In August, the folks at Turner Classic Movies, my favorite cable station, asked if I’d fill in a week as host for Robert Osborne, who’s out until December 1. It took about .000000001 seconds to hit “reply” and say, “Yes!” I was going to be a V.J. for movie geeks! I didn’t get to pick my own films, but they offered me three possible weeks and I opted for the one that opened with four horror movies that shaped my life: Horror of Dracula (still high on my all-time favorites list), The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and Curse of the Demon. They all air tonight!
Perusing the list of films, I thought back to when I was a kid, before there was cable, before there was such a thing as “owning” a movie unless you were rich enough for a 16-millimeter projector or you got 8 mm and Super 8 mm silent twenty-minute abridgements (which I did). One week when I was 9 or 10, I saw in the TV Guide how Channel 3 in Hartford would be showing Horror of Dracula at 2 a.m. on a school night — so I snuck out of bed, sat close to the screen with the volume low, and saw my first Peter Cushing–Christopher Lee Hammer picture. Not long after that, I watched House on Haunted Hill on a Saturday at 11:30 p.m. on Channel 8’s "Chiller Theater." The subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland followed apace.
The six other nights are special, too. Wednesday is devoted to the films of cinematographer John Alton, among them two rather cruel noirs by Anthony Mann that should be better known: Border Incident, starring Ricardo Montalban, and The Black Book, probably the only French Revolution picture shot (very appropriately!) like a German Expressionist horror film. To prepare, it was a thrill to reacquaint myself with Alton’s forties textbook Painting With Light (reissued with an excellent Todd McCarthy preface), in which he details the use of such things as “Jimmy Valentine” lights — named for a safecracker who set a flashlight on the ground while working, creating weird shadows and weirder contours across his face. It occurred to me rewatching Alton’s work that for him, darkness was the natural state of man and light the rare and happy exception. He actually wrote, “Where there is light, there is hope.” Incidentally, I didn’t see TCM’s print of Black Book, but the transfers out there now are lousy. This is one to record.
Tuesday night features late Nicholas Ray, right around the point when his alcoholism and various addictions were beginning to get out of hand. So we begin with Bigger Than Light and go downhill fast — with a very rare screening of Wind Across the Everglades, the one that ended Budd Schulberg’s film career and, according to Christopher Plummer’s delightful memoir In Spite of Myself, was referred to by the motley cast on set as Breaking Wind Across the Everglades. It is a bizarre, relentlessly disjointed film and Plummer clearly didn’t know what to do with his face — he puts on a strange half-smile and forgets to take it off — but as in all Nick Ray pictures, there are a couple of beautiful, awkward moments that stay with you.
The other nights: One each devoted to actors Zachary Scott (Thursday has a rare showing of Renoir’s The Southerner), Nina Foch (Joseph H. Lewis’s My Name Is Julia Ross is the good one on Saturday), and late Buster Keaton. (Sunday's rare feature is the MGM sound picture Doughboys, which I found depressing. The rare short is The Frozen North, a William S. Hart parody that’s unusually nasty for Buster — and hilarious.) The evening to alter your state is Friday, which features three Hammer heroines in see-through negligees (Ursula Andress in She), loincloths (Martine Beswick in Prehistoric Women), and mini-togas (Carita in The Viking Queen).
I wrote my own 29 intros for the films, which was harder than I expected, but satisfying. I hope it comes off okay, but even if it doesn’t, I think about that 9-year-old in front of the TV at 2 a.m. Could he ever have envisioned himself staring back, saying, “Here, from 1958, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the Hammer Classic, Horror of Dracula”?