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Remembering Curtis Harrington and His Films

I first learned of Curtis's work through my godfather, Kenneth Anger. His trademark was surreal incongruity. He effortlessly mixed horror, black humor, and grotesque glamor in classics like <i>What's the Matter with Helen?</i>, <i>Whoever Slew Auntie...


Zeena Schreck and Curtis Harrington.

Back in July, Flicker Alley released The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection on Blu-ray. It's great to see my old friend and artistic mentor's art films altogether in one set, reaching new audiences. Curtis Harrington began making movies as a teenager in Los Angeles during World War II. His debut was a poignant rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Still looking boyish, Curtis played the twin roles of Roderick and Madeline Usher. His choice to play both sexes—he made a truly beautiful Madeline—was very risky for those days. What's great about this film is that its mystical and alchemical underpinnings foreshadow recurring themes found in his later work. His trademark for surreal incongruity—mixing horror, black humor, and grotesque glamor—is not only present in his debut, but his classics like What's the Matter with Helen?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, The Killing Kind, and Games.

I first learned of Curtis's work through my godfather, Kenneth Anger. Curtis and Kenneth were lifelong friends, who were both mentored by filmmaker and voodoo priestess Maya Deren. Another friend of the family, a film-distributor, used to loan us celluloid versions of Curtis's films for private screenings. One of my favorites was Night Tide. *SPOILER ALERT* It’s the story of a love-smitten sailor who becomes entangled with a woman brainwashed since birth by a huckster adoptive father. She wrongly believes she was born to a murderous siren race. The father displays her as a mermaid sideshow freak and pins her with the blame for murders he has committed. As a little whipper-snapper, I was obsessed with mythology, fairy tales, and legends. So, for obvious reasons, I felt an affinity with the shape-shifting mermaid, Mora, of Night Tide.

I met Curtis in the early 90s at a retrospective of Marlene Dietrich’s silent films hosted at the Director's Guild in LA. After a screening of Marlene’s 1930s classic, Blue Angel, my husband Nikolas saw that Curtis was seated several rows ahead of us. I introduced myself and told Curtis how much his films meant to me growing up. He thanked me and invited us to meet him again. In no time we became fast friends. In the last decade of his life, Curtis returned to his roots. He self-produced a remake of his first film in 2012, simply calling it Usher and reprising his roles as both twin leads. As with all of his films, Curtis incorporated his friends, including Nikolas and myself.


Left to right: Renate Druks, Ruth-Ellen Taylor, Zeena Schreck, Curtis Harrington, Sean Nepita, Robert Mundy, and Nikolas Schreck.  

For Usher, Curtis worked entirely outside of the unions by filming in his home, which was familiar to all of the cast and crew. The atmosphere was very comfortable, as if we were just continuing our roles in his everyday life, only slightly exaggerated. After being apart of the production, it’s difficult for me to say whether Curtis's films mimicked his life, or vice versa. For example, the eccentric birthday celebration for Madeline in the film could have easily been any one of Curtis's dinner parties. He always had little get-togethers at his Hollywood Hills home that felt just like the bizarre scenes in his movies. Always the director, he decided where you were to be seated using the antiquated custom of place cards. He would split up couples and seat people together he thought would either stimulate or antagonize each other.

The last time I saw Curtis was when he came to Berlin to show Usher to an exclusive audience at the Deutsche Kinemathek. During his visit, there were two nights in particular I remember where we sort of said our good-byes. He'd recently had a stroke and it was clear he was preparing himself for the transition from this dream to the next. The combination of the stroke with the medications he was taking had slurred his speech. It was unsettling to watch the director of the Deutsche Kinemathek, who mistook Curtis for being drunk, shift in his seat, impatiently tap his foot, and be condescending to Curtis as he struggled to speak.

However, the Kinemathek official who actually arranged the screening was very kind. He gave us a tour through the museum and showed Curtis a rare find from their Marlene Dietrich archives: a letter by a very young 20-something Curtis Harrington, introducing himself to Marlene Dietrich. It was a touching moment that brought me back to the first night I met Curtis, at the Marlene Dietrich retrospective in LA. It surely brought Curtis back, to his first meeting with Marlene and their long friendship. The Blue Angel who brought Curtis and I together also presided over our farewell in the haunted city of her birth, Berlin.

SLM = Peace

Zeena Schreck is an artist, musician, animal rights activist, Tantric Buddhist, spiritual leader of the Sethian Liberation Movement (SLM), and co-author of Demons of the Flesh: The Complete Guide to Left-Hand Path Sex Magic. Her most recent music release is Radio Werewolf's The Vinyl Solution - Analog Artifacts: Ritual Instrumentals and Undercover Version.

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