DEL TENNEY “Crying All the Way to the Bank” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

“My friends used to come up to me and gasp, "How could you DO all these terrible films?" I told them, "Listen, I cry all the way to the bank".—Del Tenney

Del Tenney was born in Mason City, Iowa but moved to California at an early age. The quiet cornfields of the Midwest were not for him when Hollywood beckoned with bright lights and the smell of cash. Tenney tried his hand at acting and even managed a couple of “blink and you’ll miss him” appearances in major films like “Stalag 17” and “The Wild One”, but found his  true calling as a producer and director of some of the most entertaining B-movies ever made.

Your old pal Dr. Mality now has a confession to make: in the early 70’s when I was just a young mad scientist, Del Tenney’s classic “Horror of Party Beach” scared the pants off of me in a way few other films of the time did. The movie featuring ping pong eyed killer sea mutants with sausages stuffed in the mouths is now considered a camp classic and ripe for MSTK3 style ridicule, but back in those more innocent days when kids stayed up way past their bed time to watch monsters on the late night horror show, the flick’s scenes of screaming slumber party girls being bloodily sliced up by ravaging mutants were the stuff of nightmares.

A whole generation of kids was traumatized by “Horror of Party Beach” and it is rightfully Del’s most remembered movie, but Del’s slim but potent canon contained other entertaining films like “The Curse of the Living Corpse” and “I Eat Your Skin”. The former featured the first appearance of Roy Scheider while the second was part of an infamous drive-in double feature with “I Drink Your Blood”.

I think Tenney was underrated as a film maker. OK, OK, he’s not going to challenge the legacy of John Huston or Fellini, but when it came to scary drive-in flicks for the monster kid generation, he was hard to beat. Comparisons to Ed Wood and Al Adamson are badly off the mark. Del could make the most of what he had and he knew how to set a creepy mood. That right there puts him ahead of the likes of Michael Bay.

In this missive, I’m going to take a closer look at the career and films of Mr. Del Tenney and I hope you will join me!

After Del’s tentative acting career mostly went nowhere, he first got his hands dirty as an assistant director on a couple of early 60’s “roughies”...lurid sex-themed films without any really explicit scenes. “Satan In High Heels” was actually one of the best of these grindhouse “smokers”, telling the story of a sleazy dancer who ruins the lives of everyone she comes in contact with. Del was assistant to director Jerrold Intrator and learned a lot about the business from him. He followed up as assistant director on another Intrator sex flick, “Orgy At Lil’s Place”. Little is known about this picture but I’m guessing it was not on the Oscar short list for 1963.

After cutting his teeth on these early cheapies, Del was bit by the bug to make his own low budget films. His first real effort is mostly forgotten now, but really shouldn’t be. “Violent Midnight” was really directed by Richard Hilliard, but Tenney produced the film and wrote most of the story. This slick little psycho thriller deserves a second look. It was released in the great heyday of “Psycho”-inspired films  when it seemed everybody and his brother wanted to make a movie about sexually disturbed maniacs.

“Violent Midnight” tells the story of a former combat hero Elliot Freeman who comes from a family with a history of mental illness that makes the Ushers look tame.  When two beautiful women that Freeman had a passing relationship are brutally murdered, he becomes the most logical suspect. Despite his background, Freeman is confident he is not the killer and he sets out on his own investigation into the murders. That investigation leads him into a viper’s nest of odd characters like a sadistic motorcycle thug, a college professor with a secret life as a voyeur, a shady lawyer and a creepy deaf-mute. But in the true fashion of “Psycho”, “Strait-Jacket” and other psycho killer films of the time, the real killer comes as a complete shock.

The movie is not a bad little B-chiller and it features an interesting cast populated with future stars like James Farentino, Dick Van Patten, Sylvia Miles and Shepherd Strudwick. There’s a cold atmosphere to the proceedings that’s like a modernized version  of Tenney’s later production “The Curse of the Living Corpse”. The movie pretty much sank upon release and remains difficult to find even today, but it was a pretty good introduction into the world of low budget regional filmmaking for Del Tenney and it really got his juices flowing.

1964 was Tenney’s best and most productive year. It saw him release his  magnum opus, “Horror At Party Beach” and a strong follow-up in “Curse of the Living Corpse”. These were the movies for which he is most known today. It’s hard to imagine two better examples of early 60’s drive-in horror.

“Horror of Party Beach” made tons of money for Tenney even after its initial release. After “The Blob”, this might just be the best “teens vs. monsters” movie ever made. It’s cheap, it’s absurd, it’s tasteless, but one thing it sure isn’t is dull.  In the first ten minutes, we get a teenage motorcycle gang, rock n roll with the Del Aires, radioactive sludge turning human skeletons into aquatic killer mutants and a young honey in a bikini getting torn to pieces. That’s the way you get a movie moving…

The “Party Beach” of the title is actually Stamford, Connecticut and not all the tricks in Tenney’s bag of tricks can make this gloomy New England beach look like Southern California or even Florida. The stark B&W photography of the film along with overcast skies drain the energy out of scenes of teens partying and grooving. But that same photography fits the scenes of the monsters doing their dirty deeds like a T.

The movie finds local jock Hank Green and his cheerleader girlfriend Elaine leading the attack against the bug-eyed fish-like zombies, These freaky creatures are created when barrels of chemical and radioactive waste are casually tossed into the deep, where they burst open and leak their contents.  The goop somehow interacts with the skeletons of long-dead sailors to create the monsters. Now seriously, look and listen to the scenes where the underwater monsters are created. The soundtrack throbs with weird sci-fi effects and discordant music as the skeletons slowly come alive and gain warped flesh. The first creature writhes to life and quickly swims to the rock outcropping where sultry Tina is sulking after a fight with her boyfriend. She won’t have long to worry about it, as the aqua-zombie rakes her with sharp nails. The scene is bloody and establishes the creatures as a brutal threat despite their goofy appearance. This whole sequence is kinetic and shows Tenney really knew how to build some tension and set the scene.

The rest of the movie is as simple as can be.  The mutants attack and kill any humans they can find, preferably teenagers, and Hank and Elaine try to marshall the troops to fight them. Elaine’s Dad Prof. Gavin happens to be a whiz-bang scientist who applies his mighty brain to the problem of destroying the creatures. He eventually stumbles upon an easy solution to the problem…sodium causes the monsters to blow apart. Simple salt is all it takes to kill them! Soon the teens and police are lobbing “salt bombs” at the finny fiends and sending them all to Kingdom Come.

Two scenes in particular stand out for me.  A couple of drunks are staggering around at night after boozing it up. One enters the passenger side of a car and tries to get his buddy to start the engine and drive off. He gives him a hard shove, revealing that much of the driver’s face has been clawed to bloody pieces. “Frank!” yells the other drunk. “Where’s your face?!” That scene really scared me as a kid. And who could forget the massacre where the monsters attack a girl’s slumber party and slaughter all of the nightie-clad, screaming girls. This scene is so over the top with the monsters roaring and grumbling and the girls shrieking at the top of their lungs that it actually becomes disturbing. Unlike most horror movies of the time, the girls don’t escape! If you watch the scene carefully, you will actually notice that another kind of monster, more of a blob-man combination, has joined the more typical aqua-mutants in the attack. Turns out this was Tenney’s first attempt at the creatures before settling on the final look. Waste not, want not!

“Horror of Party Beach” easily made back its cost and became a big hit on the East Coast drive-in circuit. It’s rightfully known as Del Tenney’s biggest hit. When released to TV syndication, it became a staple of many late night horror shows. That’s where I saw it, on Dr. Cadaverino’s Shock Theater in Milwaukee back in the early 70’s. This movie really boosted Del’s confidence and it wasn’t long before he unleashed his next horror epic on the world, “The Curse of the Living Corpse”.

“The Curse of the Living Corpse” was quite a different approach to horror than “The Horror of Party Beach”.  There were no teenagers, rock n roll bands or motorcycle gangs in this one…it was a somber period piece set in the late 19th century. Filming again was done in Connecticut.

The movie opens in creepy fashion with a slow funeral procession making its way to the graveyard as eerie music plays. Again, I’m struck by how director Tenney was able to infuse menace into a scene immediately. It seems that millionaire Rufus Sinclair has passed away after a long illness. Rufus was terrified of being buried alive and left specific instructions to prevent such a macabre occurrence. The other Sinclair relatives and close friends have gathered for the most hoary of horror clichés, the reading of the will. It’s pretty evident right away that none of them really cares about Rufus Sinclair’s provisions against premature burial…they are too busy sniping at each other to gain his fortune.

It’s not long before a hooded figure is seen prowling about the estate. Soon the squabbling relatives are being slaughtered in some very graphic ways. Perhaps the most famous scene in the movie features a severed head being revealed as the main course of a meal, complete with blood leaking around the head. Each victim dies due to something that they feared the most…fire, suffocation, drowning in a bathtub. One character has his face horribly disfigured. The deaths are very graphic for the time and Tenney’s camera fearlessly captures it all. Has the insane Rufus risen from his coffin after being buried alive? Or is one of the relatives taking matters into his or her own hands?

It’s all over the top and quite enjoyable to watch, a guilty pleasure if ever there was one. Tenney’s one big mistake here was the atrocious comic relief, which came in the form of an incompetent policeman assigned to investigate the murders. His performance is arguably the most horrifying thing in the movie. As for Roy Scheider, making his film debut here, he seems to enjoy cutting loose with a lusty performance. Years later, he was embarrassed by his participation, but I’ve seen a lot worse debuts than this.
“The Curse of the Living Corpse” did not equal  the success of “The Horror of Party Beach”, but it didn’t do badly, either, and showed Del could tackle a period movie. One would think that having two drive-in flicks of this stature released in a year would signal the arrival of a promising talent, but from this point on, Del’s films would appear only sporadically.

1964 saw Del try his hand at yet another kind of horror film, a Caribbean zombie film. It was initially filmed under the name ‘Caribbean Adventure” to not give away that it was actually a horror film, but Tenney planned to call it “Voodoo Bloodbath”. The resulting movie had an exceedingly odd release history that found it gathering dust for six years until it was purchased, renamed and put on one of the most notorious grindhouse double bills in history.

The movie was filmed in Florida instead of Del’s usual Connecticut stomping grounds. Connecticut would not have made a convincing stand-in for a Caribbean island. It concerns the adventures of a writer visiting a small tropical island to get material for a book on voodoo. He gets more than he bargained for when he stumbles on a mad scientist who is trying to reverse the aging process but who instead winds  up creating bug-eyed zombies. From there, it’s a frantic chase to stop the looney and destroy the zombies.

Despite the “Zombie Bloodbath” name, the film was curiously mild, more so than Del’s previous movies and at times felt more like a breezy adventure than a horror film. There is one shocking scene where a zombie’s head gets suddenly cut off by a machete which is good for a jolt. At one point, there’s a musical interlude with a calypso band. 

Del could find no takers for distributing the film despite his success with “Horror of Party Beach” and “Curse of the Living Corpse”. The expense in the Florida location filming ate into his profits and ground his film pcareer to a halt. He did find time to be an associate producer on the international action film “The Poppy Is Also A Flower”, about the international heroin trade, but he had no creative role with the movie, which was co-written by Ian Fleming of James Bond fame and which featured stars like Yul Brynner and Stephen Boyd.

“Zombie Bloodbath” was written off as a total loss by Tenney, but in 1971, it came back from the dead in a most peculiar way. The grindhouse entrepreneur Jerry Gross has just finished filming a movie called “I Drink Your Blood” about rabid hippie cultists slaughtering inhabitants of a small town. It was one of the bloodiest and most disturbing films made up to that point, but Gross wanted to release it as part of a double bill to drive-ins. He became aware of Tenney’s “Zombie Bloodbath” and bought the movie, renaming it “I Eat Your Skin” even though there’s no cannibalism in the movie. The resulting double bill of “I Drink Your Blood/I Eat Your Skin” was described as “two blood horrors to rip out your guts” and went on to become perhaps the most infamous double bill in drive-in history. 

It was an odd pairing, as “I Eat Your Skin” was in black and white and relatively bloodless while “I Drink Your Blood” was in lurid color and relentlessly gory. Nevertheless, it was a huge smash and allowed Tenney’s unsold movie to turn a huge profit after years sitting in the can!

Del’s career after “I Eat Your Skin” became much more sporadic and really there’s no doubt his great burst of creative activity was limited to the early 60’s. But he never left Hollywood and continued to be involved in production and even the occasional writing assignment.  In 2001, he popped up as an executive producer for “Clean And Narrow”, a gritty tale of an ex-convict trying to go straight. The movie was directed by “The Greatest American Hero”, William Katt, and managed to garner some good reviews. That wasn’t the case for his other 2001 film, “Do You Wanna Know A Secret”, which was an obvious ripoff of the then wildly popular “Scream” franchise.  Del not only produced the movie but co-wrote it as well….and popped up in a brief onscreen role as “Pastor Adams”!

The last credit I was able to find for Del Tenney was the 2003 Gothic horror “Descendant”, a movie that he put more direct effort into than anything since his horrors of the early 60’s. He both wrote and directed the tale of a writer being haunted by the spirit of an evil ancestor. The movie got mixed reviews, but showed again that Del was a competent director who managed to adapt to the age of direct-to-video DVD movies.

After “Descendant”, the trail goes cold for any films Del was involved in. He passed away in 2013 at his home in Florida. Although his career was never as robust as it could have been, he was one of those guys who loved the movies and stayed  involved with show business for most of his life. His films were not “classics” in the usual sense of the word, yet they were indeed classic examples of low budget film-making designed to make the most of limited resources. Campy or not, “The Horror of Party Beach” and “The Curse of the Living Corpse” are iconic early grindhouse films that still have a devoted following today.

Del Tenney was the kind of film-maker that we here at Wormwood are devoted to and we salute this Midwestern boy turned Hollywood whiz kid! Rest in peace!