The film and its prop...

"Many people love a good mystery. However, mystery movie props can be a double-edged sword for prop collectors..."

As we have seen in earlier articles, collecting props from fright flicks is a great way to delve deeper into the genre.  However, sometimes those same props come with no statement of origin.   In that case, all one can do is pull out the magnifying glass and try to solve the case of the...



(Note:  This is a follow-up to a recent article on horror film prop collecting that appeared in HORROR-WOOD.  You can find the article here.)

Many people love a good mystery. However, mystery movie props can be a double-edged sword for prop collectors.

A mystery movie prop is a screen used movie prop, but the owner does not remember or know which movie it was used in. Many props were used as set dressings, to make the movie scene more believable. For example, a movie scene with two characters talking in a living room would probably include a coffee table, chairs, a sofa, paintings on the wall, coffee cups with saucers, etc.

A giant ant...

A giant ant mystery prop. Jay Gowey: "Although the effects artist said it was from Outer Limits I can't recall anything like it on the series. It could have been an early design for "The Zanti Misfits". The artist remembered "There were several of these ants coming down a street." Besides working on Outer Limits season one, he also did the World Of Giants, an eight-episode TV series narrated by Marshal (Fiend Without A Face) Thompson--and, no, they didn't recycle props from The Incredible Shrinking Man as many have claimed. He also did several Bert I. Gordon features and several ZIV-TV series. The ant is from the late Fifties to early Sixties era."

None of the movie props used in this scene would have any significant value unless the movie can be identified. A coffee cup used and held by a major actor would have far more value than an similar cup used in an unknown movie.

Collecting movie props can be an exciting and profitable hobby. Collectors generally fall into three different categories:

We bet its background is "shocking"...

A mystery prop.  Old Frankenstein laboratory type electrical switch. Appears quite old. Circa 1930's?

1.  Collectors who have money to burn. Planet Hollywood, for example, drove the prices of movie props at auctions through the roof when they were opening restaurants around the world.

2.  Archivists/Collectors who offer movie props a good home. Many of them, Forry Ackerman and Bob Burns for example, have worked on movies or have friends in the movie industry. When I think of all the fantastic movie props that are now part of the Southern California landfill, I give thanks for collectors in this category.

Big caliper...

Another mystery prop.   According to Jay Gowey, it's "a large measuring caliper (I have a guess that it is Land Of The Giants or Batman or The Addams Family.)   The original paint is blue (something usually done for black-and-white TV and movies to match silver). It is non-functioning and is made of wood. It struck me as a Giants item made from wood like many of the items were.

3.  Average collectors, like myself, with little or no money to spend, but enjoy these movies and want to own a little piece of movie history.

This article is all about collecting mystery movie props with only a small budget. I remember when Ellis Movie Prop House closed its doors; they had supplied movie props for thousands of films since 1908. I spent hours looking through the online auction listings on both eBay and Paintings, weapons, uniforms, and set dressings, used in anyone or perhaps dozens of different films, sold by the pallet full.

A portrait of Price...

Ellis props described the above painting of Vincent Price as a vintage painting used in various Fifties Vincent Price movies. I immediately recognized it from Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine (1965) and purchased it for a fraction of its true value. Had this prop been identified before the auction, it could have sold for 10 times the top bid.

Jay Gowey, David Wentink and I have some mystery movie props to show HORROR-WOOD readers. If anyone recognizes these movie props, please e-mail HORROR-WOOD.  Here's some more information from David Wentink:

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When collecting movie props, the hunt and possible identification is half the fun. A few years ago Ellis Props in Los Angeles closed their doors after 60 some odd years in business. The auction took took place at Ellis' large warehouse and was well publicized, and thus attended by 100's of collectors, antique dealers and the curious.

Mummy and baby...

Adult and baby Mummy in a wooden casket about 4 feet high. Dennis bought them from Ellis Prop House when they went out of business.

Throughout the preview you could see people looking at thousands of items playing the "what film is this from" game. Racking their brains and going through a mental rolodex of films the piece may have been from, all the while, if a piece was identified, keeping it under their hat so as not to alert the competition and thus cause a higher auction price. I' m sure many savvy collectors walked away with some treasures at a bargain price.

Sometimes an item can be identified and it's history obtained by just a sliver of information.

Witch doctor's kit...

Miniature skulls and skeleton body with "witch doctor"-type theme. They were once part of a storage room repossession sale. The storage space had miniature buildings, oil drums and monuments (St. Louis Arch and Statue of Liberty). These were the only props Dennis bought from that sale.

I own a large Iron Maiden that was used in many of the classic Universal horror movies of the 1930's and 1940's. A friend of mine was working on a rock video which had quite an elaborate set. One of the items was a large Iron Maiden which was hoisted, with someone inside, about 30 feet in the air during the shoot.

Non-metal bolts...

Pair of soft foam bolts I received from makeup man Harry Thomas. Harry told Dennis Universal makeup wizard Jack Pierce gave them to him as a gift.

My friend relayed the story to me about how they had a power outage and the actor was stranded up in the air, inside the device, for close to an hour until power was restored. My curiosity was peaked by his description of an "old movie prop Iron Maiden" which, in his words, was "really cool."

I asked him if he knew any background on the item. He had a good relationship with the director of the video and said he'd find out where the director had obtained it etc.. He came back a few days later and explained that the director had rented it from a prop house in Hollywood.

Radar dish...

Radar dish prop with working rotating hoop measures approx.. 15" x 15" at base.

On my inquiry, I had my friend, on the directors behalf, contact the prop house and see if they knew any further background. The prop house explained that they had bought it from Universal at a lot sale in the early 1970's.

I thought to myself B-I-N-G-O. Now only two problems were ahead of me. Number one to confirm that it was indeed used at Universal. Number two. The tough one. How do I purchase the Iron Maiden, if indeed it was authentic.

Radar and calculator...

Radar device which is made from an abacus. From a long shot, who would know the difference? Early Hollywood ingenuity.

I tried to think of all the possible Universal horror films that may have contained such a torture device. After digging through my own video collection and a quick trip to the video store, I sat down and began to do what all prop collectors are forced to do at one time or another.

Remote control...

Bomb remote control device.  It measures approximately 4"x 6".

I started fast forwarding films. Paying no attention to dialogue or plot. Just looking at all the props and scenery. Hoping you'll see your item pop up on screen from a film made years ago. Luckily enough, I found the Iron Maiden in both The Raven with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and Tower Of London with Karloff.

Ray gun...
Sci-fi ray gun made from old voltmeter.  Measures about 4"x5".  Probably circa Fifties and Sixties.

Pause, rewind, play. Pause, rewind, play. Back and forth I went with the scenes that showed my (hopefully) item. Matching rivets, dents, scratches etc. to be sure it was the same item. It was a perfect match! (My friend had earlier been nice enough to provide me with close up snapshots of the item to compare with.)

After confirming that is was indeed the same item, I needed to find out if it was for sale. I asked the director how much was he paying for the rental. He responded that he was paying the standard rate for most prop rentals. ten percent of the items value, per week. Thus if a prop house values a lamp at $100.00, it will cost you $10.00 per week to rent it.

Space helmet...
Helmet is circa Sixties.  Flip-up visor.  Note "Daisy" shaped wheel on one side of helmet.

In the case of the Iron Maiden, the gods were with me. The director explained that he had expected to rent the item for only a couple weeks, but due to delays and scheduling problems, had had the Maiden for over four months and owed the prop house a bundle. He was an excellent customer of the prop house, having rented props from them for many videos and other film projects.

He contacted the prop house and explained that, since he was so overdue on this prop, and others, could he just keep this prop and pay the prop house the value that they had set on it originally. They agreed (I'm sure they did this as a "thank you" for all his business as prop houses rarely let go of items since they can be rented over and over for years).

Iron Maiden and friends...

The "Iron Maiden" prop as seen in the film The Raven.

In the end, I paid off the value of the Maiden and obtained the item for my own collection. It was win-win for all parties involved. Since that time, I've spotted the Maiden in many other films including Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. A little research and not being afraid to ask questions can pay big dividends when collecting props.

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The thrill of the hunt for most movie prop collectors is to find a priceless piece of movie history for very little money. Mystery movie props offer a great opportunity for collectors with a limited budget. I hope some of the HORROR-WOOD readers can figure out what films these unique props are from.

(Dennis Phelps is the creator of the Harry Thomas Web Page) and author of the original "Horror Movie Prop Collecting" article. Dennis, Jay Gowey, and David Wentink are all avid collectors of movie props.)

Thanks again, Dennis, Jay, and David.  You've provided us some dandy little mysteries to solve.  Readers, are you up to the challenge?  Put on your deerstalkers and discover the mysterious origins of these sinister props.

Article copyright Dennis Phelps

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