eXQUIsITE cOrPsE

“You? But… you’re dead!”

“Yes, I am. Won’t you… join me?”

With these words, CHAMBER OF HORRORS officially crosses the line into “movies I can’t believe I haven’t seen before.” Long before these immortal words are uttered, we’ve had the FEAR FLASHER and the HORROR HORN, cheapjack gimmicks to alert the squeamish, and we’ve had Patrick O’Neal chopping his own hand off with an axe, while underwater. This is a movie determined to deliver, come rain, snow, sleet or hail — a TV pilot script presumably rejected for gruesomeness, from the authors of MacGyver and THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, finds itself under the direction of Hy Averback, the not-quite-inspired helmer of films such as I LOVE YOU, ALICE B TOKLAS and huge amounts of TV — so why is it so GOOD?

There’s the script, which has weird concepts and funny lines to spare — what other 1966 movie opens with a madman forcing a priest, at gunpoint, to marry him to a corpse? And there’s even a hint that the marriage may have been consummated (!)… Cesare Danova is only so-so as leading man, but his sidekicks are Wilfred Hyde White and a charismatic Mexican dwarf billed as Tun Tun. And there are cameos by noir’s arch femme fatale Marie Windsor, primo sleazeball Berry Kroeger (in yellowface, no less) and some full-on cheroot-smoking zest from Jeanette Nolan, Orson’s Lady Macbeth. And, for no readily explainable reason, Tony Curtis turns up for thirty seconds, playing cards in a Baltimore brothel. “I have — excuse the expression — a full house.”

The fellow really holding it all together, even as he hacks the rest of the dramatis personae apart, is Patrick O’Neal, who on this evidence could have had Vincent Price’s career (the plot, in which the crazed scion of a wealthy family dismembers the officials who sent him to execution, sending parts to the police as if to assemble a Frankenstein’s homicide victim, seems to pre-echo Price’s PHIBES revenger’s comedies, even as it picks up from his earlier HOUSE OF WAX). O’Neal was a damn good actor, as you can see in KING RAT, but I’ve never seen him have this much fun, throatily whispering menaces, humming gleefully to himself, and attaching an amusing series of weapons to his wrist-stump, the best of these being a pistol concealed within a lifelike wax hand…

Pop!

The movie has perhaps not quite enough jokes, but makes up for it by having some jokes that are well above its station — and the ending will really make you wish that TV series had happened. Joe Dante should make it for Warners, immediately.

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12 Responses to “eXQUIsITE cOrPsE”

  1. I remember seeing this movie in the mid-’60s and enjoying it. You omit, however, the main reason for its sticking in the memory: actress Laura Devon, who had already been seen in GOODBYE, CHARLIE and RED LINE 7000 and here plays the young heroine. Te reason that I remember her is that her son Kevin was my middle-school friend. Kevin Jarre, that is … who grew up and wrote the script for GLORY.

    The name of her character in GOODBYE, CHARLIE — I discover from IMDb — is “Rusty Satori,” which I kinda like. She also went on, later, to play the Edie character in the PETER GUNN movie.

    Not the most memorable of performers, maybe, but an agreeable presence — and certainly likeable in my encounters with her.

  2. Terrific!

    Devon’s non-period false eyelashes gave us great pleasure. She’s pretty good — I think Averback did have some real skill with actors. And his visuals are mainly tasteful, it’s just a shame everything’s so brightly lit.

  3. So often I come to Shadowplay, read a few sentences, realize you’re writing about a terrific film I haven’t seen, go running red-faced to Netflix. This time I’m slightly ashamed to say this one is in my queue and has been for years, and I still haven’t seen it. And it has cats! And inappropriate false eyelashes is one of my favorite film genres! I have no excuses, only shame.

  4. Something about the film never struck me as a must-see, but then I didn’t know much about it. It’s much more than a William Castle knock-off.

  5. Here’s more about Laura Devon. She was married for many years to Maurice Jarre.

  6. Psycho Patrick O’Neal? I’m there!

  7. Too bad Laura Devon didn’t persuade Maurice to score this, it would made a nice offbeat companion to Eyes Without a Face in his CV.

    Whispery-voiced Patrick is AWFULLY good in this.

  8. It’s appropriate that you mention William Castle, since one of the names on this film’s script, Ray Russell, wrote MR. SARDONICUS. Other Russell credits include X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES and PREMATURE BURIAL.

    Devon was also in another interesting tv movie that ended up in the theaters, A COVENANT WITH DEATH. Directed by Lamont Johnson, whose TWILIGHT ZONE episodes have been looking awfully good to me, and with a cast that includes Katy Jurado and Gene Hackman.

  9. I forgot to add that, while my interested was tweaked, I’ve yet to *see* the Johnson (as it were).

  10. I’m getting a copy of it right now. Johnson did direct some dubious stuff later, such as Lipstick and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. But hey, Fleischer directed Red Sonja, nobody’s perfect.

  11. That cat’s expression suggests that this isn’t the first time Shadowplay interrupted it while it was in the middle of a nocturne.

  12. The cat is an ideal bonus for anyone not sufficiently impressed by the “crime-solving waxworks curators” premise. Though I can’t imagine who such people are.

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