AIP, a force to be reckoned with
After the success of ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’, AIP was on a roll. Monsters, Juvenile Delinquents, and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’ was the New Trend. With pictures like ‘Dragstrip Girl’, ‘The Amazing Colossal Man’, ‘The Cool and The Crazy’, and ‘Rock All Night’ to name a few, they had found their niche. The majors followed their lead with films like Columbia’s ‘High School Confidential’, Warner Bros ‘Stakeout On Dope Street’ and ‘Untamed Youth’. Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson were now a force to be reckoned with, but Arkoff could see the writing on the wall. Trends and fads fade and theaters were now inundated with these quickie black and white flicks. Arkoff knew they needed a new hook.
It’s difficult to know who came up with the idea to make a color picture, both Director Roger Corman and Sam Arkoff said they had the idea first. Judging by Roger Corman’s track record of pushing himself, I tend to believe it was Corman. One thing is for sure Arkoff and Corman knew the cheap double feature thing was dying based on returns. They decided to do one picture at the cost it took to make two. Most importantly it would be in Color. Roger thought a classic Edgar Allan Poe picture would work and that ‘Fall of The House of Usher’ would be fantastic! Poe is in the public domain so they didn’t have to worry about rights, and also Poe was mandatory reading in high school, which was the age of their target audience. Arkoff’s partner Nicholson was unsure if kids would dig something that had to do with school. Arkoff wanted to know where the monster fit in. The “HOUSE” was the monster, Corman suggested.
In 1960 Arkoff and Nicholson gave Corman $300,000 to make ‘House of Usher’. It was shot in CinemaScope on 35mm Eastman color film stock. The bulk of the money went lead actor Vincent Price and for the next 15 days, Corman shot his film. Before the shoot, a major brush fire swept through Griffith Park in the Hollywood Hills. Corman wasted no time! He grabbed actor Mark Damon, a horse, a camera, and rushed to the burnt park. The smoking charred trees will be perfect for the black forest scenes. He spent the day filming Damon on his horse walking through the trees!
Meanwhile in Europe…
While Corman worked on the potentially risky Poe picture, Arkoff and Nicholson went to Europe looking for pictures to pick up for distribution. They hit pay dirt in Italy, which was having a cinematic boom, and scored a bunch of “sword-and-sandal” pictures. The first one they acquired was ‘Sign of Rome’ with Anita Ekberg. They re-dubbed it but Nicholson hated the title and re-christened it ‘Sword of The Gladiator‘. The only problem was there was no gladiator in the picture, but no worries, they just changed the story a bit with the dubbing and had the Roman general say he used to be a gladiator.
The next big score was a Steve Reeves Hercules picture, which they promptly retitled ‘Goliath and The Barbarians’. Goliath scored huge and many more Italian “Sword and Sandal” epics soon followed. And not just “Sword and Sandal” but Horror as well.
They took genius genre filmmaker Mario Bava’s ‘La Maschera del Demonio’ starring British actress Barbara Steele and retitled it Black Sunday. They were even the distributors of art-house fare like Felinni’s ‘La Dolce Vita!’ They eventually set up offices in Italy for the sole purpose of co-financing films. Italy wasn’t the only foreign venture, Japan would also provide entertainment. AIP Would co-produce the Kaiju epic ‘Frankenstein Conquers The World’ as well as distributing films like ‘What’s Up Tiger Lilly’ that was re-dubbed by Woody Allen, and many others. The vast amount of pictures they distributed would take pages to fill.
Meanwhile back in LA…
Back in the states, Roger Corman was still hard at work on ‘House of Usher’ the film that would be a creative and financial turning point for both Corman and AIP. Written by acclaimed horror/fantasy writer Richard Matheson, best know for writing the novel I Am Legend and numerous Twilight Zone episodes, Matheson took Roger Corman’s suggestion’s of using Freudian theories to interpret the incestuous relationship of Rodrick Usher (Price) and Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey, mother of actor Jeff Fahey).
It includes a psychedelic dream sequence shot with blue gels by cinematographer Floyd Crosby, the father of musician David Crosby and Oscar winner for the 1931 Film Tabu: ‘Story of The South Seas’, and Golden Globe Winner for ‘High Noon’.
Corman also brought in “beat painter” Bert Shonberg to paint haunting portraits of the Usher family, these paintings themselves are very frightening.
Not only was ‘House of Usher’ a turning point for the previously mentioned, but also for it’s star Vincent Price. Previous to Usher Price had mostly played cads or secondary characters. He was well known but like most actors his age started doing some TV. With Usher, he was able to reinvent himself to a younger audience and became a horror icon giving him much more longevity than his peers. Price would breathe lines that a lesser actor could never deliver. On set he asked Roger what this line meant, “The house lives, the house breathes”. Roger replied, “That’s the line that allowed us to make this movie”. Price said, “Well fine, I suppose I can breathe some life into it then.”
AIP scored a coup with Price he was paid 80 grand a picture plus $1000 a week for expenses. An avid art collector Price would often stay in cheap motels and use the money to purchase art as he had a deal with Sears at the time to supply affordable pieces of art forworking-classs families. He would eventually donate his collection to East LA Community college which named the new art gallery The Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College.
-Phillip López Jiménez