Tag Archives: Horror

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.

Continue reading THE WITCH & IT FOLLOWS (2015)

1963 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: THE GHOST AND DEAD EYES OF LONDON

“From caves and sewers come The Slime People! They kill, kill, kill! There’s no escape from The Slime People! Nothing can stop the horror of The Slime People! For a new adventure in terror, live through the wild blood bath of The Slime People!”

The Ghost (directed by Riccardo Frida) stars Barbara Steele in another homicidal adulteress role. Hyped (misleadingly) as a sequel to Frida and Steele’s successful The Terror of Dr. Hichcock (1962), The Ghost, is woefully predictable and is not this director’s best work. However,  Steele is nearly at her best, and puts to rest any questions regarding her status as a genre cult icon.

Terminally ill invalid doc John Hichcock (Elio Jotta) is obsessed with seances, while his wife Margaret (Steele) carryies on a torrid affair with her husband’s physician Charles Livingstone (Peter Baldwin). John has a loyal governess in Catherine (reliable character actress Harriet Medin; a Mario Bava regular and memorable as the POTUS in Death Race 2000) who suspects that her mistress is up to no good. Impatient for John’s natural demise, Margaret plots with Charles to whip up a batch of poison. The dirty deed carried out, the philandering couple don’t count on a hitch in the will and an avenging ghost before their inevitable comeuppance.

Frida’s ho-hum scripting plods, but The Ghost is salvaged by Steele’s malevolent magnetism (Raffaele Masciocchi’s camera swoons over her). Flavorfully-filmed, unnerving vignettes include an animated wheelchair descending the stairs (prefiguring The Changeling), a nightie-clad Steele wielding a razor, a scheming feline Medin ascending the stairs, flaming annihilation, and a magical finale with betrayals galore. The Ghost is probably the only film in history that has you rooting for a murderess in a fur coat.

“Take a break. Add to your enjoyment of the show with the taste-tempting array of special treats available to you at the refreshment stand. Everything to temp your palate… And everything is fresh… and of finest quality. Pep Up! Fresh Up!  at our refreshment stand!”

“Let the light of faith shine upon you and your love ones. This week and every week … worship together in the church of your choice. ”

“If you should accidentally tear speakers off… turn it in at refreshment building, box office or to any attendant. ”

“Is everybody happy? Then let’s go…

Dead Eyes of London (directed by Alfred Vohrer ) is a smartly paced gem in the German “Krimi” genre. Based on the Edgar Wallace novel, it’s a notably superior remake of 1939’s The Dark Eyes of London (directed by Wallace Summers, which in itself is a slightly underrated opus in the Bela Lugosi canon, although hindered by ill-fitting comedy relief). This Vohrer remake improves on the simplified original with an aptly complex script by Egon Eis. Vohrer, who practically made a career of cinematic Wallace adaptations, has an affection for the material which is contagious.

Hairy, blind, Tor Johnson-like brute (Ady Berber) dispatches victims galore, frequently in the London fog, choreographed effectively to the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Inspector Holt (krimi favorite Joachim Fuchsberger) finds the victims in the Thames. They all have braille writing on their persons and, it turns out, sizable insurance policies.

Heinz Funk’s idiosyncratic score aptly echoes a cast of equally idiosyncratic characters, including Eddi Arent as a knitting Scotland Yard sergeant, and so-slimy-he-leaves-a-trail (and also wears-his-sunglasses-at-night) Klaus Kinski. It’s outlandishly violent and spiked with queer humor (a mouthy water-pick view, a killer boob tube, a voyeuristic crucifix, a blowtorch-wielding priest, and a skull with smokey treat treasures). Vohrer makes memorable use of stylish sets and costume design, enhanced by Karl Lob’s crepuscular lensing. It’s probably a notch shy of being a contender for the 366 Weird Movie List, but it’s highly recommended for the locals.

“Please remember to place the speaker on the post when you leave the theater.”

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

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.