Behind the Scenes: “The Blood Beast Terror” (1968)

Sherlock Holmes vs Sherlock Holmes was the initial tantalizing casting prospect. Basil Rathbone, the most venerated actor to don the distinctive deerstalker, and Peter Cushing, just signed up by the BBC for a new 16-episode series, the former signed to play the villain, the latter his nemesis in a film that started out with the title of The Death’s-head Vampire, the first film by a new production shingle Tigon Films.

While Tigon was new, with a distinctive logo, its driving force was well-known British producer Tony Tenser who with partner Mike Klinger had initially specialized in exploitation pictures with titles such as Naked as God Intended (1961) and London in the Raw (1964). The pair split after the artistic and commercial success of Roman Polanski’s Cul de Sac, Tenser initially setting up under his own name for Mini-Weekend/Tomcat (1966), mining the exploitation vein as before, and The Sorcerers (1967) a new venture into the horror market. Expanding the business with fresh capital and new partners, Tigon was born.

Supporting feature to “Witchfinder General” on ABC circuit release in Britain.

Explaining the new departure, Tenser said, “Films needs to be inexpensive. They need to sell, they need to appeal to an international audience, and one subject that always finds a market is horror.” Horror budgets were low, the genre did not require big stars, and the films had a surprisingly long shelf life.

First movie on the new company’s agenda was not The Death’s-head Vampire. Instead, Tenser had hooked Raquel Welch for a ghost story The Devil’s Discord to be produced by her husband Patrick Curtis, who had performed a similar task on The Sorcerers, and star Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965). When that fell through, he held onto Cushing for a proposed Horror of Frankenstein and when that also bit the dust turned to him for The Death’s-head Vampire on a budget of just £40,000 (about $100,000). Offered the choice of playing villain Dr. Mallinger or Detective Inspector Quennell, the actor plumped for the “goodie,” Basil Rathbone lined up for the other role. The concept of older man/younger woman with action concentrated on an isolated house and the surrounding countryside was a horror trope.

Vernon Sewell (Strictly for the Birds, 1964), entering his third decade as a director, had worked with Cushing on Some May Live (1965) and was primarily known for low-budget and B-movies, and more importantly from Tenser’s perspective, sticking to a budget without any artistic pretensions or improvisation. He didn’t waste time on anything that would not be captured by the lens. He was calm on set, “nothing fazed him.” Cushing was a kindred spirit, never complaining, except famously, on this picture, when he told Sewell it was the “worst picture” he had ever made. The pair, however, had a very good working relationship to the extent that Sewell never offered Cushing any advice on the role –“he didn’t need my input.”

The Sherlock Holmes connection is promoted in this poster.

Just over two weeks before the August 1967 start date, Basil Rathbone died of a heart attack. Robert Flemyng, the last-minute replacement, was Cushing’s opposite, complaining all the time. The cast was rounded out by 32-year-old Doctor Who star Wanda Ventham (mother of actor Benedict Cumberbatch) and 18-year-old Vanessa Howard whose career highpoint thus far had been a duet with Cliff Richard for a television presentation of Aladdin (1967).

Interiors were shot at Goldhawk Studios, a converted three-story building in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, with exteriors at Grims Dyke, the former home of W.S. Gilbert, in north-west London. The 19th century manor house had lain empty since 1963.

Roger Dickens, who had cut his teeth on Thunderbirds Are Go! (1966) and worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and would be later lionized for the mini-beast bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1979) was responsible for creating the monster. The model for the giant larvae was a much simpler task than creating a believable female giant insect. He took a mold of Ventham’s face, giving the features a repellant slant,  using costume jewelry for the eyes, adding a furry cap and two-foot long antennae, a representation  that would only really work if you scarcely saw the creature. For art designer Wilfred Woods his woods set turned into a disaster when the trees wilted and lost their leaves.

Opinions differ as to whether Tenser interfered with production. He saw his role during the film process to ensure that the project followed the script. “Sometimes you can put something in a film which will hinder the selling, sometimes you need to put something in which will help the selling.”

Comedian Roy Hudd, playing the morgue attendant, thought the script so awful he was delighted to work with Cushing on improvements. 

When John Ford’s boast that he never shot an extra foot of film in order to prevent a producer turning in a different film has resulted in many a masterpiece, the same did not hold true for Sewell. Sticking so close to the script, not filming anything that was not absolutely necessary meant that the movie was too short. Editor Howard Lanning commented: “I put in everything that was available. Even with expanding the lecture scene and the amateur dramatics as long as possible, to the detriment of pace, the picture clocked in at just 81 minutes, not the length expected of a main feature.

To ensure the movie came in at the required length, Tenser added the African sequence at the beginning (an extra five minutes) and re-shot the morgue material (two more minutes), encouraging Cushing and Hudd to improvise. The final product was over-budget and a week late. The version shown to the censor was 87 minutes though the official running time was a minute longer.

Tenser now deemed the working title as insufficient, preferring “something catchy and something that told people what you were selling.” His first stab at a new title was Blood Beasts from Hell. But in the final analysis it was altered to The Blood Beast Terror. Hoping to sell it to a circuit as a main feature it was originally shown in a double bill with Castle of the Living Dead, but despite the supposedly attractive title, audiences were not interested. To cut his losses, the film was repackaged as the support to another Tigon production Witchfinder General (1967) which meant Tenser would not have to share receipts with another distributor.

The Blood Beast Terror did not prove so sellable overseas either. It was shelved in France until 1971, although, sold for a flat fee, it did well in South America. A.I.P. who had U.S. distribution rights to Witchfinder General – title altered to The Conqueror Worm – had no interest in The Blood Beast Terror but it was picked up by Pacemaker Pictures who were also in title-changing mood and released it in summer 1969 as Vampire Beast Craves Blood on a double bill with Curse of the Blood Ghouls (1964).

Tenser’s predictions of long shelf life were correct. In Britain, the movie was reissued on a late night double bill with The Secret of Blood Island (1961), and then was revived with The Devil’s Hand (1961) before being re-teamed with Witchfinder General on a Sunday’s-only screening. Although none of these would be circuit releases in the sense of a nationwide day-and-date opening, they were nonetheless likely to get reasonable bookings to fit specific engagement profiles. In the States where there was endless demand for horror triple- and quadruple bills and all-nighters, The Blood Beast Terror received ongoing bookings.

SOURCES: John Hamilton, “The Making of the The Blood Beast Terror,” Little Shoppe of Horror, Issue No 43, p67-91; John Hamilton, “Regretting Nothing: John Sewell, Little Shoppe of Horror, Issue No 43, p92-98.

Humphrey Bogart: 1960s Revival Champ

When Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) was reissued in 1963 the star attraction was undoubtedly Audrey Hepburn, hot after Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Charade (1963), rather than William Holden, tumbling down the box office charts, or Humphrey Bogart, six years deceased. When the film was reissued two years later on the back of an even hotter Hepburn after My Fair Lady (1964), Bogart was assuredly the star. What happened in between was one of the oddest twists in motion picture history and one that would turn the actor into the biggest revival star of the 1960s.

But if you were to select the Bogart picture most likely to reignite public interest in the star, it would not be John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953), a flop on initial release and by 1965 for legal reasons never shown on television. But in one of those quirks of programming the old Bogart found a new lease of life. Opening in spring 1964 at the 250-seat Avenue Cinema in New York it racked up $7,000 – equivalent to $65,000 today, totting up $30,000 ($279,000 equivalent) in a six-week run – phenomenal amounts for such a small venue. It shifted over to the 55th St Playhouse where it remained for another four weeks. The Art Cinema chain picked it up for wider release, sending it out in its thirty-six houses with, once again, outstanding results ($7,000 in one week in Boston, $5,000 in Washington). In Philadelphia it ran simultaneously in two houses.

In 1965 Dominant Films, part of United Artists, reissued a package of nineteen Bogart oldies, available on a rental rather than fixed price basis, and bookings were conditional on cinemas undertaking a two-week engagement, one film for the whole fortnight or the entire supply over the period, or any kind of program arrangement in between. There was no shortage of takers, especially after it became known that the 8th St Playhouse in New York, generally a second-run arthouse, and the 495-seat Carnegie in Chicago had each seen receipts hit the $10,000 ($93,000 equivalent) mark. The former double-billed fourteen pictures from the selection available, switching programs every two days.

Demand for the program was so high, prints were rationed. In the next fourteen cinemas on the release schedule, venues were allocated a maximum of six movies over the two-week period, sometimes limited to just two. When it became obvious that this gold mine was being given away too cheaply, a new strategy emerged: weekly double bills. In what amounted to a Humphrey Bogart greatest hits package the Carnegie in Chicago cleared nearly $15,000 ($139,000 equivalent) over three consecutive weeks with the following programs: The Petrified Forest (1936)/Key Largo (1948), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)/Casablanca (1942), and The Maltese Falcon (1941)/High Sierra (1951).

These grosses were even more astonishing in light of the fact that nearly all his seventy-five pictures were available on television, free of charge, on constant rerun, demand highest in the late-late slot. In 1966, United Artists Associates, a division of UA TV, referred to its portfolio of forty-five Warner Brothers features as “the most significant phenomenon of this era of entertainment history” It was estimated that screenings of his movies totalled two hundred per year.

Although there had been sporadic screenings of golden oldies in the U.S., exhibitors did not appear to share the same penchant for classics. Certainly, the U.S. lagged behind Europe in that respect. Wuthering Heights (1939), a huge rerun favourite in Europe, in 1963 in Paris attracted 30,000 admissions in three days in a trio of cinemas. In February 1963 half the cinemas in the French capital were given over to classics.

The most successful classics operator in the U.S. was MGM which in the early 1960s set up the Perpetual Program Plan. Investing in new prints of MGM oldies and a distinct marketing plan, the studio offered a package on an innovative basis. Rather than tying cinemas down to one-week or two-week contracts, as would be standard for arthouses, and therefore limiting potential bookings over fears that audience demand would peter out after a few days, MGM had hit on the idea of showing the films once a week on the same day of the week – Wednesday the most popular – for a season of six-eight weeks. Patrons could book a “season ticket” to see all the films. This approach made it far more appealing to the ordinary cinema, rather than the arthouse specialist, since a special showing could lift the midweek quiet period.

The first offerings from the Perpetual Program Plan were “Golden Operettas” – Rose Marie (1936), The Merry Widow (1934), The Great Waltz (1938), Sweethearts (1938), The Chocolate Soldier (1941) and The Student Prince (1954). The package played in over 3,500 cinemas. Expecting little more than $60 for their Wednesday income, cinemas found themselves taking in $300-$900 a night. The Chocolate Soldier could bring in as much as $2,200 a night, The Student Prince $1,500. MGM followed up with a program of films based on famous books such as Little Women (1949) and a third package revolved around musicals like Singing’ in the Rain (1952) and The Bandwagon (1953).  

The Humphrey Bogart concept was a considerable step up from this once-a-week program. The Bogart craze reached its commercial height in 1967. But there was one Bogart picture that audiences had been denied a showing for a decade. The African Queen (1952) had been made by British company Romulus and distributors had been put off taking up an option to show it due to a technical issue with the color prints. The impetus for its revival was the tenth anniversary of Bogart’s death, an event that stimulated an avalanche of newspaper articles and books. Producer Sam Spiegel sold reissue rights for The African Queen to Trans-Lux, a small arthouse chain in expansion mode planning to move into distribution. When the Los Angeles Times held a poll to identify the oldie most moviegoers wanted to see, The African Queen topped the poll. The buzz surrounding Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) created massive interest in the picture’s co-star Katharine Hepburn.

It was no surprise that The African Queen launched – in November 1967 – at a New York arthouse, the 600-seat Trans-Lux East, but the box office blew the industry away. An opening week of close on $20,000 ($186,000 equivalent) put the oldie into the cinema’s all-time top ten. What was astonishing was that it received as many bookings outside the expected release route of arthouses and the college circuit and was taken up by local theaters all over the country, shown in four houses in San Mateo, for example. It formed double and triple bills with other Bogart films, as well as The Quiet Man (1952) and topped bills that included films like Waterhole 3 (1967). After the first flush of first run and nabes, it turned up as support to contemporary pictures like Dark of the Sun (1968) and underwent another revival in 1969 before being sold to television in 1970.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, Coming Back To A Theater Near You; A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016) p127-133, 198-206.

The Box Office Equalizer: Part Two

Variety’s revolutionary new box office tracking system, introduced in 1969, allowed it to include far more films in an annual assessment of performance. The “Annual Rentals” chart that appeared every January still covered how much of the box office pie was returned to studios and therefore gave a good indication of potential profit. But that was limited to only those pictures that met that chart’s criteria i.e. they had to return $1 million rentals. That usually meant only 80-odd films.

But now, in addition, from the computerized information gathered every week from hundreds of cinemas, Variety was able to give a pretty accurate estimate of the box office gross for ten times as many movies. In 1969, the survey covered 1,028 pictures. This wealth of information was of enormous value to exhibitors. Not only did it cover the obvious titles – the roadshows and those with top stars – but also the run-of-the-mill movies on which most cinemas now depended. In the current severe product shortage, reissues played a vital role. As did sexploitation.

Among films reviewed so far in the Blog annual grosses were shown for: They Night They Raided Minksy’s $1.9 million, Mafia picture The Brotherhood $1.9 million, Anthony Newley number Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness $1.3 million, Hard Contract $1 million, Mayerling $980,000, Justine $536,000, Les Biches $391,000, Assassination Bureau $146,000, Fraulein Doktor $114,000 and The Sisters $50,000. (Multiply these figures by 50% for an accurate estimate of their rentals).

Other figures worth noting were: The Fixer $1 million, Secret Ceremony $1 million, The Italian Job $614,000, Marlon Brando in The Night of the Following Day $424,000, Shalako $78,000 and The Extraordinary Seaman $61,000. Bottom of the box office pile was motor racing documentary Hot Rod Action with just $1,000.

Given it was widely considered a flop, these are interesting figures for Hieronymous Merkin, rentals now estimated as being in the region of $2 million against a budget of $1.6 million – although other sources put the budget as low as $500,000 thus making it extremely profitable. Secret Ceremony had grossed $617,000 the previous year so its rentals would have approached $2.5 million, far more than was previously assumed. Fans of cult British thriller The Italian Job will perhaps be astonished how poorly it did in the U.S.

The top-grossing reissue was Bonnie and Clyde/Bullitt ($1 million) followed by a pair of Clint Eastwood double bills – A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More ($912,000) and Hang ‘Em High/The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ($740,000). Also in the mix were Goldfinger/Dr No ($323,000), A Man and a Woman ($226,000), Belle de Jour/A Man and a Woman ($199,000), a revival of Lola Montes from 1955 with $148,000 and less successfully, from 1961, A Cold Wind in August with just $21,000.

As previously noted, the impact of sexploitation was becoming more obvious. The biggest hit was The Libertine which crossed the $1 million mark followed by Camille 2000 ($868,000), Inga ($819,000) – bringing in three times as much as the previous year – Swedish Heaven and Hell ($458,000) and The Female ($279,000). Others charting included Vibrations, Without a Stitch, Erotic Dreams and The Sex Perils of Pauline. In addition, sexploitation movies were ripe for reissue, I, A Woman/Carmen Baby clocking up $363,000.

More importantly, what the chart did show and what the new weekly Top 50 was beginning to recognize was how often cheaply-made exploitation pictures held their own or even outgrossed big studio pictures for which exhibitors were often held to ransom. If ever there was a sign of the direction in which the business was now heading, this annual survey was it.

SOURCE: “Variety B.O. Charts’ 1969 Results,” Variety, April 29, 1970, p26.   

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