About Herman » Interviews » Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Part 4 of 6
Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Herman Cohen, The London Years
By Tom Weaver
This is part 4 of an interview that was published at HermanCohen.com in 6 parts. This interview originally appeared as a chapter in film historian Tom Weaver's excellent book Attack of the Monster Movie Makers (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. 1994) and has been reprinted with the kind permission of the author (thank you, Tom!). For a list of the author's books currently in print, visit the McFarland & Co. web site.
Part four: Herman goes overseas to Jolly Ol' England, where he meets Michael Gough and makes HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, THE HEADLESS GHOST, and KONGA. He also discovers the power of color television.
And now a big step up with HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM.
As I told you before, I had a very good contact with Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo Amalgamated Films of England, where I did my first coproduction, RIVER BEAT. Because of my contact with Cohen and Levy, I was virtually the agent that sold AIP pictures to Anglo Amalgamated, for release in the United Kingdom; and I was the first one to take Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff to London, to introduce 'em to Cohen and Levy.
Anyway, I was reading a group of articles in the Sunday Parade about Scotland Yard's Black Museum. I went to London, and while I was there, a friend of mine that knew an inspector at Scotland Yard got me a special pass to go through the Black Museum. (They won't let the public go through it unless you're a V.I.P., a police officer or something like that.) From that, I wrote the original treatment of HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM; then Aben and I did the screenplay. I got Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy to agree to put up fifty percent of the financing of the picture, then I got Jim Nicholson and AIP to agree to put up fifty percent. That's how I got the financing to make the picture.
BLACK MUSEUM was the first color/CinemaScope picture for AIP.
I told Jim, "Hey, it's time for AIP to do a bigger picture. You can't keep doing these small pictures." In fact, it was right after BLACK MUSEUM that they gave Roger Corman the okay to do his Edgar Allan Poes, because of the success of HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. That's when AIP started going for bigger budgets.
Some sources list the producer of BLACK MUSEUM as Jack Greenwood.
At that time, when an American did a film in England, we had to hire a British subject as a producer, plus other Brits, to qualify for a British subsidy. That's another reason why I was able to talk [AIP] into spending more money on the picture, because I was going to make it under British Eady. Therefore, Jack Greenwood was my "associate producer." Only in the United Kingdom prints did Jack Greenwood get producer credit, and I was the executive producer. Jack Greenwood was a hell of a nice guy, by the way, and I used him on a lot of pictures as my British counterpart.
How did you hook up with Michael Gough?
I saw him in a British film, in a small part; I think it was Hammer's Horror of Dracula. Now, initially, I wanted to hire Vincent Price to star in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, but we couldn't afford Price at that time. There were other people I was thinking about, too, like Orson Welles. Anyway, under British Eady, you're allowed to bring X-number of Americans in, but Nat Cohen said, "Herm, why can't you use a British actor? If you bring an American over, we're gonna have to house him at the Dorchester, give him per diem, this and that. And there are so many British actors that can play this kind of role!" I remembered Michael Gough, I made a dinner date with him, we sat and we talked and I just flipped over him personally. He's a marvelous man, a wonderful person. That's how he ended up in BLACK MUSEUM.
His bravura performances in your horror films won him lots of new fans.
I was so pleased when he won the Tony in New York [for "Bedroom Farce"] a few years ago. We're in touch all the time, although he hasn't worked for me since TROG with Joan Crawford.
The binoculars scene in BLACK MUSEUM still shocks today.
You really don't see anything happen in that scene. After the girl screams, "My eyes! My eyes!" as the blood drips through her fingers, we then cut to a closeup of the binoculars on the carpet, with the needles extended. But you don't see it happen, you have to visualize it.
Whose idea was the binoculars scene?
Every instrument of murder in BLACK MUSEUM was from an actual murder and is in Scotland Yard's Black Museum. The murder with the binoculars happened in the thirties, in Kent, which is outside of London. A young stable boy who was very much in love with his master's daughter was fired for having sex with her in the stables. And she would have nothing to do with him after that. When the Royal Ascot meet started the following year, she received through the mail a pair of binoculars, mailed from the Paddington Post Office. She took them to the window, she focused them, and the needles penetrated through her eyes and killed her. The stable boy was found, was tried and was hung. And those binoculars are in the Black Museum in Scotland Yard. The ice tongs, the portable guillotine [the other murder implements in BLACK MUSEUM]—people don't realize it, but these were actual murders in England.
I thought America had the market cornered on outlandish murders.
Oh, no, no. The kinkiest murders are done in England [laughs]!
Ruth Pologe, who handled the publicity for BLACK MUSEUM in New York, came up with the idea for me to bring the spiked binoculars over from England, and then at the airport in New York say that they were lost! She said, "That would hit the wire services and the front pages of all the papers!" So we did—of course, these weren't the real BLACK MUSEUM binoculars, they were the binoculars that we had made for the film, but they were just as deadly. (In fact, I still have 'em today, under lock and key!) So that was the gimmick:
We suddenly "misplaced" them at the airport when I came from London, and we made the papers and everything. In fact, the assistant D.A. called me at the Hampshire House to talk to me about this, 'cause he had figured out that it was a stunt. (Of course, I never admitted it!)
You had a top-flight director of photography in Desmond Dickinson.
He was a real class cinematographer, and also a wonderful guy—we just got along terrific. That's why I used him so often.
And how about the director of BLACK MUSEUM, Arthur Crabtree?
A nice Englishman. I needed a director who was English because we did the picture under the British Eady, but I wanted a director who was not going to be too British, who was not going to be in my way too much and who would do what I wanted done. Arthur Crabtree had just done FIEND WITHOUT A FACE with Marshall Thompson, and on the basis of that, I interviewed him. The price was right and the old guy needed a job, and I hired him. And he was exactly what I wanted and needed as a good craftsman.
Why have you never tried directing?
Because I learned at a very early age that you can't do everything. I have directed, like on A STUDY IN TERROR when my director suddenly disappeared [laughs]—I've done it quite a few times during my career. However, I was head of my company and a real hands-on line producer, plus also head of the second largest theater in the world, the Fox Theater in Detroit, and other things that I was involved in. To be a director, you have to give one hundred percent of your attention, so I always just hired directors that I could work with.
How much did you have to do with the thirteen-minute prologue AIP tacked onto BLACK MUSEUM?
That was Jim Nicholson's, not mine, and we did not use it anyplace but the U.S.A. Jim was looking for another gimmick, and he came up with HypnoVista. When Jim told me what he was writing and working on, I was reluctant to permit it to be tagged on, but I let Jim talk me into it; he said, "Herm, if it's really that bad, we'll take it off." We tested it in a few theaters and the audience went for it like crazy, hokey as it was. It helped make the picture a success, I guess, 'cause people were looking for gimmicks at that time. But when the picture was released on television in this country, we had to take it off because it does hypnotize some people. I saw it again recently and it is interesting, but my executive vice-president Didier Chatelain said, "Oh, God, is that corny!"
Right now, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are donating forty pictures to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Marty Scorsese has contacted me to tell me that he and the boys want HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM as one of the pictures. They said they grew up on it and just loved it, and they thought there were a lot of inventive things done in the film. (Martin Scorsese said that, as far as be was concerned, that binoculars scene was one of the greatest scenes of any picture [laughs]!) In fact, Marty just talked to me the other day, because they're going over the negative in order to get a top print, and they've decided they're going to leave the HypnoVista business off, and go right into the picture after the main titles.
What was the rationale behind the horror-comedy THE HEADLESS GHOST? It's not a funny picture.
No, you're right, it isn't; I never liked that picture. While I was making BLACK MUSEUM and we were near the end of shooting Jim Nicholson called me from Hollywood and he was all excited about BLACK MUSEUM even though he hadn't seen any of it—and wouldn't see it until I brought it back from London. (In those days, he and Sam didn't spend the money to come across, and if they did, I wouldn't have shown 'em anything anyway!) Jim said, "Gee if we only had a second feature…" I was awfully busy with BLACK MUSEUM and with planning some other future projects, but he kept after me: "Herm, look if you can knock out a second feature in black and white, just to go with BLACK MUSEUM we'll get the whole program from RKO, from Loew's, from Texas," blah, blah, blah. I told him I'd see what I could come up with.
I started thinking, 'What the hell can I do?", and I thought maybe I should do a comedy. So Aben Kandel and I wrote this picture THE HEADLESS GHOST where these teenagers meet up with a ghost in a British castle. I got great publicity for using Richard Lyon in one of the leads—Louella Parsons gave us a headline story—because he was Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon's son, who was acting in London. I met him and he needed a job badly, so we hired him. We knocked out that picture very, very fast; that's why the running time is so short, like sixty-five minutes. The director, Peter Graham Scott, was a film editor in London who always wanted to direct, and I needed somebody to do a fast job under my guidance. In fact, we started HEADLESS GHOST as I was still finishing BLACK MUSEUM, editing and cutting it. But I honestly don't recall too much else about this picture, it was so bad.
Was any of it shot on your BLACK MUSEUM sets?
They were shot at the same studio, HEADLESS GHOST in black and white and BLACK MUSEUM in color so we did reuse some of the sets after we redressed em. Then we also had to build some other sets, plus we went on location to an actual castle.
How often do you watch your old pictures?
I really don't, unless I happen to catch one at somebody's house. I haven't seen some of these pictures in twenty-five years. I don't have time to run yesteryear.
Around the same time, you announced you were going to produce ALADDIN AND THE GIANT in London and in Europe, in Technicolor and CinemaScope.
Originally, I was going to do that for AIP, but then it got put aside. I've brought it out many times since then—we almost made it for Warner Brothers, almost made it for E.M.I. in England. I've come so close on ALADDIN AND THE GIANT a half a dozen times, but I just never was able to put the picture together.
What did you have to do with CIRCUS OF HORRORS?
I was involved in that through Nat Cohen. I had quite a bit to do with it—picking Anton Diffring and other things like that, I didn't get a credit—I didn't ask for one—but I was the executive in charge representing the money, representing Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy, and I owned a piece of the picture. I was out on the set but it wasn't like it was one of my own personal pictures. I had a lot of respect for Julian Wintle, who got the screen credit as producer. Julian was a very classy producer for Rank who had his offices at Pinewood, he was quite a British gent but he did not know horror. So Nat Cohen asked me to be a part of the picture.
Next came KONGA, which you also made in England.
Nat and Stuart Levy were so excited about the business that BLACK MUSEUM did in England and in Europe (it was a very big hit there), they said, Herm, can you do another exploitation type of picture?" Well. I had always flipped over KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and all that, so I came up with KONGA and Aben and I started writing the script.
KONGA involved a lot more special effects than any of your other pictures.
We did a tremendous amount of special effects with Rank Labs. I supervised them myself, all these special effects. For the scenes where KONGA's a giant, the head of special effects at Rank Labs, a wonderfully clever guy named Victor Marguetti developed a traveling matte technique that employed yellow sodium lights; KONGA was the first picture that they used it on. Some of the special effects of KONGA, when he's big, are really good, rock steady. KONGA only cost about five hundred thousand dollars, in color, but the effects were so good that people thought the picture cost millions.
How long did it take to supervise the effects on KONGA?
Eighteen months—over a year and a half to get those bloody special effects done perfect. It just went on and on and on, 'cause it was trial and error. AIP was after me constantly—"Where's the picture? When are we gonna get the picture?" They didn't realize how much fucking work was involved, 'cause they never used special effects at that time.
The closest AIP came to special effects pictures prior to KONGA were the Bert I. Gordon jobs.
Yes, but KONGA was in color, and that's a whole different bag of beans. To have KONGA hold Michael Gough, what I had to do there was matte five different scenes on one frame.
I assumed that you had built a giant ape arm.
Are you kidding? We didn't have money to build a giant putz at that time [laughs]!
You also had the actor in the ape suit on miniature sets, just as he was starting to grow.
For a cheap picture, those miniature sets that we built were pretty good. I worked my ass off; in fact, I don't think I ever worked harder on a picture than I did on KONGA. And don't forget those giant plants that we had in the greenhouse scene. My art director Wilfred Arnold and I did a lot of research on all those plants—I had to go to all kinds of places with him, in the Kew Gardens, here and there. They were based on actual carnivorous plants. We had them made at Shepperton Studios. But it was exciting to do this on spit. We had to use a lot of ingenuity in place of money. Luckily, I had an enthusiastic crew with me.
I almost got thrown out of England 'cause of KONGA. Once KONGA grew into the giant ape, I needed to shoot the streets of London near the Embankment. Jack Greenwood and [production manager] Jim O'Connolly told me, "Herm, we can't get permission. The Metropolitan Police will shut us down.' I was also told that you can't bribe an English bobby; unlike in New York, Chicago, Detroit or L.A., it won't work. So I had to take things in hand. I went to meet the inspector in charge of the precinct in Croyden, which is the jurisdiction of the Embankment area. I sat and visited with him for a long time, talked about all different subjects, on and on. Then we got to talking about television, and he said, "Oh, I wish I could afford a color television set." That was my opening—I went out and bought him a color television set, and I had it sent to his home. And suddenly I got permission to shoot on the streets in London! The thing that I didn't mention to him was that, at the finale, all hell was going to break loose—that we were going to shoot sub-machine guns, bazookas, etc., etc. I purposely didn't tell him this [laughs]!
It's always easier to get forgiveness than permission.
That's what I figured! We had permission to shoot from twelve midnight until five in the morning, each night for four or five nights. And on the last night, the night when we were going to shoot the finale, who should come out but the inspector, to have biscuits and a cup of tea with me and see how everything was going! I said, "Gee, it's awfully late for you to be up, it's like two o'clock in the morning." I wanted to get rid of him, I knew what was coming up! I did get rid of him, but there were also a couple of sergeants that were with me all the time—I didn't tell them what was going to happen, either!
Anyway, comes the final scene and we blaze away: I had told all my people, "Have the trucks ready, 'cause when we're done, we gotta split!" Which we did! Well, the nine-nine-nine [emergency number] got something like three hundred phone calls—people thought London was being invaded [laughs]! This was only fifteen years or so after World War II, and they were still worried. I had a lot of apologies to make—a lot. There were a few old women that claimed that the excitement affected their health, all kinds of shit. The Metropolitan Police gave me the addresses of the ones that were threatening to go to the Consul and what have you, and I had to go visit each of them in person and charm the bejesus out of them, which I did, fortunately. Jack Greenwood, Jim O'Connolly and I went and bought like twenty boxes of chocolates, which are terribly expensive in England, flowers, all sorts of crap for them. They took the candy and the flowers and kissed me goodbye [laughs]!
With a title like KONGA, people started making comparisons to KING KONG—
—which was fine, which was what I wanted! We paid RKO so that we could use in our ads the line, NOT SINCE KING KONG…HAS THE SCREEN THUNDERED TO SUCH MIGHTY EXCITEMENT! I paid RKO because I didn't want them to think we were stealing it; we paid 'em twenty-five thousand dollars so there would not be any lawsuit.
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