Friday, February 28, 2014


Nicolas Gessner, 1976
Starring: Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Alexis Smith, Scott Jacoby, Mort Shuman

On Halloween, Rynn Jacobs is celebrating her 13th birthday all alone. A creepy neighbor, Frank, the son of her landlord, knocks on the door and pushes his way into the house. His interest alarms Rynn and she later learns that he is a pedophile. She is spared his further attentions that night when he goes off trick or treating with his stepsons, but he begins to follow her around town. His mother, Mrs. Hallet, their landlady, arrives soon after, demanding to see Rynn’s father, though Rynn always insists he is either out of town or working. Rynn won’t allow her to go in the basement and she leaves, outraged, promising she will make trouble for Rynn with the school board.

Soon Rynn meets a police officer and his nephew, Mario. They become her only friends in the neighborhood, as her father is constantly “busy” or “away.” Mrs. Hallet returns and forces her way into the basement. She sees something there that terrifies her and hits her head on the door and falls down dead. When she doesn’t return, both Frank and the police turn up, though Frank won’t go away. Mario protects Rynn from Frank – after he kills her pet hamster – and the two misfits quickly bond. What he soon learns, however, is that Rynn has bodies in her basement…

With a script from Laird Koenig based on his own novel of the same name, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is something of a forgotten Canadian film that advertised itself as horror, but is a blend of coming-of-age drama, thriller, and misfit romance. With elements of horror, mystery, and the Gothic tale – thanks to the creaky old house with bodies in its basement and the potentially mad family member sequestered upstairs – one of the film’s strengths is its attempt to defy genre.

I’ll admit it – I haven’t yet seen Badlands and I associate Martin Sheen with The West Wing and his role as the difficult, but lovable President Bartlett. He is downright traumatizing here as the pedophile Frank. Though Sheen is powerful in the role, Frank and his mother Cora are two of the film’s biggest flaws. The nosy, aggressive Cora and her sick son are clear villains, forcing us to always root for Rynn, particularly during the concluding scene when she commits her first cleverly premeditated murder. Some more ambiguous characters would have made the plot more compelling and complex.

Thanks to a young Jodie Foster, Rynn is nearly compelling and complex enough to drive the film. She’s a mysterious, but sympathetic character. The script throws in little details that are somewhat farfetched, but interesting. At thirteen, she can cook a complete dinner, drinks wine, reads Emily Dickinson, does grown-up crossword puzzles, listens exclusively to Chopin, and is teaching herself Hebrew with the help of some records. It’s helpful that Foster was 14 at the time, forgoing Hollywood’s later, frequent habit of casting adults in teen roles. It’s also amazing to think that after a childhood of modelling and commercials, she really came into her own in 1976 by co-starring in Bugsy Mallone and, most importantly, The Taxi Driver. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, however, depicts her first love scene, though any semi-nude moments were body-doubled by her older sister.

There are some good performances all around, despite the fact that this feels like a made-for-TV movie. In addition to Foster and Sheen, Alexis Smith (The Woman in White) is a force to be reckoned with as Cora Hallett. Scott Jacoby (Bad Ronald) is decent as Mario, Rynn’s only true friend and first lover. Musician and producer Mort Shuman (he wrote “Viva Las Vegas” among other things) appears as the likable Officer Miglioriti, Mario’s kind uncle and the only adult in the film who is nice to Rynn.

The film’s biggest flaw is the static nature of the action. It is almost entirely set inside Rynn’s house and is so heavy on dialogue and light on action that it feels like a stage play adaptation. There are some undeniably ridiculous script elements, though the emphasis on child/teenage independence is interesting. The scant outdoor scenery was beautifully shot by René Verzier and it’s impossible to tell that Quebec is actually standing in for New England. This Canadian-French co-production is somewhat of a lost gem; it’s not the finest ‘70s horror film, but it has some solid performances and interesting connections with other films of the period.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is one of several films from the ‘70s that could be classified as horror about troubled youth. The Exorcist, Carrie, Alucarda, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, Alice Sweet Alice, Stranger in Our House, and Don’t Deliver Us from Evil are all centered around troubled female teenagers or girls approaching their teen years. There is something of an obvious influence taken from the earlier play and film The Bad Seed, though The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is really the only movie to examine things from the child killer’s perspective and utterly succeeds because it turned Rynn into a sympathetic, if mysterious character.

Another similar film, Bad Ronald, approached the same subject matter and coincidentally also starred Scott Jacoby as the titular Ronald. Here Ronald is also an accidental murderer and outcast, orphaned when his mother suddenly dies of an illness. The two films deal with similar themes in very different ways; Ronald descends further into his fantasy world, becoming dangerously disturbed. Rynn tries to accept the hard facts of reality and behaves as she believes an adult should, doing whatever is necessary for her survival.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is available on DVD after being hard to find for a number of years. It comes recommended, particularly for fans of subtler films that rely more on mystery (and emotional angst) than on gore or excessive violence. Plus, it’s worth checking out an early, underrated performance from Jodi Foster. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014


David Cronenberg, 1979
Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle

Frank Carveth is in a heated custody battle with his wife Nola over their five year-old daughter Candice. Nola happens to be in a psychiatric institute under the care of experimental psychotherapist Hal Raglan, who is exposing Nola to something he calls “psychoplasmics.” This encourages her to externalize her rage and neuroses and allow them to physiologically manifest themselves. Frank discovers that Candice has been physically abused while spending the weekend with Nola and angrily confronts Raglan, saying he will refuse to allow Candice to further visit her mother. Raglan insists, so Frank tries to discredit him.

Raglan discovers that Nola was abused by her alcoholic parents, particularly her mother. Soon after, while Candice is with her grandmother, the woman is beaten to death by a small child wielding a meat tenderizer. More people in Frank’s life turn up dead – presumably at the hands of the same dwarf or child who killed Nola’s mother. When one of these creatures is found deceased and it is revealed to be something subhuman, Raglan closes down the psychiatric hospital and releases all the patients, except Nola. Soon Candice goes missing and Frank is desperate to find her, certain that Nola has put her in some kind of danger…

The Brood was Cronenberg’s most technically advanced film to date with a large enough budget to hire accomplished actors – Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar – and to guarantee a more focused visual style and more subtle, impactful effects. The script is also richer and more developed, with carefully written side characters whose roles are gradually established as the script unfolds. Nothing of this kind was apparent in Shivers or Rabid.  Cronenberg began relationships with some of his long-term collaborators on The Brood, including composer Howard Shore, art director Carol Spier, and D.P. Mark Irwin.

In terms of Cronenberg’s early films, The Brood is body horror at its most advanced – guilt and rage so pronounced that it manifests itself in the flesh. These themes would continue to develop in Videodrome, The Fly, and some of his later films, but this is their true origin in Cronenberg’s work. This is also his most personal film. At the time of production, he was going through a bitter, painful divorce with his then-wife, which included a custody battle. The Brood is also one of his only films about the struggles of the family unit. Though The Fly begins to touch on this theme at its conclusion, it would be years until he made another, in the form of both History of Violence and Eastern Promises, which effectively function as an entwined double feature.

Though The Brood is relatively tame in terms of violence, the crowning – pun intended – moment is when Nola gives birth at the end of the film, rips the placenta open with her teeth, and licks the bloody mutant-baby clean in a moment of visceral disgust. Scenes like this encouraged viewers and critics to assume The Brood is misogynistic, as Nola, the destructive mother, is its monster and villain. Fortunately it’s not that simple and balance is not restored when Nola is killed; her hatred and malice is shown to pass on to her daughter, Candy, in the form of welts on her arms. As Nola was abused and warped by her own mother, it seems that Candy will share the same fate and the cycle of familial abuse will never be broken. The mysteries of the female body and motherhood become full blown horrors in a way that would not be repeated in Cronenberg’s future work.

Nola’s brood, the “children,” may seem silly to describe, but they are quite effective on film. Cronenberg shows as little of them as possible, so that we might confuse them with real children at first. They are reminiscent of Don’t Look Now or even Alice Sweet Alice, another film where the killer is a small person wearing a child’s coat, attacking with surprising violence and force of will. Cronenberg uses deception and misdirection as long as he can until he is finally forced to show us their deformed, bestial faces. They are exceptionally strong and violent, though much of this occurs quickly or off screen, leading us to believe we’ve seen more – and much worse – violence than we really have.

Art Hindle (Black Christmas) is decent as the suffering lead, though he is hardly able to compete with the histrionic performances of Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar (The Dead are Alive). This is one of the great Oliver Reed’s finest performances and he really helps Hal Raglan emerge from the scene as a powerful, three-dimensional figure. As Nola is the monstrous feminine, Raglan is utterly masculine, confident and confrontational, directing the lives of his patients with sympathy, but also hubris. As with Shivers and Rabid, it is an experimenting scientist that sets the events in motion, his well-intentioned, but misguided experiment leading to violence and chaos.

After the urban spaces of Shivers and Rabid, The Brood is full of rural, woodsy, and even suburban settings. The feelings of loneliness and isolation that Cronenberg was developing in Shivers and Rabid come full circle here. While Shivers examined the futility of a bourgeois, middle-class lifestyle and Rabid looked at urban nihilism, The Brood is all about the inherent dysfunction in the family structure. Though Frank and Nola first found love – Candy is the physical expression of this – it is a doomed love, damned to violently self-destruct because of the horrors of past family life (Nola’s parents) and future hopes (Raglan and the brood).

The Brood is available on DVD, but it’s embarrassing that a region 1 special edition disc (or blu-ray) hasn’t been released yet. Hopefully Criterion will address that sometime in the next year or so. Regardless, the film comes highly recommended and was one of my first favorite Cronenberg movies, perhaps unsurprisingly because I’m the product of a nasty divorce and abusive home. Similar in tone to horror films like Deathdream and art house fare like Cassavetes’ Faces, The Brood is a chilling portrait of divorce where the emotional drama is as dread-filled as the horror elements. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


David Cronenberg, 1977
Starring: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan

A young woman, Rose, is riding a motorcycle in the Quebec countryside with her boyfriend Hart. They get into a bad accident when a lost family in a van attempts to turn around in the middle of the highway. Hart is left with some injuries, but Rose nearly dies. The inhabitants of a nearby plastic surgery hospital witness the accident and Rose is brought in to Dr. Keloid, the head of the hospital, for emergency treatment.

As with the doctor in Shivers, Dr. Keloid is experimenting with a new technique that will change the application of skin grafts and the use of stem cells. He uses this on Rose without her knowledge or consent, arguing to another doctor that she’s dying and they have no other choice. Rose is in a coma for over a month, but as soon as she wakes, she is nearly paralyzed with a new hunger. She unknowingly attacks several people around the hospital, hugging them close to her while a sharp proboscis in her armpit punctures their skin and feeds on their blood. Believing she has recovered, she hitchhikes back to Montreal, in search of Hart, feeding as she goes, unaware that her bite leaves behind a disease that turns the inhabitants rabid and highly contagious… 

Rabid and David Cronenberg's earlier Shivers are interesting examinations of contagious, devastating sexually transmitted diseases just before the AIDS epidemic began. Rose’s need to feed (and the method) is a new take on vampirism, while her victims are a new take on the zombie. Gone are the Romero-esque shufflers of Shivers; instead, Rose’s victims do become somewhat rabid and froth at the mouth, racing at high speeds towards human targets. While Rose spreads the virus by sucking blood, the victims spread it through biting and saliva. The sexual undertones of both the film and Rose’s method of feeding are more subtle and more effective than Shivers. The fact that Rose uses her sexual attractiveness to feed upon men is sleazy, if not downright creepy, and the images of her stalking the Montreal scenes in a huge fur coat are some of the most memorable of the film. In one of my favorite scenes, Cronenberg puts her in a porn theater, where she turns the tables on a would-be victimizer.

One of the ways that Rabid improves upon Shivers is the cinematography. While Shivers was set inside one building, Rabid explores urban Montreal, Canadian highways, and the cold, sterile medical clinic. There’s some lovely cinematographer from Rene Verzier, who captures the city, mall, and underground particularly well. Joe Blasco, who did the effects work on Shivers, returned for this film and created the vaginal/anal-looking orifice in Chambers’ armpit and the phallic proboscis that emerges from it.

There are some other good performances, including Joe Silver, returning to a very similar role from Shivers. Frank Moore (The Long Kiss Goodnight) is the anxious boyfriend Hart, adding a love story plot into the mix, and Susan Roman (Heavy Metal) is sympathetic as Rose’s concerned roommate. 

Former porn star Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door) is excellent in Rabid and it’s a shame her career didn’t develop further after the film. Her obvious sexual appear and girl-next-door type beauty is perfect for the role where she is essentially an unwitting predator. Another way Rabid improved upon Shivers is through Rose’s character. Though the camera doesn’t stick with her for the entire film, the charismatic, sympathetic central protagonist — something absent in Shivers — begins to appear here. Rose is genuinely likable and becomes yet more sympathetic because of her ties to her roommate and boyfriend.

There are more horror set pieces here than in Shivers, including a particularly disturbing one when an infected doctor loses control of himself in the middle of surgery and turns his scalpel on his colleagues. Rabid also has elements of Cronenberg’s much later Crash, with two very detailed crash scenes. The first involves Rose’s life-changing motorcycle crash and the second is a lovingly shot, almost fetishistic car crash. 

My only major complaint with Rabid is that the second half of the film is less impressive  than the first as it moves away from Rose and focuses more on her victims. There’s an attack scene in a mall (similar to Dawn of the Dead) and another in the subway. Though these help to emphasis the spreading threat, they take unnecessary time away from Rose’s character and her worsening plight. Her seclusion in the hospital is quite effective, as is her time alone in the city, where her affliction presents itself very much like drug addiction. 

Rabid is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. Though this may not quite have the style, gusto, or sheerly imaginative quality of some of Cronenberg’s ‘80s films, it is a worthy entry in his early career and a solid horror film in its own right. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


David Cronenberg, 1976
Starring: Fred Doederlin, Paul Hampton, Lynn Lowry, Barbara Steele

"Even dying is an act of eroticism."

In a brand new, high class apartment building, a doctor, Hobbes, murders a young girl and then kills himself. It seems that Hobbes was experimenting with parasites and used his young mistress as the host. He tried to burn the parasites out of her, but was too late. Her sexual promiscuity caused her to infect others in the apartment building. This is first noticed because some of the male residents have strange tumors in their stomachs. The parasites soon begin to escape from their hosts and travel through the apartment building, infecting anyone they come across by possessing their hosts either through sexual or oral contact. Anyone infected is plagued with an overwhelming sexual urge that causes them to be incredibly violent. The building’s physician — it houses a small medical center — is alerted to the strange goings on and tries to alert outside help before it is too late. 

Several films from the ‘70s, particularly cult or horror films, addressed the emerging horror of capitalism, commercialism, and the middle class, such as Dawn of the Dead and Salo. Shivers is certainly among this group. Cronenberg’s Starlight apartment complex begins as a middle class oasis, a self-reliant structure full of the most modern designs and amenities, including its own medical clinic. The parasites infect these boring, thoroughly average citizens and turn them into ravaging sex beasts. 

The script is not Cronenberg’s finest — he wrote it himself — through it has a number of interesting elements. The sex maniac angle becomes a little tired by the end and the conclusion of the film isn’t nearly as gripping as the first three-fourths. There are numerous scenes of black comedy, but it is the blackest of the black. People are murdered, raped, possessed, prone to psychotic behavior, etc. Critics (and the Canadian parliament) passionately hated the film for these reasons and it’s somewhat amazing that Cronenberg went on to have such a long and popular career after the amount of hatred leveled at him over Shivers.

This isn’t the most polished or stylized of Cronenberg’s films, but it is important to keep in mind that it is his very first. The poor lighting and sound techniques can be overlooked and occasionally give the film a TV documentary feel that adds to its realism. It is also easy to ignore these shabbier elements when the camera menacingly lingers on the apartment building. First a place of desire, luxury, and status, it quickly becomes a claustrophobic tomb, trapping its denizens in their apartments, in narrow hallways, and dark garages. 

There are some ridiculous scenes, but I think these moments are not unintentional camp, they are purposeful black humor. Some of the scenes do look like cast offs from a ‘70s softcore film, but Cronenberg keeps the tension ramped up enough that terror — or at least physical discomfort — is never far away. 

Joe Blasco did some excellent work with the phallic, fecal parasite creature. Cronenberg’s parasite is not an original idea — the William Castle film The Tingler has a creature that is similar in behavior and appearance, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a similar group possession plot — but it obviously went on to influence Alien. This is also somewhat of a riff on Night of the Living Dead, though the film’s worst scenes are the ones in which the possessed tenants shuffle about like zombies. 

The cast is decent, if uneven. It’s always wonderful to see horror scream queen Barbara Steele (Black Sunday), here out of period costume, but still looking lovely and seductive. Lynn Lowry (The Crazies), Joe Silver (Rabid), and Paul Hampton (Babylon 5) all put in good, if somewhat wooden appearances. One of the film’s major flaws is its lack of a compelling, central protagonist, something that Rabid, Cronenberg’s next film, would also suffer from.
Shivers is also known as They Came from Within and was made under the title Orgy of the Blood Parasites. It is available on DVD, though it is long out of print and very expensive. The film comes highly recommended, though Cronenberg aficionados will get the most out of it, as will anyone who enjoys camp as well as extreme horror. Cronenberg followed this with Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979) before moving onto further cult acclaim in the ‘80s. This trilogy is among is weirdest and most raw and —like many of his later films — I think they deserve to be seen together, as one repulsive, festering unit. 

Monday, February 24, 2014


Bob Clark, 1974
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon

Black Christmas is one of my favorite scary movies of all time and possibly my favorite slasher film. The premise is simple, yet effective. A group of sorority sisters receives a series of creepy, prank phone calls and one by one, begin to drop dead during their Christmas break. The film was based on real murders that took place in Quebec in the early '70s and was also definitely inspired by one of the most terrifying urban legends of all time. HERE'S A SPOILER for anyone who hasn't seen Black Christmas yet: known as "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs," the legend tells of a babysitter alone in the house after she has put the children to sleep. She gets a series of disturbing phone calls which, of course, come from within the house. This was also used more literally in the entertaining but inferior When a Stranger Calls.

Black Christmas is one of my favorite horror films for several reasons. First of all, I love Christmas horror: Tales from the Crypt, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, etc. While the gimmicky aspect of centering a horror film on holiday festivities can give many of these films that “so bad it’s good” quality, the holiday season is of minimal importance to Black Christmas and primarily acts as a plot device. There is a built-in reason for the girls to throw a big party, for the town and sorority house to be abandoned, and it guarantees that all disappearances will go unnoticed for the time being. Plus, there are plenty of shots of the glorious Canadian snow.

Speaking of Canada, horror fans generally associate the slasher film with the release of Halloween or Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood. As a genre, slasher movies certainly expanded in the U.S., but Black Christmas was released four years before Halloween and – for my money – is a superior film. Director Bob Clark (famous for what is probably the most beloved Christmas film of all time, A Christmas Story) was American, but shot and financed a number of his films in Canada. His previous horror film, the excellent zombie-Vietnam war flick Deathdream was a Canadian production and he would go on to make Sherlock Holmes-themed horror-drama Murder by Decree there as well.

Black Christmas it is incredibly mean-spirited, certainly more so than any other slasher film from the period. (A few years later, nasty Canadian slasher Happy Birthday To Me would give it a run for its money, though.)  Aside from the grisly murders, there are the perverse prank calls where the caller liberally uses the word "cunt" and instead of getting offended, the girls laugh about it and provoke him. There's a lot of inappropriate comedy, especially from Margot Kidder's (Amityville Horror) character, a horny drunk. The house "mom" (Marian Waldman, Deranged) is an alcoholic who cleverly hides flasks around the house. The main character, Jess (Olivia Hussey) is desperate to get an abortion, regardless of her unstable boyfriend's opinion.

The cast is wonderful and nice to look at, but not particularly sympathetic. Olivia Hussey (It, Death on the Nile) is fairly solid as the beautiful, but cold Jess. Her cruelty to her unstable boyfriend (Keir Dullea, 2001: A Space Odyssey) makes it seem like she will be a deserving victim of the mysterious killer. John Saxon (Tenebre) is a fabulous addition to the film, but then he brings joy to every movie he's ever appeared in, even the mostly irredeemable The Scorpion with Two Tails. Keep your ear out for a chilling score from Carl Zittrer, who was supposedly responsible for Saxon's involvement, and worked with Clark previously on Deathdream.

Black Christmas comes highly recommended. My only criticism, if I had to have one, is that the plot might be a little confusing for first time viewers. In a bold move on Clark's part, the killer is given neither identity nor motivation and isn’t really even seen throughout the course of the film. The movie received bafflingly poor reviews upon release that have improved over the years, but it is still entirely too neglected. You can help turn that around right now by picking up the nice special edition DVD from Somerville House that comes with interviews and a short documentary. And remember, if this picture doesn't make your skin crawl... it's on too tight!


Bob Clark, 1972
Starring: Richard Backus, John Marley, Lynn Carlin

Young Andy Brooks is a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War. He is killed by a sniper and, while dying, hears his mother remind him that he promised to return home. His family receives notice of his death, but his mother refuses to believe it. She insists that Andy is not dead and the notice is incorrect. He suddenly returns that night and his family is overwhelmed with joy, but they soon learn that it’s not the same Andy that they remember. He acts strangely, sits for hours without speaking, and begins hanging out in a local graveyard. He is sullen and joyless. Meanwhile, dead bodies drained of blood begin to turn up in the neighborhood. Is Andy responsible?

Deathdream is essentially a re-telling of W.W. Jacobs’ seminal horror tale, “The Monkey’s Paw” and its overarching theme is “be careful what you wish for.” In this case, a mother’s desperate wish that her son will return home from war becomes a thing of horror for the family, her son, and their small town community. Andy’s plight is representative of a number of things effecting youth in the ‘70s, including the Vietnam War and drug addiction. Without giving too much away, Andy is injecting himself with blood in order to stay alive, or rather maintain his state of un-death. Director Bob Clark was one of the first to depict the problems of the Vietnam War on screen and it is a rich, compelling backdrop to Andy’s more supernatural problems.

Deathdream is not just merely a war-haunted re-working of The Monkey’s Paw set in small town America. It is also a bitter family drama that documents the dramatic decay of one family. Talented actors John Marley and Lynn Carlin are excellent as Andy’s parents. His mother retreats further and further into a fantasy world where her son and family are intact; his father reacts by succumbing to alcoholism and violence. Interestingly, Marley and Carlin already played a warring married couple in John Cassavetes’ devastating Faces. It might seem like a strange recommendation, but Faces and Deathdream would make a very interesting, if grim double feature about the pitfalls of marriage and family life.

This is director Bob Clark’s (Black Christmas, A Christmas Story) second collaboration with writer Alan Ormsby – they previously worked on Children’s Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things – and this is far superior to their overrated first film. Clark actually brought a number of his previous (and future) collaborators onto the project. Jeff Gillen, an actor in Children also appears here. He would later go on to work with Ormsby and Clark on Deranged, which Gillen directed. Ormsby’s wife Anya has a co-starring role as Andy’s sister.

Jack McGowan (cinematographer on Deranged) is responsible for the excellent cinematography and Carl Zittrer, Clark’s future collaborator on Black Christmas, wrote the creepy, effective score. Deathdream is also notable for horror fanatics, because it marks the debut of effects wizard Tom Savini. The subject matter is oddly fitting, as Savini served in the Vietnam War as a photographer. He would, of course, go on to make some of the best effects in late ‘70s and ‘80s horror.

Deathdream’s only major flaw is that parts of the plot are slow moving; for example, it takes the film a while to reveal that Andy is dead. This development is never explained, though that doesn’t really seem necessary, particularly for anyone who’s read The Monkey’s Paw. The powerful performance of Richard Backus (Lovers and Friends) as Andy is enough to overcome most of the issues. He is commanding as Andy and carries the film, despite that several of his scenes involve him sitting in a rocking chair, looking dead and empty. When his rage and frustration begin to spill over, his performance intensifies. He is truly one of the most sympathetic monsters in ‘70s cinema. Keep a box of tissues handy for the ending.

Chilling, suspenseful, and heart wrenching, Deathdream is one of the unsung classics of ‘70s horror. Considered a Canadian film, it was actually co-financed by Canada and the U.K, but was filmed in Florida. Also known as Dead of Night, but it shouldn’t be confused with the 1945 horror anthology of the same name. Deathdream is available on DVD and comes with the highest possible recommendation.

Friday, February 21, 2014


Bob Clark, 1972
Starring: Alan Ormsby, Valerie Mamches, Jeff Gillen, Anya Ormsby

The insufferable Alan takes his theater troupe to a strange island, one that is apparently full of dead criminals buried in a spooky cemetery. He tells them stories about these men and then holds a séance at midnight, hoping to raise one of them from the dead. He digs up a man named Orville Dunworth, but when nothing happens, the disappointed troupe wanders off. Alan becomes even more intolerable than normal during the night, humiliating the actors and making fun of Orville, but little does he suspect that the dead will get their revenge…

Though I’m a huge fan of director Bob Clark’s other films – particularly Deathdream and Black Christmasas well as A Christmas Story, Porky’s, and Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper film Murder by Decree – Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things just never grew on me. Unlike Clark’s later, more stylish films, Children is incredibly low budget with the singular island set and a cast made up largely of his college friends. It is an important film mostly because it heralds the career of one of the most interesting directors to make films in Canada. Clark himself was from the U.S. (as is this particular production), but some of his best films were made in the Great White North.

Clark and star Alan Ormsby divided up duties on the film; they co-wrote the movie, Clark directed, and Ormsby starred and designed the special effects. Ormsby’s writing and effects aren’t bad. He actually went on to write a book about the subject, Movie Monsters: Monster Make-Up and Monster Shows to Put On, and worked on Deathdream and Deranged with Clark. It’s a shame that he’s a truly terrible actor and his character and performance is what put me off of the film to begin with. He’s one of the most rage-inducing lead characters in all of horror cinema and is simply unlikable in every imaginable way. He abuses his theater troupe, whom he calls his children, and threatens to fire them when they displease him in any way. Early in the film, he makes a sexual advance on one of his actresses right in front of her boyfriend.

The rest of the cast don’t fare very well either. Mostly they are memorable because of how dated and ‘70s their costumes and haircuts appear. The characters are not remotely memorable and all are overshadowed by Alan. Seth Sklarey returned in Porky’s II and Jane Daly was on a number of television shows (including The X-Files), but most of the cast didn’t go on to have film careers.

Outside of the cast, the most serious issue is the glacial pacing. The first three-fourths of the film are devoid of zombies, though the ending is satisfying and surprisingly bleak. Interestingly, Children was one of the first films to capitalize on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and paved the ways for dozens – now hundred – of similar films. It’s a shame something wasn’t done earlier in the film, such as pitting Alan against the actors or some other sort of red herring or twist.

Bob Clark planned to do a remake of the film in 2007, but sadly died in a car crash. Children has been released on special edition DVD and comes recommended, though mostly to fans of low budget ‘70s horror or early zombie films. Though there are plenty of annoying elements, there is some nice atmosphere and plenty of strangeness that would foreshadow Clark’s excellent career to come. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

SALEM'S LOT (1979)

Tobe Hooper, 1979
Starring: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres

A writer, Ben Mears, returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot, Maine to investigate a legendary haunted house for his next novel. The Marsten House has unfortunately been sold to a new, mysterious owner and Mears is relegated to spying from a distance. Richard Straker, the new owner, has also purchased a building which he is turning into an antique shop. He awaits the arrival of his partner, Kurt Barlow. Mears, meanwhile, has begun dating a local woman, Susan, and slowly begins to get to know the reserved, suspicious locals who are plagued with their own domestic and personal issues. But soon Straker has a number of crates delivered to town and bodies begin to turn up, including two of the local children. It seems that Straker’s partner is really a monstrous vampire and has arrived to turn Salem’s Lot into his own personal feeding ground. Can Mears discover the truth and stop him before it is too late?

This TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s lengthy vampire novel of the same name was surprisingly directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I know a lot of people who love this film/miniseries (it was also released in a cut, film version) and have fond memories of it scaring the pants off them as children. I, however, never got around to watching it growing up and during my teenage years I avoided it because of my passionate hatred for most things Stephen King. Watching three straight hours of Salem’s Lot was pretty agonizing, though there are some noteworthy moments.

The first major issue is that Salem’s Lot is very, very dated. It seems like the kind of film you had to see growing up and I’ve heard the same thing about Monster Squad and Fright Night from friends a generation ahead of me. Aside from a few moments, Salem’s Lot came across as boring and cheesy. One of the key scenes I’ve heard people talk about is when a child vampire arrives through thick mist and floats at his brother’s door, beckoning him to open. It may have been scary to a bunch of 12 year olds, but it just looks ridiculous now. There are honestly scarier scenes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Really, the biggest problem with Salem’s Lot is that it is a close retelling of Dracula, but mixed in with all of Stephen King’s beloved tropes. It’s set in a small town in New England, the two central characters are respectively a horror novelist and a teenage horror nerd, and there are subplots of infidelity, abuse, and marital strife. Though the overall story is about supernatural evil, there are references to child murder and an all too human evil. As with The Shining, the house is believed to be a fundamentally evil, corrupting influence. In other words, absolutely nothing about this is new. In the hands of another, less formulaic writer, I think Dracula set in Lovecraft’s New England could be compelling, but with Salem’s Lot, alas.

There are some changes from the novel to the screenplay, though I have not read the former. Apparently characters and subplots are combined or removed completely and Barlow is dramatically different. It’s also important to keep in mind which version you are watching. The theatrical cut is only 112 minutes, removing several side plots and scenes, making the film blessedly shorter, but things seem choppier and more confusing. The complete, uncut version – which I sadly endured – is 184 minutes, which was totally unnecessary, as much of this concerns conversation between townsfolk. Zzzzz.

Barlow’s vampire in the miniseries is wildly different from the book, where he appears to be human. His portrayal in the film as a near-glowing, Nosferatu-like creature is perhaps the worst thing about Salem Lot’s. He looks absurd. I appreciate the way the other townsfolk turned vampires are largely ravenous, monstrous hunters; there is nothing romantic or remotely human about them, but Barlow’s appearance is just taking it too far. He looks like an ‘80s action figure version of Nosferatu – similar to the original, but inexplicably radioactive and glowing.

In addition to the wince- and possibly nausea-inducing villain, the pacing is glacial. There are really only three key moments worth watching: at the hour mark, when the first round of deaths occur, at the two hour mark, when more action happens, and the last twenty minutes during the conclusion. My favorite thing about the film is the climax at the Marsten House. Tobe Hooper has an eye for interiors (Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Fun House are two other great examples) and the house looks incredible. It seems as if it was once richly decorated, but has fallen into disarray. Debris and animal corpses litter the grounds and there are skulls and antlers on display. One of the most effective scenes is when Dr. Norton is killed by being pushed up onto a strange wall hung with antlers. Truly creepy.

James Mason is undoubtedly the best thing about the film. He has a couple of good scenes, including one where he sasses a priest and another where he snidely mocks the police chief, which is quite funny. He is the actual villain of the piece, since Barlow is either absent or absurd-looking. As the protagonist, David Soul (Starsky & Hutch) honestly creeps me out – maybe it’s the hair? – but I guess he’s a decent lead. It’s almost impossible to compete with James Mason, who steals the film every time he’s on screen despite the fact that he seems to be phoning it in. In a way this reminds me of actors’ complaints about the set of the Frank Langella adaptation of Dracula from the same year; it was impossible to compete with Donald Pleasance.

Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard, Needful Things) is frustrating as Susan, partly because there is no reason for her character to appear in the film outside of her role in the conclusion. Bedelia is also hardly an ideal choice for leading lady, though I suppose she fits a small-town ideal of the pretty, yet homely young school teacher.There are a number of genre actors peppered throughout the miniseries who all given fairly strong performances, including Kenneth McMillan (Dune), Reggie Nalder (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Lance Kerwin (Outbreak), Geoffrey Lewis (Night of the Comet), Ed Flanders (The Exorcist III, The Ninth Configuration), Marie Windsor (Chamber of Horrors), and Elisha Cook, Jr. (Rosemary’s Baby, Messiah of Evil).

I really can’t recommend Salem’s Lot unless you’re a nine year old, in which case you should heed the disclaimer that this blog is for adults only. It is available on DVD if you decide you must watch it, but you’re never going to get that three hours back. Salem’s Lot was followed by a sequel, A Return to Salem's Lot, surprisingly directed by Larry Cohen. I couldn’t bring myself to watch that or the 2005 remake. 

Monday, February 17, 2014


Wes Craven, 1978
Starring: Linda Blair, Lee Purcell, Jeremy Slate

A happy-go-lucky teenager, Rachel, has her life turned upside-down when her recently orphaned cousin Julia comes to live with her family in California. Everyone else takes pity on Julia and comes to love her, but Rachel notices a number of strange things. Julia lived in Massachusetts and spends occasional summers in the Ozarks, but has a thick accent. She begins ingratiating herself in Rachel’s life, stealing away the attention of Rachel’s parents and older brother, and soon outright stealing Rachel’s boyfriend and best-friend. One day before a local dance, Rachel wakes up with boils and soon her beloved horse – who Julia hates – has a nasty fall and has to be put down. Rachel finds suspicious things in Julia’s possession, including a tooth, a picture of Rachel, and a creepy doll-like figure made out of her horse’s hair. She is soon convinced Julia is a witch, but who will believe her?

Stranger in Our House – later released as Summer of Fear – is an odd ‘70s horror medley, in the sense that it’s a made-for-TV movie, was directed by then up-and-coming horror maverick Wes Craven, starred The Exorcist’s Linda Blair, and clearly took some inspiration from Roman Polanski.

I feel a little bad that I’ve thus far left Wes Craven out of my ‘70s horror review series. Though his career would really take off in the ‘80s, in the ‘70s he directed two of his most important films, Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), as well as this made for TV movie. I didn’t include the two former films in my series simply because I don’t like them. Though I’m very fond of Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series and The Serpent and the Rainbow, I don’t really care for any of his other “classics.” I was pleasantly surprised by Stranger in Our House, partly because it’s so cheesy and ridiculous. It doesn’t try too hard to be shocking or clever, unlike many of Craven’s other films, and is a nice little snapshot of its time.

Based on a young-adult novel from Lois Duncan, The Summer of Fear, Duncan also wrote the source material for I Know What You Did Last Summer. Because this is from a young-adult book and was made for television, there is very little violence outside from horse-related shenanigans, but the ending takes a turn for the wild and crazy, involving a incest, a car chase and explosion, among other things. Despite a number of flaws, it’s an entertaining thriller, worth watching for the verbal catfights between Blair and Purcell and the perms. OH THE PERMS. There are actually battling perms. There are a number of interesting, if increasingly obvious events that clue Rachel in to her cousin’s aims and Linda Blair is thoroughly believable, if a bit annoyingly chipper throughout the film.

Lee Purcell (also a witch in Orson Welles’ Necromancy) is excellent as Julia, though it would be nice to have more scenes of her cat-fighting with Linda Blair – maybe some hair-pulling and clothes-ripping. There’s another amusing performance from a very young Fran Drescher (The Nanny), as well as some B actors like Jeff East (Superman, Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing), Billy Beck (Invitation to Hell), John Steadman (The Hills Have Eyes), and Beatrice Manley (The Baby).

If you really want to see The Stranger in Our House aka Summer of Fear, it is
available on DVD
after decades of being unavailable. It’s nothing too original or exciting, but it is pretty entertaining. Fans of B-grade ‘70s horror will want to watch it at least once for the incredibly awful perms and hilarious teenager dialogue. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Dan Curtis, 1975
Starring: Karen Black, John Karlen, George Gaynes

Also known as Tales of Terror and Terror of the Doll, Trilogy of Terror is a made-for-TV horror film comprised of three parts. The latter two do in fact involve tales about a killer doll. The first, “Julie,” concerns a conservative college teacher who arouses interest in one of her students, Chad. He becomes determined to seduce her. When she eventually agrees to go out with him, he takes her to a drive-in movie, but drugs her drink. He takes nude photos of her and it is implies that he rapes her. When Julie recovers, he blackmails her into continuing their affair, but things might not be all that Chad believes they are…

The second tale, ”Millicent and Therese,” involves incest and murder. The brunette, repressed, librarian-like Millicent (not unlike Julie in the previous segment) becomes convinced that Therese, her blonde, sex-kitten sister, is practicing voodoo and hopes to kill her. Millicent pleads with their doctor friend, who seems reluctant to help. Can Millicent survive her sister’s evil plans? The final story, “Amelia,” concerns a woman who lives alone in an apartment building. She receives a package that contains a menacing-looking Zuni fetish doll accompanied by a scroll that explains it is called “He Who Kills.” Amelia has a fight over the phone with her controlling mother and the Zuni doll soon awakes and disappears. Later, making dinner alone, she realizes that “He Who Kills” is hunting her down… 

As with Dan Curtis’s The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror was first screen as part of the ABC Movie of the Week, a surprising gold mine for horror in the ‘70s. As opposed to something like The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror is women-centric, with far more female characters than male and is driven by the four separate performances of Karen Black, who plays each of the main women in the three separate segments. The lives of different kinds of women are explored — the prude, repressed teacher, sisters, and a mother-daughter relationship.

Director and producer Dan Curtis made his fame with made-for-TV horror, including The Night Stalker and House of Dark Shadows. He was not the strongest director, but wisely chose the great Richard Matheson as either his script or story writer, sometimes both, given this an edge in terms of accomplished writer that later horror television would fail to reach.

Though all three tales are based on stories by the late, wonderful horror and sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, the first two were scripted by William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run). “Julie” is based on Matheson's story “The Likeness of Julie.”  Amusingly enough, the film they watch at the drive-in is Dan Curtis’s The Night Stalker, which Chad claims is a French vampire movie. There are plenty of horror references, in-jokes, and red herrings, enough to keep this amusing even though it isn’t the strongest tale in the trilogy. There is a satisfying bait-and-switch, even though this first entry doesn’t hold up as well upon repeat viewings. 

“Millicent and Therese” is an average-at-best reworking of something like Brian de Palma’s Sisters, a story of two identical sisters, one good and one insane. It’s fairly predictable and Karen Black’s wig for the second sister, Therese, is just painful. The much more memorable “Amelia” is based on an enjoyable Matheson story, “Prey” and ranks as the finest tale in Trilogy of Terror. This is also supposedly the only script written solely by Matheson himself, with some contributions surprisingly from Karen Black. 

Karen Black may not have been a genre actress at the time — she was known for Five Easy Pieces, Nashville, Day of the Locust, and Easy Rider, among others — but at her own admission this TV film had her type cast in genre films for nearly the rest of her career. Here is she is way over the top, similar to her performance in Dan Curtis’s later haunted house tale Burnt Offerings with Oliver Reed. I have to admit that I’ve never cared for Karen Black. I never found her attractive or a compelling actress, though she manages to carry Trilogy of Terror enough that it has survived with a solid cult reputation. But if you hate Karen Black, this is really not the movie for you. 

There are some good side performances from genre actors, including John Karlen (Daughters of Darkness and Dan Curtis’s House of Dark Shadows), George Gaynes (The Boy Who Cried Werewolf), Robert Burton (Black’s then-husband), and others. There are some memorable moments, particular the balls-to-the-wall frenzy in “Amelia,” and Trilogy of Terror still has the power to entertain after all these years.

The film is available on DVD and will appear to anyone who enjoys ‘70s horror, anthology films, or Karen Black. It’s hardly a contender against some of the films I’ve written about in my series on ‘70s horror, but it’s a fun little blast from the past and is a good way to pass a dark and stormy night alone. 


Buzz Kulik, 1974
Starring: Scott Jacoby, Kim Hunter, Dabney Coleman, Kim Hunter, Pippa Scott

A socially awkward teenager, Ronald, accidentally kills a young classmate when she makes fun of him and his mother. In a panic, he buries her. Ronald’s odd, controlling mother realizes the police will never believe it’s an accident after Ronald buried the girl, so she comes up with a plan to hide him. They will use his new birthday toolbox to wall off one of the small rooms in the house, where he will live silently and unseen until the police stop looking for him. Unfortunately, after walling up Ronald, his mother goes to have a routine operation but dies in the hospital. A new family purchases the house with no idea that there is a disturbed young man living behind the walls. Ronald becomes more immersed in his own fantasy world, where he believed he is a young price and one of the family’s beautiful three daughters is destined to become his princess…

Based on a novel by John Holbrook Vance, Bad Ronald is far better than it has any right to be. It’s low-budget with some TV-quality acting, but there are plenty of creepy moments and some effective scares. Ronald himself is incredibly awkward, bordering on creepy, and it’s difficult to feel sympathy for him, particularly towards the latter half of the film when he has completely immersed himself in his fantasy world and is covered in filth. Scott Jacoby (The Little Girl that Lives Down the Lane) is perfectly weird and awkward as Ronald, though the film should have spent either more or less time developing his character. There is a dull period in the middle of the film that focuses on Ronald’s early time walled up in the house. 

Kim Hunter (Planet of the Apes) is decent as Mrs. Wilby, Ronald’s controlling, somewhat insane mother who thinks that walling her son up in the house is a good idea. The appearance of his mother does make Ronald’s character easier to sympathize with and he would have seemed like more of a monster without her early scenes. The other actors are mostly forgettable, though the family as a whole gives off a fittingly innocent, Brady Bunch-type vibe. 

Director Buzz Kulik was most famous for Brian’s Song (1971) and directed a number of made-for-TV movies in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He did a decent job here. Though it mostly looks like a made-for-TV movie, there are some nice shots. There’s a great scene at the end of the film when one of the girls follows a ray of light that happens to lead to one of Ronald’s peep holes. When she stares into it there is a wide, terrifying eye staring back at her. Another effective scene involves Babs trapped in the neighbor’s house — she is encountered with some things that she doesn’t expect.

The more sexualized aspects of the film are only hinted at and Bad Ronald could have been more of a classic if it was allowed to be weirder and more unrestrained. It’s still pretty over the top for a TV film, though the ending is too abrupt and the film spends too much time on the drama of Ronald’s life with his mother. The movie doesn’t get to the new family until the final third, which is full of creepiness and potential. The ending, sadly, is anticlimactic and it would have been more interesting if the girls were really forced to enter Ronald’s fantasy world.

Bad Ronald does come recommended, particularly for fans of obscure ‘70s genre cinema. It’s available on DVD after being out of print and unavailable for years. Definitely worth checking out once, the film may surprise you. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977)

Henri-Georges Clouzot was born in Niort, in western France, but moved to Paris to pursue a career in writing and film. He spent the first decade of his professional life working as a screenwriter in Paris and then Berlin, where he wrote dialogue for the French versions of several German films. Here he was exposed to the work of German expressionist directors such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, whose work would majorly influence his future career. He was allegedly fired due to his friendship with a number of Jewish producers and sent back to Paris. Despite this, he found work in Nazi-occupied France as a screenwriter and director for German company Continental Films. The anti-Gestapo themes of his second feature film, Le corbeau, got him fired from Continental and later banned from making films in France for several years. His sentence, which initially banned him from film-making for life, was overturned due to the support of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, René Clair, and Marcel Carné, among other well-known artists and filmmakers. He returned to prominence with two classics, Diabolique and Wages of Fear, and married one of his key collaborators, Brazilian actress Véra Clouzot. She suffered from poor health and died of a heart attack in 1960. Though depressed, Clouzot remarried a few years later to another South American, Inès de Gonzalez.

Though often compared to Hitchcock, Clouzot’s films are darker and more nihilistic, lacking Hitchcock’s more lighthearted and conventional characters. Clouzot contracted tuberculosis early in life and suffered from poor health, which unfortunately slowed down his career in later years. His time in sanitariums did keep him out of the war and allowed him to read extensively, work on scripts, and develop the grim impression of human nature that would so heavily impact his work.

Clouzot’s films are stocked with inherently amoral and selfish characters, individuals who are sexually and financially opportunistic and place their own pleasure or survival above all else. Communities are based on alienation and paranoia; there is no trust between neighbors, families, or lovers. Romantic relationships in Clouzot’s films fail due to a mixture of female infidelity and male possessiveness, jealousy, and sexual obsession. Though some of his characters are portrayed to genuinely love one another, it is always a doomed love that is fundamentally unrealistic. Many of his women are portrayed as ambitious and promiscuous, independent to a fault, while even his likable male characters are often predatory and abusive.

On to his films:

I was unable to find his first short film, La terreur des Batignolles (1931), the comic story of a burglar. There seems to be very little information about it or either of the first two films he worked on, Tout pour l’amour (1933) and Caprice de princesse (1934). As far as I can tell these are German productions that were shot in both German and French. Clouzot was responsible for the French versions as screenwriter/translator and assistant director. Both are musical comedies and neither are available on DVD. 

Clouzot’s first feature film remains one of my favorites. A mixture of comedy and suspense, it relates the tale of Monsieur Durand, a serial killer who leaves calling cards at the scene of each crime. Desperate to find the culprit, the French police threaten to fire Inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay) if he doesn’t immediately catch the killer. Wens learns that Durand lives in a boarding house – Number 21 – full of some very interesting characters. He takes a room and disguises himself as a priest to root out Durand’s identity. Unfortunately his nosy girlfriend, struggling singer/actress Mila (Suzy Delair), is told she’ll become famous if she catches the killer and also on the case.
Based on a story by Stanislas-André Steeman, L’assassin habite au 21 is proof of Clouzot’s excellent comic timing and impeccable instinct for suspense. He makes great use of distinguished star Pierre Fresnay and a number of memorable side actors. Fresnay’s co-star, Suzy Delair, a French pop singer and Clouzot’s lover for several years, is rather grating, but she played the same obnoxious character alongside Fresnay in Le dernier de six (1941), a mystery film written, but not directed by Clouzot. Somewhat similar to Agatha Christie’s darker novels and packed with misanthropy, L’assassin habite au 21 comes highly recommended.

Clouzot’s first masterpiece was a film that got him blacklisted from cinema by the Nazis, Vichy government, Catholic Church, and French Resistance due to its scathing subject matter. Pierre Fresnay returned to star as a doctor targeted by a mysterious writer of poison pen letters in a small town, accusing him of having an affair with a colleague’s wife (Micheline Francey) and of performing illegal abortions. The letters soon spin out of control, revealing that everyone in town has at least one dark secret. The townsfolk are more than willing to inform on one another and someone ends up dead. On the verge of hysteria, the town is determined to find the culprit or, failing that, a scapegoat.
Beautifully shot with some incredible sequences, Le corbeau is a film about blame, guilt, secrets, lies, doubt, and suspicion, apt subject matter during the German occupation of France. It was rapidly banned by the conservative Vichy government due to its blatant anti-Nazi themes and also by the Resistance due to Clouzot’s perceived collaboration with the Germans. For this reason, it was also banned after the war and Clouzot was not permitted to direct another film until 1947. One of Clouzot’s finest works, few films from the ‘40s or ‘50s were able to capture this acerbic atmosphere of paranoia and misanthropy, the spirit of life for many in occupied France.

Clouzot’s first two post-war films, Quai des Orfèvres and Manon, are both concerned with infidelity, jealousy, sexual obsession, the desperate search for wealth, and murder. An up and coming singer, Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair again), is desperate for fame and regularly drives her husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) into fits of murderous jealousy when she flirts with wealthy, powerful men. When one of her would-be producers, the lascivious Brignon (Charles Dullin) is murdered, Maurice is the main suspect and Jenny is desperate to clear his name. Their downstairs neighbor Dora (Simone Renant) tries to help them, but a very clever inspector (Louis Jouvet) is on their trail.
Based loosely on Stanislas-André Steeman’s novel Légitime défense, Quai des Orfèvres is somewhat similar to L’Assassin habite au 21, though it is stripped of humor and the identity of the murderer is quickly revealed. Instead, the plot revolves around what will happen to Maurice and Jenny as they crack under the strain of a criminal investigation. This is balanced by the charm and wit of Inspector Antoine, played with aplomb by the ever wonderful Louis Jouvet (The Lower Depths). Antoine is one of Clouzot’s few positive characters. As a detective and ex-soldier, he is aware of life’s nastier aspects, but manages to slog past it with humor, patience, and an almost serene understanding of human nature.
A retelling of Abbé Prévost’s tragic love story Manon Lescaut, Clouzot brilliantly set this film at the conclusion of WWII. In a small, nearly destroyed town, a young woman named Manon (Cécile Aubry) is accused of collaborating with the Germans, but is rescued from punishment by French soldiers. One soldier in particular, Robert (Michel Auclair), comes to love her and they run away together. They encounter a number of obstacles, including Robert's family, Manon’s obsession with wealth, and her secret career as a highly paid prostitute. Robert’s insane jealousy leads him to commit murder. They flee on a boat full of Jewish refugees bound for Palestine, but the Captain (Henri Vilbert) is determined to turn them over to the authorities.
Though much of the film is a nihilistic take on the classic romantic melodrama, Clouzot’s surreal, inspired conclusion makes Manon a must-see. Manon and Robert do make it to Palestine and encounter a paradise-like oasis where they have a truly perfect moment together, which highlights the illusory, fleeting nature of their love. The blistering desert becomes the final resting place for Manon (echoing the novel’s original ending), but it is also the literal end of the road for the Jewish refugees. Clouzot concludes the film on a cruel note about the futility of hope and the false notion of new beginnings or starting over.

One film I was unable to find was the anthology Retour à la Vie (1949). Clouzot directed the segment Le retour de Jean, which concerns a man’s encounter with the Nazi who tortured him during his time as a prisoner of war. Louis Jouvet returned to star and the other three sketches also concern prisoners of war returning to France after the war’s end. I was also unable to find much about Le voyage en Brésil (1950), an unfinished documentary about life in Brazil. In 1950, Clouzot met his Brazilian wife, Véra Gibson-Amado. They went to her home country for their honeymoon, where Clouzot attempted to film a documentary, but he ran out of money and the Brazilian government disapproved of his interest in the country’s poverty. Instead of finishing the film, he wrote a book about the experience, Le cheval des dieux.

Clouzot’s only truly light-hearted film is this comedy about an aspiring young actress (Danièle Delorme) whose mother (Mireille Perrey) wishes she would settle down with a wealthy gentleman instead of pursuing a career on the stage. Three men compete over her: the lascivious head of an acting troupe (Louis Jouvet again), an old marquis (Saturnin Fabre), and his young nephew (French comedian Bourvil). This romantic comedy of errors ends relatively well for all the main characters, particularly the young lovers, and there are scenes of both great verbal wit and physical comedy. 
Clouzot warmly makes fun of young love, artistic ambition, and the theater all in one blow. He also seems to be poking fun at his series of tragic, romantic films. Coincidentally, Clouzot met and fell in love with his wife on the set of Miquette. Unlike the majority of his other films, Miquette is set in the belle époque and benefits from a number of lovely sets and costumes. It is difficult to get ahold of for U.S. fans, as it has not been released on region 1 DVD and does not seem to have been subtitled yet.
In a desperately hot, poor South American village, four men are needed to drive two volatile trucks full of explosives through the jungle in order to put out a fire in a mine hundreds of miles away. After a number of interviews, Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folci Lulli), and Bimba (Peter van Eyck) are selected. While they are anxious to receive the sizable payout at the end of the trip, the drive is full of obstacles, both personal and physical, and before long the men are plagued with exhaustion and fear. 
Based on a script by Georges-Jean Arnaud, who wrote about his own experiences living in South America, Clouzot and his brother Jean (as Jérôme Geronimi) penned this bleak, acclaimed film that gave Clouzot an international reputation. It won several awards, including Best Film at Cannes, where Clouzot-regular Charles Vanel also won Best Actor. Unlike Clouzot’s previous films, Wages of Fear has a mostly male cast and moves away from his themes of doomed love, though there was a small role for his new wife, Vera, as a village girl mistreated by her lover, Mario. Instead, the film returns to some of the themes from Le corbeau: greed, suspicious, doubt, and fear, as well as throwing in a political theme. In lieu of the evils of fascism, here Clouzot exposes the dark side of capitalism and its powerful ability to crush both the human spirit and human life. 

The abusive headmaster of a boys’ boarding school (Paul Meurisse) is killed by his sickly wife (Véra Clouzot) and his bold mistress (Simone Signoret). His wife Christina is tired of the regular beatings and psychological cruelty so, along with his mistress Nicole, flees the school and demands a divorce. He arrives to forcibly bring his wife home, but the women drug him and drown him in the bathtub, as they had planned. They take his body back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool during the dead of night. When the pool is drained shortly after, his body is missing and the two women become consumed with hysteria and fear.
Les diaboliques makes an interesting companion piece with Wages of Fear. While the latter is populated with male characters and is essentially a study of fear surrounding a financial and stereotypically masculine situation (hard labor), the former is focused on two female characters and a similarly gripping fear, instead in the female domestic space. Christina is also concerned about money; her sizable inheritance, which runs the school, is tightly controlled by her husband. The story is based on a novel by the mystery writing team known as Bouileau-Narcejac and Clouzot bought the rights directly out from under the nose of Alfred Hitchcock, who intended to adapt the book. There are certainly elements of the source material and Clouzot’s film that influenced Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Along with Wages of Fear, Les diaboliques is Clouzot’s most acclaimed work and remains one of the greatest French thrillers of all time.

Le mystère Picasso (1956) aka The Mystery of Picasso
Clouzot’s first documentary is this film that attempts to capture the techniques of famed Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. Picasso and Clouzot were close friends and what I first thought was going to be a documentary about the life and work of Picasso is instead something more obtuse and perhaps of more historical value. Picasso draws and paints 15 different pieces, which Clouzot captures from the opposite side of the sheet or canvas, following Picasso’s outlining, shading, coloring or painting, and frequent changing and transforming of his work. 
Though a bit repetitive for the first half, the second part of the documentary is fascinating and is essential watching for aspiring or professional painters, illustrators, and miscellaneous artists. The drawings are timed, so Picasso never lingers too long on one subject and tries to keep the themes different, though they are all Cubist in nature. There are a handful of shots of him up close, though Clouzot’s camera generally fixates on the art. Dialogue is very limited. Picasso destroyed all 15 works after filming was complete and the film was declared a national treasure by the French government. It also won a prize at Cannes, though it failed at the box office. An interesting work that captures Clouzot's love of art, this unique documentary comes recommended.

With Les espions, Clouzot returned to the thriller and focused his attention on yet another popular war-time topic: espionage. Set during the Cold War, an alleged atomic scientist on the run and his shady associates bribe the head doctor (Gérard Séty) of a run-down sanitarium in exchange for shelter. The sanitarium becomes the site of an international conspiracy as Russian and American spies descend upon the hospital to try to locate the missing scientist. 
Les espions is one of Clouzot’s least popular films, possibly because it is so difficult to classify. With elements of black comedy and absurdism, this unpredictable film shares some of the same themes as Le corbeau, including betrayals, murder, lies, and an isolated community in the grip of paranoia. It is certainly not a standard spy thriller or spoof, which were becoming popular at this time. The excellent, international cast includes Curd Jürgens, Peter Ustinov, Sam Jaffe, and Véra Clouzot. Les espions is somewhat difficult to find on DVD, though there is an affordable U.K. edition available. 
Despite his reputation and two classic thrillers, Clouzot's biggest critics were the directors and writers of the nouvelle vague – such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard -- who claimed that he was old fashioned and uninspired. La vérité stands as a scathing, if somewhat sympathetic critique of stereotypical New-Wave life. The young, beautiful Dominique Marceau (Brigitte Bardot) is on trial for the murder of her boyfriend Gilbert Tellier (Sami Frey). During court proceedings, she is defended by a kind lawyer (Charles Vanel) and harshly criticized by the opposing attorney (Paul Meurisse) for her bohemian lifestyle, which supposedly led to her murdering her more serious boyfriend, an up-and-coming composer.
Allegedly Bardot’s favorite film that she appeared in, her status as an important new wave actress adds weight to the character of Dominique, a beautiful, but aimless party girl with a promiscuous lifestyle and no ambitions. Bardot is certainly at her best here and Clouzot had the last laugh – La vérité was one of the most successful films of the year. It revisits some of Clouzot’s themes from his tragic, romantic films, such as doomed love impacted by selfishness, jealousy, and a woman’s desperate striving for freedom. Dominique is one of Clouzot’s most vulnerable characters and her qualities of longing and uncertainty manage to overcome her greed, selfishness, and youthful cruelty. The film also unnervingly mirrored Bardot’s life. The film’s trial is concluded with Dominique’s suicide; Bardot’s own highly publicized suicide attempt occurred shortly after.

Clouzot began shooting L'enfer, another film about marital strife, jealous, and infidelity, but never completed it. Star Serge Reggiani had to be replaced due to illness and soon after Clouzot’s own health forced him to cancel the production. It would have been his most experimental production to-date and included the use of colors, textures, abstract art shots, and psychedelia. 
In 2009, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea made a documentary about the film, L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot, with the blessing of Clouzot’s second wife who provided hours of unedited footage from L’enfer. This fascinating look at one of Clouzot’s unfinished masterpieces is a must-see for fans of his work and contains clips of the film, interviews with the cast and crew, and plenty of extra footage. The documentary also examines the ways in which the film nearly killed Clouzot, his obsessive, megalomaniacal directorial style, and his intentions to make L’enfer his most experimental film to date. Even if you aren't a serious Clouzot fan, L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot is a fascinating portrait of the process of creating a film and what happens when it is unfinished.
In the mid-‘60s, Clouzot took a break from feature films partially due to health and financial straits, and directed some classical music performances for television. With Die Kunst des Dirigierens aka The Art of Conducting, Clouzot directed five separate performances of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by the famed Herbert von Karajan. Including Verdi’s Requiem, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Schumann’s 4th Symphony, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto, these were turned into five documentary-style episodes for French television. The success of Die Kunst des Dirigierens encouraged Clouzot to produce one more classical special, Messa da Requiem.
Again conducted by Karajan, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem was filmed in the beautiful La Scala theater in Milan. Masterfully staged, there are some famed soloists including Luciano Pavarotti, Fiorenza Cossotti, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, as well as the excellent La Scala Symphony and Chorus. If you enjoy classical music at all, Messa da Requiem comes highly recommended and is surely one of the finest recorded performances of Verdi’s funereal masterpiece. Though I was unable to find a link to the DVD, it is currently available on Netflix as a disc.

The brooding Stanislas Hassler (Laurent Terzieff) owns a modern art gallery. Josée (Elisabeth Wiener), the wife of one of his artists (Bernard Fresson), becomes fascinated with him and learns that he keeps an apartment with his own private photography collection. She soon discovers that his photography is more than just art pieces – there are numerous images of women in submissive sexual positions. Rather than fleeing back to her husband, Josée is overwhelmingly curious about Stanislas’s fascination with dominance and submission. 
A fitting, if too early conclusion to Clouzot’s career, La prisonnière uses many of his classic themes, such as infidelity, jealousy, and the search for sexual and personal freedom. It also brings in some of the experimental elements he was developing in L’enfer and he used a number of the abandoned psychedelic shots from that film in La prisonnière. Clouzot’s only film in color (discounting the documentaries), this is a frustrating film because it suggests a change in Clouzot’s career, a progression that likely would have resulted in another masterpiece if he had not grown seriously ill and died several years later. It comes with the highest recommendation for Clouzot's use of color and texture alone and stands as the culmination of his later career.

One of the finest French directors of the ‘40s and ‘50s, it’s a shame that Clouzot’s later career was hampered by his ill health. Truffaut allegedly pleaded with him to return to cinema between his last film in 1968 and his death in 1977, but was unsuccessful. He is buried next to Véra in Paris. His reputation – a difficult, demanding director who often abused his actors – and legacy – films about the bleak, nihilistic, and predatory side of human nature – remain. He deserves a wider audience and several of his films have yet to be released on region 1 DVD. If you’d like to learn more, check out Christopher Lloyd’s recent Henri-Georges Clouzot, which is the only full-length book available in English, or start with Fiona Watson’s article about the director for Senses of Cinema. And, above all, watch his excellent, anxiety-inducing films.