Monday, October 31, 2005

DRACULA (1931)

This is the first horror movie I ever saw, somewhere around the tender age of 7, and it led me to become an avid "monster movie" fan: I stayed up late Friday nights for Chiller Theater, I subscribed to Famous Monsters of Filmland (back during its glory days in the mid-60's), and I started reading all the sci-fi and horror stories I could get my hands on. Made at the dawn of the sound era, the movie hasn't aged all that well, and I can understand most of the criticisms that are raised against it today by viewers and critics (too slow, too talky, too stiffly acted), but I remain quite fond of it, both as a period piece and as an occasionally genuinely creepy mood piece. The film is not taken directly from Bram Stoker's novel, but from a popular stage adaptation (which I saw performed by a local theater group when I was a pup), and this explains the staginess of most of the movie, in which people stand on a set and talk, and the camera moves slightly to keep people in frame. But the first 15 minutes or so are wildly different from the rest of it, and that part of the movie is what keeps me coming back again and again, every October, or any stormy night when I want to feel the same creepy thrills I did when I was 7.

The plot, the basic outline of which has been used in countless vampire stories over the century, probably doesn't need a detailed summary: lawyer Renfield (Dwight Frye) visits Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in Transylvania to wrap up a deal to rent Carfax Abbey in London, but the count is a vampire who bites Renfield and turns him into an unwilling slave. In London, Dracula grows strong with the fresh blood of young women and he becomes friendly with Lucy (Frances Dade) and Mina (Helen Chandler). After Dracula begins supping on Lucy's blood, she wastes away and dies, but there are reports that she has returned from the dead, walks at night, and feeds on young children. Mina shows similar symptoms, but her fiance (David Manners) and Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) do research on vampires, conclude that their new neighbor Count Dracula is to blame, and fight him for Mina's body and soul. There is no denying that by the halfway point, the film has become slow and talky, though there is some pleasure to be had seeing Chandler, in her semi-vampiric state, trying to sex up Manners, and watching Lugosi and Van Sloan in their brief battle of wills. In the Transylvania segment, however, a spectacularly spooky atmosphere is set up thanks to several elements: the fabulous sets, not just the cobweb-filled castle but also the roadside inn and the wild landscape of Borgo Pass; the fluid camerawork by Karl Freund (later the director of THE MUMMY); the relatively minimal use of dialogue; and the mannered acting of both Lugosi and Frye. Lugosi, with his almost otherworldly accent and inflections, and his brightly lit, theatrical glare, created a character type which is still the default (for re-creation or re-invention) for anyone playing a vampire. Frye's wild lunatic after-the-bite Renfield is so well remembered that it comes as a bit of a shock to see how ordinary he is before the bite, and I might add that the most horrific moment of the film for many is the shot of Frye, laughing insanely, down in the hold of the death ship which carries Dracula to London. I suspect Tod Browning wasn't really a very good director--though I like this and his later FREAKS, both are good almost in spite of some of his problematic directorial choices. Still, at the moments when it all comes together, the horror genre doesn't get any better. The Universal DVD print looks OK but is not as pristine as one would wish; however, it does have has a fantastic audio commentary by David J. Skal, author of a couple of great books, "V is for Vampire," and "The Horror Show." This is the movie I'll be watching tonight after the trick-or-treaters have left (and then maybe a chaser of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT). [DVD]

Sunday, October 30, 2005


A sub-B-grade horror movie with a B+ cast. In a German village, people are dying in the night, drained of blood, with bite marks on their necks. The Burgermeister and other town officals believe the deaths are the work of either a human vampire or one of the bats that flock (is that the right word for bats?) about the village, in a clip of what I assume is stock footage that we see over and over again. Policeman Melvyn Douglas, however, assumes a deranged human is at work. Could it be village idiot Dwight Frye? Could it be kindly scientist Lionel Atwill? Could it be his lovely assistant (Fay Wray), who is sweet on Douglas? [Spoiler ahead!!] Frye is the obvious choice for a while, given his spooky demeanor and his habit of keeping a live bat in his coat pocket and petting it occasionally, and in fact he does get hunted down by the torch-wielding villagers, but of course it's really Atwill; he has created a blob of living tissue and needs human blood to keep it alive, so he sends his brutish assistant Emil (Robert Frazer) out to gather the blood. A few critics, relying on faulty information, write that the movie is about a scientist trying to invent a blood substitute (it isn't), and that Wray does her usual screaming (as far as I remember, she doesn't scream once, though a few other folks do, including Atwill's meddling aunt, Maude Eburne). The first ten minutes or so of the movie are nicely done, with bats and shadows and scared villagers, but soon the low production budget becomes too obvious, although the actors all go through their paces nicely. Frye is essentially playing a variation on his Renfield from DRACULA (with a bit of Lenny from "Of Mice and Men," which hadn't been written yet) and he is the most colorful cast member. Aside from the shots of the flocking bats, the most memorable shot is one that begins as a close-up on the pulsating sponge-like tissue and pans out to show us Atwill's latest victim strapped to a table to be drained of blood. Overall, not a bad choice for an October evening, even if winds up being more a mystery than a horror film. [TCM]

Saturday, October 29, 2005


I've enjoyed most of the Wheeler & Woolsey comedies I've seen so far; this one is perhaps the least funny but it still has its moments. It plays out very much like an Abbot and Costello movie, and, for all I know, may have been one of the inspirations for the A&C horror spoofs from the 40's and 50's that I grew up on. Despite the title, there isn't much here involving mummies until the last few minutes. One by one, the members of a archeological team which was involved in the excavation of the tomb of King Pharmatine are dying, supposedly because of a curse, so Prof. Browning (Frank M. Thomas) and his associate (Moroni Olsen) decide to return their spoils to the tomb. Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey play ditch diggers who take a job with them, and along the way, Wheeler gets sweet on Thomas's daughter (Barbara Pepper, looking a lot like the young Sally Struthers). When they get to the tomb, it turns out (of course) that there's a very earthly villain who is after a secret stash; once in the tomb, he wraps himself up as a mummy in order to scare away the others. That's it for the plot, and it's a shame, because the twist here of an attempt to return tomb spoils is interesting and might have led to a good horror/action film. The two leads do their usual shtick, with maybe a little less energy this time around. Wheeler has a condition that involves him constantly forgetting things, and needing to take a nap in order to remember; Woolsey has the map of the tomb location tattooed on Wheeler's back because he keeps forgetting it. At one point, they don harem girl drag. Black comic Willie Best has a few good gags. Overall, it's a long 70 minutes. [TCM]


Perfectly serviceable comedy-thriller, typical of the strong Warner Brothers B-movie output of the time. Wayne Morris is an engineer in financial trouble who takes an offer of a thousand dollars from rich dowager Helen Westley to pose as the fiance of her granddaughter (Alexis Smith). He thinks it's all a publicity stunt, but it turns out that four of Smith's previous fiances have all met with death or disaster (one, David Bruce, is still alive but relegated to living in an iron lung) and Morris is intended to be bait to draw the killer out in the open. With help from nosy reporter Brenda Marshall, Morris decides to launch his own investigation before he becomes bad-luck fiance #5. The elaborate "old dark house" setting is a plus, as are the leading performers who throw themselves into the hijinks with enthusiasm. Willie Best, as Morris's secretary (passed off as a valet at the mansion), manages to go through the often degrading paces of the scared black sidekick with some of his dignity intact. Alan Hale is good as a cocky butler and Lee Patrick and Charles Halton have some fun with their supporting roles. The villain of the title has a genuinely creepy appearance and generally the scares work better than the laughs, though the short film is no trouble at all to sit through, especially with the hunky Morris, the spunky Marshall, and the lovely Smith to watch. [TCM]

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Despite its title and the presence of Bela Lugosi in a small, almost totally silent role, this is not a horror movie as much as a fairly decent mystery with some spooky atmosphere, though with a running time of only 60 minutes, it isn't developed well enough to be truly satisfying. When Sir Karrell is found dead with bite marks on his neck, the villagers suspect a couple of vampires (Bela Lugosi as Count Mora and Carroll Borland as Luna, his daughter--great character names!). Not everyone believes this, but when Sir Karrell's grave is found to be empty, Prof. Zelen (Lionel Barrymore) goes into Van Helsing mode to save the life of Karrell's daughter (Elizabeth Allan). It turns out (Spoiler!!) that the whole vampire thing (combined with a far-fetched hypnosis trick) is a ruse to smoke out the real killer. I don't really mind that the vampires aren't real--although the movie cheats by objectively showing us some supernatural events which couldn't have possibly have happened (particularly good for its day is a shot of a flying bat transforming into Borland). What I mind are the plot loopholes and lack of characterization. It has its stylish moments, and Borland's look must have inspired Charles Addams when he created Morticia. Also in the cast: Lionel Atwill, Donald Meek, and Jean Hersholt. Tod Browning directed, and the script was based on his silent film (now lost) LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT with Lon Chaney. [TCM]


This is the first of three movies featuring Paula, the Wild Woman, or the Ape Woman, or just Paula--I guess she never got popular enough for a catchy nickname like the other cool Universal monsters of the day. From what I've read, this is the best of the bunch. It's an OK way to pass an hour, but I can see why Paula never caught on. Mad doctor John Carradine, who works at a sanitarium where the weather always seems to be gusty and treacherous, performs experiments on a tame circus gorilla, using female hormones and, eventually, a brain, to turn the gorilla into a mute woman (Acquanetta, in one of the first of her handful of exotic roles in B-movies) whom he names Paula Dupree. She shows an affinity with circus animals and becomes an assistant to lion tamer Milburn Stone (of later "Gunsmoke" fame). Soon, Acquanetta's animal instincts get the better of her when she becomes jealous of Stone's girlfriend (another Universal B-queen, Evelyn Ankers) and begins "devolving" (years before Devo). The makeup on Acquanetta is good, and she does have an interesting presence, but little else about the movie is compelling. Footage of circus great Clyde Beatty handling lions is inserted occasionally, and since Stone does have the look and stature of Beatty, the substitution works well. In fact, this footage is really the highlight of the film. Ray Corrigan, a stuntman who became famous in a B-western series playing a version of himself called Crash Corrigan, is in the ape suit. Martha Vickers (the slutty sister in THE BIG SLEEP) and Fay Helm are two damsels in distress. This rather mild monster melodrama does not inspire me to seek out its sequels, but since I already own the second film, JUNGLE WOMAN, I guess I'll have to catch it some night. [VHS]

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


There's been a lot of critical attention given to this fairly undistinguished grade-Z sci-fi film. It's perhaps a little better made than most of its ilk, and B-movie icon John Agar gives a decent performance in the lead role, but it winds up stuck between a rock and a hard place: not quite bad enough to be consistently campy fun, but not quite good enough to take seriously. After a strange explosion in the desert, nuclear scientist Agar gets abnormally high radioactivity readings near Mystery Mountain, so he and his young assistant (Robert Fuller) head out to see what's up. They find a new cave blasted into the base of the mountain and when they enter, a giant floating transparent brain with eyes kills Fuller and possesses Agar. The brain from Arous has a name, Gor, and its mission is the same old tedious one, to take over Earth. When Agar goes back home without Fuller and begins acting strangely (sometimes he's horny, sometimes he's got splitting headaches that cause him to double up in growling pain), his girlfriend (Joyce Meadows) suspects something's amiss and asks her father to help her find out what's wrong. The two head out to the mountain, find the dead assistant, and discover a second brain, Vol, this one a sort of cosmic-policeman brain (l'll just call them Good Brain and Bad Brain) which takes possession of Agar's dog (!) to keep an eye on him (assuming the dog will be in Agar's presence more than anyone else). Soon Bad Brain Agar calls a meeting of world diplomats to demand acquiescence, showing them his destructive power--he brings down a couple of planes and destroys houses just by looking at them. Good Brain Dog and his helpers eventually figure out a way to destroy the Bad Brain without harming Agar, involving taking an axe to the Bad Brain (at the "fissure of Rolando," an actual name for a spot in the brain--thank you, Google) when it materializes outside of Agar's body. Everything goes as planned, and Agar and Meadows are happy again, except that her dad has been fried by the Bad Brain, and the two start to make out next to Dad's corpse.

The basic filmmaking here is competent (directing, lighting, sets), but the special effects are terrible. The brains are mostly simply see-through double-exposures, and when Bad Brain becomes solid, it's a big helium balloon with ping-pong ball eyes sailing through the air on very visible wires. The plane crashes are also incompetently handled: a miniature model swinging against a black background bursts into flames and dangles from a wire. The destruction of property is courtesy the famous footage of houses that were destroyed in United States atom bomb tests. The one good effect is when Bad Brain Agar goes ballistic and his eyes become dark and shiny (contact lenses, I assume, like Ray Milland wears in the climax of MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES); that, combined with Agar's over-the-top grimacing and cackling, actually works. The movie starts out with very little exposition; I had assumed that Fuller was perhaps Agar's kid brother, or Meadows' kid brother, or someone's boy toy, and, hell, he might be any of those things, but as far as I could tell, he's just an assistant who maybe lives with Agar(?). I do like one of the opening shots, of serious scientist Agar talking to young Fuller, who's stretched out on a sofa reading a science-fiction magazine. A couple other cheap delights: 1) a nice shot of Agar's face distorted through a water cooler; 2) Bad Brain Agar calling earthlings "savages"; 3) when Meadows tells Bad Brain Agar that he might need psychological help from an expert, he shrieks at her, "Don't expert me!" Despite these occasional pleasures, the whole thing would play out much better as an Outer Limits episode. [DVD]

Sunday, October 23, 2005


An interesting take on the Jekyll/Hyde story; since it features Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, it was marketed as a horror movie, but it isn't really atmospheric enough to qualify as such (unlike a similar Karloff film, THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND, reviewed 10/9/2004). The science aspect is too weak to allow it to pass as science fiction, so perhaps it's best enjoyed as a fast-moving crime melodrama with elements of the fantastic. The real star of the movie is neither Karloff nor Lugosi, but British actor Stanley Ridges, in a dual role. We first meet him as mild-mannered English professor George Kingsley. In the middle of running an errand, he is caught in crossfire between mobsters and is seriously wounded in the head, and gangster Red Cannon (also played by Ridges) is hit and paralyzed. Surgeon Karloff, a friend of the professor, is riding in the ambulance with the two men and hears the dying gangster mumble something about a big stash of money which only he knows about. In the operating room, Karloff performs a "brain transplantation," apparently replacing the damaged part of the professor's brain with part of the gangster's brain. The result appears to be a dead gangster and a recovering professor, but actually the gangster's personality and memories are still "alive" in the professor, just needing a jog from Karloff. When the professor is in charge, he has messy hair and glasses, but when the gangster comes to the surface, he has slicked back hair and no glasses. It doesn't make much sense, but it does make it easy for us to tell who's who. Eventually, Karloff cannot control the gangster personality, which takes over the body for longer periods of time and begins bumping off the thugs who killed him, leading to chief thug Bela Lugosi. The movie is one long flashback, beginning with Karloff on Death Row for a murder which we don't learn about until the climax. Given the marketing, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't more horrific, but expectations aside, it's a fine little thriller. Ridges is quite convincing displaying two separate personalities as the split-brained man, and Karloff is his usual reliable self. Lugosi's role is fairly small and he isn't really able do much with it. [DVD]

Friday, October 21, 2005


This is considered a horror classic of its era, and many critics see it as the high point of director Edgar G. Ulmer's career. An American couple (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells), honeymooning in Hungary, meet up with Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) who is on his way to visit an old acquaintance, engineer and architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Their relationship has a long and convoluted backstory, but essentially during WWI, Karloff betrayed his country by giving up a major fort to the Russians, causing the massacre of thousands. Karloff now lives in a huge art-deco house built on the grounds of the fort, which Lugosi calls the biggest graveyard in the world. Lugosi spent years in a POW camp and has come back to confront Karloff and find out what happened to his wife and daughter. During a heavy rainstorm, the bus that Lugosi and the couple are on crashes and the three take refuge at Karloff's home. At first, Karloff seems welcoming if a little stand-offish, but it turns out that he's a Satanist who is about to hold a Black Mass at the dark of the moon and he intends to keep Wells prisoner for use as a sacrifice. We also learn that, in Lugosi's enforced absence, Karloff, claiming that Lugosi had been killed in action, married his wife, and when she died, he married Lugosi's daughter (who, the few times we see her, always seems to be in some kind of doped-up haze). He has kept the embalmed body of the first wife suspended in an upright glass coffin, along with the bodies of other women (ex-wives or lovers? Satanic sacrifices? It's never, like many other plot elements, made clear). Lugosi, knowing Karloff's intentions, plays chess with him for the fate of the girl, but Karloff wins. During the Mass, Lugosi disrupts the proceedings, gets Wells and Manners on their way to safety, begins skinning Karloff alive, then blows up the entire house.

You may wonder about the title; it's borrowed from a Poe story, but aside from a briefly-used plot element about a black cat that skulks around the house, triggering Lugosi's dreadful fear of cats, this has nothing to do with Poe, which is fine. The real problem with the plot is that there is too much of it stuffed into a short (66 minutes) running time. Virtually every element, including the cat, the chess game, the Satanism (the Karloff figure was apparently inspired by the then-current headlines about real-life occultist Aleister Crowley), the embalmed women, and the backstory concerning the war, should have been developed more. The set design is fabulous, and much of the film has a great expressionistic look full of deep and angular shadows. The Mass is quite effective, as are the scenes of the weird wife/daughter (Lucille Lund, who also plays the dead first wife). Lugosi, whose acting is often slighted by critics, is very good here, getting a rare chance to play a sympathetic, fleshed-out character, and he's especially good in the early scenes on the train when he first meets Manners and Wells. While the couple nap, he reaches out and strokes Wells' hair, thinking she resembles his long-gone wife; the move could have come off as comic or perverted, but Lugosi makes the moment a moving one. Karloff is fine and Wells and Manners are OK--Manners, as usual, isn't given much to do as the passive beta male, even winding up out of commission during the exciting climax, but he does get a couple of comic relief lines; in the middle of his miserable honeymoon experience, he sighs, "Next time, I go to Niagra Falls!" The best line, and one that is widely quoted, comes from Lugosi in reply to a man who questions some "supernatural baloney" they're talking about: "Supernatural? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not." Ulmer's directing style is awkward at times, with Karloff's first entrance and Lugosi's attack on the black cat both bungled by choppy editing--which, to be fair, may be the fault of Universal rather than Ulmer. There is also an unfortunate shot of a servant depositing an unconscious Wells on a bed; the camera is low and at the bedside and Ulmer may have thought it was an interesting angle, but it winds up being laughable. Still, despite my qualms about some aspects of the film, its atmosphere can't be faulted, and that is important in horror films. The Universal DVD print, released as part of a single-disc Bela Lugosi collection, is wonderful, not blemish-free, but in much better shape than I've ever seen it. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


The name of producer Val Lewton is associated with a particular kind of horror film, usually psychological rather than supernatural, typified by a fairly subtle, low-key approach, necessitated at the time by the low budgets that RKO gave him. The films he made with various directors, primarily Jacques Tourneur, in the mid-40's are all considered classics and are finally available on DVD in a very nice boxed set from Warners. Though CAT PEOPLE is his most well known film, and definitely has some classic moments, this one, based loosely on "Jane Eyre," is more consistently enjoyable. Canadian nurse Frances Dee takes a job in the West Indies attending to Christine Gordon, the sickly wife of sugar plantation owner Tom Conway. Supposedly the wife came down with a tropical fever which damaged her brain and left her in a zombie-like state, able to walk and follow some simple commands, but with no will power; she lives like a sleepwalker. The natives house servants and workers think that the wife is the victim of a voodoo curse. Dee soon winds up in the thick of family tensions: she harbors a crush on Conway, who still seems to be in love with his wife, and she learns that Conway's dissolute half-brother (James Ellison) had an affair with Gordon. In addition, there is the boys' mother (Edith Barrett), the widow of a missionary who, we find out, serves in secret as a voodoo priestess in order to get the natives to use modern medicine. Neither science nor voodoo seems to be able to help Gordon, and as long as she's around, Conway won't pursue a relationship with Dee. The ambiguous ending appears to endorse the voodoo theory, as the natives use a doll to summon Gordon, who is followed by Ellison, who decides that if he can't have her in life, he will in death.

Much about the narrative is oblique, maybe due to the Production Code, maybe due to the constraints of low-budget filmmaking, but maybe due to the intention of the directors and writers. At any rate, what makes the movie work is the atmosphere, and the fact that most of the important action occurs at night, in deep shadows. The scares are not of the sudden-shock variety, but of moody suggestive spookiness. The most memorable scene is of Dee taking Gordon through the sugar cane fields late at night to a voodoo ritual; the appearance of the towering zombie-like native Carrefour (Darby Jones) is genuinely creepy. Like Lewton's CAT PEOPLE and THE SEVENTH VICTIM, the overall tone of the film, despite what we assume will be a relatively happy ending for Dee and Conway, is grim. Early on, Dee remarks on the beauty of the ocean, and Conway replies that the water gets its luster from "millions of dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence; there's no beauty here, only death and decay." There is a hint that Conway may be a bit of a sadist when he admits that he was deliberately cruel to his wife. As far as the actors, the stiff Conway is the weak link (I just cannot imagine Dee going ga-ga over him so quickly); the rest are fine, with Ellison especially good as the loutish but still sympathetic brother and Theresa Harris doing a nice job as the house maid who slowly lets Dee in on the voodoo secrets. There is a wonderful sequence in which Dee hears a man (Calypso singer Sir Lancelot) singing a song on the streets about the situation between the brothers, which says more about their backstory than she would get from either of the men. [DVD]

Sunday, October 16, 2005


I'm almost always extremely happy to have spiffy, restored DVD copies of old movies, but once in a while, cleaning up a movie just exposes its shortcomings and that's the case with this film, one that was, in my memory, quite scary and atmospheric, but which when cleaned up proves to be a rather lame and colorless attempt at a shocker. I suspect that Universal thought that the mere presence of their vampire hero, Bela Lugosi, would make the movie creepy, and Lugosi does as well as he can given the weak script which is supposedly based on a Poe story but actually uses very little of his work. Lugosi plays a scientist, Dr. Mirakle, who performs with an ape at a Parisian side show, claiming he can speak to and understand the ape. (The ape in question is Erik, the Ape-Man, who looks mostly like Erik the Normal-Looking Ape, but is sometimes played by a man in an ape costume.) His behind-the-scene experiments, intended to prove the theory of evolution, involve mixing ape blood and human blood, specifically the blood of lovely young women. We see him kidnap a streetwalker (Arlene Francis), strap her to an X-shaped cross, and draw blood from her, but once he gets it under the microscope, he finds that it's "dirty blood' and useless to him, and he dumps her dead body, Sweeney Todd-fashion, right from the cross through a trap door into the river. At the side show, the ape takes a liking to Sidney Fox, a "pure" young woman, and Lugosi sends the ape to kidnap her, but when the ape realizes that Lugosi has nefarious purposes in mind, he kills the doctor and races across the rooftops of Paris with the girl until her boyfriend, Leon Ames, comes to the rescue. The plot is just as ridiculous as it sounds; the meager pleasures here are mostly in the atmosphere, conjured up with shadows and some expressionistic, Caligari-like sets. The movie is barely an hour long but it still drags in places, although the torture and murder of the prostitute is harrowing, and the rooftop chase is exciting. Fox and Ames (billed here as Leon Waycoff) are fairly bland; Francis doesn't have much to do (I don't even think she has more than one line of dialogue), but she writhes and screams effectively, and it was great fun to see my favorite "What's My Line" panelist away from the panel. During a non-horror scene, there's a disorienting shot of Fox in a swing, with the camera attached to the swing, as Ames pushes her up in the air. The shots of the real ape don't match up well with the shots of the man in the costume. Directed by Robert Florey, who also did the Marx Brothers first film, THE COCOANUTS, and who went on to do a slew of B-pictures through the 40's and a lot of TV in the 50's; the cinematography is by Karl Freund, who did great work on Lugosi's DRACULA. Overall, I'd have to say that, if you lower your expectations, you might enjoy this, but it's difficult to recommend. [DVD]

Saturday, October 15, 2005


The last time I saw this movie was when it first came out; I was 10 years old, and I saw it at a special kids' matinee where admission was six Pespi bottle caps. Mostly, I remember being dazzled by the special effects and by Raquel Welch, who was quite a special effect herself. I'm sorry to say that, forty years later, the movie hasn't weathered well. The most interesting thing about it to me now is its formalism; most of the film is done in real time, and there is as little context as possible set up for the "voyage" itself, which means almost no character development and little substantive conflict, just the gimmick of miniaturized people jetting through a man's bloodstream. What little plot there is involves an important man from behind the Iron Curtain who has defected to the West. Just after he lands in the States, he is shot and seriously wounded, with an inoperable blood clot in the brain. As it happens, he has information that the military needs concerning a top-secret scientific project which involves miniaturizing people who could be used in wars, as soldiers, spies, etc. The CMDF (Combined Miniature Defense Forces--couldn't they have come up with a catchier acronym?) decides to shrink a team of doctors and officers (and a submarine-type vehicle, the Proteus), inject them into the scientist's bloodstream, and have them operate from the inside. The catch: they only have one hour before they will automatically return to normal size. The effects were probably quite effective in their day, but now the giant corpuscles and antibodies which provide most of the danger look like props created for a local TV kids' show, and the idea that our crew are actually submersed in blood is never pulled off very well. Once the barest bit of background exposition is dispensed with, the rest of the movie is given over to the voyage, and the film ends rather abruptly when our heroes return to normal size. The screenplay doesn't give the actors much to do. Stephen Boyd is the military leader who occasionally butts heads with Donald Pleaseance, the twitchy medical advisor who may or may not also be a Commie traitor out to sabotage the mission. Edmond O'Brien is the military man who stays behind and monitors the situation; his continuing battle with his coffee addiction may have been an inspiration for Robert Stack's various addictions in AIRPLANE. The attack of the gooey antibodies on Welch (in a tight white wetsuit) reminds me of some of the gooeyness of ALIEN. The movie is too serious to be campy fun, but not good enough to ever really get lost in. [FMC].

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


This French/Italian horror film looks and feel like many of the Hammer and American International films of the day, but this one is head and shoulders above almost all of those. It's perhaps a smidge too plot-heavy, but it's interesting and gorgeous to look at. Pierre Brise is Hans, a writer who has come to a small Dutch village to visit eccentric artist Gregorius Wahl (Robert Boehme). Wahl lives in a windmill and operates an odd little chamber of horrors there which has been handed down in his family; it's called a "carousel," but it's actually a little stage on which lifelike sculptures of women in various states of death and dying rotate. Brise is there to write an article on the centennial of the carousel; he works all day in the windmill going through old books and papers, and he spends evenings hanging out with some old friends, especially Liselotte (Dany Carrel), who has had a crush on Hans since she was little. Two other people are in residence at the windmill: Wahl's lovely but pale and sickly daughter Elfy (Scilla Gabel) and a doctor (Wolfgang Preiss) who is there 24 hours to attend to her (and hopes to marry her someday, though she is clearly not enthusiastic about that possibility). Just as Hans and Liselotte realize they are in love, Elfy, defying her father who wants to keep her isolated, makes her move, seducing Hans into sleeping with her one night. The next day, he regrets it, but she blackmails him into returning. When he does, he finds himself witness to her apparent death, but the next day, she's alive again. However, a model friend of Liselotte's has gone missing. It turns out that Elfy has some rare disorder that causes her to take on the appearance of death when she is emotionally overstimulated, and Wahl and the doctor have been kidnapping young women and draining their blood, hoping that it will help cure Elfy. It never works, however, and Wahl and the doctor mummify the women and use them as sculptures in the carousel. Naturally, everything comes crashing down eventually, resulting in a literally fiery climax.

The movie feels like a cross between HOUSE OF WAX (the human "statues") and EYES WITHOUT A FACE (the father trying to cure his sick daughter and causing the death of others), both of which I reviewed earlier this month. The narrative is a bit on the complex side and there are a number of fairly minor plotholes but it's easy to follow and frankly, too much story isn't necessarily a bad thing in the horror genre. Acting is rarely a strong point in these films, but everyone here does a good enough job; particularly good are Gabel as the spooky half-dead girl and Preiss as the creepy doctor who lusts after her. Even though the budget couldn't have been much bigger than that of the average Hammer film, the movie looks great. The windmill, both inside and outside, is effectively atmospheric. Much thought has been put into the color scheme, with deep reds and blues, and the sets are wonderful, with lots of weird statures and disembodied limbs creating a disturbing atmosphere from the first moments of the film to the last (though a miniature of the mill which is used at the climax is phony looking). The DVD, from a small company called Mondo Macabro, is a treat, with a good clean print, three audio tracks (American dub, UK dub, and original French), alternate scenes and one deleted scene which, though not crucial, does explain why there is suddenly a crowd of onlookers at the windmill carousel one day--it's only open to visitors on Sundays. Directed by Giorgio Ferroni, who was mostly known for sword and sandal films and spaghetti westerns. Highly recommended. [DVD]

Sunday, October 09, 2005

ONIBABA (1964)

A Japanese cult film which I'm not sure really qualifies as horror, but nevertheless works up a nice creepy mood, and at least one plot thread is right out of a Twilight Zone episode. In medieval Japan, during a raging civil war, a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in a huge field of towering grass reeds, surviving mostly by killing passing soldiers, dumping their bodies into a huge pit, and selling their recovered weapons and belongings. When a deserting soldier (Kei Sato) returns and camps nearby, he tells Otowa that her son is dead. She refuses to believe him, but Yoshimura slowly finds herself attracted to Sato (even though he's a brutish pig) and the two begin a furtive relationship with her sneaking over to his place at night and returning before Otowa awakens. However, Otowa catches on pretty fast and becomes desperately afraid that Yoshimura will eventually stay with Sato and leave her to an uncertain fate--she doesn't think she could kill soldiers on her own. After the mother has a run-in with another deserter wearing a freaky demon mask (claiming he's hiding a particularly handsome face), she lures the man into a chase in which he falls down the hole to his death. She goes down the hole and takes the mask off, finding a scarred face beneath. This might have served as an omen, but instead the mother plans to scare the girl out of her nocturnal visits by posing as a night demon, wearing the mask. The plot works for a few nights (the scenes of the demon rising up over the reeds are very effective), but soon lust wins out over fear, and Yoshimura makes it past the demon. Later that night, the girl returns home to find that the mask is stuck on her mother-on-law's face, leading to a Twilight Zone climax. The movie is in glorious high-contrast black and white, and an extremely odd atmosphere is built up though the use of the ever-present high grass and battering winds which seem to blow constantly. A feel of sweaty lust and equally sweaty desperation saturates the film: the women are frequently on the edge of starvation; the soldier and the girl are sexually frustrated; the mother also has sexual feelings but mostly fears being left alone; the girl fears the wrath of the mother and the presence of the demon. Interestingly, the killing of the soldiers doesn't become a central moral issue here--clearly it's not something the women enjoy, but are doing out of desperation. Traditional horror elements are scarce: there is no gore here (though bare breasts are shown surprisingly often) and there is no supernatural element except for the patently false demon, though the final moments of the film are open to a reading of supernatural intervention. Most of the night scenes are shot well, with a pitch black background and brightly lit foregrounds. Recommended for its chilling October mood. [DVD]

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Some critics refer to this movie as the beginning of Vincent Price's career in horror films, and I guess that's true, although he did do a handful of pictures before this (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, SHOCK) that might be described as quasi-horror, and he didn't do another one until THE FLY in 1958. For me, this movie is interesting for two other reasons: 1) it was originally presented in 3-D and it's fun to watch for all the gimmicky shots sprinkled throughout the movie, and 2) it looks and feels like a direct predecessor to the Hammer horror films of the 50's and 60's, with its attention to period detail, its use of occasionally gaudy color, its insertion of a standard lackluster romance, and most importantly, its moments of Gothic horror. Price plays an artist whose wax sculptures, which he displays in a museum, are considered extraordinarily beautiful and lifelike. The museum is barely breaking even (partly because Price refuses to pander to common tastes and make sensationalistic tableaux) and his business partner (Roy Roberts) wants to get out to invest in something more lucrative. An admiring art critic (Paul Cavanagh) is willing to buy Roberts out, but not soon enough for Roberts, so he burns down the museum, intending to collect the insurance money. Price tries to stop him, but is instead caught in the conflagration and assumed dead. Actually, he survives but with horribly scarred hands and face. Soon, Roberts is found dead, an apparent suicide hanging in an elevator shaft, but we know that Price has tracked him down, killed him, and taken the insurance money for himself. Months later, Price resurfaces (wearing a lifelike wax mask over his hideous face) with a new museum, backed by the art critic, and new statues, made by assistants supervised by Price. This museum, unlike the earlier one, is a chamber of horrors and proves to be a smashing success; also unlike in the earlier museum, some of these statues are actually dead bodies covered in wax. Roberts' hanging body is the first of these, and the second is Carolyn Jones, Roberts' mistress, presented as Joan of Arc. Jones's roommate (Phyllis Kirk) notices the resemblance and mentions her suspicions to her boyfriend, sculptor Paul Picerni, who does some work for Price. The police, still baffled by the death of Roberts (and the disappearance of his body), soon come sniffing around, and when Price decides he wants Kirk to become his waxen Marie Antoinette, we get an exciting climax involving chases, a guillotine, and a huge bubbling vat of wax set to be poured all over a naked and screaming Kirk.

Price is good here, not quite as scenery-chewing as he would be in later movies. We have sympathy for him for quite a while, seeing him as a dark avenging angel, until he threatens Kirk, and frankly, even after, as Kirk and the rest of the good guys (including Frank Lovejoy as a police lieutenant) are a colorless lot. The make-up for Price's damaged face is quite effective. His hulking, sinister assistants are well played by Nedrick Young and a young Charles Bronson (as the deaf-mute Igor). It's startling to see Carolyn Jones, who I know so well as the dark-haired, stately Morticia Adams, as a bleach blonde with a goofy voice. Kirk and Picerni are bland, bland, bland, with Picerni out of commission during most of the climax (though to be fair, it's because he is almost beheaded by Igor). The 3-D gimmicks include a line of Can-Can girls and a fist thrown right at the viewer, but best of all, the movie stops dead in its tracks for a minute while a man shilling on the street for the museum bounces paddleballs at us. I wish that Warners could have included the 3-D version of the film on the current DVD (if SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL can be presented in 3-D on DVD, why not this?), but it's nice to have this film in good shape, and even better, the 1933 movie that inspired this, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSUEM, an early color feature, is included on the flip side. [DVD]

Sunday, October 02, 2005


It's October, my horror/fantasy month, and I'll start out with this French classic which may be the first art house horror film--heck, one of the only art house horror films (CARNIVAL OF SOULS, PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, Herzog's NOSFERATU, and maybe THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT are the only other ones I could come up). It's actually more like a fairy tale than a horror story in its atmosphere, but truly horrific things do happen (as in some fairy tales, I guess). Pierre Brasseur is a doctor who lives with overwhelming guilt over having been the cause of a car accident which caused the disfigurement of his lovely daughter (Edith Scob). He reported her as dead, and a funeral has even been held, but actually she is being held a more or less voluntary prisoner in his mansion, wearing an expressionless white mask and living in limbo until her father can provide her with a new face. His method is to kidnap young lovely girls and literally peel off their faces in order to graft them onto his daughter. (The body that is buried in place of his daughter is that of one of the unlucky young women who died after having her face removed.) Unfortunately, the grafts don't take--we witness one attempt that seems to work, but soon the skin is rejected and begins disintegrating. Also in the house are a bunch of penned-up dogs who are apparently being experimented upon, and Brasseur's lover, Alida Valli, who helps him in his experiements. The police eventually suspect something nasty is afoot, and they bait the doctor with a young woman, but the plan goes awry, Still, events lead to the doctor's downfall and an ambiguous fate for his daughter. The sight of Scob practically gliding through the house in her mask and robes is eerily beautiful, as is the last shot of the movie as Scob glides outdoors with the snarling dogs that she has let loose on her father, with a single white dove flying along with her. There isn't much here for an audience expecting lots of gore, though there is a famous, very brief scene of the doctor lifting a woman's face off of her head that apparently disturbed viewers back in the day. There are many murky and chopped-up public domain tapes of this, but try to see the beautifully restored Criterion disc. Original French title: Les Yeux Sans Visage; alternate American release title: Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus [DVD]