Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman (1971): or, My Love Affair with Naschy Begins


On the night of the full moon, a police inspector and coroner are conversing in the morgue over the recently slain body of Waldemar Daninsky, alleged werewolf. With two silver bullets in his heart, courtesy events in very wild and wooly previous movie (The Fury of the Wolfman--review soon), Daninsky is about as dead as a muscled-up Polish nobleman can get. There is some dispute amongst the conversants, however. The inspector, a village man, believes that Daninsky might in fact be a werewolf--after all, it took silver bullets to bring him down, and he does have El Marco del Hombre-Lobo, a pentagonal scar on his beefy chest. The coroner, a man of science, is having none of that poppycock. To prove it's all just superstition, stuff and nonsense, he removes the silver bullets from Daninsky's heart, reasoning that if he is a werewolf, he should come back to life, which is obviously impossible. Right?

No--he's predictably, tragically wrong. A couple of neck-rips and a snarling exit later, Daninsky is on the loose again, ripping the bodice and throat out of a passing buxom beauty as the credits roll. WHY do they always take the silver out? WHY WHY WHY?

Suddenly we're whisked away to a club in Paris, where Elvira is explaining to her boyfriend and the audience why she's taking an extended trip into the European countryside: she's doing research on the infamous vampire, Countess Wandessa, whose grave is rumored to be around here, somewhere. There's some spectacular flashback footage of the satanic countess holding black masses, sacrificing virgins, and being beheaded, intercut with some even more spectacular French hipster-dancing. Soon enough Elvira is on her way, her incredibly hot friend Genevieve in tow.

They arrive at the rumored gravesite, which just happens to be near Castle Daninsky, where the newly resurrected Waldemar is brooding over his curse. Like Lawrence Talbot before him, all Waldemar wants is release from his curse, even if it's the sweet release of eternal slumber. However, his lycantrhopy makes him effectively immortal, as we've learned. Unable to face another night of slaughtering the innocent, the good-hearted Daninsky is seeking the legendary Silver Cross, a holy relic rumored to have the power to dispel the powers of darkness and break curses. And where is this holy dagger? Why, in the grave of the satanic Countess Wandessa, of course, nestled snugly between her rotting ribs. When Elvira and Genevieve arrive at the castle and learn that Waldemar is seeking the same thing they are (though he keeps his reasons from them), they decide to search together. What are the chances, huh?


The Werewolf


Of course they find the grave and remove the dagger from the corpse's chest. In the process Genevieve is wounded, and some of her blood drips onto the dessicated lips of the Countess. Cursed Fate! Before long the Countess stalks again, and has added Genevieve to her ever-growing army of Undead Hotness. Waldemar goes on some more wolfed-out rampages, much to the detriment of the local villagers, and the Countess also takes a bite out of the population. Meanwhile Elvira is falling hard for Daninsky, which is lucky in a way, since he can only be truly killed by a woman who loves him. But first he must defeat the evil he has unwittingly unleashed, leading to a battle of monsters alluded to so subtly in the film's title.

If you aren't grinning with giddy excitement at the prospect of this battle, you may as well get off the train NOW.

This was my first real exposure to the famous Daninsky Saga written by and starring Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy (nee Jacinto Molina, his nom de plume for writing credits), and for me it was nothing less than a revelation. It's such a throwback to the Universal horrors that I absolutely worship, monster mashes like House of Dracula and Frankentstein Meets the Wolf Man (the latter of which Naschy freely admits was an inspiration and model for his film career) that might have been light on the scares but were always heavy on the fun. In an age when others were making films about mad killers and cannibal clans and rape-revenge stories, Naschy was turning his immense energy, creativity, and childlike joy to the classic monsters of yesteryear and giving them new life. And doing it on a shoestring, often making movies with less money than a concurrent Hollywood production would spend on catering.

The Vampire Woman

There's something about the kitchen-sink nature of Naschy's scripts (A werewolf! AND a vampire! AND a mad scientist! AND zombies!) that always makes me grin like an idiot as well--he's like a kid in a candy store, trying to pick a treat and in the end taking all of them. It's campy stuff, but it's just so damn much fun. So the effects are not always the greatest, the acting not always top drawer, the dubbing not always spot-on--Naschy's movies always had more vitality, heart and joy in every frame than can fit on your screen. And that, to me, is magic.

Which is not to say that it's all so-bad-it's-good stuff. Director Leon Klimovsky manages some great stuff here, particularly the dreamlike slow-motion effects on the vampire women, which really makes them seem otherworldly and weird in the old sense. And Naschy has charisma to burn, striking just the right balance between the tragic human side and the bestial, vicious werewolf. (If you can watch him bounding through the crypts and breaking chains and tearing down doors and ripping strips of human jerky off his prey without giggling, again, just get off the train NOW.) And the story, while admittedly silly, is never boring.

(There's some great, trademark Naschy stuff in his performance in WWvVW that you'll see flashes of in his later movies if you catch the fever: his obvious excitement and enthusiasm when loping through the woods or crypts in wolf form; the werewolf's copious drool; the aforementioned human jerky; and his patented LEAP ATTACK! fighting method. But my favorite moment in this film is right before the showdown with Wandessa, when Waldermar comes in carrying the deadly Silver Cross, having dispatched the Countess's servants. With a hairy swagger he goes to the door and buries the blade in the entrance, effectively preventing Wandessa's escape, as much as to say, "Only one of us is walkin' out of here, bitch, and that person will be covered with hair." AWESOME.)


It's hard for me to write about this movie, because I love it so much and I want everyone else in the world to love it too. But I know this is not the case. In my experience, you either "get" Naschy or you don't--and I don't mean by that to imply that there's some big intellectual secret that smart people watching the movies "get" and dumb people don't, but rather that there's just a certain attitude toward the enjoyment of films like this that you either have or don't. If you don't have it, you will never enjoy a Naschy film. You will get caught up on the admittedly bad acting, the ridiculous plot lines, the low-budget effects and the crazy music, and just shake your head disgusted by the whole thing. This is just not the type of movie for you.

C'mon, what else do you NEED?

However, if you can enjoy the passion that is brought to bear on every Naschy flick, his obsession with the old school Universal monsters , the kitchen-sink nature of the scripts, the sometimes surprising prrversity (naked Eurobabes are a staple), and yes, the camp factor, then you simply cannot have a better time watching movies than with a Naschy production. You'll laugh at him, you'll cheer with him, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the periodic successful shots or interesting, unique plot developments. Even his re-use of the Waldemar Daninsky character and plot elements in different films* adds up over time to a sort of tapestry mythology that is unlike anything else in film. No, I'm serious. It is.

*In the more than a dozen movies Naschy made in the Daninsky saga, only a few have any continuity with each other. Certain elements--the Silver Cross, attacks by highwaymen, the doomed love affair--are used again and again, but with different settings and situations. As Naschy writes in his wonderful autobiography, Memoirs of a Wolfman, Daninsky is "free to move throughout time and space"; sometimes modern, sometimes medieval, and once even turning up in feudal Japan!

Anyway, like I say, if you're not on Naschy's wavelength, nothing I can say will make you enjoy The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Women. And I feel bad for you, I really do. Because if you are on that wavelength, there aren't enough thumbs to rate it. So let's just set this at a suitably excessive 3 dozen thumbs and call it a day. To find out whether you agree, just watch it. Now.

Note: a few years back Anchor Bay put out a spiffy release of this under its original English title, Werewolf Shadow. This is a good disc, but I prefer the WWvVW edit--better music, and the film benefits in some scenes, I think, by not having the greatest print. But hey, that's just me. See for yourself.

MORE MADNESS...

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Demon (1979): or, Halloween 3 on Earth-4


The Demon is one weird flick.

This is a movie that literally surprises you. I don't mean that things jump out at the screen and make you squeak, nor that you're sitting there at the end thinking "How surprising, that was actually pretty good" (though you might be doing that too). I mean that things happen in this movie that seemingly come out of nowhere and completely waylay you. Plot developments out of nowhere. Shocking entrances and exits of characters, completely against the cliches you've been conditioned to expect. And an ending, a last 20 minutes that had me--grizzled horror vet that I am--saying to myself "WOW. Just WOW."

Thank you once again, 50 Chilling Classics and Mill Creek Entertainment! I should really send you guys some more money. It feels like I'm stealing.

We start out with an over-sexed 14-year-old girl (!) talking with her mother about...something. Before you can get too far into the conversation, however, the mother is attacked by a Hulking Shape out of the darkness, her hands bound and a plastic bag tied around her neck. As she's left to suffocate (very disturbing visual here with the woman gasping, eyes wide with terror, breath pulling the plastic into her gaping mouth), the Hulking Shape moves upstairs and grabs and bags the girl as well. The husband arrives home to find his wife almost expired and pulls the bag off her in a nick of time, but it's too late for their daughter--she's gone, kidnapped by the Hulking Shape, spirited off into the pitch black night.

Scary, shocking, disturbing--a VERY promising start!

Searchers comb the woods near the house, looking for the girl. Later that night, a good Samaritan picks up a hitchhiker--a huge, muscular man whose face we never see, and who of course quickly proves himself to be the Hulking Shape. He dispatches the driver, showing immense strength by tossing the body over a fence like a rag doll, then drives away. Is he human? Something else? All options are open.

Then we're back at the house, where Mom and Dad, frustrated with the police force's efforts, have called in ex-military man and psychic bloodhound Cameron Mitchell. It must be said that the actors in the parental roles are so terrible they actually make Mitchell look good. Cam expositions overtime about his "gifts," then goes upstairs and does some very strange sniffing of the girl's bedclothes to get the "vibes, as the kids would call them." When the shocked parents find him sweating with his face buried in their daughter's ripped-up pillow, he says "This must look like witchcraft." No, Cam, it looks like pervy-ness! But he's got the scent, and we're ready to follow him as he tries to find the Hulking Shape and rescue the girl, right?

WRONG. In a sharp right turn we're introduced to a perky blonde American (Jennifer Holmes) and her not-quite-as-perky English cousin, who are teachers at a day care. (Did I mention we're in England? We are, even though the film posits an unrealistically high Yank-to-Limey ratio.) The perky blonde notices a Hulking Shape outside the daycare, and he seems to be watching her. But when she looks again, he's gone. She goes shopping for a dress in a sequence that goes a LONG WAY out of the way to show some female skin--not that I don't appreciate the extra effort, mind you--and again sees the Hulking Shape on the periphery, only to have him disappear. This is all starting to feel familiar... Meanwhile, Cam is getting weird POV flashes from the killer, watching him workout his huge muscles, intercut with scenes of a surging sea. What does it mean?

Somebody goes to Boobs Disco (yes, BOOBS DISCO), but nothing happens except some boogeying. The Hulking Shape stalks a woman down an alley and attacks, when suddenly the near-slashing turns into a motorbike showdown! Two bikes speed down the alley out-of-nowhere, and the Hulking Shape clotheslines them both, leading to a fiery bike asplosion! Action, drama, intrigue! Back at the missing girl's home, Cam shows some composite sketches of the killer, which look great except they have NO FACE. Cam intones ominously, "He's less...than a man...and MORE than a man. Much more." Again, something familiar, something that makes me think of the blackest eyes, the devil's eyes...

Then things slow waaaaaay down. Perky Blonde is stalked some more. Not-as-perky Cousin meets and dates American Playboy with a Southwest-themed penthouse. The girls talk almost entirely in innuendo. Sexy meditation happens for no reason. Girl's dad drives around...and around...thinking of revenge. More street fighting with Hulking Shape, to no purpose. Cheery English Neighbor tells Perky Blonde he'll be over with his .38 special if she needs him. Don't they have gun control in England? Dad drives around some more..and some more...and FINALLY finds the killer, whereafter we're put out of his acting misery in a very familiar way. A creepy discovery is made by some English kids. Cam tells widowed Mom that "The time of the Demon...our demon...is drawing close." Then something extraordinary happens. What's that I said about gun control?

The Demon had me, then lost me, then got me again BUT GOOD. Ten minutes of strong opening gives way to 50 more of excruciating padding, bad acting, and a meandering, frankly baffling plot line. But if you can just hang on though that dry season, the last 20 minutes brings the rain in a BIG way. To say more would be to cheat you. Avoid further summaries. Just see it.

Now, that Halloween thing. In many ways The Demon is a Halloween-clone. But unlike most of the other H-clones I've seen, Demon gets it RIGHT. The implacable, unstoppable, possibly-supernatural killer--he's the Boogeyman, The Shape before The Shape had a name. His strength, his reasonless stalking, his complete, inscrutable evil...it's creepy shit. And the final confrontation, while almost a copy of the same sequence in the original Halloween, gets the tone so right and the suspense so tense, it's hard to count its copying as a fault. Plus, it does some things different--some very good things. I don't want to rob you of the surprise, but trust me on this. If your tastes in movies are like mine, you will be amazed and appreciative.

I give The Demon 2.75 thumbs. It would be 3 or 3+ if not for the painful padding, but still it's a strange little movie that should be seen. Like Halloween made in a parallel universe, and I mean that in the best possible way. If you're one of those folks who just can't get into Halloween 3: Season of the Witch because there's no Michael Myers in it, let The Demon be your Halloween 3. It almost deserves that title. Watch it NOW.

MORE MADNESS...

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 resemblance...you 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.

"THIS CRYPT SHALL BE YOUR TOMB!"

That kills me.

MORE MADNESS...

Horror Hotel (1960): or, I know a Lot about Witchcraft, but I'm Foggy on the Details


Here at Mmmmmovies, we love the public domain. Any time we can pick up a handful of creaky old classics we've never heard of for less than a lunch off the Super Value Menu, the Duke and I are a couple of happy aristocrats. Because let's face it--if you pay $15+ for a special edition dvd of some obscuro horror flick and it turns out not to live up to your expectations, you feel not only cheated, but more than a little like a jackass for buying it. On the other hand, if you buy a 10 movie set for $5, or better yet, 50 Chilling Classics for $20 (deal of the century, folks! Get it NOW!) and they're not that great, you're out 40, 50 cents per movie, tops. But if three or four of them turn out to be keepers, well, you feel like some kind of movie shopping god! And believe me--though you do have to sit through a lot of crap in these compilations, there are plenty of great flicks hiding on them too. A truly amazing ratio, really.

So anyway, before I discovered the 50 Chilling Classics, the Duke and I had already raided the Halloween displays at Dollar Tree for their entire line of double feature horror discs. 50¢ a movie--how can you go wrong? Answer: you can't. Sure, I sat through Blood Thirst, but I also discovered the amazing Castle of Blood and got my first exposure to Naschy with Vengeance of the Zombies and Dr. Jekyll vs. the Werewolf. That's value that can't be measured, folks! Anyway, one of these Dollar Tree discs was a Christopher Lee double feature, and we love Chris, yes we do. So the top half of the Lee double feature was the 1960 B&W chiller, Horror Hotel. Was it worth the half-dollar? Read on.

Short answer: yes. Despite not achieving the lofty heights of the aforementioned wonders, Horror Hotel, aka City of the Dead, was a pretty cool, very atmospheric tale of witchcraft and mystery, with plenty to recommend it to the b-movie connoiseur and fans of the cinematically Satanic. Well worth the dollar I spent for the disc all on its own, it's a movie that, even though I won't be hunting down a better version for my permanent collection (a la Castle of Blood), I'm still glad I bought, because I wouldn't have seen it otherwise and for a fan of old horror flicks, it's definitely worth seeing.

The movie starts out with almost exactly the witch-burning scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except in Puritan New England (the township of Whitewood) rather than medieval England, and done seriously instead of for camp. Elizabeth Selwyn is being condemned for consorting with the devil, and her accomplice in the crowd, Jethrow Keane, can do nothing to help her without facing the Big Barbecue himself. It's actually a very well-filmed scene, with the condemned woman in heart-rending terror (you don't know yet whether she's guilty or not) as the townspeople taunt her with animalistic glee, their angry faces looming gargoyle-like out of the thick fog that blankets the streets of Whitewood (more on this later). The b&w cinematography is great, and when Elizabeth is on the stake and Jethrow says a prayer to Lord Luc1fer to aid her, there's a nice creepy moment before the expected "I curse you and all your descendants!" trope. Nothing groundbreaking, even in 1960, but still effective and tone-setting. I was very much drawn in.

Flash forward to the present day (i.e., 1960) where a very young and handsome Christopher Lee is relating the tale of Elizabeth Selwyn's immolation to a group of students in his college office. He's giving an informal lecture series on the history of witchcraft in New England, and one of the students, Nan Barlow (a wolf-whistle-worthy blonde in the classic Hitchcock mode), is obviously more into the subject than the others. I have to say right off the bat that Lee is just arrestingly intense in this role, doing an understated American accent pretty much perfectly. It's clear from the first moment that his sympathies lie with Selwyn and his antipathies toward the religious fools who burned her, but that's okay, this is a horror movie, not a whodunit. Nan's boyfriend, Tom, makes light of the story, and is treated to a patented Lee glare that I'm surprised didn't singe his eyebrows off. Nan, however, stays after class to discuss her term paper with Professor Lee, who helpfully tells her of a little town off the beaten path where she can probably find some great historical documents--yes, Whitewood. He recommends the Raven's Inn, where if she mentions his name to the proprietress, Ms. Newless, she'll be sure to get good treatment.

After this Nan's brother Richard (always referred to as "Dick"), a professor of science at the same college, comes in and pretty much belittles Lee with his skepticism. Bad idea, of course, but they never learn, the fools. Anyway, Nan is a headstrong, independent young woman, and over her brother and Tom's objections she decides to go to Whitewood to do her research.

The trip to Whitewood is a real tour-de-force, as Nan, in her motor-car listening to the jazz on her wireless, is enveloped by the thickest, soupiest fog I have ever seen on screen. Really, it's dangerous to be out driving in, so she's lucky it's only poor-man's process. We get a wonderful gas-station attendant who gives her directions, and then an even more wonderful shot of her arriving at the crossroads to find a mysterious stranger waiting there, needing a ride to Whitewood. why, he looks just like Jethrow Keane! And his archaic manner of speaking is most strange...

Well, I think I'll stop with the blow-by-blow synopsis there and leave the rest to your discovery. Suffice to say they don't take kindly to strangers in Whitewood, and Professor Lee had his own reasons for sending his nubile young student there. More highlights include a great "Crazy Ralph" character in Whitewood's blind old priest, with a wonderful "This town is evil!" monologue before disappearing into the shadows of the church; a very surprising choice of underwear by our plucky young heroine; a Hitchcockian shift in focus that I admit caught me by surprise; and one of the wilder climactic battles I can remember seeing in a movie of this type and vintage, wherein a mortally wounded character (complete with knife sticking out of his back) uses a 6-foot cross as a sort of holy bazooka on the coven of witches, causing their robes to burst into flame! Crazy stuff, and actually pretty exciting. And the last shot before the credits recalls Hitchcock once again, so that even though this movie came out the same year as Psycho (only 2 months later) it seems incredible to think that it wasn't referencing that film specifically (though without the cross dressing angle...you'll see what I mean).

Apart from Lee and Selwyn and the surprisingly strong and independent Nan, the acting here is really hit and miss. Dick is obviously a stage actor with little screen know-how, as he over-plays every emotion and always booms from the diaphragm. Both he and Tom seem to be having trouble holding onto their American accents, as well. That's okay, though, b/c the real stars of the movie are the town of Whitewood itself and that incredible fog. I am not exaggerating in the least when I tell you that Horror Hotel is far and away THE FOGGIEST MOVIE I'VE EVER SEEN. Period. It's foggier than The Wolf Man, which was damn foggy. It's foggier than any of the Universal classics. Hell, it's foggier than THE FOG. And what a fog it is! The dry-ice budget for this film must have been completely off the charts. But it works--Whitewood is dreamy, surreal, a place out of time, and the journey there is a journey to the dark and sinister past. Again the cinematography is great, very atmospheric and creepy at times. And Lee, while not the "star" of the picture, really steals the show.

So 2 thumbs easily for Horror Hotel. Not anything earth-shattering, but very well made and entertaining, and worth seeing at least once. Bonus points for a scene with Christopher Lee in a Doctor Strange cape sacrificing a bird to Satan, then having to clean it up quickly before his students come in. Check it out.

MORE MADNESS...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Scream Bloody Murder (1973), Or You Got A Hook In My Throat, Baby!


Scream Bloody Murder tells us the story of the hapless Matthew, whom we first see out in the fields with his pa, who is trying to get a tractor running. Matthew, being the inquisitive sort, and harboring an obvious bias against authority figures, hops on the idling tractor and proceeds to run over his father, who screams at the slow plodding tractor, at the blinding speed of 2mph. Realizing his crime, young Matthew makes a break for it by jumping off the still-moving tractor only to somehow land and fall, allowing his hand to be crushed by said machinery. Matthew is quickly thrust into the care of some helpful nuns, who promise to raise Matthew in the grace of the Lord.

Fast forward to the next scene and Matthew is all grown, looks to be about 17 or so I’d say, and is sporting a nice, clasp-like hook that so many amputees affect. Matthew has received correspondence from his mother in which she informs him of her helpful man-friend, without whom she just wouldn’t have been able to make it all these years. This drives Matthew into a blinding rage and brings forth the single longest paper crumple shot in the history of cinema. If the overdrawn, methodical way Matt crumples his mother’s letter is any indication of how he’ll be as a homicidal maniac, we are in for a treat my friends!

After the 5 minute paper crumple we are off with Matthew as he returns home, sack of clothes in hand, all eager to see his mother, who unfortunately isn’t home upon his return. Pretty soon a car drives up and out hops his mother… with her new groom! Seems she went off and got herself married, much to Matt’s chagrin. He lets each of them know his displeasure with a tantrum that would make an infant proud. Next we have Matt’s mother and her new beau taking a nighttime stroll through the woods where we get a mild crotch-rub but not much else (thankfully!). Begging off so as to “check on the cows”, the new man leaves his bride only to be stalked by Matthew.

Whimpering like a 5 year old girl, Matt’s step dad repeatedly entreats his pursuer to show themselves, which Matthew finally does… by swinging an axe into his step father’s chest! After hacking him up good, Matthew is quietly contemplating what to do with the body when his mother walks up. Despite her horror he repeatedly assures her that this is for the best before finally slaying his own mother as well, the murder being done by forcibly throwing her down so as to crush her head on a rock.

This begins Matthew’s life on the run, mainly on the run from the ghostly visages of his mother and step father, presented to the viewer as blurry, haunting images in which his mother and others repeatedly taunt him. During his travels he slays a newlywed couple by first smashing the groom’s head in with a large rock and then drowning the bride, and he also befriends a prostitute. This friendship proves pivotal in Matthew’s life as he quickly becomes obsessed with her, but not in a sexual way. In fact, he murders the next person to sleep with her by slicing their face and throat up with an artist’s spade-like instrument. Did I mention the whore paints? Yeah. Ok.

Anyhoo, as anyone knows, to impress a wh0re you need a fancy mansion and vintage car, so Matthew takes off and finds a suitable house. Feigning the need to use the phone, he uses a cleaver on the black housekeeper after gaining entry and then proceeds upstairs, where he finds the old lady of the mansion. The next scene has to be seen to be believed: The old lady rushes at him and attacks poor Matthew while dual-wielding canes! Seriously, this old lady looks like a martial arts master whipping these two canes around, but alas she gets snuffed with the ol’ pillow-over-the-face trick. Great stuff! The old lady's dog is sitting nearby, quietly watching all of this. Matt turns to it and says “Come on, boy. You’re next” and picks the dog up, takes it downstairs to the kitchen, lays it on the table, and uses the cleaver to chop its head off! Thankfully we are spared the sight of this.

Driving his newly acquired vintage auto, Matt picks up his woman and brings her back. Unfortunately for her, Matthew’s plan involves tying her up and forcing her to live with him, to paint for him and generally be his companion. She finally gets a bold idea and asks him to untie her so she can disrobe and bathe, all the while Matthew is trying not to look. Unfortunately for the viewer, we get zero nudity here, and it is a shame because the hooker is a redhead with a nice rack. Matthew also tries to impress his new woman by getting her stuff, which brings about the most laughable scene in the movie as we get one quick cut after another of Matthew ripping off various stores and performing purse snatchings.

Anyhoo, this allows the redhead to attempt escape after being untied for her bath. She first heads to the kitchen where she attempts dialing a rotary phone… with her tongue! This failed attempt brings about the single most mind-blowing scene yet after Matt catches her: The whore hits Matt in the back of the head, knocking him loopy, as they are sitting on a bed in an upstairs bedroom. She then rushes out of the bedroom, down a small hallway, down a long flight of stairs, across a spacious foyer and then opens the front door…. Where Matthew is standing easy as you please waiting for her on the other side, whereupon he rips her throat out with his hook hand. WTF?! Wasn’t he JUST upstairs? Yes, he was. The only explanation I can come up with is that he’s capable of teleportation.

Distraught over his final act, Matthew runs away, steals a car, and makes his way to a church. Haunted by ghastly visions, he seeks refuge, only to be confronted by the most shrill organ music known to man, as well as the ghosts that were haunting him. There’s a long shot of the ghosts, clad all in black, surrounding Matthew, in perfect focus this time, and it’s simply awesome; really, the only part in the whole movie that made me shiver a bit. Matthew then commits ritualistic seppuku by ripping himself from groin to sternum, diagonally, with his own hook hand.

In the end I give SCB 1.5 thumbs up. It wasn’t the best movie by any means, but honestly I was never bored. Once the first murder happens, the others come in quick succession. I look forward to you giving it a go.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Haunts (1977): or, Swede Child of Mine


Brian over at Horror-Movie-a-Day (if you haven't visited his blog, get clickin'!) wrote something I thought was very perceptive about why some movies, even when you can't in any way define them as "good," still get inside your brain and under your skin with their weirdness. For me he struck perceptive gold when he wrote of the 1973 oddity Scream Bloody Murder (the Duke's review of which to follow soon, I hope!):

"...the true highlight of the film is the strangely angry tone in much of the dialogue. Lines ...are delivered with such intense hatred, one has to wonder what the hell the writer’s problem is."
When you've watched as many obscure movies as I have, you start to pick up on these little strangenesses of tone, the things that pervade a movie and make you wonder, as Brian said, just what the hell the writer or director's problem is. Often the psychological mysteries presented by these observations add another level to the film you're watching, and elevate what some would see as a sub-par genre exploitationer as something else entirely--a psychological portrait of a possibly fringe personality, an expression of the filmmakers' unique philosophical psychoses. Which of course makes it all the more interesting to a b-movie nut like me.

So while 1977's Haunts might not be quite the desperate, despairing cry for understanding that something like SBM or Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer so plainly are, it's still got that little something going on under the surface that is just a bit, well, off--

Luckily, it also happens to be a pretty good movie.

We start off with a family sitting around the table, having a good old-fashioned family dinner. It's typical East cost-to-Midwest Americana circa 1977--the sideburned, frizz-haired dad with tinted spectacles and a plaid shirt; the similarly bespectacled and stringy-haired mother; the kids in softball shirts with 3/4-length sleeves; the youngest kid with his name, EDDIE, printed across his chest in 3-inch, iron-on, doubtless velour-textured letters. Enjoy this scene, because it's the last time we'll see a group comprised of happy, well-adjusted people in THIS movie.

Meanwhile, outside, a ski-masked killer stalks. The straight-haired dowdy daughter is sent to the outbuilding to get something or other, and from the killer's POV we watch her go. (Am I wrong to think this is a conscious emulation of Tourneur's famous girl-goes-to-the-store sequence from The Leopard Man? Probably.) The masked one attacks, but luckily is driven away before the girl can come to too much harm. The credits finish up. Family harmony established and then disrupted: hey ho, we're ready to go!

Next we meet Aldo Ray as the sheriff trying to deal with the sudden rash of sex killings in his small town, assisted by the town doctor, a man with some of the most amazing eyebrows I've seen this side of Ox Baker. Stress of the job has apparently driven Aldo to alcoholism, or maybe he's was that way before. A few weird exchanges with Dr. Eyebrows and I was starting to feel that weird, something's-not-right-here tingle.

In the next scene, FINALLY, we meet our protagonist Ingrid, played by May Britt. Ingrid is a tall blonde Swede in early middle-age but bears the signs of having been a real Nordic beauty in her youth, and in fact still looks great (or did, in 1977). She lives alone on her parents' farm--they died when she was young, and she inherited the place after she came of age. Her first scene is a doozy, as milking a goat apparently makes her feel both nostalgic and sexy--we get strange imagistic flashbacks mixed in with some of the most suggestive creamery ever committed to film. Again, something's off here, but we won't know quite what for a while.

We follow Ingrid around town, shopping, hearing rumors of the attempted rape/murder in the credit sequence, and meeting some of the eccentric people who populate the town. First there's Ingrid's Uncle Carl (a restrained performance by Cameron Mitchell), who doesn't like fraternizing with the townsfolk and is strangely secretive. There's also the creepy butcher/Lothario who apparently stole a young Harrison Ford's DNA, the chunky-but-vivacious town tramp, and the couldn't-possibly-look-MORE-suspicious out-of-towner who just joined the church choir where Ingrid is the star singer. In fact the town is full of piggish men to suspect of the killings, so the who-dunnit lover in me perked up his ears and started taking notes, eager to figure it all out.

We don't have to wait long for action, as on the way home from choir practice Ingrid is attacked and nearly raped by the ski-masked stalker. When she fights back and escapes back to her farm house, she tearfully tells Uncle Karl what happened. His response? "It must be your imagination--probably a rabbit or a deer." Again, her clothes are torn, she's visibly upset, and her only blood relative tells her it must have been a bunny that startled her. Something is off here, and it serves to disorient and disquiet the viewer.

And things just get weirder from there. We learn almost as an aside in a police interview that Ingrid is a total religious nut; again, something's weird about that. Later, when she's raped by the butcher/Lothario guy, once again no one believes her. Why? Even the priest, her comforter, responds to her confession about being attacked by threatening her with hell. And what do these weird, disturbing flashbacks she keeps having mean? All becomes more or less clear by the end, but along the way I never felt truly comfortable or aware. Which actually is the film's big strength.

So that's a plot summary, and it's not bad--but there's a lot more to this movie bubbling just under the surface. Completely apart from the main plot, there are some really weird things going on in this town. For instance, when Ingrid calls the sheriff to report her first attack, we cut to the sheriff's house where his wife has answered the phone. She nods and carries the phone into the bathroom, where Aldo Ray is on his knees by the toilet PUKING DRUNK! To coin a phrase, WTF? Though he takes a few nips through the rest of the film, nothing is ever made of his obviously rampant alcoholism. So why's it included? Was the writer's dad/director's mom a drunk, and he had to get it out there? Was there some other reason for it I missed? That's one of those mysteries I was talking about.

Furthermore, relationships between the sexes in this movie are uniformly, inexplicably, and completely and totally NOT GOOD. The butcher/Lothario who rapes Ingrid and may or may not be the killer also has a jailbait girlfriend he smacks around, calls a bitch, and dumps on the side of the road. When creepy choir guy tries to make time with the town tramp in the local watering hole, it ends in a venom-filled screaming match. And when Ingrid meets up with the Lothario's girlfriend later, she also gets an earful from the little girl, a hate-filled warning to stay away from her man. The sexual antipathy in this goes beyond the plot reasons for it revealed in the startling final scenes; there's some other thing going on here.

Oh, btw, the butcher/rapist's girlfriend? She's the sheriff's daughter. In another not-central-plot-related scene, Aldo finds out (from the priest!) that his daughter is pregnant with butcher-boy's seed, and he storms to the boy's apartment, busts in, and handcuffs him to the bed. Then he turns to his daughter, screams "You dirty little BITCH!" and smacks her! Again, WTF? Where does this come from? Why is it necessary?

Haunts is a movie that I find...well, haunting. The film itself is very artfully done--a great creepy soundtrack, some nice visuals and cinematography (particularly in the flashbacks and a few red/white color motifs), and a genuinely twisted twist ending (you'll THINK you know what the twist is...). But as much as I enjoy it on those levels--and I do--it's that seedy underbelly of the film that keeps me thinking about it.

Anyway, I give it 2.5 thumbs, because I really think it should be seen by more people. And since you can get it on the mad movie deal of the year, the 50 Chilling Classics pack which also includes Scream Bloody Murder, Driller Killer, and many of the other movies I've reviewed or will be reviewing here (check the post labels!), there's really no excuse. Buy it now, thank me later.

And if you figure out what the Haunts peoples' deal is...let me know.

MORE MADNESS...

Vampyres: or, Is That a Stake in Your Pocket? No, Seriously, Is It?


In recent years--decades even, starting perhaps in the mid 80s--the vampire movie has fallen upon hard times. We've been deluged with so many pale, emaciated, Cure/Bauhaus-inspired effeminite depression clinic-reject club-hopping vampires in frilly costumes, or else with so many Blade-wannabe leather-clad gangstas-cum-fangstas in flicks that were less about vampires than about car chases, 'splosions, and kung-fu-fighting, it's been hard to maintain one's faith in the ability of the vampire to inspire anything more than antipathy, mild amusement, or outright boredom. Certainly it's been a while since I've seen a vampire flick that I thought was artfully made and engaging, and longer still since I can actually say I found one frightening.

However, I needed only stretch my purview back a little farther, to the early-to-mid 70s, to find what I'd been missing for so long--artfully made cinema, with an engaging plot and vampires who are intriguing, alluring, exciting, and dare I say it, even frightening.

The film: José Ramón Larraz's 1974 masterpiece--yes, I said MASTERPIECE--Vampyres.

Here's a flick that does just about everything right. The cinematography? Lush and exquisite. The settings? Evocative and beautiful. The story? A fantastic modernization without losing the gothic roots and mysterious underpinnings of the myth. The mortal cast? Believeable and engaging. The vampyres themselves? Oh, my.

Here's a movie that starts off with a bang, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, as we find ourselves in an ornate, gothic bedroom, standing over a dark wood four-poster draped with velvety fabrics, upon which lie two of the more gorgeous euro-babes you could hope to see, the voluptuous Marianne Morris and the alabaster beauty Anulka, nekkid as the day they was birthed and all over one another. It's a sumptuous scene in every respect, and immediately makes you want to stake somebody, if you know what I mean, as within seconds we have our first lesbonic nip-lick. Then just as you've settled into the gorgeousity of this dream-come-true, you get the literal bang--a mysterious, shadowy figure in what looks to be a puritan cap (Symbolism!) creeps in and shoots the poor lovers dead. A cloud of bats obfuscates the screen and continue to flutter back and forth in darkness as the credits roll.

Señor Larraz, YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION.

In short order after this we are taken from the strangely timeless bedroom scene to a definitively modern-day Europe (well, modern-day in 1974) where we meet a mysterious man checking into a local hotel. Not long after this we meet a young couple traveling in their caravan, looking for a remote spot to camp so she can paint and he can sit around looking attractively androgynous and perhaps doing a little fishing. They are a winning and engaging couple, and as they drive down country roads they pass a couple of strange women hitchhiking in flowing gothic dress--or rather one, a brunette, hitchhiking, while another, a blonde, hides a little way off the road in the forest. The sight is strange and dreamlike, and although they don't stop, the girl of the couple can't help thinking about these ladies as they continue down the road. Soon we see a man stop to pick up the hitchhiking woman, a woman who looks suspiciously like one of the murdered lovers from the first scene. But then it's back to the camping couple, who find a spot in a forested area near an "abandoned" gothic manor and set up camp for a few days of fun and frolic.

That night though, haunted by dreams of the strange women, the girl wakes up to the sound of a scream coming from the abandoned manor and sees a hand on her window. Though androgynous hearthrob investigates, he finds nothing.

The next day the hitchhiking ladies are at it again, and this time the brunette is picked up by our mysterious stranger from the inn. We get to follow him as he follows her into the abandoned manor, through decrepit hallways and finally to a modernly furnished love nest in the middle of the house. After a few bottles of wine and some energetic sex our hero wakes up to find himself groggy, anemic, and bleeding from a deep cut in the crook of his elbow. Blood is on the sheets, but his partner is nowhere to be found in the bright light of day. He finds the campers nearby, gets some bandages from them, but as if under a spell returns to the house to wait for his mistress to return.

"You got a little something on your lip there...wait, I'll get it."

From there on out the movie is concerned with the interlocking stories of the mysterious man enslaved by his vampyre mistresses and kept alive as a sex- and blood-slave, while the camping couple begins to think that maybe something strange IS going on over in that house. There are a few more unfortunate hitchhikers, a strange confrontation between the painter and the vampyres, and a climax that left me feeling satisfied but more than a little unsettled.

But the plot is less the point here than the atmosphere and the suspense, which are both ratcheted up to eleven by the director and the actors. Morris as the imperious brunette (obviously the leader) is haughty, cold, and enticing with her distant iciness. Even the way she carries herself as she leads the mysterious stranger into her house tells you a great deal about her character, as she's rigid and no-nonsense, very imperious. Anulka is more withdrawn and submissive, but impossibly beautiful and alluring, with a younger girlish quality to counterpoint Marianne Morris's older-woman-of-experience vibe. She also seems more animalistic and out of control, as when in a shocking scene she comes to Marianne for help and pulls her into the bedroom where they find Anulka's victim (another kindly driver) naked, covered in blood (really a shocking amount of gore) and convulsing on the bed. When the vampyres fall upon him and tear at his bloody flesh like animals, it's disturbing, really frightening, and strangely arousing all at once.

The human characters are great too--the mystery man is not attractive at all, but believably pudgy and ordinary-looking, helplessly enslaved by the powerful vampyres who lust for both his body and his blood. The couple in the camper are great counterpoints of innocence to the vamps' and mystery man's experience. And when the girl discovers the vamps leaving their tomb in the dusk, there is a strange suggestion that she was fated to come here, as Marianne Morris tells her, "I always knew you'd come." Like many mysteries in this movie, however, that one also doesn't play out quite the way you'd expect, and the result is a real shock to even the jaded viewer.

In case you can't tell, I love this movie. It avoids so many pitfalls that later vamp movies leap into willingly. There is never any long exposition of the vampyres' origin and what their FEEEEEEEEEEEELINGS are about being so immortal and beautiful; mostly, it's just the day-to-day trials and tribulations, complications, desires and frustrations of living as a creature who must hunt human blood to survive. Their routine of hitchhiking, seduction, feeding is rather mundane but also unsettling in ways that flicks like Bloodrayne or Underworld never even hint at--they don't even have the intellect necessary to envision it. So no over-explanation. Also, no silly Van-Helsing character pops up to explain it all and rally the troops for a fight to the finish with the undead. No, we have thoroughly modern characters dealing with ageless supernatural forces, and as such the mortals are at a terrible and ultimately tragic disadvantage.

There are some great touches here that just had me in love with this flick all the way through, little things that together make the whole movie. Such as the trance-state the vamps go into after feeding, during which time they are vulnerable and must count on each other to protect themselves. Or the use of blades and glass rather than fangs; or a scene where the mystery man finds a covered mirror--a throwaway scene, but so full of portent. And the ending, which as I say I was surprised by.

But the thing this movie does best--better perhaps than any other vamp movie I've seen--is the eroticism. These vamps are SMOKIN HAWT, and their scenes with one another, either on their own or when they're feeding--oh, man. You get a real sense of their hunger not only for blood, but for flesh, for contact, for life--and not altogether in an exploitative way. I mean, it IS that, but it is also important to the overall vibe of the movie, the themes of loneliness and dependence and even love in impossible situations, filtered through vampirism and bloodlust.

There were a couple of things I could criticize--the post-script ending was a little quick and pat for my taste (how'd the realtor get word so quick? was it a dream?), and many times the vamps seem to be out in broad daylight, although I figured out from inference later that they were only supposed to be in the twilight and dusk (Marianne saying "I saw it was getting late," or Anulka admonishing, "It's nearly dawn! We must go!"), so that's a little confusing. But overall those minor nitpicks do nothing to lessen the impact of this, now one of the Vicar's favorite vampire films.

I went and grabbed the Duke so I could give this movie a full 6 thumbs, double-plus-plus good. Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended.

You know you want it.

MORE MADNESS...

Dungeon of Harrow (1962): or, Harrow How You Doin'?


DoH features the tannest villain in the annuals of villainy. This guy looks like George Hamilton crossed with the dude that played J. Peterman on Seinfeld. He tends to dress like Hugh Hefner and speak in either quiet soliloquies or piercing shrieks. I speak, of course, of Count DeSade, the monarchial tyrant who rules a few people on a remote island. By “a few people” I mean a giant black dude who affects a turbaned, Sultan-esque look that serves as a general lackey, a hawt young chick that fails to get into any state of undress, and an older lady who tries her best to act like a piece of wood while on screen.

I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Let’s start at the beginning, which is a ship voyage in which our protag Fallon is heading somewhere, we aren’t sure where, it doesn’t matter cause he doesn’t get there. During a killer storm in which the ship’s occupants are tossed like so much detritus, and featuring some of the happiest ship-in-a-storm music ever put to film, the good Fallon gets tossed unceremoniously overboard. Washing up on a beach, and pulled from the surf by the Captain of said vessel, we are given a glimpse of the awesome unintentional humor that this movie is soaked in as we see that Fallon’s pants are dry as a bone, except for the arse. How did this happen to someone being pulled from the ocean? Maybe it’s the magic of the island!

The island, which looks suspiciously like the woods behind a Hollywood soundstage, is inhabited by the nefarious Count DeSade. Little do the Captain and Fallon know what they are in for! They are awoken from sleep by the sound of a pack of ravenous dogs tearing into an unlucky woman. Investigating the next day, they find her mutilated corpse and decide to find out what exactly is going on around here.

It is here that we are treated to our DeSade introduction, and what an introduction it is! DeSade, looking mighty tan and sweaty, is berating his lackey. This quickly devolves into DeSade having a raving breakdown, as he is prone to do, which causes him to start hearing voices. At first I thought this must be Satan talking, but no, instead it is DeSade’s own inner monologue, manifesting itself as a fat man that resembles the ghost of Col. Sanders. This split personality torments poor DeSade, inflicting upon him a rubber cobra, a rubber bat which DeSade grapples with, and finally a gigantic, terrifying rubber spider which has clearly visible wires running from it. This scene is awesome, and really gives us a good indication of the Count’s mental state.

Fallon and the Capt. get shanghaied by the lackey while crossing a field. Fallon employs the most faggy gay homosexual fighting style known to mankind, and ends up going down like a date on prom night to the lackey, who basically shakes him into passing out. Great stuff. Fallon wakes up in the Count’s mansion and we are introduced to the older lady. The rapport between her and Fallon basically sounds like two barristers arguing the legality of obscure Tort laws designed to impugn the general populace of Dunny on the Wode. Seriously, it’s like they are quoting some High Chant dictionary written by druids. The general gist is that Fallon is invited to dine with the Count, which he accepts.

Upon entering the dining room and seating himself, he graciously thanks his host, which causes the Count to fly into an instant, quivering rage. Standing suddenly, he slams his fists down upon the table, shaking and tan, he glares murder at Fallon. The wooden lady goes, “The Count does not tolerate conversation during repast.” Fallon turns to her and goes, “You can tell the Count that he can very well go to Hell!” This ranks right up there with Naschy’s immortal line about bitches in chains. I cheered and applauded at this line, it was just so over the top perfect. Fallon occasionally narrates the movie, and he does so during the quiet dinner, and here we have our 2nd awesome line, “I studied the Count. His eyes bore that glint of paranoid inbreeding.” Indeed!

I’ll stop with the play-by-play now, for I wouldn’t want to give away the secret of the island. Such things you’ll see and discover! The Rack, Chinese Water Torture, windy hallways that nearly blow people down with their force, fog machines that engulf people in sudden blasts of cloudy mist, ever-present handy weapons available on the walls, crazed lepers, the list goes on….

I would give DoH 2 solid thumbs. The transfer is horrid, the audio barely audible, but oh is the dialogue and acting so very much worth it! Tan dictators, wooden mistresses, queer fighting styles, young hawt women being flogged, this movie has it all. No nudity, though, but there are a few spots that I think had them that had obvious cuts. I would jump at the chance to buy an unedited version of this movie that had a better transfer. Highly recommended!

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Blancheville Monster (1963), or Horror, or The Fall of the House of Blancheville, or a Po’ Man’s Poe


It’s nothing unusual to see a b-movie from the past released under different titles. I remembering once renting a movie called The Seven Doors of Death! based on the interesting name, only to discover once I got it home that it was Fulci’s The Beyond, which I’d already seen under that title. Par for the course, really, especially with Italian flicks.

But seldom do you see on that presents you with ALL its titles in the opening credits! Yes, this movie opens with the title card HORROR, and then follows it up seconds later with the alternate title, THE BLANCHEVILLE MONSTER! Why not just The Blancheville Monster? Or The Blancheville Horror? Or even Horror of the Blancheville Monster? I guess because that just didn't sufficiently capture the horror nor the monstrosity of what we are about to witness. Or maybe they just didn't think of it. Still, questions must be asked.

What we have here is a cut-rate rendition of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as young Miss Blancheville returns home from university to find her father dead, her brother Roderick in charge of the estate, and a whole new batch of servants. We hit the buried-alive plot point late in the movie, and the brother-going-mad thing, but not before we’re treated to a fun little melodrama involving hypnosis, a family curse very reminiscent of the Karnstein curse in Crypt of Horror, and a disfigured figure who may or may not be the Blanchevilles’ father. Add one of the slimier period-piece doctors ever to wear a Van Dyke and a Barbara Steele-wannabe governess, and you’re in business!

Fun aspects here include: Roderick’s great harpsichord playing; some fantastic sets including the old manor house and the ruined abbey nearby; a great spookshow sequence with Lady Blancheville’s friend wandering through the darkened manor and finding her way to the tower with some genuinely creepy moments; and the Scooby-doo mystery of the scar-faced man, which wasn’t too hard to figure out but still fun. (Though one had to wonder why the killer didn’t just, you know, KILL THE GIRL instead of going to so much trouble with his disguises and whatnot.) And for the b-movie perv in all of us, some extended moonlight sleepwalks by Lady Blancheville with the backlit-gossamer gown shot in full effect. Rowr!

Can you ever get enough of backlit gossamer gown shots? I think not.

The melodrama is thick, and the intrusive score does a lot of the acting for the players (ominous orchestral stings signal someone’s mental unease, etc.), but that just adds to the fun. 1.85 thumbs, if you’re in the mood for a creaky old chiller with a little cold still running through its veins.

Extra credit question: where did the killer get a latex burn mask in 1884?

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The Legend of Bigfoot (1976): or, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yeti!

Ivan Marx is a man on a mission. After scoffing for years at tales of the great musk ape roaming the American wilderness, he has a St. Paul-ine conversion when he comes face to face with the Sasquatch himself. To (mis)quote another group of famous primates:

Since he saw that ape
Now he’s a believer!
There’s not a trace
of doubt in his mind!

and he wants to let the world know that Bigfoot is real. Using family, friends, and an extensive stock footage library, Ivan sets out to bring back undeniable proof of Bigfoot’s existence.

The footage he brings back of cavorting Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) is shocking, to say the least, but probably not in the way Mr. Marx intended, as you can almost see the seams at the bottom of the shuffling Sasquatch’s fur pants. Still, despite the amateurish “authentic” footage, there’s nothing to indicate that Ivan did not intend everyone to take him seriously. He rants venomously and entertainingly against the “EXPERTS!” who call his footage fake and Bigfoot a hoax.

More entertaining is the fact that within 30 mins it becomes obvious Marx is not concerned with proving the Legend of Bigfoot, but rather with creating the Legend of Ivan Marx. Along the way we get the hilarious Bigfoot/Curly shuffle, some intriguing stories about the Sasquatch’s ability to channel dead Eskimo ancestors and make the skies run red with blood (?!), thrilling re-creations of Marx’s own Bigfoot sightings, and the “shining eyes of the beast” footage that is obviously someone in the field with some headlights on a battery. Through it all, though, Ivan keeps up his best Marlon Perkins impression, and treats us to some genuinely stunning nature footage, whether his own or stock footage hardly matters. Gorgeous shots of glaciers, rivers, mountains, and swamps, not to mention majestic moose footage, make it worth watching for the slightly-skewed nature enthusiast, as Marx’s narration will not fail to bring a smile. (The love-story narration of a ground squirrel’s plight brought tears to my eyes with its pathos and skillfull editing.)

Marx's theories about Bigfoot’s migration patterns and possible origins is kooky, but all in all I found myself entertained and give it a 1.75. Your smileage may vary.

Bonus: mountain goats committing ritual suicide!

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The Devil’s Hand: or To Make Your Fortune, You Have to Take a Gamba


Dateline, 1962: a low-rent Cary Grant quits his job due to his chronic insomnia, leading to tension between him and his strangely-accented fiancee Donna. He's troubled by night visions of a woman in a sheer gown dancing in the clouds, as if transposed there by double exposure! He soon learns the dancing woman whose visage haunts his dreams is actually resides in his neighborhood, albeit in Barbie-doll form. Entering the doll shop to inquire about the uncanny likeness, Cary is drawn into an exclusive, white-collar club that meets in the doll shop’s basement, whose stodgy white members have gained material wealth by committing their souls to the worship of the Great Devil-God Gamba!

Oh, and the doll lady is real and puts out a lot more quickly than the fiancee, so soon enough Cary is a devil-worshiping fool. Natch.*

Though there’s no explanation as to how all these crackers got into voodoo, the doll-shop basement is festooned with Hindu god statues, a Crowleyan altar, and a Congo-playing black drummer and two black dancers. The dancers are the only black couple presented as members of the group, and their purpose seems to be to get up and do jungle dances for all the white folk. In 1962, I can’t help thinking this was a big deal, and the undercurrent of Anglo-centrism is unmistakable, but so quaint-seeming and silly now that it’s hard to get offended at. Plus, I imagine they and the drummer are the only people in the room who probably realize that this is totally not how voodoo works.

After Cary meets the girl of his dreams, she puts a voodoo-doll curse on Donna and moves in to take the sick girl’s man. Cary promises his soul to the Great Devil-God Gamba! for riches and possession of the blonde dancing witchy woman, with predictable Faustian results. Most fun here is the aforementioned silliness in the Gambese religion, the innuendo that flies fast and furious between Cary and the witchy girl (until it becomes out-and-out-uendo), and the doll shop owner Mr. LaMont (dummy!) who is actually pretty creepy as the Great Devil-God Gamba!’s high priest, recalling Boris Karloff in The Black Cat. And the respectable-people-in-a-devil-cult theme here prefigures Rosemary’s Baby by more than ten years, so that’s cool too. 1.5 out of 3 thumbs, a solid C--good enough to graduate and stay on the football team!

*So think about it ladies, what's more important--respecting yourself in the morning, or keeping your man out of a devil-god-worshiping cult? I think you know the answer.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Memorial Valley Massacre: or, Captain Caveman Goes Nutzoid


I guess by 1988, most of the holiday horror films had already been made. Halloween, Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool's Day, Bloody New Year, Mother's Day...directors were rapidly running out of holidays during which to set their fear flicks. And though it would be a good five years before the trend (and little person celebrity Warwick Davis) would reach its nadir by settling on everyone's favorite Irish/American parade day, for director/writer John C. Hughes, pickings must have looked pretty slim. I can imagine the titles scribbled on wadded pieces of paper in his wastebasket: The Columbus Day Slayings? Violence on Veteran's Day? Washington's Bloody Birthday? Nothing quite clicked. Still, Hughes was determined to deliver a holiday-themed slasher, and it was only a matter of time before all the tumblers clicked into place and unlocked the door to filmic history--before Hughes' sleep-bleary eyes settled on the last Monday of May...

MEMORIAL DAY.

Suddenly, everything must have just flooded from his pen onto the page. A secluded campground, where legions of prospective victims come for fun and frolic...the dark secrets of a sinister past lurking out beyond the tree line...a park ranger who is the only man that can overcome the evil, if he vanquish his own inner demons first. And a killer driven to righteous rage by the inconsiderate campers who toss aluminum cans into streams and drive their ATVs roughshod over mountain trails, despoiling Mother Nature without a thought to the consequences...a killer dressed in animal skins...

Hughes's finished product, Memorial Valley Massacre, is an almost perfect storm of b-movie cheese. Bad acting? Sure. Low rent effects? Uh-huh. Ridiculous, endlessly quotable dialog? Oh yeah. Casio keyboard score? Holla! Characters that could only exist in a silly 80s slasher? Check the hell out of that! It all adds up to about an hour and forty minutes of fun, a little slice of b-movie heaven.

John Kerry (not THAT one, sadly--though he would have been awesome in this role) plays Park Ranger George Webster, formerly "the best special forces tracker in Viet Nam!", now an alcoholic shell of a man reduced by personal tragedy to looking over Cameron Mitchell's corporate-sponsored campground development, Memorial Valley. Seventeen years ago Webster's infant son was kidnapped, and after a botched sting operation during the ransom payment, his son and the kidnapper vanished into Memorial Valley, never to be seen again. He's spent the better part of the last two decades scouring the woods (in between drinking binges) looking for his son. Perhaps alcohol has dulled his tracking abilities, or perhaps the Memorial Valley flora is harder to read than Viet Nam jungle bush, but for whatever reason, he's been entirely unsuccessful.

Not wanting to see his investment founder, Mitchell brings in his son David to keep an eye on Webster. The tension between the two is palpable, though through the course of the movie each earns the other's grudging respect. Memorial Valley Campground is set to open on Memorial Day Weekend, but someone is sabotaging the event--a construction worker is killed (prior to the opening credits) and the water supply is tainted with the decomposing body of the guard dog assigned to watch the equipment. Though Webster wants to cancel the opening, Mitchell insists they open anyway--and the campers roll in, heedless of the danger.

And what a group of campers we have: the independent, lone hawt chick, who at first rejects the young David's advances, but later embraces them fully; the middle-aged biker group, pining for the days when they were a force to be reckoned with, now just paunchy old guys trailing beer cans and carbon monoxide; the strange teen threesome there for a weekend of hormone-induced revelry, though the female of the groups seems content to pit the boys against each other and never "deliver"; the gravel-throated marine Lt. Mintz and his buxom wife Pepper; and the amazing man-child Walter, a delinquent with woman's voice and Sydney Greenstreet's physique who steals every scene he's in, as well as the viewers' hearts.

And then there's the killer himself, who we see less than 15 minutes in as he wrecks the camp's storage shed--and he's a caveman! Looking like a cross between the Ultimate Warrior and an extra from Quest for Fire, this friend of nature fights back against the destructive forces of civilization, with bloody results.

This movie is so much fun, I don't want to ruin it for anyoneby going into great detail, but here's a few things you can expect going in: a Casio keyboard score that is THE STAR of the movie; wanton destruction of nature; a crowd of "poisonous" garden snakes on a picnic table; the teen cocktease (who has chronic nipple-itis) doing a wet t-shirt dance in the thunderstorm (strangely without music); astounding caveman gymnastics; spot-the-continuity flubs; hilarious tent-sex shadow-humpage; a caveman befuddled by an ATV (attacks it with a club) but who later disables all vehichles by removing distributor caps (?); clumsiest attempted caveman seduction EVAR; greatest camper a'splosion EVAR; a multi-biker death scene that defies belief; and so much deliriously dumb stuff I can't even begin to do it justice.

Signature moment: the caveman, tracked by John Kerry, pushes down a tree to hinder him. In what is truly one of the finer examples of the magic of cinema I've ever witnessed, the effect of the falling tree is accomplished ENTIRELY through editing and sound effects! You WILL believe that a tree fell!

This one must be seen, definitely a 2.75 thumber. Be warned: this movie will make you stupider--but that's okay, because that way you'll love it even more than you could if you were smart. Surrender to Captain Caveman. Enjoy.


PS--more fun in the end credits. "Song by RAT PACK." "Thanks to Ticate Beer." And for some mysterious reason, the production designer's credit appears at the ABSOLUTE END of the credits, even after that little oval symbol and disclaimers, and in tiny, tiny letters--I'd love to know the story behind that. I bet the PD PO'd somebody.




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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Patrick: or, The Dirty Nun and the Comatose Killer


Early on in 1978's psychic psycho-thriller Patrick, protagonist Kathy Jacquard (played by Pia Zadora clone Susan Penhaligon), an ex-nurse and new divorcee is being interviewed for a job as a nurse at doctor Roget's private psychiatric clinic. For some reason the Roget Clinic, despite being a private research center, is staffed largely by nuns, or at least nurses in uniforms that look like nuns' habits. Matron Cassidy, played with Mother Superior intensity by Julia Blake, asks and pointed and pointedly bizarre question:

"Why did you choose the Roget Clinic, Mrs. Jacquard? We tend to attract certain types--lesbians, nymphomaniacs, enema specialists..."

As young Kathy gasps for air, the Matron regales her with tales of one male nurse who would sneak into the comatose ward to smear himself with the patients' excretia. All this delivered in a tone of disgust, accusation, and barely-concealed fasination that makes one wonder if perhaps in her younger days Dame Cassidy was a member of Ilsa the She-Wolf's staff of research scientists. Luckily for Kathy (and for us) Dr. Roget comes in at just that moment, learns that Kathy is a divorcee (a strike against her in the Matron's book) and hires her on the spot. Though Cassidy throws a few more barbs at Kathy before she leaves--"I can fire you for any reason, at any time!"--Ms. Jacquard is well on her way to her preordained meeting with our titular comatose terror.

As the low girl on the totem pole, Kathy is assigned to watch over Patrick, a mystery patient with no family who's been comatose for three years. (Sporting a gaunt face, a piercing blind-eyed stare, and a plentiful white-boy 'fro, Patrick's look prefigures Brad Dourif's Oscar-snubbed tour de force as the Gemini killer by twelve years.) Though we know through an artfully-directed pre-credits sequence that when he could move around Patrick spent his leisure time murdering his mother and her lover by tossing an electric heater into their hot tub--twice!*--apparently neither Kathy nor Dr. Roget is aware of this. Despite his lack of function over the years, Patrick's muscles have not atrophied, and most of the time his eyes remain stubbornly, unblinkingly open. Also, occasionally, he spits. Director Richard Franklin gets a couple of jump scares out of Kathy or another nurse leaning in to adjust a blanket and then having the bug-eyed Patrick expectorate like an irritated llama. When Kathy asks why he should do such a thing, Dr. Roget shows that the Matron is not the only queer duck in this pond, demonstrating reflexive muscle reactions by decapitating a live frog and shocking it with his pocket electrode.

It doesn't take long for the viewer to figure out that Patrick does more than spit--three years deprived of his five ordinary senses have allowed him to develop his sixth, psychokinetic sense to a previously unheard-of degree (as helpfully theorized by the swingin' young doctor who is trying to get into Kathy's white linen pants), and now he's a veritable incorporeal killing machine. When Kathy shows him kindness he falls in love with her and starts writing her love notes on the IBM Selectric that happens to be in his room, things like "How about a hand job?" and other sweet nothings. People treating Patrick bad start to die, and rivals for his affection with Kathy--her ex-husband, for instance, as well as the aforementioned handsome doc--are in trouble as well. It all leads to an understated Carrie-esque showdown in Patrick's hospital room, and if you think you know how it ends up...well, you probably do.

I almost feel that I should have liked Patrick more than I did. There's lots of weird wacky stuff here. Matron Cassidy is fantastic, but woefully underused. The doctor, looking like Klaus Kinski's paunchy twin, has some good scenes too. Even the sub-plot with Kathy's husband trying to reconcile with her is delightfully askew: for instance, when he starts his plan to win her back by hiding in her new apartment dressed in a ski mask and attacking her. when she protests, he shrugs and laughs, "So much for women's rape fantasies!" And he wonders why Kathy won't return his calls.

Maybe it just doesn't go far enough off the deep end to be really enjoyable. While the acting is bad, it's more smirk-bad than ROFL-bad. And certain scenes are really shot and constructed well--the opening kill flashback, for instance, and Matron Cassidy's unfortunate electrocution. And this is probably the only movie I can think of that ends with a jump scare that must have required an off-screen catapult! But the pacing is off, and other scenes--the pool party manifestation of Patrick's powers, or the hubby trapped in the elevator at the clinic, trying and failing to escape--drag badly and completely stifle the movie's momentum. If it had been tighter, this might have been a pretty good thriller; if more inept, perhaps a so-bad-it's-good nugget of joy. As it is, unfortunately, it just comes off as mediocre.

In the end I didn't hate Patrick, and I'm glad I watched it--but then I live for this kind of shit. To the average viewer I would say skip it. I give it a 1.25 thumbs, with an added quarter thumb for the kickass trailer included on the Lightning Video VHS version I've got: THE SCORPIO FACTOR! Synth rock, Trans-Ams, and curled mullets have got to be worth something after all. So final score, 1.5 thumbs--entirely average.

And always remember, ladies, from Kathy Jacquard's mouth to God's ears: "The last thing [you] need is someone with a case of the galloping gonads." Even in trash there is wisdom. Yea, verily.

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