Monday, October 31, 2011

BLACK NOON (1971)

The Reverend Keyes is a pioneer preacher heading through the old West with his wife on the way to a new post when they wind up stuck, sick and hungry in the middle of the desert after their covered wagon breaks down. Caleb and his beautiful but mute daughter Deliverance, from the nearby town of San Melas, come upon them and take them to town. While his wife recovers, Keyes hears about the town, founded by folks from New England, and their recent troubles: an outlaw named Moon has been extorting gold from the town's mine, and the church burned down, killing the preacher. Keyes delivers a sermon which gives the townspeople hope (and cures a young lame boy), and soon a new gold vein is discovered. Caleb says they will build a new church if Keyes will stay on; he seems willing, but his sickly wife isn't so sure. However, when Moon rides into town and tries to kidnap Deliverance, Keyes shoots the man dead. The townsfolk rejoice and Keyes is more inclined to stay, especially when Deliverance regains her voice and begins flirting with him. But he also has strange visions of a bloody, half-naked man, staring at him from the mirror. And why does his wife keep getting sicker? Could it have to do with the wax doll Deliverance keeps playing with? It seems like an evil force is loose in town—Voodoo? Devil worship?—but it may not be easy for Keyes to find it.

This is from the golden age of the spooky TV-movie (TRILOGY OF TERROR, CROWHAVEN FARM, THE NIGHT STALKER, and THE NORLISS TAPES are all from the early 70s) before Lifetime and Hallmark turned the genre into all sappy or snappy modern romances. I saw this when it first aired and never forgot it, especially the super-creepy jolt of the last scene, set in the present (the climactic shot itself doesn’t make sense, but go with it—it's cool anyway, and what made the movie stick in my head all these years). The cast is interesting: Roy Thinnes (above)is effective as the heroic but flawed and confused preacher; Ray Milland does a nice job as Caleb, the town elder; Yvette Mimeux is all old-West sex-kitten as Deliverance. Lyn Loring is rather drab as the preacher’s wife; Gloria Grahame doesn’t get much to do as her nurse, but it's fun to see her. Hank Worden, a supporting player in many Westerns, gives an eccentric performance as a sidekick of Caleb's, but given the oddness of the town, he fits right in. As far as I know, this film was never released for home video, but I found it posted on YouTube in what seems to be a transfer from video tape. It’s not the best quality, but it’s worth searching out until Sony decides to give it a proper DVD release. (YouTube)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)

Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), survivor of a shipwreck, is picked up by the Covena; he wires ahead to his lady friend Ruth that he'll be arriving soon at the ship's next port of call, but he gets on the bad side of the burly, drunken captain and is thrown off the ship at a small island where several crates of wild animals are being delivered. The island is inhabited by a strange looking tribe of natives—brutish and hairy, looking almost like humans that have devolved to an earlier state—and ruled by the rotund Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), a scientist who left England in disgrace over some questionable experiments. It doesn't take long for Parker to figure out that the "natives" are actually Moreau's experiments: animals, such as dogs, pigs, and wolves that have surgically been turned into (almost)-human beings. Moreau makes them abide by a law intended to keep them from reverting back to their animal states: do not kill, do not eat meat, do not run on all fours. He manages to control their behavior, but physically, as Moreau notes, the stubborn beast flesh keeps creeping back. Moreau decides to keep Parker on the island a while, making him part of an experiment, hoping he'll mate with his one female subject, Lota (pictured, presented in the credits as a "panther woman," though it's never said in the film what animal she originated as), but soon Ruth (Leila Hyams) arrives, and instead Moreau hopes that she can be paired up with one of his male subjects.

This film has a strong reputation, and with its themes of bestiality and playing God, was often censored during its initial theatrical runs, but modern viewers probably won't find this especially disturbing. Arlen is a wooden hero, Hyams is colorless, and even the great Laughton often seems uncertain what tone to take: sometimes he's gentlemanly, sometimes he's raving mad, and once, he's downright campy, jumping up on a table and leering at Arlen while he explains his theories. Bela Lugosi does a nice job with his small role as the wolfish lawkeeper—and Lugosi's refrain "Are we not men?" became the refrain of one of Devo's best known songs. The striking photography is a plus, and the make-up used to create the animal men is still quite impressive; the close-ups of these bizarre creatures can still create unease. The effective finale invokes the finale of FREAKS which came out earlier in the year (and also starred Hyams). The Criterion print has a few rough spots in the beginning, but mostly looks fine. [DVD]

Saturday, October 29, 2011

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)
aka THE DEVIL'S BRIDE

The aristocratic Nicolas, now the Duc de Richleau, is meeting his younger friends Simon and Rex for a reunion, but when Simon doesn't show up, they grow concerned and head off to his house where a party seems to be in progress. Simon rather awkwardly tries to play off the situation, claiming that he's having a meeting of an astronomical society, but Nicolas soon realizes it's actually a coven of Satanists, led by the notorious Mocata, and Simon and the beautiful Tanith are about to be given a demonic baptism. They manage to wrest Simon away and get him to sleep with a crucifix around his neck for protection, though Mocata is able to exercise his will from miles away to have Simon nearly strangle himself with the crucifix. The next night, Nicolas and Rex watch a black mass at which the devil himself, in the form of a goat-man, materializes. Joined by Simon, the men take Tanith away to the home of Nicolas' niece and her husband, but even with a chalk-drawn magical protection ring, Mocata conjures up a gigantic spider to scare them, then spirits away the niece's little girl. The angel of death appears (a skeleton on horseback) and takes Tanith, and for the rest of the film the three men try to find the little girl and bring Tanith back from the land of the almost-dead.

Good devil-worship horror movies are hard to find. The best-known one is probably ROSEMARY’S BABY, which is very good but is more creepy suspense than horror. THE SEVENTH VICTIM, one of Val Lewton's well-regarded B-films, is really a grim and cerebral character study. THE BLACK CAT with Karloff and Lugosi is a good film but the Satanic element is fairly slim, relegated to the last few minutes. Some would count THE WICKER MAN but that's really more a pagan horror film. There is a very good TV-movie, BLACK NOON, which I'll be reviewing on Halloween, leaving this film as probably the best Satanic horror movie to date. It's based on one of the best occult novels ever, The Devil Rides Out by British author Dennis Wheatley. The book, which I read many years ago, is long and full of wild, occult incidents, and the movie necessarily condenses the storyline considerably. The budget for the effects can't do justice to the book, but there are still a number of good setpieces to be had here, including the apparition of a large black demon-djinn in Simon's observatory/ritual room, the attack of the spider, and the black mass/orgy. The acting is good, especially Christopher Lee who takes his role as the Duc de Richleau seriously. Beefy Leon Greene (as Rex) and the handsome Patrick Mower (as Simon, shown above, in a mirror, with Lee) provide good support, and Charles Gray (Rocky Horror's narrator) looks the part of the sinister Mocata, though he doesn't get to do much except glower at people. If you like blood-and-thunder occult melodrama, this is one of the best (and try to find the book). [TCM]

Friday, October 28, 2011

THE BLACK ROOM (1935)

The Berghman family lives under a terrible curse: when the male children are twins, the older one--the one delivered first--will be killed by the younger one in a gloomy onyx-walled place in the mansion known as the Black Room. When Frederick has twins, Gregor and Anton, he tries to defy the prophecy by sending Anton, the younger one, away to be raised elsewhere, and by walling up the Black Room. Forty years later, Gregor has become a hated figure by the townspeople: he is a shaggy, dissolute fellow who is suspected of luring wives and daughters from the village into his castle, from which they are never seen again. When an uprising seems near, Gregor sends for the kindly Anton, crippled from birth by a paralyzed arm, for help. Gregor says he intends to go traveling and hand over the title of Baron and all his lands to Anton. Actually, Gregor has found a secret passageway through a fireplace into the Black Room; a pit in the middle of the room is where he dumps the bodies of his female victims, and after he lures Anton in, Gregor throws him in the pit to his death--so there's no way the prophecy can come true, right? Gregor than impersonates Anton, mild manner, paralyzed arm, and all, and plans to marry the lovely Thea. However, a certain young lieutenant who is sweet on Thea may have something to say about that, as might a certain large hound that belonged to Anton and who can tell that something's not right.

Though packaged in an "Icons of Horror" DVD set, this film isn't really horror as much as a period-piece Gothic melodrama, but it's a little gem anyway for at least two reasons. One is the look of the movie; Columbia, a small B-ish studio at the time, seems to have gone all out on the costumes and sets, though it looks like it might have been shot over at Universal, as the grand sets resemble those used in the 30s Frankenstein films, and the director, Roy William Neill adds some stylish camera moves here and there. The other big plus is Boris Karloff (pictured in both roles) who delivers one of his best performances in the dual role, and as some critics have pointed out, he practically plays a third role, that of the evil brother masquerading as the good brother. Marian Marsh and Robert Allan are adequate as Thea and her protector, but Katherine DeMille (Cecil's daughter) steals a scene as Gregor's saucy gypsy lover who meets a bad end in the Black Room pit. An enjoyable thriller. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

THEM (1954)

In a New Mexico desert, a little girl has been spotted wandering aimlessly with a doll in her hands. Cop James Whitmore and his partner Chris Drake find her, seemingly in a trance, not responsive and unable to speak. They then find her home, an empty trailer which has been smashed up, and both men notice a strong smell and occasionally hear a weird whining noise in the distance. A bit down the road, a general store is found similarly smashed up, the proprietor dead. Whitmore goes back to headquarters, while Drake, alone at the crime scene, hears the whining noise, sees something horrible from his car window, screams, and is killed. It's discovered that both dead men had formic acid in their bodies, which is also the source of the strange smell. When the little girl sniffs some formic acid, she becomes agitated and screams, "Them! Them!" FBI agent James Arness is called in, as is scientist Edmund Gwenn (with his daughter Joan Weldon), and soon they're all face to face with gigantic killer ants, apparently mutations caused by nuclear testing in the desert. A plan to bomb the ant's huge underground nest is carried out, but two queen ants escape and make their way to the sewers of Los Angeles where Whitmore and Arness, joined by the Army, try to kill the last of the ants before they can spawn and, as Gwenn quotes from the Bible, there will be darkness and destruction, and "the beast shall reign over the earth."

One of the earliest of the atomic-mutation monster movies, made the same year as the Japanese GODZILLA, this is also one of the best. The ants themselves as a special effect are OK, but it's the above B-level writing and acting that makes this work, as well as strong directorial style from Gordon Douglas. The first half-hour or so feels like a traditional crime drama, and the long opening sequence in the desert, which plays out first in bright sunlight and then in a wicked dust storm, works very well. Craggy Whitmore and handsome Arness make a good pair of heroes, and Gwenn is fun as the voice of science. The little girl (Sandy Descher, above) has almost no dialogue, but she gives a good creepy performance; in fact, sh'’s almost more memorable than the huge deadly ants. [DVD]

Monday, October 24, 2011

DAUGHTERS OF SATAN (1972)

Tom Selleck (at left, and several years away from Magnum PI fame) is a museum agent working in Manila. He finds a painting of a trio of witches being burned at the stake in 1592 and though it's a piece of junk, he buys it as a curiosity because one of the witches looks exactly like his wife (Barra Grant). She freaks out when she sees it, and soon strange things start happening: a housekeeper who looks like one of the other witches in the painting shows up out of nowhere to be her housekeeper, a big black dog—which she somehow knows is named Nicodemas--starts hanging around, and she hears voices out of nowhere. Soon, a woman named Kitty, who sees the same therapist that Selleck does, is yelling about being forced to kill, and sure enough, she's the spitting image of the third witch. The images in the painting (which include the big black dog) begin to fade, and death and violence surround Selleck and his wife. Yes, Grant and the other two women are apparently reincarnations of the dead witches and they're ready to recommit themselves to the coven and get revenge by getting rid of Selleck—though how that would constitute revenge was never clear to me, unless Selleck is a stand-in for the Phallocentric Chauvinistic Pigs who kept the witches down over the centuries.

This feels like a TV-movie, with the added attraction of some bare breasts now and then, and way more evil imagery than network TV would allow. There's a nice opening scene of a naked woman being tortured by Satanists, and a later scene in which Grant has to spit on a crucifix. Elements of the earlier Rosemary's Baby and the later The Omen make this film seem like warmed-over seconds, and Selleck, hairy and baby-faced and dressed in ass-hugging slacks, doesn't quite seem to know how to play his part. None of the acting is above average, and there are plotholes galore, but a creepy atmosphere is developed often enough to make this a decent choice for October viewing. [TCM]

Thursday, October 20, 2011

THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966)

In a small Cornish village in the late 19th century, healthy people are dying and the young doctor (Brook Williams) can't explain why, partly because the townspeople won't allow autopsies. Williams' mentor (Andre Morell) arrives from London to help. It turns out that the local squire (John Carson) and his fox-hunting buddies are using voodoo to kill off folks and bring them back from the dead as zombies to work in his mine. The young doctor's wife winds up as one of the undead, and Morrell's daughter (Diane Clare) is put in danger by the studly Alex Davion, the squire's chief underling. There is some class consciousness here, as the townspeople and the doctors are all intimidated by, and to a large degree, under the thumb of, Carson and Davion, so the script is a tad more serious than some of the other Hammer horrors of the era, but the proceedings of the first half are rather slow. Things pick up later with a creepy scene of masses of the undead rising from their graves, and a decapitation scene that is fairly explicit for its day. The plot structure is right out of Dracula, with good doctors (whose women are in danger) doing "wild work" to get rid of the villain, though in this case not a supernatural creature but a mortal using magic. The voodoo rite scenes are effective, and the actors all adequate, with Morrell at the top of the lot, and Davion giving an interesting sexy swagger to his Renfieldish role. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1953)

This B-film from early in the 50s sci-fi cycle begins with some overheated narration about the miserable biped that is man, the possibility of miracles, and a desert that turns people into "dead things." Then we see a dehydrated man (Robert Knapp) and woman (Mary Hill) staggering along near death in the Muerto Desert. They are rescued by a hunky American oil worker (John Martin) and doctored up by a relatively handsome doctor (Allan Nixon) at the AmerExico Field Hospital. Knapp starts ranting about gigantic insects in an underground laboratory, and a rather torturous flashback begins. Mad scientist Jackie Coogan is indeed performing experiments in a lab on the Zarpa Mesa, injecting people and animals with spider venom. Harmon Stevens, a former colleague of Coogan's, visits him and sees a giant spider, a group of dwarves who do the doctor's bidding, and some crazy aggressive women, all created by Coogan. Stevens becomes a subject of experiments but manages to escape. At a cantina, an exotic woman named Tarantella does a bizarre dance, and a clearly addled Stevens takes her, Knapp (who's a pilot), and Hill hostage and makes them fly him to the mesa to get revenge on the mad doctor.

That story sounds more coherent in the re-telling than in the playing out. In addition to the tangled, nonsensical plot (and plotholes), there are other bad movie pleasures: terrible performances—some overheated, some practically nonexistent—cheap sets, bad monsters (there's really only one here, a huge spider puppet that barely moves), sexy but wooden women and men. Tandra Quinn, as Tarantella, doesn’t give a performance as much as writhe and stare. Coogan, a former child star who went on to later fame as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family, is disappointingly bland as the mad doctor. Stevens is the most fun as the pop-eyed man who spends most of the movie in a mild trance. The irritating guitar and piano score, which never seems to stop, was recycled by Ed Wood in his movie Jail Bait. Truly a bad movie for connoisseurs. [DVD]

Sunday, October 16, 2011

BERSERK (1967)

Joan Crawford runs a traveling circus in England. One night, the star aerialist falls to his death, hung by his tightrope, in an apparent accident. Crawford is excited that the news will increase their audience, but her partner (and lover) Michael Gough wants out of the business. Beefcakey American Ty Hardin auditions for the tightrope job by walking the wire with steel bayonets underneath him. He gets the job, and the attentions of Crawford. At the next stop, Gough is killed by a spike through the head and Hardin angles his way in to replace Gough as her business partner. The public does indeed begin to show more interest in the circus, as do the police, and Crawford's daughter (Judy Geeson) who shows up, having been expelled from her boarding school. The next gory death is that of busty circus queen Diana Dors (beware the cutting-in-half trick). Can the Scotland Yard inspector (Robert Hardy) find the killer before the entire circus is decimated? This is better than its reputation as a "scream queen" vehicle for an aging star. Though Crawford is a bit laughable when flirting with Hardin (who was 25 years younger than her), otherwise she's fine in the part, and is still in pretty good shape in her skimpy circus outfits. The circus scenes which provide filler between arguments and murders are actually fun to watch, and the color cinematography is good. At least one of the deaths is a shocking surprise; the identity of the killer, not so much, though it takes some odd narrative convolutions to explain everything. [TCM]

Saturday, October 15, 2011

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)

This is certainly one of the best Hammer horror films, thanks to a better-than-average script, good acting, and some nicely unsettling shock scenes. It opens with one of those shocks: a doctor gets out of a carriage and walks up to his office door where a man in hiding uses a scythe to cut his head off, though all we see is gobs of bright red blood spatter against the doctor's door sign. Of course, Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is behind the death. He is trying to transplant brains into dead bodies, but when a burglar breaks into his lab and discovers the above-mentioned head and a green (and naked) dead man in a large vat of preservative, the cops are on the scene. Frankenstein gets out of Dodge (or whatever Mittel-European town he was in), finds another town to terrorize, and blackmails Karl, a young medical student who has been dealing cocaine on the side to supplement his income, and his girlfriend Anna into letting him take over their boarding house for his experiments. His goal: to take the brain out of his once-brilliant colleague Dr. Brandt (who is currently in an asylum) and put it in a different body—he thinks that Brandt's insanity is due to physical pressure on the brain, and once it's in someone else's head, he'll be sane and can help Frankenstein with his work. Brandt's brain is successfully transplanted into Dr. Richter's body, but Brandt's wife stumbles into the middle of things, and though Brandt/Richter is no longer insane, things get emotionally complicated for him. By the fiery finale, almost the entire cast is dead, a gloomier-than-usual ending for the Hammer studio.

The problem with some Hammer films is not enough plot; here, there is almost too much, but it's nice for a change to have characters we care about. It's also interesting to have Frankenstein be an unambiguous bad guy. Cushing does a nice job as an arrogant bastard who doesn't care a whit about anyone or anything else except his own ends. Most startlingly, he rapes Anna (Veronica Carlson) in a scene which seems to exist only for exploitation. Simon Ward (who later played Winston Churchill in YOUNG WINSTON) is OK but rather emotionless as Karl, but along with Cushing, acting honors go to Freddie Jones (at left) as Brandt/Richter; the subplot involving his wife has real emotional power, something rare in a Hammer film. There is lots of blood and gore (for the late 60s) and several good setpieces, including the burglar in the lab at the beginning, the dead body of Brandt bursting out of the ground during a water pipe break, and the destruction at the end. It doesn't have much that comes directly from the Frankenstein mythos, but it's still a grand Hammer horror. [Streaming]

Thursday, October 13, 2011

THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1961)

Middle-aged Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) is a little spooked about his family history; the men in the family tend to come to sudden and violent deaths. When Guy was a child, his father had a heart attack and was buried in the family vault in the basement of their mansion, but that night, Guy heard his father screaming that he was still alive, and now Guy believes he suffers from catalepsy, a condition in which the victim appears dead but isn't, and has a strong fear of being buried alive. His sister Kate (Heather Angel) is certain that the young Guy just had a nightmare and is afraid for no reason, but she lives with and is highly protective of him. As the movie begins, Guy witnesses a grave being exhumed, and it's revealed that the body in the coffin had indeed not been dead and the person had bloodily tried to scratch his way out of the coffin, to no avail. Because one of the gravediggers (and, as we discover later, also a graverobber) is whistling the folk tune "Molly Malone," Milland begins freaking out every time he hears the song. Feeling he is in no state to inflict himself on someone else, he cancels his plans to marry the young and sexy Emily (Hazel Court), but she won't take "no" for an answer and enlists the aid of Miles (Richard Ney), a family friend, to shake him out of his morbid paranoia. Guy marries Emily, but calls off a planned honeymoon trip to Venice to retreat into a hillside vault and build an escapable coffin; eventually he is talked into making a stab at a normal marriage and agrees to the Venice trip, until the pitiful mewings of a cat that is trapped in the walls of the house freaks him out. Obviously, someone is trying to drive poor Guy mad, but who?

This is about par for the course for the American International Poe films of the 60s. Roger Corman directed and the movie looks good, especially the sets and color scheme (the purples here and there are especially striking). The plot, very loosely adapted from a Poe story, is a run-of-the-mill mystery melodrama hidden by the horror element of the buried-alive theme. The main way in which this differs from the others is that Ray Milland is the lead rather than Vincent Price; Milland is fine, though it would be nice if at least once, the lead was close in age to his romantic interest. Ney is lackluster, leaving Angel and Court to take acting honors as they make us wonder which one is the heroine and which the villain. There is a creepy premature burial dream sequence, followed later by a real one. If you haven't already seen most of these Poe flicks, I wouldn't start with this--its draggy spots are draggier than usual because the campy Price is absent--but it's not a bad October choice. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965)

Scientists at the Inner Space Project (headquarters for which seem to be located somewhere in West Africa) have plans to shoot a nuclear missile into the earth's core to tap its magma as a new power source. The head honcho (Dana Andrews) is gung-ho, but his younger protege (Kieron Moore) has serious doubts, worried that the earth's crust has been weakened too much by nuclear testing. Stuck between these two is the lovely Janette Scott, currently married to Andrews, but the former lover of Moore. Andrews wins the day when the project is given the go-ahead by the British government; the missile firing is successful, but soon a series of strong earthquakes are triggered in the vicinity and it's discovered that a deep fissure has opened in the ocean floor which could rip the planet apart. Like many a sci-fi film of the 50s and 60s, a romantic triangle serves as the primary subplot; this one has a shade more meat on it than most. Andrews is older but still looks like a realistic mate choice for the much younger Scott; her main concern is that she wants a child; his main concern, which he hides from her, is that he's dying of cancer. Moore (relatively hunky for a British B-actor of the era) is bland but young, healthy, and proven right in his concerns over the project. This had a decent budget for the time, back in the pre-Star Wars days when sci-fi films never had lots of money to play with, and it looks good with fine sets and good cinematography. It skimps on the special effects until the end when we get some good miniature work. The uncertainty about where the film is set is irritating--people keep jumping into helicopters and heading off to talk to a government minister (Alexander Knox, good as always) and zipping right back to the project. I first thought the project was in Australia, but when we see a map of the quakes, it seems clear that the missile must have been set off in Africa. The ending was a good idea that could not be well realized on screen back then, though with today's digital effects, it would be easy to pull off now. Extra points for having two leads mentioned in the opening song of Rocky Horror. [Streaming]

Saturday, October 08, 2011

FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (1958)

In order to raise money to buy some nuclear power equipment, Baron Victor Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) has allowed a team of filmmakers onto his estate in Germany to film a horror movie. The director (Don Barry) flirts with the leading lady, which pisses off the script girl, who happens to be his ex-wife. Gottfried (Rudolph Anders), the estate overseer, knows the Baron's background—he was tortured during the war, resulting in the scarring of his face, and was forced to take part in terrible Nazi experiments; now Gottfried is worried that Frankenstein is secretly using his new equipment to continue his ancestor's experiment with creating life. (Well, of course he is; his name is Frankenstein.) The Baron seems to be generally friendly and agrees to do a cameo in the film, and even agrees to a live TV feed from the castle, but when folks start disappearing—first Shuter the butler, then the script girl, then a photographer—Gottfreid fears the worst. Yes, the Baron has reanimated the monster, and needs body parts (brains, eyes, etc.) to complete it. When the leading lady goes missing, the director calls in the police and it's not long before the Baron gets his punishment for tampering in God’s domain.

This film is set in 1970 only because the filmmakers thought that personal nuclear reactors would be readily available by then; otherwise, there is no attempt made at futurizing things, though this might be the first Frankenstein movie that does have a relatively modern-looking lab. The screenplay has potential (the Nazi background, the romantic triangle tension) but the characters are flat, and even the usually reliable Karloff doesn't seem happy here, going through his paces slowly and with little spark. The opening, a creepy monster chase through a dark woods, is nice but it turns out to be just the crew shooting their film. Another good scene involving Karloff delivering what seems to be a madman’s soliloquy is another fake-out. The monster is disappointing, basically a big mummy with a boxy head and no eyes, though the last shot of the film, when the dead monster's face is unwrapped, provides one glimmer of what might have been with a bigger budget and more enthusiasm from the filmmakers. The film does look good in widescreen format. [DVD]

Thursday, October 06, 2011

THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)

In a small New Mexico town, nightclub singer Jean Brooks and her manager/boyfriend Dennis O'Keefe concoct a publicity stunt: in the middle of an act by dancer Margo at an outdoor cafe, Brooks comes strutting out with a leopard on a leash and sits down at a table. Margo, not easily rattled, dances toward the leopard and (literally) shakes her maracas at it. That spooks the beast which runs off into the night. The leopard was on loan from Abner Biberman and O'Keefe feels bad about the incident, but he feels worse when later that night, the animal kills a young girl just outside her family's home. A strolling fortune teller (Isabel Jewell) keeps foreseeing doom for Margo, who just laughs at her. Soon, however, the leopard has struck again, attacking a girl who was accidentally locked in a graveyard. O'Keefe and Brooks feel guiltier, but when Margo finally does meet her death in a third brutal attack, O'Keefe tells the local sheriff that he thinks a human being is behind it all; sure enough, Biberman finds the leopard which had been shot dead days ago and could not have caused the last two deaths. Brooks volunteers to be the bait in a plan to bring the killer out in the open.

This is generally considered one of the weaker of the Val Lewton B-horror movie classics of the 40's, though it has a famous shock scene in the killing of the first girl which rivals the famous pool scene in CAT PEOPLE. Young Teresa (Margaret Landry) is sent out at night by her mother to get some cornmeal. She is scared of the dark, but nevertheless goes across town to get the food, and after a couple of false scares, comes upon the leopard. She races home, but when she gets to her door, it's locked and her mother, assuming the girl's screams are out of baseless fear, takes her time letting her in. Before the mother can get the lock undone, Teresa's screams have stopped and a thick pool of blood begins seeping in under the door. The sequence is magnificently done, though I find the mother's struggle with the door at the end an unconvincing way to draw the scene out. The graveyard sequence, though not as famous, is just as tense: On her birthday, Consuelo (Tula Parma) goes there to put flowers on her father's grave and to have a secret rendezvous with her lover (the handsome Richard Martin). She dawdles on her way and he's gone when she arrives. She stays, lost in thought, and is left when the caretaker locks up. A passerby hears her screams, but to no avail.

I think the problem with the film is that it is too ambitious. For starters, there are several potentially interesting characters, but none of them, not even the leads, are fleshed out very well. There are also thematic threads which are left floating. The role of random fate is mentioned several times (and the camera frequently seems to follow characters at random) but goes nowhere. The killer's motivation is nebulous, to say the least--he just couldn't help it! The climax, occurring during a gloomy parade ceremony filled with slowly marching men in cowls, is rushed. The pluses include great sets (mostly stagy but effective), solid building of tension in all the stalking scenes, and Margo (pictured above) who, despite having little dialogue, is memorable--and those castanets make a nice visual and aural touch. The screenplay is based on a novel by noir author Cornell Woolrich, and the film does have a good noir look. It's certainly worth an hour of your time. [DVD]

Monday, October 03, 2011

ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (1958)

Alison Hayes is rich, has a devoted butler, owns the world's most fabulous diamond (the Star of India), and for some reason is married to a passive, conniving lout and lives in a small house on the outskirts of a nowhere little town out West. Her husband (William Hudson) is keeping a floozy (Yvette Vickers) at the hotel in town, and doesn’t care who knows. Hayes has developed a drinking problem, or more to the point, re-developed it after a spell in a sanitarium, thanks to Hudson's fooling around. One night, when sightings of a giant fireball in the sky are being reported around the world, Hayes is out driving in the desert and sees a giant glowing sphere land on the road, and a space giant comes out of it and tries to snatch her diamond from around her neck. She heads to town in hysterics and no one believes her. Vickers decides this might be a good time for Hudson to do a little gaslighting, drive Hayes crazy, get her committed, and thereby get his hands on her fortune. But when the space giant returns, he snatches Hayes along with her diamond, and when she is returned, she begins growing to become the 50-foot woman of the title, and is out for revenge against Hudson and Vickers.

Despite this film's reputation as a B-classic, it's pretty bad; it could almost pass for an Ed Wood production except the acting is fairly solid. Critics love to claim this as a feminist take on the traditional man-into-monster movie, and there is potential for a fruitful reading that way, but the weak screenplay and low budget don't allow for the fleshing out of any characters or subplots. This is the kind of movie in which not much really happens on screen; most events occur off-screen (or in the past) and we're told about them in long stultifying dialogue scenes. Hayes and Vickers do the best they can with what little they're given, and though it's Hayes you’ll remember as she strides through town in her toga, ready to wreck havoc, Vickers is the more interesting character—and the better actress. Hudson (pictured with Hayes) works up some good, slimy anti-charm, though as with the lead females, he'd be more fun if he had more to work with. Frank Chase makes his role as the obnoxious comic-relief sidekick deputy bearable. This all could have still worked nicely if the special effects had been good, but they are terrible. The giants are mostly transparent double-exposures, and despite the cool poster picture of Hayes ripping cars off of a freeway, her rampage scene looks like it was shot by high-school kids in someone's back yard. Had Hayes thrown herself completely into the role, this might have been a high camp classic, but it’s not even that good/bad. [DVD]

Saturday, October 01, 2011

HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980)

I'll start October's horror movie reviews off with this archetypal trashy-fun B-monster movie. It's JAWS meets CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, with a little bit of ALIEN thrown in for good measure. In a small fishing town, tension is whipped up when the owner of a cannery (Vic Morrow) wants to expand against the wishes of a Native American group, led by Anthony Penya, concerned about the ecology. Morrow has hired a scientist (Ann Turkel) to come up with ways to accelerate the breeding of salmon, but her experiments have gone awry (umm, duh, she's tampering in God's domain) and, unknown to her, produced dozens of humanoid sea creatures who begin rising from the depths to kill human men and mate with human women. The first cool thing that happens is that some of the horror movie rules are violated: children and animals do get killed. On a very JAWS-like fishing trip, a young boy becomes the first victim of the monsters when he falls from the boat and is snatched underwater (in a nifty backwards-motion shot). Then a big old friendly dog is killed and left on the beach in a hideous mess, rather like the first swimming victim in JAWS. Then a bunch of the fishermen's dogs are slaughtered, except for Penya's which leads to suspicions that the Indians are behind the deaths. Two young lovers are attacked on the beach: the boys gets half his face ripped off and dies, and the girl gets raped and survives. The climax occurs during the annual Salmon Festival when a horde of beasts attack everyone and everything in sight. Just when you think all the creatures have been killed, there's a shock twist ending that, despite being shamelessly ripped off from ALIEN, is quite effective.

Gore and nudity are the drawing cards here, with heaping doses of both. The best "Eeek!... Yuck!" moment is when a monster rips a man's head off his body. The beach rape is quite graphic--it has to be for the ending to make sense. With a low budget, the filmmakers have been clever and made most of the "money shot" scenes very short so the cheapness of the effects is not terribly noticeable, with the ripped-up dog being the best example. The festival finale is non-stop screaming and killing and is quite fun. The acting is terrible all around: the hero is a pudgy, going-to-seed Doug McClure, far from his days as a blond hunk in the 60s and early 70s. The female lead, Ann Turkel, is terrible, and everyone else seems like an amateur except Morrow who is OK but doesn't really get to chew the scenery like you expect him to. The monster outfits are best when just glimpsed, and look rather shoddy when dwelt upon, but that didn't stop me from having a generally good time with this as a beer-and-pizza flick. The production was overseen by the unbilled Roger Corman. [DVD]