THE WITCH & IT FOLLOWS (2015)

With the release of The Witch and It Follows, 2015 was an exceptional year for the horror genre. The Witch, Robert Egger’s directorial debut proved to be the more provocative of the two; not surprising, given that Puritan oppression as horror strikes close to home. Even more predictable is the expansive hatred for such an original film by formula horror fans. They’re a tribe of Neanderthals, too obtuse to recognize one of the ballsiest film of the last decade.

The Witch‘s subtitle tells us it’s “A New-England Folktale,” set in the mid-seventeenth century. It opens with family patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) banished from this Puritan paradise for unclear reasons. Like Adam and Eve, William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) are forced to flee to the wilderness, a forest setting that recalls numerous fairy tales. With them are their children, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson),  Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the infant Samuel.

Like most evangelical sects, William’s religion practices a type of anti-ritualism (setting them apart from liturgical competitors); but, as we see from his dialogue with Caleb, a ritualistic anti-ritualism ritualism sets in. Caleb is a willing subscriber.

Along with the rituals comes Puritan oppression, and a superstitious anti-superstition soon rears its horrific head. Thomasin, left in charge of Samuel, entertains him with a game of peekaboo, but on the fourth uncovering of her eyes, Samuel has vanished.

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1974 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S DRACULA, IT’S ALIVE, AND LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES

1974 brought a cult movie smorgasbord, beginning with Andy Warhol’s Dracula (AKA Blood for Dracula, directed by Paul Morrissey), which is better known than the previous year’s Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. It again stars Udo Kier (as the bloodsucker) and Joe Dallesandro (as the servant Mario), along with famed Italian director Vitorrio De Sica as a patriarch with four daughters who need marrying off. Kier’s count is sick, depressed, and bored to tears. He needs virgin blood, but post-sexual revolution, that’s not easy to come by. Three of the four candidates turn out to be sloppy seconds, making the Count even sicker. When he finally does find daughter four to be a virgin, the meddlesome Mario saves her in the predictable way, with Dracula diving to the floor to lap up popped cherry sauce.

Knowingly misogynistic, with a splendid score (Claudio Gizzi), an over-the-top finale that puts some of the sillier Hammer vampire dispatches to shame, and a Roman Polanski cameo, Blood for Dracula is far from perfect, but endures as a cult oddity.

Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise is probably the best film based on the Gaston Leroux novel. It’s greatness lies in its refusal to put the original narrative on a pedestal, which, despite what a certain hack composer named Webber claims, is not that good anyway. It quickly secured its cult standing, but is often considered to be under the shadow of 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both are delightful, but if it’s an either/or situation, go with De Palma. His is the better film.

The Night Porter (directed by Liliana Cavani ) was to 1974 what Fifty Shades Of Grey was to 2015, the difference being the S&M relationship here is between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the Jewess he tortured in the concentration camp ( Charlotte Rampling). It’s arthouse reputation secured a strong following for years, and it was eventually released on home video via the Criterion Collection. It wasn’t unanimously loved; Roger Ebert was among its critics, in an almost infamous review.

Rampling co-starred  in her second 1974 cult movie with John Boorman’s Zardoz, appearing alongside Sean Connery in a ponytail and diaper. It’s yet another 1974 entry that made 366 W weird Movie’s official weird movie list.

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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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1971 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, AND WILLARD

1971 began with one of the most stylish horror films ever produced:  The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a near-perfect collaboration between director Robert Feust and star Vincent Price. Al Adamson produced a “masterpiece” of a very different kind with Dracula vs. Frankenstein, featuring the most (unintentionally) frightening performance of poor Lon Chaney Jr’s career and the most hilariously inept portrayal ever of the Transylvanian vampire count (by “Zandor Vorkov”). Director Eddie Romero and “star” John Ashley teamed up for bothBeast of Blood and Beast of the Yellow Night, which may be as unimaginative as they sound, but would make a worthwhile, howling triple feature with Adamson’s opus.

 Jean Rollin was still gifting the world lesbian vampires with Caged Virgins (AKA Requiem For A Vampire) and The Shiver Of The Vampires. Following suit were Stephanie Rothman with The Velvet Vampire, Ray Austin’s The Virgin Witch (starring twins Anne and Vicki Michelle), and Jess Franco with the bluntly titled Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed In Ecstasy, both starring the tragically short-lived cult figure Soledad Miranda. Not to be outdone, Hammer Studios contributed to the thriving same-sex bloodsucker subgenera with Ingrid Pitt as a “Calgon Take Me Away” Countess Dracula (directed by Peter Sasdy), and with Lust for a Vampire (directed by Jimmy Sangster and starring Yutte Stensgaard). Neither of these were as explicit as they promised and probably should have been. Considerably better was another Hammer opus with identical siblings (Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson): Twins of Evil, stylishly directed by John Hough and featuring a superb authoritarian performance by Peter Cushing.

However, it was Harry Kumel’s Belgian Daughters of Darkness, starring Delphine Seyrig and Danielle Ouimet, that made the biggest impact, becoming an international cult hit that is still referenced today. Of course, hetero bloodsuckers were not be left out and had their moment under the sequel moon in The Return of Count Yorga (directed by Bob Kelljan and starring Robert Quarry), which failed to repeat its predecessor’s success. Night of Dark Shadows by Dan Curtis improved on the previous years effort, despite an absent Jonathan Frid. Oddly, it was the Japanese who were perhaps most suited to Transylvanian folklore in 1971 with Lake of Dracula(directed by Michio Yamamoto).

 

Amando de Osario charted unexpected territory with his zombie monks in Tombs of the Blind Dead, the first of his Blind Dead series (he had previously made the unrelated vampire opus, Fangs Of The Living Dead, in 1968). Although short on actual plot, it’s arguably Osorio’s finest moment. Scenes of the blackened, dead Templars rising from their graves (resurrected by Satan) and mounting horses (juxtaposed to Anton Abril’s highly effective, eerily faint score) to ride into the slaughter (filmed in slow motion) are spine tingling.

These are zombies of a different sort who raise their swords to slash at victims, before draining their blood. Scenes of the Spanish Inquisition, failed crusades, misogynistic torture of women, and lesbianism are surprisingly low-key, and often poetically surreal. Although Osorio’s influences (including Mario Bava’s color palette) are in full evidence, his is a strongly original film, almost painterly. Decaying abbeys and a potential victim standing motionless to avoid the army of blind marauders evoke a sense of dread. Even a massacre on a train is artfully restrained.

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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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1967 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: CORRUPTION, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, AND THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

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We start our 1967 genre survey with a considerable amount of barrel-bottom scraping with two of Herschell Gordon Lewis‘ most execrable efforts: The Gruesome Twosome and Something Weird. He also made the somewhat better A Taste of Blood the same yearWith a bigger budget and longer running time (118 minutes), Lewis referred to Blood as his “Gone With The Wind” masterpiece.  Actually, it’s modeled more after Roger Corman than Victor Fleming. Lacking the excess of Lewis’ previous films and featuring a “classic” monster in Dracula, it’s mostly seen as a noble misfire by Lewis’ cult.

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Elsewhere in 1967, Larry Buchanan, a director on par with the likes of Lewis, William Beaudine, Ed Wood, or Phil Tucker, produced a pair of jaw-dropping bombs in Mars Needs Women and Creature of Destruction. Jean Yarbrough, who had previously helmed such masterpieces as The Devil Bat (1940), directed Basil Rathbone, Joi Lansing, John Carradine and Lon Chaney, Jr. in Hillbillies in a Haunted House. Rathbone died shortly after filming and was spared embarrassment from a film so wretched that it’s virtually unwatchable. His surviving co-stars and director weren’t as fortunate. Nazis-on-ice figure prominently in Herbert Leader’s The Frozen Dead, which at least has some unintentional humor going for it. Joan Crawford went Beserk for director Jim O’Connell. The film’s a paltry effort, but Joan is a humdinger channeling her inner Mommie Dearest.

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A blind Boris Karloff got whupped by Viveca Lindfors in Cauldron Of Blood, but the on-his-last-leg genre icon fared considerably better in Michael Reeves’ excellent cult classic, The Sorcerers. Harald Reini did Christopher Lee few favors when directing the actor for The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism. John Gilling likewise missed the mark in Hammer’s The Mummy’s Shroud. Away from Hammer Studios, Terence Fisher was out of his element in his final sci-fi opus[1] , Island of the Burning Damned, starring Lee and Peter Cushing. By his own admission, Fisher had no enthusiasm for science fiction and went back to his Hammer Horror niche later in 1967 with Frankenstein Created Woman.

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Fisher favorite Peter Cushing made a sharp departure from his typical acerbic-but-classy screen persona by dipping into pure sleaze for Corruption (directed by Robert Hartford-Davis). Although most sources give the release date as 1968, it’s also listed as a 1967 production. Most likely it’s the later date, but since we have that year already filled up, we’ll cheat a tad in placing it here. A sordid hybrid of The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Eyes Without A Face (1960), Corruption can be summed up by the Blu-ray cover art image of a middle-aged Cushing taking a knife to the throat of a scantily clad buxom blonde. He plays surgeon Sir John Rowan, engaged to fashion model Lynn Nolan (Sue Lloyd). An accident (caused by Rowan) leaves Lynn disfigured. After conventional skin-grafting plastic surgery fails, Sir John resorts to slightly unorthodox methods to restore her back to potential trophy wife status, which involves medical and Egyptian mumbo jumbo along with removing the pituitary gland of a corpse. The treatment works, but only temporarily. Soon, Lynn is back to being an ugly duckling. So what does Sir John have up his sleeve? Fresher specimens, which can only be supplied via a murder spree. This being 60s swinging London, there is a ready supply of hot female victims with raging pituitaries.

PETER CUSHING, SUE LLOYD, ANTHONY BOOTH KATE OMARA DAVE LODGE VALERIE VAN OST 'CORRUPTION' 1968 Dir ROBERT HARTFORD DAVIS PETERCUSHING.ORG.UK
PETER CUSHING, SUE LLOYD, ANTHONY BOOTH KATE OMARA DAVE LODGE VALERIE VAN OST ‘CORRUPTION’ 1968 Dir ROBERT HARTFORD DAVIS PETERCUSHING.ORG.UK

Lloyd steps into the role that Luana Walters filled in The Corpse Vanishes and Cushing replaces Lugosi. It goes without saying that the Hammer thespian’s work far surpasses the Hungarian vampire’s. That might not be much of a compliment, since Lugosi was, with few exceptions, one of the horror genre’s worst actors. Cushing himself seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the film, having described it as excessively sick. His belated embarrassment aside, Cushing is superb in this atypical role. While a natural for the character’s reserved side, among the flower-power generation Cushing is the proverbial fish-out of water, which benefits the characterization. The actor excels when transforming into a batshit looney toon, even wiping the blood of one victim on her exposed breast, before one of the most outlandish finales ever committed to celluloid. Aside from Cushing, Kate O’Mara, as the sister-in-law-to-be, gives a serviceable performance, but Lloyd fails to convince in her underwritten part. Working against flat direction, an out-of-place jazz score and an unenthusiastic cast, it’s entirely Cushing’s film. It’s no Eyes Without a Face, but after being unreleased for years, Grindhouse Pictures gives it the Criterionesque treatment it deserves, with the extreme closeups of a sweaty, bug-eyed Cushing doing the dirty, popping in a glorious 60s wash. Both the (slightly longer and more risqué) international and American versions are included, along with alternate scenes, interviews, the shooting script, audio commentary, and the misogynistic trailer, which declares: “This is not a woman’s picture. No woman will go home alone after seeing Corruption. Therefore, no woman will be admitted alone to see this super shocker.”

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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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1966 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

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The 1966 horror, science fiction, and exploitation slate may be most infamous for what many claim is the worst film of all time: Manos: The Hands Of Fate. It’s also the year that Barbara Steele made her last Italian Gothic, An Angel for Satan (which we’ll cover later in a Steele retrospective). William “One-Shot” Beaudine was responsible for back-to-back western horrors: Billy The Kid Meets Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Michael Hoey banked on Marilyn-imitator Mamie Van Doren to lift Navy vs. The Night Monsters (it didn’t work) while Curtis Harrington and Michael Reeves made futile attempts to salvage films started by others: Queen of Blood and The She-Beast, respectively. Hy Averback tooted his horror horn to warn us of hooked killer Patrick O’Neil in Chamber of  Horrors and Freddie Francis had us screaming about Deadly Bees. Considerably better was Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby Kill. It was Hammer Horror and Hammer-related films, however, that owned the year’s genre product.

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Terence Fisher officially resurrected the Count in Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, with Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley trading saliva in Anthony Hinds’ screenplay (written under his usual pseudonym John Elder). Fisher jumped ship and headed to Universal (momentarily) for Island of Terror, starring Lee and Peter Cushing, but directed with little enthusiasm.

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Lee, Shelly, and Hinds teamed again that same year for Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which is effective trash as only Hammer could deliver. Hinds’ previous writing credits include Brides Of Dracula (1960), Curse Of The Werewolf (1961) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963). 1966 was a busy year for him, having also scripted The Reptile (see below). Hinds continued writing for Hammer up until their cult TV series, “Hammer House Of Horrors” (1980).

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1965 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DIE MONSTER DIE, MONSTER A GO-GO, AND INCUBUS

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After the bonanzas of 1963 and 1964, 1965 was a comparatively lackluster year for horror and exploitation flicks, with a few exceptions at both ends of the spectrum. Boris Karloff, Nick Adams, Suzan Farmer, and Freda Jackson starred in Die, Monster, Die, directed by Daniel Haller, which was one of the first big screen attempts at an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. Released by AIP for the drive-in double feature circuit along with Mario Bava’s  cult fave, Planet Of The Vampires, Die, Monster, Die has more kinship to that studio’s Poe  product than to Lovecraft. It also has a distant relationship to Hammer Horror: Jackson previously appeared in Brides Of Dracula, and Farmer went on to do both Dracula, Prince Of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk for the studio the following year. Additionally, elements of Die, Monster Die are clearly related to Universal’s Man-Made Monster(1941) and Columbia’s mad doctor series.

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With Universal horror icon Karloff and Rebel Without a Cause heartthrob Adams as the two leading men, Die, Monster, Die feels like a queer hybrid. The aged Karloff, suffering the effects of emphysema, is wheelchair bound (and will be for the rest of his career and life), but he evokes formidable English mystery from his blanket and chair. In sharp contrast is all that pent-up, pushy, youthful American angst from Adams, who is aptly vulgar and a standout in his Jersey accent.

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Stephen Reinhart  goes to visit Susan Witley at her parents’ home in the English village of Arkham. Stephen had met Susan at the college they attended together in the States, but when he stops at a local pub, he discovers the entire village paralyzed with fear in regards to the Witley estate (calling to mind Ed Wood’s daffily delivered dialogue from 1955’s Bride Of The Monster, “stay away from the old Willow’s place!”) Poor Stephen can’t get anyone to give him transportation and is forced to walk. Upon finally arriving at the Witley estate, he discovers that the surrounding plant life has all mysteriously died. He is greeted with hostility by Susan’s crippled father, Nahum (Karloff), who demands that Stephen leave at once. Nahum is interrupted by a beaming Susan and introduced to her mother, Letitia (Jackson), who is bedridden and hidden behind a veil. Letitia intercedes for Stephen and asks him to take Susan away from this charnel house. A short while later, Nahum’s servant, Merwyn (Terence De Marney) collapses and dies. After Merwyn’s late night burial, followed by a phantom-like figure appearing at the window, Stephen and Susan make their way into Nahum’s greenhouse and discover abnormally enlarged plant life and mutated critters. “It looks like a zoo on hell,” declares Stephen. After some Sherlock Holmes/Watson sleuthing, he and Susan unlock the dreadful secret: Nahum has been “experimenting” with radioactivity from a meteorite. Hoping to undo an ancestor’s evil deeds (whatever those were) Nahum plans to help feed the world with mutated plant life! Of course, things go awry and everyone who worked in the greenhouse has been either mutated or killed. The phantom figure turns out to be a former maid, now a butcher knife-wielding mutant. Both Letitia and Merwyn were victims, and now it’s Nahum’s turn as he transforms into a green thing with an axe, leading to a fiery climax.

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The opening plot sounds like a number of the Vincent Proice/Roger Corman screen treatments of Edgar Alan Poe. Despite the ho-hum overfamiliarity, Die, Monster Die has rich cinematography (by Paul Beeson), delightfully dated FX (including Karloff’s green thing stand-in), a vibrant score (from Don Banks), and a crackerjack performance from Karloff. Performances like this explain how an almost eighty-year-old, handicapped actor kept getting parts personally tailored to him up until his death four years later. Even Adams is pretty good (much better than his other ’65 performance—see below). With a zippy pace and Gothic sci-fi milieu, Monster is perfect drive-in fodder and must have made a helluva cinema-under-the-stars bargain when paired with Planet of the Vampires.  First released for home video as part of MGM’s Midnight Movies series (coupled with 1970’s Dunwich Horror, also directed by Haller), it has been upgraded to Blu-ray in a gorgeous transfer from Scream Factory and looks better than ever. Primarily criticized on its release for straying too far from it’s source story, “The Colour out of Space,” it has since has garnered a cult reputation as a fun mix of nostalgic Gothic horror and science fiction.

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DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA

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An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of Mario Bava. He was overlooked by serious critics for decades. It was genre fans who kept whispering Bava’s name until it reached an echo and reverberated in critical circles. Called The Father of Italian Giallo Cinema, he influenced the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Quentin Tarantino (among others). Predictably, Bava’s fan base is given to religious zeal, but his body of work merits immersion in spite of his fanatical cult.

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It should come as no surprise that Mario Bava’s original ambition was to become a painter. The son of sculptor and cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario found painting a less-than-profitable life goal and followed his father’s footsteps. Landing a job in Mussolini’s film factory, Bava’s apprentice work included lensing numerous films, beginning in 1939. It wasn’t until 1957 that Bava (uncredited) co-directed his first feature with Riccardo Freda: Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri).

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Although neither a great horror film nor a great film, Lust of the Vampire (not to be confused with the later Hammer film, which makes this one look like a masterpiece) is historically important for being the first Italian horror film. There are no vampires to speak of. The victims are the result of surgical horrors, and there’s little doubt that this film was a considerable influence on Georges Franjou’s Eyes Without A Face. Although crisply paced in its 78 minute running time, it’s saddled with dull, verbose characters. Lust of the Vampire teeters toward full-blown Goth cinema, but it also has scenes that hearken back to the mad scientist films of the 1940s; one has to look twice to make sure we’re not witnessing Boris Karloff and Lionel Atwill up to no good in their labs. Visually, it has wonderful set pieces and almost surreal matte-work standing in for Paris. A portentous spiraling stairwell, shadow-doused laboratories, decaying beds, skulls falling to the floor, nooses inexplicably dangling from the ceiling, a mist-laden forest, an ornamental tomb façade, secret chambers, and beautiful women injected with serum transforming into withered drama queens all add up to an evocative early Italian horror. Gianna Maria Canale has the standout performance as Giselle du Grand, smoking cigarettes in front of mirrors. There’s a lot of debate as to how much Bava directed. The film has elements that could be attributed to the styles of both artists. Although Bava is clearly the superior director, Freda (who co-wrote the script) went on to make the effective Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and it’s sequel The Ghost(1963), both with Barbara Steele. Freda walked out mid-production (for unclear reasons), leaving cinematographer Bava to finish the directorial duties for the remaining shooting schedule. Reportedly, the film was heavily censored by Italian “moralists,” which resulted in scant showings and rendered it a financial loss. Image Entertainment released a superlative DVD of I Vampiri, but it’s currently out of print.

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Freda and Bava re-teamed as co-directors for 1959’s Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, which lays claim to being one of the earliest Italian science fiction films (Bava had served as a cinematographer for the very first Italian sci-fi, The Day The Sky Exploded, in 1958 and, according to some sources, co-directed it as well).

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Apparently inspired by The Blob(1958), Caltiki far surpasses its source material (which isn’t hard to do). Set in Mexico City, the opening narration gives a brief synopsis of the ancient Mayan civilization, the mystery of its demise, and warns of an evil Mayan deity, known as Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. The opening is unabashed Bava: an archeologist runs, terrified, through an eerily lit jungle as a volcano erupts in the distance. He makes it to his campsite and leads the group back to the Mayan ruins he had stumbled upon. Finding a long-lost temple, the archeologists succumb to avarice, which leads to the unearthing of Caltiki; a Blob of a god who melts away skin and mental faculties. The FX are grisly for the time period, but shock value always dates, and it’s the Bava touches (excellent matte work and cinematography) that still seem fresh. Although well-paced, the writing is a pastiche filled with cardboard characters.

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Bava co-directed 1959 The Giant of Marathon with Jacques Tourneur (!), which would be a typical Steve Reeves sword and sandal opus, were it not for Bava’s camera work on some of the elaborate (and bloody) battle scenes (including an underwater confrontation). Of course, it has lots of cleavage—from both sexes. It’s hokey as hell, and while it hardly represents the directing craftsmanship of Tourneur, it does highlight Bava’s superb camera work.

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With the box office success of Marathon, Bava was finally given his own film to direct solo, and the result was Black Sunday. This horror classic remains Bava’s most famous film and is covered here in greater detail.

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1964 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES, 2000 MANIACS, AND THE CREEPING TERROR (WITH BONUS: STRAIGHT-JACKET )

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1964 was nearly as productive a year for the cinematic horror genre as 1963 was. Coming from the barrel bottom was Jerry Warren’s improvement on 1960’s La Casa del Terror, Face of The Screaming Werewolf, starring (sort of) Lon Chaney, Jr. and Yerye Beirut (who later co-starred with Boris Karloff in a string of Mexican films co-produced by Jack Hill). Chaney was probably less embarrassed (although doubtfully any less sober) working for Hammer director Don Sharp in the well-received Witchcraft. Fellow Hammer veterans Freddie Francis and Peter Cushing collaborated on the actor’s only non- Terence Fisher directed Frankenstein opus, The Evil of Frankenstein, which initially received poor reviews, but has since been reassessed in a more positive light (in some quarters). Without a star actor (or competent director) Hammer’s The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb (DirMichael Carreras) was as limp as its title character. However, the dynamic trio of Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Barbara Shelley did their best work (despite a silly-looking title creature), as usual, for Terence Fisher in The Gorgon. Lee didn’t fair as winningly in the Warren Kiefer/Luciano Ricci co-directed Castle Of The Living Dead, despite having closing scenes directed by an uncredited Michael Reeves. Lee moved from a castle to a mere crypt in Crypt Of the Vampire (directed by Camilio Mastrocinque), which was as narratively pedestrian as its title,despite undeniable atmosphere. The icon of Italian Gothic cinema Barbara Steele (and the last living of the classic horror stars) was also at home in a castle setting in Castle Of Blood (Co-Directed by Antonio Margheriti and Sergio Corbucci) and teamed again with Magheriti in The Long Hair Of Death, which we will be covering soon in a Steele triple feature. The final two Poe films from Roger Corman and Vincent Price, Masque Of The Red Death and Tomb Of Ligeia were  among their best received, although the latter features yet another ingratiatingly whiny, flowery performance from its  star. Rounding out a busy year, Price starred in The Last Man On Earth (Co-directed by Ubaldo Ramona and Sidney Salkow),  the first of several big screen adaptations of Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend,”none of which astoundingly could get right.

the-incredibly-strange-creatures-who-stopped-living-and-became-mixed-up-zombies

Blood and Black Lace predictably became yet another cult film from Mario Bava, but even he could not compete with the legendary Kwaidan (directed by Masaki Kobayashi), which puts most Western horror anthologies to shame. Down several notches is Del Tenney, who has an inexplicable cult reputation, but as both I Eat Your Skin and The Horrors Of Party Beach prove, that status is undeserved for such a dullard. Spiraling downward, ever downward we come to Ray Dennis Steckler’s biggest budgeted film, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies, which is more famous for its title than the film itself. There’s a reason for that; It also commits the cardinal sin of being hopelessly dull. It doesn’t have zombies per se, but victims of the carnival fortune teller, Madame Estrella who throws acid in people’s faces, turning them into “monsters.” Despite bad sound, obnoxious acting (including Steckler himself under the pseudonym Cash Flagg) and execrable “rock and roll” numbers that have nothing to do with the plot, it’s sort of decently shot-in color- by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind-1977), but even the lensing is guilty of “incredibly slow and pointless shots of carnival rides,” which would perhaps be a better title.

Continue reading “1964 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES, 2000 MANIACS, AND THE CREEPING TERROR (WITH BONUS: STRAIGHT-JACKET )”

UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1963) AND CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966)

 

unearthly-stranger-1963

Unearthly Stranger (1963, directed by John Krish) often showed up on late night television from the late 60s through the 70s. Naturally, there is always a risk in revisiting a movie first seen during adolescence. Chances are that it may not hold up—and more often than not, that is the case. Or, one my find value in it, but for very different reasons.

unearthly-stranger-1963

Subdued, with a distinctly British flavor, The Unearthly Stranger has qualities similar to The Quatermass Experiment (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), I Married a Monster from Outer Space(1958), “The Twilight Zone,” and the “Outer Limits.” Shot on a low budget, this Independent Artists production does not rely on special effects, which would have inevitably dated by now anyway. Although short on action and surprises, its virtues are atmosphere, dialogue, and solid performances.

unearthly-stranger-1963

Unearthly Stranger opens with Dr. Mark Davidson ( John Neville, best known for The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen ) running through an empty city at night before reaching his apartment. Finding a tape recorder, he leaves a message: “In a little while I expect to be killed by something you and I know is here,” which segues into an extended flashback.

unearthly-stranger-1963

Shortly after the mysterious murder of fellow researcher Dr. Munro (Warren Mitchell), Davidson and Professor Lancaster (Phillip Stone) resume work on their government funded project, one which enables people to telepathically travel to other planets and potentially contact alien life. In addition to investigating Munro’s death, project supervisor Major Clark (Patrick Newell) has taken an abnormal interest in Davidson’s new Swiss wife, Julie (Gabriella Licudi). Lancaster, a close friend of Davidson’s, is also curious and surprised that he has not been introduced to the new bride.

Continue reading “UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1963) AND CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966)”

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL

 Ken Russell

Parts I  & 2 of a retrospective covering the theatrical feature films of  (1927-2011) originally posted at 366 Weird Movies. Russell also produced an extensive number of documentaries, television films (many of which were composer biographies), and short films, which will not be covered here.

Ken Russell

The late Ken Russell is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and visionary filmmakers in the entirety of cinema. Excessive and flamboyant, he was often dismissed by mainstream critics. Russell was equally criticized in avant-garde circles for not having the courage of his convictions (meaning he wasn’t academically non-linear enough. There’s a reason Russell is often compared to the painter Francis Bacon, who continued painting surreal figurative works in the age of academic abstract expressionism). Admirably, Russell had no use for categorizations, but as idiosyncratic as he was, his execution did not always rise to the concepts in his work.

KEN RUSSELL French Dressing

Russell’s strengths and weakness are evident in his first theatrical feature, French Dressing (1964). It’s a British caper comedy in the vein of Richaed Lester‘s Hard Day’s Night (1964). Initially it was a box office and critical failure. Russell’s penchant for surreal imagery and sharp edits is intact, although subtle by later standards. Even when subdued, Russell’s style doesn’t work for this kind of material, rendering the film heavy handed and narratively confused. However, it was original enough to develop a cult following, the first of many for Russell.

KEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar BrainKEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar Brain

Believing French Dressing to be a misfire, Russell returned to the safety of television work for three years before reemerging with his next feature, Billion Dollar Brain (1967). It is the second sequel in the Harry Palmer series, with Michael Caine once again taking the title role. Russell proved just as ill-suited for this spy thriller trying to cash in on the James Bond fad, but Brain is also a standout in the franchise. Russell’s personal, icy stylization is in evidence throughout the film’s more fantastic sequences. Russell is most in his element with chaos, and most bogged down with restraints imposed by script and production. Despite its flaws, Billion Dollar Brain tries to play elastic with its genre, rendering it a fun mess.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love


Women In Love
(1969) was the film that brought Ken Russell to worldwide attention (he was even nominated for Best Director). Many critics rank it as Russell’s most narratively satisfying film. Of course, Russell has D. H. Lawrence for a literary source and, despite its infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, the film is almost shockingly restrained and faithful to the spirit of Lawrence (out of necessity, Larry Kramer’s script, also nominated for an Academy Award, simplifies its literary source). Russell’s body of work, especially in television, reveals a highly erudite filmmaker who consistently approached literary themes and subjects with contextual fidelity, as opposed to surface literalism, which eventually branded him an irreverent enfant terrible.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love

Russell had a superb cast in Bates, Reed, Glenda Jackson (who won an Academy Award for her performance), and Jenny Linden. Billy Williams’ camerawork (yet another Oscar nominee) is lyrical, stark, and very much indicative of Russell to come.

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

After the box office and critical success of Women in Love, Russell plunged quickly into his first theatrical film with a composer as its subject. The Music Lovers (1970) focuses on Peter Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain). With expressionistic sets, psychedelic lensing, elongated fantasy sequences (clearly inspired by : Kenneth Anger and Fantasia), along with a spiritually irreverent, high-pitched tone, this is Russell as we came to know him. Forsaking the typical program bio of the Nutcracker composer, Russell is not at all interested in pedestrian ideas of a “biopic.” Frank about its subject’s banality (he ejaculates while imagining the cannons of his god awful “1812 Overture” aimed at his enemies) and homosexuality, many critics, Roger Ebert included, labeled the film libelous. Chamberlain, who years later came out of the closet, in a far more accepting period, expertly slips into the title role. As Nina, the composer’s sexually frustrated wife, Glenda Jackson again excels in her second collaboration with Russell (she also spends much of the film in full frontal nudity, which, of course, inspired a few exploding heads in the “classical music” scene).

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

In all fairness to Russell, Tchaikovsky was tormented by his sexuality (in a undoubtedly hostile era). His death, publicly attributed to cholera, was probably a suicide, and he admitted a self-loathing for producing such commissioned works as the “Nutcracker” and “1812.” Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s best work is his lesser-known, personal compositions. Andre Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with his usual craftsmanship. The film, like its subject, is aptly heart-on-sleeve.

Ken Russell The Devils

The Devils (1971) is considered by many cult film fans to be Russell’s masterpiece, and it is almost unfathomable that it would be denied a 366 List entry. Russell, a convert to Catholicism, was aware of that religion’s inherent surrealism. Attracted to the aesthetics of Catholicism, as opposed to its dogma (I can relate), Russell locates the pulse of European excesses. For the traditionalist minded, The Devils is unadulterated blasphemy.

Ken Russell The Devils

Loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun,”The Devils is the quintessential example of Russell excess (don’t dare look for a discernible plot)With opulent set designs by  (a frequent Russell collaborator), masturbating nuns, sadomasochistic demonic possessions, tormented priests of the Inquisition, and X-rated sexual fantasies, Russell is intentionally provocativesparing no demographic from potential offense (including Roger Ebert, an atheist and former Catholic). Oliver Reed gives the performance of his life as a sacred erection, in duet with a bewitching Vanessa Redgrave.

Ken Russell The Devils

Chicago Reader critic David Kehr found humor in The Devils and amusingly described it as a “David Lean remake of Pink Flamingos.” That’s about apt a summary as one can manage. More than forty years after its release, The Devils is no less subversive today, and has had spotty distribution in home video.

Ken Russell the Boy Friend

Russell followed The Devils with his only movie to receive a “G” rating. Starring Twiggy and adorned in an MGM color palette, The Boy Friend (1971) is an oddity in the Russell cannon. Based on Sandy Wilson’s 1954 play, Russell, with his charismatic lead, transforms it into a musical with an almost Wagnerian undercurrent (as if Busby Berkeley, clearly channeled here, isn’t demented enough). Twiggy’s charm serves as a counterbalance to Russell’s wandering camera. Christopher Gable co-stars (and will work with Russell again in 1989’s The Rainbow). Unfortunately, The Boyfriend was a box office flop, which prompted MGM to refuse Russell financial backing for his next film.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Taking out a second mortgage on his home, Russell financed Savage Messiah (1972) himself, which again finds the director examining artistic genius, here in the persona of French sculptor Henri Gaudier (Scott Antony). With Russell’s lifelong, obsessive passion for his subject, Savage Messiah is an authentic labor of love. Derek Jarman again serves as Russell’s art director, endowing Savage Messiah with Russell’s over-the top-visual sensibility (including an amorous Helen Mirren in a pop-colored cabaret). It is also an emotionally rich film focusing on the romance between Gaudier and Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin), which makes it all the more disappointing that MGM failed to promote it in distribution. Savage Messiah is, paradoxically, one of Russell’s most accomplished and least known works.

Ken Russell Mahler

Mahler (1974) is another highly personal film for Russell, which I previously wrote about here.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Starring The Who, Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed, Elton John (as the Pinball Wizard), Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner (as the Acid Queen), and Robert Powell, Tommy (1975) is undoubtedly Russell’s most famous film. Based on the Who’s 1969 rock opera,  many critics accused Russell of preferring spectacle to substance. Others felt Russell’s film was a too literal approach. Tommy divided both fans and critics alike, and still does. The flaws are more the Who’s than Russell’s. With his operatic tenets and sense to enough to know that good taste is often at enmity with good art, Russell makes Tommy a powerful, one-of-a-kind experience, with each act topping its predecessor, building to an aptly histrionic crescendo. Disorienting, sensual, and filled to the brim with salted pain, Tommy is that rarity of rarities: an artistically authentic opera and musical experience.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Reed, unleashed again, proves an ideal collaborator, and Ann-Margaret deservedly earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance as Tommy’s mother. Unfortunately, Roger Daltry is no actor, and his performance undeniably hinders the film.

Tommy is already a deserving List Candidate and hopefully will be canonized sometime in the future.

Ken Russell Lisztomania

Lisztomania (1975) is Russell’s idiosyncratic take on composer Franz Liszt. It is also an official List entry, found here.

Ken Russell Valentino

Under-directed by Russell and physically miscast, ballet star Rudolf Nureyev still convinces as the titular Valentino (1977). A mix of alarming self-control and unfettered hyperbole, this uneven film disappointed Russell fans who wanted something more experimental in the vein of Mahler and Lisztomania. It also disappointed cinema history buffs and Valentino fans who wanted (but should not have expected) something more orthodox.

Ken Russell ValentinoKen Russell Valentino

Despite flaws, Valentino is a beautiful film and accessible, if not constrained by historicity. Russell treats this subject no differently than others, including religion, as a mix of fantasy, facts, legend, and folklore.

Ken Russell Valentino

Valentino was Russell’s biggest budgeted film to date and was a resounding flop at the American box office (it did considerably better overseas). It has since developed a cult following and recently has been released on Blu-ray, although the transfer has received mixed reviews.

Continue reading “DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL”

PEEPING TOM (1960)

Peeping Tom (1960 Michale Powell) poster

We Westerners hate and resist having our hypocrisy exposed. We get that trait honestly and through tradition, having inherited it from both our Puritan forefathers and Mother England. Both sides of the political and ideological spectrum sow vilification when someone, especially an insider, turns the lens on our own hypocrisy. Thatis true horror; and when an artist does so in film, purportedly the most accessible of mediums, the backlash can be catastrophic. Case in point: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Released the same year as PsychoPeeping Tom, which is not as overtly violent as Alfered Hitchocks classic, nevertheless opened to furiously scathing reviews from American and British critics: “It is the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing” (The Spectator). “The only satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then, the stench would remain” (Derek Hill, writing in The Tribune). Audiences reacted with even more hostility, and it took the French to set the record straight a few years later when Peeping Tom was received there to widespread acclaim and enthusiasm.

Peeping Tom (1960 Michale Powell) poster

Peeping Tom committed an unforgivable sin in lensing the hypocritical voyeurism of both filmmakers and film goers (that Powell condemned even himself in the film did not earn him a pardon). Before 1960, Powell’s career was notable, extensive, and esteemed, which included numerous wartime and post-war collaborations with Emeric Pressburger: 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad49th ParallelThe Life and Death of Colonel BlimpA Canterbury TaleStairway To HeavenBlack NarcissusThe Red ShoesHour Of Glory, to 1951’s The Tales Of Hoffman. Backlash to Peeping Tomwas cataclysmic, resulting in Powell being permanently blacklisted by both British and American film industries. He was reduced to working (sporadically) for television and producing only three feature films over the next twenty years. That work included a television treatment of Bela Bartok’s opera “BlueBeard’s Castle” in 1963 and 1969’s bitter, semi-autobiographical Age of Consent.

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NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972)

“Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!”

NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972) theatrical release poster

Cinematic horror had come a long way since its primitive infancy as part of the 1920s German Expressionist movement. The 1930s Gothic comedies of James Whale, the art deco perversity of Edgar G. UlmerTod Browning‘s outsiders, and the 1940s literary subtleties of  Val Lewton represented the genre in its adolescence. Of course, we are assured that each preceding generation, especially its artists, are comparatively naive—akin to cave painters. So, it should be no surprise that the genre evolved, by leaps and bounds, beginning in the modern era of the 1950s, which brought us the atomic Deadly Mantis in 1958 and topped that within a mere fifteen years: killer bunnies, in a certified classic with “Star Trek”‘s Dr. McCoy starring in his version of the “Wrath of Donnie Darko.” Yes, it’s Night of the Lepus.

NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972) Janet Leigh, DeForest Kelley

This opus of oversized, rabid jackrabbits is such an abomination that star DeForest Kelley (whose career began with 1947’s suspenseful noir Fear In the Night) never made another film outside of the Star Trek franchise. This was at least a guarantee of superiormediocrity. Actually,  despite glued-on porn mustache accompanied by lamb chop sideburns and his polyester suit decorated with a necktie that threatens to swallow him whole long before the Jurassic hares escape the garden, Kelley embarrasses himself the least. Faring worse are former Hitchcock heroine Janet Leigh, “B” western star Rory Calhoun, Paul Fix, and Stuart Whitman. MGM (!?!) apparently never read the script, and later placed the entire blame on Director William F. Claxton, a veteran of anonymous westerns and television episodes (including the immortal “Love, American Style”). Unsurprisingly, Claxton never made another theatrical film after this ( the same fate met first and last time screenwriter Don Holliday).

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AL ADAMSON’S DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971)

DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971 AL ADAMSON) Zandor VorkovDRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971 Al Adamson) Lon Chaney, JR.

The son of “Z” grade western director Victor Adamson, exploitation horror director Al Adamson came by his credentials honestly. Tragically, Adamson also unintentionally secured his own cult status, in a lurid example of life imitating art, when he was brutally murdered by a contractor. Several weeks later, the director’s body was discovered buried under freshly laid cement and bathroom tile. It could have been a scene culled from one of Adamson’s movies, and has the makings of a cult film in itself.

DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971 Al Adamson) Regina Carrol

Like his father, Al Adamson was a hack, and never put on the pretense of being anything more than that. His formula for low-grade trash was female udders and genre actors well past their tether. Adamson’s wife Regina Carrol, his version of Chesty Morgan, usually supplied the udders. Similar to the partnerships between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi or Jack Hill and Boris Karloff, Adamson had aged horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. for two films: The Female Bunch (1971, part of which was shot on Charles Manson’s Spahn Ranch) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). Both films were actually a smorgasbord of faded “B” celebrities.

FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN

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BABADOOK (2014)

THE BABADOOK (2014)

After watching Babadook (2014), I am thoroughly convinced that, from here on out, producers need to consign direction of horror films to the girls. They are so much better at it than those dullard boys. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent,The Babadook is too good for genre fanboys, whose diet is commonly relegated to sophomoric cravings for trite-tasting tawdry titillation. Kent’s Babadook is for far more refined palates.

BABADOOK (2014) poster

In the early days of cinema, when German Expressionism’s shadow still influenced Hollywood, the quality of horror films was such that when a studio assigned a director a horror film, it often meant his status had just been elevated several notches. Unfortunately, the boatload of hacks had their say over the years, dragging the genre to that proverbial barrel bottom. With few exceptions, horror has never recovered, and its wretched reputation today is wholly deserved. Mechanical plots, cardboard characters, blatant misogyny, moronic humor, and deafening assaults pass for imagination to a growing horror audience that has largely forgotten how to even watch a film.

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