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Dark Sky follows up its excellent disc of The Flesh Eaters with the collected works of another independent filmmaker, Del Tenney. Violent Midnight (Psychomania) arrives separately, but Tenney's best known pix are combined in the same popular double bill that cleaned up in 1964. They were very heavily promoted: I remember buying the photo-novel version of Horror of Party Beach.
1964 was the big year for monster fandom, when Forrest J. Ackerman and his monster world were featured in major magazines. It was also the big year for A.I.P's beach party movies. So what could be more perfectly poised to break out of the glut of bad independent moviemaking than a movie entitled The Horror of Party Beach? New York theater producer Del Tenney already had sort of a track record, consisting of an unreleased loser (Zombies, eventually released as I Eat Your Skin) and a very minor winner (Psychomania). That was enough to hook him up with exhibitor Alan Iselin to put together a pair of not-bad programmers. 20th Century-Fox happily snapped up the result for distribution. If there's one compliment for Tenney's commercial savvy, it's that Fox didn't require changes to either film - they went out pretty much as Tenny finished them.
1964 was the breakout year for monster fandom, when Forrest J. Ackerman and his monster world were featured in major magazines. It was also the big year for A.I.P's beach party movies. So what could be more perfectly poised to break out of the glut of bad independent moviemaking than a movie entitled The Horror of Party Beach? New York theater producer Del Tenney already had sort of a track record, consisting of an unreleased loser (Zombies, eventually released as I Eat Your Skin) and a very minor winner (Psychomania), which was enough to hook him up with exhibitor Alan Iselin to put together a pair of not-bad programmers. 20th Century-Fox happily snapped up the result for distribution. If there's one compliment for Tenney's commercial savvy, it's that Fox didn't require changes to either film - they went out pretty much as Tenny finished them.
The Horror of Party Beach is a generic low-grade monster show with a difference - it's made with at least some spirit and it knows exactly what it is. The pitifully goofy monsters appear to be wet suits covered with vinyl triangles for scales, plus a helmet-like monster mask on top. It's almost as silly as the burlap-bag monster in Roger Corman's Creature from the Haunted Sea. Bad-movie critics and MSTK3000 have had no end of fun with the monsters' googly eyes, and what looks like a dozen large hot dogs crammed into each of their mouths.
The lumpy screenplay starts off well with some spirited nonsense on the beach aided by not-bad (by teen monster movie standards) music from the Del-Aires and halfway clever choreography with twenty or so Connecticut dancers trying to be California Girls (the Beach Boys had only been around a year or so). Del Tenney also enlists the help of a motorcycle club for a short fight scene. After the first radioactive monster shows up, the movie turns into a standard Creature Feature.
The dialogue is mostly post-synchronized and the acting hopeless, as is the molasses pace applied to the efforts to combat the slow-walking monsters. It's amateur hour all the way. The only distinguished character is Eulabelle (Eulabelle Moore), a friendly black maid who comforts the hero and serves snacks, but also finds the secret for killing the monsters. Leading lady Alice Lyon discovers that Eulabelle has a fondness for Voodoo dolls, which becomes an irrelevant detail, unless it ties in with Tenney's earlier The Zombies.
The monsters prey mostly on cute teenaged girls, making this a precursor to the 'summer camp shockeroo' stories beloved by Stephen King. A dozen over-aged girls try to act like they're having fun at a silly slumber party and a rather proto-feminist folk song is heard as the creatures close in for the kill. Even though the monsters crash the party and slay every pajama'd girl in sight the tone of the movie never drops below giggle-level -- not only are the monsters downright silly, but nothing seems any more serious than a high-school skit. In other words, it's silly fun.
The scientists examine a monster hand on a table, which leads to the discovery that 'sodium' can destroy them. Sodium is spoken of as if it was some exotic chemical instead of simple salt, and we aren't supposed to wonder why the salt in the ocean doesn't have the same effect (a flub that seems much more brainless in the serious The Day of the Triffids). The Horror of Party Beach runs out of just about everything -- invention, plot, interest -- before it ends, yet plays as a satisfactory spook show, the perfect kiddie matinee monster film for 1964. 1
This co-feature is a different proposition altogether. Whereas Party Beach, Psychomania and The Zombies were all Z-grade concepts, The Curse of the Living Corpse aims a bit higher. Tenney and a spirited group of actor-associates mount a rather good Gothic murder tale made from stock elements but adding more explicit slayings than was usual at the time. The production trappings are of a higher quality, and the cast even includes a not-embarrassing performance by a future star, Roy Scheider.
Del Tenney's stab at Old Dark House horrors was filmed on a Connecticut estate owned by his father-in-law and makes excellent use of good costumes and a rented hearse. It's an old-fashioned but eventful series of betrayals, deceptions and killings that appear to be the revenge of a man driven mad by being buried alive -- sort of a Ten Little Indians crossed with The Premature Burial. Tenney must have been trying hard with this one because overall his script is interesting and his direction better than acceptable. His actors, associates from his stage work, give the film a fine polish. Robert Milli is fine as a contemptible bully, and Roy Scheider gives his overly dramatic alcoholic character a lively spin.
An added plus is Candace Hilligoss, the intelligent beauty from Herk Harvey's Kansas classic Carnival of Souls. Her billing isn't very high but she makes a solid impression. She also looks great in the old clothes! This is reportedly her second and last movie appearance of the1960s.
The creative camerawork finds ways to present the phantom killer, with top-hat and sword cane, as both a silhouette and a menacing shadow. The film builds interest and suspense within the mechanics of a plot that spells out from the start what's going to happen to each of the victims. Tenney manages an impressive fire scene and his principal actors seem more than willing to tramp around in muck and mire for the sake of cinema. Even considering that he has the best part, Scheider goes completely underwater in a really icky, clammy-looking sinkhole ... and by the look of the trees, it's not Summer, either.
Part of the fun with violent Gothic tales is to see everybody dressed up in the old-fashioned clothing, only to get their hair mussed with garrotings, stabbings and the like. Margot Hartman (the director's wife) meets her fate in a rather daring bathtub scene. There's enough skin here to suggest that 20th Fox may have done some judicious snipping before putting this out on an all-ages kiddie double bill. It looks more like something that may have gotten by in a "Not for Children" release in 1967 or '68 -- maybe.
Stage effects like the severed head on the platter are done extremely well. They look great in the film's still set, which could have sold the picture to Fox by itself. They certainly saw a lot of exposure in monster magazines of the day. Just about the only ho-hum aspect of the film is the semi-comic police inspector and his booze-hound lackey, who sits around waiting to be klonked on the head by the prowling killer. Otherwise, The Curse of the Living Corpse rates a solid 'not bad at all.'
Dark Sky's DVD of the Del Tenney Double Feature: The Horror of Party Beach & Curse of the Living Corpse is another of their excellent presentations. The transfers were probably downconverted from HD, as the 'Monsters HD' logo suggests that they are perhaps viewable on that HD cable channel. The grayscales of both features are rich, with good blacks and minimal grain. I saw only an instance or two of film damage, and even optical shots such as the long underwater skeleton-to-monster transformation look sharp. The audio tracks sound rich and full as well. Both films make ample use of stock music libraries but Party Beach has those zippy Del-Aires loud and clear with unmemorable but serviceable tunes like "The Zombie Stomp."
Del Tenney doesn't get into technical detail on the extras for the double bill but on commentaries on both titles, plus an on-camera interview he tells us about his theatrical background and how the deal for these pictures was made. Dark Sky producer Shade Rupe engages Tenney on the commentaries, which are at least partially interesting when the two talk about more than the basics of the action on screen. Tenney never quite decides whether he made two or three monster suits and doesn't have many positive answers to Rupe's questions about the New York independent scene in 1962. Tenney seems to have made these pictures in a vacuum. One example: Tenney brings up Ed Wood but seems to think that the filmmaker was working back East, and active in the early 1960s. Rupe immediately asks if Tenney met Wood, and is given a short, "No." So we don't learn much of anything new, not even about Alan Iselin, who would go on to try again with the groan-inducing camp-fest Frankenstein meets the Spacemonster. Dark Sky has that title coming out in May, so perhaps we'll get the scoop then.
The menus are top-notch and quick to navigate; the excellent cover artwork could serve as a lesson for other DVD producers as how to adapt trashy old Ad art into arresting graphics. The Curse of the Living Corpse has the trailers and a still gallery as extras. The first image up is the 1964 Horror of Party Beach photo-comic that was, I believe, put out by Forrest Ackerman's publisher.
The secret to Del Tenney's modest success is clear: He kept title to his films and possession of their negatives. We may turn our noses up at these pictures but the fact is that he's been selling them to TV, video and now DVD for forty years and probably made quite a bundle over time. By contrast, the famous independent producer-director Robert Aldrich quickly sold his interest in his completed films back to the studios for seed money for his next projects. If Aldrich had just hung onto his early 1950s productions for a few years, they would have turned into a steady source of income, especially when some of them became cult hits. Studio vaults are full of repossessed and cheaply bought movies that aren't exploited as they should be, because of the limited business sense of the filmmakers who made them.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Well, heh heh, this is where Savant starts receiving emails from people who (as one writer put it) stayed awake in chemistry class. Salt is sodium chloride ... plain old sodium is something else entirely, "highly reactive and unstable" and apparently the perfect substance for annihilating atomic monsters. So my comparison to Day of the Triffids, which does simply say that "salt water" is the cure-all, doesn't fit very well. Aren't you glad I'm writing DVD reviews instead of taking care of the nation's water supply? Thanks to Dennis Fischer, René Lombardis, Nicholas Appolonia and others for the correction ... Glenn Erickson