Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Passings: Herbert L. Strock, Director



The high-fallutin' fools who write cinema history for the ages probably won't give much cop to the passing of film and TV director Herbert L. Strock. But Strock, who passed away on November 30 at the ripe old age of 87, slugged it out in the business for six decades, kept working it right to the end, and birthed some of the most entertaining horror and sci-fi efforts during the heyday of '50's drive-in cinema. He was also a genuinely nice, sweet guy.

Strock began his career as a newsreel cameraman for Fox Movietone News before being drafted into the military in World War II. After completing service, the budding filmmaker found work as an editor on several films (including assistant-editing the 1944 classic Gaslight). Strock logged time in the director's chair on various early television programs before helming Gog, his first solo directorial project, in 1954. The next three decades saw Strock direct all manner of film and television projects, impressing producers with his ability to crank out work under extremely tight budgetary and time constraints. Even after his directorial career cooled, the showbiz pro continued running his own post-production business well into his eighties.

Despite his lengthy resume, Herbert L. Strock's horror movies comprise the most remembered part of his legacy. None of them revolutionized the genre, but they moved with crime-novel speed (most of them clock in at 75 minutes or less), sported well-crafted black-and-white cinematography, and wrapped teen angst in canny horror-movie drag. They were, in short, serious fun.

Those horror movies were largely what prompted me to send a fan letter to Herb Strock five years ago, along with an 8x10 from Teenage Frankenstein and an autograph request.

Strock responded by autographing the photo, and sending it back along with an additional (autographed) picture of himself, and--best of all--a one-page personal reply letter. Written in the direct yet sincere prose of a guy who never wasted a minute, the letter addressed every detail I touched on in my fan mail; the late, great Whit Bissell's work in Teenage Frankenstein, how hard Strock worked on achieving the appropriate neo-noir lighting effects in his horror pictures, and his amusement at the enduring adoration those chillers inspired. Strock also seemed genuinely moved by the heartfelt written praise, though not without a fair share of self-deprecation ("It is not often that a fan writes such a glowing tribute to a director of, in my opinion, mediocre horror pictures," he wrote).

Color me really, immensely saddened at this very dear man's passing.

Strock essentials:

Teenage Frankenstein (1957) updates the man-made monster scenario into the James Dean Dragstrip era. Character vet Whit Bissell (usually cast as the bland scholar in scores of B flicks)delivers a terrific against-type performance as the dryly nasty mad doctor, and the deliciously vindictive script pits Bissell against sexy Phyllis Coates in some juicy verbal tete-a-tetes.

Blood of Dracula hit theaters the same year, with Strock riffing off of the symbolic hormonal rage first visited in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The director injects subtle hints of lesbianism into the mix, with yet another untrustworthy adult (this time, evil chemistry professor Louise Lewis) turning an innocent teen (here, sweet-faced college co-ed Sandra Harrison) into a literal (vampiric) monster.

How to Make a Monster (1958) adds The Phantom of the Opera--and a bit of self-aware humor--to the references. Robert H. Harris plays a monster make-up artist fired by American International Pictures. The studio drops the poor guy, because AIP plans on ditching horror flicks for rock musicals (now THERE'S a truly terrifying scenario). Harris goes crackers, hypnotizes two young actors (Land of the Giants' Gary Conway and Gary Clarke), slaps Frankenstein and werewolf makeup on 'em, and turns them loose on the studio fat cats who wronged him. Fun, fun stuff.

Most critics cite 1962's The Crawling Hand as Strock's worst movie, but I adore it. An astonaut fatally crash-lands on Earth, and his disembodied hand takes over the will of a med student (Rod Lauren). The hand then strangles half of the cast before getting dispatched in one of the most absurdly surreal finales ever committed to celluloid. It's an utterly silly but absolutely fascinating little shocker. The combination of black-and-white atmospherics, patent absurdity, and oddball familiar faces (Allan Hale Jr., the Skipper himself) suggests a cross between Tim Burton and Ed Wood.

Of the above, The Crawling Hand can be had on a cheap bare-bones Rhino DVD stateside. How to Make a Monster and Blood of Dracula have been digitally-released in Europe, but licensing issues continue to tie up any eminent domestic DVD issue of them (the same legal quagmire envelops a DVD release of Teenage Frankenstein as well). VHS versions of all can still be found via alternate avenues like eBay, however, so get thee hunting, post-haste.

No comments: