In the mid-60s I was a kid obsessed with horror flicks. When the TV guide in the Sunday paper arrived, I painstakingly scanned the movie listings for anything of interest, highlighting all horror and science fiction titles and scheduling my week’s viewing.
On Thursdays (when the local theaters changed titles) I’d greedily peruse the newspaper ads seeking macabre tidbits. During this period, nothing captured my imagination more than the all-night horror line-ups promoted at the local drive-in theaters. Hailed as ‘Shock-a-thons’, ‘Terror-ramas’ and the like, these nocturnal horror smorgasbords seemed the perfect high-potency prescription to feed my accelerating terror addiction. Hence, my drive-in virgin trip to the ‘Blood-O-Rama’. The following movies were showing that monumental night:
Before going on to much bigger and more respectable Hollywood enterprises, Roger Corman’s kid brother Gene spent some time slumming in the B-movie end of the production industry. In 1958, Gene Corman penned a story idea about an astronaut who returns to earth with an alien life form nestled inside him and eventually transforms into the titular monster in Night of the Blood Beast. The screenplay was executed by Martin Varno and the production was directed by Texas-born Bernard L. Kowalski (he also directed Attack of the Giant Leeches in ’58 and Sssssss in 1973).
Roger Corman served as Executive Producer. This unusual drive-in opus hit the screens in August 1958 and was alternately promoted under the titles, The Creature from Galaxy 27 and The Monster from Galaxy 27. This very low-budget offering and another movie also released in August of 1958 called It! Terror from Beyond Space are sometimes cited as providing inspiration to Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett in their creation of the runaway science fiction hit Alien (1979) directed by Ridley Scott. While Night of the Blood Beast, like most Corman productions, was released through American International Pictures, It! Terror from Beyond Space received a slightly classier distribution deal via United Artists.
This movie appears to have done some decent business in the nation’s drive-in theaters and continued to appear as part of multiple billings even ten years later when it showed up as the first title in the Arlington Drive-In’s May 23rd 1968 ‘Blood-O-Rama’. It was an all-night horror program offered up to local teenagers at the end of the school year who needed an excuse to be out of the house from dusk ‘til dawn.
There was no way in hell my mother would’ve packed us off to a heathen enterprise like the ‘Blood-O-Rama’. Under the right circumstances, my dad might have been game (as long as there was an ice chest full of beer on board), but he was in Vietnam when this sensational opportunity arose. What was a young horror hound to do?
Fortunately for me, my best friend Roy’s mom had recently remarried to an enormous red-headed fellow named Tim who shared our fondness for blood, guts and drive-ins. Tim was a member of the sheet-metal workers union, a heavy drinker and a fan of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Roy and I conspired for me to spend the night and he worked on mowing the lawn and doing other chores so Tim would be agreeable to our plan.
An Italian production, directed by Antonio Margheriti, Castle of Blood was released in the US by the Woolner Brothers, drive-in impresarios with longstanding ties to Roger Corman. The film was promoted as an Edgar Allen Poe tale, but this was surely just a marketing ploy designed to drive gullible kids (like me) into the theaters. Poe is a character in the movie, but the story was concocted by Sergio Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi. The plot focuses on a man who accepts a dare to spend the night in a haunted castle where historic murders continue to play out in ghastly detail.
Barbara Steele, whom I recognised from The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), plays one of the tormented spectres. That woman was congenitally disposed to become a horror diva. Directors in Italy had spotted the sinister appeal of her facial features and featured the British actress in a long list of memorable horror flicks. The production value in Castle of Horror put everything we’d seen in Night of the Blood Beast to shame.
Though we joked about the failure of the character’s lip movements to match the dialog, everyone in the car that night agreed that this Italian movie represented what horror films were supposed to be about. Gothic horror was what I craved most in 1968. The films from Britain’s Hammer Studios and the Poe pictures from Corman had increased my appetite for period settings. It was easier to imagine something really scary happening in a castle than in the alleyways and urban locales featured in most of the B-movies of the 60s.
Roy’s stepdad agreed. He told us how he’d almost pissed his pants when he saw Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958). Tim said the Brits and Europeans were just naturally better at creating horror films. It was in their blood, part of their culture. Good thing for us culturally deprived rednecks on the Texas prairie.
Directed with typical panache by Mario Bava and featuring Cameron Mitchell, whom I recognised from High Chaparral and numerous other television westerns, this was the first colour film in the ‘Blood-O-Rama’ line-up. I remember thinking they should have played this movie at the beginning, since audiences were becoming increasingly resistant to black and white films.
The violence in this contemporary giallo crime story was delightfully over-the-top to my pre-teen sensibilities. The soundtrack’s blaring horns were off-putting to me. I’d already noted a tendency on the part of Italian film makers to use frantic, jazzy music in chase scenes and I was not a fan. Even though the story was modern, I felt the music should have been more traditional and sombre as it had been in the gothic flick we’d just watched. There was a lot of gruesome mayhem in Blood and Black Lace. The killer enjoyed experimenting with intimidating weapons like straight razors and a hooked metallic armour glove.
There was plenty of shock value and jarring camera work, but my ten year-old self was not accustomed to all night horror film festivals. By the final minutes of this movie, I’d begun nodding off. I shook my head and slapped my cheeks to stay awake. This all-nighter was a rite of passage and I wanted to make through with flying colours. Such was not to be the case.
Though in colour, directed by Sidney J. Furie (The Entity), featuring the lovely Hazel Court and written by Nathan Juran (the man who would later bring us The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, 1973), Doctor Blood’s Coffin seemed weak tea after the evening’s previous offerings. Especially, since I could not for the life of me keep my eyes open for longer than a minute at a time.
It was not until a late-night television screening a couple of years later that I got to actually watch and appreciate the film. Nothing stellar, but an interesting zombie tale, sometimes touted for being the second zombie flick produced in colour. The mouldering walking dead were visually interesting enough, but the storyline seemed a throw-back to a bygone era.
So, I’d lived through my first dusk ‘til dawn cinematic trail by fire. You can bet I bragged about it to anyone who would listen in the days following. (Naturally, I down-played it when Mom was within earshot.) What I left out of my recollection was the heat of the early summer night, the swarms of mosquitoes, the sticky sweat gluing us the car’s vinyl upholstery and the overwhelming chemical scent of insect repellent.
The Arlington Drive-In was not long for the world at this point. Located near the University of Texas at Arlington and intended to attract students as well as locals, the drive-in was in disrepair and desperately trying gimmicks like the ‘Blood-O-Rama’ to draw people in. The college crowd were more interested in socially conscious, counter-culture fare in 1968. A hint that the theater would soon be closing was the fact that they did not run the usual garish ad to publicise the all-night fright fest. Such embellishments were now reserved for Hallowe’en screenings as the management tightened the financial belt.
Still, I’d had my dusk-‘til-dawn experience, the first of many to come at the Fort Worth Twin, Mansfield Drive-In, Meadowbrook Drive-In and others that managed to survive into the late 1970s.
Bret McCormick – MOVIES and MANIA © 2018
Bret is the director of schlock such as The Abomination; Repligator and Bio-Tech Warrior. There’s a self-penned confessional article about his career here. He also recently wrote the book Texas Schlock: B-Movie and Sci-Fi from the Lone Star State