Sunday, October 31, 2010

R.I.P Gloria Stuart

Most people know Gloria Stuart, who died recently at the age of 100, as the older Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic. But I, along with many other film buffs, also knew her as a lovely star of the second rank in the 1930s. In fact, she made 42 movies in that decade alone, mostly undistinguished B-dramas or romantic comedies. She made a handful more in the 40s, and was also instrumental in the founding of the Screen Actors Guild before retiring from acting, returning to the screen in a handful of films in the 1980s, then making a big splash (pun intended) in Titanic. Her early films are difficult to see these days because they were mostly made for Universal or Fox, two studios which have not been very good at marketing their archives (unlike MGM and Warner Bros. which have used cable and home video to their advantage). Fox Movie Channel has shown ISLAND IN THE SKY recently, and TCM has WANTED: JANE TURNER and SWEEPINGS in their holdings. My last post for October seemed a good time to salute this fine actress; she could hardly be called a "scream queen," but she did appear in two classic horror films while at Universal: THE OLD DARK HOUSE and THE INVISIBLE MAN, both directed by James Whale. I've reviewed the first one some time ago; it's an odd film, more black comedy than horror. To paraphrase my review, the story involves five travelers who are stranded by bad weather in an old, dark house inhabited by an eccentric family, the Femms: a crazy brother, his mostly deaf sister, a mute butler (Boris Karloff), and a deranged relative hidden away in an upstairs room. Stuart is one of the travelers along with Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton, and she does well as a damsel in distress. But aside from a couple of horror-movie scare moments, it's more a character-driven dark comedy, and I've never been as charmed by it as its fans.

THE INVISIBLE MAN is an undisputed classic and part of the Universal pantheon of "monsters" (Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman) who still thrill modern movie viewers. To quote Rocky Horror, "Claude Rains was the Invisible Man," the least monster-like of the classic creatures. He plays a man who has developed an invisibility potion and has taken so much of it himself that he becomes mentally unbalanced, plotting to take over the world (with an invisible army, one assumes). He doesn’t get very far, though he does manage to irritate and scare a small English village, eludes a police dragnet, and even causes the death of a handful of people before he is caught. James Whale's sense of humor comes through in a number of places, including a scene of the Invisible Man, in just pants, skipping down a street singing, "Here we go gathering nuts in May..." Though we never see Rains' face until the very end, his unmistakable voice is commanding. The special effects are good for the time. Unfortunately, with so much focus on Rains, the other actors get short shrift--Stuart plays his girlfriend and was actually top-billed in the contemporary posters for the movie, and though she's OK, she doesn't have much to do. Una O'Connor outshines her with a very funny scene of hysterical shrieking, and Henry Travers plays a friend of the couple. If I were planning a salute to Stuart, I'd watch the beginning and ending parts of Titanic, and a few of her B-films, but you'll get a decent dose of her in this film. Rest in peace, Gloria.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960)

Just after WWII, Dr. Rossiter, a plastic surgeon, changes his name to Schuler and goes on the run from England to France after Evelyn, a woman he operates on, winds up with a permanently disfigured face and the police are called in. He and his assistants (Angela, with whom Schuler seems to be on-again/off-again romantically involved, and her intense brother Martin) come upon a rundown roadside circus. The owner's daughter was badly scarred in a bombing, and when Schuler operates successfully on her, the grateful father lets Schuler into the circus business. However, when a bear mauls the owner, Suchler lets him die and takes over the circus. Ten years later, the circus is a success, largely because Schuler operates on female criminals and prostitutes, changing their appearance and giving them jobs with the circus. There's just one catch: when any of the women try to leave, they wind up dead, usually due to what appears to be an unfortunate accident in the ring. This leads to a reputation as a jinxed circus, but also to widespread popularity. In the latest incident, busty blond Magda wants to leave, and is killed when a knife-throwing act goes horribly wrong (planned by Schuler and Martin). The police investigate but cannot stop another death of another busty blond, this time during an acrobatic exhibition. Finally, Evelyn, Rossiter's botch-job from ten years ago, shows up at the circus and the game is almost over.

The plot is promising, but there is almost too much of it, the result being that some characters and plot points of interest (the original circus owner, played by Donald Pleasance, and the odd relationship between Martin and Angela) are ignored for the sake of exposition. Still, the big top deaths are all staged effectively and tensely, though none quite tops the first one, with the knife thrower--it's rather bloody for 1960 (though that year also produced the bloody Psycho and Peeping Tom). The German actor Anton Diffring is good in the lead role, and Kenneth Griffith makes a fine Martin, even though he isn't given enough to do. As for the string of busty circus performers, Yvonne Romain makes the, er, biggest impression as Melina, the one Diffring intends to marry. Interesting as a relic of its time, when horror films, especially those made overseas, were beginning to stretch the envelope of how much gore was acceptable onscreen. [TCM]

Thursday, October 28, 2010

HOMICIDAL (1961)

This psychological thriller was William Castle's B-movie answer to Hitchcock's PSYCHO. A sexy blonde who calls herself Miriam Webster (cleverest bit in the movie) arrives at a motel and gives handsome bellboy Jim $2000 to marry her at midnight, promising to get an annulment soon after. Instead, she violently stabs and kills Mr. Adrims, the justice of the peace (in a scene with several visual references to the shower stabbing in Psycho). She escapes and goes back home to a small seaside town, where we find out her real name is Emily and she's a caretaker for Helga, an old mute invalid--we also see Emily tell Helga spitefully that Adrims died screaming. We're also introduced to the real Miriam, a pleasant young woman who runs a flower shop, and Miriam's stepbrother Warren, who married Emily in Denmark (clue # 1 to the proceedings) and brought her back to care for Helga--Helga had been a caretaker for Warren and Miriam when they were children. It's clear there's something wrong with Emily, but it doesn’t take long to realize that there is also something quite strange about Warren, though at first it's hard to tell if it's the character who is strange or the actor, who seems to give a bizarrely stilted performance (and that's actually clue #2). Finally, there's Karl, Miriam's handsome boyfriend and an old friend of the family. We know that Warren has daddy issues--Dad tried unsuccessfully to toughen him up--but to say much more would give away the surprises of the last 15 minutes. It's difficult to discuss the film without spoilers, though most viewers will certainly figure out fairly early on at least one of the plot twists. The film's low budget hurts it a bit, and the acting by a couple of the leads is dicey, but there is still a kind of perverted charm to the film. It's not as dark or atmospheric as Psycho but if you use the Hitchcock film as a starting-off point, you'll probably enjoy this. The cast includes two chunks of male eye candy: Glenn Corbett (pictured) as Karl, and Richard Rust in the small role of the tricked bridegroom. The life and times of Joan Marshall (who, under the name Jean Arless, plays Emily) was apparently an inspiration for the script of Warren Beatty's sex farce Shampoo. Though no classic, this is worth at least one viewing. Available in the William Castle DVD set from Sony. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

BURN, WITCH, BURN! (1962)

Peter Wyngarde is a young professor, about to get a promotion, who tells his class that belief in the supernatural is "a morbid desire to escape reality." Little does he know that his wife (Janet Blair) has been practicing witchcraft behind his back and she thinks his success in the academic world is due to her magic. When Wyngarde finds out what's been going on, he burns all of her charms and potions, even though his wife claims that her magic was protecting him from other dark forces. Indeed, Wyngarde's life starts on a downhill slide: he has a car accident, a student who has a crush on him accuses him of sexual harassment, and her boyfriend pulls a gun on him. Behind all this are the petty politics and jealousies of academic life. An audiotape of one of his lectures seems to have some unholy gibberish in the background; Blair believes it's been cursed by another witch, and sure enough when the tape is played one night over a loudspeaker system at the university, all hell breaks loose.

This film is fairly solidly in the tradition of the Val Lewton horror films of the 40s in which the spookiness is conjured up more through atmosphere and what the viewer doesn't see rather than a lot of special effects or make-up. There are a handful of effects scenes, most of which are OK, except for the stone eagle which may or may not come to life at the end (the original British title of the film is NIGHT OF THE EAGLE). Still, this is a very effective fright film, and one of the few mainstream movies to take witchcraft seriously--these people aren't the New Age Wiccans of today, but they don't ride brooms and cackle, either. The film, in black and white, looks and feels a lot like the more well-known CURSE OF THE DEMON, which is also about a skeptic who winds up believing in the supernatural. This movie's best known scene is probably at the climax; as Wyngarde cowers against the blackboard in his classroom where he had previously written "I do not believe," his shoulder erases the word "not." The title of the movie is a bit confusing. There are witches, and a fire at the climax, though the Fritz Leiber book this was based on was called Conjure Wife (a better title than either BURN or EAGLE). But there is also an A. Merritt 30's pulp novel called Burn, Witch, Burn which has nothing to do with this film. [VHS]

Monday, October 25, 2010

DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954)

A meteor falls near Invernesshire in the Scottish moors and causes a minor ruckus, enough for a reporter (Hugh McDermott) and a scientist to head out there to investigate. They stay at an isolated inn which, because it's not tourist season, is relatively empty. In addition to the owners (an older married couple), a handyman, and the barmaid, the only other folks around are a busty model (Hazel Court) and an escaped convict (Peter Reynolds) who is the boyfriend of the barmaid (Adrienne Corri) and who is posing as a hiker so he can stay at the inn. Some slight melodramatic tensions arise until one more visitor appears: the leather/vinyl clad Nyah (Patricia Laffan), the title character, whose spaceship has crashed nearby. She needs a few hours for the ship to repair itself, so she throws an invisible force field up around the inn and casually mentions the fact that Mars needs men--the emancipation of Martian women led to a literal war of the sexes; the men lost and are dying out, and the women need virile earthmen to reproduce. When her ship is fixed, Nyah plans on carrying out an invasion plan, along with her large boxy robot (who looks a bit like a less intimidating Gort from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL). Can any of the hapless stranded earthlings stop the miniskirted Martian? This British B-film is fun as long as you are fully aware of what you're getting into; the opening credits note that it's based on a play, and indeed, most of the talky "action" is set inside one or two rooms in the inn, not to mention that the visual style of the film is like a filmed TV play. It's a little like KEY LARGO or THE PETRIFIED FOREST except with a Martian Devil Girl instead of Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart as the baddie. Laffan, who is deadpan serious, is fine as the alien; Court and Corri look good; sadly, none of the men are especially handsome or hunky, and I was wondering if Laffan was reconsidering her mission after this sampling of babymakers. [DVD]

Sunday, October 24, 2010

CURSE OF THE VAMPIRES (1966)

Another Philippine horror film from Gerardo de Leon; it's not very well made and it's atrociously dubbed, but like THE BLOOD DRINKERS, it's worth seeing. The Escadero family is a mess: brother Eduardo and sister Lenore think their mother is dead, but actually she's a vampire, locked up in the basement and tended to with whips and chains by sickly Dad; Lenore is in love with neighbor boy Daniel, but Dad won't let her get married; Eduardo plans to marry Christina but is pissed that Dad's will calls for the family mansion to be burned to the ground in the event of his death. Eduardo discovers his mom's secret, and when he encounters her during one of her bloodthirsty rages, he tears off his crucifix and lets her tear into his neck, turning him into a vampire. He then promptly bites (and, for good measure, rapes) Christina, then marries her. Dad eventually has to face the fact that he's fighting a losing battle, and stakes and burns Mom, leading to his demise at the hands of his son, who then arranges for the death of Daniel in a rigged carriage crash, leaving him free to go after his sister (!). The finale involves Eduardo, his wife, and his servants, vampires all, attacking Lenore, with the forces of good--some priests, statues of Jesus and Mary, and the ghost of Daniel (!)--gathering outside the house to save her or burn down the house, or both.

The plot is every bit as wild as I hope my summary makes it seem. The almost Greek-tragedy family saga is too ambitious for such a low-budget production, so there are lots of plotholes: Why did Dad let Mom live so long as a vampire in the first place? Does he actually get off on whipping her? Why does Eduardo give in to his mom so quickly? Why don't Lenore and Daniel just leave the neighborhood? (They do try to, after a ferocious, good old-fashioned fistfight between Daniel and Eduardo, but it's too little, too late.) How does Daniel manage to return as an avenging ghost? Figuring out motivation is problematic here, but I guess it also is with most of the Greek tragedies. Taking into account the terrible dubbing, the acting is pretty good--Mom (Mary Walter) is quite scarily effective in her single-minded desire for blood, and whenever the hunger takes her over, she's shot in a blood-red spotlight. Eddie Garcia as Eduardo and Romeo Vasquez as Daniel are also very good, though the young women tend not to have much to do aside from looking pretty and being put in danger every ten minutes or so. I thought at the end that this is the kind of play that Eugene O'Neill might have written if he had grown up in a family of the undead, and that's meant as a compliment. Not a great movie, but an interesting and unusual one. Aka CREATURES OF EVIL; the disc available from Netflix carries the title BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRES. [DVD]

Friday, October 22, 2010

THE GHOST WALKS (1934)

Fairly nifty low-budget "old dark house" thriller, almost completely forgotten today but worth seeing. One rainy night, old Mr. Wood, a Broadway producer, his prissy secretary Homer, and promising playwright Prescott Ames wind up stranded at the Kent mansion when the road becomes impassable. Ames knows the family and as it happens, an interesting batch of people have collected at the house (including Ames's girlfriend Gloria and her former boyfriend, Terry, who remains jealous of Ames) for a seance held by the loony psychic Beatrice. She conjures up the ghost of a man who was killed in the house two years ago, maybe by Terry, maybe by Ames. [Spoiler!!] 20 minutes into the movie, we suddenly catch on, as Mr. Wood does, to what's really happening: the houseful of people are actors, putting on Ames's new play for the producer's benefit. However, just as the ruse is exposed, Beatrice is found dead and all bets are off. Is a ghost really present? Is one of the guests an escaped asylum inmate? And to where have Terry and Gloria disappeared? After the initial surprise is revealed, the remaining plot twists are not especially surprising, but it's fun to watch it all play out. It's a Poverty Row film so there are no big names, but the acting is adequate, with John Miljan a standout as Ames, and Johnny Arthur fun for a while doing his some screamingly effeminate shtick before he gets tiresome. The public domain print on the Alpha DVD is in poor shape but watchable. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

PSYCHOMANIA (1973)

The onscreen cable guide described this movie thusly: "British bikers bury their leader (George Sanders) then join him back from the dead." Knowing this was Sanders' last film, shot not long before he killed himself at the age of 65, I was deathly afraid of scenes featuring an elderly Sanders trying desperately to stay on a roaring motorcycle. Luckily, the guide had that detail wrong. Actually, the young Nicky Henson plays the leader of the gang, called The Living Dead, who spend their time riding motorcycles around their small village committing mayhem and circling in and out of a mini-Stonehenge site called "Seven Witches" for seven stone slabs that are supposed to be the bodies of witches who broke their pacts with the devil. His widowed mother (Beryl Reid) belongs to a devil worship cult (as does her butler, played by Sanders); Henson, who is obsessed with the idea of "crossing over" into the world of the dead, finds out that his mom has made some kind of pact with the devil and he discovers he can return from the dead if he just believes hard enough that he can. He kills himself, is buried by his gang astride his beloved motorcycle, and sure enough comes back to life, roaring out of the ground on his bike. Once dead, you can't die a second time, so the gang members all commit suicide and return to life, subjecting the town to a reign of terror (mostly theft and vandalism, with some murders thrown in when needed). When Reid finds out what he's doing with his second life, she is determined to break her Satanic deal in order to put an end to his nasty ways.

I'd avoided seeing this movie in the past because it has a bad reputation, and, believe me, this is no one's idea of a good movie, but it's got its enjoyable bits. The story has potential, but the details about devil-worshipping are never worked out very well; Reid's cult has something to do with frogs, and a frog plays an important role in the climax, but the frog connection is never explained. It's also not clear why the gang members, who technically never signed deals with the devil, are able to come back from the dead. When they're not in their leather drag, they look about as threatening as flower-power hippies, and in fact, one guy sits around strumming a guitar and playing a faux-Donovan song at Henson's funeral. Henson is properly youthful and cocky, but the acting here is not strong; Reid and Sanders don't give it their all, and the rest of the young cast is barely adequate. I also found it problematic that the resurrected folks don't look any different than when they were alive; certainly some zombification should be apparent. The motorcycle stunts are pulled off nicely, and the parade of suicides is suitably ghoulish. The overall tone is pitched a bit toward the camp side, intentionally, I think, and it's best viewed with that in mind. (Yes, the picture above is a totally gratuitous shot of one of the half-naked dead cyclists on a slab, about to come back to life.) [TCM]

Sunday, October 17, 2010

THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER (1939)

When her father dies, Sylvia returns from New York to her family's Jamaican banana plantation to take over the business, which irritates her half-sister Isabelle who lives in Jamaica and wanted it. Isabelle goes underground and plots to use voodoo, or more precisely "obeah," to get rid of her (hence the reason this film is mentioned in horror film guides). However, it turns out that Isabelle doesn’t really practice obeah; she's just going to fake it, giving Sylvia an herbal drink to put her in a trance and hoping that scares her away. There’s a subplot involving Philip, who is stealing from the plantation, and John, a man in whom both Sylvia and Isabelle are interested; the two men indulge in one of the most awkward fistfights in movie history. Comic relief is provided by a character named Percy Jackson (no relation to the most recent Hollywood character to try to become the next Harry Potter) who thinks that his soul has been transplanted into a pig. This low-budget production with an all-black cast is slow-moving and lacks any real atmosphere; the obeah rites presented are diverting, but knowing from the get-go that Isabelle is faking everything drains any tension from the film, and there are rather unlikely happy endings for most everyone. Emmett Wallace as John and Hamtree Harrington as Percy are watchable, and this movie is of some interest to film buffs for the appearance of cult actress Nina Mae McKinney (pictured) as Isabelle--she is best known for starring in the first all-black musical, Hallelujah--but this would be a disappointing film for someone expecting a scary voodoo flick. [DVD]

Saturday, October 16, 2010

FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1958)

This film, part of a cycle of teen-oriented horror flicks that began in the late 50s, has no such title character, but Dr. Frankenstein's grandson, who goes by the name Oliver Frank, is present to cause trouble in American suburbia. Frank works as an assistant for old doctor Carter who is developing a drug that would allow cells and tissue to live forever. Frank lives in Carter's house as does the old man's pretty high school-age niece Trudy. But behind the doc's back, Frank is working with the family's creepy handyman, Elsu, to, what else, make a monster. He's got the body parts all sewed together, now he just needs a brain. That problem is solved when Frank gets all hot and bothered over Suzie, Trudy's busty blonde friend. She goes out on a date with him, but when she resists his smooth moves, he runs her over and puts her brain in the monster's head. So even the monster isn't really the title character: it's a male monster with a slash of lipstick on its mouth. The one interesting concept in the movie comes from the assumption that, with a female brain, the beast will be more passive and conducive to take orders. But no, it's still a brute of a monster that does what it wants to do, causes destruction, and warns people once again not to tamper in God's domain.

This is catnip for bad movie buffs. Sets are cheap, acting ranges from amateurish to competent, and the script has holes galore. The weirdest thing is that, for the first half-hour, we're led to believe that the monster of the movie is Trudy, who falls asleep and turns into a kind of ape woman, or her face does anyway (see pic above--the opening minutes of the movie in which Suzie runs into the monstrous Trudy on a street at night is the best part of the film). Apparently, this is the result of drugs given to her by Frank, but this plotline goes nowhere. The cute John Ashley (at right; think B-movie Frankie Avalon, who was himself a B-beach movie Rock Hudson) is OK as Trudy's boyfriend; Sally Todd as Suzie is sexy and fairly vivacious; Sandra Knight (better known for her role in Roger Corman's classic cheapie THE TERROR) is adequate but colorless, as is Donald Murphy as Frank. Worst (or best, depending on your viewpoint) are Harold Lloyd Jr. as Suzie's randy boyfriend, who shouts his lines as though he's reading them from cue cards, and Felix Locher as the old doctor--to be fair, he has little to do except worry about his niece and be suspicious of Frank. Like I said, fun for fans of bad movie; all others, beware. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

THE NORLISS TAPES (1974)

Surprisingly good made-for-TV movie which was a pilot for a series that never got off the ground, which is a shame. Roy Thinnes is an author (the Norliss of the title) who's been working on a book based on his adventures in debunking the supernatural. When he falls way behind schedule, he sets up a lunch with his publisher to explain, but he fails to make the lunch date. All anyone can find of him is a bunch of cassette tapes in which he relates the cases he's been working on. Case #1 involves a widow (Angie Dickinson) who believes she was menaced by her dead husband (Nick Dimitri), returned from the grave as an invulnerable blue-skinned zombie. A string of gruesome murders follow in which the victims' bodies are drained of all blood. Thinnes soon pieces together this story: Dimitri, an artist, was diagnosed with a degenerative disease; he got hold of an ancient Egyptian ring which, when buried with him, would allow him to return to life. The catch: he has to make a sculpture (out of clay made up partly of human blood) of the demon Sargoth that, once completed, would bring the demon into our world. Can Thinnes stop the zombie artist from finishing his work? The plot is grand, right out of an old pulp horror magazine, and reminiscent of 1933's THE GHOUL in which Boris Karloff is buried with a similar ring (the finale, involving the bloody statue, demonic rites, and a flaming magic circle, reminds me of the climax of the Hammer film THE DEVIL RIDES OUT). Thinnes is very good especially in the early scenes in which he looks truly world-weary and afraid of the knowledge he's learned on his cases--the movie wraps the first case up and we hear Thinnes' voice on tape introducing case #2, though as far as I know, that never got filmed. TV stalwarts Claude Akins, Don Porter, and Robert Mandan (Chester Tate on the 70's comedy Soap) appear, as does Vonetta McGee, star of some blaxploitation films, and Hurd Hatfield, who played Dorian Gray in the 1945 film. Visually, it's a step above most TV movies of the era, making effective use of some San Francisco locations and lots of rainy weather. The 70s was a golden era for horror, even on TV, and this is a solid example of that lost era. [FMC]

Monday, October 11, 2010

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)

In 1645, England is in the midst of civil war, with Cromwell's men fighting the Royalists. Ian Ogilvy, a handsome soldier on Cromwell's side, saves an officer and is given leave to see his fiancée (Hilary Dwyer). Her uncle, a priest, fears the political chaos that is overtaking even the country villages and encourages them to get married as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the feared "Witchfinder General" (Vincent Price) shows up in the village; together with his assistant (Robert Russell), they go about the country using accusations of witchcraft and threats of torture in order to extort money and sexual favors. They accuse the priest and, though Dwyer sleeps with Price, her uncle is still hung, and Russell rapes her before the two leave the village. When Ogilvy hears the news, he vows revenge. This is really more a period melodrama than a horror film, though it has its share of blood and screaming. It's also much more serious and downbeat than the average 60s horror film. The last scene contains an act of horrific violence that is all the more effective for not being explicit, and a final moment which shows that bloodthirsty revenge is rarely satisfying. Price gives one of his finest performances, without an ounce of camp or exaggeration, as the hateful title character, and Ogilvy and Dwyer are much better than usually required for the romantic leads in horror films of the era. The director, Michael Reeves, was considered a wunderkind of low-budget cinema, but sadly only made three films before he died of a drug overdose, this being the last. It was released in America as THE CONQUEROR WORM in an attempt to tie it to Price's string of Poe films. Available in a number of edits, you should catch the MGM Midnite Movies DVD release to see the director's cut. [DVD]

Saturday, October 09, 2010

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960)

Very interesting adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story. Dr. Jekyll is an anti-social scientist (at left, with an unkempt beard and bushy eyebrows, looking more like the traditional Mr. Hyde in movies than like a respectable doctor) who is dabbling in experiments to go "beyond good and evil," to free "the creature within," to separate the higher "man as he could be" from the lower "man as he would be"--superego vs. id, perhaps. In his strange quest, he has alienated his peers, who have kicked him out of academia, and his wife Kitty, who is having an affair with playboy gambler Paul Allen. After showing his only friend, an older professor named Ernst, an experiment in which he injects a monkey with a serum that turns it into a raging little beast, he decides to inject himself. The result is that he transforms into a handsome, clean-shaven, confident guy, calling himself Mr. Hyde (see below). In this persona, he goes out on the town and sees Kitty with Paul, neither of whom recognize him, at a nightclub. Hyde exhibits a violent streak, almost killing a bouncer, and becomes friends with Kitty and Paul. Soon he begins an affair with an exotic snake dancer named Maria, tries to seduce Kitty, then enlists Paul as his guide through the decadent underground London, culminating in a visit to an opium den. Eventually, he finds he cannot control the transformations and, deciding he wants to remain Hyde, he murders Paul and Maria, drives Kitty to suicide, and tries to frame Jekyll for the crimes--while burning an innocent man to death to have his corpse taken for that of Jekyll’s so Hyde can remain free. Things don’t quite work out, however.

This is the lushest and most elaborately filmed Hammer horror film I’ve seen, filled with rich colors and detailed period costumes and sets, and the look alone is reason for watching. The plot prefigures Jerry Lewis’s comic take on the story in The Nutty Professor (in which a geeky scientist turns into an oily but good looking nightclub singer) and adds elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray, as Paul tutors Hyde in the ways of debauchery. Canadian actor Paul Massie is problematic in the lead role. As Jekyll, he is burdened with artificial make-up and uses a theatrically deep voice; as Hyde, he’s quite good looking, but always has an artificially manic look in his eyes, like a character in REEFER MADNESS. He does a decent job given these constraints, but he’s always "acting." Christopher Lee gives a surprisingly desultory performance as Paul, though Dawn Addams is fine as Kitty. For a Production Code-era movie, there is quite a bit of sensuality, with some near-nudity here and there, and a startling moment when the exotic dancer puts the head of a live snake in her mouth--startling both because it's a real snake and because it looks remarkably like a sex act. Available in the Hammer Icons of Horror collection [DVD]

Thursday, October 07, 2010

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)

American International, the company that brought us a series of B-horror films in the 60's which were supposedly based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe (but only barely), tried the same strategy with this B-sci-fi film, claiming this giant ant movie was based on a story by H.G. Wells, though actually only the title and the basic idea of smart ants were taken from Wells--in the story, the ants are bigger than normal, but not giant. First, we get a little lecture about ants, and how they "cannot defy the obligatory command" of the pheromones which they use to communicate. Then we see ants swarming over dumped radioactive waste along a beach. Finally the story proper starts, or shall I say, the first of what feels like two different stories. Story #1: Joan Collins brings a motley group of people out to a new island resort community called Dreamland Shores, trying to sell them property. We get to know the people a bit, including a retired couple, a quiet single girl (Pamela Shoop), a married sleazeball (Robert Pine) who practically assaults the quiet girl, and a nice-guy loner (John David Carson) with whom Shoop eventually gets chummy. The gigantic ants (a combination of magnified footage of real ants and big plastic ant heads) begin killing off the folks one by one and also destroy the boat so that the skipper (Robert Lansing) can't take them off the island. However, a handful of them find a canoe and escape to the mainland where story #2 kicks in: The locals appear at first to be helpful, but it soon turns out that they are all minions of the ants, who spray the people with their pheromones to get them to do their duty, which is to work in sugar mines to feed the ants. Will the survivors of Dreamland Shores be able to free themselves from the ants and the townies?

For a "bad movie night," this will do nicely. The acting is TV-movie level, and though Collins is a standout, she's not as over-the-top as you might expect given her later "Dynasty" fame. Carson is easy on the eyes, though he's lacking in heroic qualities. Edward Power (as Collins' kept stud) and Albert Salmi (as the town's sheriff) are more than adequate. The ant effects work well enough if you let them--the best single shot is of a parade of ants heading down the pier to crush the boat. The two plot halves don't feel like an organic fit. The Gilligan's Island-ish story of the first half is slow going with too much character development given that most of these folks don't make it to the last half. The Ant Overlords story is more interesting but is rushed through, so an appropriate tone of paranoid creepiness only lasts for about two minutes before we realize what's happening. Then, of course, there's the ecological disaster aspect, which seems to have been tossed in at the last minute. Not a disc to buy, but if you rent it from Netflix, you won't feel too guilty the next morning. And have I said, "John David Carson (pictured): yummy"? [DVD]

Monday, October 04, 2010

THE MAGICIAN (1926)

This silent film, once considered lost, is an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel which was loosely based on rumors about the real-life occultist Aleister Crowley. Margaret, who sculpts gigantic, rather grotesque busts, is injured when one collapses on her. Dr. Burdon saves her life on the operating table, and the two begin dating. At the same time, alchemist and hypnotist Oliver Haddo (the Crowley figure) has found an ancient formula for creating life and all he needs now is "the heart blood of a maiden," and he fixates on Margaret as the source for his missing ingredient. In a stunning sequence, he shows her a vision of hell that might have sprung from an acid trip; soon, she is under his power and he forces her to marry him, though he refuses to sleep with her. Burdon comes after her and spirits her away to a sanitarium to recover from his evil influence, but of course, it's not that easy and soon Haddo has abducted her and taken her to his tower on a hillside where, on a stormy night, he intends to bring his unholy experiment to fruition. The climax must have been an influence on James Whale when he was crafting the lab scenes in the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN--not to mention the Disney animators who worked on the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in FANTASIA. The film moves along at a good pace and the romantic leads (Alice Terry and Ivan Petrovich) are fine; Paul Wegener, best known as the title character in the 1920 GOLEM, is a little disappointing; his main acting style consists of opening his puffy eyes very wide to express evil thoughts. The Hell scene, tinted and featuring an almost naked male dancer as a seducing Pan figure, doesn't have much to do with the plot, but is remarkable for its sensuality and suggestion of depravity. [TCM]

Saturday, October 02, 2010

THE BLOOD DRINKERS (1964)

I'll begin my spooky October films with this Philippine vampire thriller, directed by Gerardo de Leon, which is interesting for its visuals and for its lead actor, Ronald Remy, who with his bald head has a Telly Savalas vibe--though sexier than Kojak ever was. Its plot comes off as overly complex, partly because lots of connective backstory is missing. Remy plays Dr. Marco, a vampire who has been experimenting with bringing his lover Katrina back to health (she may or may not be a vampire and we never find out what her illness is). Katrina has a twin sister, Charito, whom their mother, Dona Marisa, gave away when she was an infant (we never know exactly why) and Marco sets his sights on Charito so he can use her blood and her heart (!) to restore the weak Katrina (we never know why he needs a heart). Marco and his handful of minions--a dwarf, a mute hunchback, a sexy young woman, and a large bat named Basra--terrorize Charito, her adoptive parents, and her friends, including a pleasant young man and an old village priest. At one point, apparently because the priest has encouraged prayer (in addition to wooden stakes) as a way to combat the vampires, both Marco and Katrina are suddenly healthy and able to walk in the sunlight (a similar scene plays out in the first Dark Shadows movie). This doesn't last long, however--it doesn't say much about the rather feeble powers of Christ--and soon the film builds to a climax with a band of torch-wielding villagers trying to save Charito from certain death.

The most striking thing about this movie is its use of color. The nighttime scenes are tinted a deep blue, and scenes in which evil threatens (especially involving the big bat Basra) are washed in a bright red. This may have been done to hide the occasional use of black & white film, but not always--sometimes you can tell the colors are provided by the use of filters or gels. It may have been a device to hide a low budget, but it gives the movie an effective, unearthly atmosphere. Basra the bat is a bad effect--a phony, unwieldy thing--but it's one of the few missteps here, aside from the occasional dangling plot thread. Frankly, I became rather fond of Basra, and the piercing theremin shriek that accompanies his presence. There's an amusing scene, though it's played seriously, in which the priest tries to give a rational explanation as to why wooden stakes are effective against vampires--something about their blood being like glue, and wood dissipating it. This little-known horror film deserves a larger audience. [DVD]