Over the next two weeks, in celebration of Halloween and the new anthology The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen, Tachyon and editor Ellen Datlow present excerpts from a selection of the volume’s horrifying tales.
The final selection comes from “Illimitable Dominion” by Kim Newman.
Okay, you could say it was my fault.
I’m the one. Me, Walter Paisley, agent to stars without stars on Hollywood Boulevard. I said “spare a thought for Eddy” and the Poe Plague got started …
It’s 1959 and you know the montage. Cars have shark-fins. Jukeboxes blare the Platters and Frankie Lyman. Ike’s a back number, but JFK hasn’t yet broken big. The Commies have put Sputnik in orbit, starting a war of the satellites. Coffeehouses are full of beards and bad poetry. Boomba the Chimp, my biggest client, has a kiddie series cancelled out from under him. Every TV channel is showing some Western, but my pitches for The Cherokee Chimp, The Monkey Marshal of Mesa City, and Boomba Goes West fall on stony ground. The only network I have an “in” with is DuMont, which shows how low the Paisley Agency has sunk since the heyday of Jungle Jillian and Her Gorilla Guerrillas (with Boomba as the platoon’s comedy-relief mascot) and The Champ, the Chimp, and the Imp (a washed-up boxer is friends with a cigar-smoking chimpanzee and a leprechaun).
American International Pictures is a fancy name for James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff sharing an office. They call themselves a studio, but you can’t find an AIP backlot. They rent abandoned aircraft hangars for soundstages and shoot as much as possible out of doors and without permits. At the end of the fifties, AIP are cranking out thirty to forty pictures a year, double features shoved into ozoners and grindhouses catering to the Clearasil crowd. They peddle twofers on low-budget juvenile delinquency (Reform School Girl with Runaway Daughters!), affordable science fiction (Terror from the Year 5,000 with The Brain Eaters!), inexpensive chart music (Rock All Night with The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow!), cheapskate creatures (I Was a Teenage Werewolf with The Undead!), frugal combat (Suicide Battalion with Paratroop Command!) or cut-price exotica (She-Gods of Shark Reef with Teenage Cave Man!). When Jim and Sam try for epic, they hope a marquee-filling title—The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent—distracts the hot-rodders from sub-minimal production values and a ninety-cent sea serpent filmed in choppy bathwater.
The AIP racket is that Jim thinks up a title—say, The Beast with a Million Eyes or The Cool and the Crazy—and commissions lurid ad art, which he buries in hard-sell slogans. He shows ads to exhibitors, who chip in modest production coin. Then, a producer is put on the project. Said producer gets a writer in over the weekend and forces out a script by shoving peanuts through the bars. Someone has to direct the picture and be in it, but so long as a teenage doll in a tight sweater screams on the poster—at a monster, a switchblade, or a guitar player—no one thinks too much about them. Sam puts fine print into contracts that makes sure no one sees profit participation and puffs cigars at trade gatherings.
Roger Corman is only one of a corral of producers—Bert I. Gordon and Alex Gordon are others—on AIP’s string, but he’s youngest, busiest, and cheapest. After, to his mind, wasting half his budget hiring a director named Wyott Ordung on a 1954 masterpiece called The Monster from the Ocean Floor, Roger trims the budgets by directing most of his films himself. He seldom does a worse job than Wyott Ordung. Five critics in France and two in England say Roger is more interesting than Cukor or Zinnemann—though unaccountably It Conquered the World misses out on a Best Picture nomination. Then again, Mike Todd wins for Around the World in 80 Days. I’d rather watch Lee Van Cleef blowtorch a snarling turnip from Venus at sixty-eight minutes than David Niven smarm over two hundred smug cameo players in far-flung locations for three or four hours. You don’t have to be a contributor to Cayenne du Cinéma or Sight & Sound to agree.
After sixty to seventy films inside four years, it gets so Roger can knock ’em off over a weekend. No kidding. Little Shop of Horrors is made in three days because it’s raining and Roger can’t play tennis. He tackles every subject, within certain Jim-and-Sam-imposed limits. He shoots movies about juvenile-delinquent girls, gunslinger girls, reincarnated-witch girls, beatnik girls, escaped-convict girls, cave girls, Viking girls, monster girls, Apache girls, rock-and-roll girls, girls eaten by plants, carnival girls, sorority girls, last girls on earth, pearl-diver girls, and gangster girls. Somehow, he skips jungle girls, else maybe Boomba would land an AIP contract.
The thing is everybody—except Sam, who chortles over the ledgers without ever seeing the pictures—gets bored with the production line. Another week, and it’s Blood of Dracula plus High School Hellcats, ho hum. I don’t know when Roger gets time to dream, but dream he does—of bigger things. Jim thinks of bigger posters, or at least different-shaped posters. In the fifties, the enemy is television, but AIP product looks like television—small and square and black and white and blurry, with no one you’ve ever heard of wandering around Bronson Cavern. Drive-in screens are the shape of windshields. The typical AIP just lights up a middle slice. Even with Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Amazing Colossal Man, and The She-Creature triple-billed, kids are restless. Where’s the breathtaking CinemaScope, glorious Technicolor, and stereoscopic sound? 3-D has come and gone, and neither Odorama nor William Castle’s butt-buzzers are goosing the box office.
Jim or Roger get a notion to lump together the budgets and shooting schedules of two regular AIP pictures and throw their all into one eighty-five minute superproduction. Together, they browbeat Sam into opening the cobwebbed checkbook. This time, Mike Todd—well, not Mike Todd, since he’s dead, but some imaginary composite big-shot producer—will have to watch out come Oscar season. So, what to make?
For information on The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover by Josh Beatman.