Sunday, October 29, 2023

Chamber of Horrors, on TCM

Typically, proprietors of wax museums are a murderous lot in horror movies, but not Anthony Draco and Harold Blount. They happen to be amateur criminologists, who immortalize in wax all the sinister psychopaths they help capture. Jason Cravette was supposed to be their first case. Conceived as the pilot for a television series, but deemed too “intense” for network TV, their pursuit of Cravette (who would have been TV’s first “one-armed” killer) morphed into a reasonably success theatrical feature. Fans of William Castle-ish gimmicks will appreciate the “Fear Flasher” and the “Horror Horn” the proceed the genre bits in Hy Averback’s Chamber of Horrors, which airs tomorrow on TCM, as part of their Terror-Thon.

William Conrad’s opening narration warns the faint of heart to look away when the Fear Flasher and Horror Horn kick in, but the most macabre part of the film is the prologue, when Cravette forces a priest at gun-point to marry him to the corpse of his dead lover. After the ceremony, Cravette becomes a fugitive from justice, whom the Baltimore police apprehend with the help of Draco and Blount. Like Jesse L. Martin in
Irrational, they have a knack for predicting debauched, anti-social behavior.

Of course, it does not end there. Although presumed dead, Cravette successfully escapes police custody, after chopping off his manacled hand. It is just as well, because he replaces it with an array of custom-designed hooks and slicing-and-dicing implements. Like any good super-villain, he goes on a killing spree targeting those who did him wrong, starting with the judge who passed sentence.

Obviously, the Fear Flasher and Horror Horn are corny distractions from what should be the film’s real business, but they are still kind of amusing, in a campy way. However, the sets and art design are remarkably lush and detailed, especially given the genre standards of the time. It would be incredibly cool to walk through a recreation of Draco and Blount’s House of Wax (an intentional echo of the Vincent Price classic).

It is too bad
Chamber of Horrors did not become a series, but its first “guest-star,” Patrick O’Neal, is terrific as Cravette. Simultaneously suave and savage, he gives a great horror performance, especially for the era. It is also fun to see Cesare Danova (whom most of us know as the mayor in Animal House) and Wilfred Hyde-White (just two years after My Fair Lady) glide through the grisly crime scenes, exhibiting proper sophistication, as Draco and Blount. Plus, a young Wayne Rogers plays Sgt. Jim Albertson, who has the honor and misfortune of cuffing Cravette, and there is even a weirdly brief and inconsequential cameo by Tony Curtis, as a gambler.

Chamber of Horrors
will not make anyone forget their favorite classic horror movie, but it is a jaunty throwback that has been unjustly overlooked in recent years. Seriously, how far wrong can you go with a killer-with-a-hook stalking people in a wax museum? Recommended for fans Castle gimmicks and waxworks horror, Chamber of Horrors airs early tomorrow morning (10/30) on TCM (and it streams on Plex).