Max Rosenberg

Producer of gruesome horror movies
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Max Rosenberg, film producer: born New York 13 September 1914; married (two daughters); died Los Angeles 14 June 2004.

Max Rosenberg was the producer of nearly 50 low-budget films, many of them cult horror movies, during a movie career that lasted for over half a century. With his partner Milton Subotsky, he produced such films as Dr Terror's House of Horrors and Tales from the Crypt, plus the early rock'n'roll musical Rock, Rock, Rock.

He and Subotsky initiated the Hammer horror cycle when they produced The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which is credited with single-handedly reviving interest in Gothic horror movies. Its controversial, gruesome black humour, the droll performance of Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee's unusually realistic monster (fashioned by the famed make-up expert Jack Pierce) resulted in a surprise hit that cost $250,000 and made a profit of $7m.

Rosenberg, the son of a furrier, was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1914 and after graduating from City College he trained as a lawyer at the St John Law School. He entered the film business in 1939 as a distributor of foreign films. In 1945 he and Joseph E. Levine formed Motion Picture Ventures, bringing such imports as Roberto Rossellini's Rome Open City to American art-house screens.

His career as a producer started in 1954, when he joined forces with Milton Subotsky to make an award-winning television series of do-it-yourself science programmes for children entitled Junior Science. The pair moved into films with Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), starring Tuesday Weld in her screen début, with her singing voice dubbed to good effect by Connie Francis. Featuring the top disc-jockey Alan Freed, the film had guest performances by the rock favourites Chuck Berry, Johnny Burnette, the Flamingoes, LaVern Baker and Frankie Lymon. Rosenberg recalled,

It took nine days to make. The exciting thing was collecting the music. As for the picture itself, there's not much to recommend it. It's just a bunch of songs connected to a stupid plot.

The following year the team made The Curse of Frankenstein in Britain and in 1962 Rosenberg and Subotsky formed their own company in England, Amicus Productions, specialising in horror and science-fiction films. They became especially noted for their anthologies, films featuring four or five stories built around a central theme. The first (and arguably the best) was Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965), in which five men travelling together by train are told by a fortune-teller (Peter Cushing) how each of them will die. Directed by Freddie Francis and written by Subotsky, it also featured Christopher Lee. Their anthology movies included Torture Garden (1968), The House That Dripped Blood (1970, written by Robert Bloch) and Tales from the Crypt (1972), and among their other films were Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965), Scream and Scream Again (1969), and The Beast Must Die (1974).

The popular team of Cushing and Lee worked in several of Rosenberg and Subotsky's films, which employed an exceptionally talented pool of actors. The cast of Vault of Horror (1973) included Daniel Massey, Terry-Thomas, Michael Caine, Anna Massey, Denholm Elliott, Curt Jürgens and Glynis Johns. Veteran stars such as Ralph Richardson, who played the crypt keeper who linked the stories in Tales from the Crypt, and Vincent Price, who starred in Madhouse (1974), acted alongside younger talent such as Donald Sutherland and Terence Stamp in their films.

Rosenberg was proud of producing a film version of Harold Pinter's enigmatic play The Birthday Party (1968), flashily directed by William Friedkin but acted by a fine cast (Robert Shaw, Dandy Nichols, Patrick McGee, Sidney Tafler). He also took justified pride in his promotional skills. When he acquired the British film City of the Dead (1960) for US release, he retitled it Horror Hospital and conceived the advertising slogan, "Just Ring for Doom Service".

Rosenberg and Subotsky made several musical movies, valuable for preserving on film a host of legendary pop stars performing at their peak. Jamboree (1957) featured 17 recording stars including Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis (singing his big hit "Great Balls of Fire"). It's Trad, Dad (1962), was the first film to feature the highly stylised direction of the future Beatles director Richard Lester. Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas were the stars, with Chubby Checker, John Leyton, Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, Chris Barber, Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk and the Temperance Seven among the guest performers.

A small, dapper man who wore English tweeds, handmade shirts and silk ties, and smoked cigarillos, Rosenberg was described by his friend the director Joe Dante as "a very old-school gentleman and not really the kind of guy you'd expect made his name in horror pictures". An admirer of the British horror films, Dante said, "There was a literate quality to those films that I don't think you see too much any more."

In recent years Rosenberg was president of Rearguard Productions. In 1997 he was executive producer of the black comedy Perdita Durango, a Spanish/ Mexican/US co-production starring Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem.

Tom Vallance

Comments