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Interviews

From Psycho to Asylum: The Horror Films of Robert Bloch

Ron Leming


Robert Bloch's screenwriting career is often overshadowed by Hitchcock's potent adaptation of Bloch's novel Psycho, but the acclaimed horror author has contributed for many years to many films. Movies made from Bloch screenplays have ranged in quality from the ill-conceived and much tampered with remake The Cabinet of Caligari (1962) to an entertaining string of all-star Amicus anthology features. Many of his Hollywood experiences have not been satisfying, but the horror-novel and short-story master has retained his wry sense of humor through it all.

The ever busy Bloch took a breather to answer the following questions in between convention stops in Paris, Vancouver, and Milwaukee. The 68-year-old author is currently finishing a short story, an article, and treatments for two novels.

RL: Over the years, you have worked extensively with Milton Subotsky. What was it like making films with him?
RB: Together, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg formed Amicus Productions and, for them I did The Psychopath, The Deadly Bees, Torture Garden, The House that Dripped Blood, and Asylum. All were written by me, here in the States, and produced in England -- along with my story, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade," which was adapted and filmed as The Skull.

I first met Milton in 1965, on a visit to London with my wife. At this time Amicus was already making The Psychopath and we went out to Shepperton Studios one day to watch a bit of filming. I was later a guest of Milton's -- learning how knowledgeable he was concerning the fantasy and horror field. Max was equally conversant with the genre, but devoted most of his time to production and distribution problems. It was Milton who usually wrote a premises for a "focus story" which served to introduce four stories of mine which I'd then adapt and incorporate into the over-all narration.

The Psychopath -- which I'd titled The House of Dolls, as I recall -- was an original of mine, and due to budget limitations and other factors, it underwent other changes as well as the altered title. The Deadly Bees was my script version of H.F. Heard's fine novel, A Taste For Honey -- again I had another title and another concept. I wanted to stick more closely to the plot of the classic book itself, and wrote the leads for two friends of mine who greatly enjoyed working with one another -- Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. But again, the budget interfered; there was no money for two stars of such magnitude. And the director brought in another writer to "modernize" the story -- while Milton and Max were away in Europe. The result certainly disappointed me, and I'm told it disappointed Milton and Max, too, but when they returned the production was ready to roll and it was too late to return to the original screenplay.

RL: You mention that Amicus rewrote your script, and I know from past comments that this has presented some problems during your career. Would you care to say anything about that practice?
RB: Amicus wasn't the only practitioner of this delicate art. The worst job was done by Roger Kay, who produced and directed The Cabinet of Caligari, and decided that he'd like to have the writing credit as well. With the aid of an accomplice he perpetuated a complete change in dialogue which utterly ruined what just might have been an interesting and suspenseful film. What he didn't know is that rewriting dialogue doesn't entitle one to screen credit, and much to his dismay his name never appeared as an author of the script. After what he did to it -- behind my back, needless to say -- I would just as soon have let him take the credit, which is to say, the blame. But Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., strongly advised me not to do it, lest this set a precedent for other would-be credit claimers.
RL: What some of our readers might not know is that you've also done a bit of dabbling in radio show. How did that start?
RB: My story, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" was dramatized on the Kate Smith Hour, with Laird Cregar in the starring role. Subsequently, it appeared in other versions on the Molle Mystery Theatre, X Minus One, etc. And in 1945 I was approached by producer Johnny Neblett and asked to do my own show for syndication -- adapting thirty-nine of my stories for a show which I titled Stay Tuned for Terror.

Bankrolled by Berle Adams, then an agent in Chicago, and directed by Howard Keegan -- who had also directed Lights Out -- the series was made in the old WMAQ studio in the Windy City. I came down from Milwaukee every week in the winter of 1945 when we were in production, huddling with the crew, making on-the-spot changes, okaying or suggesting music-over for the organist, and making a general nuisance of myself as I learned the ropes.

Since then I've done no radio scripting -- although many of my stories have been read or adapted for radio in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" still turns up to this day in places as varied as Israel and South Africa.

RL: Psycho is certainly your best known work. To what do you attribute its long term impact and its ability still to frighten?
RB: Psycho worked because the story was right for the time and Hitchcock contributed so much to the psychological impact of the film. While mass-murder has now become such a commonplace that it can scarcely shock or surprise us to such a great degree today, I brought other elements to my story which still touch nerves -- hints of incest, the distressing notion that perhaps a boy's best friend may not necessarily be his mother, and the overall message that we may not always know our neighbors as well as we think we do; the most commonplace people in commonplace surroundings can sometimes offer unexpected menace.
RL: You wrote Psycho II, which was an adventurous novel, as sequels go. But you didn't write the screenplay. Why?
RB: I wrote Psycho II as a novel before there was a screenplay -- or, indeed, any intention on Universal's part to do a film. The acquired the rights when they bought the property from Paramount, but I owned -- and do own -- the literary rights. When I decided to do a novel expressing my feelings about splatter films, which was Psycho II, my agent urged me to show the completed section to the studio as a common courtesy.

They loathed it. The mere idea of criticizing their bloodbath tactics was abhorrent to them, and I was told they had no intention of doing a sequel to Psycho, let alone my story (which, incidentally, they could have used free of charge according to one interpretation of the original contract). But when advance notices of my novel generated publicity here and abroad, some resident genius suddenly had a great idea. "Let's make Psycho II!" he cried, thus demonstrating both his creativity and his ability to count,

Needless to say, I wasn't part of the time -- nor was I invited to a screening. In spite of my absence, the film did very well, and the new mathematical geniuses have arisen to announce the coming of Psycho III.

RL: Any memories of working with Hitchcock?
RB: Hitchcock seemed to me a most intelligent man, but though he offered me a contract to collaborate on an original screenplay, I backed off after learning that we must "mutually agree" on a story before I began to get paid. You see, Hitch served lovely luncheons in his luxurious offices, and kept the tape-recorder going during story discussions over the wine and catered entrees, but he could afford to do so for a year if necessary -- whereas I had to make a living. So I voluntarily surrendered the privilege of working with Hitch, but he left me with the impression of being a master raconteur as well as a filmmaker. And he did give me credit for Psycho -- in interviews and in print -- which is more than many so-called film historians have done. For this I am understandably grateful.
RL: Have you ever had any desire to direct or produce films, rather than just write them?
RB: No, I have never had the desire to produce or direct. I'm well aware that this is the best -- perhaps the only -- way in which a writer can protect his work. But I lack the stamina to contend with 18-hour days for months at a time, and I'm not adept at cajolery or the bullying of actors and film crews, nor skilled at the intrigue which frequently seems a part of the relationships with studio executives.
RL: Are you planning on working on any of the new anthology shows scheduled -- the new Twilight Zone or Spielberg's Amazing Stories?
RB: I don't know if I'll get involved in any of the new shows. Darkroom disappointed me; even Curtis Harrington's direction couldn't atone for other deficiencies in production. Perhaps it's best for me to wait and see how well the planned series measure up to their titles.

Meantime I've got six short stories to write and requests for two novels. In addition there are no less than three collections of my stories presently in various stages of preparation, and two books about my work are scheduled for publication this year and the next.

RL: It would seem that your favorite subject, Jack the Ripper, would be a natural for a quality splatter film. And there is your most recent book, Night of the Ripper, which no one has acquired film rights to. Would you consider doing a splatter movie? Or an adaptation of a Lovecraft story, most of which have been filmed atrociously? What does Robert Bloch want to do?
RB: No, I wouldn't do an out-and-out splatter movie, but I would do a Lovecraft story. My own personal favorite projects would be films of my Hollywood silent-movie novel, The Star Stalker, and Fritz Leiber's very impressive SF-fantasy, Gather Darkness. Kubrick once asked me for a suggestion and I told him about Fritz's book. Instead he went ahead and made Barry Lyndon. He should have stayed in bed.
RL: Do you have scripts that haven't been produced?
RB: Yes, like just about everybody in the business, I've had a number of unproduced efforts; only one out of every ten scripts ever reaches the screen, and while my average is by no means that low, there are some projects over the last 25 years which didn't get filmed for one reason or another. They include The Merry-Go-Round, an adaptation of Bradbury's "Black Ferris;" a John D. MacDonald novel that eventually was done in another form as a TV movie; my own, Night World, aborted when its producer lost confidence, and then his job, after MGM went under new management; The Day of the Comet, based on H.G. Wells' story and intended as a TV film or miniseries, and Berg! -- both for George Pal. The former was shot down when Paramount learned of Irwin Allen's Meteor being made (it bombed badly, by the way) and the latter was lost when American International was taken over by Filmways. My last assignment, last year, was for Tri-Star -- an expensive undertaking based on Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson's short-story series about the Hokas. Once again, as happens so frequently, a shake-up in Tri-Star management aborted the picture. Win a little, lose a little, that's the name of the game.
RL: What are the least favorite and most favorite of your films?
RB: My least favorites are Caligari and The Deadly Bees, both of which were "improved" past all recognition, and were deservedly ignored by audiences and critics alike. My best work consists of about twenty minutes of Strait-Jacket and the first episode of Asylum; both were filmed shot-for-shot, exactly as I indicated in the scripts, without any directorial changes.
RL: You lived only 29 miles from Plainfield, Wisconsin, when the infamous Ed Gein's crimes were discovered. You used the premise of his crimes and dementia in Psycho. He has since been portrayed in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other movies. Do you think a movie about his life might be made, since there are rumors that Dan O'Bannon and R. Alain Everts are collaborating on a book about him? And why do you think he had such an impact on popular American culture, at least in terms of film?
RB: I don't think Ed Gein offers much of a subject for a film apart from what has already been done in that area. The actual character is scarcely appealing or even a suitable subject for clinical consideration. He was a dull and colorless little nobody except when in his manic phase, and we have already see portrayals of that. As for his impact on America in the late 50's -- he emerged at a time when mass-murders were still exotic specimens in our country, and the realization of his presence was fresh and frightening. I don't think many people ponder the psychopathology of mass murder today -- the audience is only interested in S&M onscreen, or a series of meaningless body counts.
RL: What are you afraid of, Bob?
RB: What am I afraid of? People -- animals -- insects -- micro-organisms -- accidents -- natural disasters -- unnatural disasters -- war -- fire -- physical deterioration and infirmity -- senile dementia -- death -- life -- you name it and I'm scared of it. And thank Heaven, for if I wasn't what would I have to write about?
RL: What are your future plans?
RB: When my first novel, The Scarf, was published, it drew reviews in psychiatric quarterlies and similar publications; one of the responses I received was from a shrink named Edmund P. Bergler, M.D., who told me he was doing a book about writers and their neuroses, and asked me to respond to a number of questions. When the book appeared I learned that his major thesis was, in effect, that all writers are either neurotic or psychotic.

That disturbed me a bit at first -- until I realized that Dr. Bergler himself had written nine books....

My future plans? To go on writing, of course, as long as there is an audience of readers and/or viewers for my work. I've been at it professionally now for 51 years -- damned if I'll quit now and start all over again as a plumber!

This interview originally appeared in Fangoria (November 1985), and was reprinted with the kind permission of Ron Leming of Silly Ole Bear Graphics Design. Ron also produces the online magazines Dragonglass and Rosewort.