Sometimes you see a DVD on Amazon that just screams ‘buy me!’ I see quite a few, which is why I’m always skint. The Fanex files documentary on the legendary Samuel Z Arkoff was one of those discs that screamed just a little bit louder than the others for good reason.
In the fifties as Hollywood had begun to decline thanks to the advent of Television and the Majors had lost control of the theatres, the market opened up to a lot of independent producers. Sam Arkoff and his business partner James H Nicholson founded American International Pictures (AIP), originally American Releasing Corporation, to produce ‘B’ pictures to screen alongside major Hollywood product before venturing out to let their films stand on their own two feet. AIP’s output was exploitation pictures. The term conjures up some bad imagery with people, the word exploitation is a loaded one, but what AIP were exploiting was a gap in the market not being filled by Hollywood, mainly teen pictures and horror movies.
The concept of teenage movies itself was not a new one, where Arkoff had his pictures differ was that unlike a lot of the major studios, the actors playing the teenage characters actually were teenagers. In the documentary Arkoff recalls leaving the cinema after seeing Johnny Guitar ( a great movie by the way) and overhearing two teenage girls discussing how Joan Crawford, playing a teenage character in the movie, looked old enough to be their mother. Crawford was in her forties at this time and was supposed to be playing a nineteen year old!
AIP would deliver a series of enormously popular Teen movies including Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket bingo, Ghost in the invisible bikini and, well you’re seeing a theme here! The films featured reoccurring cast members including Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello who before coming to work for AIP on their teen pictures had been at Disney studios, a nineteen year old actress strategically strapped up to play a twelve year old in ‘uncle walts’ films. Thanks to an error in her contract that allowed her to work outside of Disney, Arkoff signed her up and immediately had her playing her age. This apparently led to some irate phone calls from Disney for making their little girl grow up. Sensing the ‘Beach party’ craze had run its course, the cast were kept on but the action moved to motor racing with Fireball 500 and Thunder alley.
While Arkoff initially had some difficulties getting his films into theatres when not playing second fiddle to a bigger Hollywood production, slowly but surely his films got themselves out to an audience. The biggest boon to AIP was the Drive in. Drive in’s rarely got the major Hollywood titles on their first run and often ended up screening films long after they had played in regular theatres. AIP however offered new films not seen in theatres thanks to threats from studios to boycott chains that carried AIP product. More so, the drive in was the natural haunt for the teenage audience who could ‘park’ with their boy/girlfriends with at least an air of legitimacy that lovers lane could not afford. So while these films may have been relegated to ‘B’ pictures in cinemas, the independent AIP movies found themselves the ‘A’ pictures at the drive in giving the audiences exactly what they wanted.
While the Atomic monster movies of the fifties also proved popular, AIP found competition from overseas in the shape of Hammer studios. Hammer’s Dracula was in one sense a step backwards; at this point the classic Universal studios adaptation was still well known (and at the behest of Universal the film would be retitled Horror of Dracula) and while the film looked back fondly on the gothic cinema of the 40’s it added something those films couldn’t and something that the atomic monster movies from America wouldn’t, Sex and violence.
Dracula may seem tame today, it was recently re-issued on Blu-ray fully restored with scenes cut from the original ‘X’ certificate and gained itself a 15. Back when it was released Hammer’s film was considered to be genuinely shocking and as a result it was a huge success propelling Hammer into the position of a major player in the film industry. Arkoff noted the film’s success and decided America needed its own franchise in order to compete with the upstart Brits. While Hammer mined European gothic literature for inspiration AIP used something a little more home-grown and set about adapting the works of Edgar Allen Poe.
The first film was Fall of the House of Usher; also released as House of Usher it hit theatres just as the 50’s was ending. Usher was directed by ROGER CORMAN a young filmmaker who had been keen to break into the industry and found his ideal home at AIP. Arkoff said that Corman had ‘cheap Genes’ he hated to waste a single cent and everything had to go into the movie. He had the uncanny ability to make films incredibly cheaply and in a short space of time while delivering a picture that could legitimately play to an audience. The fastest turnover known for a Corman film was Little shop of Horrors which he made over a weekend as a bet! Another picture The Terror, a gothic horror not related to any Poe stories was shot by Corman and some associates using the sets of the Previous bigger budgeted The Raven and a lot of the cast and crew were brought back behind Arkoff’s back to shoot the film over the course of a week. While Corman is perhaps better known these days as a producer with an enormous list of films credited to him http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000339/?ref_=tt_ov_dr
It’s worth pointing out that Corman has some considerable gifts as a director as well. House of Usher is a fantastic film, and despite a low budget the film looks amazing. Its widescreen, in full colour and has great sound. Vincent Price, a classically trained actor who had previously been a contract player in some major motion pictures found his niche in the genre and give a performance as Roderick Usher that’s so good he would be forever associated with the works of Poe on the silver screen and become a major Horror icon. For anyone curious to see the film, Arrow is releasing it on Blu-ray soon in a lovely steel book. Hopefully it should look astonishing in Hi definition and it’s on my ‘must buy’ list. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-House-Usher-SteelBook-Blu-ray/dp/B00CKECFJS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1376553503&sr=8-1&keywords=fall+of+the+house+of+usher
Usher was a huge success for AIP and more Poe adaptations were to follow. Most would feature Price, a rare exception being The Premature Burial which starred award winning actor Ray Milland in the central role. Most would be directed by Corman and written by legendary author Richard Matheson who delivered exceptional scripts every time. The Poe adaptation that is considered the best of the bunch is Masque of the Red Death, with Vincent Price this time playing the evil count Prospero. He holds a masquerade ball for his rich friends in his castle while the local populace is ravaged by a terrible disease known as the red death. He takes an innocent peasant girl into his castle and as the evening progresses makes every effort to corrupt her. Shot in England to take advantage of the tax breaks offered to Film Company’s at the time the Corman film used a lot of English crew members including Nicholas Roeg as cinematographer. Roeg would eventually find fame as a filmmaker in his own right with classics such as Walkabout, Don’t look now and Performance starring Mick Jagger. Roegs cinematography on Masque is exceptional, the use of primary colours and lighting make the film look vivid and almost surreal at times and as a result gave the film a lot more clout with the critics.
Eventually Poe was not the only source material that AIP would use. Nathaniel Hawthorne would provide the basis for Twice told tales, directed by Sidney Salkow. Corman himself would have the first crack at bringing the works of H.P. Lovecraft to the screen with The Haunted Palace titled after a POE story the film would mix in Dunwich Horror, Shadow over Innsmouth and The case of Charles Dexter Ward in with a traditional ghost story. The film itself is fun but Lovecraft purists would feel befuddled by the strange mix of tales and extreme liberty’s taken with the source material. Price would play Ward, who returns to his ancestral home only to find himself possessed by the ghost of his warlock ancestor and begin sacrificing young maidens to Yog-sothoth. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ho0OxsVkB7E
AIP would tackle Lovecraft again with greater success with Die monster, Die! An adaptation of the Colour out of space And The Dunwich Horror both directed by Daniel Haller and both sticking much closer to the source material.
My personal favourite of the non-Poe films is a comedy of Terrors, written once again by Richard Matheson and directed by the legendary Jacques Tourneur who delivered several classic horrors including Cat people and Night of the Demon an excellent adaptation of M.R James Casting the Runes. Matheson could deliver great comedy as well as great horror and science fiction. The same year he also delivered the screenplay for an adaptation of the Poe Poem the Raven where he solved the intrinsic problem of adapting a poem into a narrative film by disregarding much of the poem and making the film about two duelling sorcerers. Comedy of Terrors is an original piece by Matheson that while has a period setting probably owes a lot in terms of the dialogue and characterisations to the fantasy author Jack Vance. Vincent Price plays a crooked undertaker who re-uses coffins, he drinks away most of the profits so comes up with a scheme to murder prospective clients as a way to drum up trade. Assisting him is an ex-convict played by Peter Lorre and the due end up coming unstuck when dealing with a wealthy narcoleptic played by Basil Rathbone.
Like Price, both Lorre and Rathbone were major players in Hollywood who had found steady work at AIP in the autumn of their careers and having such gifted talent working on their films added an extra layer of class to the Productions. Comedy of Terrors is a very funny film. A lot of Comedy is about timing and the team of director Tourneur and gifted actors such as Price, Rathbone and Lorre made sure it all worked brilliantly. There’s no sign yet of a re-issue of this film, but if you’re interested the whole thing is available to watch free of charge on YOUTUBE so give it a go!
As with the Teen movies, Arkoff noted the cycle of period horror seemed to be drawing to a close. Films like Psycho, Peeping Tom and Night of the Living Dead were dragging the genre back into the twentieth century. The biggest strength of AIP was being able to spot changes in audience demands and get out before they lost too much money. As the sixties progressed and the counterculture movement took off, AIP responded with films such as Wild in the streets, Gassss, Psych out and most famously The Trip directed by Roger Corman and written by Jack Nicholson. These films dealt directly with contemporary issues such as the counterculture and the rise in popularity of recreational drugs such as LSD.
As the Hells angels grew in notoriety AIP also delivered biker gang films like Cycle savages. Around this time a lot of AIP alumni such as Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda went off in their own directions and started making their own pictures. Hopper and Fonda delivered Easy rider, ostensibly a biker film in the AIP mould it went on to make a shed-load of money at the box office and as a result Hollywood began looking at a lot of the young film graduates working for AIP. A large number of top directors working today such as Martin Scorsese began their careers at AIP.
Alongside these counter-culture films, Arkoff noted another gap in the market. The large audience of African-Americans whose were woefully underrepresented in cinemas. They would release some major classics of the ‘Blaxploitation’ genre including Coffy, Sugar hill, Blacula and Foxy Brown. While the term Blaxploitation may conjure up some bad connotations given America’s history with slavery and the bitter struggles of the civil rights movement, it’s easy enough to see why some people considered the genre racist. It’s important to realise however that the only thing AIP was exploiting was the gap in the market that the majors refused to fill. Everyone got paid, careers were launched and the films made a lot of money. It helped that the films themselves are actually well made and enjoyable and continue to enjoy success today. Quentin Tarantino made the excellent Jackie Brown as a direct homage to the genre and cast regulars such as Pam Grier and Sid Haig.
AIP continued to release Horror Films as well, and in keeping with Arkoff’s ability to keep his material feeling contemporary, a lot of them had a strong ecological message. Bert I Gordon, effects wizard and filmmaker delivered classics such as Empire of the ants, a film which featured a bunch of rich property developers including Joan Collins get terrorised by giant ants and Food of the Gods, a loose adaptation of the H.G Wells story that dealt with contamination of the food chain that causes rats to grow to giant proportions and Terrorise the local population. Gordon had tackled the Wells story previously for Embassy pictures with Village of the giants though not as successfully as his AIP film. Another Ecological based horror worth checking out is FROGS Starring Ray Milland and Sam Elliot. Essentially a re-working of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds, Sam Elliot plays an ecologist investigating illegal dumping at a lake, he makes his way to a small island where he discovers Milland and his extended family enjoying a vacation at their private country retreat. Staying for supper (and because he has eyes for one of Milland’s grand-daughters) he discovers Frogs are leading the local wildlife in revolt against the rich family responsible for polluting the lake. As silly as the premise is it’s a fun film to watch and pretty cheap to pick up as well.
I’ve skirted over a lot of AIP’s Filmography here, it’s certainly also worth mentioning the Doug Mcclure adventure films Warlords of the deep and At the earth’s core as well as the excellent Count Yorga films with Robert Quarry playing the titular Vampire. The fact is I’ve probably covered more of the filmography, however briefly than the Fanex Files documentary manages. This isn’t a fault of the documentary makers. There is literally so many titles in AIP’S back catalogue that there is probably a nice coffee-table sized books worth of material on it at least. The Strength of the documentary is to look at the man himself and find out what drove him to enter the business and how he managed to make such a mark on filmmaking. Samuel Z Arkoff, it turns out, is probably one of the most gounded and down to earth men that worked in the industry. He remained married to the same woman his entire life, raised healthy, functional children and avoided a lot of the pitfalls that comes with success in the film industry. His final role as producer also delivered him one of his biggest successes, The Amityville Horror is regarded as a classic to this day and was a huge success on release. He wasn’t as lauded as Roger Corman perhaps, but in retrospect he was of equal importance to film making.
If any of this was of interest I highly recommend checking out THE FANEX FILES: Samuel Z Arkoff.