Part of my series on never-made occult detective TV shows.
Chamber of Horrors (1966)
Baltimore, late 19th century: wealthy, upper-class Jason Cravette kills his fiancee and marries her corpse. When his crime is discovered, the police capture him with the help of amateur detective and wax museum owner Anthony Draco, who runs House of Wax. Cravette is convicted and condemned; on the way to prison he escapes by chopping off his own handcuffed hand and jumping off the train. He then procures a gruesome collection of hooks and blades to replace his missing hand, and returns to Baltimore to get gory revenge on all who were responsible for his conviction — including Draco.
This isn’t actually occult detection; it’s non-supernatural horror/crime, but it’s similar to the film I covered in the last post, Dark Intruder, in many ways. The two movies are often mentioned together, and it seemed natural to watch it and compare. Chamber of Horrors also has a few things in common with Fear No Evil, one of the subjects of my next post. And it’s a truly fun movie.
Chamber of Horrors started out as a ninety minute pilot for a television show called House of Wax, loosely inspired by the 1953 Vincent Price movie. After the pilot was rejected as too gruesome and violent for television, Warner Brothers added an additional ten minutes and released it as a theatrical film.
If the three movies I’ve discussed so far were Goldilocks’ three bears, this one would be Baby Bear. The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre was too long for its material; Dark Intruder was too short; but Chamber of Horrors, even with the additional ten minutes, felt just right. I didn’t notice any obvious padding.
Warner Brothers took advantage of the theatrical release to add some material they could never have shown on television at the time, in particular the added opening scene, where Cravette (Patrick O’Neal) forces a local clergyman to perform a wedding ceremony between Cravette and the corpse of his dead fiancee. After he pays off the parson and dismisses him — without killing him, surprise! — he carries his bride up to the honeymoon chamber, where he lays her out tenderly, lights some candles, and pops a bottle of champagne. Thankfully, the scene ends there. There is also another scene where Cravette hires a prostitute at a brothel, makes her dress up like a bride, then lays her out on the bed and insists that she lie very, very still. Shades of Pedro Almodovar’s Matador (which came out exactly twenty years later). I have to assume that scene wasn’t in the television version, either.
Despite having been originally intended for television, Chamber of Horrors feels cinematic.The production had access to the fine Warner Brothers resources, and everything — the sets, the costumes, the music, the cinematography — are all theatrical film quality. In fact, the wax museum run by Draco and his colleague Anthony Blount (Wilfrid Hyde-White) is THE House of Wax: the same exterior and interior sets used in the eponymous Vincent Price film, slightly redressed. And the movie has a lovely, “artsy” abstract opening credit sequence, the kind that was fairly popular in 1960s cinema, but no longer used today (which is a shame).
The film features a couple of William Castle inspired gimmicks that apparently were also in the original pilot: the Horror Horn and the Fear Flasher. As the voice of William Conrad explains at the beginning of the film, when an especially disturbing scene is about to happen, the Fear Flasher flashes red, and the Horror Horn sounds; those are signals for the faint hearted viewer that a “Supreme Fright Point” is about to occur, and it’s time to close their eyes or look away from the screen. You can see the effects in this trailer (take care if you’re epileptic). It’s a cute and clever gimmick, because if you do keep your eyes open you see… nothing; the camera moves away before anything happens. So the “gruesome” scenes are safe for TV, but (if you look away) are still as scary as whatever your imagination can conjure.
Did I mention this was a fun movie?
In addition to the William Castle inspirations, I can also see the influence of Roger Corman. By 1966, Corman had completed his Poe cycle, and Chamber of Horrors borrows several touches from those films. The set of the opening scene is dressed in an abundance of red, much as the sets of Corman’s Poe films were. The minimalist, red-lit (expressionistic, as Steve Haberman calls it) staging of the trial sequence lends it a disquieting, nightmare-like quality, rather like the weird nightmare sequences that Corman liked to throw into his films during this period.
Patrick O’Neal’s performance channels Vincent Price, who starred in most of the Poe films, with his sinister yet beguiling mannerisms. In fact, O’Neal is just great to watch; I remember thinking at the very start of the movie that I would have loved to have seen Vincent Price in that role, but O’Neal did a terrific, gloriously scenery-chewing job.
Unfortunately, our hero, Anthony Draco, isn’t as compelling. Draco, played by Italian actor Cesare Danova, is suave and quite handsome, but I thought he lacked a certain charisma. One issue is that he’s not the lead character; O’Neal’s Jason Cravette is. The main problem, however, is that the screenwriters simply didn’t write much of a character for Draco. We don’t know why he likes to play amateur detective; we do know he’s supposed to be irresistible to women (just like Leslie Nielsen’s character in Dark Intruder), but I didn’t perceive much chemistry or spark between Danova or any of the women in the film who threw themselves into his arms.
Wilfrid Hyde-White, as Draco’s colleague Harold Blount, is more fun to watch. Blount is established to be a “criminal historian” who has published numerous books on famous murderers, so we know why he’s so interested in these recent horrible murders. He also designs the gruesome wax figures and tableaux for the House of Wax. Blount is cheerful, witty, and talkative, a welcome contrast to the rather bland Draco. Hyde-White meshes comfortably with Danova, and also with José René (”Tun Tun”) Ruiz, who plays his assistant, Pepe.
Wayne Rogers (best known as Trapper John on the TV series M.A.S.H) also appears as likable police sergeant Albertson, assigned to the Cravette case. I thought he was intended to be the third part of the classic detective trio (Draco the detective, Blount the sidekick, Albertson the reluctantly admiring cop). But… I thought wrong.
The support cast features a number of good performances from notable actors. I’ll call out Jeanette Nolan, who played Cravette’s wealthy and eccentric aunt, and possibly the only woman on the cast who got what looked like a genuine spark of reaction out of Danova. Also Marie Windsor, best known for her many femme fatale roles in B-movie noirs, and an unusually tall actress (at the time). She played the Madame of a brothel that Pepe is sent to investigate, and the scene between the statuesque Nolan and the diminutive Tun Tun was the most honestly flirtatious moment in the movie.
Chamber of Horrors vs Dark Intruder
As mentioned, Chamber of Horrors bears a lot of similarities to the previous year’s failed pilot turned feature film, Dark Intruder:
- Both are period pieces: foggy 19th century San Francisco vs. foggy (is it?) 19th century Baltimore. Both are clearly meant to evoke foggy, Ripper-era London. In terms of atmosphere and mood, I have to say Dark Intruder‘s brooding, shadowy “San Francisco” comes out on top, even if it doesn’t resemble San Francisco in the least. But probably “Baltimore” doesn’t look like the actual Baltimore, either.
- Both feature a suave, Ladies’ Man detective: to my eyes, Danova is more handsome than Nielsen, but Nielsen as Brett Kingsford was a more convincing playboy. Neither hero is particularly well motivated, in that we don’t really know why either of them do what they do (unlike Martin Landau’s Nelson Orion).
- Both feature a Ripper-type serial killer: it’s implied, though not shown, that the killer in Dark Intruder clawed his victims brutally while killing them. Cravette selectively cuts off chosen body parts from his victims, for his own little art project, then leaves the rest behind.
- Danova and Blount’s assistant Pepe, like Brett Kingsford’s assistant Nikola, is a little person. As I mentioned in the previous post, this was apparently a thing at the time. We see a little bit more of Pepe, I think, but Dark Intruder‘s Nikola was also a good character.
- Yellowface. Sigh. Cravette procures his grisly prosthetics at a Chinese import shop in New Orleans from a white guy wearing a queue who squints and talks in a funny accent. Brett Kingsford seeks occult wisdom from a white guy with obscenely long fingernails, Fu Manchu whiskers, and a queue. Thankfully, that actor didn’t attempt an accent.
One can see why the two movies are so frequently compared. As with all the previous pilots I’ve covered in this series, Chamber of Horrors was rejected as too violent and disturbing for television, and even without explicit depictions of the killings, that’s understandable for the time. The plot was grisly, and O’Neal’s character was frighteningly psychopathic. Not to mention that the tableaux of murder and torture in the House of Wax were quite explicit (rather delightfully so, at the end).
Would I have watched the series?
Maybe, for a little while. I didn’t find Cesare Danova’s character all that interesting, I’m sorry to say, but Hyde-White and Tun Tun were amusing to watch, and if the series kept up the EC comics level of gruesomeness and the goofy gimmicks, the show might have found an audience in the same way Batman ‘66 did. But I suspect that nothing would have lived up to the promise of this pilot, and the show ran a high risk of turning into Bloody Serial Killer of the Week.
Nonetheless, as a standalone picture, Chamber of Horrors promises to have rewatch value, and it’s earned a spot on my shelf of popcorn movies. Check it out.
All images from blu-ray.com except where noted.