Steeped in the terrors of unforgotten memories. Painted with strokes guided by a wistful nostalgia. Haunted by the echoes of lost ideals. The art of director Curtis Harrington is a varied lot.
From the 1960 cult fave Night Tide to his classic 1971 grand guignol horror What's the Matter with Helen? to his self-professed 1978 howler Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell, a consummate Harrington toiled across a variety of mediums: theatrical features, television horror films, experimental shorts as well as episodic TV series.
An articulate and cultured Harrington was kind enough to sit down with The Terror Trap and provide some glimpses into the long journey of his career in film.
The Terror Trap: Can you reveal a bit of your interest in film prior to directing?
Curtis Harrington: When I was a teenager, I lived in a small town called Beaumont in California. I got a job ushering in the local movie theater but I was not impressed with Hollywood films.
In the meantime...at the library, I picked up a book one day called The Film Til Now by Paul Rotha. It's a very detailed history of the silent cinema on a worldwide basis. It goes into the Soviet, French, German cinemas, etc.
That book inspired me and so I became intensely interested in the idea of film as a creative medium. So as you must realize, my approach from the beginning was not as a commercial way to make money...but purely to explore the boundaries of cinema as a creative medium. It all started in that little town called Beaumont.
TT: Unlike some directors who have made horror films in their careers, you seem to actually enjoy the genre and the macabre. You respect it. What is your earliest memory of being attracted specifically to horror?
CH: My earliest memory (and it's only in retrospect that I can figure out what it is I saw)...is once when I was driving with my parents, I saw a huge billboard for James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein. And I remember saying to my mother, "I want to go see that." I didn't even know what it was! It was something about the poster that attracted me.
The first horror film I ever saw was Lew Landers' The Raven with Karloff and Lugosi. I begged and begged and begged my mother and she finally took me to see it. And she grabbed me and pulled me out of the theater after the scene where Karloff wakes up after he's had his facial surgery and shoots at all these mirrors.
She claimed...and this is something I have no memory of...that I climbed under my seat. (Laughs.) And so she took me out of the theater and she said, "That's the last horror film I'll ever take YOU to!"
TT: That's a great story.
You mentioned Bride of Frankenstein. What was your relationship like later on with director James Whale?
CH: I knew him very well. It all started because I was a fan of his work. I'm talking about a period in time when you didn't have DVDs and VHS and television and everything. So films were not that easy to see, especially older films.
But I managed...especially living in Los Angeles...to get to screenings of Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula.
TT: And you met him at one of those screenings?
CH: Yes. I just wanted to meet him as a fan. I can't remember who knew him who said, "Well I'll introduce you" - but I was introduced to him and I remember he acted kind of bewildered because that wasn't a period where there were a lot of young film buffs running around.
TT: When was that?
CH: This would have been in the 1940s. Anyway, Whale was sort of intrigued and we hit it off in terms of personality and of course there I was, an adoring fan of his work! If you saw the film Gods and Monsters on which I served in an advisory capacity, you got a good idea of the way he lived.
He lived as an English country gentleman with two servants. In the film, there's only one. He lived in Brentwood in a grand house, beautifully furnished.
And you can see the evidence of Whale's own taste in his films...it's all very much in the decor. And this creates mood and atmosphere. The decor of his films is very special, if you're aware of it.
CH: That was reflected in his own house. Huge bouquets of flowers everywhere, which you'd see on the sets of his films. Anyway, we hit it off and I got to know him quite well. He was an extraordinarily nice human being. Really, really generous and kind. I was very fond of him.
TT: Whale is a fascinating personality on a variety of levels. And it goes without saying, the first true pioneer of American horror cinema.
TT: Did Tod Browning enter this circle at all?
CH: No, I'd always been curious to meet Browning but I never got the chance.
TT: You had done some experimental shorts but we wanted to focus on your first full-length feature and go from there. Night Tide (1960) is a variation on Cat People, is it not?
CH: Yes, I would call it a film that was influenced by CAT PEOPLE.
TT: What are your thoughts on Night Tide?
CH: I wrote the script based on a short story I had written that was never published. And then I had met Dennis Hopper because he came to see some of my short experimental films at a coffeehouse in Los Angeles. When I went to him with the script of Night Tide, he immediately agreed to do it.
Night had an extremely low budget and Roger Corman helped me finance it. He didn't finance it per se, but he helped me get the money.
TT: Do you remember what the budget was?
CH: $50,000 in cash and the rest was in deferments. The overall cost of the picture was around $75,000.
TT: Were the Val Lewton movies of the forties generally a big influence on you and your style?
CH: Oh yes. I loved them. I loved Cat People and The Leopard Man very much, yes.
TT: Was working with Hopper a pleasant experience?
CH: Yes, Dennis and I got along very well. I had no problems with him at all. He was difficult for certain people but not for someone like me. We felt an artistic rapport with each other.
TT: You seem to have a gift for bringing out the best in certain actors and actresses that others might find difficult...
CH: A lot of movie stars particularly can be quite difficult. I mean, Shelley Winters is one of them. So I've learned to handle all that fairly well by being diplomatic and sympathetic and all those things. When I hear of directors who are very brutal with their actors, I think that approach is all wrong. I mean, actors need a lot of TLC to do well.
TT: Linda Lawson is quite good as Mora the Mermaid. How did you end up casting her?
CH: I think someone recommended her to me and she came in and read for the part. I needed a dark-haired girl who could pass for Greek. Originally, the role was to have been played by Susan Harrison...who had been the female lead in The Sweet Smell of Success.
TT: What happened with Harrison?
CH: Well, she was a friend of mine and she had agreed to do Night Tide. But she was all hung up on some boy...a complete son of bitch...and he forced her out of the picture. So I had to scramble around to find someone really fast.
TT: How was Lawson to work with?
CH: She was adorable.
TT: Did she continue to act?
CH: She was a very good personal friend of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward so she appeared in a Newman picture called Sometimes a Great Notion (1971). She didn't seem to work after that and she became a housewife.
TT: You touched upon Roger Corman's involvement with Night Tide. He's been such a supporter of up and coming directors over the years; he's touched so many in the business.
CH: Yes. Night Tide happened during the heyday of AIP, which released most of his films. And he wanted to start his own company called The FilmGroup, a distribution outlet.
Corman was not interested in making Night Tide a Roger Corman production. From the very beginning, he's been a much more basic commercial pay dirt kind of person.
And Night was a little beyond that. But anyway, he was sympathetic enough with my aims and my abilities that he said, "Through my company The FilmGroup, I'll give you some distribution guarantees." That's how it happened.
TT: What was the most difficult sequence to shoot?
CH: I suppose the most difficult was the opening sequence in the club...
CH: Oh, because I had to deal with all those extras and the band, including a flute player who was famous. And Cameron, who could not act! I could give you a million reasons.
TT: How about the underwater scene?
CH: For some of the underwater shots, I had to give instructions so they could be filmed by an underwater cameraman.
TT: It was made in 1960 and not released until three years later. Why was that?
CH: One of the financiers wanted some money back early, I believe. I don't remember the details but he tied it up in the lab.
TT: What kind of distribution did Night Tide get when it was eventually released?
CH: Generally, it was released by AIP on a double bill with The Raven.
TT: Tell us about your next film, 1966's sci-fi tinged horror called Planet of Blood (also known as Queen of Blood).
CH: I made that for Roger. It was directly a Roger Corman production.
TT: It's a good little film. Wasn't Florence Marley a friend of yours?
CH: Yes, Florence was a personal friend of mine and I had to fight to get Roger to let me use her because she was an older woman. I'm sure he had some bimbo in mind, you know? So I fought for Marley because I felt she had the required exotic quality that would work in the role.
Dennis Hopper was in that one too...he was like a part of my little team by then so he agreed to play the astronaut who's attacked by her.
TT: It's so clearly an inspiration for Ridley Scott's later ALIEN.
CH: Yes, I always felt that the author of the ALIEN script had probably seen my film and gotten some inspiration from it. Ridley's film is like a greatly enhanced, expensive and elaborated version of Queen of Blood.
TT: Had you seen Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires just the previous year?
CH: No, I had not. I still have never seen it.
TT: There's some similarities in mood and style. Both films are great.
CH: That's purely coincidental, whatever the similarities are.
TT: Three of our favorite performers would be in your next film Games (1967), which plays as a sort of Diabolique-structured thriller. Here, you worked with Simone Signoret, James Caan and Katharine Ross. Tell us about that one.
CH: Well, Simone was just an absolutely marvelous, beautiful and wonderful human being. I felt very privileged to be working with her.
TT: Didn't you write her part with Marlene Dietrich in mind?
CH: Yes I did. I was one of the greatest fans in the world of Dietrich. I just dreamed of creating a vehicle for her. But I had a meeting with Lew Wasserman, who was the head of Universal, and I pleaded with him to let me try to engage Marlene for the role. I remember he said to me, "Nobody would be interested in seeing her."
TT: Shame. She would have been terrific...although Simone is very good in the film.
CH: Wasserman wanted the other French actress...the very dramatic one who was in her heyday then, Jeanne Moreau. As far as I know, he submitted the script of Games to her and she turned it down. And then I suggested Simone Signoret, who had won an Academy Award for Room at the Top (1959), and was quite a "name."
My personal agent at the time, a fellow named Hugh French, represented Simone for America. So I easily got the script to her. I had lived in France in the early fifties for a couple of years and I had become friends with Mary Meerson. I was aware that Mary knew Simone and Mary was one of my greatest champions.
I called Mary in Paris immediately and asked if she would speak to Simone and tell her I'm okay and that she HAD to work with me. Mary did indeed do that and Simone agreed to do the script right away. She was at that very moment appearing as Lady Macbeth in a British stage production of Macbeth along with Alec Guiness. The British critics had just torn her to pieces. They were so cruel.
CH: Yes, because her English wasn't exactly perfect. I don't think the Shakespeare lines came out of her with the greatest felicity.
TT: And yet, we would imagine that she and Guiness got along wonderfully.
CH: I'm sure they did. I remember when I got her on the phone for the first time in London...she said, "I warn you, Mr. Harrington...I am very fat!" She WAS overweight as you can see in the film.
TT: Yes, but it's such a nice plumpness.
CH: My costume designer on Games was Morton Hack, who became an Oscar winner for his costumes for the original Planet of the Apes, and he said, "What am I gonna do, Curtis? I have to dress a mouse and an elephant!"
TT: The mouse being Katharine Ross?
CH: Yes. Compared to Simone, she was a slender young girl.
TT: Right. Did you have a smooth working relationship with Ross?
CH: Yes, we worked very well together.
TT: Was she as beautiful in person as she looks on the screen?
CH: Katharine is so photogenic...she's absolute perfection. But she's the antithesis of what she plays in my film. She played a wealthy kind of New York debutante but that's purely the wizardry of Morton Hack...because in real life, she wore things like sewn horse blankets. She's a horse woman. That's really her only interest in life.
TT: Oh, a rustic equestrian.
CH: Yes, yes. Definitely.
TT: Do you keep in touch with her at all?
CH: No. I directed her again in an episode of The Colbys in the 1980s and so we finally had a reunion then. But we did not keep in touch in the interim years.
TT: And how was Caan to work with?
CH: I had a couple of problems with James because he's an ex-football player or something and he's very feisty and prickly. So we had a slight problem with him one day. But that's all. Nothing to speak of. The three stars worked together very beautifully.
TT: We interviewed Don Stroud a few years back and had a very nice talk with him...
CH: I just loved Don. He was under contract to Universal at that time. I cast him in that part and I was very happy with what he did.
TT: Was Games filmed in Manhattan at all?
CH: Not one foot. All the New York streets are in the back lot at Universal Pictures.
TT: Is that so?
CH: Yes. At the time I made it, people said, "I didn't know you were shooting in New York!" I was very proud of myself because I had a vision of how to use a NYC street...which was a standing set on the back lot.
TT: You did a terrific job with that.
CH: Thank you.
TT: In the sixties, were you a fan of Robert Aldrich, who directed What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
CH: I've always felt his work was extremely uneven. I loved Baby Jane but a lot of his films I didn't like at all. Too often I found them crass and vulgar.
TT: Baby Jane started a cycle or subgenre of grand guignol films that often had older female stars and which featured ironic twists at the end. This cycle got into high hear again by the late sixties with 1969's Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? Had you seen it?
CH: I didn't see Aunt Alice but I had certainly seen Baby Jane. My producer George Edwards and I had sought out Henry Farrell. We contacted him and asked him if he had any story in the trunk that might be adapted to a good movie.
TT: So Farrell's writing appealed to you?
CH: Oh yes. He was very good at plot and character and all that.
TT: He wrote the novel of How Awful About Allan, which you directed for television in 1970.
CH: George Edwards put Allan together. And I remember before I ever got involved with it, George had discovered the novel and I kept saying, "But how can you make a film about a man who's blind?" You can never show his point of view. Anyway, it was all worked out in the end. Henry Farrell himself worked on the script.
TT: Allan is essentially a three-character study. Julie Harris is one of our favorites.
CH: One of mine too.
TT: There's something calmly diverse about her face. A quality that allows her to fill any role: young, matronly, vulnerable, sinister.
What was it like working with her and Anthony Perkins?
CH: Well, Julie was an angel. I can't imagine anyone I've ever worked with who is more professional, always there...always perfect with her lines, giving a perfect performance every take. Just an angel to work with. I couldn't praise her more highly.
Tony was wonderful. He was totally professional. For instance, in How Awful About Allan, in the scenes where he was supposedly blind...he actually IS blind. Because he went (at his own expense) to his optometrist and had opaque contact lenses made for him to wear.
CH: Yes...he had to be led onto the set. So he wouldn't give a false performance as a man who couldn't see.
TT: It's a shame all three stars from that film have passed away, including Joan Hackett. What was Hackett like?
CH: I knew Joan personally. I got to know her quite well and I liked her a lot. Very nice girl and a very good actress, I thought.
TT: Let's move into What's the Matter with Helen? (1971). How did that come your way?
CH: George Edwards and I went to Henry Farrell and asked him if he had an old story of some kind that we could turn into a movie. And he came up with a ten-page outline of a story called "The Box Step." You know what a box step is?
TT: It's the first thing you learn in dance school, correct?
CH: That's right. It's the most basic thing to learn. Anyway, it was our idea to change the school to a dancing school for children in the 1930s.
Farrell's outline was a contemporary story about a dance academy where people learn ballroom dancing. We changed all that, so ultimately there was a great deal of George and I in the script for Helen. We worked very closely with Farrell on it. And you know the results.
TT: This was the second time you worked with George Edwards as your producer?
CH: Yes, he had produced How Awful About Allan. In essence, Edwards was my partner for awhile.
TT: So you specifically wanted to set Helen in the 1930s?
TT: Which is very indicative of what would become the Harrington style.
Did you originally have two different actresses in mind for the roles that went to Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters?
CH: Well, especially for the part of Adelle which went to Debbie...we were thinking of older actresses who had been in musicals and the first one we talked to was Rita Hayworth. But it was a very sad encounter because I think she had already started getting Alzheimer's Disease.
TT: Which people thought was alcoholism at the time, unfortunately.
TT: Wasn't Shirley MacLaine the other actress you sought?
CH: Yes. I think maybe the script was in fact submitted to her but she was not interested in it at all. I don't know Shirley so that wasn't a personal thing.
Then George and I decided that Debbie Reynolds would be ideal for it. I remember she was rehearsing something at MGM on one of the sound stages and George and I got to her when she had a break. We introduced ourselves and we said, "We have a script for you, Miss Reynolds. We hope you'll read it." So that's how that came about.
TT: It would appear that Debbie and Shelley Winters couldn't be more different in their approach to acting...Debbie coming from a studio system and Shelley being more of an independent method actress. How did they differ in the way they approached their parts in Helen?
CH: Well, Shelley always approaches every part the same way. She was a serious method actress but she has very, very good and sound dramatic ideas when she's working.
TT: Good instincts?
CH: Very good. Debbie, of course, is Miss Show Business. She's a comedienne and she would prefer to be doing pratfalls. She's an enormously talented human being but she does not always consider herself to be a dramatic actress. So this film was quite a departure and I think she felt very insecure about it. But I thought she was wonderful. Debbie is one of those people who is so bursting with talent...that you can't go wrong with her.
TT: She's absolutely fantastic in the film and it's really one of her best roles.
CH: I think she feels that way. She's very proud of the film and is always very happy when it's shown.