Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Titles that are better than the movies they adorn

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Titles that are better than the movies they adorn-attachment0

The other evening Justin Souther and I—and maybe a few others—were loitering in the bar of the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina having a meaningful conversation in depth (read: we were killing time) when—for reasons that are obscure to me now—I chanced to mention the movie Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory (1962). Upon invoking said title, I found myself on the receiving end of one of those looks. You know the kind—expressing disbelief in your veracity. I made it clear that indeed there is such a movie and that it could hardly be said to live up to its title. This in turn led to the discussion that brought us to the state of events you’re encountering now.

Of course, it’s common sense for titles to make every effort to be as appealing as possible. It certainly seems more likely that people would line up for a movie called It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) than the more honest It’s a Long Long Long Long Movie. Similarly, there’s more immediate appeal to The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) than The Moderately Entertaining World of the Brothers Grimm. And let’s face it, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) is going to sell more tickets than Tarzan’s So-So Adventure. Superlatives sell—even if the truth may fall a little shy of the mark. But there are some movies—usually horror pictures—that simply promise more than they even attempt to deliver, or they promise one thing and deliver something else.

I suppose the earliest over-selling I can think of is Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), though it does admittedly deliver what it promises—sort of. The problem is that it sounds like—and was presented as—a big grudge match between two of Universal’s star attraction monsters. Well, yeah, but it takes about 70 minutes of the movie’s 74 minute running time to get to this battle. And the battle itself is naturally inconclusive. After all, Universal wasn’t about to kill off either valuable commodity.

A much bigger cheat is Return of the Ape Man (1944), which you might think would be a sequel to The Ape Man (1943), but here you would be wrong. The previous film had Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist who’d somehow—and for some mystifying reason—turned himself into…well, an ape man. The bulk of the film had him and his sidekick gorilla (Emil Van Horn) murdering folks for spinal fluid to “counteract the ape fluid injections.” The non-sequel has Lugosi thawing out a caveman (mostly played by Frank Moran, maybe once played by third-billed George Zucco) who then proceeds to run amok—as cavemen are wont to do. Oh, it’s entertaining enough, but it’s by no means the sequel the title leads one to believe.

Although there is—as you’ll see—a high incidence of titles that are better than their movies in Mr. Lugosi’s work, I hardly think this can be blamed on the “Master of horror” himself. Still, what is one to make of the promisingly titled Zombies on Broadway (1945)? This suggests zombie showgirls, chorus lines, or at least something involving the walking dead on the Great White Way. Well, that’s not what you get. Instead, you have a comedic semi-sequel to the very non-comedic I Walked with a Zombie (1943) with most of the zombie action taking place not on Broadway, but on the island of San Sebastian where mad doctor Lugosi is trying to create a zombie. What we end up with is one lousy zombie in a New York night club.

Lugosi not only lent his presence, but also his very name to Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). Now, it can’t be said that the title cheats. Bela Lugosi does kind of meet a Brooklyn Gorilla in that he plays a mad doctor who turns a guy (Dean Martin impersonator Duke Mitchell) from Brooklyn into a gorilla, much to the dismay of another Brooklyn boy (Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo). Fine. But really, weren’t the real Martin and Lewis sufficiently awful without impersonators getting into the act? Lugosi has a few good moments as the mad doctor, but then when didn’t he? Put bluntly, the movie’s a lox, but I’m glad it exists for the title alone.

For a title that cheats while simultaneously telling the truth, it’s hard to beat The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955). The viewer relying on the title—not to mention the poster, which shows some kind of segmented monster promising rows and rows of eyes and some really nasty teeth—might reasonably expect something pretty impressive in the monster line, even though the number of eyes might be overstated just a little. Well, such viewers are in for grave disapppointment I assure you. Rather, the beast is a ridiculous two-eyed hand-puppet inside a seriously economical rocketship that rumor has it was actually a coffee pot. Those million eyes belong, you see, to the animals in the movie—animals it’s controlling and through which it has a million eyes. Being a mid-50s film from Roger Corman, even that seems an overstatement since we see nothing like a million eyes of wildlife and livestock. The phrase, “It’s a dirty gyp,” comes readily to mind. Now, if you’re likely to be traumatized by seeing someone have chickens thrown at them by offscreen stagehands, this will do it. Similarly, if seeing silent screen comic Chester Conklin menaced by a cow, this is your idea of a good time, this may suffice. Mostly, it’s the kind of bottom of the barrel scrapings you get from the early Corman movies—only it’s a lot less fun than most.

Sometimes, Corman’s movies do live up the title’s claim. Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) is almost exactly what the title says, and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) does contain the advertised giant leeches. OK, so the men-in-leech-suits offered by the movie have little to do with real leeches, but since they might be mutations caused by radiation from Cape Canaveral (!), I guess they can be anything Corman liked and could get cheap. Then again, the non-Corman, surprisingly well-made (veteran director Roy Del Ruth is probably the reason behind this) The Alligator People (1959) gives us a monster (only one, but The Alligator Person doesn’t cut it) that lines up with the title. It might have been better if it hadn’t.

Now, this Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory is something else. First of all, it does have a werewolf and it does have a girls’ dormitory—even if the two don’t exactly meet, since the werewolf (at least in werewolf fom) is never actually in the dormitory. And that’s a real shame, since the mayhem promised by that concept sounds much more intriguing than what we get, especially when you consider this is no mere girls’ dormitory. Oh, my, no. This is a reform school girls’ dormitory, meaning these girls have been around. (That is perhaps why they were push-up bras under their nightgowns and all have improbably coiffed hair.) The central fact is that the movie can’t be blamed for not living up to the promise of its title, since it was originally an Italian-German film called Lycanthropus that was picked up for U.S. release, dubbed into English, and retitled. It also gained a rock ‘n’ roll theme song, “The Ghoul in School.” Then again, would anyone even remember the movie today had it not been for the Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory title?

There are no mitigating factors in the case of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies (1964). This is simply one great title slapped onto one lousy movie from the notoriously inept Ray Dennis Steckler, who never made a good movie in his life, but once made a typically awful one with a terrific title. If you’ve never seen the movie, you probably won’t believe me when I say not to bother, but I’ve warned you. The same warning extends to The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972), which would be better titled The Rats Were Added! The Werewolves Scarcely Appear!. It’s the work of the even more notorious Andy Milligan, who came home (Staten Island) from the UK with 72 minutes of awful werewolf movie, only to find his distributor wanting something longer. To oblige, Andy added about 20 minutes of unrelated rat action that gained some infamy because of killing rats onscreen. But, boy, that is some title—fully worth its two exclamation marks.

I’m sure there are other movies that have better titles than movies, but these are the ones that immediately occur to me. Readers should feel free to add to the list.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

35 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Titles that are better than the movies they adorn

  1. David Morrill

    Maybe Zucco? I thought my screen grabs showed he was actually in one shot of Return of the Ape Man.

  2. There is, of course, the opposite end of the spectrum, featuring titles like PAUL and MICHAEL CLAYTON adorning very fine pictures.

  3. Ken Hanke

    There is, of course, the opposite end of the spectrum, featuring titles like PAUL and MICHAEL CLAYTON adorning very fine pictures.

    I actually considered going into this — with Paul as a prime example of a movie with a lacklustre title. I’m a little more ambivalent about Michael Clayton (though it also had a pretty awful poster), since there was a time when books titled Jane Eyre and David Copperfield would have carried no recognition value. My personal favorite bad title is probably the one that was slapped onto a movie from 2001 that finally got a small release in spring of 2002. The original script was called The Sad F**kers’ Club. Now, I’m sure no one ever thought that was going to make it past the MPAA or go up on a marquee (remember when Carmike Cinemas wouldn’t allow Inglourious Basterds on a marquee?), and that it was used mostly to catch producers’ eyes when it crossed their desks. So what did they change it to? Crush — a non-descript title that had nothing to do with the movie and had already been used by seven other movies (though most of them had been shorts). It helped to push this rather excellent movie into the ground.

    At least sanity and honesty prevails with the upcoming Hobo with a Shotgun, which perfectly describes the movie and lives up to it.

  4. This is simply one great title slapped onto one lousy movie from the notoriously inept Ray Dennis Steckler, who never made a good movie in his life

    Did you ever see RAT PHINK A BOO BOO?

    Me and a friend took Mr. Steckler and his lovely wife out to dinner four years ago in Vegas. He wanted to go to the Sizzler. It was one of the greatest nights of my life, and we were treated to three hours of amazing stories.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Did you ever see RAT PHINK A BOO BOO?

    Why? Are you trying to make a case for it as a good movie?

    It was one of the greatest nights of my life, and we were treated to three hours of amazing stories.

    Well, that would undoubtedly be better than 90 minutes of one of his movies. These encounters can be fun, but they can also be tricky. I was warned before having dinner with Bert I. Gordon that, yes, he actually think his movies are good. Thank goodness, since I assumed that even he must realize how cheesy shots of “giant” grasshoppers walking across still photos are.

  6. Why? Are you trying to make a case for it as a good movie?

    It’s the most fun out of his films. Accomplished would be a stretch…

    Well, that would undoubtedly be better than 90 minutes of one of his movies. These encounters can be fun, but they can also be tricky. I was warned before having dinner with Bert I. Gordon that, yes, he actually think his movies are good. Thank goodness, since I assumed that even he must realize how cheesy shots of “giant” grasshoppers walking across still photos are.

    Steckler was definitely aware he was making drive-in dreck and had a great sense of humor about it. Gordon I could definitely believe thought he made good films.

    We ran into Roger Corman by chance the same night we took Steckler out to dinner.

  7. Why? Are you trying to make a case for it as a good movie?

    It’s the most fun out of his films. Accomplished would be a stretch…

    Well, that would undoubtedly be better than 90 minutes of one of his movies. These encounters can be fun, but they can also be tricky. I was warned before having dinner with Bert I. Gordon that, yes, he actually think his movies are good. Thank goodness, since I assumed that even he must realize how cheesy shots of “giant” grasshoppers walking across still photos are.

    Steckler was definitely aware he was making drive-in dreck and had a great sense of humor about it. Gordon I could definitely believe thought he made good films.

    We ran into Roger Corman by chance the same night we took Steckler out to dinner.

  8. DrSerizawa

    It is too bad that these over the top horror movie titles virtually never deliver on their promise. Who wouldn’t want to REALLY see Werewolves on Wheels rather than One Werewolf On A Bike For 20 Seconds In The Dark Where You Can Hardly See Anything?

    Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory also failed to explain why a bunch of women around age 26 would be in a reform school girl’s dormitory in the first place.

    I would probably rather see grasshoppers walking on a photograph than 90% of the current CGI-loaded SciFi titles. But then I’m just weird. I certainly have more 50s scifi schlock in my library than all other scifi titles for all other eras. Beginning of the End is vastly more entertaining than Independence Day. Especially with a crowd of like minded lunatics.

    Roy Steckler may have never made a good movie but Mixed Up Zombies was one of the funniest MST3K episodes. It also wasn’t the worst drive-in movie ever made by far. And I would rather have sat through that MST3K episode again than sitting through Water For Elephants. Which should have been named Whiskey for the Elephant since the lone elephant never got any water. However the elephant did show more animation of expression than David Pattinson.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Gordon I could definitely believe thought he made good films.

    I’ll give him this — his movies do move briskly and they pretty much deliver the monsters they promise, cheesy though they may be.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I DISMEMBER MAMA

    A truly classic title on a completely forgetable movie.

  11. Ken Hanke

    Who wouldn’t want to REALLY see Werewolves on Wheels rather than One Werewolf On A Bike For 20 Seconds In The Dark Where You Can Hardly See Anything?

    Who wouldn’t indeed? But who would even consider going to see the honest title?

    Beginning of the End is vastly more entertaining than Independence Day.

    Well, yes. And you can’t say that it was overproduced within an inch of its life either. I was pretty impressed with the big grasshoppers when I was seven. Now, I’m entertained by it in a different way.

  12. Dionysis

    I can think of a few titles that promised more (or at least different) than what was delivered.

    War of the Colossal Beast, 1958. No ‘beast’, only a man with a bad attitude and equally bad makeup, and no ‘war’.

    The Crawling Eye, 1958. Floating eye, maybe, but only the pacing of the film really crawled.

    The Woman Eater (1959); don’t even ask.

    Conqueror Worm, 1968. U.S. title for Witchfinder General…no big Dune-type worm to be found anywhere.

    Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? I saw this in 1969 (or I sort of remember seeing it anyway), but don’t have a clue as to what it was about.

  13. Ken Hanke

    War of the Colossal Beast, 1958. No ‘beast’, only a man with a bad attitude and equally bad makeup, and no ‘war’

    In the days before all you did was slap a “2″ or “II” on the sequel, they may have had trouble coming up with something to follow The Amazing Colossal Man.

  14. DrSerizawa

    The original title for The Crawling Eye was The Trollenberg Terror IIRC. A much better tile IMHO. But US producers had to over-hype everything.

  15. Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? I saw this in 1969 (or I sort of remember seeing it anyway), but don’t have a clue as to what it was about.

    And did it deliver on its title?

  16. Dionysis

    “And did it deliver on its title?”

    Apparently not, but it did deliver a great deal of derision towards Anthony Newley. I had to go to IMDB to try and refresh my memory; evidently, it was a confusing, disjointed expression of his ego, with lots of sexual references. And to top it off, it was a kind of musical, for crying out loud. No wonder I have suppressed memories of it. And I thought all these years I had simply been too bombed to remember much.

  17. Ken Hanke

    Any movie that works “merkin” into its title gets a few points from me.

  18. Ken Hanke

    Oddly enough, I just watched Attack of the Giant Leeches the other night, but I have an alibi.

  19. I often confuse 50 Foot Woman as a Bert I Gordon film, but then I remember, that’s it’s actually pretty good.

    Vickers was stunning in those films, and reading about her today, feisty up to the end.

  20. Ken Hanke

    I often confuse 50 Foot Woman as a Bert I Gordon film, but then I remember, that’s it’s actually pretty good.

    Oh, that goes way too far.

  21. brianpaige

    I have to say this: Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is awesome. Seriously I like that movie a lot more than any actual M & L movie. I think perhaps because it’s almost a bizarre style of meta humor. Petrillo cracked me up to no end with his Lewis impersonation, especially lines like “I can’t die…I have too much talent!”

  22. Ken Hanke

    Seriously I like that movie a lot more than any actual M & L movie.

    That wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment.

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