Friday, March 25, 2011

Daughter of Horror (H.K.F. Productions, J. J. Parker Productions, Exploitation International, 1955/58)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before Charles and I had squeezed in another cheapie but one at the other end of the quality scale from Bombs Over Burma: Daughter of Horror, a schlocky title for what turned out to be an experimental film which aimed for, and sometimes achieved, art. It was released in 1958 by a studio which quite openly proclaimed its aims in its very name — “Exploitation Productions International” (!) — and though the opening credits had some interesting names on them, neither a writer nor a director were credited. It took a visit to the Web page on the film to find out why: the movie had actually been made by writer/director Jack Parker in 1955 and called Dementia, and his original intent was to make what Sergei Eisenstein, speaking to a Hollywood audience in 1930, called “the sound film” as opposed to the talkie: that is, a movie that would not contain dialogue but would include a soundtrack of music and effects to heighten the drama without taking away from the essentially visual nature of the film medium. (Eisenstein made the spectacularly wrong prediction that the dialogue film wouldn’t survive and what he called “the sound film” would be the standard for the future.)

Dementia was banned by the New York state censors and not released until three years later, when Exploitation bought the rights, cut about seven minutes out of it, changed the title and added a narrator — Ed McMahon, of all people, though I must admit I didn’t recognize his voice! — to break into the action periodically and explain what was going on, much the way the U.S. company that released Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (a visually driven but not entirely dialogue-free film) here as Castle of Doom in 1932 added a narrator and made cuts, thereby turning a great film into a piece of schlock. Apparently the original narration-free version of Dementia survives and both versions were released as a DVD package by Kino on Video a few years ago — though it was the Daughter of Horror version that TCM showed as part of their “Friday Night Underground” series.

After a long sequence in which the narrator talks over a black screen — there are a few luminous dots on it and it’s clear some are supposed to represent stars while others are just imperfections in the surviving print — the narrator tells us that what we are about to see is the story of a madwoman, moving through our world but not really of it. The woman, listed in the credits as “The Gamine” (Adrienne Barrett), goes out into the city and picks up — or is picked up by, we’re not sure which — a heavy-set man (Bruno VeSota) whose intentions toward her are decidedly dishonorable, and when she realizes that she kills him, then realizes that in attempting to rape her he grabbed a pendant from around her neck and tore it off, and it’s still in his hand and could link her to the killing if the police find the body. So she uses her switchblade knife (she never seems to leave home without one) and hacks off his hand — the sequence is bloodless and hinted at just off-screen but we still get the message and it’s a genuine shock — then dumps it in the basket of a street flower seller. (We’re given a flashback sequence to her childhood in which her madness is explained by her witnessing her father shoot her mother to death — in front of a mirror that shatters from the fatal bullet, which suggests that at some point Jack Parker had seen Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai — whereupon she picked up her switchblade, which she seemed always to carry even then, and stabbed her dad with it, killing him.)

She has a few more intense adventures as she wanders through the city and finally ends up in a jazz nightclub where Shorty Rogers and his band (Shorty Rogers was a big name in the white jazz world in the early 1950’s, on a level with Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and Shelly Manne, though his vogue didn’t last very long) are performing their piece “Wig Alley.” Eventually the action returns to the hotel room where the woman was living and from whence she ventured out, and it shows her stirring from her bed as the narrator proclaims that it was all a dream … or was it? Jack Parker seems to have been going for the same sort of poetic horror that Herk Harvey aimed for in Carnival of Souls seven years later, and though he didn’t have the magnificent baroque bathhouse to shoot in that Harvey did, Parker achieved a similarly atmospheric brand of horror even though his film isn’t quite as wrenchingly emotional. Like Harvey, Parker found a leading actress who’s not drop-dead gorgeous but not downright ugly either — a woman who might get the sort of male attention she desired but also might get a slimeball like VeSota’s character — and he managed to recruit some quite impressive “names” to work on his movie. The musical score (an even more crucial element than usual in a dialogue-free film) was by the major French composer George Antheil, and it features a woman — or at least her voice — who was involved in two Academy Award winners for Best Picture: Marni Nixon, who voice-doubled for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. (She’s used here as a wordless, high-pitched “vapor voice,” and despite the skill with which she negotiates Antheil’s vocal part, the sound gets annoyingly shrill after a while and one gets the impression that even if the heroine weren’t already crazy at the start of the film, she would be driven so by the sound of Marni Nixon’s vapor voice right in her ear 24/7.)

The musical director (i.e., conductor) is Ernest Gold, who would go on to write and conduct the music for the film Exodus and have a major hit on the theme song, and the cinematographer is William Thompson, who had shot for Dwain Esper in the 1930’s and Ed Wood in the 1950’s — he actually was far more talented than you’d think from these associations, but he didn’t get the major-studio assignments he deserved because he only had one eye. (So what? The eye he did have had excellent visual taste.) Daughter of Horror is a far more engaging work than the piece of stupid drive-in schlock one would expect from that title and an under-an-hour running time, and though the original narration-less Dementia might be a bit more difficult to follow, it’s probably an even better movie than Daughter of Horror (and, according to one reviewer, it featured a smoother transition from the rest of the movie into the scene in the jazz club — the abrupt cut to the nightclub interior and the quick switch from George Antheil’s music to Shorty Rogers’ is one piece of Daughter of Horror that doesn’t quite come off). The odd enduring fame of Daughter of Horror came from an unexpected source: it’s the movie used as the film-within-a-film in The Blob when the red-jelly monster comes oozing out of the projection booth into the auditorium!