Monday, January 25, 2010

Herman Cohen: An American Weirdo in London

by Matthew Coniam
It’s 1959.
Hammer’s Gothic horrors have only just gotten underway and already, here we are, in present-day London.
Here is a red London bus, and here is a red London post van.
The van stops outside a row of elderly Edwardian terraced houses, sectioned into flats. This is not rural Transylvania, or one hundred years ago in a mountain village in Switzerland. It could be the real world the audience is headed back to when the movie ends, redressed in the sickly primaries of the Eastmancolor palette.
The postman gets out, rings a doorbell, and the door is answered by a busty blonde, cut somewhat imprecisely in the image of Diana Dors. She takes a parcel from him, thanks him, calls him “dearie”.
We go inside to the flat she shares with a little French brunette, accented and perky, perhaps a language student, perhaps an au pair. The package contains a pair of binoculars, and the blonde walks to the window to try them out. The brunette turns to observe, and screams. The blonde has crumpled to the floor, her hands are clasped tight over her face, and there is blood seeping through her fingers, a garish, paint-thick Eastmancolor soup. The discarded binoculars are on the floor beside her, a pair of metal spikes jutting from them, and collecting in a pool on the carpet underneath: more of that blood. Drip, drip, drip...
.This is Horrors of the Black Museum. For Hammer, its inspiration, it was a declaration of war – and proof that they had accidentally kick-started something they would not be able to control. For Anglo-Amalgamated, its producers, it was the first of a notorious trio of modern-dress horrors that aimed to beat Hammer at their own game and resulted instead in a plague of journalistic outrage. (The others were Peeping Tom and Circus of Horrors.)
But for Herman Cohen – the film’s producer and co-writer it was a calling-card: an eccentric new force in British horror had arrived.
Born in Detroit in 1928, Cohen was a film fanatic from infancy, becoming a cinema usher at 12 and graduating to salesman and film exhibitor. By 24 he was an associate producer, with Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) to show for his labours. It began a lifelong relationship with men in gorilla suits.
By the following year he had formed Herman Cohen Productions, and released Target Earth!, in which Chicago is invaded by Venusians, in 1954. A team-up with AIP was inevitable, and the results defined an era: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (both 1957), Blood of Dracula (1958, and don’t let the title deceive: it’s about a high-school girl who becomes a vampire with enormous black eyebrows and hair that resembles an afro hacked into some vague approximation of a Lugosi widow’s-peak) and How To Make a Monster (1958), shot on the AIP lot, where a disgruntled make-up designer, on the scrapheap when his studio switches from horror films to musicals, uses his creations – including the teenage Frankenstein (still played by Gary Conway) and the teenage werewolf (no longer played by Michael Landon, who had gone on to Bonanza) – to murder the studio heads.
By this time Cohen had garnered sufficient clout to take offices in London’s Wardour Street, a stone’s throw from Hammer House (which is why a packing-case is addressed there in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein). He began full-scale British production with a haunted house comedy called The Headless Ghost (1959). It made little impact, but Horrors of the Black Museum was just around the corner.
At its heart, the film was more or less a remake of How To Make a Monster, again featuring a dedicated professional in a disreputable industry hypnotising their assistants into killing off their oppressors. (In fact, the film that Monster’s villain is working on is actually called Horrors of the Black Museum!) But this time the looney is a true crime writer (Michael Gough, for Cohen what Cushing was to Hammer) who stages the crimes he then writes bestsellers about. (One is called The Poetry of Murder.) “There’s no doubt we’re dealing with a brilliant maniac!” the police exclaim.
Hammer Horror was scarcely a welcome new phenomenon at the BBFC, but this was something more again. Secretary John Trevelyan (in his memoir What the Censor Saw) recalled it as not “a standard horror film” but instead “both sadistic and nasty”. He particularly disliked the binoculars (“Of course we had to see the blood trickling down her face”), especially since Cohen made a point of boasting that the contraption was based on one used in a real British murder case.
Even grimmer is the film’s other showpiece murder, of Gough’s mistress, who has made the fatal mistake of laughing once too often at his walking stick. We watch her come home, undress to her girdle, stockings and suspenders, and then lie invitingly on her bed… whereupon she is decapitated by a guillotine blade above her pillow.
Despite a British setting and a British director (Arthur Crabtree, once a leading light at Gainsborough Studios) the film’s heritage is unmistakably that of Cohen’s drive-in past, with funfairs, tunnels of love, hypnotism, and a snarling AIP-ish killer, his murderous fits accompanied by an unexplained facial transformation, leaping to his death from the top of a big wheel. There was even the claim that it was shot in ‘Hypnovista’: US audiences got a six minute prologue ostensibly explaining its marvels.
Next, the ape-suit got a dusting-off for Konga (1960), still for Anglo-Amalgamated, but as different in tone from Horrors as conceivable. Michael Gough is a professor with a Lily Munster white streak and the hots for sweater girl Claire Gordon, who develops a growth serum that enables him to create giant plastic carnivorous plants that eat kippers and transform a chimp into a man in a gorilla costume. The ape goes on the rampage, trampling miniature sets and clutching a stiff wooden doll standing in for our mad Mike. This time the phony process is ‘Spectamation’ and the title was originally to have been I Was a Teenage Gorilla.
After a brief return to America for 1963’s Black Zoo (made not for AIP but for Allied Artists, the former Monogram, with Gough still on board as a zookeeper who hypnotises his animals to kill and serenades them on his Hammond organ), Cohen came back to England to set up Fog, a film he had devised as an encounter between Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. Learning that Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger had something similar in mind, the two parties agreed magnanimously to pool resources on what would become A Study in Terror (1965). It was probably the classiest product with which Cohen, credited solely as executive producer, was ever associated.
Next up were his lunatic collaborations with Joan Crawford, luminous former princess of MGM and Warners, whose sensational comeback in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? had condemned her to a twilight in cheapie horror films. With a couple of collaborations with William Castle already behind her it was perhaps inevitable that Cohen would come calling.
First was Berserk! (1967), an aptly-named big top melodrama with Joan as the ringmaster (the part had been written for a man so it’s ideal for Joan), Diana Dors getting sawn in half and Gough – innocent this time – having a tent-peg hammered into his head in one of the film’s several logically-impossible killings. The identity of the killer does come as a genuine surprise, however, so if you don’t want to know that it’s Judy Geeson, look away now. It’s Judy Geeson.
But seven years was a long time for Cohen to go without using a man in an ape suit, so both it and Crawford were pressed back into service for Trog (1970), the first of two Cohen films to use proper director Freddie Francis. Joan finds a frozen troglodyte in a cave, thaws it out and teaches it to catch a ball in her garden; nasty Michael Gough sets it loose on a murder spree. (For more on Cohen’s collaborations with Crawford, see here.)
Cohen’s final British production could well be his weirdest: which, if you’ve seen any of his others, you’ll know is no idle boast.
Craze (1973) stars Jack Palance, an excitable actor at the best of times, here left to run riot by Cohen and Francis, as an antiques-dealer compelled to arrange blood sacrifices for an African idol that rewards murders with money and to which he chants in Latin. No Gough this time, but surely only Cohen could have talked Trevor Howard and Edith Evans into taking thankless support roles in this joyous farrago.
This film simply makes no sense at all: at least in Cohen's earlier titles the abundance of drive-in excess - the gorillas, the hypnosis, the mad special effects - never let you forget that what you were seeing was basically just a romp. But this plays straight - it could be Amicus or Tigon at a push - yet the thing itself obeys no rules, either of cinema or of logic. It's like a madman's dream.
Herman Cohen produced some of the craziest horror films ever produced in Britain, flipping an oddly invigorating bird to the occasionally po-faced Gothic seriousness of Hammer. His films really couldn’t be any sillier had that been their specific aim, but all are supremely entertaining and Horrors of the Black Museum, almost despite itself, remains a highly important milestone in the story of British horror. Cohen, who died in 2002, can rest content with that.


Holger Haase said...

Wow, what a tremendous first guest post!!! This is excellent. Glad to have you on board.

Bill Dan Courtney said...

Great write up on Herman Cohen. I loved both Konga and Trog.

Bill @ The Uranium Cafe

James Gracey said...

Excellent post (as ever!) Matthew. A few titles here I've yet to see - such as Horrors of the Black Museum (and with a title like that I'm sure I'll love it!). I finally picked up a copy of Trog and I hope to check it out soon. Your enthusiasm for the work of this Herman Cohen chap is positively contagious!