1971 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: CASTLE OF FU MANCHU AND I, MONSTER

“They live by night. They hide in the dark and rise from the shadows. They can never feel the warmth of living human blood in their veins. Their bodies are cold and dead… Dracula vs. Frankenstein! Rated the most shocking horror show of the year by “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine. Together, in one film, they meet in a fight of fright. Kings of horror battle to the death. Dracula vs. Frankenstein!”

“Night of the Blood Monster. Caged women pitting their men against heavy artillery and hired killers… changing the day into a night of horror.  Christopher Lee’s victims know the taste, the smell, the tortures of Hades. Chained women—captives of pleasure; cattle to be abused, tortured and murdered. Night of the Blood Monster.”

When Christopher Lee teamed up with Don Sharp in 1965 for the rousing The Face of Fu Manchu, the result was successful enough to catapult its star into yet another franchise. The Sharp/Lee followup The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), while not quite the level of its predecessor, was a spirited sequel—but what better way to kill a franchise than hand it over to a bonafide hack? Cost-cutting producer Harry Alan Towers did just that when he tapped Jess Franco to helm The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968). Of course, even a hack can manage to produce entertaining drive-in fodder—unless it’s Franco, who, true to form, shot quickly and without an ounce of enthusiasm or pride in his craft. It’s not hard to imagine that 1971 drive-in audiences were picking up a lot of caffeine at the concession stand during the endless 92 minute running time of Castle of Fu Manchu. The masochist Towers chose to stake his goldmine for good when hiring Franco yet again; Castle was still being milked two years later on the drive-in circuit, paired with the feature below, in an attempt to recoup it costs.

Within minutes, we learn that it was none other than Fu Manchu  who was responsible for sinking of the Titanic. To prove it, Franco economically uses black and white footage from 1958’s A Night to Remember and tints it blue so we won’t know the difference. It only gets more embarrassing. There’s a bit about turning seas into ice; kidnapping; an Asian babe; scientific experiments; TV’s Robin Hood, Richard Greene (!!!) as a nemesis; and more stock footage. When Franco’s not slapping in news reels, etc., it appears he was prodding the cast awake (although it feels as if he napped his way through a lot of it himself ). There’s some unintentional hilarity to be had (i.e. the heart transplant) with enough no-doze.

“Hot dogs: the All-American favorite. Certainly we serve them, piping hot and full of flavor. Call for yours now.”

“Help reduce losses of lives and loss of property caused by fire. Don’t give fire a place to start.”

“Barbecue! Barbecue! Barbecue! Our barbecue is prepared especially for you.”

“Go to church Sunday. The strength of a people is found in the strength of their faith. Support your church. The Management.”

“Today, we’re interviewing a stomach. Hello there. What is life like as a stomach? Oh, boy—it was hum-drum until what’s-his-name discovered Tony’s Pizza. Tony’s Pizza? Yeah, I was suffering from the pizza cravings until Tony’s came along. Crispy crusts and zesty sauces. Wow! What’s next? Another pizza craving. Just thinking about Tony’s pizza sets me off! Does your stomach send you pizza craving signals? Tony’s, the pizza-cravers’ pizza, available at the concession stand.”

I, Monster (directed by Stephen Weeks) is an Amicus production of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and despite the name change, it’s one of the most faithful of the many cinematic adaptations. It has a poor reputation, which is largely undeserved.

The 1920 version (directed by John S. Roberts) starring John Barrymore, the superb 1931 version (directed by Rouben Mammalian) starring Frederich March, and the lousy 1941 version (directed by Victor Fleming) starring  Spencer Tracy (one wit cracked, “is Spence playing Jekyll or Hyde now?”), made much of female characters being subjected to Hyde’s lechery. Like the source material, I, Monster is devoid of a romantic subplot. In addition to the title, liberties are taken in the setting, moved to early 20th century, the pronounced Freudian subtext, and fact the the transformation is achieved through injection as opposed to drinking the kool-aid.

Although I, Monster misses some of the novella’s satire, it’s impressively produced, with Lee giving one of his best performances, thankfully free of overt makeup. Peter Cushing is relegated to a supporting part, but is typically efficient. Originally it was distributed in 3D, and there are a few obligatory vignettes exploiting the fad, but ultimately it’s a sleeper.

 

“Remember to place your drive-in speaker back on the stand before you leave.”

This review, including the drive-in bumpers, refers to the double-feature available from Sinister Cinema

1964 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: HORROR CASTLE AND CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD

Our Next Attraction…

“The most exciting feature of the year! Lady in a Cage… and Olivia de Havilland is in it! A lady in a cage, locked in her own madhouse of insane intruders, powerless to stop the psychopathic horror that hems her in. Olivia de Havilland helpless before the rage of such characters as the Wino, half-crazed with his own destroying sin… the Hustler, a blousy has-been—the most amazing role Ann Southern has ever played… the Muscler, lusting for the last wild thrill of killing… the Weirdo, a blonde psycho driven to tempt, to taunt, to destroy… the Wildo, frenzied by a woman’s body or the razor edge of a sharp, glittering knife. They’re all in Lady in a Cage, the picture that is not for the weak; and perhaps, not even for the strong! If you cringe at violence, scream at fear, faint at horror—Lady in a Cage may not be for you. But if you can take the screen’s hyper-dramatic excitement—don’t miss it! Olivia de Havilland is shocking the screen as the Lady in a Cage.”

Also…

Party Girls for the Candidate. See the wild sex party that rocked the nation’s capital. Party Girls for the Candidate will bring you love scenes that only adult moviegoers will understand. Party Girls for the Candidate will show you party girls who will do anything for a price. Party Girls for the Candidate stars those two sensuous personalities, Mamie Van Doren and June Wilkinson, and introduces to the screen three exciting new personalities: Ted Knight as the candidate; Eric Mason as Buddy Barker, the ex-senate page-boy who built an empire of influence in the nation’s capital; Rachel Romen as Mona Archer, the innocent girl who succumbed to Buddy Barker’s web of sex intrigue. Party Girls for the Candidate is the most explosive film ever produced in Hollywood. Party Girls for the Candidate is a must see for every moviegoer. Don’t miss it!”

 

Horror Castle (AKA The Virgin of Nuremberg, directed by Antonio Margheriti) is one of the first Italian Gothic films shot in color. It was successful enough to green-light a followup the next year: Castle of Blood, starring Barbara Steele. Having coaxed the genre into two of its earliest, most popular color productions, Margheriti should be better known; but ultimately he’s merely a competent craftsman instead of an inspirational original, and the move to color inevitably proved an aesthetic step back (although financially beneficial) for the genre. Still, Horror Castle is a reasonably effective entry. The color, like the surreal lounge score by Riz Ortolani, is paradoxically both ill-fitting and striking. Margheriti’s sensual color palette echoes the auburn quality of minor Italian cult starlet Rossana Podesta and he compositionally caresses her into the macabre surroundings.

Storywise, Horror Castle is hardly earth-shaking. Newlywed Mary (Podesta) has some horrific visions within the ancestral German castle of husband Max (Georges Riviera), who resorts to the standard “you must be tired from the trip” response. Her visions include a victim of an iron maiden and a sadistic crimson executioner prone to punish sins with surprisingly gruesome methods (one involving a rat). She runs, falls, faints, and recovers in bed, to Max’s condescending “it must have been a horrible nightmare.” Marguerite mantles Mario Bava with gusto in a chase-through-the-garden scene and milks all he can from the fascistic color scheme.

Max has a couple of apparently sinister servants in Erich (a poorly dubbed, but memorable Christopher Lee, in a supporting role) and Martha (Laura Nucci), but themes of Nazism and the Valkyries provide an unexpected contemporary, pathos-laden twist, and red herrings as well.

Despite its flaws, Horror Castle is stylish and animated; possibly Margheriti’s best work, aided by an off-the-scale fiery finale.

“Our tempting, tasty french fries go with everything. Come and get ’em. They are hot, they are delicious.”

“Taste tantalizing hot tamales; rich, creamy milkshakes taste just right; snow cones—frosty flavor rich refreshment; cigarettes—all the best known brands!”

“Hello young lovers—whoever you are—we’re glad the LOVE BUG caught up with you! But… we must insist that you do not allow his bite to effect your conduct while this theater. Public demonstrations of affection will not be tolerated here. ‘Nuff said? Thanks, the Manager.”

“Attention Night Owls… Here comes a BIG DUSK TO DAWN SHOW! You’ll see 6 Full-length features packed with action ‘n fun. All different. BRING THE GANG! COME OUT EARLY! Stay as late as you can. You’ll have a ball! Don’t miss the Big DUSK TO DAWN SHOW!”

“There are words men live by. Words of strength, of wisdom, of peace. We urge you to find the spiritual comfort and guidance  we all so greatly need. Attend your place of worship regularly.”

It’s usually not a good sign when a film has three credited co-directors (Warren Kiefer, Herbert Wise, and Michael Reeves). Castle of the Living Deadalso had a trio of writers (Keifer, Reeves, and Fede Arnaud) and an international cast speaking three languages. No one was able to reign in the project.

Living Dead is known for another memorable Christopher Lee performance, for the debut of  Donald Sutherland (in a trio of roles), and for a well-executed climax written and directed by Reeves, whose work so impressed producers that he was later tapped to direct future cult favorites The She Beast (1966), The Sorcerers (1967), and The Conqueror Worm (1968) before his untimely overdose. It’s hampered most by its poverty-level budget, but despite everything it manages to project an original personality.

A group of circus performers happen upon the castle of Count Drago (Lee) who has a hobby of mummifying four-legged critters. Of course, it’s not long before he moves on to the two-legged variety, supplied by the theatrical troupe.

Numerous scenes are nonsensical, having little to do with the unfolding plot. Naturally, those include vignettes displaying various three-ring circus acts with a scene-stealing dwarf (Ennio Antonelli). Caked in opaque white makeup and black mascara, Lee gives an otherworldly, German Expressionist-styled performance, and thankfully dubs his own voice this time. Other standout performances include Gaia Germani as Laura, whose beauty Drago seeks to “preserve forever,” Mirko Valentin (who had a small part in Horror Castle) as the count’s sadistic, bug-eyed assistant, Luciano Pigozzi as Dart, and Sutherland (with Sutherland).

Cinematographer Aldo Tonti (who had previously worked with Fellini) manages wonders with a meager allowance and casts the film in stylishly detached, icy bleakness.

Languidly paced, which is both an asset and a hindrance, the kinetically bizarre finale is pure Reeves.

“That you for your patronage. Please drive carefully.”

This review, including the drive-in bumpers, refers to the double-feature available from Sinister Cinema.

1960 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: HORROR HOTEL AND THE HEAD

“Hitch your goose pimples to The Horrible Dr. Hichcock … and away you’ll go, screaming your head off! The good doctor is more than a little strange. He’s a lot loony, and he gets more so with every cute corpse he chops up and every beautiful bride he boxes in. Scary ghosts, black cats, secret doors. What more do you want? But there is more, even more horrible hanky panky than you can imagine in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. In blood red, ghost green turned blue, and gold fright color.”

“Welcome to the mad, mad world of The Awful Dr. Orloff, in funeral black and white. Such carryings on and such carrying out you’ve ever seen. The Doctor’s dilemma has to do with an impossible cure he’s blood-bent on effecting, no matter how many beautiful girls are tortured and killed in the process. If you like to shiver and shake, quiver and quake, there’s mayhem on a monstrous scale in the most unlawful, really awful, awful Dr. Orloff.”

Horror Hotel (AKA City of the Dead, directed by John Moxey) is the premier production from Milton Subotsky (who also wrote the story) and Max J. Rosenberg. Subotsky and Rosenberg are primarily known for forming Amicus Productions and popularizing the horror anthology format. Although Horror Hotel might be seen as a precursor of Italian Gothic cinema, it really is a case of style over substance, albeit an entertaining one. Its pedestrian writing keeps it from attaining a classic status. However, the film belongs to art director John Blezard and cinematographer Desmond Dickinson (who had previously won the award for best photography for Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet at the 1948 Venice Film Festival). Together, the two create a haunting milieu.

The film opens in the village of Whitewood, Massachusetts with the burning of witch Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) in 1692. Naturally, she puts a curse on the villagers torching her and vows to return for revenge as the bride of Lucifer. Equally predictable, we have little sympathy for the puritans, and are almost inclined to wish her well.

Circa 1960, Professor Alan Driscoll ( Christopher Lee) teaches a course on witchcraft and has zeal for his subject, and little patience for his skeptical students, with the exception of Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson). It helps that she’s serious, even volunteering to continue her research in Whitewood. It helps even more that she’s a looker.

Although Horror Hotel is an early entry in the witchcraft genre, the plot’s bullet points are paint-by-number. Driscoll’s sinister motives are blatantly obvious from his introduction, as is the identity of the reincarnated Selwyn and the intended victim (which echoes Psycho, although the films were released only a few months apart). The Whitewood fog machine could have used a little less juice, but images of zombie-like villagers and monks lethargically dragging life-size crosses through a graveyard craft an undeniable visual tension, despite the narrative predictability.

A gas station owner, mute servant, and blind priest add up to a cliched trio of soothsayers. Lee’s role is secondary, but highly effective (reportedly, he was pleased with his performance and the film, which he referred to as an “American Gothic”), but it is Jessel who steals the film.

“Refreshing ice cold, Coca-Cola with a bright, right taste and special spark all it’s own. Enjoy a coke at our snack stand right now.”

“And now Intermission. Refreshment time. Fresh candies—the flavors you love. Assorted drinks—your favorite beverages. Hot coffee. Hot dogs the way you like them. Ice cream smoothly delicious.”

“Try a tasty treat for the whole family. Hung’s Shrimp Egg Roll. They’re deliciously hot and now being served at our refreshment stand.”

“Your attention please. May we bend your ear for a few seconds? The Miracle Mile, Northwestern Ohio’s only all-winter drive-in theater, is happy to announce that this year (1960) we are installing the all-new high powered, Golden Hot Shot Electric In-Car Heater—the heater that heats quicker, circulates more heat faster than any heater available on today’s market! Continue to enjoy the pick of the pictures all winter in the toasty warmth of your own car with the Miracle Mile’s All New Electric In-Car Heaters. Guaranteed to heat your entire car.”

“Would you like to do a good deed? If you have a shut-in or handicapped friend living with or near you, bring them with you next time you attend this theater… we’ll admit them free to help you bring some sunshine into their lives. So remember… bring along your shut-in friends or invalids as our guests. Just ask the cashier for a shut-in pass.”

The Head (1959, directed by Victor Trivas) is another example proving that the cinema medium is more than just writing and filming narratives. Trivas’ credentials would indicate something more substantial than the movie’s title and premise so. After working under Sergei Eisenstein and  G.W. Pabst, Trivas’ directorial debut, No Man’s Land: Hell On Earth (1932),  was seized and destroyed by the Nazis in 1940 due to its pacifist message, leading the filmmaker to take refuge in France and America. Primarily a writer, The Head is Trivas’ last directing credit; ill health forced his retirement the same year (he died in 1970).

Two German Expressionist production designers: Hermann Warm (whose impressive resume includes art direction on  Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, F.W. Murnau’s   The Haunted Castle,  Fritz Lang’s Destiny, and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr) and Bruno Monden (who worked extensively with Paul Verhoeven—no, not  that one, the earlier one) contribute immensely to The Head. The opening credits, with barbed white lettering over a dark, full moon-covered sky, are Tim Burtonesque. Its atmosphere is punched in by a bizarre electronic score (by Willy Mattes, who did  The Horrors Of Spider Island later that year) which could well have fit into the post-Webern school of composition; but unfortunately, we only hear it occasionally. With its budget, the film is like the poverty row product cranked out by Monogram and PRC factories from the previous decade. Naturally, The Head is compared to the more infamous The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962). In place of catfights and mondo dialogue, The Head features wretched dubbing; weird performances from cult German actors Horst Frank (in a rare leading role) and Michael Simon (as a disembodied head); a haunting modernistic house that looks like it might have been designed by  Edgar G. Ulmer (surrounded by a purgatorial forest); a hunchback who is given the body of a stripper and begins touching herself; and a where-the-hell-did-that-come-from subplot about the exotic dancer and her loser artist boyfriend whose dad hated him. It’s all carried out glumly. Even in Z-grade trash, those German artists can’t resist being wacky; one suspects it’s in their DNA.

“Please remember to hang your speaker on the post before you leave the theater.”

This review, including the drive-in bumpers, refers to the double feature available  from Sinister Cinema.

1973 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN, SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, AND SISTERS

Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein was the fourth film directed by Paul Morrisey under Andy Warhol‘s banner; although it seems that apart from co-producing, the American pop art icon had no creative input, which may be why, in Europe, it was released under the title Flesh For Frankenstein. Morrisey made this film back-to-back with Andy Warhol’s Dracula, which we will cover when 1974 rolls around. Both films star Udo Kier and  Joe Dallesandro (who also starred in the Morrissey/Warhol “hustler” trilogy FleshTrash, and Heat). Frankenstein is the more outrageous of the two horror films. It stars Kier as a fascistic, narcissistic, necrophiliac Baron Frankenstein who, in his most infamous scene, cuts open the ribcage of a woman (Dalila Di Lazzaro) and has sex with her gall bladder.  Naturally, this scene made Kier a cult celebrity, a position he would cement with Dracula.

Still from Andy Warhol's Frankenstein/Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

 

Shot in 3-D, Frankenstein aims directly to satirize the sexploitation/horror demographic with a high quota of gore and sex—the latter supplied by Monique Van Vooren as the unloved nymphomaniac Baroness, wife and sister to the Baron, and Dallesandro as the stable boy who services her. Aptly, the film opens with the Baron and Baroness as children dissecting and  beheading a doll, but “Addams Family” this isn’t: the good doctor’s supply of cadavers comes from bordellos rather than the traditional cemetery. Kier and Van Vooren are ideally cast, with her armpit sucking competing with his gallbladder screwing. Although undeniably dated, it’s every bit as outrageous as it sounds.

When writer William Peter Blatty  and director William Friedkin unleashed The Exorcist on the world, few had any idea the impact it would make. Shining across our small 1973 TV sets, the original trailer was subdued. Although the book upon which it was based had been a best seller, only its readers knew what it was about. I don’t remember a lot of publicity beforehand, but all that changed on the weekend it was released. Newspapers were issuing warnings of something unimaginably terrifying, theaters were equipped with barf bags, and in our neck of the woods, churches were condemning it as propaganda coming from Satan himself. Indeed, the fallen angel had been rising quite high since 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, but, at least as far as box office, even that seminal (and superior) film did not have the impact of The Exorcist. Initially, its critical standing was mixed, although now it seems to top all those “best of” horror lists. Word of mouth made a trend of fear, and it was years before anyone from our tribe saw it.

The tidal wave of Satanic themed films to follow was unprecedented, and, needless to say, preachers and Sunday school teachers found job security for another decade. The original was followed by John Boorman’s visually dazzling camp disaster, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), and Blatty’s belated Exorcist III (1990), which some feel is actually superior to the original.

With his newfound popularity, Old Nick signed up for Satan’s School for Girls to mess with that “forgotten” Charlie’s angel, Kate Jackson, and Farrah’s replacement, Cheryl Ladd. He has a pretty good time of it too, and his fun is contagious.

Among the infamous DVD double features hosted by the buxom camp horror diva, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson), is Werewolf of Washington and Satanic Rites Of Dracula. The former, directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg and starring Dean Stockwell is as dreadful as it sounds. Worse, it’s humorless.

Alan Gibson’s Satanic Rites of Dracula is a direct sequel to his previous Dracula A.D. 1972, with the vampire in 1970s London. Gibson later directed “Silent Scream” (with Peter Cushing) and “Two Faces Of Evil,” which are two superior (and stylishly surreal) episodes from the cult TV series “Hammer’s House Of Horrors.”

Although superior to its 1972 AD predecessor for sheer abnormality alone, Rites is still one hell of a mess. In his brief screen time, the Price of Darkness ( Christopher Lee) has become an eccentric recluse in a mansion, plotting to destroy the world by unleashing a bacterial virus! Oh, and he is connected to a Satanic cult, which of course brings in Scotland Yard and Van Helsing (Cushing again), who easily dispatches the vampire with a thorn bush (vapidly symbolic of Jesus’ crown of thorns). The preposterousness of this Dr. Who and the Avengers vs. a vampire Howard Hughes (or is that Fu Manchu?) scenario is exacerbated by an evil Asian agent, assassins on bikes, biological warfare, female vampires, and nudity, making for an idiosyncratic hodgepodge. Lee was rightly fed up with writers who had no clue what do with the character, and chose to remain permanently staked after this. After making his belated appearance, Dracula suffers what has to be the most absurd of his screen deaths. Amazingly, his fellow bloodsuckers have an even more embarrassing exit, snuffed out by a sprinkler.Both Lee and Cushing muster little enthusiasm. Gibson steers through a maze of nonsense with a degree of competence, although the script clearly needed something exceptional. Sill, with all its flaws, this is an unexpected exit for the series, and is bizarre enough to be held with affection by some fans of Hammer studios.

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1972 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DRACULA A.D. 1972, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, AND THE THING WITH 2 HEADS

1972  is perhaps the most prolific year in the most prolific decade of horror and exploitation films. It’s also the year for what may be the quintessential midnight cult move: John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, now enshrined as one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. Blood Freak, which is the first and only “Christian” movie to date about a turkey serial killer, is another Certified Weird 1972 exploitation picture. Competing with Freak fro sheer awfulness was Don Barton’s Zaat(AKA Blood Waters of Dr. Z), which went onto “MST3K” infamy.

In its Blu-ray presentation, Mario Bava’s maligned Baron Blood has proven better than its reputation, despite a miscast Joseph Cotten in the title role. Like most of Bava, it’s stylishly irresistible. The 1972 Amicus omnibuses Asylum and Tales From The Crypt both starred Peter Cushing, and were critical and box office successes. Ben, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and Beware The Blob were all inferior sequels—which is saying a lot in the case of an original monster who was just moving silly putty. Jess Franco tackled the two big undead kahunas (with plenty of added sex) in The Erotic Experiences of Frankenstein and Daughter of Dracula. The Count rose yet again in Count Dracula’s Great Love, starring Paul Naschy. Future King of Cartoons (William Marshall) and director William Crain fused horror with blacksploitation for the first time in Blacula. It was a enough of a box office success to warrant  (superior) sequel in 1973. Unfathomably busy, Cushing and Christopher Lee teamed up for Freddie Francis’ underrated Creeping Flesh, Gene Martin’s cult favorite Horror Express, Peter Sasdy’s misfire Nothing but the Night, and the Hammer opus Dracula AD 1972 (directed by Alan Gibson).

Widely scorned, Dracula A.D. 1972 reunited Cushing’s Van Helsing with Lee’s bloodsucker in a modern setting, even though Dracula himself is confined to a Gothic church. It’s one of  Tim Burton’s favorite movies. The contemporaneous critical backlash was mostly justified. Lee, probably the best cinematic Count, is reduced to second vampire-in-waiting. But as an artifact of its time, Dracula A.D. 1972 is not entirely without virtue, enough to explain Burton’s affection.

It opens in the previous century with Dracula and Van Helsing locked in mortal combat aboard a stagecoach, which crashes, causing the vampire to be impaled on the spokes of the coach’s wheel. As Dracula attempts to free himself, a battered and bleeding Van Helsing interferes, driving the spokes in deep enough to snuff out the life of his nemesis before dying himself. Witnessing the scene is a Dracula disciple who, of course, leaves with the vampire’s relics (handy for later resurrection). Despite the preposterous   accidental impalement, it’s a red-blooded, Gothic prologue that is followed by 1972’s swinging hippies.

Initially sounding more like old fuddy-duddy Edward Van Sloan than Peter Cushing, Lorimer Van Helsing, grandson of Abraham, lectures his granddaughter Jessica (Hammer babe Stephanie Beacham) all about the wrong crowd and premarital sex. Pooh-poohing gramps, Jessica heads straight for the wrong crowd, which includes bad seed Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame). His name, of course is a leftover gag from the 1943 Universal bomb Son of Dracula (starring a woefully miscast Lon Chaney, Jr.) Silly character name aside, Neame, once past the groovy scene (and pointless rock numbers) is creepily charismatic as the actual antagonist performing a Satanic ritual, during which he sacrifices Laura (Hammer babe #2 Caroline Munro) to resurrect the Prince Of Darkness. Throwing in a dash of pseudo-Satanism was no doubt influenced by the flood brought on by 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and seems an odd fit. Regardless, the ceremony is stylishly fleshed out in a ruined abbey.

The film then takes a sharp turn when focusing on the modern ruffian Alucard, who now takes over lead cruising-vampire role to exact revenge on the Van Helsing bloodline, while Dracula hangs out in the church, a symbol with little to do. It’s an old dilemma when a major character has so much baggage attached to him (or her) that filmmakers are afraid to take risks and have to create a second, more elastic character to have fun with (e.g., “naughty” Donald Duck being created to contrast with the stiff Mickey Mouse). Scotland Yard calls in expert Van Helsing for help, after bodies start piling up (imagine that). Cushing’s energizer bunny finally kicks in for a duel to the death with a turtlenecked bloodsucker and a bathtub, although the second accidental dispatch might tempt one to dismiss the film as Gothic slapstick or, perhaps, a precursor to Fright Night (1985).

Confined to his safe Gothic setting, Lee’s Dracula disappointingly never actually sees 1972, but he does get to engage in a spirited showdown with Cushing’s Van Helsing fourteen years after their last go at it.

The mod dialogue and slang in the early party scene is unbearable, embarrassingly dating the film. Curiously, much criticism was also leveled against Michael Vicker’s horn score, which is so idiosyncratic that it aids the film. An attempt is made to offset the flaws with three stylish action sequences, an older but still-animated Cushing and Lee, newcomer Neame as a coffee-house vampire, and of course, dual Hammer sex symbols Beacham and Munro. It all adds up to the most bipolar of the Hammer Dracula series, at least until the same team returned for the even queerer 1973 followup The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

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AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES (1965-1974), PART TWO

Tales from the Crypt (1972, directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky) is the first of two anthologies directly adapted from Amicus’ spiritual inspiration, EC Comics.

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A group of five explorers encounter a crypt keeper (no, not that one, but rather  Ralph Richardson as a hammy monk) in an underground cavern. Each are shown the fate that awaits them.

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tales-from-the-crypt-1972

“And All Through the House” taps into Francis’ best qualities, making for an excellent opening segment. While her daughter is sleeping fitfully upstairs waiting for Saint Nicholas to arrive on Christmas Eve, Joan Collins is smashing a poker over her husband’s skull so she can collect his insurance money.

tales-from-the-crypt-1972

Meanwhile, an inmate has escaped from a nearby asylum, dressed as Santa Claus, and someone is going to open the door. Collins is, naturally, perfectly cast as a bitch from hell in the guise of a sex bomb.

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The dialogue is pared down to bare minimum, making this a visual segment, alight in Christmas colors and blood, and choreographed to holiday music. It’s the original Silent Night, Deadly Night.

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“Reflection Of Death” is the weakest link here, about an adulterer (Ian Hendry) who leaves his wife and kids and suffers the consequences when his car crashes. Its twist ending is disappointingly inevitable, but Francis (barely) holds our attention with some innovative POV perspectives.

“Poetic Justice” features a superb, moving performance from Peter Cushing as Grimsdyke. He’s one of those despicable poor people: you know the ones who are always looking for free stuff, health insurance, and government handouts, just like the ones Jesus used to kick in the ass. Although a little senile, he’s kindhearted, loved by the neighborhood children, and communicates with his deceased wife (who is poignantly represented by a portrait of Cushing’s actual late wife). He’s also hated by his neighbors, especially the greedy, uptight James Elliott (Robin Phillips), who drives Grimsdyke to suicide and… this may be the first and only film of a zombie with an elegiac heart, forced to rip out the heartless. Cushing channels his grief to craft what may be his finest character acting.

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“Wish You Were Here” is a pallid reworking of “The Monkey’s Paw,” and delivers a “moral lesson” about being careful what you ask the genie for and how you ask it. Neither Richard Greene (as a zombie) nor Barbara Murray can salvage it.

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“Blind Alleys” features Patrick Magee delivering a strong performance as a blind nursing home resident revolting against dictatorial director Nigel Patrick, who is so adept at patriarchal evil that we can’t wait for his comeuppance, which comes in a wham bang finale.

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Although all of the Amicus anthologies had been profitable, Tales from the Crypt was their biggest box office hit (no doubt in part due to the built-in fanbase of EC Comics), so much so that instead of waiting a few years, the studio immediately went into production of…

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AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES (1965-1974), PART ONE

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With Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965, directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky) Amicus Productions (spearheaded by Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who previously produced for Hammer and was a cousin to Doris Wishman) established itself as a vital competitor to Hammer Studios. Rather than imitating Hammer’s modernization of Gothic classics, Amicus developed its niche in the omnibus film. It was successful enough to be in full-fledged production for a decade, establishing a reputation as the go-to studio for horror anthologies. This, their introductory portmanteau film, clearly influenced by EC Comics, sets a pattern of to-be-expected unevenness. Still, Amicus installs themselves as a horror studio to be reckoned with, sparing no expense in procuring Hammer’s top actors: Peter Cushing (who would  star in all but one of the Amicus anthologies) and Christopher Lee. For its wraparound segment, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors opens to the duo (among other passengers) on a train. Dr. Schreck[1] (Cushing, saddled with a terrible German accent and glued on brows) pulls out a deck of tarot cards. “Pick a card, any card, and tape it three times,” Schreck tells his fellow passengers. Each participant will hear of a fate that may await them. Among the passengers is Christopher Lee who will, of course, factor into one of the five narratives.

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In “Werewolf,” Neil McCallum is an architect renovating an old dark house, which turns out to be cursed. The title monster is featured in this pedestrian tale of ancestral revenge with a “twist.”

With Alan Freeman  (better known as the U.K D.J. for “Pick of the Pops”) served up as a snack for a venus fly trap,”The Creeping Vine,” thankfully doesn’t take itself so seriously. It is refreshingly lightheaded hokum.

“Voodoo” is the worst of the lot; badly dated in its stereotypes, with Kenny Lynch belting out a stolen voodoo tune.

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“Disembodied Hand,” has elitist art critic Franklin Marsh (Lee) driving artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough) to suicide. Landor’s severed hand returns to exact revenge on the mean critic. It’s in the spirit of The Beast with Five Fingers, among others, and chock-full of two-dimensional caricatures of both artists and critics. It holds no surprises, but with Lee and Gough engaged in a bit of whistling-while-they-work fun, it’s easily the best episode.

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“Vampire” feature a young Donald Sutherland who discovers he is married to… a vampire! It barely raises a pulse.

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Seen today, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is more camp than horror, and its appeal is one of genre nostalgia. Still, the phenomenal box office success of Dr. Terror green-lighted a second portmanteau film in 1967, entitled Torture Garden (directed by Freddie Francis and written by Robert Bloch). It contains no torture nor any garden. Burgess Meredith (in a preposterous  disguise, reminding us of the Penguin) is Old Nick himself, going by the pseudonym of Dr. Diablo and moonlighting as a carnival barker who promises a tortuous exhibit that can reveal the future. “You’ll shake, you’ll shiver, but it’s all good fun,” Diablo hammily tells his patrons. Unfortunately, only one of the four tales lives up to that promise.

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“Enoch,” is the opening narrative. Michael Bryant’s inheritance money (from an uncle who took his time dying) is going to be spoiled by a mean ol’ puddy tat with a lot of doubloons.

“Over Hollywood” has Beverly Adams discovering the fountain of youth in Hollywood with robotic consequences.

“Mr. Steinway” might be seen as a poor precursor to Stephen King’s “Christine,” replacing a killer car with a killer piano. It’s as absurd as it sounds.

The first three segments are sloppily written and executed with little enthusiasm; each progressively worse, but the final segment single-handedly salvages the anthology.

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“The Man Who Collected Poe” finds Jack Palance (playing against type) as an Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed geek who may have found his soulmate in fellow fanatic Peter Cushing. However, somebody’s got something—or someone—hidden in the basement and … somebody’s got the fever, which leads to a fiery finale. Cushing and Palance clearly enjoyed playing opposite one another and their chemistry, along with clever writing, making one wish the previous segments had been as enjoyable.

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1970’s The House That Dripped Blood (directed by Peter Duffell and written by Robert Bloch) is a considerable improvement over its predecessors. Duffell lacks the visual astuteness of Freddie Francis, but he has superior stories to work with and a top notch cast. The connecting theme is the titular house, which has a bit of baggage left over from all who have resided there.

In “Method For Murder,” Denholm Elliott is a horror author who writes a character that becomes a tad too three-dimensional, much to his wife’s peril.

“Waxworks” stars Cushing as an uptight retired stockbroker and lifelong bachelor who visits a wax museum, only to see a figure of a woman whom he once was in love with. Obsession and unrequited love naturally go hand-in-hand, or head-on-plate.

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In “Sweets to the Sweet,” Nyree Dawn Porter is hired to tutor a young, motherless child  (Chloe Franks) who is unloved by her cold-hearted father, Christopher Lee. Without giving too much away, let’s just say the underlying theme is one few filmmakers would dare tackle today.

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“The Cloak” is the most famous of the four episodes, remembered fondly for its absurd humor. It stars John Pertwee (best known for his portrayal of Dr. Who) as an actor who mantles the cloak of a purported actual vampire. Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt bares her fangs and, of course, a bit more.

All four episodes feature strong acting, which is a rarity in contemporary horror and should be a model for genre filmmakers. Elliot’s restrained performance in “Method For Murder” is admirable enough to forgive the predictable “twist.” The stylish “Waxworks” features an equally stylish performance from Cushing, although narratively it is the thinnest episode. “Sweets to the Sweet” is psychologically intense with three powerhouse performances, making it the strongest entry. Although John Pertwee is a bit on-the-sleeve in “The Cloak,” his performance suits the tone; but, he’s no match for Pitt.

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PETER CUSHING SIX PACK: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE SKULL, TWINS OF EVIL,THE CREEPING FLESH, AND THE GHOUL

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Although Peter Cushing passed this mortal coil in 1994, he made a recent, posthumous appearance—albeit a digital one—in what is probably his most famous non-Hammer role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue One. His debut film performance was, aptly enough, for Universal horror icon James Whale in Man in the Iron Mask(1939), but it wasn’t until Terence Fisher’s 1957’s Curse Of Frankenstein for Hammer Studios that Cushing secured his iconic niche. Unlike the Universal Frankenstein series, Fisher focused on the doctor himself, as opposed to the monster. With his frosty blue eyes, silver-tongued elocution, and gaunt frame, bringing a fervent athleticism to his early performances, Cushing was ideally cast.

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Echoing John Huston’s brilliant deduction that Humphrey Bogart’s villainous screen qualities could be transposed to that of a protagonist in The Maltese Falcon, Terence Fisher next cast Cushing as the quintessential Van Helsing in Horror Of Dracula (1958). These dual roles, Frankenstein and Van Helsing, cemented Cushing as a horror genre star. It was typecasting that kept his services in demand, and for which he was grateful.

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He also made an excellent Sherlock Holmes in Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, again cast opposite Lee. It’s possibly the best screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel, and one of Hammer studio’s finest hours. Cushing brings an irreproachable, authentically physical fire-and-ice quality to the role. The film is relatively faithful to the novel, which will surprise those expecting Fisher to transform it into a horror opus—although it has his trademark red-blooded pacing and brooding atmosphere. Lee, as Sir Henry, may not be as exquisitely cast, but brings flair to the character. Someone must have forgotten to tell Fisher, Cushing, cinematographer Jack Asher, set designer Bernard Robinson, and composer James Bernard that this was an overly familiar story, because they approach it with a refreshing sense of discovery. Lee recalls his genuine affection for his late co-star in an interview included on the DVD. Unlike their Universal Horror predecessors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Cushing and Lee became best of friends. Co-starring opposite each other in twenty-four films, their chemistry was undeniable, and although they did substantial solo work, their names are practically synonymous.

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Cushing was cast as the infamous Dr. Knox for Britain’s Shepparton Studio in Flesh And The Fiends(1960, written and directed by John Gilling). Similar to his Victor Frankenstein, Cushing’s Knox is obsessed by his work. His is an icy, stern, brash, one-eyed doctor, but not without a degree of introspective sympathy, in sharp contrast to the deplorable Burke and Hare (as portrayed here by George Rose and Donald Pleasance). As with many “mad doctor” films, Knox is driven to immoral extremes by a medically regressive climate. The cast, which includes an early performance by Billie Whitelaw (best known as the literal nanny-from-hell in The Omen), is uniformly excellent. The production values surpass even the early Hammer entries; surprisingly, it’s also far more risqué. Gilling’s direction is assured,with an eye for detail, particularly (and admirably) gutter detail. Not so much horror as history, it’s a seriously underrated gem featuring a striking performance from Cushing.

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1969 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, IT’S ALIVE, AND SATAN’S SADISTS

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After the success of 1968’s The Conqueror Worm (AKA The Witchfinder General, with a deliciously evil Vincent Price), director Michael Reeves was assigned dual films: The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again. Unfortunately, shortly after pre-production work on The Oblong Box , Reeves died at the age of 25 from an accidental, lethal mix of alcohol and barbiturates, putting an end to a promising career. The film must have seemed cursed, because scripter Lawrence Huntington also died. Gordon Hessler replaced Reeves and Christopher Wicking replaced Huntington. Given Reeves’ high critical standing, Hessler was immediately criticized as being unable to fill the late director’s shoes. While there’s little doubt that Reeves’  idiosyncratic style would be impossible to imitate, he was unenthusiastic about the assignment to begin with. Thus, whether he could have made a better film is pure speculation. Despite starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, The Oblong Box can hardly compete with Roger Corman‘s AIP Poe series, but it does have an ambitious, somber, gothic style of its own and is well photographed by John Coquillon.

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Of more interest is a genuine oddity in the AIP canon: Scream and Scream Again, which also starred both Price and Lee along with Peter Cushing (in what amounts to a cameo) and the same writing/directing team of Wicking and Hessler. Released in the U.K in 1969 and stateside 1970, Scream and Scream Again is one of the queerest horror science fiction extravaganzas committed to celluloid, which may explain why Fritz Lang proclaimed it among his favorite films. Wicking’s screenplay is an ambitiously brazen adaptation of Peter Saxon’s “The Disoriented Man.” Given that Hessler is a minor cult filmmaker, Scream and Scream Again is, likewise, a film with a minor cult reputation, one that deserves a broader audience. Although imperfect, it is creepy and perverse enough to be of interest to weird movie lovers who crave a challenge.

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The fragmented plot (one of several) opens with a jogger in the park, keeling over from what appears to be a heart attack. He wakes up in a hospital bed to a nurse who won’t speak to him. After she leaves, the jogger finds that his leg has been amputated. He screams.

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The corpse of a rape victim is discovered with two puncture wounds on her wrist.

In an unnamed European totalitarian state, a humanoid Gestapo soldier (a lurid Marshall Jones) murders his superior by squeezing his shoulder.

The jogger wakes up to find his second leg amputated. He screams again.

Inspector Bellever (Alfred Marks) of Scotland Yard sets up a sting to catch a serial killer (Michael Gothard) whose M.O. is biting women’s  wrists and draining their blood after raping them. Bellever uses a policewoman as bait, with fatal results. A long, captivating chase follows and, after the modish killer in a convertible is caught and handcuffed to the back of a car, he severs his own hand and another chase follows the trail of blood.

The jogger wakes up to find an arm amputated. He screams again.

Vincent Price shows up as a mad scientist who specializes in “organ transplants” and happens to have a vat of acid.

A fascistic superior (Cushing) lectures the Gestapo soldier about his torture methods, which is followed by another shoulder squeeze.

The jogger awakes to find his other arm amputated. He screams again.

Price returns to an operating table, meets a British Intelligence officer (Lee), and that vat of acid comes in handy.

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And so it goes. For most of the duration of the film, the vignettes seem completely unrelated, but there’s a fascist spy ring afoot, paranoid conspiracies about super humans, and a potential alien takeover of the government. There’s no real star, but Marks (who is quite good) has the most screen time. Price and Lee lend little more than marquee value, although Price does get an over-the-top scene for the film’s conclusion and, for once, his hamminess is apt. While the finale is a tad too neatly wrapped, for the first 90 minutes of its 95 minute running time, one doesn’t know quite what the hell to make of this seemingly erratic mess. It’s equal parts science fiction, espionage thriller, and traditional mad scientist horror yarn, evoking Lang’s Mabuse but with a late 60s disco number performed in a seedy club thrown in for good measure. Well photographed (by Coquillon), kinetically paced, strikingly bloody, and awash in enigmatic energy, Scream and Scream Again is impressive for its adventurously bizarre composition. Although uneven and saddled with a ho-hum title, it’s as difficult to dismiss this authentic original as it is to embrace it.

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1968 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, AND SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

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In 1968 George Romero released one of the most relentlessly frightening movies ever made in Night of the Living Dead, but it took a couple of years for the midnight movie crowd to make it into an epic cult phenomenon. Seen today, it holds up effectively, even with our sensibilities jaded from countless hack imitations. Its grainy black, white, and gray palette serves its otherworldliness well during a late night viewing on big screen, which I how I first encountered it. Even Romero could never quite match it, although he continued to try for forty years.

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The argument can be made that Romero’s best post-Night of the Living Dead films were outside the zombie genre (The Crazies, Martin, NightRiders, and Creepshow). Still, no one does zombies like Romero (as Tom Savini proved with his 1990 NotLD remake), and the movie closest to the impact of the original was its immediate sequel, Dawn of the Dead(1978), which was a shock satire on Western consumerism, brutalizing in its late 70s comic book colors and deliberate plays on banality. Some claim Dawn is Romero’s masterpiece, although it lacks the original’s reinventing-the-wheel, rough-edged freshness. In 2004, Dawn was remade by Zack Snyder who completely missed Romero’s acerbic wit. The underrated Day of the Dead (1985) was the third in Romero’s original zombie trilogy, but did not attain the cult status of its predecessors. Its financial disappointment seemed to render it a finale to Romero’s zombie oeuvre. However, Romero, who has always been a sporadic filmmaker, returned with The Land of the Dead in 2005, which was followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and what looks to be his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009). Each of Romero’s zombie sequels has its equal share of fans and critics, but at the very least, he has tried to say something new with each entry.

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None have attained the compact rawness of that 1968 yardstick, however. Duane Jones became a cult icon as the doomed protagonist Ben. Previously an English professor, Jones was the first African-American to have a starring role in a horror feature (the script does not specify Ben’s ethnicity). Judith O’Dea, as Barbara, is the eternal victim ( in Savini’s remake, the character is recast as a feminist femme fatale). Together, they hole up in a farmhouse and fight off the marching dead, but are inevitably at the mercy of hayseeds with guns. The shot-on-the-cheap crudeness and novice acting actually add to the mundane horror. It was riveting enough to create an entirely new genre, but predictably, its unique qualities have eluded pale imitations.

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Elsewhere in 1968, AIP’s Wild In The Streets (directed by Barry Shear) was both hippie exploitation and a political satire starring that fifteen minute idol, Christopher Jones, along with Shelley Winters, Hal Holbrook, and Richard Pryor. It became an instant cult hit and received predominantly good reviews. The Mini-Skirt Mob (directed by Maury Dexter), on the other hand, was a biker exploitation that was as bad as its title indicated. Not to be left out, Herschell Gordon Lewis contributed She-Devils on Wheels. It’s about (drum roll)… biker chicks. It’s pretty damned entertaining.

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Joseph Sarno began his famous series of arthouse erotica with Inga, starring Marie Liljedahl, who became a very short-lived sensation. Sarno followed this with two more Inga films (minus Liljedahl) before going into actual pornography.

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Back on the Gothic end of the spectrum, Boris Karloff barely made it through his last three films:  Fear Chamber, House Of Evil, and  Vernon Sewell’s Curse Of The Crimson Altar.  It was on the set of Curse that Karloff caught pneumonia and died shortly after. Sewell fared no better directing Peter Cushing in The Blood Beast Terror. John Carradine continued a downward slide with Ted V. Mikel’s The Astro-Zombies, which justifiably makes a lot of “worst movie” lists. Shockingly, it reaped quite a profit on the drive-in circuit, but one has to image it was merely an excuse for rubber-necking or a nap, because it’s a wretchedly dull endurance test.

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