Wednesday, October 31, 2007

THE BAT (1959)

"The Bat" was a Broadway hit in 1920, based on the 1908 novel "The Circular Staircase" by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It's been officially made into a movie three times, and has unofficially been an influence on any number of "old dark house" comedy-thrillers in which bad guys are trying to scare good guys away from a mansion for some nefarious purpose. Roland West's 1930 version, a remake of his own earlier silent version, was one of the first films shot in a widescreen process (65mm "Magnifilm"). The movie, which I reviewed once here back in 2002, and have re-watched, is very interesting visually but dramatically it bogs down rather quickly. The basic thrust of the plot as noted above (bad guy scaring good guys out of a house) is simple, but this film confuses the issue with two separate narratives that always seem a bit out of sync with each other.

First we see a visually breathtaking sequence in which master criminal The Bat steals a valuable necklace from a well-guarded safe. He then announces he's going to the country for a rest. Then, in another remarkable looking scene, we see a bank robbery which is being witnessed from above by the Bat, though he doesn't actually take part in it. In plot thread #3, a rich lady (Grayce Hampton), her nervous maid (Maude Eburne), and lovely niece (Una Merkel), have rented a large and supposedly haunted house in the country from banker Fleming, whose bank we saw robbed. It's the house that ties the other plots together: the bank crooks have hidden their stash in a secret room in the mansion, and the Bat infiltrates the household in order to get his hands on it. So actually there are at least two different people trying to get Hampton and friends out of the house, but on the stormy night on which the rest of the movie takes place (in almost real time), the mansion winds up hosting quite a crowd, including Merkel's boyfriend, a banker who has been accused of stealing the money; a possibly sinister doctor, well played by Gustav von Seyffertitz ; an inept private investigator; a slick if intense police inspector (top-billed Chester Morris); along with the son of the banker, a caretaker, a butler, and a couple of other cops. There are secret passages, creepy shadows, and a spooky bat costume (which was an influence on Bob Kane's original conception of Batman), as well as good use of a speedily moving camera, a few nifty overhead shots, and nice miniature sets. Unfortunately, most of the dialogue scenes get bogged down because the camera stops and shoots everything in medium shot with very few close-ups (which, along with murkily-lit sets, made it occasionally difficult for me to tell some actors apart). I found the mix of thrills and humor to be awkward, with Eburne's comic-relief maid especially irritating. Nevertheless, it is worth sitting through, as the climax, which involves a fire and a bear trap, is pulled off nicely, and there's a cute "don't give away the surprises" epilogue, which happens in front of a theater curtain, highlighting the staginess of much of the film. Actually, the film's main liability may be its total lack of background music, not unusual for the era. [VHS]

The 1959 remake, a B-production from start to end, does at least streamline the narrative, dispensing with the initial necklace robbery, though keeping the two separate bad guys who are still after loot hidden in a secret room in a mansion. Agnes Moorehead is the rich lady, here a famous mystery writer, Lenita Lane is a somewhat less irritating maid, Gavin Gordon is the police inspector, and Vincent Price is the doctor. As in the earlier film, The Bat's identity isn't given away until the end, but in this version, the identity of the other villain and the backstory to the bank robbery are both made clear from the get-go, which helps narrative coherence. The action takes place over the period of several days rather than one incredibly eventful night, and is framed as the after-the-fact writing-up of the story by Moorehead, perhaps for publication as her next bestseller. Except for one brief shot of the house which is clearly a miniature and possibly done in homage to the earlier film, this one lacks any real atmosphere. The sets are all a little bit overlit, so the place rarely feels like very dark (or even old). It helps to think of this film as a play shot for television, even though it was a theatrical movie. Price is fine, though this is one of his rare films in which he doesn't survive to the end. Surprisingly, Moorehead is disappointing here; she is often taken to task for chewing the scenery, but for my taste, she doesn't chew enough here--it seems like she felt this was beneath her, and her tone is wobbly throughout, with a couple of flubbed lines left in. Neither of these is a great movie, and the biggest problem for viewers today may be that the set-up has been overused. However, you could do worse, and either version could make for a decent Halloween movie night choice. [DVD]

Monday, October 29, 2007


U.S. government agent John Archer, his valet (Mantan Moreland), and his pilot (Dick Purcell), who are looking for a missing American admiral, are forced to crash land in a jungle on a Caribbean island. They are taken in by a Viennese doctor (Henry Victor) who tells them he has no radio and that they'll have to hang around a few days to catch a boat. The household is a strange one: Victor's wife (Patricia Stacey) is in some kind of mysterious trance state, his cook (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) is a voodoo practitioner, his butler Momba (Leigh Whipper) is a rather creepy fellow, and his flirtatious maid (Marguerite Whitten) convinces Moreland that the island is crawling with zombies. Victor and his niece (Joan Woodbury) are trying to bring Stacey out of her own zombie-like state; we discover later that she was the unfortunate victim of a "soul transmigration" ritual. We also discover that Victor is a Nazi spy (not a big surprise given his heavy accent and evil look) who has the missing admiral in his torture chamber. A "ghost lady" pops in and out of a room, two of our heroes get temporarily zombified, and another transmigration experiment is attempted before things get straightened out.

It's amazing how much a good, clean print can do for a Poverty Row B-film, and the print of this Monogram film shown on TCM is excellent. No one will mistake this for a classic, but once you realize that, despite the creepy sounding plot summary above, this is really an "old dark house" comedy along the lines of Bob Hope's GHOST BREAKERS, it's rather entertaining. Moreland, one the foremost black comic actors of the era, does a variation on the usual "scared underling" role he was stuck in, but here, despite getting third billing, he is basically the star and he is mostly very funny. Victor, the wicked strongman in FREAKS, is good in a role intended for Bela Lugosi. The rest of the actors are adequate to the occasion, except for Whitten who, despite being alluring, gives a very wooden performance, though she does get the funniest line: when Moreland scarfs down several pieces of pie, she calls him the "most pious man I ever met." John Archer is the father of Anne Archer. Oddly, this film actually got an Oscar nomination for its score, which, while marginally better than the usual B-movie score, is hardly memorable. [TCM]

Sunday, October 28, 2007


This was the first film based on Richard Matheson's classic apocalyptic sf novel "I Am Legend," but not the last; it was remade as THE OMEGA MAN in the 70's with Charlton Heston, and a third version starring Will Smith is due out at the end of this year. It was also, I imagine, a direct influence on George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and therefore almost every zombie movie that came after. The '07 version will undoubtedly be superior to this low-budget, black and white film in terms of special effects, but this is still worth seeing. There's a nice opening sequence of stark, deserted cityscapes (shot in and around Rome) before we meet Vincent Price, waking up alone to trudge through another day, hanging garlic and mirrors around his dilapidated house, then roaming the neighborhood, collecting dead bodies to burn. We learn through flashbacks that a plague of unknown origin (perhaps natural, though there is a hint that it could have been something man-made that got out of control) has swept through the world, killing people off and bringing them back as vampires who roam at night and are inactive in the day. Price, a scientist who was working on a cure, seems to have acquired a natural immunity to the plague and is, as far as he knows, the only non-undead human left on the planet. At night, alone in his house, he is surrounded by the vampires banging on his doors and windows, though so far he has been successful in keeping them out. One day, while out collecting corpses, he meets up with a woman who is one of a slowly growing group of infected people who have been able to stop the plague's progress even though they remain infected, and Price has become a legendary (hence the book's title) vampire fighter in their eyes, but not necessarily in a good way, since he's responsible for killing off several of their number. The last confrontation is grim, but there is an inkling of hope held out in the final moments. This film isn't particularly gory, but the images of scattered dead bodies on the roads and shots of grasping hands ripping through doors and windows are still a bit unsettling. There is an especially creepy scene of Price dumping bodies into a flaming pit at night. At times, I was reminded (visually and thematically) of recent films such as 28 DAYS LATER, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and CHILDREN OF MEN. Price is low-key and effective, though the score is infuriatingly loud and overripe. The film is in the public domain, and should be letterboxed, so beware shoddy DVD prints; the MGM release in the Midnite Movies series is apparently the best print out there. [TCM]

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Dr. Mazali, head of a small, isolated insane asylum, and his friend Dr. Almada make a pact that whoever dies first will come back with news of the afterlife. Almada goes first, then materializes during a seance with a somewhat cryptic message for Mazali, who wants to somehow experience death without actually dying, that he will come back in three months and open the door to the beyond. Then Almada's ghost appears to his daughter Patricia, whom he had never met, tells her that a locket she's had all her life has a key in it, and that she should visit Dr. M. to learn more about her background. She arrives at the same time as Eduardo, Mazali's handsome new intern, and an attraction develops. In what seems like an unrelated plot thread, Dr. M decides that a violent female patient can be calmed down and taken out of restraints when a music box is played for her; unfortunately, when the music stops, she goes batshit again, and tosses acid in the face of an orderly. Later the scarred-for-life orderly kills her, but the police think Dr. M is responsible. I followed everything up to here, but in the end things get a little complicated. Suffice to say that there are a couple more deaths, some apparent "soul transference," and a very creepy scene of a corpse digging its way out of the ground. Despite the rather baroque plot twists, this is at heart a traditional warning story about tampering in God's domain. The whole thing is taken very seriously by all (no camp, no Hammer or AIP flourishes of overacting or supervelvet costuming), and the film has a dark tone, creepy atmosphere, and mostly solid performances. I hear that Casa Negra, the company which has been issuing Mexican horror films on DVD (in mostly spectacular prints), has gone under, which is a shame. This is definitely worth at least a rental. [DVD]

Thursday, October 25, 2007


After I rented CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN from Netflix, this one popped up as a recommendation; it's another little gem from the golden era of Mexican horror. Elena and Eduardo live in a creepy old house with Elena's godmother, Sara, who is also their housekeeper and a practicing witch. As in a fairy tale, the witch's mirror foretells the death of Elena at the hands of her husband, who is in love with another woman. When Sara prays to her Dark Lord, she is told that she cannot prevent the death, and sure enough, Eduardo poisons Sara's milk and she dies. Eduardo marries Deborah (Rosita Arenas) and brings her home to discover that the house is haunted by Elena's ghost. When Eduardo sees Elena in the witch's mirror, he throws a lantern at it, which smashes the mirror but also causes a fire which disfigures Deborah and leads to an "Eyes Without a Face" twist: with Deborah wrapped in bandages, Eduardo steals corpses to use skin and body parts to restore Deborah's looks. There are some grisly goings-on with a pair of severed hands, and there's a nifty plot device of the witch being able to see through the eyes of an owl which just happens to be in an operating room (not very sanitary, I would think). By the end, the plot loses coherence, or to put it a nicer way, I guess you could say that a dream-like logic takes over; my plot notations concerning the end are rather vague. This is another low-budget horror film that gets by on atmosphere. The acting is about par for the course; the only cast member I've heard of is Rosita Arenas, who played another put-upon bride in CRYING WOMAN. There are some striking shots now and then, and the print from Casa Negra is in pretty good shape. A good October evening's entertainment. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


This much-maligned horror flick is famous among B-film aficionados for a few reasons: 1) it was filmed mostly because Boris Karloff owed director Roger Corman a few more days of work after finishing up THE RAVEN; 2) scenes from it are used during the drive-in shoot-up climax of Peter Bogdanovich's TARGETS; 3) it has an incoherent plot. All things considered, however, it isn't bad. It's true that not everything about the narrative adds up, but as in many B-films, the atmosphere helps make up for a lot of other weaknesses. In 1802 (or 1806, depending on which reference you catch), a soldier (Jack Nicholson) who has strayed from his regiment collapses on a rocky beach and is helped by a mysterious woman named Helene (Sandra Knight). They frolic a bit until she vanishes in the raging surf and a large bird attacks Nicholson (at first, I thought she had turned into the bird, but I think I'm wrong about that, even though we learn later that the bird is also named Helene--you see how point #3 above came about). He is tended to by an old woman (Dorothy Neumann), the owner of the bird and something of a witch figure who herself is tended to by the mute servant Gustav (Jonathan Haze)--but he's not really so mute; it turns out he can whisper, which is how some important plot points get communicated. Nicholson runs into the girl again that night and just as she's about to lead him into a quicksand pit, Haze pops up to save him. He whispers gruffly to Nicholson that Knight is possessed, lives in a nearby castle, and needs Nicholson's help.

The next day, Nicholson goes to the castle to ask for lodgings and is greeted by Karloff, who has a portrait on his wall of his late wife Ilsa, who looks just like Knight. Karloff admits that he killed her twenty years ago when he caught her with another man. I'm not sure it's worth recounting the rest of the plot in detail, as all the major elements are in place at this point, and narrative consistency is not this film's strong suit. At any rate, the whole thing resembles something out of Poe, specifically "Fall of the House of Usher," even including a final destruction scene, by flood rather than earthquake. One character is struck by lightning, one is not who he seems to be (or thinks he is), and, in the great final shot, one turns into a bloody, goopy mess. Karloff is fine in his somewhat limited role, disappearing for large chunks of time, which leaves Nicholson to carry the movie; he's OK but he's not the Jack we all know and love. Dick Miller, a Corman regular (see BUCKET OF BLOOD), is present as Karloff's servant. As I noted earlier, the mood is nicely established and the colors, even on the public domain print I saw, are rich, especially the electric blues which saturate many of the scenes. Despite its reputation, this makes an OK choice for Chiller Theater night.

I saw this print on a DVD from Alpha whose main attraction was listed as TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN, a half-hour 1958 British TV pilot which was never picked up as a series. I'd read about this show many years ago in Famous Monsters and was glad to finally see it. Its production values are on a par with Dark Shadows, but the acting and writing are solid. Anton Diffring is Dr. Frankenstein, whom we first see sending his servants out of his castle one rainy night as he attempts to bring his monster (Don McGowan) to electric life. Alas, the monster attacks the doc and has to be subdued. Assuming the problem is that the beast has the brain of a dead killer, Diffring decides to find a normal brain. Enter a dying man (Richard Bull) whose wife (Helen Westcott) has brought him to the village to seek help from the doctor. Instead, the doctor decides to help himself to Bull's brain, putting it in the monster's head, leading to the usual consequences. The narrative appropriates elements from the Universal FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and in the opening, there's a shot of the vampire brides from the original Lugosi DRACULA. Diffring is good, though the gist of the series seems to have been to tell a new story each week of Dr. Frankenstein's experiments, so that might have gotten a bit old. Worth seeing as a novelty. [DVD]

Saturday, October 20, 2007


This remarkable thriller, set in the early 1900's, begins with a panning shot down a London street and into a second-floor shop window where we see an antiques dealer knifed to death by the hulking Laird Cregar, who then sets fire to the room and leaves. As he walks down the street, he calms down and we soon realize that he has committed this act during a mental blackout; when he is especially tense and/or angry, discordant sounds trigger the blackout and when he returns to "normal" he has no recollection of what he has done, except for a nagging awareness that he has lost time. Cregar is a rather tightly-wound composer working on a concerto; Faye Marlow, his lovely friend (not quite girlfriend), has gotten her father, Alan Napier, a famous conductor, interested in his work and Napier promises that if the finished product lives up to its potential, he'll premiere the piece himself. When Cregar realizes that he came out of his blackout near the scene of the murder, he goes to Scotland Yard inspector George Sanders for help. Because the physical evidence is inconclusive, Sanders clears Cregar but keeps an eye on him, especially when Sanders himself gets interested in Marlow. While visiting a tavern, Cregar falls for Linda Darnell, a lovely but somewhat slatternly singer. He agrees to write some songs for her and he does indeed help her in her career, but at the expense of his own work on his concerto. When Marlow criticizes Cregar for wasting his talents, he suffers another blackout and tries to kill her, but is unsuccessful, though she is unaware that he was her attacker. Later, Cregar proposes to Darnell and she sneeringly turns him down; one blackout later, he hunts her down, strangles her, and disposes of the body on a large Guy Fawkes Day bonfire. As Cregar finishes his concerto, Sanders starts putting two and two together and he goes to bring Cregar in on the night he's to play his concerto. The climax occurs in the concert hall, with Cregar going mad as he plays his music to a packed house, with Sanders and police waiting at the exits.

This film is newly available on DVD in the Fox Horror Classics set, which contains three films directed by John Brahm including the better-known Jack the Ripper-thriller THE LODGER, also with Cregar. I'd seen this movie years ago, taped off cable, but the DVD print is a revelation: though it still has a bit of damage present, it is crisp and dark, unlike the muddy, grayish TV print, and sounds quite good, a added bonus in a movie in which music, written by Bernard Herrmann, plays a large role--the final concerto is actually a grand piece of music. Cregar, who died at the age of 28 not long after this film wrapped (of complications from abdominal surgery done in order to lose weight), is excellent here; occasionally his cultured voice reminded me of Vincent Price, but Price didn't have the imposing size needed for the role. The other actors, including Glenn Langan as Darnell's fiance and Michael Dyne as her pianist, are not particularly memorable, and even Sanders fades into the background whenever he shares a scene with Cregar. Brahm makes the movie a treat for the eyes: the camera moves a lot, but not ostentatiously so; each blackout scene is shot well, and the final scene [SPOILER] with Cregar playing the climax of his piece as the concert hall burns down around him, is spectacular, one of the most satisfying endings to any classic-era horror film. And speaking of horror, though this is usually described as a horror film, it's really more a rudimentary psychological thriller, though practically no attempt made at explaining Cregar's state of mind or background. In any case, this is a movie that classic movie (horror and otherwise) buffs should see. [DVD]

Friday, October 19, 2007


Though released by Columbia Pictures, this begins like a classic-era Universal horror film, with a foggy graveyard meeting in 1919 between a werewolf (Matt Willis) and a vampire (Bela Lugosi, though we never see his face in this opening sequence). Lugosi has been feeding on the young daughter of Dr. Gilbert Emery, head of a sanitarium. He and colleague Frieda Inescort read an article by long-dead occult expert Armand Tesla about vampirism and know what they have to do. They find Lugosi's grave and drive a long metal stake through his heart. This kills him and frees the werewolf from his curse. Inescort takes Willis under her wing and makes him a trusted assistant. We flash ahead to the present day, during WWII; Inescort is now in charge of the asylum and her son is soon to be married to Emery's grown daughter (Nina Foch). During a German air raid, Lugosi's body is unearthed and two comic-relief air raid workers find him and pull the stake out, bringing Lugosi back to life. Surprise! The vampire is actually Armand Tesla, who calls Willis back under his command and, taking the identity of a visiting professor, ingratiates himself with Inescort, the better to get access to Foch. When it becomes clear that a vampire is back at work, Inescort gets Scotland Yard inspector Miles Mander to help her flush him out.

This is essentially an unofficial sequel to Lugosi's 1931 DRACULA. Lugosi looks the same, sounds the same, wears the same outfit, has an underling in his mystical control, and once again haunts the grounds of a London sanitarium biting the neck of a lovely young woman who is soon to be wed. Though there is nothing here as wonderfully creepy as DRACULA's first 15 minutes, there are some nicely atmospheric touches, mostly having to do with omnipresent fog. Inescort makes an interesting Van Helsing character, and Foch is good, though her husband-to-be (Roland Varno) barely makes an impression at all. I like that Willis's Renfield character is a werewolf, but little is done with that idea; in fact, the sight of the wolfman always fully dressed makes for an unintentionally funny moment or two. Similarly, the wartime setting works nicely for Lugosi's unearthing, but not much else is done with it. The movie is not exactly a classic, but it's a must-see for vampire movie fans, and it's also notable as one of Lugosi's last big-studio movies. [TCM]

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Autumn Russell returns to her African homestead after ten years away to visit her grandmother (Marjorie Eaton). Before she even gets to her house (which looks more like a rundown Southern plantation than an Africa manor), her driver hits a man in the road and drives away, not stopping to help; he believes he hit an undead zombie, and Russell is upset that such beliefs are still held amongst the villagers. At the same time, a trashy group of folks arrive at the coastal property to go diving for a 60-year-old sunken treasure chest full of diamonds. The leader of the pack is jackass businessman Joel Ashley; his slutty wife (Allison Hayes) is along for the ride, as is studly diver Gregg Palmer, whom Hayes smooches up right in front of her husband. Old lady Eaton (think Aunt Eller in OKLAHOMA!) isn't too perturbed by these unwanted visitors; she's even good enough to show them the graves of the various treasure-hunting parties which have arrived over the years and always not only failed to get the diamonds, but wound up dead to the last man. Eaton believes that the members of the original crew, from 60 years ago, have become zombies who protect the treasure. Sure enough, zombies begin attacking the newbies, both underwater and above ground. It seems that the zombies can also turn their victims into zombies, as they do with Hayes. The only thing that stops them is fire, which is of course difficult to produce underwater, though thanks to the resourceful Palmer, not impossible. The bad people get their comeuppance, Palmer gets Russell, and the old lady gets to give the zombies a little rest.

Who knew that John Carpenter's THE FOG was basically a remake of this little-seen, low-budget horror flick? I guess that's overstating the case a bit, but the premise of Carpenter's film is similar. The sets here are cheap and the direction unimaginative, but for the most part, the actors throw themselves into their parts with relish, especially Hayes (the cult star of ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN), Palmer (a grade-B Rock Hudson), and Eaton. Two scenes in particular are pulled off nicely: a genuinely creepy moment in a mausoleum hidden in the woods where a dozen of the zombies rise up out of their coffins, and later when the zombiefied Hayes is surrounded by a ring of candles. The underwater scenes don't seem to have been actually shot under any water at all, but what the hell, they're still fun to watch. I liked this one more than I expected to. [TCM]

Monday, October 15, 2007


Like HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, this is a movie that I first "experienced" by way of a photo comic book which used movie stills with dialogue balloons. When I finally got around to seeing HORROR, I enjoyed it more than the comic. I can't say the same about this one, although it does have its (campy) pleasures, among which is the amusing opening, as Dr. Frank Baxter, a professor of English at USC, gives us a short, eccentric lecture about Hollow Earth theories over the centuries, even namechecking Gilgamesh in the process. Then we follow the adventures of a group of archeologists, including the beefy and sometimes obnoxious John Agar, the father-figure-ish Hugh Beaumont, and the fade-into-the-background Nestor Paiva. They are camped out somewhere in Asia (as a title card tells us) digging in the mountains. After an earthquake, they discover an oil lamp inscribed with a Sumerian version of the Noah's Ark story. We endure several minutes of rock climbing (shades of MST3K) before the men find some temple ruins. Paiva falls through a crevice into the apparently hollow mountain and when Agar and Beaumont go to rescue him, they all wind up trapped in a huge underground city inhabited by a race of remnant Sumerians who have mostly turned albino from lack of exposure to the sun. In a plot point out of H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine," it turns out that there are other survivors who have evolved (or devolved) into brutish Morlock-type creatures, the Mole People of the title, who live underground and do the Sumerians' dirty work. Because the scientists have a flashlight, the King of the albinos thinks they are gods, but the wily high priest (Alan Napier, Alfred on TV’s "Batman") thinks differently. Agar develops the hots for a non-Albino Sumerian woman (Cynthia Patrick, looking like she spends a lot of time in an above-ground beauty salon), and there's some torturing of the mole people, a human sacrifice ritual, and a last twist right out of "Lost Horizon." The background matte paintings look nice but the sets are fairly cheap. Agar is supposed to be the hero, but he's irritating, and frankly it's hard to care much about the fate of anyone, even the abused Mole People, who are basically background characters in the movie named after them. The premise is fun, but the short movie runs out of steam before the climax. [DVD]

Friday, October 12, 2007


A ludicrous title for a rather ho-hum horror film based loosely on the H. P. Lovecraft story, "The Colour Out of Space" (among other liberties, it moves Lovecraft's New England town of Arkham to England), though it works better if you imagine that it's a Poe movie. American Nick Adams has arrived to visit the Witleys, particularly the lovely young daughter (Suzan Farmer) whom he knew in college. Their property is a blasted landscape right out of Poe's "Usher" (though, to be fair, it's also described as a "blasted heath" in the original story) and the villagers shun the family. It turns out that Adams was sent for by Farmer's mother (Freda Jackson) who has become a virtual recluse due to some unknown illness; she wants Adams to take Farmer away, but her father (Boris Karloff) resents his interference. Adams and Farmer discover a greenhouse with mutant vegetation and animals caused by a glowing green meteorite which Karloff has locked up in the cellar. He believes it came from the sky as a "gift" from his devil-worshipping ancestor, but he willfully ignores the damage the rock is doing to his land, his wife, and his butler, who drops dead during dinner one night. There is an Usher-like apocalyptic climax with a burning house and Karloff gone nuts, transformed by the meteorite into a glowing, shiny-headed, putrefying monster, I suppose the very one that the title of the film wishes were dead. The cinematography (especially the use of widescreen) and color design are a bit artier than in the typical American International Poe film of the era, but little else here kept my attention. Karloff, confined to a wheelchair for most of the film, is fine; the blunt talking Adams is a nice change of pace from the usual bland hero. There are plot loopholes galore, as though the writers just gave up halfway through. One character, Helga the maid, is set up as a meteorite-poisoned madwoman who roams around the grounds, but she vanishes from the story with no explanation. Jackson's scarred features are hidden for most of the movie, but when we see them, the make-up is a big letdown. The mutant animals, in what Adams calls a "zoo from Hell," are a low-budget disappointment. Only Karloff's last transformation is at all effective (and I doubt that it's actually Karloff beneath the mask). Lovecraft fans are thrown a bone when Adams finds a book on the "Cult of the Outer Ones," though that just becomes another plot thread that leads nowhere. [DVD]

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Sandra Dee, a student at Miskatonic University in the New England town of Arkham, is assisting visiting professor Ed Begley, who has been working with the Necronomicon, a rare and ancient book of evil rites which resides in a glass case in the library. An intense-looking young man (Dean Stockwell) tries to borrow it for some research of his own. Begley is loath to let it go, but Dee takes a shine to the guy, and when they find out that he is a descendent of a local "warlock" who had some tragic dealings with the book long ago, they decide to let him have a look. Stockwell winds up getting a ride back to his home in the nearby town of Dunwich from Dee, who, under the influence of a drug he puts in her tea, falls asleep and spends the night. There is a nightmare rape/orgy scene filled with "Hair" rejects and filmed in trippy 60's jump cuts, and we're not quite sure if it really happened or not, but the next morning, Dee wakes up refreshed and spends a lovely day with Stockwell, who takes her to the Devil's Hopyard, an ancient stone altar on a picturesque cliff overlooking the sea, where Dee once again conks out and undergoes another nightmare rape scene in which we see that Stockwell has arcane symbols tattooed all over his torso. It soon becomes clear that Stockwell is trying to impregnate Dee with his own brand of demon seed in order to conjure up some of the ancient gods (primarily Yog-Sothoth, whose name he chants frequently). Meanwhile, a friend of Dee's (Donna Baccala) comes looking for her, and winds up confronting a horrible tentacled monster which has been locked away in Stockwell's house. That semi-invisible beast/force which, it turns out, is actually a relative of Stockwell's, escapes and ravages the countryside, leading to a drawn-out climax at the Devil's Hopyard. The ancient gods are defeated, though a last shot suggests that they are down but not out.

I think I can safely say that, to date, no moviemakers have gotten H. P. Lovecraft right. Some point to Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND as solid Lovecraft films; they are good movies but they ultimately wind up taking very little from Lovecraft. The movie that comes closest to the Lovecraft spirit is John Carpenter's IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, which wasn't based directly on Lovecraft at all but uses his concepts of indescribable, otherworldly gods trying to break through to this world, and the damage they do to those humans unlucky enough to be a witness to their attempts. DUNWICH HORROR, based on a Lovecraft short story, gets some of the trappings right, but can't overcome a low budget and some miscast actors. Stockwell, in a very 70's perm, is good once you get used to him, though I couldn't help but think that Anthony Perkins would have been ideal. Dee is ho-hum, but she isn't really called on to do much more than look pretty, sleep, and writhe half-naked on beds and altars. Begley and Sam Jaffe (as Stockwell's crazed grandfather) were probably hired to bring some respectability to the project, but neither one seems to have his heart in his performance. The 70's vibe dates the movie, though the sets and effects are fine, a notch above the typical American International film of the era. In fact, the scene in which the beast attacks Baccala is perhaps the most Lovecraftian in the movie; presented in short, fast edits and filmed in solarized psychedelic colors, we don't really see the creature, just an impression of slime, tentacles, and a face as it batters away at the girl. Unfortunately, we see a little too much of the creature in the climax, though it is a decent attempt at a Cthulian-type creature and not as laughable as it could have been. Les Baxter's main theme is pretty but not especially atmospheric; it kept taking me out of the movie until I realized halfway through that it sounds a lot like an Al Stewart song from the Time Passages album. I saw this years ago on a pan-and-scanned tape; it fares much better on the cleaned-up, letterboxed DVD from MGM. In fact, it was like watching a whole different movie. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


This Poverty Row horror flick begins with two men pulling the body of a young man who had gone swimming out of a swamp; he is dead with vines wrapped around his head like a noose. The townsfolk think he was the latest victim of a curse: the former ferry keeper (Charles Middleton) was lynched for a murder that he didn't commit and cursed all those responsible and their descendents until a voluntary sacrifice breaks the curse. That night, after three cranky old ladies deliver all the necessary exposition, the current ferryman (Frank Conlan) sees the ghost of the lynched man and winds up dead, also by a noose. Robert Barrat, a town leader who was involved in the lynching, thinks the curse is a lot of hooey and believes that Conlan hung himself in misguided guilt. Conlan's granddaughter (Rosemary LaPlanche) arrives and takes over the ferry operator position, against the advice of the townsfolk, and she hits it off with Barrat's son (a very young Blake Edwards). When LaPlanche realizes the Strangler is after Edwards, she decides to see if a voluntary sacrifice will save him.

This film from ultra-low budget studio PRC has been rehabilitated by current-day critics, with some even comparing it to one of Val Lewton's classic B-thrillers from RKO. I don't think it's quite up to that standard, but it's certainly worth seeing. As with many horror films, it's all about atmosphere. Much of the film has the feel of a play, taking place largely on one set, the swamp ferry crossing, with mist pumped in everywhere (or overlaid optically) to hide the sets' cheapness and to provide atmosphere in spades. Middleton (Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials) is a good villain; with his eyes circled in black and barely visible, and his image blurred, he's a genuinely creepy presence--think of the unearthly figures in CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Edwards is a bit lightweight in the acting department, so it's a good thing he went on to forge a career as a director (VICTOR/VICTORIA, the Pink Panther movies). The limited budget means we get almost no sense of the community, and given that the plot centers on a communal wrong from the past, that's a weakness. But the director, Frank Wisbar, turns this into a strong exercise in style--some of the early shots of the ferryman are reminiscent of shots from Dreyer's VAMPYR. The print on this Image DVD is not especially good, but it's probably in the best shape possible, and it's perfect viewing for an October night. [DVD]

Monday, October 08, 2007

THE 27TH DAY (1957)

[Spoilers included!] This is a science fiction movie I read a lot about when I was a kid, but I kept missing on Chiller Theater. I probably would have been much more impressed with it when I was 13; now, it just feels like a long, talky Twilight Zone episode, a Rod Serling morality tale with an improbably happy ending rather than the "gotcha!" twist that made the Serling show so much fun--though the laughable ending is worth seeing for something approaching camp value. We see a woman enjoying a relaxing afternoon on a beach in England until a gigantic shadow falls over her followed by a bright flare, and she vanishes. The same thing happens to four other average citizens around the globe (from America, China, the USSR, and Britain); they all wind up spirited away to a spaceship where a tall alien (Arnold Moss) explains the convoluted premise of the movie. His race's planet is dying and they are looking for a new home. Convinced that the nations of the Earth will eventually blow themselves up with their atomic weapons, Moss tries to make it sooner rather than later by giving each of the five humans a transparent box with three capsules capable of destroying all human life on Earth, while leaving the natural world intact so the aliens can move in. The capsules can only be triggered by the five people, each capable of destroying life within a specific radius, and will only work for 27 days. They are sent back to Earth and the alien makes a worldwide broadcast announcing the names of the people with the capsules. The Chinese woman kills herself, the British woman (Valerie French) throws her capsule into the ocean, the American (reporter Gene Barry) goes into hiding (joined eventually by French), the Russian (Azmat Janti) is hounded by his government, and the German (scientist George Voskovec) cooperates with the Allies in trying to figure out what the capsules are capable of doing.

Of course, being a cold-war movie, the primary tension is between the Russians and the Americans; Stefan Schnabel plays a Khrushchev-like villain who tortures Janti into giving up the capsules and threatens the Allies with annihilation. In the bizarre ending, Voskovec discovers that the capsules can be altered to kill only "confirmed enemies of human freedom," so that's just what he does, and of course this wipes out the Commies (who else it affects is left to us to imagine). If that isn't a "happy" enough ending for an American audience, the United Nations then invites the alien to bring his race to Earth to live in peaceful co-existence. An admirable final message, perhaps, but a dramatically unsatisfying ending, especially in an SF movie with almost no special effects (except a couple of shots cobbled from earlier films). Barry, ostensibly the leading man, does virtually nothing, heroic or otherwise (though it's interesting to see him with a mustache), and the love story between him and French is a non-starter. Ubiquitous voice-over actor Paul Frees (see MONOLITH MONSTERS below) appears on screen as a news anchor. A handsome actor named Mark Warren has two lines as a newspaper copy boy, but he has no other film or TV credits. [TCM]

Saturday, October 06, 2007


By the evidence of this B-flick, Hollywood had about exhausted its imagination for SF monsters by the late 50's. This movie is better than it sounds, but here's how it sounds: the monsters are gigantic rock crystal formations which come jutting out of the earth and, despite their relative immobility, wreck havoc in a small desert town. Honest to God, that's about it. The film begins with an off-screen lecture about meteors, given by famous announcer and cartoon voice artist Paul Frees (Boris in "Rocky and Bullwinkle"). After a meteorite lands in the desert near the town of San Angelo, a man from the Department of Interior (Phil Harvey) finds an odd rock on the road and takes it back to his office to study. That night, when the rock gets wet during a storm, it start smoking and growing and the next morning, geologist Grant Williams arrives at work to find chunks of black rock strewn all over the office and Harvey dead, apparently turned to stone. Meanwhile, hot schoolteacher Lola Albright takes her kids out to the desert for a (rather boring) field trip; a little girl takes a shiny black rock home with her, dips it in a water barrel to clean it, and the next day, bingo, more death and destruction and stone people; though the little girl is alive, she is in a traumatized stupor (like the little girl in THEM!) and is slowly turning to stone herself. Williams and Albright and a geology professor figure out that when these meteorite fragments get wet, they grow and multiply and cause people to solidify by sucking all the silica out of the ground and the people. What causes the destruction, as we see during a thunderstorm, is when the monoliths grow too big, fall down, and roll around or burst through buildings. Can our heroes find a solution before these inanimate rocks threaten the world? Some of the shots of the almost-rampaging rocks are indeed effective, but still, when the monsters are giant rocks, you can only build up so much tension. Williams, best known as THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, is fine as the strong, sensible, and handsome hero, but he's the only actor to make much of an impression. William Schallert has a small comic relief role as a nerdy weatherman. IMDb says that Troy Donahue and Paul Petersen are in the film, but I guess their roles are so small that I didn't notice them. The print of this film in the Universal "Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection" is sparklingly sharp; too bad it's not a more interesting movie. [DVD]

Friday, October 05, 2007


This dark comedy is something of a companion piece to a better known film, the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Roger Corman finished BUCKET three days ahead of schedule, so he used those days to shoot SHOP. The main character here, played by Dick Miller, is a busboy at the Yellow Dog, a beatnik coffeehouse. Although the denizens of the Dog, a group of poets, folk singers, artists, and hangers-on, are mostly portrayed as pretentious, Miller still yearns for their respect, especially because he gets belittled regularly in front of them by his boss (Anthony Carbone). He particularly wants to impress the lovely and likable Barboura Morris. Miller decides to become a sculptor and tries desperately one night to make a bust ("C'mon, be a nose!" he whines at a piece of clay). When he tries to rescue a cat stuck inside his wall but accidentally kills it instead, he covers it with clay and the next day, passes it off as a statue. The piece, called "Dead Cat," becomes a sensation at the cafe after the resident poet (Julian Burton) proclaims it a masterpiece, calling Miller a genius whose "hands have been carrying away your empty cups of frustration." When a clean-cut narc (future game show host Bert Convy) tries to arrest Miller, he bashes the cop's head in with a frying pan and suddenly he has Sculpture #2, "Murdered Man." The corpses and statues begin to pile up until the inevitable tragic ending. Though the movie works as a dark satire, I also felt some genuine empathy for Miller, which is a tribute to both his acting and the clever screenplay by Charles B. Griffith. Given the limitations of budget and time, it's amazing how much of the film works well. The supporting cast is strong, with Ed Nelson as another narc, John Brinkley and John Shaner as a couple of stoners (possible models for Cheech and Chong) and especially Burton as the pompous poet who we sort of grow to like--or at least consider the most likable beatnik in the bunch. Alex Hassilev, of the 60’s folk group The Limeliters, gets to sing a grisly folk ballad or two. Miller went on to a long career as a sort of cult actor in movies such as THE HOWLING, PIRANHA, 1941, and THE TERMINATOR. The title is in the public domain and therefore available on disc from a number of sources, but the MGM DVD sports a sparkling clean print. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Starting in 1939, Boris Karloff made a string of B-level "mad scientist" films for Columbia. In summary, they all tend to sound the same (Karloff is a mad doctor who sets out to help mankind but winds up going a bit nutty and becoming a menace) but most of them are good enough to warrant at least one viewing, so the old saw, "Seen one, seen 'em all" doesn't quite hold true here. Most are out on DVD now and I'll probably be reviewing a few of them this month. This one begins with a doctor (Roger Pryor) demonstrating to his colleagues his work in deep freeze therapy as a way to fight cancer--he freezes a patient (by piling blocks of ice on her torso and aiming a couple of high-speed fans in her general direction!) and leaves her in that state for up to 5 days, which supposedly will kill off the cancer cells while leaving the rest of the body unharmed. Though the experiment is considered a qualified success, Pryor is reprimanded by his boss, Charles Trowbridge, for unfairly raising the public's hope for a definitive cure. Stung by the criticism, he and his assistant (Jo Ann Sayers) head off to Canada to look for a scientist (Karloff) who had done important work in freeze therapy but vanished without a trace ten years ago. The two learn that a group of men had gone to his island home to serve him with a warrant for holding a deep-freeze patient unwillingly, and they all vanished along with Karloff. At the decrepit house, Pryor and Sayers discover that all the men are still alive, trapped in a glacier ice vault. They thaw them out (mostly by serving them lots of hot coffee!) and learn that they stayed alive all those years because of a potentially poisonous vapor that Karloff used. A plan to take this important information to the outside world goes awry when one of the men (Stanley Brown), upset when he learns he's legally dead and unable to collect on an inheritance, attacks Karloff and destroys the vapor formula, causing the doctor to go a little crazy; he kills Brown and decides to experiment on the rest in an attempt to reconstruct the vapor. Things go from bad to worse for the motley group and Karloff winds up dead, though what's different here is that the story ends with Pryor taking the formula back to his hospital and vindicating Karloff. Pryor and Sayers make a singularly unappealing pair of leads, and the trapped men all blur together, leaving Karloff by default as the only real standout in the cast. Generally, he underplays his role and remains mostly sympathetic right to the end. The ice vault set is impressive (and you can actually see the actors' breath occasionally, so it must have been a cold set). The print is in very good shape until the last reel when annoying waves of flickering light appear for several minutes. [TCM]

Monday, October 01, 2007

DEMENTIA 13 (1963)

It's October, which means it's time for a month of horror and sf flicks, and I've got a bunch in the viewing queue. This is one I read a lot about in the monster magazines of my youth. I thought the title was weird and cool, and I still do even though it doesn't make much sense; "dementia" is generally defined as a group of symptoms which result from physical changes in the brain and it's never made clear to what the title of this film refers (is the 13th dementia alcoholic? senile? vascular?). Despite being one of the first movies directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this winds up being not as cool as its name, though there are pleasures to be had especially if you view it, like many critics do, as a direct descendant of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The Haloran family is having a reunion at their Irish castle, occasioned by the 7th anniversary of the mysterious drowning death of the youngest child, Elizabeth. One of the sons (Peter Read) is there from America with his wife, Luana Anders, of whom the rest of the family does not approve. In fact, she has found out that she'll be cut out of the family inheritance if he dies first, which is likely as he has a weak heart. Sure enough, while the two are out for a midnight canoe trip in a lake on the grounds, Read has a heart attack and dies. Anders dumps his body in the water and tells the dysfunctional relatives that he was called back to New York on business, hoping to keep herself in the will. After a ritual reenactment of Elizabeth's funeral that the nutty family does each year, the matriarch (Ethne Dunne) faints and Anders decides to pull a scam on her, perhaps in hopes of killing her off, by making it seem as if the drowned girl is still alive and haunting the grounds. However, in a Psycho-like twist, the plot suddenly changes direction when, as she is planting creepy wind-up toys in the lake, she herself is killed by an ax murderer, and the hunt for the killer takes up the rest of the movie. The only actor aside from Anders to make any impact is Patrick Magee (the deranged attack victim in CLOCKWORK ORANGE) as a police inspector. Magee overacts as is his wont, but his presence is always welcome. William Campbell (no relation to the delightful Bill Campbell of THE ROCKETEER) and Bart Patton are the brothers, and Mary Mitchel is Campbell's fiancee. Despite the presence of an ax murderer, this isn't really an early slasher film, but more like an old-fashioned Gothic mystery. Some stylish atmosphere, but overall not that different from the run-of-the-mill B-shockers of the era. [TCM]