Sometimes the most horrifying thing about some cheap horror films is seeing the dregs of a once-promising acting career shaken up just to provide the production a (once) box-office name. There is no better--or worse-- example of this than Cameron Mitchell, one of the "young Turks" in Hollywood in the Fifties who seemed destined to one day own Tinsletown, or so it seemed at the time. Alas, he has likely appeared in worse Grade Z fright flicks than even John Carradine...and he didn't seem to have Carradine's knack of somehow maintaining his dignity no matter how grubby the proceedings. It is, thus, with no joy that we turn the spotlight on...
By HARVEY F. CHARTRAND
Why did actor Cameron Mitchell--who co-starred with Fredric March in Death of a Salesman (1951), Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry A Millionaire (1953) and Shirley Jones in Carousel (1956)--end up in Grade-Z horror movies like Frankenstein Island (1981), Demon Cop (1990) and Jack-O (1995)?
Decades earlier, Broadway legend Lynn Fontanne recognized Mitchells talent and predicted he would become a great actor. Mitchell proved Fontanne right for a time, but then his career unraveled. What went wrong?
Did Mitchells star wane because of booze? He appears to be quite inebriated in some of his later films. Or was it due to mental instability, possibly stemming from his impoverished childhood in rural Pennsylvania? The rough-and-ready actor with the broken nose behaved so eccentrically that his friends nicknamed him "Nutzy."
Mitchells life was beset with financial troubles, which prompted him to accept any film role that came along, no matter how meretricious. According to director Fred Olen Ray, "Money flowed through his hands like sand. I know Cameron liked going to the track (horse or dog)." Mitchell declared personal bankruptcy in the late 1960s, after a messy divorce cleaned him out.
Yet Mitchell flirted with psychotronic cinema from the earliest days of his career, appearing as a wisecracking newspaperman in the kitschy Flight To Mars in 1951, the same year he received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role as Happy Loman in László Benedeks film of Arthur Millers Death Of A Salesman a part that Mitchell crafted to perfection on Broadway during the plays inaugural run.
In 1954, after co-starring with Gary Cooper in the western Garden Of Evil and Marlon Brando in the costumer Desirée, Mitchell turned up in the ridiculous carnival mystery Gorilla At Large. Receiving the best notices of his career for his performance as the drug-addicted boxer Barney Ross in the 1957 biopic Monkey On My Back, Mitchell high-tailed it to Europe for the next decade to evade the Internal Revenue Service. In Europe, Mitchell starred in numerous spear-and- sandal epics, Viking sagas and spaghetti westerns, and began his long association with the horror genre in earnest.
Mitchells first true horror picture is acknowledged to be a genre classic--Mario Bavas Blood And Black Lace (1964), which set the template for Italian giallos for the next 15 years. A masked killer wearing a trenchcoat, black gloves, a fedora and dark glasses brutally murders fashion models who read the entries in a very compromising diary. The murderers costume is almost identical to Claude Rains disguise in The Invisible Man (1933). The shockingly brutal murders are filmed with such artistry in vivid Technicolor as to be eerily beautiful.
Mitchell is well cast as the millionaire fashion maven Max Marian (and he never looked better on screen). Bava was the last great director Mitchell ever worked with (not entirely true--Mitchell worked on director Orson Welles' Hollywood epic The Other Side Of The Wind in 1972, but, 33 years later, the film has still not been released); the actor praises Bava as a genius in an interview with film historian David Del Valle that appears on VCI Home Videos DVD transfer of Blood And Black Lace (Special Edition--Uncut Widescreen European Version). Mitchell describes Bava's many technical tricks, including using a child's wagon for the impressive dolly shots through the fashion house.
In his next horror outing, Mitchell plays an evil scientist who is growing killer plants in Man Eater Of Hydra/La Isla de la Muerte/Island of the Dead, filmed in Spain in 1967. A vampiric tree kills visitors to the island of mad Baron von Weser (Mitchell), who has been developing monstrous plant mutations. The baron invites several acquaintances to visit his island estate, where the guests are fed to his blood-drinking tree.
Mitchell hams it up gloriously in this diverting slice of Eurohorror, which borrows heavily from The Little Shop Of Horrors and The Most Dangerous Game. Unfortunately, Mitchells wonderful speaking voice is dubbed by another actor.
Then it was off to Mexico to co-star in what turned out to be Basil Rathbones swan song--the bizarre horror/ sci-fi/comedy Autopsia de un Fantasma/Autopsy Of A Ghost (1968). A 16th-century suicide (Rathbone) is allowed to return to earth in a bid to save his soul if he can find a woman who will make love to him.
Mitchell plays the dimwitted Professor Moleculo Pulido, and the ubiquitous John Carradine appears as Satan (who can remove his forked tail and lasso people with it). Autopsia de un Fantasma features a talking tarantula, a living skeleton and a female robot. It ends with a nuclear holocaust. The kooky credits are filled with frantically gesticulating marionettes of assorted witches, specters and goblins. What a dismal finale for Rathbones once glorious screen career.
Sporting an eye patch, Mitchell next turns up in Nightmare In Wax (1969), a low-budgeter filmed at the Hollywood Wax Museum. In a story lifted entirely from House of Wax (1953), Mitchell portrays Vincent Renard, a top studio makeup artist whose face is set on fire after an argument at a Hollywood party. The disfigured Renard works out an evil revenge scheme. He becomes the curator of a wax museum, where he injects his enemies with a serum that puts them into a state of suspended animation. Renard then exhibits his paralyzed and fully conscious victims.
Mitchell really chews up the scenery in Nightmare In Wax, rolling his eyes and whispering lines like "I love to hear you scream. It excites me!" One very unnerving scene has Mitchell driving around L.A. with a woman he just killed, jabbering incessantly while planting wet kisses on her corpse.
By the early seventies, Mitchell was making frequent appearances on television, including two guest-starring roles in Rod Serlings Night Gallery. In the episode titled Green Fingers (1971), Mitchell plays an unscrupulous tycoon who takes drastic steps to force an old widow (Elsa Lanchester) off her land. His stumbling block is her strange talent for gardening. Mitchell has a great mad scene at the end, after his character discovers what it is exactly that Lanchester is growing on her property. His hair turned shock-white, Mitchell addresses the camera in a tight close-up, gibbering and giggling at the sheer horrible insanity of it all
In Night Gallerys third season, Mitchell co-starred with Burgess Meredith and Barry Sullivan in Finnegans Flight (1972). Mitchell plays a prison lifer yearning for freedom who submits to a cellmates experiments in mind over matter--with tragic results.
In Haunts (1977), May Britt plays a lonely, pious rural lady who is convinced that her slovenly uncle (Mitchell) is the man responsible for a series of bloody scissors murders of local farm girls. Haunts is an admirable attempt at a Repulsion-type story set in the American heartland, but it cant overcome its silly script and meager budget. However, the surprise ending is distinctly chilling.
Mitchell has one of his last leading man roles in 1978s The Toolbox Murders, playing an apartment superintendent named Vance Kingsley who murders his tenants with a variety of home repair appliances. Kingsley kills women he deems to be sinful (using assorted power tools) and kidnaps a girl who reminds him of his dead daughter. It turns out that Kingsley became obsessed with the ugliness of society after his morally pure daughter was killed in a car accident.
The loss tears Kingsley up inside and makes him lash out at the dregs of society. Mitchell delivers a startling performance, bringing pain and pathos to his toolbox serial killer. Granted, Mitchell hams it up a bit too, sucking on lollipops and singing spirituals as he murders his victims, but the old pro was as watchable as ever.
In The Swarm (1978), Mitchell joins a swarm of actors prostituting themselves in an invasion-of-killer-bees- from-South-America fiasco helmed by disaster movie king Irwin Allen. The Swarms preposterous screenplay (one of the worst ever written for a major Hollywood production) is based on a good novel by Arthur Herzog, from which only the title and basic concept seem to have been used.
The Swarm is also hampered by the most amateurish set design this side of Toho Film Studios. Several big-name actors make fools of themselves in The Swarm, but Mitchell is not one of them. In his brief role as General Thompson, he appears on a giant TV monitor lowered from the ceiling at a missile base that was attacked by millions of bees.
Transmitting from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Thompson expresses skepticism that a missile base could be destroyed by killer bees. Later, after consulting with the President of the United States, Gen. Thompson places Michael Caines entomologist in direct command of the bee situation, with no limits to his authority. The giant monitor disappears in the ceiling and so does Mitchell for the rest of the picture.
When distributor Roger Corman purchased the Italian horror movie Island Of The Fish Men (1979) for U.S. release through his company New World Pictures, he retitled it Screamers and shot new sequences in which Mitchell had fun playing a pirate. These gory scenes appear at the very beginning of Screamers: A group of 19th-century treasure hunters visits a cursed island in the Mediterranean, in the hopes of finding gold. The islands denizens then kill off the treasure hunters. We dont see the fish men in these early scenes, only their claws quickly descending upon their victims. Actor Mel Ferrer is also featured in this extra footage.
Mitchell then went to South Africa to film The Demon (1979), which isnt about a demon at all but a serial killer equipped with steel claw-tipped gloves that are never used. Instead, the murderer suffocates his victims with a plastic bag. Mitchell plays a psychic detective on the hunt for a missing teenage girl abducted by the Demon. To its credit, this atrocious and deservedly forgotten film ignores the conventions of the genre. The girl is killed and the grieving mother shoots Mitchell to death. "Did your Extra Sensory Perception prepare you for this?," she asks, just before popping him right between the eyes. Not even Mitchells vigorous overacting during his psychic brainstorms can save this mess.
In Silent Scream (1980), Mitchell appears as an ineffectual police detective investigating a brutal murder committed at an isolated seaside mansion. Mitchells scenes once again have a "tacked-on" quality about them. In the prologue, Mitchell and his partner Avery Schreiber arrive at the scene of the crime two minutes too late. In the wraparound epilogue, we finally get to see the carnage for ourselves. Silent Scream is a cut above the usual slasher fare, largely due to the presence of horror queen Barbara Steele as a troubled shut-in.
Mitchell has a cameo as a sadistic hunter in Without Warning (1980), a horror/sci-fi entry in which an alien creature stalks human prey. This precursor to Predator (1987) begins with Mitchell and his son out hunting in the backwoods. With his buzz cut and lumberjack shirt, Mitchell is clearly a hard man a tough, survivalist kind of guy. He is unhappy that his son turned out rather soft and he wants to toughen him up, make a man out of him by goading him into shooting woodland creatures. After the hunters lose a buck, odd-looking weapons fly out of the woods and attach themselves to Mitchell, who collapses to the ground, dead.
Mitchell once again plays a detective in Cataclysm (1980). Some horror movie enthusiasts dismiss Cataclysm as junk, while others claim it is a great little flick, if too low-budget to succeed entirely, with a compelling script by Philip Yordan (The Day Of The Triffids) and a charismatic performance by an actor who should have become a star (Robert Bristol--very credible as Satan). Mitchells Lt. Sterne befriends his elderly Jewish neighbor (Marc Lawrence), a Nazi hunter who claims to have seen the man who murdered his entire family on a local TV news broadcast and the fiend hadnt aged a day since vanishing in 1945! Mitchell decides to investigate. Unfortunately, his character is killed off way too early.
In 1981, Mitchell hit rock bottom, appearing drunk on camera in Jerry Warrens home movie Frankenstein Island. Warren was such a putrid director, it can legitimately be claimed that he was an Ed Wood wannabe. Mitchell plays Clay Jayson, a crazed sailor who has been imprisoned on the island for 17 years (still wearing his pea coat after all that time and sharing his cell with a dead crewmate--we see the outline of a mannequin and a rubber skull, with a knife protruding from an eye socket). The disoriented Jason spouts verse by Edgar Allan Poe, laments his lost wife Lenore and dramatically relates the shipwreck that landed him on the island.
He babbles on about how his crewmates were turned into zombies by Dr. Sheila Frankenstein von Helsing, the great-granddaughter of the Dr. Frankenstein (a decrepit John Carradine, who appears as a sort of hologram beamed in from the kingdom of the dead). Regular transfusions of Jaysons 100-proof blood are used to keep alive Dr. von Helsing, the 200-year-old husband of Dr. Sheila Frankenstein. None of this makes a lick of sense.
It is very sad to see a totally disheveled Mitchell drunkenly improvising in his cell. Who can blame him for taking a few drinks so he wouldnt have to think about how far he had fallen from the Hollywood firmament? Because you cant get any lower than a Jerry Warren picture. Plan Nine From Outer Space is Citizen Kane compared to Frankenstein Island.
Mitchell has a good supporting role as an aging prizefighter in Blood Link (1982). A moral, upstanding doctor (Michael Moriarty) begins to have dreams in which he violently kills young women. Could it be that he is seeing these crimes through the eyes of the Siamese twin brother he thought was long dead? The psychic link to his evil twin leads the good Moriarty to Hamburg, Germany, the setting for the horrible dreams.
Once in Hamburg, he is naturally mistaken for his wicked brother. The virtuous Moriarty befriends--and sleeps with--a woman who is trying to kill his brother, out of revenge for the murder of her father. Mitchell contributes a great performance as her Dad, an over-the-hill former boxer, whom the evil Moriarty sadistically beats up during an outdoor match, killing him.
Mitchell next plays a loquacious skipper manning a luxury liner lured under false pretenses to the sinister Warriors Island in the martial arts-horror hybrid Raw Force (1982). The island is inhabited by a sect of hungry monks who crave the flesh of living virgins, and also serves as a burial ground for many of historys most violent and notorious martial artists who have been condemned to forever remain in this shadowy locale in the South China Sea.
Three heroic karate experts aboard the luxury liner must pit their athletic prowess against a multitude of flesh-eating zombie martial artists--the denizens of Warriors Island. Mitchell again seems quite drunk or maybe he is only playing a drunk. Its hard to tell. But the script for this bomb would drive anyone to drink.
Mitchell then hosts Terror on Tape (1983), a compilation of scenes from various horror/exploitation films released by Continental Video Inc. Framing the clips is new footage of Mitchell, who plays a ghoulish video store owner tempting three customers to rent these gory titles. Mitchell plays them the goriest clips from these extreme horror movies. As Mitchell was appearing in many such films at this stage of his career, he makes a particularly apt host. Sadly, Mitchell once again seems to be drinking on the job.
Footage of Mitchell in Cataclysm was reedited for Night Train To Terror, a 1985 anthology of horror stories, tied together by an awful segment featuring God (Ferdy Mayne) and the Devil (credited as Lu Sifer!) battling over the souls of several people while aboard a spooky train. The tales of terror unfold in the passenger coach windows as the scenery fades out and the story fades in.
Fred Olen Rays Lovecraftian The Tomb (1986) tells the story of the havoc that ensues when a tomb-raider disrupts the sacred burial site of an Ancient Egyptian sorceress, who is dead and yet still alive. Mitchell does a fine job as Dr. Howard Phillips, an American archaeologist who buys a stolen artifact and is targeted for revenge by the reanimated sorceress Nefratis (Michelle Bauer). With a cast that includes Sybil Danning and John Carradine, The Tomb sounds like it might be a step up for Mitchell, but sadly this is not the case. The Tomb is an abomination.
The last and best episode of the horror anthology picture The Offspring/From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) stars Mitchell in a Civil War tale as a sadistic Yankee general taken prisoner by a group of psychotic Rebel children, who subject him and his brigade to a variety of tortures. A frail Vincent Price, in one of his final horror film roles, plays an elderly historian who relates the macabre history of the cursed town of Oldfield, Tennessee, to an inquisitive reporter, played by Susan Tyrrell. As happens too often in the horror genre, all the talent was in front of the camera, and none of the talent was behind it.
In Terror Night/Bloody Movie (1987), various former movie stars visit the mansion of a silent film star. Each visitor meets a gruesome death at the hands of a killer who takes on the persona of a character that each visitor played. Mitchell has a two-minute walk-on as one of the murder victims. Terror Night was never released, despite its superior quality and a solid cast of B-movie veterans-- including John Ireland, Aldo Ray, Alan Hale, Jr., Dan Haggerty and Michelle Bauer. André De Toth (Mr. House Of Wax himself) came out of retirement to co-direct Terror Night.
Around this time, Mitchell stopped making guest appearances on series television, which was his last connection to conventional Hollywood. Had word spread about Mitchells antics? Did rumors or evidence of alcoholism, gambling addiction, mental aberration and general unreliability render him unemployable in the mainstream film and TV production industry, because from now on, Mitchell appears in nothing but Grade Z trash churned out by the lowest-rung fringe filmmakers. Once a handsome leading man, he often turns up in cameos or tacked-on wraparound scenes shot on a single cheap set like a latter-day Bela Lugosi during his Ed Wood phase.
Mitchell has a cameo as a showgirls agent in Hateman/Swift Justice (1987), a revenge drama with horror overtones. Mitchell gets the girl a gig at the Aladdin Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. On her way to the gambling capital of the world in a Volkswagen bug, she is raped and left for dead by a gang of mouth-breathing townies. The less said about Hateman (which starred the very sexy Cindy Rome), the better-- though Mitchell is quite good in his brief role as Steve the agent.
In Memorial Valley Massacre (1988), a group of campers celebrating the Memorial Day weekend at a newly opened campground find horror instead of happiness when a strange, violent valley hermit begins a rampage of death and destruction on the campers for polluting his valley. Mitchell once again puts in a two-minute appearance, this time as an investor who wont allow the discovery of a dead dog in the water supply to delay the campgrounds grand opening. It is a sad irony that few actors played greedy capitalists as well as the perennially broke Mitchell.
The veteran actor once again scrapes bottom with his appearance in the execrable Demon Cop/The Curse of Something Bestial (1990). Mitchell appears in wraparound scenes, as a psychiatrist telling a story about what happened to one of his patients who was administered experimental drugs. At no time does Mitchell interact with any other actors in Demon Cop.
For the record, the plot outline is as follows: "When a string of unexplained murders hit Colorado Springs, the police are puzzled and without a clue as to who or what the murderer might be. A German scientist tries to warn the city about the horrifying menace. It is soon discovered that a police officer has contracted a rare blood disease that periodically transforms him into a demonic beast with an insatiable urge to kill. But does this discovery come too late?" Not unlike Frankenstein Island, Demon Cop looks like a homemade video.
In Trapped Alive (1993), a sheriff's deputy, escaped prisoners and two young girls taken hostage find themselves trapped in a mineshaft where a cannibalistic mutant (who looks like a cross between a Neanderthal and Bigfoot) hunts them for food. Mitchell co-stars as the father of one of the captured girls. Trapped Alive is garbage from Action International Pictures, but it does manage to throw in a few genuine scares, due to harrowing scenes of cannibalism and flesh-ripping.
In the early nineties, Fred Olen Ray assembled a small crew and shot a few scenes of Mitchell and horror/ exploitation actor Michael Sonye for a never-meant-to- be project titled Asylum of Horrors. Mitchell played a psychologist who was trying to help Sonye; the mentally tortured patient kills himself instead. For some mysterious reason, all of the film was ruined except for a short roll in which Mitchell looks straight into the camera and introduces a string of horror tales that were to be filmed later. Ray eventually donated this footage to director Steve Latshaw, who used it in Jack-O, released in 1995, a year after Mitchell died.
In Jack-O, Mitchell played Dr. Cadaver, a creepy horror show TV host. He has nothing to do with the rest of the story, in which grave robbers unleash a demon with a jack-o-lantern head, who sets about searching for a young boy in a small town on Halloween night. Jack-O also features Rays leftover footage of a scene with John Carradine, who plays a warlock in this film released seven years after his death in 1988.
So Jack-O marks the final screen credit for Cameron Mitchell, the actor who made his mark decades earlier in such film classics as Love Me Or Leave Me and House Of Bamboo (both 1955) and whose fall from grace was long and painful, taking him all the way down to Hollywoods underbelly of Grade-Z film production houses churning out garbage for the grindhouse circuit.
Mitchells fall was interrupted by occasional parts in good movies such as My Favorite Year (1982), in which he was perfectly cast as a funny crime boss who doesnt enjoy being parodied by a Sid Caesar-like star of early television. Let us remember Mitchell for his better movie roles...especially his suave and sophisticated fashion tycoon in Bavas horror movie for the ages--Blood And Black Lace.
Thanks, Harv. Indeed. Cameron Mitchell had a real roller coaster of a film career, initially rising to the dizzying heights with co-starring roles with top film stars in major motion pictures and then slowly but surely falling into steady character actor work-- and then taking the final steep plunge into the very depths of Z-movie purgatory. It would be nice to say that even his worst low-budget outings at least gave him an outlet to turn in some truly entertaining performances, but, all too often, his work in cheap schlock was as threadbare as the productions themselves. It's truly a sad fate for a man who was, in the final analysis, a fine if quirky actor.
Article copyright © Harvey F. Chartrand as seen originally in Horror-Wood