Bright Lights Film Journal

Farewell to Curtis Harrington (1928-2007)

Curtis Harrington was something of a role model for me, if only because he moved so gracefully through so many barriers that seem impenetrable to others, the barriers between amateur and professional, between critic and artist, between avant-garde and mainstream. A true film buff, he was just as likely to be seen in the audience – at film festivals and revivals in the Los Angeles area – as on the screen. (GreenCine Daily‘s David H. Hudson has posted links to obituaries and other Harrington-related materials here.)

As a teenager, Harrington was one of a group of Los Angeles experimental filmmakers that emerged after World War II, a group that also included Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren. (Harrington plays the role of Cesaré in Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.) His first significant experimental short, Fragment of Seeking (1946), was shot on 16mm when Harrington was 17. His last, Usher (2002), was made when Harrington was 74.

His first mainstream film was the Val Lewton-esque Night Tide (1961) starring Dennis Hopper and produced in part by Roger Corman. Corman also produced my personal favorite of Harrington’s films, Queen of Blood (1966, above) which recycled special effects footage from a Russian sci-fi film purchased by Corman into a story of Harrington’s own devising about a seductive green-skinned alien vampire (Florence Marley) being transported to Earth. As in Ridley Scott’s Alien, made a decade and a half later, the extraterrestrial kills off members of the crew one by one, but is kept alive to suit the nefarious purposes of a corporate state.

Other highlights of Harrington’s career include the stylish Games (1967) with James Caan and Simone Signoret, What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters as sisters, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) with Winters again, and the TV film Killer Bees (1974) in which the legendary Gloria Swanson played the matriarchal head of a California bee-keeping empire served by elegant male “drones” like Edward Albert and Craig Stevens. Much as Harrington himself (above) spent a lifetime faithfully serving his cinematic Muse.