Burning Love

The early 1960s was a turbulent time for the film industry and the Hollywood studio system was becoming a relic of the past as television and other competitors in the entertainment field lured audiences away. Some movie actors could see the writing on the wall and began to pursue film offers outside Hollywood and the U.S. Some of the more famous former studio contract players who escaped and reinvented themselves in Europe were Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef, Jean Seberg and Jane Fonda. Even seasoned veterans like Edward G. Robinson, Lee J. Cobb and Bette Davis appeared in movies made overseas but one of the more unusual examples of American actors appearing in an international production is Barry Sullivan and Martha Hyer in Pyro…The Thing Without a Face (1964, aka Fuego in the European market), directed by Julio Coll and filmed in Spain. 

Verna (Sherry Moreland) suspects that her workaholic husband Vance (Barry Sullivan) is using his job as an architect in Spain as a cover for a secret affair in PYRO (1964).

The film was produced by film editor Richard C. Meyer (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Sidney W. Pink (The Angry Red Planet), both Americans, but most of the cast and crew were Spanish. Pyro is mostly a routine by-the-numbers revenge melodrama with kinky sexual overtones that would have run afoul of the Production Code a decade earlier. It was also promoted as a horror film due to gruesome plot twist but, for movie buffs, it might be more intriguing for aspects that have little to do with the film’s quality.

Julio (Luis Prendes) tries to entice Laura (Martha Hyer) into an affair with him so she will leave his married friend Vance alone in PYRO (1964).

Barry Sullivan and Martha Hyer were both veterans of the studio system and had rarely strayed outside it to make films but Pyro saw them both testing the waters outside the U.S. Sullivan had been a dependable supporting actor in prestige films like The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Strategic Air Command (1955) but also a leading man in above average B pictures such as The Miami Story (1954) and Forty Guns (1957). Certainly, he made his share of crime dramas and has played the villain numerous times – his scheming, hateful husband in 1951’s Cause for Alarm opposite Loretta Young is especially memorable. But it’s hard to imagine a more unsympathetic protagonist than his self-absorbed architect in Pyro and he’s matched by an equally despicable object of lust played by Martha Hyer.

Vance (Barry Sullivan) and Laura (Martha Hyer) begin a destructive relationship that can only end badly in PYRO…THE THING WITHOUT A FACE (1964), distributed by American International Pictures.

Like Sullivan, Hyer was a contract player for various studios, getting her start in low-budget fare like Gun Smugglers (1948) and Geisha Girl (1952) before graduating to A-list productions like Sabrina (1954), Houseboat (1958) and The Best of Everything (1959). She even garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Some Came Running (1958) but, despite that honor, she would never be ranked among the most gifted actresses of her generation. And by the early 1960s she was more willing to appear in inconsequential movies like Bikini Beach (1964) and Blood on the Arrow (1964). Pyro marked her return to international filmmaking – she had previously appeared in the 1960 French-Italian-West German sci-fi thriller Mistress of the World (1960) and Hyer would continue to star in several genre pictures made in Europe such as War, Italian Style (1965), Catch As Catch Can (1967) and House of 1,000 Dolls (1967). In comparison, Sullivan only made one more European movie – Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) – before returning to the U.S. to concentrate on TV shows and feature films.

Barry Sullivan received top billing for his role in Mario Bava’s stylish sci-fi thriller PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965).

As for Pyro, here is the basic storyline: Vance Pierson (Sullivan) is a married workaholic architect living in Spain with his wife (Sherry Moreland) and daughter (Pilarin Gomez). While house hunting for a permanent residence, he interrupts Laura Blanco (Martha Hyer) while she is about to torch her mansion for insurance money. This leads to a passionate relationship between the two but Vance is eventually convinced by his friend Julio (Luis Prendes), a police inspector, to end the affair and return to his family. Enraged, Laura sets fire to Vance’s home and he is horribly burned while trying to save his wife and daughter, who die in the blaze. Seeking revenge, Vance escapes from the hospital and goes into hiding while he creates a new face and identity for himself as a ferris wheel repairman (Of course! What else would a former architect do with his skill set?). Meanwhile, Laura, fearing retribution, disappears with her young daughter Isabelle (Marisenka) and starts a new life for herself on an isolated island off the northwest tip of Spain. Vance eventually tracks her down and enacts a diabolical payback.

Vance (Barry Sullivan) is hideously disfigured by fourth degree burns while trying to save his wife and daughter in a fire started by his jilted lover in PYRO (1964).

First of all, the relationship between Vance and Laura is decidedly twisted but Sullivan and Hyer are unable to make their mutual sexual attraction believable or convincing. Still, the florid pulp fiction dialogue stands out and is often laughable as when Vance tells Laura, “My home has always been peaceful. You are war. As long as we keep peace at home, I’ll be needing violence.” After the fire which leaves Vance covered in 4th degree burns, he becomes mentally deranged, muttering threats out loud like “The only way I stay alive is to pay you back…run, Laura, run…my breath on your back will be like a cold wind from hell.” While neither Vance and Laura are sympathetic, there is some novelty value in seeing two studio system veterans try to generate some dramatic fireworks in such a lurid potboiler.

The horror aspect of Pyro is reminiscent of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum and 1953’s House of Wax in which the chief villains have become insane after surviving a fire and are now hiding behind lifelike masks. Vance ends up fashioning a mask that looks just like Barry Sullivan with blonde hair and his disguise includes two mechanical hands since he lost his in the fire. The marketing department at American International Pictures, which picked Pyro up for distribution in the U.S., promoted Sullivan’s creepy scarred face in one promotional campaign, which is a huge spoiler. The other poster concept exploited the film’s sexual angle, equating lust with pyromania.

The on-location shoot in Spain, especially the coastal town of Viveiro, adds visual interest to the film and the tacky seaside carnival where Vance works as a mechanic is suitably atmospheric, especially during the ferris wheel climax (Producer Sidney W. Pink wanted the film title to be Phantom of the Ferris Wheel but was overruled by the distributor).

Cult actress Soledad Miranda has a supporting role as a young carnival worker with a crush on Peter (Barry Sullivan), a mysterious man with a secret identity in PYRO (1964).

Fans of Eurotrash cinema will be interested to see an early appearance by cult siren Soledad Miranda. Barely 21 years old at the time, Miranda had already appeared in minor roles in several Spanish films but within 6 years she would become the muse of director Jess Franco, who first cast her in Count Dracula, a 1970 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel. She would make 6 more feature films with Franco, including two of his most famous creations, Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Eugenie de Sade (1973). Her promising career ended abruptly on August 18, 1970 when she was killed in a car accident in Portugal. Some of her final films were released posthumously and today Miranda has a larger cult following then when she was alive.

In Pyro, she plays Liz, the daughter of a carnival worker (Carlos Casaravilla) who develops a crush on Vance (his new assumed name is Steve). Liz is a naïve innocent who adopts stray animals and is naturally curious about her mysterious new friend with artificial hands. It is only a matter of time before her inquisitive nature uncovers Vance’s evil scheme.  

Laura (Martha Hyer) is the target of a demented former lover in the 1964 thriller PYRO, filmed in Spain.

Sidney W. Pink, who came up with the story idea for Pyro (the screenplay is by Luis de los Arcos), stated in an interview that the film was his best work and his favorite, which seems a reasonable assumption when you look at his filmography and see other Pink productions with titles like I Was a Burlesque Queen (1953), A Witch Without a Broom (1967) and The Man from O.R.G.Y. (1970). Nevertheless, Pink deserves a footnote in the history of cinema for launching the 3-D craze of the early fifties (He was the associate producer on 1953’s Bwana Devil, directed by Arch Oboler). He also claimed he discovered Dustin Hoffman in an off-Broadway play and cast him the caper comedy Madigan’s Millions. The film was shot in 1966 but not released until 1968 after The Graduate (1967) became a critical and box office success.

Pink only directed a handful of movies but probably his best known work is Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), a low-budget but imaginative sci-fi fantasy that lacked a decent special effects budget. He also directed the English language version of the Danish giant-monster-on-the-loose thriller Reptilicus (1961). Additionally, Pink deserves some credit for venturing into the spaghetti western genre in its early years with Finger on the Trigger (1965) starring Rory Calhoun and filmed in Spain. In fact, the majority of Pink’s productions were made in Spain but the one movie that is best remembered amongst all of his work – at least by sci-fi/horror geeks – is probably The Angry Red Planet (1959), which was produced in the U.S. and filmed in “Cinemagic,” a visual gimmick in which certain scenes have a blood-red cast created through a convoluted film lab process.

Pyro was hard to see after its initial theatrical run and remained an obscurity for years until February 2001 when Troma Entertainment released the film on DVD with extra features including an interview with Pink. It is one of several offbeat indie features distributed by Troma in addition to their library of direct-to-DVD junk like A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (1990). Among their more interesting non-Troma produced releases are Cry Uncle! (1971), John G. Avildsen’s sleazy detective comedy-drama with Allen Garfield, Combat Shock (1984), Buddy Giovinazzo’s deeply disturbing post-Vietnam psychodrama and Def by Temptation (1990), an African-American vampire thriller.

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