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Germans Storm Romanian Passes

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 254th installment in the series. 

October 25, 1916: Germans Storm Romanian Passes

Following its invasion of Austria-Hungary in August 1916 the tides of war turned against Romania all too swiftly. With the arrival of the newly-formed German Ninth Army under Erich von Falkenhayn in late September, the combined forces of the Central Powers sent the Romanians reeling back to the mountain passes of the southern Carpathians (also known as the Transylvanian Alps). Meanwhile Bulgarian forces under the German commander August von Mackensen invaded Romania from the south, capturing the chief port, Constanta, by October 22. 

Then in late October and November defeat turned to debacle, as Romanian defenses crumbled before the German onslaught, allowing the enemy to pour through the mountain passes into the plains of Wallachia. Although the Romanians managed to halt them temporarily here, this advance set the stage for them to outflank all the Romanian armies to the east, clearing the way for a drive on the capital, Bucharest, in late November. Remarkably all this happened in just a few weeks, and indeed the German storming of the Romanian passes is remembered as one of the most impressive military achievements of the war. 

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In the right circumstances these high, narrow valleys cutting the Carpathians – from west to east the Vulcan, Szurduk, and Turnu Roşu (Red Tower) – should have been nearly impenetrable, with primitive wagon roads or goat paths broken by rough terrain and dominated by strong defensive positions. 

However circumstances were far from right for the Romanians, whose hasty retreat from Hungary left them little time to dig in, and who had scant experience with trench warfare to begin with. Their dire supply situation had hardly improved, due to continuing shortages as well as the general incompetence of Romanian logistics officers. Perhaps worst of all, they were facing elite mountain troops in the German Alpenkorps, supported by superior mountain artillery. 

The result was a crushing defeat, although ordinary Romanian soldiers fought bravely and tenaciously, exacting a heavy toll on the attacking Germans (above, Romanian infantry on the march). From October 25-November 15, 1916, the Germans battered the divisions of the Romanian First Army, separated by mountain ranges and thus unable to come to each other’s aid, back through the passes amid rapidly worsening conditions. The Romanians could at least draw cold comfort (literally) from the fact that the harsh weather in the mountains affected the Germans as much as them. One German infantry officer, first lieutenant Erwin Rommel, recalled his company’s nighttime ascent into the Szurdok Pass:

It began to rain as we started to climb without benefit of a guide. The rain grew heavier as night began to fall and it was soon pitch black. The cold rain turned into a cloudburst and soaked us to the skin. Further progress on the steep and rocky slope was impossible, and we bivouacked on either side of the mule path at an altitude of about 4950 feet. In our soaked condition it was impossible to lie down and as it was still raining, all attempts to kindle a fire of dwarf pine failed. We crouched close together, wrapped in blankets and shelter halves and shivered from the cold.

Battling up the narrow passes, the Germans faced Romanian defenders taking cover in forests and behind ridges, from which they frequently attempted ambushes, sometimes with considerable success (below, Romanian soldiers dug in in the snow). However the Germans for their part enjoyed a major advantage in their mountain artillery, which could be brought up with relative speed to lay down withering fire across valleys and over hills. 

Another German officer, captain Gerhard Friedrich Dose, remembered a battle where the German mountain artillery proved decisive, wiping out an entire enemy unit in dramatic fashion: 

The undergrowth closed behind us as we hurried down the hill as fast as our equipment and the terrain would allow. We went toward where we thought our company was, down into the valley. Behind us someone started shooting but it soon stopped. The noise moved down into the valley. From a favorable position I could see the Romanians far below on the right wing of our front. They began to advance downwards the mountain… A short while later we recognized Romanians in the trees. They had put on German helmets and were firing from behind trees. The branches moving gave away their movements… Suddenly we heard a storm roar through the air, it steadily increased in volume… Rounds flew by and slammed with incredible power in the area of the mountain crest. The roar of the rocks and earth falling back to the ground sounded like galloping cavalry. It must have been a very heavy artillery gun doing the shooting. It was exactly what was needed to destroy the crest. We advanced further and further. 

Of course, even relatively small engagements were fateful for the ordinary soldiers doing the fighting, and the prospect of being wounded was even more frightening given the primitive conditions and distance to the nearest casualty clearing stations, all of which meant wounded soldiers might die before they could receive medical care (below, an exhausted German soldier resting in the Red Tower Pass).

For the grievously wounded, who all too often found themselves left behind by comrades during chaotic battles in the passes, there was nothing to do but lie out in the open, exposed to the elements, and wait for the end. Hans Carossa, a medic in the Romanian Army Medical Corps, remembered stumbling across one man in his final moments, and doing what little he could for him: 

A Roumanian stretched between two birch trunks lay across my path; I thought he was dead and was stepping over him, when I heard a groan and felt a feeble but perceptible tug at my cloak. Turning around, I looked down on the dying face of a man of about thirty; his eyes were closed, his mouth terribly twisted with pain. His fingers still clutched the fast hem of my cloak. Through a grey cape which covered his breast a slight vapour was rising. R. threw it back; under his torn ribs his lungs and heart lay exposed, the heart beating sluggishly. A number of silver and copper medals of saints, which he had been wearing on a black ribbon round his neck, were driven deep into his flesh, some of them much bent. We covered him up again. The man half-opened his eyes, his lips moved. Simply for the sake of doing something I filled my morphia syringe, and then I saw that this was what he seemed to want: he pushed the cloak aside and tried to stretch out his arm to me in readiness… 

Wounded Romanian soldiers lucky enough to be evacuated to the rear for medical care endured conditions that were shocking even by the very low standards of the First World War. Casualty clearing stations were often open to the elements, while hospitals were often little more than hastily renovated sheds. Doctors and surgeons, many of them foreign volunteers, were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of casualties, which included thousands of victims of frostbite as the winter wore on. As in neighboring Serbia and the nearby Salonika front, disease was epidemic, with cholera, dysentery, and typhus killing thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. 

In her diary Lady Kennard, an English noblewoman volunteering as a nurse with the Romanian Army, described the struggle to treat an unending flow of wounded amid mounting anxiety about their own circumstances in Bucharest (not assuaged by the belated arrival of an Allied military mission): “The arrival of a French command may still save the capital, but one doubts it, for the passes are obviously falling with incredible rapidity, and the wounded are coming in hundreds. We now have thirty-five cases in each of our wards, planned to hold fifteen. They are packed like herrings, poor wretches, and lying two in a bed.”

These men were lucky, as at least they had beds in a real hospital in the capital; the plight of wounded soldiers being treated out in the countryside, behind the front, was even worse. Yvonne Fitzroy, another British volunteer nurse serving on the southern front where the Romanians were fighting the Bulgarians, described conditions there in early October: “In the Russian Red Cross Hospital next door two and three men were shoved on a single mattress just as they came in, the dead and the living sometimes lying side by side for hours.” 

And still the German invaders continued pounding through the northern passes, finally reaching the Wallachian plains by mid-November. Rommel recalled his company’s descent from the valley into more open country, where the fighting continued amid scattered peasant farmhouses and small villages, including a violent, confusing encounter on November 12, 1916: 

The fog swirled hither and yon and the visibility varied between a hundred and three hundred feet. Shortly before the head of the column reached the south end of the village, it ran into a close column of advancing Rumanians. In a few seconds we were engaged in a violent fire fight at fifty yards range. Our opening volley was delivered from a standing position and then we hit the dirt and looked for cover from the heavy enemy fire.

The odds looked unfavorable for Rommel’s unit, to say the least, and the Germans were forced into a temporary retreat by fierce Romanian counterattacks, as often happened during this period: 

The Rumanians outnumbered us at least ten to one. Rapid fire pinned them down, but a new enemy loomed on both flanks. He was creeping up behind bushes and hedges and firing as he approached. The advance guard was getting into a dangerous situation… I ordered the advance guard to hold the farmhouse for an additional five minutes, and then to retire on the right side of the road through the farms… 

However Rommel’s famous levelheadedness, combined with German training and firepower, helped stem the Romanian tide, providing yet another example of the power of machine guns against even vastly superior numbers in the First World War:

Soon Rumanian skirmish lines reappeared in the south and approached our position. They were still over two thousand yards away, I have the signal to fire at will. This stopped the attack cold and we suffered no losses in the ensuing fire fight. The heavy machine guns had many excellent targets. As night fell the enemy retreated… We were sad about the losses in the company which totaled seventeen wounded and three dead… On the Rumanian side hundreds of dead covered the field including a Rumanian divisional commander. 

Elsewhere, however, the Germans found themselves bogged down in heavy fighting near the southern mouths of the passes, made even more miserable by heavy winter storms. Dose recalled conditions in the eastern Predeal Pass in mid-November: 

Our exhausted troops dug rifle pits and covered them with their shelters but the weight of the snow collapsed them again and again…  Numerous soldiers had fingers and toes frozen… The wounded could only be brought down much later because there were so few people available for that purpose. Four people were required per litter. It took almost twelve hours to make the trip. 

On the other side, in mid-November Kennard recorded worsening conditions in Bucharest, as thousands of wounded piled up outside the train station: 

The men lay on the ground, which was covered with wooden boards. Some shared a mattress with four or five others, the rest lay without even a pillow to their heads… I passed the station, where a trainload of them had just come in. They lay out in the waste ground behind the building, in full sunlight, pitiful in their helplessness. They had no water and no food, just a few cigarettes, and I did not hear one single moan or complaints.

Even more alarming, as the Germans approached from the west Kennard was informed that she should be ready to evacuate the capital at any time: “It sounds impossible, but I was told to-day that we shall probably have to pack up and leave in forty-eight hours’ time, to spend the winter in – well, we don’t know where, but in the snow, anyway!” Later she recorded a social encounter which did little to allay her fears: “A Roumanian general came to tea and said: ‘We shall leave by night.’ I said: ‘Where to?’ He answered: ‘God knows!’ – which was encouraging!” 

Meanwhile to the south Mackensen’s drive into Dobruja at the head of the Danube Army sent waves of refugees fleeing into the interior. In late October Fitzroy recorded the classic scenes – now all too familiar from previous mass retreats in Belgium, northern France, Poland and Serbia – of peasant families trudging along with all their belongings: 

The whole country is in retreat… Behind we could see the shells exploding, and the sky was alight with the glow of burning villages. On our right a bigger glow showed the fate of Constanza, which fell to-day. The road was indescribably dilapidated, and crammed with refugees, troops, and transport… Ponies and oxens are harnessed into their little springless carts, all their household goods are packed inside, and they are followed by terrified flocks of sheep, pigs, and cattle. The peasants trudge along, going – one wonders where? 

French Retake Fort Douaumont 

Verdun was supposed to be the place of decision, where Germany would “bleed France white” and end the war. Instead it was simply a charnel house, where the initial German onslaught devolved into a bloody battle of mutual attrition, the attackers suffering almost as many casualties as the defenders.

At the beginning of September 1916 the new German chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg visited Verdun with his collaborator Erich Ludendorff; shocked at what they saw, they immediately called off the offensive. But the tide was already turning, as the French gradually pushed the Germans back a few meters at a time, paying a heavy price to liberate their ruined land. The most humiliating setback for the Germans so far came on October 24, 1916, when the French finally recaptured Fort Douaumont – the strategic key to the battlefield and the object of several earlier failed counter-attacks. 

The French were aided by the delivery of two massive new howitzers, the 400-millimeter St. Chamond railway guns, so called because they were mounted on custom designed flatbeds pulled by steam engines – the only practical way to move the 140-ton behemoths. Although this obviously limited their deployment, with a range of ten miles the monstrous artillery pieces could easily drop 1,400-pound high explosive shells on German positions outside Verdun from specially built rail spurs well to the south. 

The French offensive also benefited from a huge accumulation of other types of artillery drawn from all over the Western Front, plus a stockpile of 15,000 tons of shells. The French troops in the three frontline divisions had trained for weeks, rehearsing their assault on a full-size reproduction of the position. Last but not least the French commander in charge of the counter-attack, the artillery officer General Robert Nivelle, had new tactics – and a trick up his sleeve.

The counter-attack began on October in typical fashion on October 19, with a punishing bombardment by the “regular” French artillery, which as before seemed to make little impression on Fort Douaumont, but pulverized the German trenches blocking the approaches to the fort (above, the fort before the war; below, on October 10, 1916). As casualties mounted many German units sensibly withdrew to the protection of the fort itself, while the well-hidden German artillery held its fire, waiting for the French infantry attack before revealing its own positions. 

On October 22, the French artillery suddenly stopped firing and a huge cheer went up from the French lines, indicating that the French infantry attack was imminent, and the German artillery finally unleashed its own bombardment against the French trenches, supposedly now full of assault troops – but no one was there. In a clever piece of deception, Nivelle had tricked the Germans into giving away the positions of their own artillery, allowing the French guns to target them before the French infantry went over the top (below, French infantry in a trench near Fort Douaumont). 

After another day of shelling, during which the French managed to wipe out about half the German artillery positions around Fort Douamount, the Germans were still in firm possession of the fort itself – but now the hammer came down. On October 23 at 12:30 p.m. a massive explosion shook the center of the fort, as the first of the 400-mm shells plunged with remarkable precision into the bowels of the structure, killing 50 patients and medical staff in the infirmary. Ten minutes later brought another shuddering impact, followed by another, and another, as the two railway guns fired in tandem. The fort had finally been breached. 

With fires burning inside the fort, the German commander had little choice but to order his men to withdraw on the evening of October 23, leaving it undefended – or rather, almost undefended. In a typical mix-up resulting from virtually nonexistent communication on the battlefield, that evening a German captain in charge of a signaling unit returned to the fort to find it abandoned. With the fires mostly extinguished, showing admirable initiative he hurriedly scraped together whatever troops he could find to hold the fort. 

Thus only a handful of ill-equipped defenders were holding the fort when the French attacked on the morning of October 24, 1916, meaning that Fort Douaumont, one of the strongest fortifications in Europe, was hardly defended at all both when it fell to the Germans in February 1916, and then again when the French liberated it exactly eight months later. In fact, ironically the French faced much stiffer resistance from German defenders in trenches and bunkers outside the fort – but once again Nivelle’s tactics delivered a startling success. 

Nivelle’s second innovation was the double creeping barrage, in which French artillery laid down a wall of fire just in front of the advancing infantry, shielding them from German counter-attacks, obliterating recently dug German trenches and fortifications, and forcing German defenders to take shelter in deep dugouts while the French advanced. The tactic was particularly effective because it was actually composed of two barrages advancing in sequence: the first by heavy artillery to take out major strongholds, followed by the second by field artillery, to keep German troops pinned down. 

As the double creeping barrage scoured the fog-covered battlefield, three French divisions surged forward with a speed that took the demoralized and distraught German defenders by surprise. Taking thousands of prisoners, the French bypassed the few remaining German strongholds, leaving these to the five reserve divisions following close on their heels, while they raced ahead to the abandoned fort looming out of the clouds. One French officer recalled the dramatic scene: 

Through my artillery glasses I could count the shell holes. They are all full of water. What a time our men must have had if they went through there! The landscape is not dead. Over there on the slopes of Douaumont earth-colored men are moving about. To the left and to the right they are marching in Indian [single] file. They are advancing, climbing, and gradually getting nearer their objective. As last there is one whose silhouette stands out upon the sky as clearly as if a shadow show. Others are going down a gorge. They are going to be seen. They will be mown down. Don’t show yourself like that. It is crazy… I want to shout. I must have shouted, but I did not hear the sound of my own voice in the noise of bursting shells… Douaumont is ours. The formidable Douaumont, which dominates with its mass, its observation points, the two shores of the Meuse, is again French.

Fort Douaumont, the strategic key to the entire Verdun battlefield, was once again in French hands – or rather, what was left of it. Another French officer described the battered fort, whose upper levels had been largely destroyed, but whose lower levels were still mostly intact, a tribute to superb French pre-war engineering (above, the roof of the fort today):

One can clearly make out the site of ditches whose sides and bottom are in shocking condition; the masonry has almost entirely collapsed, the slopes are destroyed, and the grating of the escarp no longer exist. The wire network is demolished. Some blocks of concrete are still to be found, with fragments of iron stakes, these having formed part of the battlements… All the basement rooms are in perfect condition, except the last one to the east, in which was a store of bombs that has been blown up.

The liberation of Fort Douaumont was hailed across France as the greatest French victory (or as some cynics may have observed, the only victory) since the Miracle on the Marne. In addition to decisively demonstrating the failure of the German offensive at Verdun, the victory had special personal meaning for some of the troops who took part. Masserigne Soumare, a Senegalese soldier in the French Army who took part in the battle, remembered that in a time of endemic racism their success helped change the attitudes of ordinary French people towards black Africans, and no one was prouder than the colonial troops’ white officers (above, Senegalese troops with a banner recognizing their service at Douaumont, a rare honor): 

We felt very proud after the attack because the French had tried many times to retake the fort, but finally, we [were the ones] that took it… And when we were leaving the fort, our officers told us not to wash our uniforms even though they were very dirty and covered with mud. But we were told: “Don’t wash your uniforms. Cross the country as you are so that everyone who meets you will know that you made the attack on Fort Douaumont.” And we took the train [and traveled] for three days between Douaumont and St. Raphäel. And in every town we crossed, the French were clapping their hands and shouting: “Vive les tirailleurs sénégalais!

See the previous installment or all entries.

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40 Fascinating Facts About Your Favorite Horror Movies
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United Artists

Now's the time when we pull out all of the scary movies in our collections and pile them up in preparation for a Halloween horror movie marathon. But before you grab the popcorn and dim the lights, bone up on your horror knowledge with these 40 facts about some of your favorite scary movies.

1. COUNT ORLOCK ONLY BLINKS ONCE IN NOSFERATU.

In the nine minutes of screen time Max Schreck has as Count Orlock in F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu (1922), he blinks only one time (near the end of part one).

2. THE EXORCIST WAS THE FIRST HORROR FILM TO BE NOMINATED FOR A BEST PICTURE OSCAR.

The horror genre has never gotten much love from the Academy. Though there still seems to be a bias against scary movies during awards season, The Exorcist earned 10 Oscar nominations in 1974, including a Best Supporting Actress nod for Linda Blair, who was just 15 years old at the time.

3. ROBERT ENGLUND WAS NOT THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY FREDDY KRUEGER.

NEW LINE CINEMA

Wes Craven reportedly planned to have a stuntman play the seemingly immortal youth-hater known as Freddy Krueger, but (wisely) opted to go with an accomplished actor for the role instead. His first choice was the brilliant British character actor David Warner, who you'll no doubt recognize from Time Bandits, Titanic, and various incarnations of Star Trek. Warner had to pass on the project, which opened the door for the truly excellent Robert Englund.

4. PSYCHO IS THE FIRST AMERICAN FILM TO FEATURE A TOILET.

Psycho is the first American film to show a toilet on screen. It's also the first American film in which we hear a toilet being flushed. (That's just how repressed Americans were in the 1950s.)

5. STEPHEN KING WASN’T A FAN OF THE SHINING.

In 1983, Stephen King told Playboy, “I’d admired [Stanley] Kubrick for a long time and had great expectations for the project, but I was deeply disappointed in the end result. Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fell flat.”

King didn’t like the casting of Jack Nicholson either, claiming, “Jack Nicholson, though a fine actor, was all wrong for the part. His last big role had been in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and between that and the manic grin, the audience automatically identified him as a loony from the first scene. But the book is about Jack Torrance’s gradual descent into madness through the malign influence of the Overlook—if the guy is nuts to begin with, then the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted.”

6. JAWS DOESN’T FULLY APPEAR IN A SHOT UNTIL ONE HOUR AND 21 MINUTES INTO THE MOVIE.

While the lack of shark appearances works to heighten the tension in Jaws, the real reason the shark isn’t shown in full is because the mechanical shark that was built rarely worked during filming. Director Steven Spielberg had to create inventive ways (like Quint’s yellow barrels) to shoot around the non-functional movie shark. 

7. FAY WRAY THOUGHT SHE’D BE STARRING OPPOSITE CARY GRANT IN KING KONG.

WARNER HOME VIDEO

In his attempts to entice Fay Wray into starring in King Kong (1933), director Merian C. Cooper promised, “You're going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” “While my thoughts were flying toward the hope that Cooper might be waiting for Cary's [Grant] arrival just as I was, Cooper went on to point at the giant ape and say, again, ‘The tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,’” recalled Wray.

8. IT TOOK SEVEN YEARS TO GET ALIENS MADE.

Why did it take seven years to get a sequel made? Lawyers and money, of course. Talk of a sequel began shortly after the original Alien (1979) was a hit, but it was delayed because of a dispute between the film’s producers and 20th Century Fox over the distribution of the original movie’s profits. Fox, reluctant to make a sequel because it would be expensive, finally agreed to it as a way of settling the beef with the producers—basically, “We won’t give you any more of the first movie’s profits, but we’ll greenlight a sequel, and you can make money from that.” (Amusingly, the same producers plus James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd sued Fox again after Aliens, claiming the studio had used “creative accounting” techniques to avoid paying them.)

9. BRIAN DE PALMA DIDN’T SEE SISSY SPACEK AS CARRIE.

Though Brian De Palma was a fan of Sissy Spacek’s work, he was convinced that he had already found his Carrie in another actress. His decision to let Spacek audition at all was mostly out of courtesy to her husband, Jack Fisk, the film’s art director. "He told me that if I wanted to, I could try out for the part of Carrie White,” Spacek recounted to Rolling Stone. "There was another girl that he was set on and unless he was really surprised, she was the one. I hung up and decided to go for it."

Spacek showed up at her audition in an old dress she hadn’t worn since grade school and with her hair slicked back with Vaseline. When she was done, she waited in the parking lot while her husband reviewed her audition with the rest of the production team. After Fisk came out to tell her that the part was hers, “We sped off before anybody could change his mind,” Spacek said.

10. ROMAN POLANSKI AND JOHN CASSAVETES HAD DIFFERENT IDEAS FOR ROSEMARY’S BABY.

In her 1997 autobiography, What Falls Away, Mia Farrow recounted the tense relationship between Roman Polanski and her Rosemary’s Baby co-star, writing that in the film’s climactic scene, “John became openly critical of Roman, who yelled, ‘John, shut up!’ and they moved toward each other,” and nearly came to blows. Apparently, it was Ruth Gordon and her “consummate professionalism” that calmed the situation down.

11. IN 2015, GEORGE ROMERO FOUND NINE MINUTES OF LOST FOOTAGE FROM NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Still from 'Night of the Living Dead'
Janus Films

While in Maryland for Monster-Mania Con this year, George Romeo shared that he recently unearthed a 16mm work print of Night of the Living Dead, which features approximately nine minutes of previously thought-to-be-lost footage at the jump cut in the basement, including “the largest zombie scene in the film.”

12. SERIAL KILLER ED GEIN INSPIRED THREE MAJOR HORROR MOVIES.

You’ve likely heard of Ed Gein. His house of horrors made headlines for years after he was sent to a mental hospital for his actions. They were so memorable, in fact, that he inspired some of the most iconic thrillers of all time: Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Among the items discovered at his Plainfield, Wisconsin farm were four noses, nine masks made of human skin, numerous decapitated heads, lampshades and bowls made of skin, lips being used as a pull on a window shade, and a belt made from nipples. Gein later admitted to only two murders and said most of the items had come from late-night cemetery raids.

13. THE HALLOWEEN SCRIPT DIDN'T CALL FOR A SPECIFIC KIND OF MASK.

The mask for Michael Myers was only described as having “the pale, neutral features of a man,” and for the movie the design was boiled down to two options—both were cheap latex masks painted white and bought for under $2 apiece at local toy stores by production designer Tommy Lee Wallace. One was a replica mask of a clown character called “Weary Willie” popularized by actor Emmett Kelly, and the other was a stretched out Captain Kirk mask from Star Trek. Carpenter chose the whitewashed Kirk mask because of its eerily blank stare that fit perfectly with the Myers character. 

14. THE BABADOOK SCARED THE HELL OUT OF WILLIAM FRIEDKIN.

IFC Films

On November 30, 2014, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook got a major publicity boost when The Exorcist director William Friedkin tweeted: “I've never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.”

15. A DOUBLE AMPUTEE WAS USED TO CREATE THE THING’S QUINTESSENTIAL SPECIAL EFFECT.

One of the most memorable scenes in John Carpenter's The Thing (often referred to as the “chest chomp”) occurs when Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive Norris (Charles Hallahan) with a defibrillator. As he presses the paddles to his patient’s skin, Norris’ chest opens up and Copper’s forearms disappear into the cavity, where they are severed below the elbow by a set of jaws inside Norris’ chest.

In order to pull this off, special makeup effects designer Rob Bottin (known for his work on RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, and Fight Club) found a man who had lost both of his arms below the elbow in an industrial accident. Bottin fit the man with two prosthetic forearms consisting of wax bones, rubber veins, and Jell-O. Then, for the wide-angle shot, he fit the man with a skin-like mask taken from a mold of Dysart’s face (à la Hannibal Lecter) and placed the ersatz arms into the chest cavity, where a set of mechanical jaws clamped down on them. As the actor pulled his arms away, the Jell-O arms severed below the elbows. The rest is practical effects history.

16. THE ORIGINAL ENDING OF FRIGHT NIGHT WAS MUCH DIFFERENT.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

17. THE STARS OF THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT USED GPS TRACKERS TO FIND THEIR INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE DAY.

Artisan Entertainment

Production programmed wait points in the GPS unit for the actors to locate milk crates with three little plastic canisters in them. Each plastic canister contained notes on where the story was going for each actor, who would not show the other two their paper. From that point they were free to improvise the dialogue, provided they followed the general instructions given to them.

18. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY IS THE MOST PROFITABLE FILM OF ALL TIME.

Often compared to The Blair Witch Project because of its low-budget nature and huge grosses, 10 years after The Blair Witch Project’s release, the original Paranormal Activity ousted the earlier horror film as the most profitable movie, based on return on investment (ROI). The Blair Witch Project cost about $60,000 to make whereas Paranormal Activity’s initial budget was just $15,000. Blair Witch grossed $248.6 million worldwide, which comes out to a 414,233 percent return on investment. After grossing $65 million, it was calculated that Paranormal Activity made a 433,900 percent ROI. Of course that doesn’t factor in its final worldwide gross of $193 million (which, if you do the math on that total, works out to a 1,286,566 percent ROI).

19. SCREAM WAS ORIGINALLY TITLED SCARY MOVIE.

The original title of the film was Scary Movie, but it was changed to Scream by the Weinstein brothers in the middle of production. They allegedly decided on the change because Harvey Weinstein was listening to the Michael Jackson song “Scream” in his car with his brother Bob. They both liked the title for a horror movie.

20. THE BLOB IS BASED ON A (SUPPOSEDLY) TRUE STORY.

On September 27, 1950, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article with the headline "Flying ‘Saucer’ Just Dissolves." The night before, police officers John Collins and Joe Keenen swore that they’d watched a mysterious object fall from the sky. Rushing towards the landing site, the men stumbled upon a purple, jelly-like mass. Collins and Keenen immediately summoned two of their colleagues, who arrived just in time to watch the material evaporate without a trace. The FBI was contacted, a press conference was held, and the whole mess became a national laughing stock.

Fast forward to 1957: That year, producer Jack H. Harris was looking to make a creature feature, but he couldn’t come up with a decent premise. So he asked his friend, Irvine H. Millgate, to try and devise one. "It’s gotta be a monster movie," explained Harris. "It’s gotta be in color instead of black and white. It can’t be a cheapy creepie, it’s gotta have some substance to it. It’s gotta have characters you can believe in. And there’s gotta be a unique monster—never been done before. And the method of killing the monster would have to be something that grandma could have cooked up on her stove." Millgate remembered the Philly incident and the rest is history.

21. JOEL COEN GOT HIS FIRST BREAK AS AN ASSISTANT EDITOR ON THE EVIL DEAD.

Before becoming the Oscar-winning filmmaking duo he and his brother Ethan are today, Joel Coen got his start as an assistant editor on The Evil Dead. Inspired by Raimi’s DIY filmmaking, Joel and his brother created a pitch trailer (much like Raimi’s Within the Woods) to raise money for their first feature, Blood Simple. While Dan Hedaya stars in the final film, Bruce Campbell plays the lead in the two-minute trailer.

22. TIM BURTON WAS IN CONTENTION TO DIRECT GREMLINS.

There was a lot of buzz surrounding Tim Burton after the success of his short film, Frankenweenie—so much so that Steven Spielberg considered him to direct Gremlins. But the fact that Burton had yet to direct a feature film worked against him, and the gig was given to Joe Dante. A year later, Burton released his first theatrical feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

23. BOB CLARK’S IDEA FOR A BLACK CHRISTMAS SEQUEL SOUNDS AWFULLY FAMILIAR.

A Christmas Story (1983) will be a lasting part of Bob Clark’s legacy, but for horror fans, the work he did in the 1970s is just as important. Films like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) and Deathdream (1974) got him notice, but Black Christmas (1974), one of the first slasher films, became a cult classic and earned him a dedicated following.

Clark said in an interview that John Carpenter asked him if he had considered making a sequel to Black Christmas. “I was through with horror," Clark explained. "I didn't come into the business to do just horror.” Carpenter asked him what the sequel would be like if he did want to make one, and Clark gave him an idea that should sound very familiar to fans of the genre: “I said it would be the next year and the guy would have actually been caught, escape from a mental institution, go back to the house and they would start all over again. And I would call it Halloween."

24. GENE HACKMAN WAS SLATED TO STAR IN—AND DIRECT—THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Gene Hackman and Orion Pictures split the $500,000 needed for the movie rights to the book. But Hackman dropped out days after he watched clips of himself at the 1989 Oscars as FBI Agent Alan Parker in the violent Mississippi Burning, deciding not to follow up a dark role with an even more unlikeable character.

25. CHILD’S PLAY WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL EVENT. (YES, CHILD'S PLAY.)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In 1909, Key West painter and author Robert Eugene Otto claimed that one of his family's servants placed a voodoo curse on his childhood toy, Robert the Doll. Supposedly, the doll would mysteriously move from room to room, knock furniture over, and conduct conversations with Otto. Robert the Doll was left in the attic until Otto's death in 1974, when new owners moved into his Florida home. The new family also claimed mysterious activities would happen in the house connected to the doll. Today, Robert the Doll is on display at the Custom House and Old Post Office in Key West, Florida.

26. THE CONJURING’S ED AND LORRAINE WARREN ARE REAL-LIFE PARANORMAL INVESTIGATORS.

The Conjuring is based on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren and their experience with the Perrons, a family who moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse and experienced ghostly and terrifying occurrences in 1971.

"When Insidious came out and was successful the story about the Warrens came to me and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is really cool,'” director James Wan told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. "But I didn’t just want to make another ghost story or another supernatural film. One thing I had never explored was the chance to tell a story that’s based on real-life characters, real-life people. So those were the things that led me to The Conjuring."

The Warrens also had a possessed Raggedy Ann doll that was the inspiration for the spin-off film Annabelle. Allegedly, a demon spirit possessed the Raggedy Ann doll, which is currently on display and under lock and key at the Warrens' Occult Museum in Monroe, Connecticut.

27. DAMIEN ORIGINALLY HAD A DIFFERENT NAME IN THE OMEN.

Screenwriter David Seltzer planned to name his antichrist Domlin after the “total obnoxious brat” child of a friend, until his wife convinced him that it would be a horrible thing to do to the kid. (Not to mention friendship-ending.) He landed on Damien after Father Damien, who started the first leper colony in the Hawaiian islands.

28. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON WAS MODELED AFTER THE OSCAR STATUETTE.

Universal managed to snag an up-and-coming filmmaker with a prestigious resume to direct Creature from the Black Lagoon: Jack Arnold, whose documentary With These Hands had received an Academy Award nomination. Though he didn’t get the Oscar, Arnold kept the souvenir certificate that the Academy always mailed to its nominees. The little card would go on to become an unexpected source of inspiration behind the scenes of Creature from the Black Lagoon.

As Arnold told Cinefantastique magazine in 1975, “There was a picture of the Oscar statuette on it. I said, ‘If we put a gilled head on [the figurine], plus fins and scales, that would look pretty much like the kind of creature we’re trying to get.’ So they made a mold out of rubber, and gradually the costume took shape.” At first, the creature had what leading lady Julie Adams (credited as Julia Adams) described as an “eel-like” physique. Slick and streamlined, the outfit didn’t come with much in the way of fins, ridges, or body armor. These were later enhanced to give the monster a more menacing appearance. 

29. BRUCE CAMPBELL MADE $93,000 FOR ARMY OF DARKNESS.

Scream Factory

To illustrate the plight of the working stiff actor, Bruce Campbell once provided a helpful breakdown of his salary for 1992’s second Evil Dead sequel, Army of Darkness. With a $500,000 salary nipped at by agents, managers, income taxes, and a now-ex wife, he figured he made roughly $93,000. But the film took two years to complete, meaning his net profit for portraying horror icon Ash in a major motion picture was less than $50,000 a year.

30. AN ACTUAL WITCH WAS HIRED TO HELP MAKE THE CRAFT MORE AUTHENTIC.

To make sure that the depiction of Wicca in The Craft was as close to real life as it could be, the filmmakers hired Pat Devin as a consultant. Devin is a member of one of the largest and oldest Wiccan religious organizations in United States, Covenant of the Goddess, and at the time she was the First Officer of the group’s Southern California Local Council. Devin played a big role in the production process and at times worked directly with the actresses. “A lot of my suggestions were acted upon and virtually all of my suggestions were given careful consideration,” Devin shared, “ even if they didn’t all end up in the final version of the film.”

31. THE NAME OF THE DEMON IN THE EXORCIST IS PAZUZU.

Though it’s never stated in the film, the demon that takes possession of Regan MacNeil has a name: Pazuzu, which is taken from the name of the king of the demons in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. 

32. WES CRAVEN REGRETTED TEASING A SEQUEL IN A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

Craven was rather staunchly opposed to any sort of "sequel tease" finale, but the big boss (that'd be New Line's Bob Shaye) insisted on one. “Bob wanted a hook for a sequel,” Craven told Vulture. “I felt that the film should end when Nancy turns her back on Freddy and his violence—that’s the one thing that kills him. Bob wanted to have Freddy pick up the kids in a car and drive off, which reversed everything I was trying to say—it suddenly presented Freddy as triumphant. I came up with a compromise, which was to have the kids get in the convertible, and when the roof comes down, we’d have Freddy’s red and green stripes on it. Do I regret changing the ending? I do, because it’s the one part of the film that isn’t me.”

33. STANLEY KUBRICK ALLEGEDLY TYPED ALL OF THOSE “ALL WORK” PAGES IN THE SHINING.

Warner Home Video

No one is quite sure whether Kubrick typed 500 pages of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Kubrick didn’t go to the prop department with this task, using his own typewriter to make the pages. It was a typewriter that had built-in memory, so it could have turned out the pages without an actual person. But the individual pages in the film contain different layouts and mistakes. Some claim that it would have been characteristic of the director to individually prepare each page. Alas, we’ll never know—Kubrick never addressed this question before he died.

34. THE ENDING OF PSYCHO WAS SPOILED MONTHS BEFORE THE FILM'S RELEASE.

Despite Hitchcock's fervent and admirable attempts at keeping the project a secret, both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter published very thorough spoilers regarding the Psycho plot months before the film actually came out.

35. STEVEN SPIELBERG THOUGHT HIS DVD COPY OF PARANORMAL ACTIVITY WAS HAUNTED.

As the urban legend goes, Spielberg, whose DreamWorks Studios was considering distributing Paranormal Activity, took a DVD of the movie home to watch, but then got freaked out when the door to his bedroom locked by itself. “So the whole story about how the doors to his bedroom got locked from the inside ... personally I believe it,” Peli told Moviefone. “It’s not something the marketing department just came up with before releasing the movie.” Spielberg famously carried the DVD to work in a trash bag because he thought it was haunted. Despite the shock, Spielberg loved the movie and suggested a new ending that was used in the theatrical release.

36. DREW BARRYMORE WAS SLATED TO STAR IN SCREAM.

Barrymore changed her mind about playing the lead five weeks before production was set to begin. Barrymore instead suggested she play Casey Becker, the teen terrorized by the killer in the opening scene, to cleverly subvert audience expectations that a star of her stature would survive the movie. Casting directors approached Alicia Witt, Brittany Murphy, and Reese Witherspoon to take over the Sidney Prescott role before eventually casting Neve Campbell.

37. JAMES CAMERON HAD TO QUASH A MUTINY ON THE SET OF ALIENS.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Aliens was shot at England’s historic Pinewood Studios, which provided its own unionized crew members for productions using the facilities. Some of these workers resented the 14-hour days and, having no idea what James Cameron was capable of (The Terminator hadn’t opened yet), thought he was in over his head. In particular, the first assistant director thought he should be directing Aliens. He mocked Cameron, called him “guv’nor,” rolled his eyes at him ... and got himself fired for insubordination. The new first assistant director behaved respectfully, and things were better after that.

38. SISSY SPACEK WAS ADAMANT THAT HER OWN HAND APPEAR IN CARRIE’S FINAL SCENE.

Though Brian De Palma wanted to get a stunt person for the final scene, where Sue Snell visits Carrie’s grave, Spacek insisted that it needed to be her hand that was shown, which required her to be buried in the ground. “I laughed about that,” Spacek told NPR. "I do all my own foot and hand work, and always have."

39. BUFFALO BILL’S DANCE IN THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS WAS NOT IN THE SCRIPT.

But it was in the original book, and Ted Levine, the actor who played the serial killer Jame Gumb, insisted that the scene be included because it helped explain the demented character better.

40. JAWS ORIGINALLY ENDED JUST LIKE MOBY DICK.

The original ending in the script had the shark dying of harpoon injuries inflicted by Quint and Brody à la Moby Dick, but Spielberg thought the movie needed a crowd-pleasing finale and came up with the exploding tank as seen in the final film. The dialogue and foreshadowing of the tank were then dropped in as they shot the movie.

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14 Colorful Facts About Reservoir Dogs
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Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment

Many directors come to the world’s attention gradually and quietly over the course of a few films. Quentin Tarantino is not one of those directors. His feature debut, Reservoir Dogs, blasted Sundance audiences’ faces off in January of 1992 before doing the same in Cannes, Toronto, and at your local multiplex exactly 25 years ago today. Seldom has a filmmaker’s debut attracted so much controversy and acclaim, or inspired so much discussion about the meaning of “Like a Virgin.” Let’s put on our black suits and skinny ties and dive into the nitty-gritty. Don’t forget to tip your waitress!

1. IT WAS THE DARLING OF SUNDANCE 1992 ... AND THEN DIDN’T WIN ANYTHING.

Reservoir Dogs had its world premiere at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, where it was the buzziest movie on the schedule (assisted by an industry pre-screening a few weeks earlier). Quentin Tarantino later recounted how everyone kept telling him the jury awards were going to come down to either his film or one other (though people had different ideas of which other film was his main competition). And in the end? Of the eight awards given to non-documentary features, Reservoir Dogs received zero of them.

2. MOST OF IT WAS FILMED IN A MORTUARY.

The empty building where our multi-colored heroes rendezvous after the robbery was actually a disused mortuary. When Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi go to that back room to argue and wash blood off themselves, you can clearly see plastic tubes, embalming fluid, and such. It’s a fitting location to use, considering the way the movie ends.

3. TIM ROTH’S CHARACTER’S APARTMENT WAS UPSTAIRS FROM THE MORTUARY.

For a location scout, finding one building that can serve two different purposes is like hitting a home run.

4. IT WENT THROUGH SEVERAL CASTING PERMUTATIONS.

In the early stages, Tarantino was going to play Mr. Pink himself, with producer Lawrence Bender as Nice Guy Eddie. Steve Buscemi was later considered for Nice Guy Eddie, but ended up playing Mr. Pink, a role for which Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde) auditioned. Samuel L. Jackson and Ving Rhames both almost played Holdaway (the cop Tim Roth works with in flashbacks). Robert Forster, who later appeared in QT’s Jackie Brown, auditioned for the part of Joe, which went to Lawrence Tierney.

5. THERE WERE SOME UNUSUAL OFFERS FROM PRODUCERS.

While searching for producers to finance the film and save them from having to make it themselves on a minuscule budget, Tarantino and Bender fielded several offers that sounded good but had a catch to them. One producer offered $1.6 million, but only if the ending was changed so that everyone who was dead came back to life, the whole thing having been a hoax or a con of some kind. Another offered $500,000 … but only if his girlfriend could play Mr. Blonde. (Bender said it was such a bizarre idea that he and Tarantino actually considered it.)

6. MR. BLUE HAD BEEN A BANK ROBBER IN REAL LIFE.

Before he was an actor, Eddie Bunker was a criminal, spending much of the first half of his life in various correctional facilities. He went straight in 1975, at the age of 42, writing several crime novels (Tarantino was a fan), and eventually doing some acting and screenwriting. Eleven years before Reservoir Dogs, he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel with a prescient title: Little Boy Blue.

7. HARVEY KEITEL WAS THE LEAD CHARACTER IN GETTING THE FILM MADE, TOO.

When Tarantino and Bender were trying to get the project off the ground, they got a lucky break. Bender was taking an acting class from one Peter Floor, who asked the boys who their dream choice would be for the lead in Reservoir Dogs. Well, that’d be Harvey Keitel, Bender said. As it happened, Floor’s ex-wife, also an acting coach, knew Keitel from the Actors Studio in New York, and got him a copy of the script. Keitel loved it and signed on immediately as star and producer, which helped attract Chris Penn and Michael Madsen.

8. LAWRENCE TIERNEY WAS CRAZY.

This is a recurring theme in stories about Tierney (see also: his one-time guest spot as Elaine’s dad in a season two episode of Seinfeld). The legendary tough guy and frequently off-the-wagon drinker got into a heated argument with Tarantino during the first week of shooting, ending with QT firing him. (He recanted.) Other cast members talked about going out drinking with Tierney, who once ended up with his pants down outside a bar. Coincidentally, Tierney and Bunker had worked together before, kind of: they got into a fistfight in an L.A. parking lot sometime in the 1950s. (According to Bunker, Tierney didn’t recall the incident.)

9. TARANTINO GOT ENCOURAGEMENT FROM TERRY GILLIAM.

In June 1991, Tarantino took his screenplay and a few actors to the Sundance Institute’s screenplay workshop. Several of the judges were very positive about it (some weren’t), but the most encouraging was the man who’d made Time Bandits, Brazil, and (to be released a few months later) The Fisher King. Terry Gilliam’s best piece of advice to Tarantino, a first-time director, was to learn to delegate. As Tarantino later told Charlie Rose, when he asked Gilliam how to bring his vision to the screen, “he said, ‘Well, Quentin, you have to understand, as a director you don’t have to do that. Your job is to hire talented people who can do that. You hire a cinematographer who can get the kind of quality that you want … You have a talented costume designer who can give the colors that you need and the flamboyance or not that you want … Your job is articulating to them what you want on the screen.’ And then, all of a sudden, the whole mystical shaman, mystic thing that I thought directing was just went boom. And I realized I could do that … I can describe what I want. I know what’s in my head.”

10. IT WAS HOT. SO VERY, VERY HOT.

The movie was shot in July and August in Los Angeles, which is not a comfortable place to be in July and August. What’s more, it was shot inside a stuffy warehouse crammed with very hot lights. Oh, and everybody was wearing black suits. Tim Roth said it got so hot in there that the pool of fake blood he was lying in would glue him to the floor.

11. A MISTAKE LED TO ONE OF THE FILM’S MYSTERIES.

In the climactic showdown, Joe’s pointing a gun at Mr. Orange (on the floor, already dying), Mr. White is pointing a gun at Joe, and Nice Guy Eddie (Joe’s son, played by Chris Penn) is pointing a gun at Mr. White. Joe shoots Orange, White shoots Joe, Eddie shoots White … but four gunshots are heard, and everyone who wasn’t already on the ground ends up that way. So who shot Nice Guy Eddie? (You can find T-shirts asking that question.) The only logical answer, and the way it was supposed to have played out, is that Mr. White did. He shot Joe, then shot Eddie at the same time Eddie was shooting him. But according to Chris Penn, when they filmed it, the squib on Keitel’s (Mr. White’s) body went off slightly prematurely, Keitel went down as he fired his second shot (which looks like it’s still aimed at Joe), and then Penn’s squib exploded as planned. Penn noticed right away that it was ambiguous, but Tarantino decided to leave it that way.

12. WHATEVER EXPLANATION YOU’VE HEARD FOR THE TITLE PROBABLY ISN’T TRUE.

Tarantino told potential investors that “reservoir dog” was a gangster term from French films like Breathless and Bande à Parte, and that it meant “rat.” That wasn’t true; Tarantino just knew that investors would want an explanation for the title, and that they wouldn’t know those films well enough to contradict him. Later, the widely told story was that it came from Tarantino’s days working at a video store, when he recommended Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants (1987) and the customer misheard it as “reservoir dogs.” (But Tarantino expert Dale Sherman points out in his book, Quentin Tarantino FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Original Reservoir Dog, that Au revoir les enfants wasn’t available to rent until after Tarantino’s employment at the video store.) Another version of the story has Tarantino’s girlfriend recommending that movie, and QT himself mishearing it. Yet others have suggested that it was a combination of Au revoir les enfants and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). Tarantino has never given a clear, plausible explanation for the title, so quit asking him.

13. THE EAR-CUTTING SCENE INVOLVED SOME IMPROVISATION.

Kirk Baltz, who played poor Officer Marvin Nash, ad-libbed the exclamation, “I’ve got a little kid at home!” It was allegedly so shocking that Michael Madsen, who had an 18-month-old son, had to take a break to regain his composure. Madsen later did some macabre improvisation of his own, talking into the severed ear.

14. THE TORTURE SCENE WAS TOO MUCH FOR MANY VIEWERS—INCLUDING HORROR ICON WES CRAVEN.

The man who made The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street walked out of Reservoir Dogs while Officer Nash was being tortured. It was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1992, a few weeks before the theatrical release. Craven later recalled, “When I was out in the lobby, this kid came pounding out of the shadows and said, ‘You’re Wes Craven, right?’ I said yeah, and he said, ‘And you’re leaving because you can’t take it?’ I said yeah, and he said, ‘I just scared Wes Craven!’ It was Quentin Tarantino, and I didn’t know who he was at the time. But I just don’t like watching people get tortured.” Fair enough, sir.

Additional sources:
Interviews included in the DVD special features Quentin Tarantino: The Pocket Essential Guide, by D.K. Holm Quentin Tarantino FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Original Reservoir Dog, by Dale Sherman

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