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Ham on Die, with a Side of Cupcakes and Beer: The Dismembered

Dismembered 01

By Elias Savada.

Taking a film out of distribution purgatory, Garagehouse Pictures is the final link in a rescue involving an obscure 1962 horror comedy relic called The Dismembered, now seeing the light of day courtesy of a region-free Blu-ray edition. This brief, 65-minute heist/haunted house feature was made by Ralph S. Hirshorn, whose family name is a Philadelphia tradition…in insurance. Shot in the summer of 1960 in an around the City of Brotherly Love, this movie barely made it out of the lab, and only now (no theatrical release, no tv, no cable, no VHS, no DVD, no VOD) can be seen by the public at large.

The film’s micro budget of a few thousand bucks (Ralph’s parents footed the post-production tab) shows, with its threadbare sets and amateur acting (no one was paid), and then its director left for a job in California at Columbia Pictures. It was up to associate producer Carl Lerner to actually get the feature into watchable form. Lerner, a Philly native who got degrees at Temple University, had a 25-year career as an editor (On the Bowery, 12 Angry Men, Klute) and was an occasional writer-director (1964’s Black Like Me). Much of the fun in this flick is courtesy of him.

Dis 02Now, don’t let my comments push you away from this unearthed black-and-white delight, which has a charmingly quaint vibe that plays into its early talkie analog feel. The opening jewel heist sequence was silent – some production issues that screwed up the track, per the director – with dialogue- and sound effects added to give it an more interesting appeal to cinephiles, though sound features were 35 years old when Hirshorn and his merry band of friends and family set to work on this artifact. The rickety piano (played through most of the film, and sometimes supplemented with an electronic score by Bülent Arel) heard in this inaugural segment, along with the dubbed-over dialogue of the thieves as they rob a safe of its family jewels, offers up a genuine inventiveness. It helps that the thieves’ escape scheme involves them being dressed in doctor’s whites with surgical masks covering their mouths. Such masks also did not help to keep the lost dialogue audible. Yet, there is something fresh in the script – something you might catch in an hokey old Republic serial, as the action moves from Chapter 1 to 2, wherein the thieves head to a remote hideout, unaware of the scares that await them in a deserted house.

In a way, the film has an occasional European or Germanic feel with some stark lit-from-below lighting (unintendedly so, because the film had no director of photography), but the story is definitely pure American corn. Those house-bound human-looking spirits (in well-laundered wardrobes found in a cast-off bin at a local costume shop) are called together in a daily meeting of the 2026th Chapter of Phantoms and Ghosts (sound the trumpet fanfare!), discussing those “things” in the cemetery next door. Apparently it’s a turf war (sorry). The unseen, underground army doesn’t show itself, but their escalating shrieks get under the house inhabitants’ collective skin. Says one spirit: “I liked it better when they moaned Christmas carols.”

But new business takes precedence, with the crooks downstairs, squabbling amongst themselves. The quintet of reluctant ghosts is one strange grab bag: Tom, the World War I soldier; Oswald, a lanky guy with suspenders; Henry, who looks like he just arrived in a horse-drawn carriage from the Borgo Pass; the prim Effie, who likes to knit; and Anna, the “I don’t vant to” Germanic granny figure. Parliamentary procedure aside, a motion to do away with the living intruders is passed. Dry stuff, but yet there’s a silliness going on here, whether it’s the bickering on which of the thieves will be xxx-ed out or in what manner. The film’s alternate title, Oswald, You Botched It Again!, provides the frustrations involved in getting the deadly deeds done.

Inconsistencies fly about the script (the robbers are holed up, but they seem to have the latest local newspaper that is reporting on their exploits) and production (how many trip wires can you spot?). Most were intentional, some not. Who cares?

The liner notes, nicely written by Dan Buskirk, say the film was shot in 35mm. The 4k restoration from the director’s only 16mm print is grainy, but in a nice archival way. I felt a Twilight Zone-style buzz, like when I watched the original tv series. Would Rod Sterling jump out of a closet? Instead a lovely, and generally unexplained, brunette ghost pops into the fray.

Dis 03The cast is non-recognizable as this was pretty much their only claim to far-from-Hollywood fame. Frank Geraci, who played the robber Carlo, found work in La-La Land doing bit roles in 1970’s television series. Not sure if anyone else was as lucky. I hope they all had fun on this 11-day shoot playing amateur night in Philadelphia with a severed hand, a stiff foot, and a blob of brain offering some diversion.

The few extras are an audio commentary by filmmaker, media programmer, theater producer, fellow Philadelphia native, and Film International contributor Andrew Rapasky McElhinney schmoozing with director Hirshorn. There are some choice comments about casting, filming, and locations, and budget, some of the film’s more interesting lines (“From here on in, it’s gonna be cupcakes and beer.” “Sometimes I wish there was something else I could have gone into…but I didn’t have any choice.”), anecdotes about watching Saturday matinees as a kid, his education (Yale University), the friendly natives of Philadelphia, and the long-running Chestnut Hill Film Group , which hosts local Tuesday night film screenings at the Woodmere Art Museum. Also included on the disc is Hirshorn’s 1959 Buñuelian short The End of Summer, made in Philadelphia while he was attending Yale. It won an award from the Screen Producers Guild and landed Hirshorn his short-lived gig in Hollywood.

Thanks to Hirshorn (for keeping a nice, clean 16mm print all these years), his parents, McElhinney for keeping his eye on showcasing the film, and Unseen Cinema’s Jay Schwartz for presenting The Dismembered four times at his Secret Cinema (25 years and counting!). The Dismembered offers up madcap Hellzapoppin’ antics coupled with prosthetics being drawn across the floor by (mostly) unseen wires. Hooray for retro indie horror satire!

Read an interview with director Ralph S. Hirshorn.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).

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