Filmmaker worked on arthouse, schlock

Director Curtis Harrington, who worked on avant-garde films, ’60s schlock and nighttime TV soaps, died Sunday at his house in the Hollywood Hills of natural causes. He was 80.

Harrington suffered a stroke in 2005 and never fully recovered, according to his friend, screenwriter Robert Mundy. “Whether you liked them or you didn’t, you always knew it was a Curtis Harrington film,” Mundy said of the helmer’s work.

A longtime host of Hollywood salons and parties, as well as an inveterate film buff, Harrington was friend and associate to much of the onetime Hollywood underground as well as to industry figures, including Josef von Sternberg, Kenneth Anger, Helmut Newton, James Whale and Bill Condon.

Harrington swung between commercial Hollywood and the avant-garde, making documentary “The Four Seasons” for the U.S. Information Agency and then appearing in Anger’s underground short “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” alongside Anais Nin. He worked for producer Jerry Wald as a story editor and head of development, serving as associate producer on films including “Return to Peyton Place,” before striking out on his own. According to Mundy, Harrington credited Wald with helping him develop his talent for story construction.

His first feature, “Night Tide,” starred Dennis Hopper in a black and white surrealistic mermaid story set in Venice, Calif. Moving into genre fare, he used the pseudonym John Sebastian for his next feature, “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet,” starring Basil Rathbone and exec produced by Roger Corman.

His only studio film was Universal’s 1967 pic “Games,” with Simone Signoret and James Caan, and he spent much of the ’60s and ’70s directing programmers, such as “Queen of Blood” and “The Cat Creature.”

The 1971 movie “Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?,” starring Harrington’s close friend Shelley Winters, was a popular creeper of its time; Winters co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in his next film, “What’s the Matter With Helen?”

His 1973 pic “The Killing Kind,” about a sociopathic teenager, was recently revived at several retrospectives. Mundy said one of Harrington’s personal favorites was TV movie “The Killer Bees,” which starred Gloria Swanson, with whom he also became close.

Leaving behind his avant-garde roots, although perhaps not the camp sensibilities of his earlier films, he moved into directing episodic television, including “Dynasty,” “The Colbys,” “Wonder Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.” The 1977 horror pic “Ruby” starred Piper Laurie, but a different ending was filmed without Harrington’s consent. More successful was 1978 TV movie “Devil Dog, Hound of Hell,” a return to full-blown exploitation fare.

Harrington had mostly retired until deciding, at the age of 75, to direct the short “Usher,” based on the Edgar Allan Poe story, in which he also starred. It played several festivals, with Harrington making appearances to support the film. “It was a remarkably good film,” said Mundy.

Harrington was born in Los Angeles and grew up in rural Beaumont, Calif., giving him a lifelong affection for small-town Americana. He starting making short films at the age of 14 and attended Occidental, USC and UCLA.

He had no survivors.

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