If there is a career which ended with a bad movie it is that of actor Ray Milland (1907-86 lung cancer). The Welsh actor began his career in the late 1920s and he won an Oscar for his portrayal as an alcoholic in the classic Billy Wilder directed movie The Lost Weekend (1945). He was also in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954).
What is interesting about Milland, is his later career when he made a number of offbeat horrors or semi-horrors which we will explore in this journey towards his last theatrical movie, silly that it is, The Sea Serpent aka Hydra (1984).
We will start in the early 1960s when Milland made a couple of effective movies for Roger Corman. The first was The Premature Burial (1962) based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. It was part of Corman’s “Poe Cycle” which also included films like The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Raven (1963).
There were seven films made based on the works of Poe in the cycle as well as The Haunted Palace (1963) which was based on a novella by H.P. Lovecraft. The Premature Burial was Corman’s third Poe film, he wanted to produce separately from American International Pictures and as a result couldn’t use Vincent Price as the star as he was under contract to AIP. Corman had to come up with a new star. New being the fifty-five-year-old Ray Milland. The AIP producers ended up with the film under their banner anyway.
The Premature Burial is not as good as the previous Poe movies and, indeed, Price is a hard act to follow. But the Pathe colour looks good as does the usual Gothic trappings. With Milland paranoid about getting buried alive until the woman in his life tells him to get over it and get rid of the devices in his crypt which would save him if it happened… Of course, this all leads to the inevitable… I mean get cremated next time! Feted filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola was an assistant director.
Milland then directed for AIP the post-Apocalyptic Panic in Year Zero! (1962). It was filmed in black and white and contains some very unlikely situations, along with some very possible ones, as Milland, who also stars, along with Jean Hagen (1923-77 oesophagus cancer) as his wife and Frankie Avalon (1940-) as one of his children face an uncertain future.
They flee the city when the bombs are about to fall and have various adventures with many nefarious types. Originally titled Survival, Corman has said that Milland wasn’t prepared to both act and direct the film at the same time and so it didn’t come in finished on time. He didn’t direct again.
Panic in Year Zero! is the nice version of what would happen should law and order break down after an attack by another Super Power. I have seen it a few times and it is still a good watch. Avalon, of course, was a popular singer who would make his first Beach Party movie with Annette Funicello (1942-2013 complications of multiple schlerosis) the following year for AIP also.
Then came Milland in X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963) again with Corman. Shot in three weeks, it is quite a good sci-fi horror. Milland plays a scientist who plays with eye-drops which can make him see, at first, through people’s clothes and then through flesh and then… The visual effects are pretty good for the money and the time it was made but people expecting to see naked people will be disappointed as everyone wears underwear in the “nude” party scene where everyone is apparently dancing with nothing on.
Milland is good and the material, which also gives a straight role to comedian Don Rickles (1926-2017 kidney failure), is effective and slightly exciting in places. “If your eye offends thee, then pluck it out…” is the philosophy of the ending. The effects ultimately don’t stand up today, but for its day it must have been a bit of a pre-psychedelic trip.
Shortly after this film Milland retired but staunch Republican that he was, the actor returned to the screen in 1968 following the election of Richard Nixon to the White House. One of his first appearances was in the tv movie Daughter of the Mind (1969). This movie also features 1940s beauty Gene Tierney (1920-91 emphysema) in a rare late career role.
Poor Tierney gave birth to a deaf and intellectually disabled daughter after being infected with rubella by a fan who kissed her while she was working at the Hollywood Canteen in the late 1940s. Tierney suffered from depression and her career suffered also due to her receiving shock treatment and attempting suicide. The rubella infection element was used in the plot for the Agatha Christie (1890-1976 natural causes) movie The Mirror Crack’d (1980).
Daughter of the Mind was one of those movies that would often be repeated on late night television when I was a kid. But once you’d seen it and it popped up again, us kids would lose interest as we knew the ending. Each screening was usually followed by The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) which riveted us. As a tv movie, it’s good, as it deals with Milland as a cybernetics professor whose young daughter has died… He goes to a spiritualist and the seemingly impossible happens when physical proof of the late young Mary – she calls him “Daddy” when her ghost appears – happens in the form of a wax mould of her hand appearing in a bowl of water. Do you believe in ghosts? The authorities don’t and fear Milland will quit his secret government job at the urging of Mary… it all could be a Soviet plot!
Based on a novel by Paul Gallico (1897-1976), he also wrote The Poseidon Adventure in 1969 around the time Daughter of the Mind was made. That novel was turned into the 1972 movie. Daughter of the Mind is one of the most interesting in the first batch of colour teevee movies which were churned out in this era with star casts.
Milland made another memorable and cheap horror with Frogs (1972). He stars as Jason Crockett, a crotchety millionaire in a wheelchair and a grey toupee who lives in a mansion on an island in the Florida swamp.
Frogs was one of the first “eco-horror” movies and the poster is a cheat with its picture of a frog with a human arm hanging out of it. In fact, it is regarded as one of the best bad movies ever made. I always respected the movie and never thought of it as bad but upon screening it to a friend, he thought there’d be giant frogs and thought that it was all inanely silly. In fact, it’s reported that Milland, who sweated so much that his toupee kept falling off, hated the movie so much that he left three days early and his death scene had to be shot using a double.
The film also stars every middle-aged woman’s fantasy Sam Elliott (1944-) who recently scored an Oscar nomination for A Star is Born (2018). He plays an eco-photographer for an ecology magazine who witnesses the pollution and wildlife deaths which causes nature to strike back and kill a majority of the cast. Well, I guess we’re all sucked in for treating the planet the way we do!
Scaring me as a child, and ashamed the villain of the piece is named Jason, the whole thing seemed so very creepy with its chorus of frogs sounding along with them invading the mansion grounds and finally the mansion. Poisonous snakes, tarantulas and alligators are also used to kill.
“Take any pictures of frogs lately?,” asks someone of Elliot. “Damn creatures are everywhere and they’re THIS big.”
With the phone in the mansion dead, it doesn’t bode well as the cast start to disappear.
“With all this technology and all my money, we still can’t get rid of these frogs,” says Milland about the natural wildlife in the area. There are many frog references in the movie but no-one actually gets killed by one unless it induces a heart attack.
The discovery of the first victim covered by snakes with a giant toad beside him is an effective beginning as we think beautiful model Judy Pace (1942-) is too sympathetic to die – wrong!
“I know it sounds strange as hell but what if nature was trying to get back at us,” says Elliott to Milland, as things go from bad to worse.
It’s surprising that director George McCowan (1927-95 emphysema) did so much teevee and not any other features as cultish as Frogs. He came close with the Canadian sci-fi cash-in on Star Wars (1977) entitled H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1979). But it is generally forgotten and unloved. Just like Jason Crockett at the end of Frogs as the electricity fails and he is left alone as his once swanky home is invaded by reptilian wildlife and the like.
A quick look at Things to Come, despite no appearance by Milland, it is produced by Harry Alan Towers (1920-2009 short illness) so you know you’re not in for a high budget epic. With little or no inspiration from the Wells novel, there is another character named Jason. The effects aren’t bad, considering the budget, while the costumes… when the characters aren’t in uniform, look like something out of a 70s disco, and many of the women have Farrah Fawcett hair which was popular at the time.
Beautiful though is actress Anne-Marie Martin (1957-), who had roles as the bad girl in Prom Night (1980) and another in the underrated The Boogens (1981). She married American writer and director Michael Crichton (1942-2008 lymphoma) and they wrote the script for the classic disaster film Twister (1996) together.
Martin also worked on the first version of Dr. Strange (1978 tv movie) under the name Eddie Benton which she used often. Stan Lee was a consultant on that movie and while it flopped in the ratings and wasn’t turned into a series, he had fond memories of it.
“Man’s future is out there in the vastness of space, the unknown where all possibilities exist and man’s future is limited by his own imagination and vision of the stars,” says Barry Morse (1918-2008 brief illness) in what is the most inspiring dialogue in Things to Come. It’s so good they use it again at the end of the movie!
Other stars include Jack Palance (1919-2006 natural causes) and Carol Lynley (1942-2019 heart attack). Ultimately, Things to Come doesn’t rise above the inspiration of the teevee series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81) and Battlestar Galactica (1978-79). Also, the spaceship resembles the starship Enterprise from Star Trek which The Motion Picture was released the same year as Things to Come.
But enough of this detour as there’s not a sea serpent in sight just yet…
I mustn’t forget the film which came out several months after Frogs and that is The Thing with Two Heads (1972). Milland definitely had his tongue in his cheek when he made this one. He plays a white bigot whose head is transplanted onto the body of a black convict played by Rosey Grier (1932-). Not quite a horror and not quite a comedy, it is definitely in two minds about itself. It deserves an article along with its companion piece The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (1971). Not to mention that other two-headed monster movie The Manster (1959)!
Milland would work with Frogs producer George Edwards’ (1924-91) sometime collaborator Curtis Harrington (1926-2007 complications of stroke). Harrington, like Milland, had worked with Corman as well, the former directing quickie Planet of Blood aka Queen of Blood (1966).
The Dead Don’t Die (1975 tv movie) is not just a typical teevee movie from the 1970s. Based on a script by Robert Bloch who wrote the original Psycho book based on killer Ed Hein, director Harrington has a cast of a few notable old names – Milland among them, who by now has ditched the toupee. Others are Joan Blondell (1906-79 lung cancer or leukemia depending on source) and Ralph Meeker (1920-88 heart attack)
It begins film noir-ishly on death row, where actor George Hamilton visits his brother one dark and stormy night before his appointment with “old sparky”. Hamilton has been at sea and his brother has been found guilty of a murder which he apparently didn’t commit… Hamilton promises to find the real killer of his brother’s wife.
Harrington did many a teevee movie including the all-star disappointment The Cat Creature (1973) and Killer Bees (1974) which was a precursor to Irwin Allen’s megaflop The Swarm (1978). He also did legit theatrical films, and I hate to call them that in these days of tv movie crossovers. Titles such as Who Slew Auntie Roo (1971) and another cult item The Killing Kind (1973). His first bigger budgeted film after Queen of Blood was Games (1968).
But back to The Dead Don’t Die, this 1930s set movie has Hamilton go to a dance marathon, something peculiar to the period, where he meets the guy who runs the joint played by Milland. Hamilton’s brother had danced in the contests.
Hamilton’s toothbrush moustache tells us it’s the 30s and Milland was a witness on his brother’s side. Harrington’s direction opens well with the execution scene and the movie is top strata for cheap horror made for teevee in the period. Try and see a good copy and not the pixelated one on Youtube!
Writer Robert Bloch published his original story for this film in Fantastic Adventures in July 1951 and it hasn’t dated. Since it’s a short story the film only lasts 74 minutes. As the title suggests, it is pulp horror fiction which is based on the Haitian zombie premise of zombie as slave instead of the flesh-eating variety.
Ray Milland will eventually meet The Sea Serpent in PART TWO.