Monsters and Matinees: Move over Westerns…
Cowboys and horses and Texas.
That’s been a winning hand for moviegoers and the film industry since 1910 when the state’s first film studio was opened in San Antonio by Gaston Méliès, brother of visionary filmmaker Georges Méliès.
For more than a century since then, the state’s photogenic and distinct landscapes have been seen in some of the greatest Westerns ever made like The Searchers, Giant, Sons of Katie Elder, Hud and The Alamo.
Vast plains, open ranges, mountains and sprawling ranches made the perfect backdrop for herds of cattle, cowboys, wagon trains and a giant lizard meandering down a lonesome road.
No, that’s not a mistake.
Though Westerns are synonymous with Texas, the Lone Star State also was the surprising home of a unique little cottage industry of horror and sci-fi B-movies by men like Larry Buchanan, Edgar G. Ulmer and Gordon McLendonn.
So, the horses and cattle ubiquitous in Texas-made films, share the landscape with such Texas-sized horrors and sci-fi treats as that giant lizard (The Giant Gila Monster), oversized killer dog-like beasts (The Killer Shrews), and evil aliens (Zontar: The Thing from Venus).
And you can’t talk Texas and horror without The Texas Chain Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film that changed the face of horror.
There’s more. The Eye Creatures (AKA Attack of the Eye Creatures), a low-budget film even by low-budget standards, found John Ashley and his teen buddies trying to get someone to believe they saw aliens. The Amazing Transparent Man was a thief who spends time traveling the lonesome highway after he’s broken out of jail to carry on the nefarious deeds of a demented general.
The films are nearly 70 years old but haven’t been forgotten. They inspired author, artist and director Bret McCormick to become a filmmaker and write the 2018 book Texas Schlock. A new classic horror streaming service and vintage film restoration company called Film Masters has chosen Giant Gila Monster and Killer Shrews to debut its home video collection.
And they are being celebrated at the inaugural It Came from Texas Film Festival, Oct. 28-29 at the historic Plaza Theatre in Garland, Texas. While future festivals will showcase various genres, the first event will pay homage to horror and sci-fi films often shown at the drive-in during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
The festival schedule reads like a watch-list for B-movie horror fans: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amazing Transparent Man, Beyond the Time Barrier, Don’t Look in the Basement, Don’t Look in the Basement 2, The Eye Creatures, Giant Gila Monster, Killer Shrews, Manos: The Hand of Fate, Zontar: The Thing from Venus. Also included is a short film compilation by student filmmakers in the Garland High School Reel Owl Cinema film program.
As a B-movie fan, I recommend watching these films any way you can, but there’s no escaping the appeal of seeing them on the big screen.
“You’ve probably seen these films in your house on your TV or computer, but how many people are sitting with you and jumping at a scare or laughing? It’s such a different experience in a theater,” said festival director Kelly Kitchens, a longtime film festival publicist and a classic movie fan who added she is looking forward to seeing these films for the first time on the big screen and with an audience.
The festival’s B-movie focus came together organically. The festival dates happen to fall on Halloween weekend, plus organizers and members of the Garland Downtown Business Association felt that Texas Chainsaw Massacre had to be included – it has Texas in its title after all.
“Texas Chainsaw changed everything in the horror genre,” said Kitchens, who calls the festival “a perfect little petri dish” to show the evolution of horror films before and after Texas Chainsaw.
While horror films of the 1950s and ‘60s are based on fears of the time such as nuclear horrors and invading countries that manifested in giant creates and alien invasions, Texas Chainsaw Massacre gave us the masked killer as the horror, creating the slasher genre and leading to such film franchises as Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street.
Film historian, educator and author Gordon K. Smith, who will be introducing films and showing trailers from the movies at the festival, said Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains hard to watch even today.
“It has a feverish quality that horror filmmakers have tried to do since and few have achieved,” Smith said in a telephone interview.
The festival is also the first time that the movies Don’t Look in the Basement (1974) from director S.F. Brownrigg and the sequel Don’t Look in the Basement 2 (2015) by his son, writer-director Tony Brownrigg, will be shown together. Both were filmed in Tehuacana.
“Don’t Look in the Basement 2 is a real representation of what a Texas filmmaker can do. It’s well made and has a lot of great actors from Texas,” Smith said.
Another highlight is Rondo and Bob, a 2020 documentary by Joe O’Connell about Robert A. Burns, art director for Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and his fandom for 1930s and ‘40s actor Rondo Hatton, whose career was built around his unique facial features that were a result of acromegaly. This will be shown before a 49th anniversary showing of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Kitchens and Smith previously worked together on a long-running fundraiser for the Dallas Producers Association called It Came From Dallas where only short clips of Dallas-made movies were shown. That led to the idea of a festival showing full films that were made throughout Texas.
Embracing the shlock
Often when these films are mentioned it is with the descriptors campy and schlock. Some have even been riffed on as part of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K). Others are found on streaming services under the banner “Shlock Classic.” But if you use that term with Smith, he’ll laugh and say “Yes – and what’s your point?”
“I know the difference between Giant Gila Monster and Schindler’s List. I’m not strictly devoted to B-movies,” he said. “Of course, there’s lots of low budget garbage in horror and sci-fi, but the ones we’re showing are classics of their own kind. They are fun and have substance for a lot of reasons.”
“It’s very much the way we are embracing it. It’s having like-minded people who think of campy and quirky as a term of endearment,” she said, sharing that the first time she saw some of these films was on MST3K. “I am looking forward to experiencing these with an audience and an audience that will absolutely be fans of the genre, the time period or classic films. I think it will be transformative and many of these will be new favorites.”
To that point, the festival will show The Giant Gila Monster with a live riff from The Mocky Horror Picture Show, an interactive movie mocking comedy troupe based out of Texas.
Texas B-movie masters
The independent “pioneers” in Texas helped build a film industry by simply showing people it could be done, Smith said. “They made it feasible to make low-budget films.”
Giant Gila Monster (1959) and Killer Shrews (1959) were produced back-to-back by Texas businessman and radio pioneer Gordon McLendon who also owned a Dallas drive-in chain and movie theaters throughout the south. He also co-starred in the films, both directed by Ray Kellogg and also produced by actor Ken Curtis (Gunsmoke, who also starred in Shrews), were often shown as a double feature.
The Eye Creatures and Zontar: The Thing from Space were directed by Larry Buchanan. Smith shares an interesting story about those alien costumes that looked like an art project made with bubbles (to give off the appearance of eyes).
“They only had two full suits and one monster head,” said Smith, adding they would keep them hidden behind a bush. “They had to keep using them over and over.”
To illustrate how close the Texas film community was, The Eye Creatures was filmed at McLendon’s ranch outside of Dallas. And S.F. Brownrigg, director of Don’t Look in the Basement, worked with Buchanan as the film editor of The Eye Creatures and sound supervisor for Zontar.
Noted director Edgar G. Ulmar was drawn to Texas by oil barons who wanted to be movie producers. For Beyond the Time Barrier and The Amazing Transparent Man, he used the Texas landscape to his advantage with long travel shots of open flat land and roads. For Time Barrier, he also used Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth and Eagle Mountain Marine Corps Air Station, along with Fair Park in Dallas, in telling the story of a test pilot who is accidentally sent into the future world of 2024.
While these films haven’t improved with time as some films do – those poor Eye Creatures costumes will never be in style – they have withstood a different test of time by holding their own long enough to be discovered by new audiences who don’t mind, as actor-producer Ken Curtis once said, that the killer shrews looked like a dog covered in a “shag carpet.”
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.