Thursday, July 29, 2010

Holding Court with Hazel Court

Holding Court with Hazel Court
(or, In the Thrall of the Crimson Queen)

Terry Blass

“Hazel Court, called ‘the best screamer in the business.’”
LOOK Magazine, September 8, 1964

“I endeavored to shriek; and my lips and my parched tongue moved convulsively together in the attempt – but no voice issued from the cavernous lungs…”
– “The Premature Burial,” Poe

“A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming!”
– Jane Fonda as Barbarella

“Hazel Court constantly falling out of the top of her dress (well…almost) in AIP’s ‘The Raven’”
Danse Macabre, Stephen King

“Are we going to have some torture?”
– Hazel Court, THE RAVEN, 1963

“Ah yes, Parliament. With 500 walking corpses there, you’d think they could spare one!”
(a politically correct quote for Hazel...just the Fawkes, Ma’am!)

As truly as there are little ghoulies (and fang Heaven for little ghouls!), Hazel Court is horror filmdom’s grand dame. She was there at the beginning of the Hammer horror cycle in 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. She was there with Anton Diffring as THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH even when he felt green around the gills. She stared down a marauding Martian maid with nothing more than her laser-intensity killer eyebrows in DEVIL-GIRL FROM MARS. She worked with Poemeister Roger Corman for three pictures from AIPoe: THE PREMATURE BURIAL, THE RAVEN and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, all films which look like they were filmed for twice the Price. For most horror heroines that would have been enough. But no, Miss Court also did THRILLER, she did Hitchcock, and Moore yet, she got him so Furie-ous, she even had Dr. Blood coughin’!

Unless you lived through it, it’s hard to believe what the High Sheriff, Highbrow Critics made of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. It was the end of the world as we baby ba-doomers knew it. The critics looked at Terence Fisher’s work and couldn’t see past the bandages for the monsterpiece they were a-dressing. If they weren’t eyeballing Peter Cushing juggling eyeballs, then they were getting all snobbery about eyeballing Miss Court’s cleavage. (Hammer had a thing or two about cleavage!) It was like CURSE was lower than pulp fiction. What the critics were missing was that Hammer had rung in what had been missing in ‘50’s horror: the High Gothic. We’d been seeing plenty of monsters through the ‘50’s, but a new generation was ready for the old, classic monsters reek-told with all the shuddery trappings, PLUS what couldn’t be shown back in the daze of Karloff and Lugosi. And besides, it wasn’t the cleavage OR the eyeballs which grabbed the 6-year-old attention of THIS viewer. No, this lowbrow critic had his eyes on…Miss Court’s eyebrows!

Never mind that Hazel Court had one of the best lusty, busty laughs I’ve ever heard, especially when I hit her with the Peter Cushing quote above. Never mind that to find a more lovely redhead in horror you’d have to dig way past the roots. Hazel Court has the world’s best eyebrows. They’re killer. Check her stuff out, watch what she does with them. They’re devastating. One look at them in her films and I feel like Daffy Duck when his fowl old lady knocks his beak off. They’re the eyebrows above the freezing look which can turn men no matter how evil to stone, or at least get ‘em coffin Blood. You get the feeling if she wanted to, Miss Court could double whammy you with a single look, and you’d scum down with the mascara of the red death…

Luckily for me, Hazel Court is one nice, humorous person. She’d fill in with anecdotes whenever I’d hit an interviewing glitch. That she’d done a naked bit for a European version of a Hammer pic was something I never nude. Uh, knew. When I got stuck reading my own writing, she contributed the review of THE RAVEN herein. It’s the kind of review which deserves a chorus of booze, but only if it’s Poe Lite.

So come with us now for tales of Frankenstein, of Cushing and Lee, Karloff and Price, of Lorre and the core men of Hazel Court’s wonder-filled life in the world of horror film. Ladies, gentlemen, I give you now Hazel Court, High Priestess of the Eyebrow Gothic…

TERRY BLASS: A friend said yesterday that of all the scream queens in the world, you’re the one who should be over all of them, holding Court.

HAZEL COURT: Ah. (Laughter)

TB: You were there at the beginning of Hammer horror with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. You worked with Terence Fisher, and Roger Corman had you star in 3 Poe films. Me, I was 12 years old and seen all that stuff. I was lying there in the hospital bored out of my mind, the T.V. came on and said “Next up, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, starring Hazel Court,” and I went “Hoo-ha!”

HC: (Laughter)

TB: Announcer says, “DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS attacks Earth with her giant robot!” Yowser! Only you weren’t the devil-girl from Mars. I’d never seen it before. I see the devil-girl, it’s not you, next thing there’s this non-12-year-old-sounding stream of words and a bedpan thrown at the T.V. You’re the decorous heroine. Did you ever want the devil-girl part?

HC: No, I never did. If you remember, Patricia Laffan is like 6 feet tall, and they wanted somebody very thin. She was perfect for the part. I never saw her without her make-up and her cloak on. Later on I did, but in the movie, she was always dressed like that.

TB: Where was that shot?

HC: DEVIL GIRL was shot at Shepperton Studios, all shot on the sound-stage there.

TB: Do you know what the flying saucer was? Because it looked like “Tom Swift and His Flying Hamburger.”

HC: Actually, the special effects weren’t that good, were they? But it was the first, no one had done anything like that. Someone told me that Steven Spielberg saw it and it gave him ideas for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE 3RD KIND.

TB: I loved Adrienne Corri in that. Wasn’t she a sweetheart? She did tons of horror movies, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE…

HC: Yes, she was a beautiful girl.

TB: Even though you weren’t the devilette, your character had chutzpah. The Martian maid has barely stepped into the room, and you’re way off, virtually in a corner, just shooting daggers at her with your eyes. Then you two encounter each other, and you give this Martian a ticked-off Earth-girl look. You made Deimos of it!

HC: I don’t remember all this. I have to run this again.

TB: Yeah, you laid into her: don’t mess with us Earth-girls. What was Terence Fisher like on CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN?

HC: He was a lovely man, wonderful to work with, because he was very organized. He had a formula for his films. He always shot in sequence and rehearsed beforehand and we finished four weeks later.

TB: He had style, but he never let the camera get in the way of the story. The ‘60’s got to be a pretty flashy decade, yet he never changed that attitude.

HC: His formula never changed, but it worked.

TB: It was steady.

HC: You’re right. That was a good word to use. It worked for him, everybody loved him, and he never had any problems with the actors. Very professional. We always finished on time, on budget, and it always looked beautiful.

TB: Did the folks at Hammer have any ghoully glimmer of what they were unleashing with that first one?

HC: We went to the premiere at the Empire, we were kind of incognito, all of us with dark glasses. And halfway through we realized something special was happening. By the end of the movie we went outside and there were hundreds of people outside, and we knew we had a hit.

TB: What was working with Peter Cushing like?

HC: Wonderful. Peter was a gentleman, a wonderful character. I always felt that he was born too late, he should have been born in the 18th Century. He loved costumes.

TB: He’s one of the guys you never hear a bad word about…

HC: Never! And you won’t about Vincent, either. You know, when they did Biography, they wanted somebody to say something bad, and they couldn’t find anybody.

TB: And Christopher Lee under all that make-up?

HC: Oh, he was a great raconteur. He told wonderful stories, and he was full of jokes and laughter.

TB: When we were kids first seeing that, we knew the monster, Lee, was radically different from the Universal monster, but you had no idea…the power of Christopher Lee was unknown at the time.

HC: Yes, he was. It made him.

TB: We’d no idea he could be Dracula, or so many other characters. He took the whole Dracula role away first time at bat. With CURSE, you established a type of persona where you were a High Gothic heroine.

HC: Yes, true, I was trained in the classical theater, Shakespeare, many stage productions, a number of films before this one, which started the whole genre of horror films. Eventually, I did THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, THE RAVEN and PREMATURE BURIAL.

TB: Your character in CURSE, Elizabeth, is the essential Gothic heroine. Cushing tells you “Don’t look behind that door, EVER,” and of course, you gotta look, that door gets you all keyed-up. Did CURSE change the course of your life, instant, ka-boom?

HC: It did change my life in a way, because from then on it was all the horror films. I didn’t make a serious film or straight movie after that.

TB: You worked with Fisher once again with THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. As kids we were sort of disappointed with that, it wasn’t much horror, except that Anton Diffring gets green around the gills whenever he opens his safe for that potion.

Did you ever think of what that movie would be like if Lee and Diffring’s roles had been reversed?

HC: No, the fans have told me how much they love THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, a lot of them.

TB: I think at the time something didn’t quite catch on. Years later…

HC: Anton Diffring, he was kind of a cold character. You could never really get beyond his façade.

TB: You mean the man?

HC: Yes, the man, as an actor. But he was very, very nice to work with. There was a European version of that…did you know about that, THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, where I’m naked?

TB: No, I didn’t know that.

HC: They paid me extra for that! (Laughter)

TB: Well, they SHOULD have, chee!

HC: I’ve never seen it, but I know it’s around…

TB: DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN is maybe the ickiest thing in your career.

HC: Yes!

TB: To me, it’s one of the first times on film that ya saw stuff like Dr. Blood removing organs on camera from live people. Now Cushing had that stuff down over at Hammer, but BLOOD was a contemporary High Gothic. When we find out, watching the movie, what Blood is doing as revenge with your dead husband…ee-yuck!

HC: Yea, it was not one of my favorite movies. Kieron Moore was a very good actor, he came from a very good background. I love Cornwall. Everything that you saw was real. I guess the fact that it was on location in Cornwall, I said “Yes.” It was Sidney Furie’s.

TB: He did THE SNAKE WOMAN around that time.

HC: He actually did some quite good movies, you know.

TB: Oh, surely. Again, you had that dirty look across the room in DEVIL GIRL, but it was nothing compared to the eyebrow stuff. You were always doing eyebrow stuff!

HC: I was? (laughter)

TB: Yes! In DR. BLOOD, when you find out what Blood is up to, you come into the operating room, see the live guy being cut apart on the table, and you look up at Blood, there’s a shot of Blood’s eyes as you look down to an incriminating vial, then you look up at Blood again, he looks at you…and you look back up at him and give him this dirty, hateful look and start backing away slowly!

HC: (laughter)

TB: If ever a guy got browbeaten…

HC: (laughter) It’s amazing what you all remember -- all the fans -- and what I’ve forgotten.

TB: Sometimes I think it’s sad, what I remember.

HC: The fans, they’ve been teaching me a lot. They even remember LINES!

TB: Well, sure, that’s good. Your character in that…you buy all the stuff that Blood lays on you, like lies about a witch doctor, the tube full of curare. He takes you down in the caverns, and like true High Gothic, he starts talking about the pharaohs, how he wants you to stay locked away forever, and again you give him this look…

HC: (laughter)

TB: This look before another character comes in to interrupt you two. Makes a guy wonder who would get out of that cave alive.

HC: I got out. I’ve got to run this movie again!

TB: Oh, it’s good. Your character wants Blood’s affection. You feed him apparent straight lines like “That’s the fastest ride I’ve ever had,” and he ignores it. Lots of subtle stuff.

HC: I didn’t think it was a very good script.

TB: But you guys acted it subtle.

HC: We acted it for real. We convinced you of it.

TB: Yes. Speaking of straight lines, was working with Vincent Price, Karloff, and Peter Lorre for Roger Corman enough to send you away Raven?

HC: (laughter) No, I loved every moment. They were wonderful. They taught me a lot. Nothing to do with acting, but every day they would talk about art, music. They were so educated, all three were super people. Vincent cooked, he painted, he was a man for all seasons, because he did everything. He was instrumental in starting my career as a sculptress and painter. I really have to thank him, we remained great friends.

TB: He’s missed. There’s nobody who has taken those people’s places.

HC: There never will be.

TB: From the moment the raven says “How the hell should I know, what am I, a fortune teller?” in Peter Lorre’s voice, you know you’re in for an amazing time. Karloff as Scarabus in THE RAVEN calls your character his precious viper.

HC: (laughter)

TB: Oh, you liked that. Did you find him just as snake charming?

HC: He was a very charming man, Boris Karloff.

TB: Not feeling his age in the film, you see nothing of it.

HC: No, no, but he was a delight. He was a perfect gentleman.

TB: How much adlibbing was it?

HC: Oh, Peter was the one to adlib.

TB: Not so much Price?

HC: No, if you watch THE RAVEN you will see that.

TB: There’s one scene where a cosmic zap of some kind hits Price and he holds up one finger, licks it and says “Um, raspberry jam!” That looks like a little bit of business.

HC: I don’t know, but Peter Lorre was so delighted to get a comedy part, because he always wanted to play more comedy, and that was one of his beefs, that Hollywood wouldn’t give him what he wanted. If you watch A&E Biography you’ll learn a great deal about Peter Lorre you didn’t know. A tremendous sadness that he wasn’t getting the parts. He came from a classic theater in Berlin and was a wonderful actor. He was very tired of Mr. Moto, and when he got THE RAVEN he was so glad to have a comedy part. Watch him, you’ll see him adlibbing with the feathers on his hands, he loved it. Scratching his head, scratching his nose, and the feathers fall out.

TB: Some people call that scene-stealing.

HC: Well, Vincent loved it, and Vincent just let him do it all. If you watch, you’ll see.

TB: I don’t think that outside of Disney and maybe Dr. Strange comic books, there had been such a wizard duel before.

HC: No, never.

TB: I love the way your character, after Price wins the duel, you run over to Price and your look is like “You and ME, babe. Let’s let nothing Boris!”

HC: (laughter)

TB: You instantly turn sides.

HC: (laughter) Yes. Didn’t you love it when we all blow up at the end and I come up all covered in dust?

TB: Oh, sure! That must have been so much frolic.

HC: Oh, it was wonderful. That’s my favorite movie as far as enjoyment. Of course, we had Jack Nicholson in green pantaloons. (laughter)

TB: I even like him in that. He does a little comedy relief. There’s a great line where Price looks at Nicholson and asks Lorre “Does he favor his mother?” And Lorre gives a disgusted look and says “She favors HIM!”

HC: (laughter) You know it all!

TB: Well, I try. Boy, am I trying! You get that devil-girl look again on your face when you ask “Are we going to have some torture?” You get your daughter’s hair while she’s in the stocks and you fluff it. Was that in the script, or a bit of business?

HC: I don’t remember, you forget what was in the script.

TB: Well, you had the right to fluff her hair. You’d hair raised her! Was Roger Corman any different to work with doing comedy on THE RAVEN than doing PREMATURE BURIAL or MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, or the same, professional?

HC: I don’t think then Roger Corman had much comedy in him. That came later. He was lucky he had Vincent and all the actors who brought out that comedy. But he was very serious, and we played him up a lot. At the end of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, I think we were a bit too much for him, and he said “I’m going back to U.C.L.A. and take a course in how to handle actors and make them behave!” (laughter)

TB: Price as Prospero thought he was Evil itself in MASQUE. He meets something worse in the end. Every perversion, diversion, die, monster, die version is at least hinted at in that movie.

HC: I gave myself to the devil in that, I gave my soul.

TB: You character, Juliana, Price’s lover, sinks ever deeper into Satanism, just because he brings in a younger girl.

HC: That was Jane Asher.

TB: Did you ever make a Beatles connection from her?

HC: Yes, she was in love with Paul McCartney and at the time she was knitting what they called balaclava helmets for their heads so the Beatles could go out at night without being recognized.

TB: Incognito. Or, incogKNIT-o! I’m sorry…

HC: (laughter) IncogKNIT-o! She was going to marry Paul McCartney and she was only 16. I said “You’re too young!” She never did.

TB: People still flinch when they watch you brand your chest with the upside-down cross.

HC: Hmm, that’s right. Good scene! Very well shot by Roger, the tracking all down in one shot. From room to room. Good stuff!

TB: He did a lot of that. Even later, in FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, when he returned to directing. Room to room, changing color with each room.

HC: Yes, I thought he was marvelous at that.

TB: Then, when Juliana’s crucifixed herself but good, when she talks to Jane Asher, you look sort of astonished at your own devilish deed. MASQUE, part of its time, even has debates about God is Dead in it.

HC: Thinking back, she was a devilish character we got away with. Do you know about the Time magazine review for THE RAVEN?

TB: No…I know nothing of this.

HC: It said “The sexy, busty redhead is played by the English actress, Hazel Court, in whose cleavage you could sink the entire works of Edgar Allan Poe and a bottle of his favorite booze at the same time.” (laughter) It’s one of the best reviews I ever had!

TB: One of your BUST reviews, eh?

HC: Yes, BUST reviews. (laughter)

TB: MASQUE was shot on sets left over from BECKETT?

HC: Some of them. We had a wonderful cameraman, Nicholas Roeg, who became a very fine director. Beautiful photography on that.

TB: You went from BECKETT to peck it. One of horror’s most famous, often-seen scenes is where you’re attacked by the bird. That must have been Hedrending! How’d they fakery that, any trouble with the bird?

HC: No, the blood was on the bird. It actually hit me, and then the blood is on it, and that drips as it hit me and came off.

TB: Another of horror’s most famous scenes is in MASQUE, where you’re on the sacrificial slab in the dream sequence. I was trying to get an artist to do a version of that, I explained it to him, he says, “Yeah, and she’s tied down.” I said, “No, she isn’t.”

HC: No, I wasn’t tied down.

TB: He says, “But she’s gonna be sacrificed!” I went, “Yeah, that IS odd.” It finally came to me – it’s like Corman’s stream of consciousness he’s always into. In a dream, you’re often not tied down, yet the dreamer can’t move, can’t get away.

HC: No, I’m just lying there with a diaphanous robe on. I’m constantly asked if there was anything on underneath, and there wasn’t. (laughter) Corman just wanted the diaphanous effect, he didn’t want any underwear or anything showing, and it doesn’t.

TB: PREMATURE BURIAL was the only non-Price Corman Poe. Do you think the film was added to or was hurt by there being no Vincent Price?

HC: Yes, I think it was hurt. Not quality-wise, I really think it was a very good film. It’s been quoted many times. There was a big article in the New York Times about films that had affected famous women writers, and PREMATURE BURIAL, and it had changed this woman writer’s life, the character that I played. I thought it was the best part I had, it was very effective. But Ray Milland was not connected, it was like the end of his career.

TB: He did many over here, many horror movies.

HC: No, that was his last big, starring role, there were little bits here, little bits there. He had no pull like Boris or Vincent at the time. So, no, it wasn’t the success of THE RAVEN or THE MASQUE. Vincent had that monopoly, it didn’t seem to matter what Vincent did, they just loved him.

TB: I believe Poe wrote “Premature Burial” as a farce. There was a scare in Europe about such things. I kept waiting for your character in that to say Milland’s burial fears were groundless. Again, with your eyes, the eyebrows…your reactions to Milland. First, you love him, unabashedly the High Gothic heroine in love. As his obsession grows deeper, next you’re looking at him with pity, and soon you’re looking at him with disgust. Was it written like that?

HC: Oh yes, we didn’t change that.

TB: That’s the way a story should be, characters going through changes. We get to a point where, unbeknownst to the audience, you’re manipulating murder.

HC: Yes, it was an interesting progression, the woman’s character, just how far sometimes a character can go. I did that scene at the end, with the grave? I did that, they covered me up. The last thing was I had a straw in my mouth, then they took the straw out, threw the dirt over me, and I had to hold my breath for one minute while they got the shot. I was there, covered up, I was buried. (laughter)

TB: Have you ever thought about coming out of retirement?

HC: I could. But I don’t know, it’s been a long time now. I don’t know how I’d fit in, although Vincent and I had an idea to do a comedy, whereby they were reshooting our films and we were up in the catwalks watching. We didn’t like what they were doing, so we’d do all sorts of things to disrupt the shooting. It could have been very funny.

TB: What’s your favorite of your works?

HC: I enjoyed the part in PREMATURE BURIAL very much, but the film I enjoyed the most was THE RAVEN. The boys! The three of them together. I think I’m the only actress to work with the three. It was wonderful.

TB: Do you ever regret the horror association?

HC: No. I think it’s wonderful. They call me a cult queen today! (laughter) Those films were wonderful for their time. I’m proud to be in them.

TB: One misconception is that your movies played the drive-ins for that crowd. Those movies played EVERYwhere, they were watched by our parents, uncles…

HC: I still have a lot of fan mail every month, and they’re not all just, “Oh, may I have an autograph?” They tell me how they introduced the horror films they’d seen to their sons, and then their sons have THEIR sons watch them, and there’s generations who’ve watched them. They write to me with great love and appreciation.

TB: I found with my kids THE RAVEN was a great ground-breaker.

HC: I think it’s wonderful. These films did no harm. There are films out today which I really think do harm, which I wouldn’t want to be associated with. I think we go too far, WAY too far, with the stuff on T.V.

TB: So you draw the line?

HC: I really do. I’m very angry about it. I don’t think we need to see children being sexually abused. We see documentaries, we see the news, I DON’T think we need films about it. You can’t tell me that somebody on the edge, somebody a little off-balance sees some of that stuff they produce…

TB: That they can be inspired?

HC: It gives them the license to do something.

TB: Out my way, rural Pennsylvania, there was a case…there was a Corman slasher movie in the early ‘80’s playing at the Wilkes-Barre drive-ins, that area, SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE.

HC: Oh, yes.

TB: The day after that came out, that Saturday morning, a guy killed his kids, other people’s kids, shot all these people slumber partying. Nobody ever linked it up, but you wonder…did this guy see that title and…who knows?

HC: We had a case in England where they strapped a 3-or-4-year-old to a tree and set fire to him, and they’d seen it in a MOVIE. The father had run this movie where this person was strapped to a tree. And of course the kid died. We DO have a responsibility, I really believe the film industry does. I hated PULP FICTION, with a passion.

TB: On what grounds? Make your case…

HC: Just the first ten minutes, the swear words, that was bad enough. But then I walked out halfway through to get an ice cream, and at the back of the theater, I don’t know how they got in, there’s a couple of 10-year-olds. They’re laughing and they’re doing all the things they’re seeing in the movie. This made me pretty sick. It just goes too far.

TB: So, if you’re going to be ravin’, just do it with the Corman Poe movies, right?

HC: Somewhere in there. It just made me sick. Anne Francis said the same thing: eee-yuck!

TB: Well, your work stands as a beacon to how horror material can be done. Thank you, Miss Court, for being one of horror’s royal highnesses among scream queens. And like Vincent Price would say in THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, “Live long and Prospero!”

HC: (laughter)

(Interview conducted in April 1996)

February 10, 1926 - April 15, 2008


Dr. Charles Forbin said...

This was very sweet, thank you for this. There was something sweet and innocent about the Hammer and Poe/Corman films, between them and Warren comics it was a Golden Age for horror fans. I think these films will last the test of time.

Anonymous said...

If they'd only be more active on the CONVENTION circuit...we'd all have a chance to say thank you and goodbye to the older Hollywood generation.