I've been doing it for a while now in postscripts, comments, and the linky sidebar area of MMMMMovies, but the time has come at last for me to give a proper, full-bore shout-out to my man Karswell over at The Horrors of It All! Not only does Karswell--somehow, some way--keep coming up with mad pre-code horror comics hits, like EVERY SINGLE DAY, but he's also been kind and generous enough to share some spectacular titles from his own ridiculously extensive movie library with the Duke and myself, leading to more than a few wonderful, entertaining, Bacchanalian revelries here at the Vicarage. If you haven't gone over to his site and given him his propers, do so NOW. I'll wait here till you get back.
The latest Karswell-contributed entry in the Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies sweepstakes is this completely round-the-bend British production from 1972, the Jim O' Connolly-directed creepfest known as Tower of Evil. With a story so crazy it could have leapt fully-formed from the pages of some of Karswell's wilder comics, this is a flick that has everything--atmosphere, gore, genuine chills, legends of lost treasure and dark family secrets, not to mention acre upon acre of nubile Euroflesh on display. All this and a Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre ending that had my jaw on the floor and my flag in the air. Salute!
We open with a wonderfully atmospheric credits sequence over "aerial" shots of a lovingly constructed miniature of a decrepit island lighthouse. Someone's got the smoke machine turned up to eleven, and as the camera swoops lazily around the lighthouse tower, the craggy teeth of the island jut up menacingly through the fog. Creepy music and blood-red credit lettering set the scene, preparing us for the wonders that await.
After O'Connolly's credit we are suddenly aboard the Sea Ghost, a tiny fishing boat manned only by salty sailor Hamp and his aged unnamed father. As the two men struggle to navigate through the pea-soup fog, dangerous rocks loom mere inches from their ship, threatening wrack and ruin. It's a very tense scene, and the ghostly nature of the near-impenetrable fog adds wonderfully to the atmosphere.
Hamp (James Cromwell lookalike Jack Watson) is obviously a tough old tar, so when the fear shows in his rugged face, you know it's for reals. "We should have laid off till the fog lifted!" he opined to his dad. "There are things to do!" the old man spits back. "It's been left long enough!" Tension, intrigue, secrets, danger, and less than three minutes into the runtime--that's economical storytelling, right there.
Once on the island things quickly go from creepy to terrifying, as in short order Hamp and his old man discover a severed hand in the sand, and nearby its deceased owner, naked and facedown in a tide pool with a carrion crab crawling over his taut buttocks! They press on to the derelict lighthouse, where they discover another naked body on the stairs--this one female, eeybita-eeybita--and an attempt to discover her identity sends her severed head rolling down the tower stairs! The head comes to rest on the ground floor for the favored "floorboards round the neck" effect, which is much appreciated by students of the genre, such as I'm. Only five-to-seven minutes screen time have elapsed. This movie is NOT screwing around!
In the shed next door they find ANOTHER corpse, this one clothed but pinned to the wall by a strange golden spear, and when Dad opens a metal door to investigate some sobbing noises, he is startled to find a NAKED CANDACE GLENDENNING staring back at him! Would that we were all so lucky! Granted, she does scream and get all stabby on him, leading to the old man's death before Hamp can cold-cock her with a club, but still--what a way to go!
Next we're whisked away to a hospital room in the city, where a doctor whose mannerisms betray at least a half-Vulcan descent is explaining to a gruff cop why Candace is in a catatonic stupor--from HORROR, of course. Using experimental drugs and a WALL OF DISCO LIGHTS, the doctor hopes to bring Candace's mind to the surface long enough to figure out WTF happened. This leads to the first part of the film being told in a psychedelic hypnotic-regression flashback, a device so wonderful in conception I can't believe we haven't seen it more often.
Candace--er, "Penny"--and her three friends were tourists from Denver, Colorado, who went out to the lighthouse on Snape Island after attending a Jazz Festival on the mainland. Decadence! In addition to the lipsmacking Ms. Glenndenning, one of her "American" friends is also an alumnus of Pete Walker's excellent The Flesh and Blood Show--Mick Jagger lookalike Robin Askwith as Des, he of the pincushion fate. Explaining their choice of the lighthouse as flophouse, Des proclaims to the freaked-out other girl Mae, "We have sounds, food, and some great grass! This place is FAR OUT!" Preach it, brother.
psychedelic flashes of golden idols, many gratuitous butt-shots, and disco lights a-plenty, which is an interesting and laudable narrative choice. We learn that Candace doesn't want to have sex with her boyfriend Gary, despite walking around him naked pretty much ALL THE TIME. Harsh. Still, she's a sport about it, and agrees to give him a beachside BJ to ease the tension. Sadly for us, once she heads south the hypno-drugs start to wear off, and we get SCREAMING SCENES OF BLOWJOB HORROR before Candace goes comatose in the lab. Again, harsh--but effective.
Now the movie takes its first hard left, as we're suddenly in a university office where a group of archaeologists are planning an expedition to Snape Island. Wha? It seems the spear that skewered Des was a solid gold Phoenecian artifact, and the brainy types are naturally curious about how it got there. (The spear is also prominently displayed on the head prof's desk--shouldn't that be in an evidence locker somewhere?) A P.I. hired by Candace's family to prove her innocence in the murders is set to accompany them and play audience-advocate when requesting exposition and clarification. Which is nice of him really.
We learn that the Phoenicians revered Baal, a fertility god whose followers worshiped him with orgiastic festivals of sex! Sign me up! Of course the Hebrews also associated Baal with the Devil, so (as one female digger points out) if you worshiped Baal today (with sex, presumably), you'd be considered a devil-worshiper! And they wonder why Sunday School attendance is dwindling. Anyway, they suspect lots more Phoenician treasure is in a cave under the island if they can just find it, so off they go!
As they wait for the boat to take them out to Snape Island, the four archaeologists let us in on their sordid history with each other. Dan (Derek Fowlds) is married to Nora (Anna Palk), who won't give him a divorce so he can marry Rose (Jill Haworth), who used to have a thing going with hotshot Adam (Mark Edwards), who still pines for Rose despite having also adulterously schtupped Nora on some previous expedition. Rose, by the way, wants neither of the two himbos. Who knew digging up pottery was so exciting? Then again, this IS the 70s.
All this infidelity-swapping leads to a ton of delightful bitchy dialog between all members of the expedition, some of which is flat-out wonderful, but none of which I'll quote because it deserves context. Anyway, the PI (Brent) and archaeologists are accompanied by Hamp and his nephew Brom, a swingin' young hoodlum just returned from a jazz festival himself (seriously) and inordinately proud of his crotch. Take a look:
Brent disappears for long periods and Brom keeps tripping over his story about never having been to the island before, all while trying to work his way into Nora's outrageously flared trousers. Hamp hints more at his dark family secret, revealing that his brother, sister-in-law, and infant nephew had lived on the island until about 6 months ago, when they were apparently lost at sea trying to get back to the mainland. We get more swingin' archaeologist bitching, and it's all pretty wonderful for a while.
But it gets wonderfuller as Dr. Spock subjects Candace to another disco-induced flashback and we see the demise of our unfortunate Americans (not to mention loads more nekkidity). We see Des getting up in the night to investigate some VERY CREEPY maniacal laughter, and getting the expected spearing at the hands of some unseen horror. (How comatose-Candace was able to narrate this is unclear, but let's not pick nits.) Mae also gets it, and after more naked walking (I LOVE THIS MOVIE) Gary meets his dismemberment in a wild psychedelic murder scene that just goes ON and ON and ON--screams, disco lights, zombie Americans, multiple stabs and slashes, more screams--it's really quite disquieting, and reminiscent of a Coffin Joe credits sequence. Which is a very good thing.
Meanwhile in the present day, the explorers stop bitching at each other long enough to notice some very creepy whistling coming from outside the lighthouse. Investigations turn up nothing, but we do get some very tense and genuinely spooky scenes as they search. While Nora tokes up a HUGE SPLIFF, Brent deduces that they are not alone on the island and whatever madman killed the Colorado Kidz is out there stalking them. Makes sense to me. The men go off to explore, leaving the completely baked Nora and disapproving Rose in the protection of Brom. Which you just know is going to work out swell.
Being high makes Nora horny (though no less bitchy), and it's not long before she and Brom are upstairs worshiping Baal like mad minx! We get some wonderful groovy eroticism here, as Brom slowly pulls the zipper on Nora's flared velour trousers, leading her to sit up and demand, in a dominant sexy voice, "Zip me, baby...ZIP ME!" Never have fasteners sounded so dirty. Brom complies and zips the living hell out of her for several minutes--again, this scene goes ON and ON--until finally they gain their release...just as the Sea Ghost EXPLODES in the harbor! Now THAT'S fireworks, baby!
the bloated corpse of Hamp's sister-in-law shows up in the drawing room. Hamp reveals that the drowning story was a lie: his brother Saul was actually a madman and the wife lived with him there to keep him out of the asylum. Now that she's dead, the last control on Saul is gone, and he's presumably the murderer. Their baby, Hamp says, died years ago. Hmm...
So Saul shows up in the dark and tosses Nora off the tower like Jezebel; the rest of the crew get over it quickly and find the caves leading to Baal's temple; and suddenly we're in Raiders of the Lost Ark territory. Saul shows up to kill anyone mesmerized by the Phonecian loot, and after killing Brom and going all WWE on Dan with a neckbreaker (he even looks like Hillbilly Jim) is finally shot by Brent.
Of course that's not the end, as Hamp hasn't been totally forthcoming about what REALLY happened to baby Michael, which of course leads to a second climax (wahey!), some truly chilling scenes as the second member of the freak family is revealed, and an explosive ending that really must be seen.
Tower of Evil is a rip-roaring ride from one end to the other, chock full of everything I look for from a movie. There's plenty of blood, easily two times the quota of nudity (much of it from Candace Glenndenning herself, which adds super-quality to the abundant quantity), wild dialog, creepy atmopshere, really wonderful cinematography, and an action-packed wild and wooly ending in the shadow of a statue of Baal. I mean really, if you want more than that, you're just a glutton.
There are some laughable bits in with the awesome--some of the "freak" makeup is frankly bad, but O'Connolly wisely keeps it in shadow much of the time for effective creepiness right up to the end. Also, since Candace & Co. are meant to be Americans--but are all very, VERY British--their voices were rather clumsily dubbed by more American-sounding actors. Much as I miss Candace's voice, her body is there to more than make up for it. Finally, some of the island sets look like they're built from plastic Star Trek rocks, and the aforementioned flashback-flub brought a chuckle. But really, these are small points held up against the majesty of the whole.
As if there were any doubt, Tower of Evil gets the coveted 3+ thumb rating. Truly a must-see, so see it as soon as you can.
And would it kill you to go read some of Karswell's comics already? Tell him the Vicar sent you. ;)