Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Music critic Ray Milland and his sister (Ruth Hussey) are vacationing in England. While hiking in the Cornish cliffs, their dog chases a squirrel into a big abandoned house overlooking the coast. Following him in, they fall in love with the house—he's looking for a place to write music and a bright, airy studio room in the place inspires him—and they make inquiries. Gail Russell tells them it's not for sale, but her grandfather (Donald Crisp) says it is. The story behind the house: years ago, Russell’s mother fell off a cliff and died; Crisp wants to put it behind them and get rid of the house, but Russell is reluctant to let others live there. Milland and Hussey move in and immediately odd things begin happening: some rooms suddenly turn cold, mysterious crying is heard in the middle of the night, the housekeeper sees strange figures, and the scent of mimosa, Russell's mother's favorite scent, suddenly appears out of nowhere. Milland and Russell start dating, and he and Hussey hold a fake séance to try and put Russell at ease, but it backfires when Russell lapses into a trance and starts speaking Spanish. A woman who worked as Russell's nurse years ago fills in some backstory, and it turns out that there may be two ghosts haunting the house: the dead mother and the gypsy woman who modeled for Russell's father, and at least one of them may be out to harm Russell.

This is widely renowned as one of the best (and first) Hollywood ghost stories. In the first half, we assume that this is a psychological thriller, but it turns out there really are ghosts—who mostly remain unseen, though there are a couple of visual manifestations. The tone of the movie is unusual: though it is definitely spooky, it is also fairly light, almost comic at times, until the fairly intense ending set on the cliffs. It took me a while to remember that Milland and Hussey were related because they sometimes come off a bit like a married couple—Nick and Nora Charles without the cocktails. The actors are all fine, but it's the mood and look that make this movie worth re-watching—the house and cliffs are memorable. Low-key but perfect Halloween viewing. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Heiress Gloria Stuart is turning 21 and her father (Lionel Atwill) has invited three of her admirers over for dinner: young William Janney, journalist Onslow Stevens, and older military man Paul Lukas. Janney mentions stories he's heard about the mysterious Blue Room, and Atwill tells its history: over a few years time, three people were found dead in the room, all under strange circumstances, with death occurring at exactly 1 a.m., and the room has been locked up ever since. Janney, trying to prove his courage to Stuart, announces his intention to stay the night in the room.  Stevens and Lukas immediately agree to do the same the next two nights. Next morning, Janney has vanished from the room, even though it remained locked from inside. Later that day, a strange figure startles Stuart, but disappears before anyone else sees him. The next night, Stevens goes up the room and is heard playing the piano until the stroke of 1, when the playing stops; he is found shot to death at the piano, the room once again still locked. This time, the police are called; inspector Edward Arnold arrives and tries to sort things out before Lukas takes his turn in the Blue Room.

This Universal film from the era of their classic horror films is more mystery than horror, though it has the requisite "old dark house" setting and events (strangers, secret passages)—and they use the same chunk of Tchaikovsk'’s Swan Lake over the credits that they used for Bela Lugosi's DRACULA. I have a bit of history with this film; the first time I saw it was on Halloween evening back in my early teens—I remember eating dinner on a TV tray with the movie playing and my parents attending to trick or treat. It spooked me back then, though now, it seems rather tame and static. The Blue Room itself is atmospheric, and Janney, Lukas, and Arnold give good performances. Stuart (pictured above with Janney), much as I love her, has little to do except look pretty and get scared. There are a ton of red herrings, and though I don't object to their presence, they sometimes give the movie a feeling that it's unfinished—for example, we never do get any explanation about the original Blue Room deaths, and the surprise about the dark figure that Stuart runs into seems to have been imported from a different movie. Still, I was pleased to see this one again on YouTube; it's never come out on DVD and for a time was considered a lost movie. It was remade twice, most notably in 1944 as MURDER IN THE BLUE ROOM, apparently with lots more comic relief. [YouTube]

Monday, October 29, 2012


In the African village of Bakunda, the latest in a series of murders in which the victims have had their blood drained is causing fear among the superstitious natives. Plantation manager Charles Gordon and his girlfriend (Peggy Stewart) aren't troubled by the rumors of vampires, but the local priest (Grant Withers) is. Gordon goes to John Abbott, owner of the local gin joint, to see if he's heard anything through the grapevine. He notes that there is a witchcraft cult in a nearby village which might be the source of trouble, but while he's having tea with Gordon, a servant notices that Abbott has no reflection; she screams and the mirror shatters, and of course she tells no one what she saw. Sure enough, Abbott eventually confesses to Gordon that he is a 400-year-old vampire. Gordon is laid low with a fever and Abbott makes plans to take Stewart as his unnatural bride. The priest helps Gordon regain his health and willpower, but Abbott has already taken Stewart to the Temple of Death to make her his own. Can they arrive in time to stop him? And if so, how?

This B-horror film is much closer to the low-key feeling of dread of a Val Lewton film than to the blood-and-thunder thrills of a Universal film, and though it doesn't have the creepy, magical touches that make the Lewton films stand out, it is still worth seeing. Partly because of the exotic setting, several shots in the film reminded me specifically of Lewton's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, though this film doesn’t sustain that film's other-worldly atmosphere. Abbott (above right), with his quiet demeanor, dark, bulging eyes, and weary outlook is much closer to the more romantic vampires of recent films than to the bloody monsters of the 40s, and he is very effective. He can walk about in daylight, send mental messages, be rejuvenated by the full moon, and be killed only by a silver spear. In one particularly nice scene, his shadow falls on a sailor and kills him. Gordon is an attractive lead, if a little bloodless (no pun intended), but Stewart (pictured with Gordon) is forgettable. The screenplay is by science-fiction writer Leigh Brackett who wrote THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. This is a goodie for an October night. [Netflix streaming]

Friday, October 26, 2012


Charles Regnier is the author of a controversial novel about a 25-year-old murder trial; his work has rattled the government into doing some new research on the case. One night, Devereaux, a research librarian in possession of some papers from the case, is attacked and killed, clawed to ribbons is if by a cat monster. Regnier falls under suspicion, and indeed he is suffering from a recurrence of a jungle fever which gives him headaches, strange hallucinations, and blackouts. His friend Henry tries to watch out for him. Regnier is engaged to be married to Marguerite, but he has fallen in love with Marie, the daughter of his publisher. One night, after Regnier tries to break it off with Marguerite, she is attacked and killed in the same fashion as Devereaux, and a carriage driver who witnesses the attack is sure it was a "catman" who did it. After an altercation in a night club where Regnier is accused of being the killer, Henry takes him and Marie to a chateau outside of Paris to be safe, but it turns that there really is a catman after all—and Marie looks to be his next victim.

This B-film from Republic wants to be one of those moody Val Lewton horror films of the 40s (CAT PEOPLE being its primary inspiration). It doesn't quite succeed but it's unusual enough to warrant a viewing. The overstuffed plot could have used some ironing out: the murder trial/novel plotline is given a lot of attention in the first 20 minutes but basically goes nowhere. There is a brief explanation at the very end about the catman's transformations but it brings up more questions than it answers. When Lewton's movies had plot problems, there were philosophical and stylistic concerns to appreciate, but here, with less imagination on the part of the filmmakers and a fairly bland visual style, it's as if important plot points had just been trimmed out for time. The acting is nothing special: Austrian actor Carl Esmond, fine in supporting parts, makes an unexciting lead as Regnier; Douglass Dumbrille, as Henry, comes off as a poor man's Lionel Atwill, and everyone else is adequate if unmemorable. Still, it's good enough for an hour's viewing on an October night. [Netflix streaming]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

GANJA & HESS (1973)

This film was marketed as a Blaxploitation-vampire movie but it's really an experimental art film about addiction, art, culture and religion.  It's interesting but with a narrative structure that borders on incoherent, it's hard to stick with, and is almost certainly the freakiest movie ever shown on Turner Classic Movies. Hess Green, a wealthy anthropology professor, has studied the ancient Myrthian culture and has a Myrthian dagger among the artifacts in his home. He hires an unstable artist named George as an assistant, and the first thing George does is climb a tree in his back yard and contemplate hanging himself. That night, George goes nuts, stabs Hess with the ancient dagger, and kills himself. Hess doesn't die—instead he becomes a sort of vampire: immortal, able to live in sunlight, and addicted to drinking blood which he gets by killing prostitutes and stealing blood from a blood bank. When Ganja, George's wife, arrives from Amsterdam looking for him, she moves into Hess's house and the two begin an affair. She discovers George’s body but that doesn't stop her from marrying Hess. He soon turns her into a vampire, but the two aren't happy.  He reads in a Myrthian document that the only way to die—get ready for a lot of prepositions—is to fall beneath the shadow of the symbol of the destruction of a powerful god (in a word, for Christians, a cross). Hess goes to a church where his chauffeur preaches and tries to get salvation, but in the end wants the cross's shadow. Ganja, however, has a different idea.

I must warn you that out of any 5 viewers/critics who write about this movie, you are likely to get 5 different plot summaries. Backstory is almost non-existent, except for the occasional moments when you're hit over the head with it, as in the opening moments when the explanation for Hess's vampirism (the word "vampire" is never used) is spelled out for us. Chronology is also a problem—in the first five minutes, we're told twice that he's a blood addict, but apparently he isn't one yet in the onscreen action until a few more minutes in. In style and tone, this is much closer to a French new wave movie than a Universal horror film. Bill Gunn, the writer and director, seems to be unaware of how human beings interact, and the performances, even down to the lowliest pimp and whore, are strangely mannered, giving the feeling at times like we're watching a filmed play translated from a language no one quite understands. Duane Jones, the hero of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and Marlene Clark do the best they can do as Hess and Ganja; Gunn, who plays George (pictured at right), almost ruins the film with his pretentious, seemingly improvised and endless monologues about art and neuroses. His death scene, though, is a good one. A later sex scene between Clark and Richard Harrow as a dinner guest who she eventually kills is very well done. This film has quite a reputation now; I can't join in on the over-the-top praise, but if you want to see BLACULA as directed by Ingmar Bergman, go for it. [TCM; also on DVD]

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


In Victorian England, a man (Robert Stephens) who belongs to a psychical research group discovers something unusual in pictures he took of mortally ill patients at the moment of their death—a dark smudge in the air near their head. At first, he thinks it's the soul leaving the body, but while he's filming his fiancée and his grown son canoeing on the river, the two have an accident and are killed, and on the film, the smudge is seen moving toward rather than away from the dying. Stephens theorizes that he's seeing the asphyx, a spirit that the Ancient Greeks believed appeared to the dying just moments before death. Stephens and his adopted son (Robert Powell) do some experimenting with a (literal) guinea pig and find out that a certain kind of light emitted through crystals can trap the asphyx and stop the being from dying. Now that they have an immortal guinea pig, Stephens decides to try and capture his own asphyx so he can become immortal, which of course entails putting himself in a state of near-death and having Powell operate the crystal light. What could go wrong?

This feels and looks like an understated Hammer movie and it probably could have done with a little more of the hot-blooded Hammer style. Its recent DVD release touts it as steampunk, which isn't too far off the mark—modern-day scientific gadgetry in the 19th century—though one problem with the movie is the fact that both the scientific and supernatural elements of the plot are barely dealt with in the narrative: the crystal light, the trapping of the spirit in boxes, and the background of the asyphyx itself are all just dropped in our laps, so to speak. A later plot point involving Powell writing down the combination to a safe in which the asphyx is to be put is very sloppily handled. Stephens and Powell are too restrained, like they're in a serious artsy drama, where the gusto of Christopher Lee or Vincent Price might have worked better. Speaking of Price, this plot seems pulled right out of the William Castle thriller THE TINGLER, though in that movie, the title being was a physical embodiment of fear that sprang from the body and could lead to death. The manifestation of the asphyx is a so-so effect but it does look pretty nasty. The movie is interesting at times and is beautifully shot; the Redemption Blu-ray disc makes it look like it was filmed yesterday. [DVD]

Sunday, October 21, 2012


In 1830s England, a busty village girl is picked up by a cowled figure in a coach and carted off to the abandoned Karnstein Castle. She is sacrificed and her blood is used by the Count and Countess Karnstein to re-animate the corpse of Carmilla Karnstein, vampire, who laid waste to the village forty years ago. Using the name Mircalla, the young and lovely vampire enrolls at a nearby boarding school for girls—blond, voluptuous girls only, please. Meanwhile, a writer named Lestrange who is doing research on the Karnstein family becomes smitten with Mircalla and gets himself hired as an English teacher. He suspects Mircalla's secret, especially after a couple of strange deaths, as does another professor named Barton who approaches Mircalla begging to be bitten and turned into her acolyte. Lestrange makes love to Mircalla (while a pop song called "Strange Love" plays in the background--most assuredly not the Depeche Mode song) and she, seeming to actually be in love, spares him, but by the end, torch-bearing villagers storm the castle and all the vampires are defeated. This sequel to THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is inspired by the Le Fanu story Carmilla but plays out in a totally different fashion. The idea of two men's interests, especially Barton's, is interesting but not fully explored, though the scene in which Mircalla gives Barton (Ralph Bates) more than he bargained for is the film's best. Danish actress Yutte Stensgaard (pictured) is actually more effective than Ingrid Pitt in the earlier film—she's younger and acts with more gusto—and the same-sex frolicking is a bit more explicit here, but otherwise this is the lesser film, with some good narrative ideas which are left unexplored. Apparently Peter Cushing was supposed to play Barton and Christopher Lee was in mind for the Count (a very small role, just as it was in the earlier film) but it didn’t work out. Bates is fine, and a shot of Lee’s eyes from a previous Dracula film was used for a close-up here. Not an essential film, but fun to see if you’ve seen VAMPIRE LOVERS. [DVD]

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novella Carmilla is a classic of vampire fiction, and perhaps the most influential work of literature, second only to Bram Stoker's Dracula, on the vampire movie genre. This is a fairly direct adaptation of the story. The film's prologue has Baron Hartog defeating the beautiful Karnstein vampire by stealing her shroud, which she needs to return to her grave, and beheading her. Years later, at a ball given by General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), a visiting countess (Dawn Addams) and her daughter Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) show up, with Marcilla turning all the young men's heads. When the countess is called away suddenly to attend to a sickly relative, the general agrees to let Marcilla stay in his home for a time. Marcilla and Laura, the general's daughter, get along quite well, but soon Laura is ill, suffering at night from visions of a large cat attacking her and by day from anemia. Within days, Laura is dead with bloody bites marks on her breast, and Marcilla has vanished. A while later, Marcilla shows up again along with the countess in a nearby village using the name Carmilla and uses a similar strategy to insinuate herself into the household of Roger Morton (George Cole); she begins a "sexy best friend" relationship with his daughter Emma. The same stuff starts happening, though this time, it seems like Carmilla may actually have feelings for Emma, and she turns to some village wenches to get her fill of blood even as Emma becomes ill and bedridden just like Laura. The governess and butler start to see through Carmilla's actions, but using her erotic wiles, she gets them both on her side. After talking to the general, Morton realizes what’s going on, and he and Morton and an older Baron Hartog, accompanied by the handsome Carl (Jon Finch), discover the grave of a Mircalla Karnstein, figure out the anagrammed names, and attempt to stop the vampire once and for all.

This film probably started the lesbian vampire genre with its generous amounts of female nudity and one scene that approaches soft-core girl-on-girl action. But the sexual material doesn’t feel superfluous or overdone, and the movie is a very respectable vampire film even without the bare bosoms. Pitt, though sexy, seems a bit old to be cozying up to the young girls—she was in her mid-30s and looked it, while the actresses playing Laura and Emma were both in their early 20s. But Pitt gives a layered performance, especially in the last half when she clearly feels torn between her hunger for blood and her love for Emma. Cushing is good as always, and Finch makes for a solid hero. However, the best performance was from Kate O'Mara as Emma's governess who creates an interesting character in just a handful of scenes--that's Pitt over O'Mara at right. There are two beheadings, both of which are effective and quite graphic for the day. This film did well for Hammer and a sequel came out the next year which I'll cover tomorrow. The poster above is great, but absolutely nothing like that ensues in the film. [DVD]

Friday, October 19, 2012


In early 20th century Paris, there has been a string of horrific killings of women; their rooms are broken into and smashed up by someone or something with brute force, the women left dead and bloody, but no belongings are taken. The only link (which we notice long before the police do) is that each woman was wearing a charm bracelet with tinkling bells. At first Inspector Bonnard suspects two young college students, but they have alibis in professors Dupin and Marais. Dupin theorizes that the killer is a sadistic schizophrenic; Marais has a theory about the killer instinct which he has observed in animal rats which are deprived and frustrated. There are more murders, and eventually Dupin, who attempted to chase the killer across the rooftops, is arrested. We know it's not Dupin, but we also know that there is a one-eyed thug who is caretaker to a dangerous ape which is kept in the private zoo of Dr. Marais. Could the respectable doctor be behind the murder spree? And could Dupin's girlfriend Jeanette be the next victim?

This thriller, first released in 3D, is loosely based on Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," generally considered to be the first detective story ever published. A few elements of the story are here, such as the murderous ape, the street name Rue Morgue, and the detail that witnesses to the crimes report hearing someone speaking in a foreign tongue. But the detective aspect of the story is largely neglected for an emphasis on gore and psychology. The murders are all quite brutal with lots of screaming and destruction. There are two standout scenes: one involves an attack on an artist's model in which not blood but red paint is spattered across her portrait just before she is killed; in the other, the killer smashes his way through a shop window and tears apart a mannequin thinking it's a real woman. The movie is very colorful and it looks like the 3D effects would be effective. The acting is not top-notch: Steve Forrest, quirkily handsome with blond hair and a thin mustache (pictured above), is OK as Dupin, Karl Malden is a bit better as Marais, though Patricia Medina is a zero as Jeanette. A very young Merv Griffin (at right) has a small role as one of the student suspects. This ignored thriller is worth a look. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Curt Siodmak, writer of many classic-era horror films (THE WOLF MAN, SON OF DRACULA, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) published a novel called Donovan's Brain in 1942. The basic story, about a disembodied brain that takes over a man's will, became a standard horror and sci-fi plot, and the novel was adapted for film twice in ten years. In the 1944 version, which takes several liberties with the novel, mad scientist Franz Muller (Erich von Stroheim, pictured) lives on the edge of an Arizona desert in a large house he calls a castle. With his Czech ward Janice (Vera Hruba Ralston) and a research scientist named Patrick (Richard Arlen), he's experimenting with keeping the brain alive after death. His work with monkeys has proved inconclusive, and when a small plane belonging to a rich financier named Donovan crashes in the desert and Donovan's dead body is brought to the castle, Muller cuts out the brain and manages to keep it alive—he knows it's alive because of the electrical pulses he records from it. Mrs. Donovan (Helen Vinson) and her lawyer/lover Eugene (Sidney Blackmer) find out what's going on, but they leave well enough alone; they know that Donovan's wealth was fake but suspect that he had a fortune stashed away somewhere and they hope that Muller will discover where. Soon Patrick discovers he can receive telepathic communications from the brain, falling into a kind of trance as Donovan's will takes over, and the plot thickens as Donovan's brain takes over Patrick's life.

In the second version, which sticks more closely to Siodmak's plot, Patrick (Lew Ayres) lives in suburbia, Janice (Nancy Davis, pictured with Ayres) is his wife, and Frank (Gene Evans) is an alcoholic but good-natured lug of an assistant. Patrick has managed to keep a monkey brain alive for a time, but when the body of a plane crash victim is brought to his house and he discovers the brain is still alive, he takes it out, puts it in a tank, and begins his experiments. It's all made almost wholesome here—largely due to the sunshiny setting and the bland niceness of all the three central characters. Soon, as in the earlier film, Patrick is doing Donovan's bidding, even to the point of turning into a version of Donovan, dressing, adopting a limp and ordering people around like the rich man did. It takes the combined will of all three characters to win out against the brain.

THE LADY AND THE MONSTER has the edge between the two films. It's more anchored in the Gothic horror tradition, thanks to some wonderfully atmospheric sets, good cinematography, and the presence of Erich von Stroheim as Muller—though actually, the monster of the title is really a reference to Arlen, whose face becomes sinister and deeply creased in shadows when he's being controlled by the brain. The narrative gets a little convoluted in the last half, and occasionally a narrator has to break in to explain things. Arlen is fine, as are Vinson and Blackmer; Ralston, a Czech figure skater, is known for her mediocre performances and she gives one here, rarely striking a believable note. DONOVAN'S BRAIN has a good performance from Ayres—he has fun being obnoxious when he's under the brain's power—and is mostly a sci-fi film, with a bit of a mystery vibe as the motives of Donovan's brain are less clear in this one. The 50s film has a clearer narrative, but the 40s film is more fun and looks better. [Netflix streaming]

Monday, October 15, 2012


Egypt, 1902. With unrest against the British mounting, Robert Quentin, who has taken an expedition to the Valley of the Kings, may run into trouble. Capt. Storm leads a small team, including Quentin's wife Sylvia, to find them and bring them back. On their way, they are joined by a mysterious native woman, Simira, dressed in a robe and wearing a cat god necklace, who is looking for her brother Numar, Quentin’s guide. Sylvia, it develops, is planning on leaving her husband and indulges in a little light flirtation with Storm. After they arrive at the dig, the men find the mummy of a high priest and as they make an incision into the mummy’s neck, Numar collapses. He begins aging rapidly, and we eventually discover that the spirit of the violated high priest has entered Numar's body, turning him into a vampire who begins feeding on the blood of members of Quentin's party. This hour-long cheapie is notable mostly for its unusual twist on the mummy theme; the monster's not a mummy but a wrinkle-skinned vampire doing the work of the mummy, trying to protect the tomb of the pharaoh from intruders. Everything else about it is so-so: the script, the sets, the atmosphere and the acting. Israeli actress Ziva Rodann is appropriately exotic as Simira, who is apparently supposed to be the embodiment of a cat goddess, though I was never clear about that. Mark Dana (pictured with Rodann) makes a decent B-movie hunk (and Captain Storm really should be the name of a superhero), and Ben Wright (the Nazi Herr Zeller in THE SOUND OF MUSIC) plays Quentin's translator. [Netflix streaming]

Saturday, October 13, 2012


In the far-future year of 1990, when we have established a base on the Moon, scientists at the Space Technology Institute have begun receiving signals indicating that an alien life form is sending emissaries to Earth. But when the aliens crash-land on Mars, Basil Rathbone, head of the institute, sends up a rescue crew, including Judi Meredith and Dennis Hopper; all they find is a crashed ship and a dead alien astronaut. It turns out that a surviving alien took a small craft to the moon Phobos, so John Saxon, Meredith's boyfriend, and Don Eitner take their own small rescue craft from the Moon base and find an unconscious female alien with green skin and tall, pointy silverish hair. Only two will fit in the craft, so Eitner is left behind to be picked up by a later craft (sadly, as Eitner was likeable, this plotpoint is dropped completely), and Saxon takes the alien to the Mars ship so they all can go back to Earth. Unfortunately, they soon discover that the mute alien is a vampiric creature, killing off the crew one by one to get nourishment. They try feeding her with stored plasma, but that only lasts so long. And what's up with those pulsating eggs that Saxon and Meredith find on the ship?

This B-sci-fi flick from American International, with its alien beast feeding off a spaceship crew, seems like the missing link between IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE in 1958 and ALIEN in 1979. The film was shot in under a week with a very low budget, but the director, Curtis Harrington, was able to use footage from a Russian sci-fi film to stand in for outer space and planet backgrounds, and that colorful footage is essential to making this movie interesting. As for the acting, the less said, the better. Saxon is stoic and hunky, and Florence Marly makes the alien pretty creepy, especially when her eyes glow. Dennis Hopper seems distracted, like he didn't enjoy taking direction; Meredith is dull; Rathbone basically appears on screen, delivers his lines, glowers a bit as if to say, "Damnit, I used to be Sherlock Holmes!") then exits—though to be fair, I should point out that he died the year after making this. Harrington generally does a good job matching the Russian footage to his own; a nice drinking game might be to have a sip every time you notice a shift from Russia to American International. [DVD]

Thursday, October 11, 2012


ALIEN meets KEY LARGO in this ultra-cheapie horror film which was co-produced by an uncredited Roger Corman and directed by Monte Hellman, who went on to become a cult figure (TWO-LANE BLACKTOP). A band of crooks show up at a ski lodge in South Dakota to pull off a gold bar robbery, planning to set off a mine explosion to cover up their deed. Turns out that a monster lives in a place the locals call Haunted Cave. It snatches a sexy local girl first and a witness, one of the crooks (Richard Sinatra—yes, a relative of Frank's), goes a little nutty over what he saw, though no one believes him, thinking instead that a rampaging cougar is the problem. The explosion goes off as planned, though a young couple is accidentally killed, and the gang's leader (Frank Woolf) gets a hunky ski instructor (Michael Forest) to take the group to a remote cabin where they plan to hide out until the gold is helicoptered in. However, Forest figures out what's going on, with some help from sexy moll Sheila Carol; the two fall in love (sort of) and she decides she'd like to stay behind with Forest when the gang splits. But the course of true love, as they say in The Philadelphia Story, gathers no moss, and when a blizzard approaches, everyone winds up in the haunted cave, lining up to be the monster's dinner.

The Key Largo part of the movie consists of the melodramatic interactions between the gang members and Forest at the isolated cabin; the more interesting Alien part has to do with how the beast kills its prey: it wraps the victims in a sticky web and leaves them in the cave so it can suck their blood later. The beast itself is just a guy in a laughably bad costume (occasionally effective when kept in the shadows), but the webbed folks in the cave are creepy--the picture above is of a victim in the midst of being webbed up. Because the characters are drawn with a little more depth than is usual for a sub-B horror film, the acting is not bad, with Forest and Carol working up some chemistry, and Woolf making a good stab at a love-to-hate villain. I miss the touches of humor than Corman often stuck in the films of this era that he directed; here, there is little to no comic relief. Watchable but not one of Corman’s classics. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 09, 2012


This is one of those cases where I ran across a movie on cable I'd never heard of, DVR'd it, didn't have high hopes for it and almost erased it, but ultimately watched it and enjoyed it quite a bit. Hooray for serendipity! For years, there has been bad blood between the Whitlocks and the Laniers. Now, the Laniers are digging up the old Whitlock family graveyard for a construction project. Lon Chaney Jr., the somewhat dissipated and maybe squirrely patriarch of the Whitlock family, leads a protest against the desecration of the graveyard, but Lanier's partner goes ahead with the bulldozing. Lanier (Jack Hedley) is sympathetic but can't undo what his partner did.  It turns out that Chaney is the head of a devil-worshiping cult, and the bulldozing allows a 17th-century Whitlock witch (Yvette Rees), who was buried alive by the Laniers, to return to life. Lanier's partner dies via voodoo doll, in his bathtub, and an aunt and grandmother are soon targeted by the Satanists. This is, of course, disturbing to Lanier and his wife, but even more so to the Lanier son, who, shades of Romeo & Juliet, is in love with a Whitlock niece. Though the plot is predictable and the production hampered by a low-end budget, there are some creepy scenes throughout, mostly involving the witch popping up unexpectedly. Chaney is good, as he was in SPIDER BABY--he seemed to actually get better as he got older and, well, uglier. No masterpiece, but worth a shot on an October night. Photograph courtesy <> [FMC; also on DVD]

Sunday, October 07, 2012


A bunch of glowing orbs, apparently meteorites flying in formation from the direction of the moon, land on a farm in rural England, and a bunch of scientists doing research on extraterrestrial life head out there to see what's up. When the scientists look at the orbs, alien forces stream out at them and possess their bodies. They take over the farm and spread a deadly sickness, dubbed the Crimson Plague by the press. It turns out that the plague doesn't exactly kill people, but puts them into a death-like state so the aliens can collect them and force them into slave labor to build a rocketship. One scientist (Robert Hutton) who had to stay behind for health reasons winds up being the only one who can approach the orbs intact because he has a metal plate in his head. He and his buddy Zia Moyheddin, who gets outfitted in a goofy tin hat to protect his brain, infiltrate the farm to free Hutton's girlfriend (Jennifer Jayne) and try to figure out what the aliens want. The low budget hurts this film, which is really just a long Twilight Zone episode, as it turns out the aliens, who wear clashing colorful capes, are just misunderstood fellows trying to find a way for their race to survive. There are occasional good moments, and Jayne and Moyheddin are good enough, though Hutton is a colossal deadweight.  [TCM]

Friday, October 05, 2012


American reporter Paul Douglas and his British photographer pal Leslie Phillips are on a train heading for Salzburg so they can cover a music festival (insert your own SOUND OF MUSIC joke/pun/reference here) when their car becomes uncoupled and winds up the small country of Gudavia, which Douglas can't find on any map. The place doesn't get many visitors, so the townspeople are a little wary—at first, Douglas and Phillips are assumed to be spies—but also excited that the hotel finally has guests. After some suspicious events, the two discover that the land is ruled with an iron hand from a castle by mad scientist Walter Rilla who has been experimenting with exposing the country's children to gamma ray radiation (some of the subjects are pictured at right). Some become geniuses; some become dull-eyed zombie-types who are recruited to become Rilla's thugs. Douglas and Phillips, with some help from scientist Eva Bartok, rile the people up and a Frankenstein-like ending is in store for Rilla. This is a very strange genre mix; a sci-fi VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED plot with a light, at times comic, LADY VANISHES atmosphere. The burly Douglas doesn't seem a good fit for leading action man, but the rest of the cast is fine. It's worth seeing just because it’s so one-of-a-kind, but approach with low expectations.  [TCM]

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


The second tree monster movie of the month—and I hope I’ve exhausted the genre. This is set on a Pacific island. Kimo, shirtless and tied to the ground, has been sentenced to death by the chief, apparently for being too chummy with the white scientists who are studying nuclear fallout on the island. As the witch doctor Tano prepares his death, Kimo vows to return and get revenge against Tano, the chief, and, for the hell of it, his wife. He is then stabbed in the chest and buried standing up in a wooden box. A woman with the craziest Cockney accent I've ever heard watches the proceedings and reports back to the scientists. There is some folderol about a plague amongst the natives that may have been caused by fallout from atom bomb experiments, but eventually the supernatural trumps science when a misshapen tree suddenly sprouts out of the ground, right above Kimo’s burial pit.  The natives believe that Kimo has been reincarnated as Tabonga, a legendary tree monster. The scientists dig up the tree, which has markings that look like a scary, evil face, and find a pulse in the thing. The next morning, it's gone from the lab and begins shuffling slowly around the village, seeking its/his revenge. Mainly because of the title, this movie has a reputation as a must-see B-movie, and it does begin promisingly with the native death sentence ceremony, but as soon as the white folks become the focus of the film, it starts to fall apart. The actors, including Tod Andrews and Tina Carver, are drab, though Gregg Palmer as Kimo makes the most of his few minutes of screen time. The monster has potential—I know its face struck me as fairly horrific when I was 10—but because it lumbers along like Kharis of the later Mummy movies, it just doesn't seem all that dangerous, even though it does manage to kill at least three people.  Better than Monday's tree-monster movie, but no great shakes. [DVD]

Monday, October 01, 2012


It's October which means horror and sci-fi movies. If this film is any indication, I'll be scraping the bottom of the barrel all month long. A plane carrying rare plant specimens from Antarctica crash-lands at a Navy Base on Gow Island; the pilot survives but is catatonic; the specimens, large chunks of trees, have survived, but some penguin crates are mysteriously empty and the co-pilot is missing. Soon, the pilot is going on angry rampages and a sticky acidic goo is found all over the place. It turns out that the "trees" are more like animals than plants, and they begin growing, moving, and reaching out to kill and absorb people. It's left to the lieutenant in charge (Anthony Eisley), his hotsy nurse (Mamie Van Doren), and a civilian meteorologist (Edward Faulkner) to battle this menace before it can threaten the rest of the world.

This is a bad movie, though it has a fabulous poster (see above). In its way, it's worse than even PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, because this has a cast and crew of professionals with credentials (including an uncredited Roger Corman as a producer) who should have been able to turn out a better film in their sleep. Eisely, star of the 60s crime show Hawaiian Eye, tries his best as the hero but everyone else around him is pretty terrible. Particularly disappointing is Van Doren who was so campy-good in the 50s juvenile delinquent movie GIRLS TOWN—here she's remarkably wooden with zero personality, and even her curvaceous body isn't presented effectively. Bobby Van, a supporting actor/dancer for MGM in the 50s, is rather pathetic stuck in a minor comic relief sidekick role. Billy Gray, child actor from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and TV’s Father Knows Best, playing a radar operator, gets to display very little acting range until he gets his arm ripped off by one of the tree monsters and winds up with the best scene in the movie. The attempts at character backstory are ludicrous, and indeed at times threaten to derail the monster plot. This film has all the atmosphere and production value of an episode of Gilligan’s Island—and indeed a comic scene early on involving a nerdy sailor trying to inflate a weather balloon (pictured) seems like an outtake from that show. The DVD I watched from Cheezy Films was in terrible shape, obviously taken from a bad VHS dub. [DVD]