Thursday, March 7, 2019

Chamber of Horrors: The Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn!

Important! Please click on the video below to watch William Conrad's brief warning about the film we are reviewing:



Made in 1966, Chamber of Horrors is not a William Castle film, though it certainly could have been made by the Master of Movie Gimmicks. Instead, Chamber of Horrors was originally intended as the pilot movie for an ABC TV series called House of Wax. The network rejected the series, allegedly because the movie was deemed too intense. Its running time was subsequently expanded to feature-length and Chamber of Horrors was released to movie theaters. As a youth, it was easy to convince my dad to let me see it since the cast included Patrice Wymore, Errol Flynn's last wife, and my father was a Flynn fan.

Cesare Danova as Tony Draco.
Set in Baltimore at the turn of the century, the opening scene is a wedding ceremony in which the bride is a blonde-haired corpse and the groom is pointing a gun at the officiating reverend. By the time the police arrive, the killer--a mad man called Jason Cravette--has escaped. The murderer's wealthy aunt engages Anthony Draco (Cesare Danova) and Harold Blount (Wilfred Hyde-White) to find Cravette. Draco and Blount, who operate a wax museum featuring "history's most notorious murderers," moonlight as criminologists and have solved a "dozen of the most baffling cases."

With the help of their diminutive assistant Pepe, they track down Cravette (Patrick O'Neal) in a brothel where he "marries" the same blonde prostitute every night. The police arrest Cravette, who is tried and sentenced to hanging. However, en route to his fate, he stages a miraculous escape by jumping off the train crossing a bridge. (I'll omit the details here since it's the film's best scene, but let's just say that it marks the first appearance of the Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn). The authorities believe Cravette is dead--but he survives and begins to plot his revenge.

Patrick O'Neal as Cravette.
Given what must have been a modest budget, Chamber of Horrors emerges as a delightfully atmospheric chiller with a perfectly-cast villain. Channeling Vincent Price, suave Patrick O'Neal gleefully immerses himself into the part of the mad murderer. For much of the movie, he sports a mustache and beard that makes him look like Mr. Price. The film's creepiest scene (which isn't even preceded by the Fear Flasher) features O'Neal positioning an uncomfortable prostitute in the same pose as his first victim--whom he strangled with her own hair. (Interestingly, I recently watched O'Neal play another insane killer in a season four episode of Route 66.)

Laura Devon as Marie.
As the headlining sleuths, the dapper Danova and the always reliable Hyde-White make an effective duo. The standouts in the supporting cast are Jeanette Nolan as a cigar-smoking socialite, Marie Windsor as a brothel madam eager to be rid of Cravette, and lovely Laura Devon as a streetwalker who unwittingly assists Cravette with his revenge. There are other familiar faces, too, such as a young pre-M*A*S*H Wayne Rogers and, in a quick cameo, Tony Curtis.

As I watched Chamber of Horrors, I couldn't help but be reminded of Dark Intruder, which was released the preceding year. It was also set at the turn of the century, except in San Francisco, and starred Leslie Nielsen as another dapper amateur detective with a dwarf assistant. And like Chamber of HorrorsDark Intruder was also a busted TV pilot that was released theatrically. A key difference between the two films is that Dark Intruder dealt with the supernatural while Chamber of Horrors opted for more realistic chills.

Despite the presence of the "Four Supreme Fright Points," there is nothing gory nor particularly frightening in Chamber of Horrors. What you get instead is a colorful, well-crafted thriller with a tongue-in-cheek approach and a witty script. I love the little touches like the bar maid wiping the beer foam mustache from her face or when a pretty hooker describes her job as an artists' model and Cravette quips: "Oh, you're a tramp."

And, of course, you get the Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn! Really, who could ask for more?


Allied Vaughn Entertainment provided a review copy of this DVD (which also includes Christopher Lee in The Brides of Fu Manchu). You can purchase it from retailers such as MovieZyng.

5 comments:

  1. This sounds like fun. I am going to have to find opportunities in my day-to-day to use the phrases "Fear Flasher" and "Horror Horn." I've already thought of appropriate instances and am giggling insanely.

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  2. The real reason that House Of Wax the series lost its spot on ABC's Fall 1966 schedule (Fridays at 10/9 Central):

    The network had swung a huge ad buy deal with (in the version I read) Bristol-Myers of Big Pharma renown (that term wasn't in use then, but you get the idea).
    It was an across-the-board buy, with Bufferin & Co. taking minutes all over the ABC slate; the conventional wisdom was that Batman was going to be the breakthrough for ABC, combined with the full conversion to color in prime time.
    What happened was that Bristol's ad boss, a guy named Marvin Koslow, got a look at the ABC schedule - and disliked a whole lot of what he saw.
    ABC allowed Koslow to rearrange the slate to his own liking, and several shows were scuttled aborning: House Of Wax was one; another was Sedgewick Hawk-Styles, Prince Of Danger, a Sherlock Holmes spoof with Paul Lynde (some maintain that this last was the funniest pilot that never sold, and Lynde maintained to the end of his days that it was the best thing he ever did - but that's another story …).
    Back to House/Chamber: Because Warner Bros didn't like to let things go to waste, they ordered up the extra scenes (read padding) to bring the show up to B-theatrical length (Tony Curtis's cameo was one of the add-ons).
    The director was Hy Averback, was mainly a comedy specialist (his most recent previous credit was the final season of The Real McCoys)(No kidding).
    The writer was Stephen Kandel, who would have been headwriter had the series gone on; He tells the whole story in one of Tom Weaver's interview books (Earth Vs. The Sci-Fi Filmmakers; find it if you can).
    One of Kandel's revelations: the Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn were going to be a weekly feature on the series!
    I'm guessing that this may be one reason that Bristol-Myers's man withheld consent on the series (how'd you like to see the Fear Flasher, then the Horror Horn, and then a spot for Bufferin?).
    So anyway, House gets featurized into Chamber, Hy Averback goes back to sitcoms, and Steve Kandel winds up writing for Batman.
    Such is life.

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    Replies
    1. Interesting, Mike. Honestly, I can't imagine HOUSE OF WAX getting past the network censors given the dialogue and some of the situations. Although its running time was expanded, it never feels padded. Averback keeps it moving at a quick pace and his scene transitions are pretty clever. BTW, I have several of Tom Weaver's books written for McFarland (my publisher, too).

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  3. Thanks for this great write-up on a most enjoyable film. I hadn't seen the movie in a long time, and recently caught it again on TCM. Your review is right on target, and Patrick O'Neal is deliciously evil as the villain. It would have been interesting to see how this played out as a series, especially if they did use the "Fear Flasher" and "Horror Horn" every week, as Mike notes in his comments. By the way, nice shout out to "Dark Intruder" as well!

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  4. Thanks for reviewing this modest but still unfairly overlooked gem. I never saw it until I picked up the DVD a few years ago. I remember the drive inn theater my family frequented handing out promotional barf bags for the film heralding its upcoming release. It gave all of us a good laugh at the time. It's worth noting that just a few years prior to this pilot's production Rod Serling tried selling a "Rod Serling's Wax Museum" horror anthology series to NBC. They passed on it at the time but when he repackaged the idea a few years later, now dubbed "Night Gallery" and featuring paintings instead of wax dummies, they bought the show.
    "Dark Intruder", the work of future "Night Gallery" producer Jack Laird, is also a nifty little film worth catching. It never quite lives up to its potential but is a fun watch.

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