Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Crypt of Horror (1964): or, the Devil is My Magic 8-Ball

Part 2 of the Chris Lee/Dollar Tree Double Feature; having already partaken of the fog-shrouded witch-enriched goodness of Horror Hotel, I decided to turn over this pancake of evil and check out the 1964 Italo-English production La Cripta e l'incubo, or more prosaically, Crypt of Horror.

Can you EVER go wrong starting a movie with a buxom woman wearing a nightie or less running through a forest from some unseen horror? If you can, I've never seen it, and Crypt of Horror is no exception. In very darkly-tinted black & white we see a young woman in a flowing white nightgown exit a horse-drawn carriage and run into a foreboding forest, from what we don't know. She leans against black skeletal trees, gasping, only to discover in front of her a different, darker coach, drawn by black horses and itself as black as the tomb...or crypt, even. It's actually a pretty creepy, gothic scene, as she runs again only to discover her way blocked by the dark carriage, this time pausing long enough to see the door open with a chilling creak, revealing an inky abyss inside that beckons her. She falls to the ground with a scream, and we see her lying lifeless, eyes wide, whether killed or dead of fright we can't tell.

Meanwhile at Castle Karstein, miles away, Laura Karstein awakens from a nightmare, screaming, sure that her cousin (who is coming to visit her) is dead. The spinstery governess Rowena tries to calm her, but apparently the young countess has had these visions before, and they've often come true. Rowena promises cryptically that they'll "find out the truth."

Meanwhile, the next day...Count Karstein (a dashing young Lee who hardly looks old enough to be Laura's pop) welcomes a young historian/document specialist to his castle. The young man has been hired to go through the library and other records of the castle, looking very specifically for a physical description of a witch who was condemned and crucified centuries earlier. The story goes that on the pyre before she died, the witch cursed the house of Karstein (naturally--don't they ever think of slapping a gag on these chicks? You'd think they would learn...), saying she would return in the form of a Karstein descendant, and through her the house of Karstein would be destroyed and Count Karstein killed. Lee, as the current Count Karstein, doesn't want this to happen, and fears Laura might be the prophesied one--so he wants to know what the old witch looked like, and see if there's a know, just to be sure.

It isn't long before the young man finds a strange piece of paper with a 5 pointed star cut out of it, and lots of info on the witchy legend (occasioning the requisite flashback, though we don't get to see the witch's face, we do hear her curse). Later that night, Rowena and Laura go to a basement room with the missing star in hand, and while Laura strips and lies down on the floor (!), Rowena summons Satan and the spirit of the dead witch to tell them whether or not the cousin is dead (!!). Apparently neither Laura nor Rowena knows of the storied curse--though Rowena does know enough to summon the witch by name (?). It's a crazy ceremony, and reveals little except the back of Laura's shoulders and the lengths to which Rowena is willing to go to answer a Magic-8-ball level question.

The document specialist begins to make googly-eyes at Laura, while the Count is having it off with the head maid, who desperately wants to be a Karstein. (I should note that in several scenes Lee wears the most fantastic smoking jacket I've ever seen--I want a replica for Xmas.) Not long after that, a near-carriage wreck in front of the castle results in a new visitor to the castle, a fetching young lass named Luba (who lives on the second floor). Luba's aunt, in a hurry to get on, unceremoniously dumps Luba on the Karsteins, without so much as a by-your-leave, and hey-presto, new blood in the castle. Luba and Laura quickly become the best of friends, and soon more than friends--though there's nothing explicit, there are several scenes absolutely fraught with erotic tension where the girls are holding hands, hugging, nearly-but-not-quite kissing--which I admit put a little spring in the cigarette holder, IYKWIMAITYD. Meanwhile the young man, jilted, keeps looking for a rumored portrait of the witch that may exist in the castle, Rowena keeps asking Satan to help her find the killer so Laura can clear her name, Luba keeps getting hotter for Laura, and it all ends in bloodshed and a reveal that's only a little nonsensical before the whole mystery is solved.

While not as good as Castle of Blood (but what is, eh?), Crypt of Horror does share some of that movie's strengths--the setting/location is absolutely fantastic, and almost becomes a character in the film. Apart from Castle Karstein itself, which is a gorgeous gothic ruin of a manor, there is also an actual ruined village that figures prominently: abandoned, falling down, but with a lone bell tower in which the bell still tolls when the wind blows. The ringing of that bell sets up several atmospheric and creepy scenes, building up of course to a scene in which it tolls and the girls realize that there is no wind...*shudder* The b&w cinematography is also good, though the print damage is severe in places. A particularly nice example is when, after Rowena dies (of fright, while summoning the witch to pester her for a recipe or something) a thunderstorm interrupts her funeral, blowing out the candles and giving a nice lightning strobe with some pretty freakin' creepy results. And the lesbonic elements of the plot are carried out very nicely, if in a necessarily obscure manner. There's even a little pillowcase gore, done again in an understated but creepy way. The flick's got atmosphere to spare, and isn't boring.

There is some silliness though, too--Rowena's Satanism for daily use is pretty funny, and never really explained or even winked at by the virginal Laura, even as she takes part in the rituals. The fact that Rowena seeks to use the power of Satan for good is also kind of humorous. The dubbing is pretty bad in most cases, except for Lee's, who did his own voice in the looping, naturally. There's an out-of-nowhere "gotcha" in the crypt at the climax that is explained rather unsatisfactorially, and the twist, while unexpected, doesn't really make sense--though they do their best to set it up with a tell-tale hankerchief. You are still left scratching your head.

All in all, I give CoH a soft 1.75 thumbs, trending higher if you love this kind of thing and can forgive its silliness. It's not a bad flick, just a little above average, but worth seeing once if you've got nothing better on the burner. One or two genuinely creepy scenes, and some nice eroticism, but not much more than that.

Highlights not previously mentioned--hunchback peddler in the Crazy Ralph role, with his catchy catch-phrase "There are some houses where Death is a tenant..."; Rowena stalking the halls of the castle with a corpse-hand candelabra, begging Satan to show her who the real killer is (why didn't OJ think of this?) ; Lee smoking the longest cigarette in cinematic history up to that point; Laura's genuinely frightening nightmare sequence featuring a skull-faced cousin, that nonetheless doesn't stop her from inviting Luba into her bed; and the Dept. of Redundancy Dept. line: "This crypt shall be your tomb!"

You know what? Actually I'm amending my rating to a soft 2 Thumbs, just for that line.


That kills me.

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