How Dare You Forget About Curtis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matthew Beebe grew up in the Northeast. He studied film at the University of Hartford. He’s held boom mics, wrangled cables, grabbed a camera etc. on little local shoots. He is a music fanatic, and is working on a book devoted to the NYC underground hip hop scene of the ’90s. He plans on following that with writings on obscure hard rock and proto-metal bands of the ’70s. His favorite film is Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar.

Have you ever been struck by how interrogating and shamelessly harsh certain horror titles seem? Who Saw Her Die? and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? are both infamous gialli that without doubt inform the viewer an unpleasant experience awaits. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is one of a few examples of psychological terrors directed by Curtis Harrington that also comes to mind; it’s ridiculous sounding, but nevertheless accentuates mystery and violence, particularly, harm to a female. It’s also another title that begins with use of the 5 Ws. The late Harrington was an American filmmaker who often displayed a European sensibility and an extravagant visual style, but this is where most of the similarities between his work and the notorious Italian subgenre end. Something like Alice, Sweet, Alice is regarded among horror obsessives as a perfect American attempt at being thematically and stylistically linked to the best gialli. While no stranger to cinematic bloodletting, Harrington instead falls into a seemingly less celebrated, slightly more restrained and somber cinema of “Personality” horror, a sub-genre that was defined by writer Charles Derry in a 1974 issue of the great CINEFANTASTIQUE (Volume 3 Number 3). That very article serves as an invaluable document in placing Harrington as a major figure in a category that specializes in depicting madness on screen, with a less flashy, slower paced, perhaps old fashioned manner, in comparison to the loud and gorier approaches of his Italian counterparts. The giallo-inspired original Halloween is of course beloved as a film that puts viewers thrilled to the point of clinging to or jumping out of their seats. Watch Harrington’s The Killing Kind on a rainy day or a lonely late night, and you’ll be more likely filled with dread and reflections on the emotional well-being of yourself and those who you know closely. No wonder it seems that Curtis is forgotten by so many! But is he really forgotten? Beginning with the groundbreaking (in my view) piece by Charles Derry, in which he is included with William Castle and Robert Aldrich to complete the triple threat of Personality horror auteurs, there are highly recommended sources to seek out for beginners to Harrington, and maybe even the genre enthusiasts that had written him off as only having a minor role in horror film history. Even if his style and concerns appear to make for an unpleasant chore to some, there’s a lot to unpack in the story of his youth and career in Hollywood, experiences and accomplishments that at the very least grant Harrington as a practitioner of high art.

Let’s go back to the CINEFANTASTIQUE article for a moment. We can easily make the connection between the campy sounding titles What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by Aldrich and Harrington’s What’s the Matter With Helen? The latter arrived almost 10 years after the legendary Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford vehicle, which is arguably the film that launched the “crazy old lady” genre, also often labeled as “hag-horror”. The formula for Aldrich’s 1962 film, based on a novel of the same name, proved to be an overall astounding success. A few years later, Harrington began making similarly titled, disturbing thrillers focused on the fragile mental states of aging women imprisoned in run down mansions, sadly hanging onto memories of a foregone era. The longing for a glorious comeback in the showbiz universe is also a reoccurring element shared between the two directors. So is Harrington an opportunist? Maybe, but in the sense that he saw a chance to be greenlit while also working with imagery, characters and themes that were genuine obsessions of his. His debut feature film was the waterlogged Night Tide (1961) and like the highly regarded Avant-garde shorts he started with as a teenager/young man in the 1940s-1950s, a gloomy atmosphere and preoccupation with loss, madness and death was already prevalent. The CINEFANTASTIQUE overview of Personality horror cinema also includes an early interview with Harrington, and it reveals that he was determined to cast Old Hollywood legend Marlene Dietrich, then in her mid-‘60s in his first major studio film Games (1967), and importantly, in discussing What’s the Matter With Helen? he says: “To me, the film was a very affectionate recreation of a period in Los Angeles history which I have my own tremendous feeling of nostalgia for. I was trying to show lives on the fringe of Hollywood in the ‘30s.” In addition to being fascinated by middle and older aged women and actresses, Harrington also had a knack for directing them. He was applauded by industry veterans for being able to evoke intense performances from a number of actresses who weren’t known to suffer fools lightly, while managing to also stay friendly.

About those outlandish film titles: they appear to have been imposed on Harrington by studio heads and producers, something that plagued his filmography, just like he was forced to work with screenwriters and cinematographers who he detested. The two Harrington/Shelley Winters films discussed here are based on scripts and stories with far subtler titles. Any interview with Harrington has plenty of sad and frustrating recounts of development hell and productions where he had little choice but to personally fulfill multiple tasks and still find his work compromised when released theatrically, and on television. And home video-the story behind the botched first videocassette release of his sole gross out flick Ruby (1977) is laughably perplexing.

Another major genre magazine was Fangoria, where Harrington was interviewed in the early 1980s by the late, legendary author of fanzine Sleazoid Express, Bill Landis, in one of his few submissions to the more mainstream publication. This is interesting because if you read the Sleazoid Express book, which covers the exploitation film explosion in the Times Square movie theater scene, neither Harrington nor his films are mentioned. Nothing in the Harrington oeuvre fits Sleazoid. His films undoubtedly played drive-ins and grindhouses, but how likely is it that they splattered across screens to the delight of rowdy crowds in the way that Make Them Die Slowly famously did? Landis’ interest in Harrington is probably a result of their shared connection to a peer from the Avant-garde days, Kenneth Anger, who Landis later authored a biography on. Anger had a falling out with Harrington and eventually Landis, but there was a time when both Kenneth and Curtis, as early as their teenage years, were renowned worldwide as two groundbreaking homoerotic, experimental filmmakers. Anger never involved himself with feature-length studio film production, but he enjoys an almost rock star reputation because, well, he hung out and collaborated with the likes of Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page. There’s also the notion that Anger’s shorts were more electrifying and influential to popular culture than the shadowy, tormented early cinema of Harrington. As mentioned, Kenneth Anger was once a friend but has been known to be a somewhat volatile, difficult personality. Despite making no secret of his constant battles with pushy studio execs, “creative producers”, clueless cameramen, inferior set dressers, incompetent writers, by pretty much all accounts, Curtis Harrington was one of the nice guys.

“Before Lynch…Before Cronenberg…CURTIS HARRINGTON” proclaims the cover of the Nov/Dec 1992 issue of Video Watchdog, graced by a chilling close-up of the crazed smile of the Queen of Blood (ironically, one of his more impersonal projects). This issue features an outstanding collection of writing on Harrington, with Stephen R. Bissette’s typically brilliant analysis and historical overview of the early experimental shorts, a videography by VW publisher Tim Lucas and an interview with Harrington conducted by longtime friend Bill Kelley. Throughout, Harrington offers candid recollections of his career-long battles with the Hollywood studio system; at this point, he hadn’t made a feature film in nearly a decade. Something that makes this interview so endearing is how he often finds himself laughing at the absurdity of the film business. He has a sense of humor about how his hard work, talent and personal vision can so easily go down the drain. Overall, he seems like a pretty nice guy!

Here’s a weird question: what do ‘90s indie rock darlings/mopes Pavement and Curtis Harrington have in common? No, he didn’t direct one of their videos. They both were handled by sophisticated record label Drag City, in Harrington’s case publishing his posthumous autobiography aptly titled Nice Guys Don’t Work In Hollywood in 2013. The same year, Drag City in collaboration with Flicker Alley also released The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection on Blu-ray. Both, of course, are unequivocally essential.

Some further Harrington recommendations:

Scream Factory’s gorgeous Blu-ray release of the hypnotic Games, his best film

Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray/DVD release of The Killing Kind, his most blistering film

VCI Entertainment’s Blu-ray/DVD release of Ruby, which is simultaneously his most fun movie and troubled production. This one is a very dingy and ridiculous piece of work. And very ‘70s, even though it was, like many Harrington’s, a period piece. The transfer is decent enough and the cut is thankfully his preferred version. The bonus features include interviews with Harrington conducted by David Del Valle, a saint to the genre, who surely is Harrington’s biggest fan, from 1988 and 2001. There are multiple audio commentaries with Del Valle, excellent liner notes (!) by Harrington expert Nathanial Bell and yet another audio commentary, this time with Harrington and Ruby herself, actress Piper Laurie

Also, on some dreary day or especially dark evening, take a look at two specific television movies of his, How Awful About Allan and The Dead Don’t Die, charming and spooky little gems that Harrington doesn’t disown, and that can be easily found online.

4 thoughts on “How Dare You Forget About Curtis

  1. This is a great little appreciation of a filmmaker I’ve long admired. (I’m the “Curtis Harrington expert” who did the liner notes for Ruby. David Del Valle and I also did the commentary for Kino Lorber’s release of Auntie Roo.) I’d love to get my hands on that Fangoria interview someday. I didn’t even know it existed! Thanks for keeping the light flickering for Curtis.

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