‘Marginalized by film historians and largely overlooked during his lifetime, the late Curtis Harrington (1928-2007) was a key figure in the West Coast experimental film scene and among the most wholly original directors to work in the Hollywood studio system. An ardent cinephile since his earliest years, Harrington began his film career as an errand boy at Paramount and eventually became a successful A-list director at Universal in the 1960s. An early protégé of Maya Deren and a close friend of Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos, Harrington’s first works were poetic trance films that revealed his careful eye and distinctive style. During his youth Harrington also befriended two of his greatest idols, iconoclastic studio directors James Whale and Joseph Von Sternberg, uncompromising aesthetes whose refined—and at times, perverse— tastes and wicked sense of humor would remain major influences on all of Harrington’s major films.
‘Harrington ended up being an example of what is likely a typical tale in Hollywood: a director who gladly (and sometimes begrudgingly) took the work that was handed to him as he labored to get pet projects off the ground. His filmography looks like a scattershot run through everything from fractured art house shorts to campy horror to nighttime soap operas of the eighties. But if you start digging into the life of the late artist (he passed away in 2007), you’ll find a fairly incredible story built on a deep love of film, good fortune and a singular vision that shone through even his most commercial work.
‘As you would expect from the tenor of many of Harrington’s work, a lot of it is available for mass consumption: a DVD that pairs up two of his campier efforts, What’s The Matter With Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (both starring Shelley Winters), and many other films streaming online including one of his most fully realized horror experiments, Ruby. Another thread that runs through so many of these films is Harrington’s love of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which he tries to inject into even the most unusual projects.
‘He convinced Basil Rathbone to play the majordomo of a group of space explorers in Queen of Blood, while also going against producer Corman’s wishes to put former noir moll Florence Marly in the title role. He cast legendary British actor Ralph Richardson opposite Winters in Auntie Roo. And for a TV movie about a woman in control of a hive of killer bees, he gave the plum lead role to the great Gloria Swanson. “He talks a lot about how he really had a way with egotistical women actresses,” says Lisa Janssen, an archivist and film theorist who is working with Chicago-based imprint Drag City to bring a DVD collection of Harrington’s early experimental works into the world. “Someone called him the next George Cukor because he was so good with those personalities.”
‘“It was a huge heartbreak for him to end up there,” says Janssen. “What he finds is that you don’t just do one show and then go back to directing features. You’re marked for life. He just got stuck there.” During that time, Harrington pleaded with movie executives to help him get films funded and produced. For the better part of thirty years, he tried to get an adaptation of Iris Murdoch’s book The Unicorn brought to the big screen. He also attempted to work on TV adaptations of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and a biopic about Swanson, as well as dozens of other big and small films. Frustrated as he was, Harrington kept soldiering on, able to keep working thanks in no small part to his gregariousness with everyone he encountered along his life’s journey.’ — collaged
‘The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection’ @ Drag City
Curtis Harrington @ imdB
Ch obituary @ Fortean Times
‘Curtis Harrington, Restored’
CH interviewed @ The Terror Trap
‘Negotiating the Dangerous Compromise’
‘Curtis Harrington: Living in Dangerous Houses’
CH’s memoir reviewed @ Bookforum
‘Remembering Horror Maestro Curtis Harrington’
The Curtis Harrington Papers @ Margaret Herrick Library
CH obituary @ The Los Angeles Times
The Estate of Curtis Harrington: Grandfather of Avant-Garde Filmmaking in LA
‘CURTIS HARRINGTON: CINEMA ON THE EDGE’
CURTIS HARRINGTON: 2001 INTERVIEW
‘Curtis Harrington on James Whale’
‘Michael Gothard and the Curse of Curtis Harrington’
‘From the Eye of the Storm: Remembering Curtis Harrington and His Films’
House of Harrington
‘House of Harrington is a short documentary about Curtis Harrington, a filmmaker who amassed a short list of very interesting, arty, plodding horror movies throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Unfortunately, outside factors (bad ad campaigns, dubious distributors, meddling producers, etc.) prevented Harrington from ever having the illustrious film career that he could/should have had. The documentary features one of Harrington’s final interviews in which he reminisces about his early life and fascination with films through his career in Hollywood to his final independently produced short film Usher. Punctuated with clips from most of his movies (including glimpses of his oft-spoken-of but incredibly rare early shorts Fall of the House of Usher, Fragment of Seeking, and The Wormwood Star) as well as some of the television shows he directed, few of his works are discussed in-depth, it’s just sort of an overview of his career.’ — Vinnie Rattolle
Kenneth Anger ‘Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’, featuring the author Anaïs Nin as ‘Astarte’, Marjorie Cameron as ‘The Scarlet Woman’, and the filmmaker Curtis Harrington as ‘Cesare the Sleepwalker’.
Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, and Larry Jordan Oral History
Curtis Harrington Audio Interview
Curtis Harrington Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood Book Trailer
from Halloween All Year
When did you know you were a filmmaker?
Curtis Harrington: I wanted to be a filmmaker from about the age of twelve. I got my parents to buy me an 8mm camera out of a catalogue. I then got a job working as an usher at the local theater. I would see films over and over again.
The first film you made was in your early teens, an adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher.
CH: I did a version of The Fall of the House of Usher—a little 8mm film—when I was fourteen. To say that it’s crude is putting it mildly. I don’t like to show it. The only time I’ve shown it in recent years is when I took my new version of The Fall of the House of Usher to the Munich Film Festival about two years ago. They begged me to show the earlier version of it.
And you gave in.
CH: I gave in. People like the idea of seeing a film that I made when I was fourteen, then seeing a different version of it at 104 years of age.
Did you go to film school?
CH: Yeah. I went to USC. For someone like me, it was largely just going through the motions. I made my first films—one of my key films— Fragment of Seeking when I was at USC. My friend at that time, Kenneth Anger, made a film called Fireworks. Both of these films were very personal so USC had nothing to do with them. I remember when I showed Fragment of Seeking to a couple of USC professors, I might as well have shown them a blank screen for all the reaction I got. The film was just meaningless to them. It’s a film that’s created a lot of interest over the years.
Generally speaking, my work has been much better understood and appreciated in Europe than in America. In Europe, I get instant responses to everything I do, even the new version of Usher. No film festival has any interest in it here in America. But in Europe I’ve already been invited to several marvelous film festivals and everybody loves it and they write about it. The separation from the European mentality and the American one is weird. They have no interest in artists in the States. When I went to USC film school, you talked about Citizen Kane; you didn’t talk about Doris Day in The Glass Bottom Boat. Everybody wanted to do something different back then. Now people go to film school to learn how to make very commercial movies, real Hollywood stuff. That’s what most of them are in there for; they want a hot job. And today they have plenty of opportunities to make these utterly inane teenage movies. Do you know what I’m talking about?
The target audience is bored fourteen year olds with too much of their parents’ money.
CH: Yes. Steven Spielberg makes his films for the same audience.
Was it looked down upon by the avant-garde crowd that you wanted to move into films with narratives?
CH: The only question the avant-garde crowd had at the time, specifically Jonas Mekas, was “Is Curtis Harrington selling out to Hollywood?”
My favorite film of yours is What’s the Matter with Helen? How did that picture come about?
CH: I made Games at Universal. I was put under contract there. And then after Games my producer George Edwards and I met with Henry Farrell, who wrote Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and we asked him if he had some other story of that genre. He gave us the outline of a story called “The Box Step,” which was the basis for What’s the Matter with Helen? We had the studio backing, hired him, and he wrote the first draft of the script. But then I could never get a cast to the studio’s satisfaction. We needed an aging actress who had done dancing.
Before I offered it to Debbie Reynolds, I offered it to Shirley MacLaine, but she wouldn’t do it. I had the idea of Joanne Woodward, who was a friend of mine. She also wouldn’t do it. She always got advice from her husband Paul Newman who advised her against doing it. I have no idea why. At one point we had a friend who knew Rita Hayworth and we had a meeting with her, which was one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever had with anyone. Of course we all know that she finally developed Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t know at what point she was at when we had this meeting, but we met at her house and we had a wonderful time. We were thrilled to meet her. She still looked very good and we sat out by her pool and chatted with her and then finally George and I left. We were both very pleased with the meeting, but suddenly at the doorway she just collapsed. She crumpled and said, “You’re laughing at me aren’t you? I know you’re laughing at me.” It was a horrendous moment…so that obviously didn’t work out. Debbie Reynolds liked the script, one thing led to another, and she agreed to do it. And that’s how it came about. We made it independently.
Are there any recent filmmakers that interest you?
CH: Yes, but very few. The only American is David Lynch. I’ll tell you my personal favorite film of the last—I don’t know, it may have been made more than twenty years ago now—time goes so quickly. My favorite big commercial movie of the last twenty or twenty-five years is Blade Runner. I really love it and I’m so disappointed in the director. I don’t think he has any high ambitions, it’s not that, but he certainly hasn’t made anything close to Blade Runner since it was made… One whose work I hate, a lot of young people think he’s really cool. I can’t remember his name. I can never remember the names of people I don’t like.
What did he do?
Oh, Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t like him either.
CH: I think his work is pretentious.
What do you think about the state of the horror film today? Is there even a future for horror?
CH: [laughs] Well, it all depends on the evolution of special effects. [laughs] I don’t think we’re going to get over that anytime soon. I just wish they were put to better use. I like character-driven horror and that’s very old fashioned. I think the only slightly interesting thing in the horror genre, and I’ve just read about them, are these Japanese horror films that are being remade in America. I thought The Ring was interesting, but I have a feeling I’d like the Japanese version a lot better. I always like Japanese horror films. I remember them from years ago. I used to go to the Japanese theater downtown. There were no subtitles or anything but they were always wonderful. The Japanese have a real wonderful sense of horror.
I think it’s very hard for an individual filmmaker to get anything done. They’re all committee-made films. And most films are just animated demographics. The casting is all demographic and it’s nothing to do with the integrity of the film. I’m not interested in seeing films that are for built-in demographics. For example, films that have to have fourteen-year-olds who solve the world’s problems, you know? Spielberg was always doing that in his films; it’s always a kid who comes in with a computer. If I see that scene one more time I will puke. The worst director currently is Joel Schumacher. He’s the total pits.
11 of Curtis Harrington’s 25 films
On the Edge (1949)
‘In this fragile, yet frightening poetic fantasy, set against a dark industrial landscape, Harrington casts his own mother and father in the lead roles. On the Edge comes perilously close to feeling like a throwaway gag: Set amid the burbling mud pits of some post-apocalyptic wasteland (in actuality the Salton Sea), this short is almost entirely inscape: An elderly man sneaks up on an old woman (who may or may not be one of the three Fates) hard at work knitting in her rocking chair. In a trice, he snatches the sewing out of her hands and scampers off. You can probably guess the rest: When the thread runs out, his time is up.’ — collaged
the entire film
The Wormwood Star (1956)
‘It’s certainly no slight to the late director Curtis Harrington to describe The Wormwood Star, his visually arresting 1956 portrait of occult artist/beatnik weirdo Marjorie Cameron as being “Anger-esque” considering that he’d served as the cinematographer for Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment and that it stars Cameron, one of Anger’s most well-known cinematic avatars (Cameron famously played “The Scarlet Woman” in Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome and Harrington himself portrayed “Cesare the Somnambulist” in that film. Additionally, Paul Mathison, who played “Pan” in Anger’s druggy occult vision was the art director of The Wormwood Star). What you should know as you watch this is that the vast majority of Marjorie Cameron’s paintings were destroyed by her—burned—in an act of ritualized suicide. There are very few pieces by Cameron that have survived—a few paintings and some sketches—and The Wormwood Star is the only record of most of them (outside of the astral plane, natch. What does survive of her estate is represented by longtime New York gallerist Nicole Klagsbrun). Cameron has long been a figure of fascination for many people and I think I can say with confidence that this film meets or even far exceeds any expectations you might have for it.’ — Dangerous Minds
the entire film
Night Tide (1961)
‘Seaman Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper), on shore leave, finds a “Mermaid” sideshow attraction at the marina, operated by Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir). The “Mermaid” Mora (Linda Lawson), who lives in a hotel above the marina merry-go-round (the movie was filmed at the Santa Monica pier) and Johnny fall for each other. Everyone around them is wary of the romance, as her previous lovers have died mysteriously. The film is an oddball cheapie that’s a lot of atmospheric fun for about an hour or so, then kind of just peters out with a weak ending. Still, there is a nice tone to the off hand, low key acting, and it is wonderful for an L.A. Lover to see Santa Monica and Venice as they looked in this period. This film, along with Welles Touch Of Evil and John Parker’s Dementia aka Daughter of Horror, form a sort of dark trilogy of Venice Beach Noir. The unmistakable Bruno Ve Sota (the poor man’s Orson Welles?) is in two of them. Anyway, it’s a must for any fan of the “Pyschotronic” film underground, you’ll be glad you checked it out.’ — collaged
the entire film
Queen of Blood (1966)
‘Queen of Blood is a 1966 horror/science fiction film released by American International Pictures. The director, Curtis Harrington, crafted this B-movie with footage from the Soviet films Mechte Navstrechu and Nebo Zovyot. It was released as part of a double bill with the AIP movie Blood Bath. The film features John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, Judi Meredith and Dennis Hopper. Basil Rathbone was paid $1,500 to act for a day and a half on this film, and $1,500 for half a day on Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), which was another film based on Russian footage. Rathbone ended up working overtime and missed a meal. The Screen Actors Guild demanded overtime pay plus a fine for the meal violation but producer George Edwards produced footage showing that the delay was because Rathbone did not know his lines and insisted on skipping lunch.’ — collaged
How Awful About Allan (1970)
‘Curtis Harrington teams with screenwriter Henry Farrell (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte) for this quietly disturbing tale of a man driven to psychosomatic blindness by a horrific family tragedy. Unable to cope with the fact that he has been blamed for the fire that killed his father and disfigured his sister (Julie Harris), psychologically unsound Allan (Anthony Perkins) is committed to a mental institution. Some time later, Allan is deemed fit for release and sent to live at his sister’s house. But Allan’s sister is far from happy to have her brother back home, and begins to sadistically toy with his fragile psyche to the point that he starts hearing disembodied voices and sensing an ominous presence. Could it be that Allan’s father is actually reaching out for revenge from beyond the grave, or have Allan’s sister’s continued attempts to wear at her ailing brother’s fragile psyche finally had the intended results.’ — B&N
the entire film
What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)
‘The layers of pastiche that fuel What’s the Matter with Helen? multiply like Shelly Winters’s titular character’s fat white rabbits. In fashioning a flapper-era psycho-shocker with muted sepia tones and two histrionic performances from slumming movie starlets, director Curtis Harrington (then also involved in the filming of Orson Welles’s lost project The Other Side of the Wind) was some years too early for the big ’70s nostalgia fad for the American Depression years, and it was far too late to stand shoulder with the trend-setters Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte as a representative example of “diva-bitch Hollywood gothic” cinema. Shelly Winters and Debbie Reynolds star as Helen and Adelle, the mothers of two murderers — two Leopold & Loeb-esque types, probably, considering their high maintenance mothers — who run away to Hollywood to escape the high profile life of flashbulbs and psychotic reporters begging for interviews. (Yeah, Hollywood would’ve been my first choice, too.) Adelle opens a dance studio for little Shirley Temples-in-training and Helen accompanies on the piano, otherwise spending most of the film clutching a ratty Bible and gradually losing her marbles while Adelle makes like the next Jean Harlow. Whereas Debbie loses major points for trying to play her role straight, Shelly would appear to be using the film as a feature-length audition for her role as a whiney fatshit in the following year’s disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure.’ — Slant Magazine
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971)
‘In its combination of childlike wonder, black psychosis, nail-biting terror and florid fantasy, the film is exemplary. In terms of photography, atmosphere and pacing, it is equal to, if not superior to, any of Hammer or Amicus’ greatest moments. Then again, we’re talking about British AIP here, the same studio that gave us The Masque of the Red Death –– so why shouldn’t we expect a masterpiece? Whoever Slew Auntie Roo has admittedly never received the acclaim it deserves, possibly because of its chronological placing at the end of a series of similarly titled, similarly-themed “batty old actress” horrors that include Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, What’s The Matter With Helen and Whatever Happened To Aunt Alice, and also possibly because, straddling as it does two decades, it has its foot placed firmly in the camp of neither- but even one casual viewing should be enough to convince viewers of its power.’ — britmovie.co.uk
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo (1972) Review – Cinema Slashes
Killer Bees (1974)
‘The invasion of a community by a swarm of deadly bees was, for a time, a popular commodity in genre cinema: this was preceded by Freddie Francis’ THE DEADLY BEES (1966) and followed by THE SAVAGE BEES (1976; TV), its sequel TERROR OUT OF THE SKY (1978; TV) and Irwin Allen’s inflated all-star fiasco THE SWARM (1978). Frankly, I never understood this situation’s appeal, as the sight of people fleeing for their lives from badly-processed insects (as in the film under review) was always prone to elicit laughter as opposed to the intended terror! Anyway, here we get the added – but equally dubious – treat of having the leading family of the locale (after whom it is named!) as the bees’ keepers…or, rather as one of them opines, it is the other way round! In fact, matriarch Gloria Swanson (in her much-publicized TV debut) is constantly surrounded by them – until it is time to pass the baton to another, younger woman and, since her direct relations all happen to be male, her successor ends up being one of their number’s girlfriend (played by Kate Jackson, later one of TV’s CHARLIE’S ANGELS)! Still, the fact that the reason behind the African killer bees’ mass migration to the U.S. – apart from the declaration that their particular honey gives the “Van Bohlen” wine an extra sweet taste! – is never properly delineated hurts the overall effort (to say nothing of its credibility quotient).’ — Mario Gauci
the entire film
‘Ruby was one of the last horror films by Curtis Harrington, who directed several notable “horror of personality” films in the 1960s (e.g., Games, What’s the Matter with Helen) and the atmospheric piece Night Tide. Although Ruby is not up to that level of achievement (thanks to interference from a producer who wanted an exploitation horror film), the film does feature a fine lead performance by Piper Laurie as the titular character, Ruby Claire, a one-time gangster’s moll who has old mob members toiling at her drive-in in the ‘50s. Ruby’s paramour, Nick (Sal Vecchio), was murdered by his fellow mobsters, and now his spirit comes back to wreak its revenge. Harrington worked with his long-time collaborator George Edwards, who ensured that the film has a rich visual look, reminiscent of Harrington’s inspiration, Joseph von Sternberg, despite having only a roughly $600,000 budget.’ — Cinema Fantastique
Title song from “Ruby” by Don Dunn
Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978)
‘Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell is a 1978 television movie directed by Curtis Harrington. The story centers on a suburban family and the harrowing experiences they endure from a possessed dog they innocently adopt. The film stars Richard Crenna as Mike Barry, the father, Yvette Mimieux as Betty, the mother, and Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann as Bonnie and Charlie, their children. The latter two starred in Disney’s Witch Mountain series, but were not intentionally cast based on that fact, just on that they looked believable as siblings.’ — collaged
the entire film
Mata Hari (1985)
‘Sylvia Kristel adds her sexual allure to the story of Mata Hari (Margaretha Geertruida Zelle), executed by the French in 1917 at the age of 41 for being a double agent. In reality, “Mata Hari” had been married, had children, and performed as a dancer around Europe — not the normal background for a spy. And according to the man who requested her execution, Captain Ladoux, she was a lousy spy indeed. But Kristel and director Curtis Harrington capture one aspect of Mata Hari that made her most infamous — her willingness to bed down with just about any military man she found attractive, and none were not. As Kristel jumps into bed with both Germans and French, and others in-between, something of the spirit of Mata Hari may live on in this ostensible biography. Viewers may definitely want to compare versions with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, or Jeanne Moreau in the lead.’ — Rovi
p.s. Hey. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Well, on her edits, basically … What they remind me of was when I was first publishing my novels. I’ve almost always had the great luck of having my fiction largely left alone by editors, I guess because it’s obvious I know what I’m doing and am pretty meticulous. But then there’s this point later in the editing process where a ‘line editor’ goes over the already edited book, ostensibly to make sure everything is ‘correct’. I write strange sentences and do unorthodox things with my writing, and inevitably the line editors wouldn’t pay attention to what I was doing and would just ‘fix’ everything so it was as normal as possible based on pre-existing rules they had about fiction being completely proper. Essentially, her edits are like that. All she does is try to change everything so the script looks exactly like a ‘normal’ script for the most conventional script possible. So then we have to go through the whole thing and restore everything that she changed and removed and write explanations of why we want things the way we’d planned. Long story short, apart from some instances here and there where we realise the script can look a bit more regular without losing anything, her edits are a pain the ass. Gisele did end up casting the amazing dancer guy, so that’s great. On a purely selfish front too, Zac and I immediately want to cast him in our next film, so having him around and easy to access will be helpful in that way too. So cool that the third SCAB is already starting to shape up! Did you have the expected great time with your friend? How was the beer? Is a beer festival what it sounds like: people sitting and standing around getting drunk on beer? My Monday was pretty productive. Zac and I had a good meeting with the sales agency handling ‘PGL’. Things look positive. I finished an initial edit of Episode Three and the ‘Intention Note’, and now Zac is going over them doing his revisions and edits. We’re supposed to have the whole script finished to submit to ARTE on Friday, and maybe we’ll make the deadline, but I’m not 100% positive. How did Tuesday treat and handle you? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I feel like the escorts and slaves are getting more bizarre, or there are more and more bizarre ones to choose from. Even their parts of the world are going crazy. Thanks for the Frank Rich piece/link! ** Steve Erickson, Yeah, CrucifiedSlimSlave is interesting. I hadn’t seen/found a slave quite so pro and serious about a crucifixion fetish before. Look forward to your list. Everyone, your lucky Steve-centered link today is … ‘I’ve updated my ongoing list of 2018 music I’ve liked for April, although I gave up on looking for YouTube links halfway through because it was just so time-consuming’. The ads and posters and promo for ‘Godard Mon Amour’ when it was in theaters here made it very easy to know to avoid. I did, and I believe the vast majority of people here x-ed it from their agendas as well. ** Statictick, Hi there, N-ster. That’s a complicated medical report, but it does sound like a real uptick for you, so … awesome and seeming huge congrats! What are the eyes and teeth fixes exactly? Or semi-exactly. I look forward to your next chiming in, whatever it occasions. Love, me. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. I know, right? Very tempting to steal all kind of quips and phrases from those posts for use elsewhere, but I’m staying noble, as far as I can tell. Ooh, nothing like a spanking new computer. Or few things like. Two days to go! Are you getting around those obstacles? ** Misanthrope, Congrats. I’ll have to get me some of that Zicam stuff next time I’m over there. Speaking of, it looks like I’ll be in NYC for three whole weeks, but I’ll know for sure soon. It’s interesting how excitement is so self-centered. Easy to forget, interesting to think about. ** JM, Hi. I’m so glad someone pointed out that user comment. I liked it, obvs. It was like Benny Hill at a poetry reading or something. You good? Things intense or intensive? ** Sypha, Hi. Osymandias, huh. You have a paralysed face fetish? That’s interesting. ** Okay. A reader of this blog wrote to ask me recently if I would restore Curtis Harrington Day. I didn’t remember making such a blog Day, but I said sure, assuming I was spacing. Sure enough, when I went into the old blog’s graveyard, there wasn’t a CHD, so either the requester was tripping or there was a CHD that got eaten alive in the data transfer from Google to me. In any case, here’s a new and possibly unprecedented Curtis Harrington Day. Enjoy. See you tomorrow.