Curtis Harrington: Living in Dangerous Houses

By Harvey F. Chartrand

Few horror filmmakers manage to make the "A" list with fright film fans and movie critics, but Curtis Harrington has achieved just that. His quirky, polished and darkly artistic terror gems have won a wide following and he's now being rediscovered by fans who are learning to their relief that living horror directors aren't limited to John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Stuart Gordon.

Harrington has had one of the most fascinating careers in Hollywood. He started in the West Coast avant-garde scene of the 1940s, became an assistant to legendary producer Jerry Wald in the 1950s, and made his own debut feature, the wonderfully evocative NIGHT TIDE, in the early 1960s. Since then, Harrington has moved from medium-budget studio pictures to small independent productions to series television and made-for-TV movies. He has had an interesting but checkered career: some of his best films were savagely recut by their producers or received scant distribution, dumped on the lower half of double bills in neighborhood theaters – quite often the fate of genius directors in Hollywood back in the day.

After a period in eclipse, the works of Curtis Harrington are being resurrected on DVD. The veteran director has provided audio commentary with Dennis Hopper on the DVD release of NIGHT TIDE, with John Savage on the upcoming DVD version of the violent thriller THE KILLING KIND (1973), and with Piper Laurie on the DVD of the reassembled RUBY (1977), a masterful tale of devil possession at a haunted drive-in theater. (How outré is that?)

After a 15-year hiatus, Harrington is also back in the director’s chair, helming short films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Harrington’s brilliant USHER (2002), shot on a minuscule budget at the director’s rococo Hollywood home, conveys the feeling of a bygone world through elegant language, careful art direction and gothic color effects. It also boasts one of the most frightening scenes in modern horror cinema. USHER is wry and chilling, beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Gary Graver (DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS/1978).

Harrington has completed his long-awaited autobiography and is now looking for a publisher, while writing the screenplay and raising production money for a second Poe project – THE MAN OF THE CROWD. The two short subjects will be released on DVD as a Poe package – Edgar Allan Poe as interpreted by one of the world’s most imaginative directors: Curtis Harrington. DVD Drive-in spoke to Harrington on May 17.


Is a DVD in the works that will bring together your earlier experimental shorts, such as FRAGMENT OF SEEKING, PICNIC, THE WORMWOOD STAR and DANGEROUS HOUSES?

Curtis Harrington: No. And DANGEROUS HOUSES will never be released in any form. It never has been released and it never will be. It is what the French call a film maudit (a cursed film). DANGEROUS HOUSES was shot in London in 1952, in an area of the city that had been bombed during the war. So I used a lot of bombed-out houses. The plotline is based on The Odyssey, where Odysseus encounters Circe the enchantress. Richard Johnson (who later went on to star in THE HAUNTING, BEYOND THE DOOR and ZOMBIE) agreed to be in DANGEROUS HOUSES. That was my first experience working with a professional actor. He was all wrong for the film, though. All my short films were made with non-professional actors. When a director like me works with non-professionals, they have no problem following minute physical instructions, while a good actor always has his own ideas. This is fine in a conventional film, but for the kind of experimental films I was making then, a good actor was unsuited. I’m not blaming the film’s failure on Richard Johnson. Everything is wrong with DANGEROUS HOUSES. It was just a misfire from the beginning, because I was pushing myself to make another film, but I had nothing in mind. I learned a very valuable lesson: that I must only work when I am inspired to work. I must never push myself. DANGEROUS HOUSES was completely artificial and the wrong direction for me to go.

In the tradition of the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, your realistic fantasy NIGHT TIDE was first taken seriously in France. How exactly were you discovered and championed by French critics?

CH: I lived in Paris in the 1950s. I wrote a couple of articles about Josef von Sternberg (among other things) for Cahiers du Cinéma. In 1961, I took NIGHT TIDE to the Venice Film Festival. That was its first exposure in Europe. It received very good reviews from the Italian critics who were at the festival. That was my personal 35-mm print. I brought it from Venice to Paris. Henri Langlois and Mary Meerson of the Cinémathèque française arranged a special invitational private screening of NIGHT TIDE. This was the first time it had ever been seen in France. Georges Franju, the director of LES YEUX SANS VISAGE, was there! I left that print in the care of the Cinémathèque française – and to this very day that print is still there. I would say that my films are more admired in Europe than in America.

QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966) used footage from a Soviet sci-fi movie, but is a bona-fide Curtis Harrington film. How did you rework the Russian material for this eerie, dread-inspiring forerunner to ALIEN?

CH: QUEEN OF BLOOD is my film. We only used some of the special effects footage from the Soviet film that we could not have possibly filmed on the kind of budget we had. (The Soviet film was MECHTE NAVSTRECHU/A DREAM COME TRUE, directed by Mikhail Karzhukov and Otar Koberidze. — Ed.) But I directed 90% of the footage in QUEEN OF BLOOD. When I saw Alien, I realized it was the same story but greatly enhanced and augmented on a high budget. I was in no position to sue 20th Century Fox, but I do think that the plot of QUEEN OF BLOOD was grossly stolen by ALIEN’s screenwriters. I’m sure they saw QUEEN OF BLOOD.

HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN is now out on DVD. This 1970 TV-movie is based on a story by novelist Henry Farrell, who also wrote WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

CH: My partner George Edwards loved Henry Farrell’s work, and it was George who brought HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN to my attention. I was thrilled when (executive producer) Aaron Spelling offered the lead role to Anthony Perkins. In HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN, Tony plays a person who has hysterical blindness. It was a very difficult story to convey, because for obvious reasons, we couldn’t use any point-of-view shots.

Is WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971) your personal favorite of all your films?

CH: Yes. I deal with the American scene. I consider my work to be very American, reflecting American history and society. I captured all that in this film, especially the horrors of the right-wing Bible thumpers in America. Shelley Winters plays a fundamentalist Christian who becomes a murderess, which happens all the time with those kinds of people. George Edwards and I developed WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? with the help of Henry Farrell. I also had studio backing and a decent budget for WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?

What drew you to helm WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (1971), a strange retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, filmed in England?

CH: American International Pictures had offered me a contract to do a picture. I was scheduled to direct a new version of WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which they subsequently made with another director (Robert Fuest). It was a disaster, of course. In the meantime, AIP had WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? in development and Shelley Winters under contract. AIP figured they had a pay-or-play deal with me, so I was asked to direct WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, my second film in a row with Shelley Winters. I worked extensively on the script. Originally, it was very poor and we improved it a great deal.

Was cult actor Michael Gothard (who played a menacing butler) on his best behavior? I understand he suffered from serious emotional problems and did not always take direction.

CH: Michael Gothard was one of the most neurotic actors I’ve ever worked with. I didn’t like him at all. He was assigned to me by the producers. I wouldn’t have cast Michael Gothard. He was an extraordinarily egotistical bad actor who kept flubbing his lines. It was like pulling teeth to get a performance out of him. I never understood why Gothard had any career at all. I guess casting directors thought he was an interesting type. (Gothard committed suicide in 1992. – Ed.)

Is there talk of giving the DVD treatment to your other made-for-TV movies of the 1970s –THE CAT CREATURE, DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL, THE DEAD DON’T DIE and KILLER BEES? Will these TV-movies soon be released on DVD?

CH: I wish somebody would put out KILLER BEES on DVD. It hasn’t even been released on VHS. I fear that KILLER BEES might become a lost film, as no one has brought it out in any form. It’s Gloria Swanson’s first major role since SUNSET BOULEVARD! She is wonderful in KILLER BEES.

In 1977, you directed singer Rick Nelson in A HAND FOR SONNY BLUE, an episode of Quinn Martin’s “Tales of the Unexpected.” This was a modern retelling of “The Hands of Orlac,” with Nelson cast as a baseball player who loses his hand and has a new one (that of a vicious killer) grafted on. Are you happy with the way A HAND FOR SONNY BLUE turned out? It has yet to be released on VHS, let alone DVD.

CH: I’d like to forget about this completely. It was a joke. Rick Nelson is the worst actor I ever worked with. He was dumb, stupid and without talent as an actor. Quinn Martin was a total asshole. He was the big TV producer of crap for the American public. He called me and said, “Oh Curtis, I’ve followed your career and you’re such a wonderful director. I’m doing this series of occult stories and I want you. Please do one for me. I want your touch on it.” I told Quinn Martin that the only way the story would work was if we had a really good actor in the role of the baseball player. Two days later, he casts Ricky Nelson! Then I put in a lot of subtle touches, because the whole film is supposed to be a dream. I added little Harrington-type touches. Every single one of them was cut out by Quinn Martin! He wanted to make the show as ordinary as he possibly could. So he’d been lying to me. He didn’t want my abilities at all. The day we finished shooting, everybody said, “Curtis, if you ever want to work for Quinn Martin again, walk. Leave the studio.” I was used to supervising the first cut, even of all my TV shows (Baretta, Vega$, Dynasty, etc.) They said, “Leave. Walk out of here. Let Quinn Martin cut it or you’ll never work for him again.” So I left, but I never did work for him again. What a horrible man Quinn Martin was! “Tales of the Unexpected” was not a popular series. It only lasted a short while. (This horror anthology series should not be confused with the long-running “Tales of the Unexpected” hosted by Roald Dahl and John Houseman. – Ed.)

In 1981, you directed Billy Crystal and Brian Dennehy in MAKEUP, an episode of the short-lived Twilight Zone-ish TV series "Darkroom," hosted by James Coburn. Was this more than just another bread-and-butter television assignment? [There are no known DVD releases for this show.]

CH: This one was fun. I enjoyed it, although Brian Dennehy was not easy to work with. Sort of an old grouch. Signe Hasso (A DOUBLE LIFE) played the elderly lady who comes into the pawnshop. Even though Signe was older at that point, she was still extremely glamorous. She took such perfect care of herself that she hardly had a line in her face. I wasn’t sure if we should cast Signe, but when she came on the set, she was totally transformed into this little old lady and I thought she was just wonderful. I got to know Signe a bit after that and I liked her enormously. I also directed all of the Darkroom lead-ins with James Coburn, uncredited. Jimmy Coburn was an old personal friend of mine.

Is there a director’s cut of your MATA HARI (1985), which was truncated by its producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus?

CH: There is no real director’s cut, because I could never cut the film exactly the way I wanted to. Golan and Globus were interfering in every way, so the film has many flaws, not the least of which is a leading lady who can’t act – Sylvia Kristel. That was a big struggle for me – to get any kind of a creditable performance out of her. I had an awful line producer in Hungary who was sent by Golan and Globus. I also had an Israeli cameraman whom I reluctantly agreed to work with. It was a very difficult situation for me making the film, because I cannot speak Hebrew. The line producer and cameraman in Hungary would confer on the phone with the producers in London. They would speak in Hebrew, right in front of me, and I just knew they were saying the director didn’t know what he was doing, and I had no way to defend myself. It was just agonizing and intimidating. So the film is not at all what I might have made.

I spent six months working on MATA HARI in Budapest, preparing and shooting the whole thing. I worked with the young writer (Joel Ziskin) on the script. I was on the set at all times. The only joy I had was in working with Christopher Cazenove, Oliver Tobias and Gottfried John (whom I cast after seeing him in a Fassbinder movie). The European version of MATA HARI is much more complete than the U.S. version. The British video version is the same as the European release of the film. MATA HARI had practically no release in America. It was a vehicle for Sylvia Kristel, who was an international star, but her name was only big in Europe and South America. I have friends who saw MATA HARI in Mexico, Guatemala, Switzerland… places like that. It played all over the world, but when it came to America, all the nude love scenes were cut out. And since this was a film made to exploit Sylvia Kristel’s looks and body, there was no reason to release the film in the United States with all those scenes cut out of the picture. The story of MATA HARI takes place before the Americans entered World War One. All the characters are French, Spanish or German, so MATA HARI has no point of reference for an American audience whatsoever, except as an art film, which it clearly was not. They couldn’t turn it into one. (After this unhappy experience, Curtis Harrington did not direct another film until his self-financed USHER in 2002. – Ed.)


Copyright © 2005 Harvey F. Chartrand & DVD Drive-In