Monday, 24 April 2017

#MONSTERMONDAY: THE MAKING OF THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS PART ONE


IN THE SPRING OF 1982, Michael Armstrong and director Pete Walker approached Cannon Films, with Armstrong's supernatural thriller, Deliver Us From Evil


With his love of star packages, however, the head of Cannon, Menaham Golan was far more interested in them developing a package for cinema's horror legends: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and John Carradine, who had never throughout their long careers, actually appeared on screen together as a foursome. Golan felt this would be a last opportunity to create cinema history.


WALKER AND ARMSTRONG knew that the current trend of teen slasher movies were not only unsuitable, but would fail to attract the stars in question. There had been several attempts to put them together in one film over the years, but each had failed because of the subject matter and the screenplay. Both Lee and Cushing, in particular, had often stated their dislike of the latest horror trends. Walker, therefore, suggested the remaking of an old classic, The Old Dark House, but was unable to secure the rights from Universal. Aware that if they failed to get back to Cannon quickly, they may lose the offer, Walker suggested another classic title from the same era,  Seven Keys To Baldpate.


SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE, had started life as a novel by the creator of Charlie Chan, E. Digger Biggs and then been dramatised for the stage by George M. Cohen. It became a long running hit on Broadway, before being made into a silent movie back in 1917, directed by Hugh Ford, with George M. Cohen as George Washington Magee! Hedda Hopper starred opposite him. In 1925, yet another silent version was made of the story directed by Fred C. Newmeyer. The first sound version was produced in 1929 by Reginald Barker, starring Richard Dix as William Magee. 

 

1935 rolled out another version, directed by William Hamilton. The final version was made in 1947 with Lew Landers directing, starring Phillip Terry as the renamed Kenneth Magee and Jaqueline White as the also renamed Mary Jordan.


WALKER LAID ON SCREENINGS of several versions at his flat for writer Armstrong and Jenny Craven, a friend of Armstrong and Golan, who would eventually act as associate producer on The House of Long Shadows. Armstrong recalls: 'We ignored a 1916 version made in Australia and a television version 1946, neither of which seemed relevant or connected with the book or the play, and watched - I can't remember maybe two or three, including the last one made in 1947- What we hoped would be a Gothic mystery thriller, along the lines of The Old Dark House, turned out to be an extremely dated crime thriller and nothing remotely suitable for the cast we had in mind. Over dinner we decided the only thing we could do was take the basic premise and the end twist and create a completely new storyline to suit our needs.''As I was going to be writing specifically for our four stars, it seemed logical to pay homage to the movies with which they had all been associated and create a tongue in cheek pastiche of the Gothic movies incorporating as many genre movies references as possible. Certain that our cast would be drawn to the idea of parodying their own classic images, we became very excited, ordered some more wine and set about creating a long list of everything we could think of from that era-thunder storms, to cats jumping out, to the inevitable 'monster locked behind the door', forever screaming heroines and menacing dialogues of  'things better not spoken of...'


TO ADD A FURTHER FRISSON of excitement to their discussion, Walker suggested they create a part for the original Bride Of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester. Because of the urgency to cement the deal, Armstrong returned home that night and within twenty four hours had produced a detailed twenty page treatment, so Walker could fly off to LA and quickly secure their stars. A few days later, Armstrong received a late night phone call from Walker, telling him the stars liked the treatment and were interested, subject to the screenplay - which he had told them was on the point of completion and would be available for them to read within two weeks. 'I've never been a slow writer, but to complete a screenplay within two weeks and be sufficiently polished to hook star names? It was quite ironic really. The film was about a writer taking on a bet to write a Gothic novel within twenty four hours! And here was I agreeing to write a Gothic screenplay within two weeks! So, I locked myself away with my typewriter, reams of paper, an ample supply of whiskey and enough cartons of cigarettes to open a tobacconists shop - in those days I was smoking 120 cigarettes a day! - and with Verdi's La Forza (Guiseppe Verdi's opera, La Forza Del Destino - The Force of Destiny) drowning out any distracting noises from the outside world, I sat down and went to work!'


AS REQUIRED, Armstrong delivered a completed draft of the screenplay on time! It was just hours before Walker had to leave to get to the airport! 'It was like some crazy suspense thriller' Armstrong now remembers, 'I finished the final page of the script around five, grabbed a cab to Morton's where Pete was waiting for me, before catching his flight to LA. I go there, literally minutes before he had to leave to get to the airport. I'd been working around the clock, on whiskey and cigarettes, had no sleep for two nights, staggered into Morton's more dead than alive, thrust the pages of typed manuscript into his hands- the only copy that existed- Pete asked me if I wanted a drink, I told him I just wanted to go home and collapse, he said he'd call me then called a cab- and that was it. He read the script on the plane and called me to say he liked it. A week later he called me to say that the script had gone down well with the actors and that they had all agreed to do it - except Lanchester, who unfortunately was too fragile to travel.' The part that Armstrong had written for her was that of a woman forever haunted by her past as a jilted bride. The role, instead, went to a Pete Walker favourite, Shelia Keith, who produced a wonderfully comic performance.


'PETE AND I intended that one of the fun levels of the film to be it's density of movie literary allusions, sometimes double edged, like Vinnies death: on one hand echoing his demise in Witchfinder General, whilst, on the other, being a parody of Mickey Mouse chopping up the broomsticks in 'Fantasia'. Armstrong explains, 'Unfortunately, quite a few filmic references for film buffs got lost along the way. There were also some that weren't followed through. For instance, the juve leads were written as a kind of Dick Powell and Fay Wray exchanging those sparring quick banter dialogues of the period. The young married couple were written as a parody of their British counterparts, epitomized by Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in 'Private Lives'. But, these with other references got lost, partly because of the subtle campery required in the playing didn't really suit the actors cast the those roles.'

FOR ONCE, Armstrong was not around for the casting. Jenny Craven, the associate producer, was elevated into overseeing the film from the moment it went into pre production. 'Everything happened so quickly.' Armstrong recalls, 'Pete Walker had barely arrived back from LA before the film was in pre-production with a shooting date only a few weeks away. To my concern, what I'd dashed off in those two weeks was the script they were working from. Admittedly my first drafts are usually as tight as most people's final drafts but, even so, I still desperately wanted, at the very least, to sit down and clean it up and tidy it- especially around the final confrontation scene between the Grisbane brothers- but it proved impossible. Pete had been swept up into the throes of production with Jenny Craven, which meant that he and I couldn't find a free moment to get together and talk., even. Whenever I tried to say anything, everyone seemed perfectly happy with the script as it was, then I finally gave up pressing the point and assumed it was just me being insecure and finicky and that they'd come back to me if something wasn't working'


WITHIN THE FIRST WEEK of shooting a call came from the set, asking Armstrong to go down and fix the final dialogue scene between Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. 'I was so relieved,' Armstrong confesses, 'When I got on set, I found Christopher's concern was that he felt the final confrontation between he and Vinnie wasn't correctly balanced. Vinnie had more dialogue and had the last line. He was quite right, of course- except about wanting to have the last line. I sat down and tightened the whole scene, which I'd been dying to do. It automatically balanced their dialogue and resolved Christopher's worries and Vinnie still kept his last line, much to his amusement. From that point on, I decided it might be better if I remained on the set for the rest of the shooting- although, as it turned out, there was nothing else that needed fixing.' 







'THE SHOOT went smoothly.' Armstrong recalls. The stars, in particular, enjoyed working together and relished the camp theatricality of the dialogue and the lampooning the Gothic melodramas of the past. By the end of shooting, there was a general feeling on the set that the end product would be a lot of fun and prove popular with audiences'.


LEAVING WALKER to editing and post production, Armstrong became embroiled in Cannon's plans for publicity, part of which involved him writing and recording a series of jokey radio ads with Christopher Lee and Vincent Price. Elaborate plans were now in progress for releasing the film. Head of Distribution, Trevor Green and the publicity department came up with the idea of a starry, camp 30's style premiere to reflect the mood of the film. Craven, however, now overseeing the films publicity machine, as well as the film, opposed the concept, preferring the idea of a simple dignified press reception instead. Shortly afterwards, Trevor Green left and joined his brother to build one of Britain's biggest current distributors, Entertainment.


AS ENTHUSIASM for a fun launch of the film waned and a more serious approach to it's marketing was adopted, a similar sobriety seemed to be affecting the whole film during it's post production. 'Early in the cutting, Pete invited me into the edit suite to see his cut of the music scene with Vinnie and it was wonderful. Vinnie was very funny reveling in the moroseness of explaining the Grisbane's doom-ridden destiny to an accompaniment of Shelia Keith's wailing Verdi aria and the whole scene had a fabulous rhythm and stylish wit about it. Pete was so enthusiastic and clearly happy with the way the film was shaping up. I don't know what happened between then and later, when I saw the scene in the finished film, it had been re-cut and a good half of the scene was missing.....mostly Vinnie' dialogue. There were other strange cuts and trims too, a serious reduction  of comic pacing by dragging out Desi Arnaz Jr's early scenes and those with Julie Peasgood. Someone told me it was Cannon's attempt to tone down the films humour and turn it into a more serious horror film. How true that is I really don't know, but somewhere along the way, I sensed Pete's usual buoyant spirit had been eroded by something. I didn't know what. I didn't know why.....'



PART TWO OF THE MAKING OF
THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS HERE!  NEXT MONDAY!


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