of Merton Park Studios...

Konga was last released in 2007 as an MGM Midnite Movies DVD double-bill with the equally bizarre Yongary. I watched it on this 2005 edition (pictured above), a nicely-restored 1.66 letterbox edition (non-anamorphic). No extras or Konga trailer though.

2013 UPDATE: the UK finally got Konga with the nicest looking DVD to date, from Network (above) - rich colours and a wider-framed aspect - now also presented in anamorphic 16:9 widescreen. It includes rare photos, the trailer and a brand new introduction by teen star Jess Conrad.

Network Distribution's page for the 2013 DVD of Konga, including the original trailer...

Here's an interview by Tom Weaver with writer/producer Herman Cohen on
the making of Konga. This was a big budget for Cohen, inflated by the optical special effects work).
 US DVD reviews and screengrabs at Giallo Fever, at DVD Drive-In, and even Konga comic books at The Uranium Cafe.

My article about other cult movies shot at Merton Park Studios.

October 08, 2010

KONGA (1961) - filming location found!

Finally found a local horror movie location...

I recently visited what was left of Merton Park Film Studios, close to where I live, and wrote about its run of low-budget horror movies such as
Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga. The full article is here, including a list of the cult movies shot there. But I couldn't find any recognisable locations from any films there, or in any nearby streets. I've continued to search among photos and the films themselves and found my first recognisable match. No big deal, but after years of looking, my first success. Admittedly it's not in quite the same league as Frankenstein's lake...

This shot of Konga towering over a parade of shops represents a scene from the film - but publicity photos like this were rarely frame enlargements. Like the bewildering and misleading photos and lobby cards for the older
Godzilla movies, this will have been a literal 'cut and paste job', taking two photos and gluing them together. This was the standard practice at the time to represent a film's special effects. Below is a frame from the film itself.

And here's the location as it stands today...

It was easy to find - I remembered these shops over the road from the studio headquarters, known as the Long Lodge - the only building that still exists 40 years after closing its doors as a film studio. In the photos, the wall on the left is the side of the Long Lodge itself. Even the street lighting (at right) is in roughly the same place as 50 years ago, when
Konga was made.

Here's a closer look - so many of the building's features, like the chimneys and brickwork, have remained unchanged. They're all still shops!

Looking right, the shops curve round a corner away from the main road, (there's the new street light) to another location used in the film, for several shots of crowds running past parked cars and shops (framegrab below).

While the story was set in an unspecified part of London, Konga was supposed to rampage to the Houses of Parliament. Producer Herman Cohen couldn't get permission to film there (so he claimed) and used Croydon High Street instead (a suburban town a few miles away from Merton Park Studios) for scenes of the crowds and army gathering to watch Konga pose in front of Big Ben. The shopping centre in Croydon has since had so many facelifts that I've had no luck finding any locations from the cheap but memorable climax. I'm also trying to find the mad doctor's (Michael Gough) house from the film.

I've marked the location on Panoramio, which adds photos to Google Maps.

My review and more photos from Konga, linked here...

More about Merton Park Studios and their horror movies, here...