Monday, December 30, 2013

SATAN'S BLOOD


Carlos Puerto, 1978
Starring: Angel Aranda, Sandra Alberti, Mariana Karr, Jose Maria Guillen

Escalofrio (which means chills or shivers in Spanish) aka Satan’s Blood concerns a young married couple, Ana and Andres, who are out looking for an amusing weekend. They run into another couple, Bruno and Berta, who claim to be long lost old friends. They reluctantly agree to follow Bruno back to the couple’s house, though they don’t really recognize them. Unfortunately the house is a far drive out into the country. At the house the foursome immediately launch into a game with an elaborate Oujia board, which reveals some nasty secrets about both couples. Things take a turn for the menacing and confusing. Andres and Ana let themselves be bullied into staying the night and a number of events occur that make it unclear whether Bruno and Berta are benevolent Satan worshippers or have some other sinister purpose. 

If you’ve been reading this blog - or happened to glance at the title - you can probably guess that I love Satanic cinema. Any piece of ‘70s trash that has a hopefully naked girl hopefully covered in blood and worshipping Satan will glue my ass to the couch for an hour or two. Of course, there are plenty of Satanic films that mention Satan a couple of times, but otherwise waste an hour or more hinting at Satanic, sexual, and violent pleasures that will never unfold on screen. I can promise you that Satan’s Blood is not one of those films. Sure, it has some slow and silly moments, but overall there is enough gore, Satan, sex, absurdity, and nudity to entertain any horror fan.

Plus there’s an orgy, plenty of death, and a twist ending. While those normally irritate me, this one really packs a punch. I didn’t find it particularly surprising, but it was a nice ending to a delightful and little seen cult film. There are some good performances, though chances are you haven’t heard of any of the actors unless you’re very well versed in Spanish cinema. Ángel Aranda is the most famous of the bunch and also appeared in Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and Sergio Leone’s Colossus of Rhodes. Direction was split between Carlos Puerto, who also wrote the film, and Juan Piquer Simón. Puerto directed Spain’s most famous horror star, Paul Naschy, in The Sniper (1977). Simón was responsible for a number of cult films in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including The Pod People, Slugs, The Rift, and Cthulhu Mansion. Most importantly, he directed one of my favorite films of all time, Pieces

Satan’s Blood is definitely recommended and is available on DVD from Mondo Macabro. There are some nice extras. There is an interesting, informative article about how the film fits into ‘70s Spanish cinema. In 1975 (post-Franco) a majority of the censorship in Spain disappeared and a rating known as “Clasificada S” was introduced. Oh yes, the ‘S’ is for sex. I had hoped it would be for Satan, but sex is almost as good. In general it refers to films like Satan’s Blood, which was one of the first to receive such a rating, that deal with sex, nudity, blood, gore, and/or the occult. All the good things in life, in other words. The other extras include an alternate opening, which is from the censored Spanish theatrical release. It is basically a lecture about the existence of evil and Satan, assumedly trying to justify the sex, violence, and Satanism about to follow. There are a variety of still galleries and a pretty cool trailer montage from Mondo Macabro. The best extra is a documentary, “The Devil’s Disciples,” where author and Church of Satan Reverend Gavin Baddeley gives a thorough run down of modern Satanism.

SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS


Greydon Clark, 1977
Starring: Yvonne De Carlo, John Ireland, Jack Kruschen, Kerry Sherman, Jacqueline Cole

Patti, Chris, Debbie and Sharon are young, nubile cheerleaders that get waylaid en route to a football game when their car breaks down. They get picked up by the school janitor, who happens to be a perverse Satan worshipper. The cheerleading coach, Ms. Johnson, is too meek and innocent to protect them when Billy the janitor tries to drive them into the woods and, with the aid of Satan's power, rape them. Unfortunately for Billy, Satan has other ideas. Billy has some sort of attack and the girls, though shaken and suffering slightly from amnesia, escape.

They wander to the Sheriff's house (Sheriff B.L. Bubb, played by the hammy John Ireland) and tell him their troubles. The Sheriff, who we already know is the leader of the local cult, claims he will help them and takes their statements while they wait at his house. One of the girls, snooping around, overhears that the Sheriff and his wife (the sinister Yvonne de Carlo) plan to sacrifice the virgin and kill the rest of them. The girls hatch an escape plan to try to call their parents or go for help, because poor Ms. Johnson has been kidnapped and Patti (the cute, blonde one) has stayed behind as a diversion. Patti, of course, is not all that she seems after her experience in the woods earlier and the cult is in for quite a surprise. 

One of the best worst movies I've ever seen, Satan’s Cheerleaders helps fill that particular void in my life that can only be soothed with movies about satanic cults. Of which I'm developing quite a stock pile, mostly from the ‘70s. The performances are about what you would expect. The four main girls are played by Kerry Sherman, Hillary Horan, Alisa Powell, and Sherry Marks, all of whom went on to do very little, with the exception of some TV episodes and Alisa Powell, who had a small role in The Toolbox Murders (1978). The prolific John Ireland pretty much plumbs the depth of his skills as the duplicitous Sheriff and Yvonne DeCarlo (The Ten Commandments, The Munsters) does her best at menacing the camera. Even the wonderful John Carradine as a cameo and, as always, is a great inclusion. 

Directed Greydon Clark made and acted in a number of exploitation films including Al Adamson’s Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, Hi-Riders, Uninvited, and Joysticks. I can’t say that his skill is dazzling, but whether intentionally or not, some of the scenes in Satan’s Cheerleaders are side-splittingly hilarious. 

This movie is ridiculous. I'm not sure if it's a horror-comedy or just a bad horror film, but it will appeal to the same type of viewers who are transported with delight every time they think about Psychomania or Werewolves with Wheels. In other words, its a typical '70s B-movie with a Satanic conspiracy, slutty cheerleaders, and brain dead dialogue. Nothing makes any sense, but it's wonderful regardless. With a few notable exceptions (Rosemary’s Baby being the most popular), there aren't a lot of well made, competently scripted Satanic films, but I love many of them anyway. Satan’s Cheerleaders is high on that list, simply because it is so much fun. 

It comes highly recommend, particularly if you want a fun party movie for a bunch of drunk horror fans. There is a cheap DVD available from VCI, but this is about the best you can expect. Though it isn't going to make any money in the near future, someone out there obviously loves it as much as I do. There is actually a Satan’s Cheerleaders tribute site that has the trailer, facts, trivia, a detailed synopsis, tons of sound clips, stills, links to actor info, and an extensive list of review links.

Aura Precis Mea, Satana Blessed Be.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

ALUCARDA

Juan Lopez Moctezuma, 1978
Starring: Tina Romero, Claudio Brook, David Silva, Susana Komini, Tina French

Alucarda, a wild girl seemingly not of this earth (she really reminds me of Pearl in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter) has been orphaned and is growing up at a convent. She may or may not be the child of the Devil. When young Justine is brought to live at the local convent after the death of her parents, Alucarda immediately befriends Justine and comes to love her. Despite the naiveté and innocence of both the girls, they flirt with lesbianism and satanism. They form a strange pact over the coffin of a supernaturally deformed corpse (named Lucy Western!), which begins their subsequent demonic possession and downward spiral into exorcism, death, nudity, and blood a-plenty.


Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas aka Alucarda, the Daughter of Darkness holds a very special place in my heart and indeed is a very special film. Made in Mexico by Juan Lopez Moctezuma, close friend of the great Alejandro Jodorowsky, Alucarda is one of those films that both blends genres and defies convention. There was a brief period of time in Mexican film history where horror or fantasy weren't given much attention aside from the schlocky, but lovably Santo canon. Alucarda slid in to cult and horror cinema at the proper time and place. Though it is undoubtedly part of the satanic horror canon, there is nothing quite like it. If you’re a big fan of genre cinema, chances are high that you will absolutely love it. If you’re more into classic or mainstream cinema, you may be a bit confused. There are some parts that come across as a little silly, but for the most part this is a powerful, effective film that expresses the unique vision of a director overshadowed by his more imaginative friends and sadly overlooked by a government with other priorities. 

There are a number of things that set Alucarda apart. First and foremost are the disturbing and interesting costumes. Instead of the traditional black and white habits, the nuns look almost mummified, wrapped tightly in white shrouds. The shrouds are oddly stained with red, giving the nuns the appearance of having bled all over themselves. The set is beautiful and sufficiently creepy, alternating between the woods and the cave-like convent. The plot blends elements of Satan worship/possession and vampirism, yet unusually presents both girls -- Justine and Alucarda -- as inherently innocent. Though Alucarda invokes the Devil on a number of occasions, it seems to be some sort of inherent compulsion, given to her by genetics rather than a real desire to spread evil. Like Walerian Borowczyk’s nunsploitation masterpiece Behind Convent Walls, this plot element gives Alucarda a piercing commentary on the Church, which adds another layer to its already interesting and complex framework.

Based loosely on Sheridan le Fanu’s popular horror novella Carmilla, Alucarda has plenty of shocking subject matter. Aside from lesbianism, vampirism, and Satan worship, there are orgies, blasphemy, exorcisms, and murder. Ignored at the time of its release and still somewhat neglected, Alucarda has deservedly attained cult status. 

Sure, there are some silly and cheesy moments, but this is more a product of the time and less a criticism of the actual film. Overall it comes very highly recommended. There is a nice DVD available from Mondo Macabro, which is affordable, readily available, and has a number of nice special features. There is a 15-minute long documentary, which goes in-depth about Moctezuma, his involvement with Jodorowsky, the Mexican avant-garde scene, and the political issues of the Mexican film industry. There is a well researched text of Moctezuma's life, a filmography, and an interview. Randomly, there is a brief interview with director Guillermo del Toro, who comes across as intelligent and well-informed, and, as always, wildly excited. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

FULL CIRCLE aka THE HAUNTING OF JULIA

Richard Loncraine, 1977
Starring: Mia Farrow, Keir Dullea

Julia is having breakfast with her daughter Kate, when the girl chokes on an apple and dies, despite - or perhaps because of - Julia’s attempts to save her. Julie has a breakdown and is briefly placed in a home by her husband Magnus. After her release, Julia leaves Magnus and buys a new home that is oddly full of children’s toys. She cannot stop thinking about Kate and believes she hears strange noises in the house. At first she blames this on Magnus. She thinks he is spying on her, trying to drive her mad, and get her to return to him because of her trust fund. 

Lily, her sister in law, wants to use the house for a seance, but the medium insists that Julia leave the house as soon as possible. One of Lily’s friends falls down the stairs and dies. Soon after, Magnus breaks into the house and has an accident and also dies. Julia learns that the house has a dark past of its own and a young boy died in the nearby park many years ago. Children were responsible for his murder and a girl named Olivia, who lived in the house, was the ring leader. There are more accidental deaths in the house and Julie comes to believe that Olivia is responsible for it all, even Kate’s death. Has she discovered the truth or is she losing her mind?

Released in the U.K. as Full Circle and later in the U.S. as The Haunting of Julia, the film did poorly in the box office and has remained obscure, not even warranting a region 1 DVD release. It was on Netflix somewhat recently and on Comcast’s FearNet streaming channel, so horror fans have at least had a chance to see this neglected, though interesting film. Based on horror writer Peter Straub’s Julia, this was his first novel to be turned into a film. I’ve read a few of his books and this is certainly not the strongest, so I’m a little confused why it was turned into a film. The scriptwriter happens to be Harry Bromley Davenport, director of the superior sci-fi horror oddity Xtro.

Director Richard Loncraine is also responsible for the underrated occult/psychological horror Brimstone and Treacle (1982), among others. Full Circle was one of his first films and is a Canadian-U.K. coproduction, though it is unmistakably a British horror film. Slow paced and subtle, for most of the running time it is difficult to tell if Full Circle is a film about a haunting or a woman’s madness. The death of Julia’s daughter during the film’s opening is powerful, particularly the way the camera lingers on the choking scene. It’s implied that Julia performs a tracheotomy offscreen - cutting her daughter’s throat open - but the girl dies anyway.

Cinematographer Peter Hannan does some excellent dreamy and surreal work here. He repeatedly worked with Loncraine and went to collaborate with Nicholas Roeg. Brian Morris (Angel Heart) also contributed some memorable set design, particularly for Julia’s new, spooky house. There’s a mixed score from Colin Towers, which is excellent at times but distracting at others. The performances are all solid, made up mostly of trained theater actors in the side roles. Though Kier Dullea (Black Christmas) and Tom Conti (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) have appearances as the rival men in Julia’s life, Mia Farrow is largely the sole presence throughout the film and she makes or breaks it. If you disliked her performance in Rosemary’s Baby, you will absolutely hate her here, as she seems even more weak, withdrawn, ethereal, and otherworldly.

Full Circle has its fair share of flaws, namely the absolutely crawling middle portion of the film. There are some poorly written and unfulfilling script elements, such as Julie’s husband Magnus. He could be doing some gas-lighting, but his character packs less of a punch than it could have because his role is not fully written and his motivations are ill explained. The use of seances, asylums, haunted houses, malicious children, and stories of children dying will be appealing to some genre fans, but cliched to others. 

Regardless, Full Circle is watching at least once if only for the atmosphere and interesting conclusion. Things really kick off in the second act when a number of deaths occur and the mystery begins to unravel. Unfortunately, it is not yet available on region 1 DVD, though it is relatively easy to find online. Mia Farrow fans will definitely want to check this out, as will anyone who enjoyed superior films like The Changeling or Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Thursday, December 26, 2013

BURNT OFFERINGS


Dan Curtis, 1976
Starring: Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart, Lee Montgomery, Bette Davis

A small family is looking to rent an affordable home for the summer. They stumble across the Allardyce mansion, a beautiful but dilapidated Victorian-style building, which the two aged Allardyce siblings will rent to them for a very low fee. The only catch is that their very old mother will remain in the house all summer and only needs to be brought meals a few times a day. Though Ben (Reed) has a bad feeling about it, his wife Marian (Black) convinces him and they set off with their son Davey (Montgomery) and Ben's older aunt (Davis). They soon find out that the house has more than one catch. It inspires an increasingly escalated level of violence in its residents and the pain and suffering helps to restore the house to its former glory.

Based on Robert Marasco's book of the same name, Burnt Offerings was an obvious influence on later scary house films like Amityville Horror or The Shining, though it can’t quite reach the desolate, snowy heights of the latter. It’s worth seeing Burnt Offerings for the cheesy moments, but also for some of its effects, which are dated, but mostly hold up. Though there isn't a lot of gore, there are some wonderful scenes of the house restoring itself after something awful has happened.

A haunted house film with a surprising, interesting twist, I've gotten the impression that Burnt Offerings is the sort of movie you need to see first at a younger age to avoid thinking it is derivative of later haunted house films. Though I didn’t encounter it until somewhat recently, during one of my many Oliver Reed binges, this is one of Reed’s most fun horror films and often smacks of “so bad it’s good.” He full on gropes Karen Black before bed one night and has one of the most over the top man versus clump of bushes battles I’ve ever seen. The house awakens Ben’s more violent, aggressive nature, which result in some of the only truly sinister moments including the attempted drowning of his son and near rape of his wife. This is no Venom or Gor, but it’s still Oliver Reed. 

The rest of the cast is also quite memorable, particularly Burgess Meredith, who is certainly at his most terrifying. Karen Black, on the other hand, is insufferable from beginning to end and I was hoping something truly dreadful would happen to her. Bette Davis, in one of her final roles, is oddly underused, but still a pleasant addition to the cast.

Though it hasn't aged very well, I recommend Burnt Offerings if you enjoy haunted house films, particularly if you're tired of the same old tropes. It's a lively example of low budget '70s horror with the slight caveat that it sometimes feels like a made-for-TV film. This should be expected, as the always enjoyable Dan Curtis is responsible for some of the greatest horror television in history: Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker, as well as the beloved Trilogy of Terror. It should come as no surprise that he would churn out an interesting horror film or two.

There's a basic DVD from MGM that includes the uncut, 116 minute running time. Yes, for some reason it's almost two hours long. Maybe one day someone will restore it, particularly the questionable sound. A documentary wouldn't be remiss either; though this version includes a commentary track with Dan Curtis, Karen Black, and the screenwriter William F. Nolan, they sound like they need a refresher course half the time.

RACE WITH THE DEVIL

Jack Starrett, 1975
Starring: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, Lara Parker

Two couples - Roger and Kelly, Frank and Alice - pack up a brand new RV and drive across country for a skiing vacation in Colorado. Roger and Frank own a motorcycle dealership together and frequently race during the long drive. Their fun is interrupted in rural Texas when Roger and Frank accidentally witness a Satanic ritual. At first they think it is an orgy, but soon a woman is killed and the Satanists know that someone is on to them. They group begins to chase the RV and the couples barely escape with their lives. 

Roger and Frank report the incident to a local sheriff, while Kelly and Alice borrow some occult books from the library to try to decipher a strange note the Satanists left in a broken window of the RV. Just when they think they’ve escaped a number of strange things happen: their dog is murdered, rattlesnakes are planted in the RV, and the sheriff has begun to follow them. They buy a shotgun to protect themselves, but wind up in a vehicular battle with the Satanists. Will they ever escape?

Somewhat banking on the reputations of stars Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, Race with the Devil is sort of a twist on the types of films both actors appeared in during this period of their careers. Fonda loved doing his own stunts and performed many of them here, including the scene with the rattle snake inside the RV. By this time, he was known for Easy Rider and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. While Fonda was associated with chase films and action movies, Oates was known for a number of westerns and his collaborations with Sam Peckinpah, including the Wild Bunch, Dillinger, Return of the Magnificent Seven, and hilarious war comedy Stripes. Oates had also appeared in one of the best chase films of all time, Two-Lane Blacktop. Fonda and Oates were also in The Hired Hand and 92 in the Shade together.

Loretta Swit and Laura Parker are memorable as the two wives. The female characters are pretty likable and perhaps a little more personable than I first expected. Loretta Swit was most famous for her role in MASH and Laura Parker had a long standing role in Dark Shadows as one of my favorite characters, Angelique. R.G. Armstrong also made an appearance as the Sheriff and would be known to genre fans for films like Evilspeak, Boss Nigger, and Children of the Corn.

Director Jack Starrett did a solid job with Race with the Devil and has a decent action/exploitation history overall. He also made the somewhat similar A Small Town in Texas and a number of blaxploitation films, namely Cleopatra Jones, as well as directing episodes of Dukes of Hazzard. Starrett previously blended genres with the biker war film The Losers, though Race with the Devil was his most financially successful.

Race with the Devil is not a perfect film and suffers from some typical ‘70s B-horror issues. The film’s main problem is that it tries to combine occult horror and the action/chase movie, combing entertaining elements of both but not really acing either one. The satanic cult, for instance, is so widespread and well connected that this plot point is simply ridiculous and feels overly contrived. The cult was also written to be fairly generic and merely provide the background for rural paranoia. The writers - which include exploitation director Lee Frost (The Thing with Two Heads) - could have done a lot more here. Regardless of these flaws, it was a huge hit on its release and has become a minor cult classic.  

Undeniably, there are a lot of entertaining things about Race with the Devil. Despite some of the film’s more ridiculous moments, the conclusion is well directed and perfectly climactic, ending with a ring of fire and a surprise twist. The feeling of suspense and dreads runs solidly through the second act and builds towards the conclusion. There are some nice chase scenes, including the one where Fonda fires a shotgun from the top of the RV. There’s also an enjoyable score from Leonard Rosenman (Prophecy), particularly the delirious opening theme.

Race with the Devil comes recommend and will appeal to a relatively large number of genre aficionados as it is a car chase film where the antagonists are not cops or a rival gang, but Satanists! The film has been released on DVD - though it has one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen - and on split DVD or Blu-ray with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

THE DEVIL'S RAIN

Robert Fuest, 1975
Starring: William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerritt, John Travolta

Mark Preston must face off against Corbis, a Satanic priest who has cursed his family for several generations after they betrayed him and stole a powerful Satanic book. To get revenge, Corbis causes Mark’s father to melt in the rain and then forces his mother to join his Satanic church. Mark travels across the desert to the ghost town where Corbis’s church is located. They have a battle of faith, which Mark fails when he tries to shoot Corbis. He is captured and tortured. 

Meanwhile, Mark’s brother Tom and his psychic wife Julie hear about the fate of their family and go to investigate. Tom unfortunately witnesses his brother’s Satanic transformation during Corbis’s ritual, but learns the source of Corbis’s power. Can Tom, Julie, and their friend Dr. Richards, a psychic researcher, defeat Corbis in time? 

Though so far I’ve reviewed a couple of pretty great ‘70s Satanic horror films - Messiah of Evil and Werewolves on Wheels being two of my favorites - The Devil’s Rain is the ideal introduction to B-grade American satanic cinema of the ‘70s. Despite its low budget and unrelenting cheese, its air of undeniable weirdness makes it watchable almost 40 years later. Where else, for instance, can you see William Shatner satanically sacrificed and turned into an eyeless, wax abomination? Where else can you see Ernest Borgnine transform into a bearded, goat-horned devil?

The cast is impressive and there are a number of familiar faces from genre films. William Shatner and Ernest Borgnine absolutely carry the film and reach a level of histrionic acting that must be seen to be believed. They are the real reason to see The Devil’s Rain. Noir actress and director Ida Lupino (Food of the Gods) appears as Mark’s mother and George Sawaya (Repo Man) has a brief role as his father. Tom Skerritt (Alien) as Mark’s brother takes over halfway through the film as protagonist. He’s my only major complaint and his naturally serious demeanor just comes across as dull here. After such hammy performances from nearly everyone else in the cast, Skerritt is far too wooden and takes the production too seriously. 

John Travolta made his film debut here and dies quite spectacularly. There are also appearances from Woody Chambliss (Gargoyles), Eddie Albert (Dreamscape), Keenan Wynn (Piranha), and Erika Carlsson (Tintorera). Anton LaVey (founder of the Church of Satan if you’ve been living under a rock) was a satanic consultant on the film and also had a bit part. I can’t help but wonder what he thought of the film. 

Director Robert Fuest made a career in genre cinema with And Soon the Darkness, as well as the wonderful Vincent Price vehicle The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Sadly The Devil’s Rain effectively ruined his career because it flopped so badly, but has come to be regarded as a cult classic. The film looks undeniably cheap, but there are some nice production values, including the most ridiculous satanic stained glass window I’ve ever seen. With Phibes, Fuest also proved his sense of style and visual prowess. While The Devil’s Rain doesn’t quite reach those candy colored, art deco heights, there are some very interesting and genuinely creeping things going on here. My favorite part of the film - aside from Ernest Borgnine - are the Satanists themselves. For some reason the script never bothers to explain, Corbis uses “the Devil’s rain” to transform his followers into waxen looking figures with completely empty eyes. 

There are also plenty of ridiculous things going on. Shatner waves around an absurd magic amulet and he and Borgnine have a prayer off, with one shouting Christian prayers and the other shouting Satanic. Guess who wins? The ending, which is hard to really do justice to, involves about ten minutes straight of satanists melting. A final criticism is that it’s a shame that the film had a PG rating, because I think it could have gone a bit farther with the sexual elements of Julie’s kidnapping and intended sacrifice. There’s also a scene where Mark, while tied down, tortured, and prepared for sacrifice, accidentally attempts to kiss his hollow-eyed, presumably undead mother. Fuest could have taken that a bit further as well. 

I fear that my review of The Devil’s Rain makes it seem like a better film than it actually is. Make no mistake, it is compelling and watchable, but it works despite itself. Fans of cheesy cult cinema will love it, though I suspect everyone else will be baffled. That’s not such a bad thing. The Devil’s Rain is available on DVD and comes recommended. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Brian De Palma, 1974
Starring: Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper

Winslow Leach, a nerdy composer, has his music noticed by famed producer Swan. Swan then steals Leach’s music to use for the opening for Swan’s new venue, the Paradise. Leach figures out what Swan is doing and meets Phoenix, an aspiring singer rehearsing one of his songs. She and Leach develop feelings for each other. When Leach tries to stop Swan’s plans, Swan has him framed for dealing drugs and badly beaten. He is sent to Sing Sing for a life sentence. 

While in prison he is badly mutilated and his has teeth replaced with metal. After he learns that the Juicy Fruits, Swan’s top band, have recorded his songs, he escapes from prison and smashes up Death Records, Swan’s studio. During this tirade, his face is mangled and he decides to become the Phantom of the Paradise and get revenge on Swan and the Juicy Fruits. Swan tricks him into rewriting his score for Faust and traps him in the studio. He breaks out to get bloody revenge. 

Phoenix, meanwhile, is a success and is soon promised stardom by Swan. The Phantom tries to tell her that he is actually Winslow Leach and what Swan is really like, but she refuses to believe him and runs right into Swan’s arms. Devastated, the Phantom tries to kill himself by stabbing himself in the heart, but Swan tells him that he can’t die until Swan himself is killed. The Phantom tries to stab Swan, but it has no effect. He learns that Swan made a pact with the Devil and races to destroy the contract and prevent Swan’s impending wedding with Phoenix. 

Stylistically, the is De Palma’s most impressive film. It is packed full of color, imaginative set and costume design, and De Palma’s customary use of fish eye lenses, interesting angels, split screens, and other cinematography tricks from Larry Pizer. Interestingly, Pizer worked on Alice Cooper’s live film, Welcome to My Nightmare, immediately after Phantom. I’ve heard Phantom compared to the colorful, highly stylized work of Ken Russell (The Devils) and Russell’s Tommy would only come out a year later.

Though Phantom is my favorite film of De Palma’s, it may be an acquired taste. A blend of Faust and Phantom of the Opera, there are also elements of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, ‘70s glam rock, a number of other films, and a pretty wide range of musical styles. I love Paul Williams. There’s something undeniably creepy about him, but the songs he wrote for the film are perfect and he is excellent as Swan. People from my generation or a bit younger might recognize his voice from Batman: The Animated Series, where he had a reoccurring role as Penguin. He also wrote music for a number of popular films, including one of my personal favorites, The Muppets. His songs for Phantom cover a wide range of music from glam to pop to ballads and more typical musical fare. Though the movie was initially a flop, the music was nominated for an Academy Award.

William Finley is perfect as Winslow/The Phantom and also worked with De Palma on Sisters, among other of his films. Another of De Palma’s reoccurring actors, Gerrit Graham, appears here as the hilarious and memorable Beef, lead singer of the Juicy Fruits and Swan’s constantly changing band. Martin Scorsese regular George Memmoli (Mean Streets, Rocky) has a side role as Philbin, Swan’s right hand man. Genre fans will recognize Jessica Harper in her first role as Phoenix. She would go on to star in Suspiria and Shock Treatment. There’s also opening narration from Rod Sterling (Night Gallery), though I believe he went uncredited.

Even if you don’t enjoy musicals, Phantom is well worth watching. There are some truly memorable scenes, including one of my favorite, which involves a hilarious Psycho shower scene satire/reenactment with a plunger instead of a knife. Though, like De Palma’s other films, this borrows liberally from throughout cinema and literature, it is also oddly prescient and includes a deep running discussion about art and fame, music and stardom, and the demon of success. Swan, for instance, was inspired by legendary producer Phil Spector. He rose to fame by producing ‘60s girl groups like the Ronettes before moving into many other genres of music including rock and punk. He ended his career with a jail sentence after murdering actress Lana Clarkson. 

Despite the often bleak tone, a lot about Phantom is hilarious or delightful. The comic book visuals mixed with over the top glam and the grand, enormous scale of Phantom of the Opera are used to perfection here and anyone who likes Tommy or The Rocky Horror Picture Show will immediately want to seek this out. On the other hand, it is not simply a rock musical and, as I said before, is one of De Palma’s most accomplished films. 

Phantom may not be for everyone, but it is one of my favorite films and expertly blends satire, horror, musical, comedy, and much more. Fans of unusual cinema will want to check this out at least once, if not for multiple viewings. The film is available on DVD and on a fancy new Blu-ray full of special features. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

MESSIAH OF EVIL

Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, 1973
Starring: Marianna Hill, Anitra Ford, Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jr.

After an opening sequence where a man is killed in a town square in the middle of the night, a young woman, Arletty, goes to a small California town in search of her father. He was living in Point Dune, a strange town on the beach, and his abandoned house is full of his unsettling art work and his diary, which Arletty reads for clues. He tells her not to come looking for him and that something horrible is happening to the town. The owner of the local art gallery is reticent, but points her towards three strangers in a nearby hotel room - Thom and his companions Toni and Laura - who are allegedly there to learn about the legend of the blood moon. 

An old man warns Arletty that she must kill her father and burn his body, but she thinks he is mad. When he is found dead, Thom, Toni, and Laura are kicked out of their hotel room and invite themselves to come stay with Arletty. She reluctantly agrees. Events around town become more and more menacing and they eventually learn that the locals are undead and, like ghouls, will eat humans and animals, living or dead, during the night. They worship the moon, wait for something unnamed to arrive, and begin to hunt Arletty, Thom, Laura, and Toni. Laura is cornered in a supermarket and Toni is trapped in a movie theater. Thom and Arletty try to escape, but soon the blood moon rises and the Messiah of Evil returns... 

Though still fairly obscure, Messiah of Evil has had somewhat of a revival thanks to the internet and Code Red’s great remastered and restored DVD (which has a number of exciting special features). Highly recommended, there is nothing quite like Messiah of Evil, though it fits in with a loose subgenre of American horror from the ‘70s that was clearly inspired by European art house cinema and is made up of bizarre, eerie, and sadly neglected films. I’m going to look at number of these over the next few weeks, but Messiah of Evil is certainly among the finest.

The film was written, produced, and directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, a husband and wife team also sadly responsible for the awful Howard the Duck, though (bizarrely) they also wrote American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sense of style here is truly incredible, despite the obviously low budget and it is perhaps this element, more than any other, than allows for comparisons to European art horror, such as the work of Mario Bava. There are numerous obvious influences all used to great effect, such as Carnival of Souls, Night Tide, and a chilling scene reminiscent of The Birds.

There are also Lovecraftian elements at play: the small, seaside setting full of odd townsfolk who keep to themselves, ghouls, strange artists, the use of two unreliable narrators, and so on. Atmospheric and creepy, Messiah of Evil wastes no time rolling out a series of dread inducing, disturbing scenes that build in intensity towards the conclusion. The gas station scene - the first sequence with Arletty - is genuinely disturbing and does not flinch at preparing us for the things to come, all while leaving us in the dark about what is really happening in Point Dune.

The acting in Messiah of Evil is surprisingly solid, despite some awkward dialogue. The beautiful Marianna Hill (Schizoid, High Plains Drifter) stars as the melancholy, yet captivating Arletty. Michael Greer (The Rose) is decent as Thom and Joy Bang (Night of the Cobra Woman) and model Anitra Ford (The Big Bird Cage) appear as his sexy, doomed “traveling companions.” Genre regulars Royal Dano (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Something Wicked This Way Comes) and Elisha Cook Jr. (House on Haunted Hill, Rosemary’s Baby) both make welcome appearances, particularly Cook as a rambling, paranoid drunk - another staple of Lovecraftian fiction. On a final note, the score work is some of my favorite from American ‘70s horror and includes a mix of minimal electronica from Phillan Bishop and ambient sounds that range from a hair dryer to the howling wind or the constant roaring of the ocean. 

Messiah of Evil is something that must be seen to be truly appreciated. Though, as I mentioned, there are some other, odd entries into ‘70s horror, this is an exercise in unrelenting dread and offers a fresh take on messianic cults, possession, and the undead. It may also be the most Lovecraftian film not actually based on a Lovecraft tale. It comes with the highest possible recommendation. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972)

George A. Romero, 1972
Starring: Jan White, Raymond Laine, Ann Muffly

A bored, aging housewife, Joan, is dissatisfied with her home life -- her 19 year old daughter has moved out and her husband constantly travels for work -- and is plagued by some strange nightmares. She sees a therapist, but it is no longer helping. She’s interested in a newcomer to the neighborhood, Marion, who claims to be a witch and gives Joan a Tarot reading. She soon has an embarrassing encounter at home, when she meets Gregg, her daughter Nikki’s young professor. Joan spies on them later when they are having sex and Nikki walks in on her masturbating. Infuriated, Nikki runs away. 

While she’s gone, Joan gets into witchcraft and casts a spell on Gregg, who she is secretly attracted to. Eventually she gives in and calls him; they begin an affair. Meanwhile, her awful nightmares about someone breaking into the house continue. She admits to Gregg that she believes she is a witch and wants him to help her with a complicated spell. He mocks her and she becomes hysterical. Later, during a nightmare, her husband unexpectedly comes home late at night and she kills him, thinking he is part of her dream. 

Romero’s third film after Night of the Living Dead and There’s Always Vanilla, he wrote and directed Season of the Witch, as well as being responsible for the cinematography and editing. During the first forty or so minutes of the film, it was in the running for Most Boring Film I’ve Ever Seen, but it eventually grew on me a bit more. The really frustrating thing about Season of the Witch is that so many of the element are compelling. A repressed woman is confused about her life, bored, and having an identity crisis. Romero is somewhat known for his social commentary and this seems to be a film about women’s rights in the ‘70s. It touches upon that, but ineffectively and inelegantly without addressing any of the questions or issues it raises.

The oppressive nature of suburban life has been explored numerous times throughout cinema, which is why it’s so disappointing that Season of the Witch is a failure. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and John Cassavetes’ Faces are just two examples of this subgenre that have limited, loosely sketched scripts, but are incredibly powerful. You could say that both of those films are slow (one of my graduate film classes hated me for forcing them to sit through all of Jeanne Dielman, for instance), but Season of the Witch is just agonizing. The film is essentially made up of poorly shot scenes of middle aged women having conversations in houses and cars. The dialogue is poor and the acting is worse. It livens up a bit in the third act, but not enough to save the overall film. 

All of the actors have limited experience, though Raymond Laine appeared in Jean Claude Van Damme’s Sudden Death and Ann Muffly returned for Flashdance and Romero’s Knightriders. The acting is undoubtedly the worst part of the film with Romero’s bland script coming in at a close second. The characters are dull and unlikable. The lifeless cinematography, also not doing the film any favors, totally lacks style and almost has a made for TV movie feeling.

There are a few things to like about Season of the Witch, however. There’s an amusing sequence where Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays and Joan drives around town buying occult supplies. The numerous scenes of her performing rituals are downright silly, but the dream sequences have a certain power. One of the most interesting things about the film is the surreal opening sequence, where Joan has a strange, paranoid dream. These continue throughout the film, but perhaps not as often as they should. They are the catalyst for Joan accidentally murdering her husband, when she thinks she is fighting off a home invader, and they have a strangely menacing sexual tone to them. Lucio Fulci went a different direction with somewhat similar, though more stylistically advanced, nightmare sequences in Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, another film about a bored and possibly insane wife. 

Also known as Jack’s Wife and Hungry Wives, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a horror film. There are some slight references to the occult and Joan experiments briefly and awkwardly with witchcraft. Again, this isn’t my issue with the film. I love Bell, Book, and Candle and The Woman Who Came Back, both of which are occult-themed dramas focusing mostly on women’s feelings about identity and love. Two of Polanski’s greatest films, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, flirt respectively with madness and the occult but succeed because of their ambiguity. It seems like Season of the Witch attempts to go along a similar route - as does Romero’s later, more enjoyable Martin - but utterly fails. 

Though I can’t recommend it, Season of the Witch is available on a double feature DVD with Romero’s second film, There’s Always Vanilla, should you choose to punish yourself. Romero fans will want to watch this at least once to decide for themselves, but it is a disappointingly amateur effort. Maybe one day he’ll remake it, as he has loosely (and perhaps academically) suggested in the past. 

THE MEPHISTO WALTZ

Paul Wendkos, 1971
Starring: Alan Alda, Curd Jürgens, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Perkins, Bradford Dillman

An unsuccessful pianist and middling music writer, Myles Clarkson, has the once in a lifetime opportunity to interview Duncan Ely, the world’s greatest living concert pianist. Ely takes an immediate liking to Clarkson when he notices the younger man’s perfect hands. Clarkson begins spending a lot of time with Ely and his beautiful, yet creepy daughter Roxanne, much to the irritation of Clarkson’s wife Paula. It turns out that Ely is dying of leukemia and is also part of a group of Satanists. When Ely is on his death bed, he and Roxanne perform a ritual that transfers his spirit/consciousness into Clarkson’s young, healthy body. 

Clarkson changes over night and rapidly becomes a famous pianist. Paula celebrates some of these changes, but also struggles with them. Her husband becomes busier and busier and obviously begins having an affair with Roxanne. Clarkson and Paula’s daughter dies, eventually pushing Paula into action. She begins investigating Roxanne and learns about the satanic cult. Paula realizes that she must face off against Roxanne and Clarkson before she is killed as well. 

Based on Fred Mustard Stewart’s (I can’t help it, but I think his name is hilarious) novel of the same name, The Mephisto Waltz is entertaining, but deeply flawed. The biggest criticisms I’ve read of the film seem to be centered around the fact that this is not Rosemary’s Baby. Duh. The title is probably a good indication of that. Unlike many other early ‘70s genre efforts, which were outright B movies, The Mephisto Waltz was made by a major studio and received general release. It also had the misfortune to be a satanic horror film stuck between Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which had not yet been released. 

Its flaws are few and easily numbered. Despite the great opening and concluding scenes, there is quite a drag in the middle of the film. The beautiful Jacqueline Bisset is quite good here, but Paula is the main character and most of the weight of the film is on her. She was definitely hampered by the script. It takes her character ages to figure out what is going on with her husband and then when she does, she sits around for half the film and doesn’t do anything about it. This makes her look weak, foolish, and unintelligent, not qualities you really want in a protagonist. When she finally does jump into action, the film really kicks off.

The other major issues is Alan Alda. Though he is wonderful elsewhere, here he was simply miscast and lacks the malevolence or charisma to play Clarkson post-possession. This is thrown into sharp relief by a great performance from Curd Jürgens (The Spy Who Loved Me), whom I love. It’s a shame he isn’t in the film longer, because he is perfect as Duncan Ely. Overall, the acting is a mixed bag, though Barbara Perkins (Valley of the Dolls) is fittingly slimy as Roxane.

Paul Wendkos also directed The Burglar (1957) with Jayne Mansfield, Gidget (1959) with Sandra Dee, several Gidget sequels, and Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) among many other films. His direction here is fairly utilitarian, which is a shame. There are some nice visual sequences though, such as Paula’s nightmares and the satanic rituals. 

Though this is a run of the mill occult drama, there are some horror elements that make it worth recommending. First and foremost, there’s an incest subplot. If you’ve been reading this blog at all over the past few years, you’ll know that for some reason I can’t get enough of incest subplots. At least in this case, Ely has the good graces to switch bodies with someone not related to his daughter before he has sex with her. (I think.) There are some other colorful elements, such as a mutated dog, children dying, Satan, etc. There’s no gore, but there is a fair amount of nudity. There’s a also wonderful score from Jerry Goldsmith.

The Mephisto Waltz is available on double feature DVD as part of MGM’s Midnite Movies series with The House on Skull Mountain. In case you were curious, Mephisto Waltz refers to four compositions by the great Franz Liszt. Composed for both piano and orchestra (between 1859-1885), the first is the most famous and is based on Faust. Suitably diabolical. Listen here, because it’s so very beautiful.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS


Michel Levesque, 1971
Starring: Stephen Oliver, D.J. Anderson, Deuce Barry

The Devil’s Advocates, a biker gang, are traveling across the desert when they decide to spend the night at an old church. Unfortunately for them, the church is home to a group of Satan worshipping monks. The monks give them drugged food and the bikers pass out. They wake up to their leader’s girlfriend doing a strange, satanic dance and she is secretly transformed into a werewolf. Soon she begins infecting members of the gang and it becomes an all out battle between human bikers and werewolves. 

Werewolves on Wheels and its British satanic biker counterpart, Psychomania, are two of my favorite ‘70s horror/exploitation films. Two of my favorite subgenres, outlaw biker exploitation films and satanic horror, are spliced together for a delightful hour and a half romp full of naked ladies, drug use, motorcycles, satanic monks, occult rituals, and the best ‘70s werewolves this side of Paul Naschy.

The film is not perfect, though its flaws are endearing and anyone who loves ‘70s exploitation cinema will be able to ignore them, if not outright embrace them. Director and writer Michel Levesque got his start as art director on a number of Russ Meyer’s films and there is a certainly similarity here. This is far more exploitation than horror and though there is a little gore, it isn’t excessive. The second half is far slower than the first and unfortunately we don’t really see the werewolves till just before the end of the film. With that said, they look great and lovely creature design makes me wish we saw a bit more of them. 

The satanic rituals are excellent - better than most B-grade satanic horror from the period - and it’s a shame more wasn’t done with them later in the film. There’s also a wonderful scene with Donna Anders (Count Yorga, Vampire) doing a sexy, satanic dance with a skull and a snake while the rest of the bikers are dosed with LSD, resulting in one very interesting evening. It’s script ideas like these that make me wish the ‘70s were alive and well, minus the hippies of course. 


Though this is a pretty run of the mill exploitation film with a basic script, there’s some wonderful cinematography from Isidore Mankofsky (Better Off Dead) of the desert and a fantastic score from Don Gere. The psychedelic blend of rock, country, blues, and folk is equally as memorable as the film, if not more so. Listen here. 

The acting is about what you would expect from a movie called Werewolves on Wheels. Stephen Oliver (Motor Psycho) is decent as the gang’s leader and some other genre regulars make appearances, such as D.J. Anderson aka Donna Anders (Count Yorga), Gene Shane (The Velvet Vampire), and Severn Darden (Battle for the Planet of the Apes) even makes an appearance as the amazing leader of the satanic monks. William Gray (The Day the Earth Stood Still), in addition to acting in the film, was a motorcycle collector in real life. The cast was rounded out with some real bikers, who do little other than ride their motorcycles around and try to look tough. They mostly accomplish this, despite the fact that the bikers are pretty friendly as far as exploitation characters are concerned.

Werewolves on Wheels comes highly recommended and is the pinnacle of satanic-fusion cinema in the ‘70s, at least on this side of the Atlantic. There’s a nice DVD from Dark Sky, which includes some great special features, namely a commentary track from Levesque and a few others. 

THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)


Daniel Haller, 1970
Starring: Dead Stockwell, Ed Begley, Sandra Dee, Talia Shire

A group of people watch a woman give birth. Years later, at Miskatonic University, Dr. Armitage, a historian, lectures on the Necronomicon, a rare, valuable book. He gives it to his student, Nancy, to return to the library, but a young man, Wilbur Whateley, interrupts her, hoping to see the book. She is attracted to him and allows him to sit quietly with the book. He briefly meets with Dr. Armitage, who knows about Wilbur’s family history and wants to keep the young man away from the book. Ignoring Armitage’s warnings, Nancy drives Wilbur home late that night to Arkham, a small village. 

Nancy winds up staying the night, after Wilbur has drugged her and damaged her car, and develops feelings for him despite the strangeness of the situation. Despite the pleas of her classmate and the townspeople’s hatred of Wilbur and his family, Nancy decides to stay the weekend to learn more about Wilbur’s plans. Her classmate learns that Wilbur’s mother delivered twins, though one was allegedly stillborn and the birth drove his mother mad. Wilbur’s twin is not really dead, but is horribly monstrous, and begins killing off locals. Wilbur, meanwhile, takes the Necronomicon and prepares Nancy for sacrifice in order to finally bring back the Old Ones. 

Director Daniel Haller was the art director for a number of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe-themed films with Vincent Price, which should come as no surprise here. Between the mouldering Whateley estate that resembles the family home in House of Usher, the vivid color scheme, and psychedelic dream sequences, this feels very much like an imitation Corman film. This was not Haller’s first Lovecraftian film; he also helmed the superior Die, Monster, Die! and it’s a shame he couldn’t turn his Lovecraft series for American International Pictures into something as successful and long running as Corman’s Poe series.

Despite its undeniably trashy elements, The Dunwich Horror has a lot of charm. Probably the worst thing about it is the “Horror” mentioned in the title, which doesn’t appear till more than halfway through the film and is marked by some psychedelic visuals including red-blue negatives that make it difficult to see anything. Oh, and did I mention that the movie ends with the close up of a fetus?

Dean Stockwell (Blue Velvet, Dune) is absolutely the reason to see this film and I don’t think I can quite do justice to his performance. He spends half of his screen time staring madly and the rest of the time being sympathetically villainous. Sandra Dee (Gidget) is also good and though she seems blonde and vapid for much of the running time, the fact that being with Wilbur was Nancy’s conscious decision adds an interesting undertone. It’s refreshing that she is not some buxom victim devoid of personality, but rather goes along willingly with Wilbur’s scheme and seems to know what her fate will be; she does not resist.

This was Ed Begley’s (12 Angry Men) final role, though he is absent for much of the film and spends the rest of the time looking confused. Sam Jaffe (The Day the Earth Stood Still) is suitably creepy as Wilbur’s grandfather and Joanne Moore Jordan (I Dismember Mama) is his insane mother, Lavinia. Lloyd Bochner (Satan’s School for Girls) has a brief turn as the town doctor and a young Talia Shire (Rocky) appears as his nurse.

Unlike Lovecraft’s long, carefully plotted story, here the events (aside from the pre-credits birthing sequence) are jam packed into one weekend. Miskatonic University is unmistakably not in New England, but on the sunny shores of California. Keep in mind that it is one of a handful of Lovecraft adaptations before the ‘80s, along with my personal favorite, Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963), Die, Monster, Die (1965), and British films The Shuttered Room (1967) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968).

I think what really keeps this from having the type of power Corman’s early Poe films had - aside from a weak script and some inexperienced directing - is the undeniable influence of the ‘70s. Instead of subtlety and mystery, we have Sandra Dee moaning and writing on an altar with the Necronomicon between her legs. Dean Stockwell wears some questionable New Age jewelry and puts his rings up to his face when he’s feeling mystical. It’s all rather hilarious, particularly the dialogue, frequently crossing the line into outright camp. 

Despite its occasional silliness, much of The Dunwich Horror has a feeling of weirdness,  certainly a positive in a Lovecraftian film. For all the ridiculousness, there are some very effective moments and the first half of the film has tremendous potential. There’s a great score from Les Baxter, a regular composer for Roger Corman and AIP, and I think this is one of his finest. It is certainly the best Lovecraftian film score that comes to mind and helps elevate the shallow script and often stilted acting in many scenes. The Dunwich Horror comes recommended. It’s available on DVD from MGM’s excellent Midnite Movies line. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

MARK OF THE DEVIL

Michael Armstrong, 1970
Starring: Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Vučo, Reggie Nalder

In 18th century Austria, a witch hunter known as Albino abuses a local town, going so far as to rape a group of nuns. Due to his misdeeds, Lord Cumberland, the Grand Inquisitor, and his apprentice Count Christian von Meruh, travel to remove Albino from office and take up his witch hunting duties. While they are in town, Christian falls in love with Vanessa, a local girl who was unfortunately accused of witchcraft by Albino after she rejected his advances. Christian is also appalled to learn that Cumberland is even more of a fiend than Albino, using his position to torture and murder innocent people at will. Christian tries to save Vanessa, while the townspeople begin revolting against Cumberland and his sadistic ways. 

Originally known as Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, meaning Witches are Tortured to Death, Mark of the Devil was advertised as being the most horrifying, graphic film ever made. It is sleazy, offensive, and nihilistic, but in many ways, Mark of the Devil is a typical ‘70s exploitation film. At times, it is ultra violent, focusing more on a scene where a young woman’s tongue is ripped out out than it does on many of its characters. It also suffers from the same problem as several of the other witch hunting films from the period, such as the superior Witchfinder General, Cry of the Banshee, or The Blood on Satan’s Claw, namely some dull scenes where little happens other than awkward, expository dialogue. The dubbing is awkward, the effects don’t entirely hold up, and there is some questionable acting.

If you’re used to this style of filmmaking and enjoy it or don’t mind it, there are some things about Mark of the Devil that hold up, but it wasn't nearly as exciting as it was when I first saw it in my teens. Herbert Lom (Pink Panther) is well worth watching as the sadistic Cumberland and all Udo Kier fans will want to check out a young, beautiful, and innocent looking Kier a few years before he appeared in Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula. The ladies of the cast are lovely, but their acting is not particularly strong with lead Olivera Vučo as the weakest of the bunch.

The graphic nature of the film is a bit overemphasized, either that or I’m just really jaded by violence at this point. The historical context adds a bit of gravity, but it’s hard to get past the film’s reputation and advertising campaign, which included vomit bags in case the film got to be too much for theater-goers. There is rape, murder, and all kinds of torture, so while Mark of the Devil may not be overly shocking to anyone who has seen recent torture porn, it is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. 

There are a few elements that help this rise above other ‘70s exploitation cinema, such as the lovely cinematography from Ernst Kalinke and the oddly romantic score from Michael Holm. Clearly an attempt to cash in on Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General with Vincent Price, Reeves was allegedly intended to direct this before his early death. Instead, Michael Armstrong (The Image short, The Haunted House of Horror) directed the film, but dealt with interference from producer Adrian Hoven (Kiss Me Monster and several other Jess Franco films). The two allegedly did not get along on set and Hoven had originally hoped to direct and star in the film. Instead, he went along behind Armstrong reshooting and editing certain scenes. A few years later he made a poorly regarded sequel, Mark of the Devil II

Mark of the Devil comes recommended for all fans of witch hunting and exploitation films. It is available on DVD from Blue Underground, but keep your eyes peeled for an Arrow Blu-ray, which should come out some time in 2014. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

BLOOD SUCKING FREAKS

Joel M. Reed, 1976
Starring: Seamus O'Brien, Luis De Jesus, Viju Krem, Niles McMaster, Dan Fauci

Based on Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Wizard of Gore, the magician Sardu and his midget assistant, Ralphus, run a popular, Grand Guignol-esque theater where women are tortured and killed on stage. Though audience members think that Sardu is a master of illusions and the women are excellent actresses, he really is murdering his way through a bevy of ladies. Those that he doesn’t kill are either tortured into insanity, turned into cannibals and kept in a pen, or sold as part of an extensive human trafficking ring. 

Sardu risks it all when he kidnaps and tortures a prominent critic who disagrees with his work. He gets into even more potential trouble when he snatches a famous ballerina and brainwashes her into becoming his newest star. Her boyfriend, Tom, and a sleazy detective try to get to the bottom of things and find out what Sardu is doing with the missing women. Unsurprisingly, Sardu eventually gets his just desserts. 

Also known as Sardu: Master of the Screaming Virgins and The Incredible Torture Show, writer and director Joel M. Reed’s notorious exploitation-gore film was re-titled Blood Sucking Freaks when Troma acquired the film. If, like me, you hate 98% of Troma films, don’t worry, this wasn’t made by them. On the other hand, you should worry, because it’s appallingly boring and full of very low budget effects and amateur filmmaking like most Troma films. Despite its reputation as being one of the most offensive and shocking films of all time, much of this is undeserved hyped. 

Blood Sucking Freaks has pretty much no plot. Sardu tortures people or has them kidnapped and tortured. I could list some of the things that occur -- such as the penis sandwich and the human ass dartboard -- but that would probably make the film seem more exciting than it actually is. Between these lengthy, dull scenes, there are moments of even more boring dialogue that is peppered with some truly awful puns. Acting, aside from Seamus O’Brien’s Sardu, is really at an all time low. It is not even worth mentioning the other actors, most of whom went on to do absolutely nothing. It seems like the only reason Bloodsucking Freaks exists is to show women being degraded and tortured in every way possible or to beat Herschell Gordon Lewis at his own game. It does not succeed. 

The female victims -- actually, all the characters except for Sardu -- have no personalities or redeeming qualities whatsoever. It's impossible to care that they’re being tortured or killed, because they are reduced to such a subhuman level that it’s just boring. The subplots with the deranged doctor and the human slavery ring don’t help to liven things up, either, impossible as that may seem. I really wanted to like this film, but it just tries entirely too hard to be shocking, provocative, and offensive without delivering any results. 

No one should be bored by a film that features impromptu brain surgery, cannibalism, necrophilia, and surprise amputation, and yet Blood Sucking Freaks raises the bar for slow and dull. If, for some reason, you really want to check this out, it’s available on DVD

THE GORE GORE GIRLS

Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1972
Starring: Frank Kress, Amy Farrell, Hedda Lubin, Henny Youngman

“She threatened me with some sort of a gesture that only a lady wrestler would use.”

A stripper, Suzie Cream Puff, is brutally murdered and reporter Nancy Weston is determined to get to the bottom of things. She hires famed detective Abraham Gentry on behalf of her newspaper, offering him a good sum of money to solve the case. Nancy and Gentry begin investigating in the strip club where Suzie Cream Puff worked, but meanwhile another stripper is murdered. Gentry comes up with a number of suspects, including a war vet who enjoyed crushing the skulls of both enemies and fellow soldiers. Meanwhile, he gets Nancy drunk to keep her out of the way.  

When yet another stripper is gruesomely murdered with a protest button found at the scene of the crime, Gentry also begins to suspect the leader of a feminist group who organizes radical protests at the local strip clubs. Gentry and Nancy get closer to the truth and hold an amateur striptease contest in order to find out the killer’s identity once and for all. 

Herschell Gordon Lewis’s final film for over 30 years, The Gore Gore Girls, is plagued by many of the same issues as Lewis’s earlier work: bad acting, a ridiculous script, shoddy camerawork, questionable effects, etc. If you like low budget, trashy exploitation movies, there’s a lot here to love, but if the subgenre just isn’t your thing, you will passionately hate it. I tend to be somewhere in the middle, as I love certain low budget gore movies (Blood Freak and I Drink Your Blood to name a few), but am bored by others (Lewis’s Wizard of Gore). 

Gore Gore Girls is surprisingly entertaining and endearing, which is mostly due to Frank Kress, who is surprisingly good in his only role as Abraham Gentry, the prissy detective and insufferable know-it-all. He’s not a good actor by any stretch of the imagination, but is practically Academy Award material by Lewis’s normal standard. Gentry is essentially a stock character taken from pulp mystery novels and this simplicity works in the film’s favor. The lovely Amy Farrell (The Streets of San Francisco) is also decent his reporter sidekick, Nancy Weston, and is less grating than many of Lewis’s other female characters over the years. 

Of course, Gore Gore Girls is not without its flaws. Comic Henny Youngman (Goodfellas, Amazon Women on the Moon) is out of place as the strip club owner and delivers some truly awful jokes. I’m really not sure how I feel about the comedy here. In some ways, this is Lewis’s funniest film, though there are times where his attempts at comedy simply distract from the gore and murder mystery elements. 

Speaking of gore, this is probably Lewis’s goriest and most violent film with a whole new range of atrocities, including gouged out eyes, creative use of a carving fork, boiled flesh,  tenderized buttocks, etc. Whether it was intentional or not, there are also some giallo-like elements from the scantily clad women being gruesomely murdered to the killer’s raincoat and black gloves. Though the script does pay a little attention to the murder mystery, though the fun seems to be going through the vignette-like murders, rather than solving the crimes. The killer’s identity is pretty meaningless and arbitrary. Oddly, this does not detract from the film and things end on an upbeat note. 

Though I think Lewis newbies should start with his Blood trilogy, I enjoyed Gore Gore Girls enough to recommend it, certainly more so than Wizard of Gore. Although, as with that film Gore Gore Girls often has a so-bad-it’s-surreal quality, something you will either love or hate. Gore Gore Girls is available on special edition DVD or as a double feature Blu-ray with The Wizard of Gore

Friday, December 13, 2013

THE WIZARD OF GORE (1970)

Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1970
Starring: Ray Sager, Judy Cler, Wayne Ratay

Montag the Magnificent performs Grand Guignol-eqsue magic shows where he selects female volunteers and performs violent spectacles on them, such as cutting them in half or running them through with swords. Unfortunately for the volunteers, later in the evening they die violently with wounds similar to the illusions performed on them. A local TV personality with a daytime talk show, Sherry Carson, is impressed with Montag’s act and is hoping to invite him on her show to interview him. At first he coldly rebukes her, but soon changes his mind and agrees to come on the show to perform a magnificent illusion. After watching a couple of his performances, Sherry and her boyfriend come to believe that Montag is in some way involved with the women’s murders and they desperately search for proof. 

It’s impossible to deny that H. G. Lewis, Godfather of Gore, influenced several generations of horror and exploitation filmmakers. While his films may not be mainstream material or - depending on your definition - “good” in a traditional sense, they have a certain magic about them. Wizard of Gore certainly has its charms and a so bad it’s good quality, but it doesn’t reach the heights (or depths) of Lewis’s finest films, such as Blood Feast

The camera work, editing, and script are all bottom of the barrel, but this is the sort of thing you expect from a Lewis film. The acting is absolutely terrible. Ray Sagar gives the best performance as Montag, though he uses the school of acting that requires wooden sounding dialogue and the indication that someone off camera is holding up a cue card. Sagar is easily 20 years too young to play Montag, which Lewis made up for with some fake-looking eyebrows and an absurd white wig or possibly spray paint on Sagar’s hair. Other “actors” Judy Cler and Wayne Ratay are horrible by comparison and it’s probably for the best that they didn’t really continue on with their acting careers.

Overall this is a pretty boring film. It moves from one trick to another like a series of vignettes, not really bothering to put much between other than dialogue, some shots of people talking on the phone, a make out/sex scene, etc. As a result, Wizard of Gore is absolutely hilarious, though always unintentionally so.

It will definitely please fans of gore. Though some of the effects are dated, they are still believable, thanks to the sheep carcasses used in place of human viscera. Women are forced to swallow swords, cut in half, have knives driven into their skulls, and have their guts mashed with some kind of industrial press. One is even pulled apart with Montag’s bare hands. All of these scenes are very well done, though the real reason to watch Wizard of Gore at least once is because of the phenomenal ending, so surreal and bonkers that you don’t even see it coming. The characters begin to question the nature of reality, peeling back dizzying layer after layer. What a bunch of nonsense. 

This is one of those movies that is impossible for me recommend, but it is such an acquired taste. Lewis newbies should check out the earlier Blood trilogy before Wizard of Gore, though trash movie fans that haven’t seen Wizard of Gore yet will probably love it. It’s available on special edition DVD or as a double feature Blu-ray with Gore Gore Girls. Avoid the 2007 remake. 

I DRINK YOUR BLOOD

David E. Durston, 1970
Starring: Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury, Lynn Lowry, Jack Damon

“Let it be known that Satan was an acid head.”

The Sons and Daughters of Satan, a group of Satan worshipping hippies traveling through a nearly abandoned town, are conducting a ritual in the woods where they nakedly consume LSD and worship Satan. They are being secretly watched by a local teen, Sylvia, who is soon exposed by one of the hippies. Their leader, Horace Bones, has her beaten and raped. Later, she is found by Mildred, owner of the local bakery, who takes the traumatized Sylvia back to Pete, her younger brother, and Banner, her grandfather. 

With his shotgun in tow, Banner plans to get revenge for Sylvia, but the hippies overwhelm him and force him to consume large doses of LSD. Pete realizes it is now on him to get revenge for his family and encounters a rabid dog, which he shoots and kills. He puts its infected blood into meat pies at the bakery, which the hippies purchase and eat later that day. Soon they are infected with rabies and begin an orgy of violence among themselves that includes murder, chopping off limbs, etc. By the next day, this spreads to a construction crew, most of whom have had sex with an infected hippy, and makes its way throughout the town. Banner is killed and they flee to the bakery, teaming up with Mildred. Mildred, Pete, and Sylvia try to escape in Mildred’s car, but they are soon surrounded. Will they make it out alive?

Basically the Titus Andronichus of ‘70s exploitation movies, I Drink Your Blood was one of the first films to get an X-rating from the MPAA due to violence, rather than sex or nudity. As a result, the early theatrical prints were badly cut and tended to vary from city to city. Originally called Hydrophobia (difficulty swallowing that presents itself in late stage rabies), it was retitled I Drink Your Blood to be a double-feature companion piece to I Eat Your Skin (an inferior voodoo tale). 

Writer and director David E. Durston only made a handful of other films, including venereal disease panic film Stigma (1972), and I Drink Your Blood is his masterpiece. Inspired by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the low budget gore films of H.G. Lewis, and the real life events surrounding the Manson Family, I Drink Your Blood may be imperfect, but it is far more than the sum of its parts. The plot can only be described as balls to the wall outrageous. The film’s only big name actor, Lynn Lowry (from Romero’s The Crazies), saws off a hand and carries it around with her. A pregnant woman stabs herself in the stomach rather graphically. There’s also some real animal violence, unfortunately, when a chicken’s throat is cut and some rats are barbecued. And of course there is rape (only implied), Satan worship, enforced LSD poisoning, and revenge via rabies-laced meat pies. 

I’ve heard a lot of talk that this film is overrated, but I have to disagree. Revenge is a major staple of exploitation cinema, regardless of country or decade, and where else - aside from Titus Andronichus - do you find revenge, as a dish best served cold, in the form of pies? Rabies is also underused in horror cinema in general and though it isn’t portrayed entirely accurate here, it is wildly entertaining and full of flesh ripping, gut churning gore. 

Featuring rabid zombie-like creatures, a morality tale about the evils of drug use, and a classic revenge plot, I Drink Your Blood has it all. It may not be perfect - there are heaping doses of poor acting, silly dialogue, plenty of distastefulness, and questionable cinematography - but it is one of the gems of ‘70s grindhouse cinema. It comes highly recommended and there’s a great uncut DVD with plenty of special features.