In 1957, a young producer named Herman Cohen, who had been kicking around in exploitational filmmaking since in the early 1950s, produced a prototypical ’50s noir, Gerd Oswald’s Crime of Passion, with Barbara Stanwyck cast as a bored and ambitious suburban housewife who sleeps with her husband’s boss so that he can ‘earn’ a promotion. It’s a brutal vision of the banality and conformity of middle-American life and, of course, it ends disastrously. But it also ended disastrously for Cohen, when the film, despite excellent reviews and a solid cast (Stanwyck was supported by Sterling Hayden as her husband and Raymond Burr as his slimy boss) stiffed at the box office. For the thinly capitalized Cohen, this spelled disaster.
Why had the film, with well-known stars, solid direction and a taut script failed to attract paying customers? Cohen decided to take a trip across the country to see what audiences were watching and who the audiences were. He got a shock:
I got out of Hollywood and saw what was happening, and that it was the teenagers who were buying the records. It’s the teenagers that were leaving the home, getting away from the TV box in the living room. The teenagers wanted to get away from home. They wanted to get away from their parents, and they went to the cinema. (1)
The “teenagers”, in short, had become the main market for films, now that mom and dad were content to sit at home and watch Milton Berle on television for free. Cohen realized why Crime of Passion had failed: it was aimed at adults. He immediately plunged into production with two of the most iconic hits of the 1950s, which would shape not only his future career, but the future of American-International Pictures and a whole new cycle of films: teen horror noir.
Hiring director Fritz Lang’s former editor, Gene Fowler, Jr., to helm the project, Cohen produced I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), starring Michael Landon in the title role, followed by Herbert L. Strock’s I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) in short order. The films were cheaply made. I Was a Teenage Werewolf cost exactly $82,000 to produce, complete to final answer print, and was shot in a mere six days. (2) Booked heavily on the drive-in circuit and in downtown urban theatres, the films were an immediate sensation. In Teenage Werewolf, Landon persuasively plays Tony Rivers, a moody, troubled teen who falls under the sway of an unscrupulous psychiatrist, Dr. Alfred Brandon (veteran character actor Whit Bissell). Pretending to help the young man, Brandon uses a regimen of drugs and hypnotherapy to transform him into a snarling werewolf, who then goes on a killing spree. His bloodlust satiated, Tony reverts to human form, but any loud noise (a school recess bell, for example), or moment of stress cause him to revert to his hidden animal nature and more mayhem ensues.
Both films were carefully designed by Cohen and his scenarist Aben Kandel (who sometimes wrote under the pseudonyms Kenneth Langtry and/or Ralph Thornton to distance himself professionally from his work with Cohen) to trigger a number of emotional responses from his youthful audience.
Firstly, all the adult figures in the films are powerless, clueless or corrupt; in Cohen’s cinematic universe, teenagers are alone in an uncaring, corrupt world. Adults are never to be trusted.
Secondly, the films mixed liberal doses of sex and violence, as in the sequence in I Was a Teenage Werewolf in which Tony turns into a werewolf while watching a young woman work out on a jungle gym in the school gymnasium in a skimpy leotard. His passions aroused, Tony attacks and kills her, fleeing before he can be discovered. In Teenage Frankenstein, the monster (played by Gary Conway) becomes so obsessed with his newly constructed body that he spends most of his time simply gazing into a mirror at his newly acquired face, lost in a narcissistic dream world. When Professor Frankenstein (Whit Bissell again) attempts to “disassemble” the monster to throw the police off his trail, the teenager understandably rebels, triggering an apocalyptic laboratory fire that abruptly ends the film.
Thirdly, Cohen created a great deal of sympathy for his teenage protagonists; in both films, what transpired could never be construed as their fault. In Teenage Werewolf, a trusting, naïve teenager turns to a supposed healing figure for help and guidance, and is transformed into a savage outsider. In Teenage Frankenstein, the monster is constructed from stolen or butchered body parts by adults, who view the resulting creation as nothing more than an interesting experiment, devoid of a soul or free will.
Finally, Cohen depicts a world in which only violence rules; the monsters kill because they can’t help themselves, or because adults order them to do so. When the teenage werewolf is apprehended by the police, he is cut down in a firestorm of bullets, with no chance of survival. In similar fashion, the teenage Frankenstein is destroyed in a massive electrical short circuit that trigger’s the film’s penultimate lab fire.
To all these ingredients, Cohen added several final touches. Both films know exactly what they are, pretend to be nothing else. They are efficient killing machines that depict a brutal, harsh and unforgiving world, and then offer no comfort. Like the world they depict, they are cheap and mercenary. Shot quickly and cheaply, the films are nevertheless at base absolutely serious and never burlesque the often-improbable situations in which they traffic.
Lastly, Cohen’s posters and promotional materials centred on the most violent and sensational angles, and, although Teenage Frankenstein was a black and white film, it featured a brief colour sequence at the end, so that the film’s poster could “truthfully” trumpet, “See the monster destroyed in flaming color!” “Body of a boy! Mind of a Monster! Soul of an unearthly thing!” the publicity materials screamed and teenage audiences, distrustful and bored, came in droves, absorbing Cohen’s dystopic message, identifying with his tortured, doomed protagonists.
Cohen followed these films with Blood of Dracula (1957), again directed by Herbert L. Strock, which, despite its rather traditional title, is more or less a female version of Teenage Frankenstein and Teenage Werewolf, in which teenager Nancy Perkins (Sandra Harrison) is understandably upset when her mother suddenly dies, and her uncaring father Paul (Thomas Browne Henry) almost immediately marries worthless gold-digger Doris (Jean Dean), despite Nancy’s vociferous protests. To get Nancy out of the way, and also away from the attentions of her boyfriend Glenn (Michael Hall), her father arranges to have Nancy shipped off to The Sherwood School for Girls, a strict, “exclusive” boarding school where Nancy’s fellow students ostracize her as a moody outsider. Depressed, Nancy turns to the seemingly sympathetic chemistry teacher Miss Branding (Louise Lewis), who, like the mendacious psychiatrist in Teenage Werewolf and the unscrupulous surgeon in Teenage Frankenstein, plans to use Nancy’s personal angst for her own research purposes.
When Nancy is injured by fellow student Nola (Heather Ames) in a laboratory accident, Miss Branding hypnotizes Nancy with an ancient amulet she obtained from the Carpathian Mountains to relieve her pain. But, at the same time, Branding also places Nancy under a spell that deprives Nancy of her free will, and causes Nancy to periodically turn into a vampire and slaughter the other students while in a trance. Obsessed with a thesis that every individual has a split personality, and a violent persona submerged beneath the mask of public behaviour, Branding forces Nancy to kill Nola and then several other students a few days later.
Subjected to questioning by the police, Nancy begins to suspect her dual nature and, after a clandestine meeting with boyfriend Glenn, confronts Miss Branding and demands to be freed from her vampiric curse. In response, Branding scoffs at Nancy’s affection for Glenn and tells her that her life is of no importance to her, except as an instrument of scientific research. Enraged, Nancy reverts to her vampire persona and murders Miss Branding. Gradually, the police piece together the entire story, causing one observer to comment that, “There is a power greater than science that rules the earth. And those that twist and pervert knowledge for evil only work out their own destruction.”
“In her eyes … desire! In her veins … the blood of a monster!” screamed one tagline for the film, while the film’s poster was equally hyperbolic, shrieking, “Warning! Can You Take It? Fiendish! Frenzied! Frightening! It Will Haunt You For Days Afterwards!” But the film’s most oft-quoted tagline was far simpler and more evocative: “Blood of Dracula will give you nightmares forever”, which, given the fact that Nancy’s descents into vampirism seemed to her “bad dreams” from which there was no release, more aptly sums up the hallucinatory flavour of the film.
Then, too, there is an unmistakable aura of lesbianism in the film in the relationship between Nancy and Miss Branding, which is continually held up as being inherently manipulative and destructive, in contrast to the reassuring hetero-normativity of Nancy’s affections for the somewhat clueless Glenn. As in the previous two films, Nancy is a young person who places her trust in an adult who seeks only her destruction, and views her as an expendable commodity in the name of science. And, as with Teenage Frankenstein (in which the “monster” has no true biological mother or father, having been assembled out of various body parts) and Teenage Werewolf (where Tony’s parents are powerless to reach him due to the generational divide), no parental figure in Blood of Dracula can help Nancy in her plight. Her father is a self-absorbed narcissist, intent only on his own pleasure, and her stepmother frankly wants Nancy out of her life altogether.
These themes (parental neglect, corrupt adult authority, a world in which only money and power command attention) were recycled by Cohen and Kandel yet again in their next outing, Strock’s How To Make a Monster (1958), another film that was shot almost entirely in black and white, except for the last two minutes, depicting a fire in a costume warehouse, in which audiences were promised that they would, “See the Ghastly Ghouls [destroyed] in Flaming Color!”
The plot of How To Make a Monster is yet again another variation on the unscrupulous adult theme. Long-time studio make-up ace Pete Dumond (Robert H. Harris) is informed by his bosses at American International Pictures that he is being immediately fired, because the studio is phasing out horror films to concentrate on upbeat teen musicals (which is, ironically, what the studio did only a few years later in real life, when AIP created the highly successful “Beach Party” series). Pete immediately plots revenge and creates a secret face cream, which transforms actors Tony Mantell (Gary Conway, again playing the Teenage Frankenstein monster) and Larry Drake (Gary Clarke, stepping in for Michael Landon as the Teenage Werewolf), into real-life monsters off the set, who systematically murder the AIP studio executives. As with the other films in the Cohen-Kandel series, the homo-erotic angle is immediately apparent, as Pete continually refers to the two young actors as “my boys” and tells them they must place themselves “in my hands”. As in the other films, Pete is eventually destroyed by his creations and the film ends with a suitably violent climax.
By the time Cohen graduated to full colour films, with director Arthur Crabtree’s remarkably sadistic Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Cohen’s formula had become a rigid series of rules that formed a cheerless, utterly desolate moral universe. It’s violence all the way through, from beginning to end, with cruelty and greed the only emotions on display. In Horrors of the Black Museum’s justly infamous opening, a bright-red delivery van pulls up to the apartment house of an attractive young woman, who is surprised to receive an expensive pair of binoculars from the van’s driver, as a gift from an anonymous admirer. As she puts the binoculars over her eyes and tries to focus them, a sharp spike pops out of each lens, killing her instantly.
The culprit is almost immediately revealed to the audience (but not the police) as crime reporter Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough), who realizes that his readers are hungry for the gory details of violent crimes and consequently arranges incidents like these to keep his public satisfied. In addition to writing a daily column for one of the sleazier London tabloids, Bancroft also writes lurid, bestselling books on brutal sex crimes, including his newest project, entitled, The Poetry of Murder. Bancroft also keeps his own private “Black Museum” showcasing the savage crimes he’s committed and is a thoroughgoing misogynist; at one point, he blurts out that to Rick (Graham Curnow), his young assistant, that “no woman can hold her tongue. They’re a vicious, unreliable breed!” In short, Bancroft’s world is one of hate, brutality and death incarnate.
To generate new thrills for his readers, Bancroft injects his assistant Rick with drugs that destroy the young man’s will and sends him out to commit a series of grisly murders, including the decapitation of a young prostitute using a portable guillotine. When Rick falls in love with pretty Angela Banks (Shirley Ann Field), and brings her to Bancroft’s private lair so they can be alone, Bancroft discovers them and flies into a jealous rage. Recovering his composure, Bancroft pretends to approve of their relationship, but, as soon as Angela leaves, injects Rick with another dose of drugs, and orders him to kill Angela. Rick obediently stabs Angela to death in an amusement park “Tunnel of Love,” but then turns on Bancroft, who has trailed him to the murder scene. Scaling a Ferris Wheel, Rick jumps to his own death, stabbing Bancroft to death as he falls, before a group of startled onlookers. But, as soon as the bodies are cleared away, the fairgoers continue their revels as if almost nothing has happened and the pursuit of “fun” goes on unabated.
In his study, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Harry Benshoff notes that the heavily implied lesbian and/or homosexual overtones in Cohen’s films echo the oft-used homophobic trope that “older homosexuals were out to recruit young people into their ranks” (3). When questioned about this himself, Cohen denied that this theme was implicit in his work, saying rather that his teen protagonists’ outsider status was really the cause of their misfortune. In a commentary recorded in the mid-1990s, which appears on the DVD of Horrors of the Black Museum, Cohen notes that:
“I’ve had several friends of mine who’ve seen [Horrors of the Black Museum] recently [in the mid-1990s], who asked me, “Did you think this had sort of a gay, homosexual undertone as you wrote the picture?” And Aben and I never thought of that at the time. In those days, a lot of critics would say that Herman Cohen made good, clean horror films. Of course, now, in the ’90s, it certainly does look that way, especially in [Bancroft’s speech to his young assistant, Rick, in the film]. Mind you, there’s a lot of truth to what he’s telling him …” [my emphasis].
This is the speech that reads, in part,
“as you know, I have no offspring, no kin […] someday, all of this will be yours, everything I possess, my home, my money, my books, and our private Black Museum […] your future, my destiny, our very lives are menaced by Angela, who stands in our way. One must never trust a woman. In was no accident that Satan was able to tempt Eve before Adam.”
The underlying message here seems absolutely clear. Whether the result of wilful denial or personal myopia, Cohen perversely chose to deny the driving force behind the narratives he created. Just as Cohen’s films exploited youth by their very nature, being “exploitation films”, so the adults in his films mimicked Cohen’s own attitude towards his teen audiences, relentlessly and ruthlessly exploiting the teens who trust them.
Working for Cohen, director Arthur Crabtree, who earlier in his career had specialized in romance films, shot Horrors of the Black Museum in England in lurid colour and CinemaScope to take advantage of the then-cheaper production facilities available in the UK, just one year before the much more famous, and now generally respected Peeping Tom (1960), directed by another British veteran, Michael Powell. Peeping Tom chronicles the daily existence of Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm), a young man who works as a film cameraman, but whose real passion is murdering young women with a spiked tripod while photographing their death agonies. Greeted with critical outrage and disappointing box-office when first released, Peeping Tom has since become something of cult classic and the template for many slasher films to follow. It’s odd to me that Peeping Tom has now achieved a level of critical acclaim that Horrors of the Black Museum will never enjoy; both films are spectacles of unrelieved carnage, but at least one can argue that Horrors of the Black Museum is more forthright about its intent.
Indeed, Horrors of the Black Museum was so successful that Cohen and Kandel recycled the same plot with slight variations in Robert Gordon’s The Black Zoo (1963), again starring a maniacal Michael Gough as Michael Conrad, a crazed animal conservationist who keeps a private zoo of wild animals who kill all who would oppose him on command. As in Cohen’s other films, Conrad has a teenage helper, Carl (Rod Lauren), who, though mute, takes up a great deal of screen time simply flexing his muscles and working out in-between the attack sequences, as he takes care of the lions, tigers and leopards as they pace up and down impatiently in their sleekly modern metal cages. Since Carl can’t speak, he becomes simply an object for the male fetishistic gaze, the perfect companion for a sadist whose only mission in life is to inflict pain on others.
“Nightly they stalk the city streets … their kill-lust seeking human prey!” cried the film’s advertisements and, as with Cohen’s other films, Black Zoo soon devolves into a series of violent and sadistic killings loosely strung together in place of a plot, in a manner that is both more desultory and less involved than any other film in Cohen’s career. Shot in Hollywood hastily on cramped sets, Black Zoo was not a success, although it did rake in a few more dollars when Cohen hastily retitled it Horrors of the Black Zoo and sent it back out into the marketplace. (Black Zoo was shot in colour, but released in black and white to cut down on print costs; it remains unavailable on DVD.)
But the tide of public opinion was turning, and the rising optimism of the 1960s didn’t dovetail with Cohen and Kandel’s unremittingly bleak vision of adolescence. After a few more films, Cohen’s career itself collapsed, ending ignominiously with Freddie Francis’s Trog (1970), Joan Crawford’s last film, and Craze (1973), Cohen’s last film as a producer, also directed by Francis. Even in this final effort, Cohen stuck to his tried and true formula; in Craze, Jack Palance plays a deranged antique shop owner, one Neal Mottram, who conducts ritual human sacrifices to an African god, while sleeping with his young assistant, Ronnie (Martin Potter), a former homosexual prostitute. “Someday all this will be yours”, Mottram tells his young acolyte, echoing Bancroft’s speech to Rick in Horrors of the Black Museum, as Mottram ruthlessly murders a string of young women (Julie Ege, Suzy Kendall) as sacrifices to the god Chuku, and even his own aunt (Edith Evans) – all women are fair game in Mottram’s murderous rampage.
Indeed, in Craze one can finally see Cohen (and Kandel) admitting, whether they wished to or not, exactly what had been transpiring in their films since the late 1950s: the creation of a narrative propelled by a bizarre combination of homophobia, coupled with repressed homosexual desire, culminating in a mælstrom of violence, sadism and death. After one last Italian co-production – Il Gatto dagli occhi di giada (Antonio Bido, 1977, literally The Cat with the Jade Eyes, but released in the US as Watch Me When I Kill), a routine slasher film which Cohen had little to do with other than arranging some co-financing, but no real creative input – Cohen retired from production. Aben Kandel, Cohen’s most prolific scenarist, died on 28 January 1993; Cohen himself died on 2 June 2002.
All of Cohen’s films, then, have high levels of violence, all feature teenage protagonists, and all depict a world in which cruelty and brutality are undetected until a violent social rupture brings the criminal to light. The adults are the real monsters, using teenagers as their tools of murder and mayhem; in Powell’s film, it is Karl’s sadistic psychiatrist father, A. N. Lewis (played, astonishingly, by Powell himself), whose experiments in fear have marked Karl for life.
Cohen’s films are usually classed as horror films. Or are they films about the horror of everyday existence, the uncertainty of life, the mendacity of authority, the failure of hope and the inevitability of corruption? As the French critic Henri Chapier said in discussing Peter Emmanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence (1967), a much more straightforward narrative that also deals with the alienation of youth, “we know them well, these heroes of Goldman, because they remind us of what we were, what we could have become, and what other adolescents are and will become; lonely, wandering and lost.” One could easily say the same of Cohen’s foredoomed protagonists, forever trapped in a world that seeks to manipulate and/or destroy them, lacking any sense of compassion, hope, or humanity.
Harry Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997).
Henri Chapier, “Review of Echoes of Silence in Combat”, as cited in Filmmakers’ Cooperative Catalogue #4 (New York: New American Cinema Group, 1967), p. 56.
Herman Cohen, DVD commentary for Horrors of the Black Museum (VCI Home Video, 2003).
Jeffery P. Dennis, Queering Teen Culture: All-American Boys and Same-Sex Desire in Film and Television (New York: Harrington Park, 2006).
Gary D. Rhodes, “A Drive-In Horror by Default, or, The Premiere of The Hideous Sun Demon”, in Gary D. Rhodes (Ed.), Horror at the Drive-In: Essays in Popular Americana (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), pp. 53-66.
- Gary D. Rhodes, “A Drive-In Horror by Default, or, The Premiere of The Hideous Sun Demon”, in Gary D. Rhodes (Ed.), Horror at the Drive-In: Essays in Popular Americana (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), p. 54.
- Jeffery P. Dennis, Queering Teen Culture: All-American Boys and Same-Sex Desire in Film and Television (New York: Harrington Park, 2006), p. 49.
- Harry Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997), p. 144.