October 31, 2015

MURDERERS! Terror In Black and White (Part Two)


Sometimes the scariest monsters aren’t invaders from another planet or creatures stitched together by a mad scientist; they’re other people. You know, seemingly ordinary folks like you and me…except for one big difference: their need to kill. This installment of TERROR IN BLACK AND WHITE brings you face to face with three suspense classics from an era long before Investigation Discovery brought murder into our homes 24/7.  You’ll meet a bedridden woman who wishes she had cut the cord, a truly twisted sister and the ultimate momma’s boy. Lock your doors…it’s going to be a bloody night.


DIRECTED BY: Anatole Litvak SCREENPLAY BY: Lucille Fletcher (based on her 1943 radio play of the same name) STARRING: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Wendell Corey and Ed Begley ORIGINAL US RELEASE: September 1, 1948 by Paramount Pictures.

In SORRY, WRONG NUMBER Stanwyck plays Leona Stevenson, the daughter of a wealthy drug company magnate. She’s a spoiled brat who could have been a woman of substance were it not for lifelong health issues that eventually rendered her bedridden. In reality, she’s a major hypochondriac and her illness is really psychosomatic. It’s a smart plot device that works on two levels. Leona Stevenson is the kind of flawed heroine that defines classic film noir. She might be a damsel in distress but she’s no sweet princess. Keeping her confined to the bedroom also allows the central mystery to build to an unsettling climax.

Leona relies on the telephone. It’s her connection to the world outside the four walls of her bedroom. In a cruel twist, crossed lines send Leona down a dark and dangerous rabbit hole. She inadvertently overhears part of a conversation between two men and realizes they are planning a murder.

With only a snippet of their plot revealed, Leona’s attempts to enlist the aid of the phone company and police fall flat. They need more information to go on. Her husband (Burt Lancaster) is out of town and the help is off for the night so Leona decides to go it alone and figure out who the would-be killers are targeting. Her solo sleuthing is juxtaposed with flashbacks that fill in her own life story and lead to one terrifying conclusion: Leona is the intended victim.

Barbara Stanwyck received her fourth and final Academy Award nomination as best actress for her portrayal of Leona Stevenson. It’s testimony to her considerable talent that she’s able to engender sympathy for a complex character many of us wouldn’t be pals with in real life. This taught, well-made film might not scream “scary movie” but, it is an effective suspense drama.


  • The final moments of the film explain the title and bring things to a chilling close. Without spoiling the finale for first timers, suffice it to say if you hate Hollywood endings, this nail-biter will leave you both satisfied and shattered.


  • SORRY, WRONG NUMBER was originally a popular half hour radio drama. To expand the story into a feature-length film, Lucille Fletcher added the flashbacks that flesh out Leona’s messy backstory. One thing that didn’t change in adaptation process: the wicked ending.
  • The role of Leona Stevenson was originated by Agnes Moorehead in the radio play. Television audiences everywhere know Moorhead as Endora, Samantha’s acid-tongued mother on BEWITCHED.
  • Stanwyck was a staunch Conservative and founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (also know as the MPA). The group was dedicated to sniffing out Communists who were supposedly infiltrating the entertainment business.  Her contemporaries in the organization included Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Ayn Rand, Cecil B. DeMille, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Ginger Rogers, Hedda Hopper and Walt Disney. The MPA was a key player in one of the darkest chapters of film history: the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings and the resulting Hollywood blacklist.

CLICK HERE to buy SORRY, WRONG NUMBER on DVD. As of this writing, there is still no announced date for a Blu-ray release of this title.


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DIRECTED BY: Robert Aldrich SCREENPLAY BY: Lukas Heller (based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell) STARRING: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono and Maidie Norman ORIGINAL US RELEASE: October 31, 1962 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Ever wonder what might happen if a former child sensation like Shirley Temple went way, WAY off the deep end as an adult? Look no further than WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? for a fictional dramatization of that very scenario.

Bette Davis plays “Baby Jane” Hudson, a faded star who was once the toast of the Vaudeville stage. As she gets older, her career flounders while that of sister Blanche (Crawford) takes off. This reversal of fortune sets off a powder keg once Jane turns to alcohol to dull the pain of her jealousy and lost fame. One night, after driving home from a party together, it appears as though Jane seizes the moment and runs down an unsuspecting Blanche. Clearly, hell hath no fury like a drunken has-been scorned…or does it?

Years later, the sisters are both forgotten relics, living together in a dilapidated Hollywood mansion. The “accident” paralyzed Blanche from the waist down, confining her to a wheelchair. Even worse for wear is Jane, who has not aged gracefully (mentally or physically). Teetering on the edge of sanity, she passes the time with her favorite hobby: subjecting Blanche to an increasingly “creative” battery of physical abuse and psychological torture. By the time this bleak and twisted tale careens to it’s tragic conclusion (including the reveal of what really happened the night Blanche was injured) there’s a path of death and destruction in Jane’s wake that can only be described as operatic.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is no sunny walk in the park. Clocking in at 133 minutes, it’s a lengthy and relentlessly downbeat exercise in familial terror. While that combo platter might turn off some viewers, fans of macabre magnificence will have plenty of tasty tidbits to chew on. Both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis throw themselves into their respective roles, with the latter simultaneously channeling the esprit de corps of at least a dozen different nightmare drag queens. Her “last dance” on the shores of Malibu is a sight to behold.


  • Engaged in a battle of bizarre one-upmanship with herself, Jane really knows how to hit her sister where it hurts. She’s already served Blanche’s pet parakeet to her (on a bed of sliced tomato, no less) so when dinner is on at Casa Hudson, you know it’s not going to be pretty…especially after Jane lets Blanche know she found rats in the basement. Bon app├ętit!


  • If the on-screen rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford seems a little too real, it’s because the two actors despised each other off screen. Tales of the pair locking horns during the shoot are legendary.
  • The battle royale between the pair continued long after production wrapped, especially when Davis received an Academy Award nomination  for best actress and her co-star did not. Though it was Anne Bancroft who eventually won (for her portrayal of Anne Sullivan in THE MIRACLE WORKER), Crawford went the extra mile to ensure Davis would feel the sting of loss.  Bancroft was otherwise engaged and could not attend the Oscar ceremony that year. Crawford had already contacted her in advance and offered to accept the award on her behalf should she be declared the winner. The look of smug satisfaction on her face when she sashays on stage to pick up Bancroft’s trophy is priceless.
  • Both Davis and Crawford were the subjects of unflattering “tell-all” books written by their daughters.


PSYCHO (1960) 

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DIRECTED BY: Alfred Hitchcock SCREENPLAY BY: Joseph Stefano (based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch) STARRING: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin and Martin Balsam ORIGINAL US RELEASE: September 8, 1960 by Paramount Pictures.

Even if you’re among the holdouts who haven’t seen PSYCHO, you probably know the basic plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece. In a moment of moral turpitude, Marion Crane (Leigh) steals a wad of cash from her employer and flees town. While driving on a stretch of lonely highway, a sudden downpour sends her off the wrong exit. She ends up at the Bates Motel where there are plenty of vacancies. In fact, she’s the only guest. Her host, young Norman Bates (Perkins), chats her up before Crane decides to call it a night and take what will become the single most famous shower in movie history.

PSYCHO is the rare cinematic icon that has stood the test of time while also living up to every bit of the praise heaped upon it by fans and critics alike. It’s a towering achievement made all the more impressive because, from a production standpoint at least, it’s a relatively bare bones affair. What makes the film work so well is an almost perfect storm of casting, writing and direction. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are at the top of their respective games here, aided in no small part by Joseph Stefano’s top-notch screenplay. Hitchcock turns the limits of a small budget and tight production schedule into a symphony of brilliant camera angles and masterful shot sequences. The shower scene might get all the buzz, but it’s surrounded by celluloid of equally masterful design.


  • As I noted here in part one of the 2013 feature “Scariest Movie Moments,” the scene that always makes me jump isn’t Marion Crane’s untimely demise. It comes later in PSYCHO, when Milton Arbogast (Balsam), a private detective hired by Crane’s former boss, makes the mistake of venturing into the Bates mansion and comes face to face with “Mother.” The sequence is exquisitely shot and, unlike the shower scene, there’s no warning of the bloodletting to come. Before you know what’s happening, the detective is slashed across the face and “Mother” has claimed another victim.


  • The characters of Norman Bates and Leatherface from TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE share a common origin. Both were both inspired, in part, by real-life murderer and grave robber Ed Gein.
  • Janet Leigh is on record admitting to a lifelong fear of showers after seeing her infamous death scene in the final cut of PSYCHO.
  • The sound of “Mother’s” blade penetrating flesh in PSYCHO comes courtesy of a Foley artist stabbing casaba melons with a knife.
  • PSYCHO was shot in 30 days for less than one million dollars using a crew consisting mostly of television professionals. To this day it remained one of the most profitable films ever made.
  • Though initial reviews were decidedly mixed (due in large part to the dark tone of the film and its unprecedented shock value), audiences couldn’t get enough. PSYCHO was a huge hit at the box-office and quickly became a global sensation.

CLICK HERE to buy PSYCHO on Blu-ray.

CLICK HERE for “Monsters! Terror In Black and White (Part One)”