By Michael G. Glab
It’s a glorious fall day. The leaves are turning, the air is crisp, kids are playing in the street.
Lawrence McCallum approaches. His eyes are blank, his head’s bowed. People passing him on the sidewalk smile. Not McCallum.
I pop a tape into the VCR and draw the blinds, shutting out the sun. We’re going to watch a horror movie.
Now McCallum smiles.
A self-styled expert in horror movies, McCallum is the author of a book, Italian Horror Films of the 1960s. He got religion at the long-gone Illington Theater on Cermak near Western, where horror flicks double billed in matinees with crime capers or comedies. A lot of kids squirmed in their seats. Not McCallum. Movies like Psycho scared the hell out of him. “But I enjoyed them so much,” he says. “I could be frightened by something in the theater and then walk away from it. Actual horror is everyday life–you can’t walk away from that.”
McCallum’s life is his horror. See him walking the streets near his home in Heart of Chicago, and he looks like a character in a horror film. His complexion is pasty, his frame gaunt, his gait timorous, as if he expects Van Helsing to leap out and thrust a crucifix in his face.
Yet he can hardly keep his mouth shut as we watch one of his favorite movies: 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. “The short story this was based on was entitled ‘Farewell to the Master’ by Harry Bates,” he says. “John Carpenter called this left-wing sci-fi.”
The movie follows the travails of Klaatu, a visitor from another planet who wants to warn earthlings about the dangers of the nuclear age. It’s a moody film, full of shadows, odd camera angles, and an overwhelming sense of fear.
McCallum is positively giddy. He bounces in his seat as he identifies every bit player and names their subsequent films.
He takes off an old baseball cap and runs his fingers through his gray hair. He removes his horn-rimmed glasses, tilts his head back to take a swig of beer, and massages his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. Normally hidden behind Coke-bottle lenses, his eyes are now in plain sight. They’re a soft steel blue. They’ve seen trouble.
While McCallum reveled in Saturday matinees at the Illington, the rest of his week was spent in terror. He knew he was different. “From the age of six on up, I didn’t care about sports, didn’t follow them at all,” he says. “Except I collected baseball cards because my parents would have thought I was bizarre if I hadn’t.”
But he was bizarre. At least that’s what the kids thought at Pickard elementary school. “I was pretty much on my own,” he says. “I tried to avoid conflicts. If the kids mentioned something about the White Sox or the Cubs, I’d know very little about it. At that age, if you don’t care about baseball, there is something terribly wrong with you. So I didn’t try to talk a lot.” His silence made him different. “That is an outrage to some kids,” he says.
His classmates punished him for not caring about baseball and for a hundred other sins. “There was a lot of ridicule and harassment,” he says. “I was beaten up more than once. That went on for a long time.” Like a lot of kids who become the butt of school-yard bullies, McCallum began to vent his rage. “I had a violent temper from age 8 to 12,” he says. “I’d explode.”
Once a pack of four kids stood him up against a wall to punch and kick him. When they stopped, McCallum spied a pile of wood nearby. “I grabbed one of the timbers,” he says. “I ran after them, screamed at the top of my lungs, and swung it at this one kid I singled out. Somebody warned him, and he ducked his head. If he hadn’t done that, I would have knocked him cold. I came very close to injuring someone very seriously.”
A spacecraft lands among the baseball diamonds of a park in Washington, D.C. Players and picnickers flee in panic. Army tanks and soldiers surround the saucer, as Klaatu, thin and ethereal, emerges. He promises “peace and goodwill” and is promptly shot down.
McCallum blurts out an explanation, correlating Klaatu and another messenger of peace ostensibly from the heavens. “Religious implications were prevalent in 1950s sci-fi,” he says. “Here it was a little more subtle: Klaatu as the Christ figure.”
Klaatu is sutured up in Walter Reed Hospital, and his wound miraculously heals overnight. He tells a presidential secretary to set up a meeting of all the world’s leaders. The secretary complains that many of the leaders won’t sit at the same table. Klaatu looks out the window and sees people walking the hospital grounds. “Before making any decisions,” he says, “I think I should get out among your people, become familiar with the basis for these strange, unreasoning attitudes.”
“A horror film deals with a sense of outrage,” McCallum says. “Supernatural things like vampires or demons are often associated with horror films. But a horror film doesn’t have to be supernatural. It should contain a violation of our moral sensibilities. That is more often disturbing. Psycho dealt with transvestism, incest, and matricide. There was The Man With the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra. Otto Preminger directed it. That was a horror film. It was horrifying to see a man’s decay, physically, morally, psychologically. The sense of horror built gradually throughout the film.
“In a way, Vincent Price defined horror films in the 1950s and ’60s, but he actually did thrillers, fantasies celebrating Halloween at a Saturday matinee, grown-up fairy tales.”
McCallum has seen thousands of movies, some a dozen times. “I can even remember a lot of dialogue word for word,” he says without appearing to boast. “In Attack of the Giant Leeches, the fat, sweaty character played by Bruno VeSota says to his bored young bride wearing a leopard-skin bikini, ‘Yew mah wife, Liz. Yew act as though yew doan want me to touch yew!'”
In the 1950s and early ’60s, McCallum explains, the term “adult film” didn’t refer to pornography. Most adult films back then told stories of unrestrained passions, sexual indiscretions, and ensuing rages of jealous violence. Like the Roger Corman-produced Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), “many crossed over into the horror genre.” Such films were rife with bathtub stompings, brutal stabbings, lovers riddled with bullet holes, and justice conveyed through the sweet spot of a baseball bat.
“White trash was big in the adult industry back then,” McCallum says. The films had titles like Common Law Wife (1963) and Poor White Trash (1962). “These were adult features about decadent backwoods people.”
The brutality of that world was familiar to little Larry McCallum. “My father was born in Texas, but he grew up in southern Illinois. His father was a coal miner.” His dad’s family settled in Williamson County. Reporters who covered the 1922 Herrin Massacre Trial–in which no one was brought to justice for the killing of 20 strikebreakers–labeled the area “Bloody Williamson.” McCallum recalls hearing stories of sadistic employers, violent strikes, corrupt politics, and the prevalence of the Klan. “That affected my father’s sensibilities,” he says. “When he grew up, he became a factory worker and, from time to time, a farm laborer. He drank heavily. He had a violent temper. That was a horror I was witness to. Seeing fictional horror was an escape from it.”
McCallum says his mother could match his father’s outbursts. “She was violent. In fact, my sister Linda is nearly deaf in one ear as a result of beatings by my mother’s fists.”
Things were worse at school.
Klaatu escapes from the hospital, and a manhunt begins. He moves into a rooming house, where he becomes chummy with a war widow and her little boy. The kid takes Klaatu to Arlington National Cemetery and points out the grave of his father. Klaatu looks across the vast field of white crosses and asks, “Did all these people die in wars?” The boy shrugs. “Most of them,” he says matter-of-factly.
McCallum was an exceptional student in elementary school. He skipped grades twice. “But then I lost interest because nothing inspired me–except being in a movie theater,” he says. “In the classroom, I was out the window. When the teacher was talking, I was looking at a jet airplane going overhead, wishing that I was on it.”
The dreamer who stared out the window drew the attention of his classmates. They’d harass him, he’d rage, and he’d get into trouble. When he complained to his teachers, he says, they only humored him. “It was always, ‘It’s normal for some kids to be outsiders. You have to live with that,'” he says. “But when you’re the outsider, it isn’t normal–it’s torment.”
He’d go to the Illington with a couple of kindred aliens. “I’d go with two pals, Steve and John. They were into horror movies as much as I was. Steve and John were outsiders also. We had our own little clique. We’d discuss the harassment we’d gone through the previous week,” he says.
When the three graduated from elementary school, they went their separate ways: John’s parents sent him to a Catholic high school in hopes he wouldn’t be picked on so much; Steve’s family moved to the suburbs.
Alone at the Illington, McCallum watched and learned. He’d read anything he could get his hands on about horror films. He was becoming a walking encyclopedia.
Klaatu meets an Einstein-like scientist named Dr. Barnhardt. He warns Barnhardt he may resort to violence to get his message across, “since that’s the only language your people seem to understand.”
McCallum launches into an impromptu lecture. “The horror genre in Italy began during the silent era,” he says. “When the fascists came to power, they felt that type of thing was psychologically unhealthy. So the making of horror films was suppressed for 35 years.”
After World War II, censorship eased, and horror was reintroduced to Italian cinema. “The horror genre really reemerged in 1956 with a film titled I vampiri [“The Vampires”] directed by Riccardo Freda,” McCallum says. “It was a commercial failure in the U.S.” Freda followed up with Caltiki the Immortal Monster, shot in Mexico in 1958. In the movie a group of archaeologists unwittingly release a Blob-like Mayan goddess. “That was a big hit at the Saturday matinees in this country,” McCallum says. “Caltiki established the international market for the Italian horror film.”
The Italian director Mario Bava also became hot in the U.S. in the late 50s and early 60s. He directed The Evil Eye, Black Sunday, and Black Sabbath, all of which did good matinee business. Around the same time the Italian-made Hercules films, starring muscle man Steve Reeves, hit the American market.
“In the early 60s the Italian genre drew more and more interest,” McCallum says. “Black Sunday was picked up by American International Pictures in 1961 and widely distributed. A lot of the reviews were good and it was a box office success. Afterwards AIP began doing coproduction deals with Italian producers. They had a five-film contract with Mario Bava.
“By the early 60s, there were crossover features, sword-and-sandal into horror, such as Hercules in the Haunted World. Hercules enters hell to seize the golden apple, which has mystical powers, to save Queen Dianira. She’s been victimized by a horrible usurper named King Lyco of Ecalia, played by Christopher Lee. He wishes to drive her insane, seize her kingdom, and use it for his own ends.”
One of the hallmarks of the Italian horror and sword-and-sandal movies is the laughable English dubbing. According to McCallum, Christopher Lee delivered his lines in perfect Italian in the original versions and then did his own English dubbing. “Christopher Lee speaks eight languages,” McCallum says. “He did, I believe, three films in Italy: Hercules in the Haunted World, Castle of the Living Dead, and Hard Times for Vampires–here it was retitled Uncle Was a Vampire.”
McCallum doesn’t speak Italian. “All I know is what I learned translating titles,” he says. “I had an aunt who speaks fluent Italian. There’s a film in the book called Un angelo per Satana [“An Angel for Satan”]. It was never dubbed into English. My aunt and I watched it together. We’d stop the tape from time to time and I’d ask, ‘What does this sentence mean?’ ‘What does that sentence mean?’ But I got the gist of the story.”
Dr. Barnhardt invites the world’s foremost scientists to a meeting at Klaatu’s spaceship. Military troops track down Klaatu; he’s in a taxi with the boy’s mother. Cornered, he climbs out of the cab and gets gunned down by soldiers.
McCallum is talking about his high school days. He went to Harrison, a few blocks from Cook County Jail, in the late 1960s. “That was really rough, a lot of gangs, a lot of racial conflict, harassment, intimidation, beatings–that happened frequently,” he says. He’d learned to stifle his rage. “By about age 14, I passed beyond that and became passive. I learned to tune out my surroundings. That was a lot less negative.”
There was a lot to tune out at Harrison. “Oh, from day one,” McCallum says. “Open abuse in the classroom, people would be ridiculed and harassed. The teachers would say very little or would just sit in the front and look down and pretend it wasn’t happening. The psychological effect was severe. People who were introverted would introvert even more. You couldn’t fight back because you’d have a whole pack on top of you once you left the classroom. So it was a no-win situation.
“I was ridiculed. I was harassed. I was cut with a straight razor. I was burned with sulfuric acid, beaten, hit over the head with chemistry-lab instruments, nearly knocked unconscious. I was beaten by three kids in the chemistry lab, tossed in a closet and locked in there for half an hour, punched, kicked, slammed against the wall, knocked down a flight of stairs. Things like that would happen every two or three weeks. I was brutalized by the football jocks. It was a reflection of the environment. There were a lot of gangs. There were a lot of brutes.”
Klaatu’s traveling companion, a huge robot named Gort, can vaporize anything from a pistol to a planet. The boy’s mother runs to the saucer in the park to tell Gort not to destroy the earth. Gort picks up the woman and carries her into the spaceship; he then retrieves Klaatu’s body, puts it in a machine, and brings Klaatu back to life.
McCallum nods sagely. “See the messianic implications?”
As a teenager, McCallum marched against the Vietnam war. “I’d been active in the peace movement,” he says. “I was still an outsider but I had more acceptance in the peace movement. I marched and I leafleted and I spoke to people on the street. I got a lot of verbal abuse but that was nothing after all I’d gone through.” It gave him a sense of purpose. “That was validating. I had some value socially.”
After graduating from Roosevelt University in 1974 with a degree in journalism, McCallum flirted with the idea of becoming a teacher. “Being a high school student was bad enough, but having to teach in a public high school? Was I strong enough to protect certain people? I didn’t want to risk that.” So he drifted into the nearly passe hippie world. “I dropped out,” he says. “I became an intellectual.”
He started hanging in the Old Town coffeehouses he’d visited as a teenager, and he eked out a living by buying and selling used books. He stayed on the fringe. These days he hangs around East Pilsen on the periphery of its artists’ community. Even in a crowd of eccentrics, McCallum remains isolated. “That’s what I prefer,” he says.
Looking like a mad scientist’s assistant probably hasn’t helped. Few people in East Pilsen have tried to get to know him. In a community where painters, sculptors, and writers trumpet their works at every opportunity, not many know McCallum is a published author.
“I’m an outsider here in East Pilsen,” he says.
Resurrected, Klaatu appears in front of the spaceship with Gort and the boy’s mother. He tells the world’s top scientists that the human race’s experimentation with nuclear energy and its propensity to fight may soon imperil the inhabitants of neighboring planets. Clean up your act, Klaatu says, or we’ll do it for you. Once again, McCallum smiles.
With no prospects, McCallum cast about for something to do with his life. He got by on odd jobs until the late 1980s. Then “I thought, ‘If I could write about films and use my writing skills to amuse people or educate them, I’m serving a positive function.’ That’s what I wanted to do.” He fell back on one of the few things that have ever given him pleasure–horror movies.
“I started writing articles for small-press magazines: Filmfax, Scary Monsters, The Scream Factory. I wrote a column called ‘The Late Show,’ a compilation of capsule film reviews. I wrote profiles of film directors, actors, and special-effects artists, like Eiji Tsuburaya, who did the effects for the Japanese B-grade features, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Rodan, and so forth. I did a piece on Ray Harryhausen, who did the special effects for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, It Came From Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and many others.
“I wrote a piece for Filmfax number 31 that had a full-cover treatment. It was the first piece I wrote that I had a personal fan letter for. It came from a fellow in Norfolk, Virginia, who grew up in the 40s and watched all the old Universal and RKO horror films. He sent me a four-page letter that he said he wrote at two o’clock in the morning because what I’d written was preying on his mind. That was bizarre, but it was inspiring. Since then I’ve gotten fan mail from as far away as Florida, New York, Oklahoma, and Australia. It’s strange to think I’ve been recognized internationally but people around me have no idea what I’m into.”
Four years ago McCallum decided to write a book, but he needed an angle that hadn’t been done to death. “When it comes to movies, so much has been done, so much has been written about,” he says. “Finding a fresh topic and doing an exhaustive study of that was difficult. But I knew Italian horror hadn’t been covered. I queried a publisher, McFarland & Company, and they were interested.”
Coincidentally another writer had queried McFarland in North Carolina about the same subject. “I beat him to the punch by coming up with a table of contents and a sample chapter,” McCallum says, smiling at the memory of a rare victory. McFarland gave him the go-ahead.
So McCallum made an arrangement with a friend to watch rented videos on his VCR (McCallum has neither a VCR nor a television). For movies he couldn’t find, he wrote the story recaps from memory. He pecked away at an old Olivetti typewriter; he says he had to get special permission from the publisher to submit his manuscript in such an antediluvian fashion.
“I wrote all the essays longhand and then typed everything up,” he says. “It’s what I did seven days a week. That was my whole life for 18 months. Oh, I felt great! That period had more meaning for me than anything else I’d ever done. At the same time, I wrote essays on individual films for Scary Monsters. I wrote installments of the review column for The Scream Factory. So I got little checks in the mail that kept me going.”
Italian Horror Films of the 1960s: A Critical Catalog of 62 Chillers was released in September 1998. That fall McCallum had his first autograph session, at The Stars Our Destination bookstore on Belmont. He says he was so nervous he had to drink a few beers beforehand, “just to loosen up.”
Last year a husband-and-wife team on WTMJ radio in Milwaukee did a live phone interview with McCallum. “That was a little frightening at first,” he says. “I didn’t get drunk though. But I drank eight cups of coffee that morning. I wanted to have enough energy. I was raring to go. I had the receiver in my hand, and I was weaving back and forth, going, ‘C’mon, c’mon, I’m ready!’ The DJ knew a lot about the field, but not as much as I did, so I could control the conversation.”
McCallum’s freelance business has slipped–The Scream Factory went under and Scary Monsters switched to an interview-only format. He still does a column for an irregularly published little magazine called Bare Bones, and he’s hoping to find a publisher for a compilation of his movie reviews. He writes tavern reviews for the monthly newspaper Barfly, but his income mainly comes from participating in focus groups at marketing research firms.
And then there’s money from the book. At $45 a copy, Italian Horror Films of the 1960s has found customers among university libraries and serious film scholars. Twice a year McCallum collects a royalty check. He may not be smiling, but he’s not complaining.
The Day the Earth Stood Still ends with a montage of reaction shots: scientists of every race and color look up to Klaatu as he delivers his message of peace. There’s a hokiness to it, but McCallum can’t help but buy into its civics-class didacticism. It’s dark in my living room; the TV screen fades to black, and we can hear the kids playing outside in the sunshine. “That,” McCallum says, “was fun.”
He empties his beer bottle in one long swig and stands up to strap on a backpack. “We can frighten ourselves artificially,” he explains, sounding like a doctor extolling a home-brewed remedy for what has ailed him the past 46 years. “But we can leave the theater and leave the fear behind. If our everyday problems could be solved so easily, that would be wonderful. This movie has a cathartic value. We think, ‘I’m frightened but I survived it. I’m still here. I walked away from it.’
“But I can’t walk away from the things I face every day: survival, street-gang warfare, thievery, police oppression, political corruption, all of those things are going to be with us our whole lives. That is the true horror.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.