Miami's B-Movie Mogul

K. Gordon Murray may have invented the weekend kiddie matinee, but don't forget his scowling bikers, howling werewolves, lumbering mummies, brain-sucking monsters, and scheming decapitated heads

As for the movies' intrinsic qualities, Rob Craig, for one, offers no excuses. He first saw a Murray picture when Santa Claus was reissued in 1964. "It has special effects that rival any Disney film of the period," he contends. "Obviously many of these films were low-budget, so maybe they looked crummy next to the squeaky-clean sterility of the Disney product. They look grittier, more down-to-earth, and there's a charm to that."

Murray's kiddie movies possessed what Craig considers "almost a quality of something exotic, foreign, and dangerous. They had the essence of the traveling carnival: dubbed foreign fantasies with musical numbers -- really bizarre stuff that back then you didn't see on TV and everywhere else. And they were only in town for one weekend: You either went that weekend, or you didn't go. Disney films could last for months in a theater. Mary Poppins probably stayed in town for an entire season. But with Rumpelstiltskin, you went that weekend, and that was it -- it was gone."

Jonathan Postal
K. Gordon "Ken" Murray (above) was unknown to the 
general public, but an icon to the psychotronic 
cognoscenti who treasure radioactive mutants, female 
prison inmates, vampires, and bikers
K. Gordon "Ken" Murray (above) was unknown to the general public, but an icon to the psychotronic cognoscenti who treasure radioactive mutants, female prison inmates, vampires, and bikers

"See horrible and insane killings as the Count turns into a monster and seeks his revenge. See the Count feast from human brains. Don't miss the most horror-filled film of the century, THE BRAINIAC!"

After ripping through the exploitation and children's markets, Murray turned his attention and his energy to his crypt full of Mexican horror pictures, a graveyard demimonde packed with vampires, witches, and most curiously, crime-solving professional wrestlers, notably the silver-masked Santo. Murray's timing, as always, was impeccable. Following the profusion of science-fiction movies in the 1950s, the 1960s witnessed a renaissance in horror fare. From England came a passel of sexually charged and gothic dramas made by Hammer Films, led by the vampire pictures starring Christopher Lee. From Hollywood came a hodgepodge of horror made by American International Pictures, led by director Roger Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories starring Vincent Price. Teens devoured this stuff.

Murray tapped into the prevailing Zeitgeist. "The [Mexican] horror films were in many cases inspired by Hollywood horror films," suggests film historian David Wilt, "in terms of the settings and the way that the films looked. So they were certainly exportable and weren't necessarily recognized as Mexican films."

At first Murray foisted his horror horde on movie houses and drive-ins, creating a new distribution division, Young America Productions, for that express purpose in 1962. Not surprisingly he unveiled the pictures with his usual screaming-meemies vigor. An ad for a twin bill of The Vampire's Coffin and The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy shrieks, "All New! Double Horrorama Show. It Will Shock Your Senses and Chill Your Brain. Presented in Hypnoscope. Thru the Power of Hypnosis It Will Heighten the Horror."

Meanwhile he dispatched Leonard Simons to scare up pre-premiere publicity. Simons chuckles as he relates, "Through Ken's connections in the funeral business, we bought a hearse, got a casket, and we had a guy, an actor -- in vaudeville we called them 'the Mechanical Man' -- who walked slow. We'd put one of these Mechanical Men in the casket and announce that at a certain hour the hearse was going to arrive at a theater. We'd pull up, get the ushers to take the casket out, and the Mechanical Man would step out, walk around, chew up about ten or fifteen minutes -- his pace was very slow. He'd be in a tuxedo and a top hat. It sounds hokey, but it made bucks."

But Murray soon realized that television, with its burgeoning number of Friday- and Saturday-night Monster Chiller Horror Theater programs nationwide, offered a significantly better opportunity than traditional venues. Each major U.S. city boasted at least one such show -- a Nightmare Theatre and Creature Feature aired in Miami -- and even tiny TV markets fielded their own horror host. Desperate for product, they'd show anything, even dubbed Mexican creepouts, and Murray stepped in to meet the urgent needs of Dr. Cadaverino, Ghoulardi, and Gorgon the Gruesome.

"We would send out a package of horror shows to the stations," Sheldon Schermer explains, "with the dubbed movies plus trailers."

Murray himself narrated these 60-second trailers, invoking his carny showmanship to generate enthusiasm. "He loved to do exploitation ads," says Schermer, "loved to write copy: 'See it now!'" Like this doozy from The Curse of the Crying Woman, in which Murray describes events not even remotely related to the actual onscreen action: "She spread terror because she thirsted for power in THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN. See nightmare after nightmare in the most terrifying picture ever to be shown. See the horror of her evil curses come to reality in THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN. See a fight to the death with a vampire. See terrifying werewolves in their search for blood. For the most terrifying experience of your life, see THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN."

Not so terrifyingly, each time Murray spoke the movie's title, the recording engineer would flip the echo switch for maximum ooky-spookiness.

As was the case with the foreign exploitation and kiddie movies, each horror film print Murray received was accompanied by a literal translation of the script, which he turned over to a "director" to supervise its conversion from Spanish -- or German -- into English. According to Paul Nagel, at first a voice actor, then a director on both the fairy tales and the horror pictures, the translated script "was not prepared in a way that would make it sync in any way with what you were seeing [on the screen]."

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