On Saturday nights, my brother Rick and I used to watch Chiller Theatre on WPIX / Channel 11 right after the WWF. It was our ritual; we’d watch lying down on the sofa on our stomachs with pillows under our heads.
Rick and me
We saw everything from Creature from the Black Lagoon to Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space to The Tingler with Vincent Price. We were cinephiles at an early age, which I guess isn’t surprising since our parents were actors.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon
In the early 80’s, when we were both 20-something’s, Rick managed and I worked box office at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, originally a revival house, tucked under Carnegie Hall; it was gutted in the 90s. It was a heady time, our salad days, a job I took after dropping out of college in 1981 and moving back to New York. I earned about $4 an hour and Rick didn’t make much more. Lee Irwin, who was a featured organist on radio and TV for over 30 years, played before films and during intermission on a majestic instrument. I wish I had a photograph of it. The café served cappuccino, espresso, assorted pastries and light sandwiches with a painted backdrop of a French bistro.
All manner of weirdoes and celebrities darkened our door, including Madeline Kahn, who got very angry at me for not recognizing her immediately at the box office and not letting her in for free.
Lawrence Tierney, known for his screen portrayals of mobsters and hardened criminals, which mirrored his own brushes with the law, became a regular and Rick’s good friend. He was doing low budget films and working as a horse and buggy driver in Central Park when we met him. He was our pseudo-bodyguard too, often coming at closing to make sure everything went smoothly. Quentin Tarantino rediscovered him and used him in Reservoir Dogs. I always felt safe when he was there. Rick got robbed once at gunpoint when he wasn't around. I wasn’t there either, but Rick made it out alive.
Lawrence Tierney ("Larry" to us)
The Carnegie Hall Cinema featured all kinds of film festivals: Soviet cinema, Kurosawa, Goddard, Kazan, Hitchcock and Bergman, to name a few. Tickets were $5.50, and $2.50 for seniors and students and for weekday matinees.
To this day, the creepiest film I’ve seen is Carnival of Souls directed by Herk Harvey in 1962. It was made in three weeks on a budget of $33,000. The acting was pretty awful, and it was mostly forgotten after it premiered, but has since become a cult classic. In fact, it was on TCM last night as part of their Halloween countdown.
The protagonist is Mary Henry, who survived a drag race accident and emerges from the water drenched in mud, walking onto a giant rock towards a group of concerned male citizens in the rural Kansas town. The locations are stark and the score consists of a solo organ piping a persistent, eerie melody. Mary takes a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City and lives in a boarding house run by a kindly middle-aged woman. Her next door neighbor is a sleazy, 23-skidoo kind of guy whose cheesy dialogue gets under your skin like a bad fungus as he makes advances towards the vulnerable, yet savvy Miss Henry.
Mary Henry emerging from the water
All seems well until Mary is haunted by an apparition, a ghoulish man lurking wherever she goes. He resembles Grandpa Munster (Al Lewis) from The Munsters, but he still gave me the willies. She sees him in the park, in her bathtub, even her rearview mirror. Yikes!
The apparition (Grandpa Munster?) played by director,
When Mary is at a dress shop and is prepared to make her purchases, the audio goes out. The saleswoman ignores her. She cannot hear anyone’s voices, and people brush past her as if she isn’t there. She races outside and cannot hear the jackhammer in the street or the birds in the park. It’s as if she no longer exists. Sound returns when she bumps into a man on the street who asks if he can assist her.
I won’t go through the film scene by scene, but by the end she finds herself at an abandoned amusement park where she dances with the Grandpa Munster lookalike and encounters other strange “souls.”
I think the movie frightened me so much because I was so shy as a kid and sometimes thought people weren’t listening to me. I wondered if I even existed.
If you haven’t seen the film, give it a whirl, you won’t be disappointed.