Monday, September 17, 2007

Crypt of the Living Dead (1973): or, Hannah's Got a Crush on You

What a cool, creepy little flick!

Once again Mill Creek's 50 Chilling Classics pack comes through with a movie I wouldn't have watched on my own, but nonetheless found interesting, entertaining, and more than a little creepy. Crypt of the Living Dead, aka Young Hannah, Queen of the Vampires, is a vampire movie with a difference, starring a couple of well-known (to 70s trash-horror fans like me) faces and boasting some strange but periodically very effective cinematography, Crypt of the Living Dead might have benefited from my low expectations going in (as with most movies I like, the internet reviews are generally savage), but as the Duke and I often say, there's no virtue in refusing to allow yourself to be entertained, and this flick gives you more than ample chances.

We open the way every atmospheric, gothic movie about old school monsters should: with a hunchback in a lightning storm. As an intense dude in robes drones in Latin over a massive marble tomb--IN THE CRYPT!--an older man prowls the cathedral above apparently searching for him. When he's startled by the hunchback the elderly expeditioner falls through a hole into the catacombs below, and once he gets his breath back draws that much closer to his goal. Once he finds the tomb, however, he is quickly overpowered by Intense Dude and the Hunchback, who knock him out and stuff him under the tomb, which we now see is raised on four marble feet. As our explorer opens his eyes the henchmen take after the two nearest supports with sledgehammers, and a moment later the tomb falls with a crunchy thud on the chest of our would-be hero. Ouch! Haven't seen that one before!

Next we find ourselves standing by the dock of the bay, watching a young skinny dude with a porn-stache putting ashore at a small fishing village. In a very strong, somewhat creepy scene the young man tries to ask the villagers where he can find the church, but they only scowl creepily and continue mending their nets, while an unsettling music-box score plays in the background. I really think that the outsider going into a creepy, unfriendly village and meeting creepy, unfriendly people is one of the more effective set-ups in horror, and it's done excellently here.

Soon a friendly face appears in the form of Peter (Mark Damon, whose acting I also just enjoyed in the excellent, soon-to-be-reviewed sexy horror The Devil's Wedding Night). We learn in short order that Stache Man, aka Chris Bolton (Andrew Prine), is the son of the professor who got crushed in the crypt, and has come to collect his old dad's remains. Peter was the professor's assistant, helping the old man excavate the crypts while researching for a historical novel he (Peter) is writing about the island. As they head off toward the church we see a familiar malformed face in the bushes: the hunchback watches them go.

(It should be said that it's fairly obvious that Peter was the robed man from the prologue who helped kill the prof. I was never quite sure if there was meant to be some air of mystery about this fact, or if the director hoped to set up some dramatic irony with the character, us knowing he was bad when nobody else did. Either way, I was taken with the atmosphere and story, so I rolled right along.)

It turns out the old man's corpse is still under the tomb, which is so massive and in such an enclosed space that no one can move it. As luck would have it, though, Chris is an engineer, and quickly determines he can set up a pulley system to lift the tomb and pull the pressed patriarch free. But he'll have to do it in two parts--first the lid, then the lower section--which of course means opening the tomb.

That's bad, because the tomb supposedly contains the remains of Hannah, a medieval princess who in the 13th Century was put ashore here in a shipwreck, contracted vampirism, and took over the whole island, converting the entire population into her undead minions. When her fiance Prince Philip arrived to rescue her and found her a bit too bitey for his tastes, he slew all her henchvamps and buried her alive(-ish) in the tomb, carving upon it the warning, "For the peace of the dead, and for the sake of the living, let no one disturb this tomb!" Nice, eh?

Well, it wouldn't be much of a story if they heeded Prince Philip's warning, and before you can say "Great Gobs of Garlic!" Chris has lifted the lid and revealed the body of Hannah to the air for the first time in seven hundred years. To everyone's surprise, not only is she uncorrupted, she's HAWT! While Chris takes time off to woo Peter's sister Mary (also the prof's assistant when she's not teaching at the local school), the villagers get nervous, remembering the lore about Hannah the Vampire Queen. Wolves are sighted in local cemeteries, fishermen's dogs are killed and drained of blood, and Peter keeps acting stranger and stranger.

Crypt of the Living Dead has a pretty interesting story for a vampire flick, and though it's deliberately paced it's never boring. Scenes with Hannah awakening, breathing for the first time after 700 years, are actually well done and a little creepy. Teresa Gimpera as Hannah is a vision, otherworldly and seductive, and manages to do quite a bit with an essentially mute character, imparting her with a malevolence and intelligence that lets you know she's calculated everything. And a scene where she appears in the bedroom of a small girl and stands looking hungrily at the cowering child is really very effective.

The final confrontation is very brisk compared with the slower pace of most of the film, and I found it pretty exciting. Peter tries to sacrifice Mary to Hannah in order to secure the happiness that has eluded him, only to be rescued by Chris. Mary returns the favor when Chris is attacked by Hannah in her wolf-form, and then at the last Chris ignites the Queen of the Vampires and sends her plummeting off a cliff like a goddamned meteorite! But it's not over yet--when the burned vampire arises again to take on a circle of villagers, the makeup and sound FX are really wild (especially the sound FX--listen for the cat howl from hell!), though it leads to the expected conclusion.

Other actors in the flick range from good the not-so-good. The villagers are non-actors and it shows, especially in the deadpan voice of the Van Helsing character, a blind old fisherman who knows a little about vamps and clearly can guess the rest. Andrew Prine makes a meal of the scenery as Chris, and seems to think that to be persuasive, whether in convincing villagers to let him move a tomb or convincing Mary to sleep with him, all he has to do is throw a petulant tantrum and shout at the top of his lungs. Lucky for him this works. On the other hand, Mary is portrayed by Patty Shepard, who is no stranger to weird 70s Euro-horror, nor to vampire queen epics: she appeared as an alluring alien in Paul Naschy's Assignment Terror, and played the seductive and sinister Countess Wandessa in the mmmmmasterpiece The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman. Here's she's great as the headstrong headmistress who can take care of herself, and while it's not clear why she should fall for a whiner like Chris, she's a treat to watch and easy on the eyes. And I thought Mark Damon was excellent as the demented failed novelist Peter, who along with his friend the hunchback is helping Hannah in her quest to re-take the island.

Apparently the movie was filmed in color, but the print I have is in B&W--a web search reveals that other dvd pressings are in color, so I got the shaft in the hue department. Still, despite some very dark scenes, there was some good cinematography here and some interesting mise en scene, particularly when Hannah is on the prowl. I'd be interested to see how the same scenes hold up with the proper colors added.

Anyway, I give Crypt of the Living Dead a solid 2 thumbs up. An interesting story, some cool visuals, and a wild climax make this one worth looking at. Give it a chance, and don't be so stuffy.


doc_hartman said...

I have the 50 pack chiller set. This movie isn't on it though. It also isn't listed on the website as being part of the collection. Where'd you get it?

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hey doc,

Apparently there are several different editions of the Chiller pack going around, which differ in their lineups by one or two flicks. For instance, I've read that some have "Christmas Evil" on them, but mine doesn't, and there are other differences.

Still well worth the money though. Thanks for commenting! Keep reading!

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