Friday, October 30, 2015

THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN

Terence Fisher, 1958
Starring: Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Michael Gwynn

Having escaped execution by guillotine as promised in The Curse of Frankenstein, the Baron Victor Frankenstein assumes a new name — Dr. Stein — and relocates to Carlsbruch, where he has become a highly sought after physician. He somewhat accidentally finds a new assistant when a young doctor, Hans, realizes he is Frankenstein and blackmails Victor into letting him help with new experiments. They work with Karl, Frankenstein’s deformed assistant, to try to transplant a brain into a new body. In this case, Karl wants his brain relocated into a healthy, handsomer form, thanks to his feelings for a pretty nurse at the hospital for the poor where they all work.

I have to admit that I find Hammer’s second film in the Frankenstein series — which followed hot on the heels of 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein and was shot simultaneously with the beginning of their Dracula series, The Horror of Dracula — nearly as enjoyable as the first. It’s a real relief that Hammer took the series in a new direction, choosing to focus on the Baron rather than the monster as the subject of what would become a seven film run. And, even more so than The Curse of Frankenstein, this film belongs solely to Peter Cushing. The plot may not be as grand as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, lacks serious moral quandaries, and doesn’t even really have a monster, but it’s still a fantastic films thanks to Cushing.

The Baron is a bit kinder and gentler here — or at least his ambitions are more rational and more focused. Hammer were building an effective Frankenstein mythology and made the Baron sort of a cross between protagonist and antihero. Here he is on the verge of having his genius and ambition result in real positive change. He’s still the same ruthless, egotistical bastard, but Revenge shows that he could be capable of true good… if things didn’t always seem to go wrong all the time. This movie is frustrating solely because everything would have worked out fine if everyone had just listened to Baron Frankenstein. Karl’s brain is ultimately damaged because he doesn’t give it time to heal and panics, fleeing his hospital bed with the help of the sensitive but ill-informed Margaret, the nurse he’s in love with. Karl’s brain goes haywire; it becomes convinced he’s paralyzed again and the ensuing trauma makes him completely homicidal.

It’s perhaps strange that Revenge of Frankenstein doesn’t even really have a monster in it. Karl fills the quota for “deformed assistant,” but he’s a sympathetic figure, arguably more so than any of Universal’s monsters. He also never really has an overly monstrous appearance and his transformation is not from a pile of corpses into a shuffling monster, but from a damaged human into a whole one. Hammer would use this formula again for later films in the series like Frankenstein Created Woman. Christopher Lee’s absence is not even felt, because he and Cushing teamed up for The Horror of Dracula, though the rest of the team is present: director Terence Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster, cinematographer Jack Asher, designer Bernard Robinson, and so on.

This second film maintains several of the important themes of the first. Frankenstein is closely bonded with a male doctor — in this case, Hans Cleve (Hammer regular Francis Matthews of Dracula, Price of Darkness) — and seems completely uninterested in the female gender. There are also numerous class issues. Dr. “Stein,” Frankenstein’s less than clever pseudonym, refuses to join a local organization of wealthy doctors and willingly switches between upper class patients and charity treatment at a local hospital. Of course, this charity has an ulterior motive — experimentation — but the snub puts him on the wrong side of the powers that be and cause them to be suspicious of his actions and watch him closely.

But out of all the reasons to watch The Revenge of Frankenstein, probably the most important is its totally bonkers conclusion. Spoilers in the next few sentences: Baron Frankenstein is beaten to death by hysterical hospital patients, but he escapes death YET AGAIN. Hans removes the good doctor’s brain, so he can transplant it into a new body that mystifyingly resembles Peter Cushing and show the authorities Frankenstein’s corpse to get them off the doctor’s trail to make future experiments easier. And… drumroll… of course, Frankenstein himself planned this all in advance. So obviously, if you like Frankenstein films, Peter Cushing, or movies with amazing yet improbably endings, you owe it to yourself to give this a chance. You can find it on DVD and it’s a great choice for the Halloween season.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN

Terence Fisher, 1957
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart

After his mother’s death, the young, voraciously intelligent Baron Victor Frankenstein is in total control of his family estate. He agrees to support his aunt and cousin Elizabeth, and hires a tutor named Paul. After a few years, Victor and Paul become intellectual equals and begin a number of medical experiments. These soon take an unorthodox turn. They bring a dog back to life and Victor immediately begins work on a new human being, crafted from dead body parts. Elizabeth’s arrival in the household — and Paul’s refusal to continue participating — does nothing to deter Victor, who goes through with the creation of his creature, though its brain is accidentally damaged and things go horribly wrong.

The first major Hammer horror film and one of the first important horror films in color — and it is indeed highly stylized and garishly colorful — The Curse of Frankenstein is the movie that put British horror on the map. It changed the face of genre cinema in the ‘60s with eye-popping sets and costumes that were allegedly handed down from earlier productions, effectively disguising its low budget. Gorier and more sadistic than films that came before it (though not by today’s standards), Hammer’s adaptation worked hard to provide a fresh take on Mary Shelley’s classic novel, if only to avoid being sued by a watchful Universal Studios, who didn’t want their 1931 masterpiece imitated.

But if anything makes the film so fantastic, it’s undoubtedly the lead performance from Peter Cushing. A well-known TV actor before this film, Cushing plays the role with a sense of gentlemanly class and refined sensibility that would follow him though out his career. His Victor Frankenstein is like an early Hannibal Lector. He’s brilliant, but sociopathic and the film is less concerned with the moral transgressions of playing God, but more invested in the concept of unchecked ambition. He dehumanized everyone around him and, throughout the seven film series (where all the films but one have Cushing cast as Frankenstein), there always seem to be women wildly in love with him who are totally blind to his egomania and often cruel, violent misdeeds. The series as a whole can’t seem to decide if he’s an asexual genius, focused only on his experiments, or an opportunistic bastard. Here he callously murders a brilliant professor, a venerable man who is also his old friend, in order to harvest his brain for an experiment.

Victor Frankenstein’s emotional coldness, aloof intellectualism, and sociopathic tendencies are contrasted by his monstrous creation. Played by actor Christopher Lee, who got the part of the monster sheerly because of his enormous size at 6’5”, Frankenstein’s creation is more animalistic and ghoulish than Universal’s imagining. The greenish makeup is admittedly a little cheesy, but he appears almost pre-human, stitched together, and possibly still decaying. Lee’s lumbering performance is highly physical, though this is the last time he would return to the series. Regardless, The Curse of Frankenstein is an important footnote in horror history, because it’s the first time genre fans would see Lee and Cushing together — though they would go on to form one of horror’s most enduring partnerships and a warm off-screen friendship that lasted decades.

The Curse of Frankenstein also set up Hammer’s general horror formula: it involved the company’s two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, as well as actress Hazel Court, who would go on to appear in The Man Who Could Cheat Death and a number of Vincent Price films. It also united director Terence Fisher, arguably Hammer’s greatest, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and cinematographer Jack Asher. In a complete break from the sci-fi themes that dominated the genre cinema of the ‘50s, the film embraced a lush period setting with heavy bosoms and a literary origin. There are also the themes of classism — Frankenstein’s wealth and breeding are linked to his monstrosity — and a sense of confused sexuality — the Baron only seems capable of real intimacy with his male associates despite the many women in his life — that would continue throughout many Hammer films and all of the Frankenstein series.

Perhaps against the odds, this film was very successful and, as I mentioned, put Hammer on the map permanently. The studio would go on to fill out the series with six more films: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), a loose remake of Curse without Cushing, and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973). Though they retread many of the same themes, I think these are all worthwhile films, though Curse is obviously the ideal place to start. Pick it up on DVD or Blu-ray, though I’m hoping someone will release a full Blu-ray set of the whole series at some point soon.

And also, Peter Cushing is so handsome and debonair that if you haven't seen this movie yet, break out the smelling salts because you're going to swoon a few times.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

JACK THE RIPPER (1959)

Monty Berman, Robert S. Baker
Starring: Lee Patterson, Eddie Byrne, Betty McDowall, John Le Mesurier

A gruesome killer known as Jack the Ripper has begun targeting women in the Whitechapel area of Victorian London. Inspector O”Neill with Scotland Yard teams up with a visiting American, Detective Sam Lowry, to try to get to the bottom of the killer’s identity. Lowry also gets involved with Anne Ford, a young woman working at a Whitechapel hospital against the protests of her uncle and guardian, a doctor who also doesn’t approve of Lowry. Soon, Lowry and O’Neill begin to wonder if the uptight doctor has a connection to the Whitechapel murders…

I’m admittedly a huge fan of Jack the Ripper-themed films, so much so that I’m generally able to ignore their often deep-seated flaws. Jack the Ripper is one of the first films about the mysterious, legendary killer, and is possibly the first to directly portray Saucy Jack and focus on his crimes. Earlier attempts like Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), John Brahm’s remake of The Lodger (1944), and Man in the Attic (1953) avoid historical accuracy and invent murderous characters with fictional names and back stories. Admittedly, Jack the Ripper doesn’t rely too heavily on the actual facts of the Ripper case either — though it is based in 1888 and makes good use of the Victorian setting — and the real crimes provide a loose framework for a story about a wealthy male preying upon lower class females.

Part of the appeal of Jack the Ripper as a fictional character is that the real life killer was never discovered, leaving the figure ripe for embellishment — not only as the source of fiction, but as the inspiration for dozens (possibly hundreds at this point) of cockamamie theories about Jack’s identity. Jack the Ripper builds on one of the more plausible theories that originated with Australian journalist Leonard Matters: that the Ripper was a medical man getting revenge for a son who dies of syphilis, which he contracted from a whore. There are a few doctor characters, so I’m not giving much away, but the film isn’t too careful about hiding the identity of the killer. The real mystery lies in his motivations. It’s clear he’s targeting prostitutes (though the film refuses to call them that directly), but he calls them by a woman’s name, the woman he is hoping to kill. In a clever turn, this isn’t revealed until Jack the Ripper’s final moments.

The film’s major flaw is that it suffers from a case of uncertain identity. It would perhaps benefit from following something closer to a slasher formula, but it has moments of smutty dance hall drama, police procedural, and Victorian romance. The perspective jumps around far too much and doesn’t really settle on one solid protagonist. In the first half of the film, this role is given to the New York detective, but it leaves him behind in the second half to follow his love interest, Anne, and a series of victims. Regardless of this issue, this is just one of many British horror films to focus on the fascinating interplay between upper class politicians and businessmen, middle class police officers, and lower class victims/bystanders. This tension between the acceptability of those interested in smut — the wealthy men who frequent smarmy dance halls and are regularly entertained by prostitutes — and those victimized by it is the film’s focal point.

Directed by producers (and sometimes co-writers and co-cinematographers) Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker for Mid Century Film Productions, this isn’t something that I can recommend to everyone, but interested parties can find it on DVD. It’s got nothing on Horrors of the Black Museum, but it’s a mindlessly pleasant way to pass the time for Ripper enthusiasts or anyone who enjoys early Scotland Yard procedurals. It might be low budget, but there are plenty of chilling scenes set in the thick London fog and if the directors do anything right, it’s making the most of the Victorian-style set and costumes. I’d also really love a chance to catch the alternate French version, which has more sex and gore, including topless and nude scenes set in the seedy dance hall. 

This might not be the best Jack the Ripper film — that distinction either goes to Murder by Decree, the concluding bit of The Ruling Class, or even Time After Time — but it wouldn’t be out of place in any Ripper-themed movie marathon. Later in my British horror series, I’ll also be taking a look at the similarly themed A Study in Terror (1965), where Sherlock Holmes meets Saucy Jack, and Hammer’s fantastic riff on the topic, Hands of the Ripper (1971). In this case, Jack the Ripper is really just an appetizer for Hammer’s more delectable main course.

Friday, October 23, 2015

BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE

Henry Cass, 1958
Starring: Donald Wolfit, Barbara Shelley, Vincent Ball, Victor Maddern

When a young doctor, John Pierre, is wrongly convicted of a crime, he’s sent to serve out his sentence at an insane asylum. The prison’s doctor, Callistratus, takes Pierre under his wing and allows him to assist with his unorthodox experiments. He’s trying to cure a rare blood disease — one Callistratus secretly suffers from himself — with the help of his deformed assistant Carl. He won’t let anything or anyone get in his way and when Pierre’s case is overturned and he’s ordered released, Callistratus pretends he died during an attempted prison escape. He also prevents Pierre’s real escape and forces him to stay and assist with the experiments, but Pierre’s girlfriend gets a job at the castle, hoping to find out the truth.

Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster was hired by producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman — also responsible for The Flesh and the Fiends and The Trollenberg Terror — to write this film for Artistes Alliance. In addition to the colorized, British editions of the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises, Sangster penned sci-fi horror films like X the Unknown (1956) and The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as well as a bevy of Hammer’s suspense-horror films like Taste of Fear (1961), The Maniac (1963), Paranoiac (1963), and so many more. And Blood of the Vampire definitely riffs on Hammer’s first two, genre-changing films, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958), both written by Sangster, and if anything, it stands as an early testament to his talent and impact on horror cinema.

I wish this had gone more of a Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman or House of Dracula route. It squanders the fact that Callistratus is essentially a vampire and focuses more on the mad science angle. He’s staked in the heart of the beginning of the film and is revived by Carl — with a heart transplant (!!!) — but it would be nice if there were some scenes of the doctor stalking lovely ladies or even unfortunate prisoners and sucking some blood. The film’s mild gore and moments of torture are either related to the insane asylum — an occasional, often colorful setting for horror and suspense films as far afield as Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Amicus film Asylum, William Girdler’s Asylum of Satan, Alone in the Dark, Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Hellraiser 2, and more — or to the doctor’s experiments.

The film is worth watching for a few performances, namely Sir Donald Wolfit (Lawrence of Arabia, Beckett) as the gleefully demented Dr. Callistratus. He’s actually overshadowed by Victor Maddern (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Carry On Emmannuelle) as his hunchbacked assistant Carl, who has one eye grotesquely drooping out of its socket. And keep an eye out for the always lovely Barbara Shelley (Quatermass and the Pit, The Gorgon), one of Hammer’s most talented regulars, as Pierre’s lady love. Shelley fortunately rises a bit above the damsel in distress trope and takes it upon herself to go undercover (as a housemaid) at the asylum. Interestingly, it’s Carl’s love for her that sets in motion Callistratus’s defeat rather than any actions on behalf of the inept hero.

Admittedly, Blood of the Vampire is not the greatest of British horror films and it’s is probably lesser seen for a reason. There are a few slow, talkie scenes and plenty of moments that seem like they’re about to explode into violence and horror but quickly fizzle out. You could even make the argument that this isn’t a true horror film, but more of a period piece drama with medical experimentation and prison themes. But fans of Gothic British horror, as well as anyone who likes mad doctor movies, will find plenty to enjoy thanks to the colorful sets and over the top performances. You can find Blood of the Vampire on a double feature disc from Dark Sky along with The Hellfire Club, a dud that I’ll review in a few weeks.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

NIGHT OF THE DEMON

Jacques Tourneur, 1957
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis

The skeptical Dr. John Holden comes to England for a convention, where another man, Professor Harrington, planned to expose a local, Dr. Julian Karswell, of leading a Satanic cult. Since Harrington has recently died under mysterious circumstances, Holden decides to continue the investigation himself. He refuses to believe that Karswell is a Satanist or that any supernatural causes were behind Harrington’s death, though Harrington’s niece, Joanna, is not so sure. They soon have a number of strange encounters with Karswell, who curses Holden, promising that he will die in exactly three days…

Though less celebrated than horrors writers like Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, or even Stephen King, M. R. James is undeniably one of the best when it comes to ghost stories. He’s the most well known in England, his homeland, where you can find numerous film and television adaptations of his tales from collections like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) or A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925). But this adaptation of his creepy tale, “Casting the Runes” (1911), is one of the first and one of the best. Though not actually a ghost story, Night of the Demon and its source material examines the divide between scientific skepticism and supernatural power, remaining subtle and ambiguous for most of its captivating running time.

Night of the Demon was plagued with a number of on set problems, primarily between the film’s producer, Hal E. Chester, its writer, Charles Bennet, and director Jacques Tourneur. Chester insisted that shots of a demon be inserted into the film over everyone else’s objections — while Tourneur, Bennet, and star Dana Andrews argued that this would ruin the film’s carefully crafted sense of ambiguity. Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching the film with the demon in place, but it really doesn’t bother me all that much. It has a campy, almost kaiju-like feel, which is sort of out of place with the film, but I don’t think it’s so garish that it ruins the proceedings completely. Tourneur’s other great horror films — Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) with producer Val Lewton — rely heavily on this subtle approach where the monstrous supernatural is implied but not directly shown, which is strong evidence that Night of the Demon doesn’t need to show the titular beastie at all.

The issues weren’t just limited to the presence of the demon itself and Tourneur — with Andrews as his ally — frequently clashes with Bennet. The writer would have had the chance to direct the film himself if he had held on to the rights a bit longer and sold them to RKO instead of Chester and his bitterness about this fact seems obvious. Many of the clashes between he and Tourneur were about who had directorial control over the film. Fortunately Tourneur regained the upper hand, though Bennet’s script is an undeniable strong point. He got his start writing a number of Hitchcock’s early films, including The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Secret Agent, and Foreign Correspondent, as well as Orson Welles’ Black Magic, John Farrow’s underrated film noir with Robert Mitchum, Where Danger Lives, and many more. Speaking of film noir, the film’s cast and crew have many ties to the genre: director Jacques Tourneur helmed one of the best, Out of the Past, star Dana Andrews was a film noir regular, and his costar, Peggy Cummins, made her career with the underrated, but influential Gun Crazy.

There’s also a film noir influence in the film’s visual world, perhaps thanks to Tourneur and cinematographer Edward Scaife, who worked on The Third Man. Like Cat People and The Devil and Daniel Webster, the interplay of shadows and light adds much to the film’s sense of atmosphere and tension. And like film noir but unlike the earlier American horror films from Universal, the characters of Night of the Demon exist on a more complex moral scale than the traditional contrast of upstanding hero and black hearted villain. Dana Andrews’ Holden seems more interested in flirting with Joanna and pouring himself another drink than he does in solving a potentially supernatural crime, while the fantastic Niall MacGinnis is a truly charismatic opponent as Karswell.

Part of what makes Karswell so appealing is that he is contradictory by nature. He’s not omniscient or infallible. Ultimately his downfall is that he reveals the mechanics of the lethal spell to Holden, but is then goaded into cursing Holden when the latter makes fun of the supernatural, obviously insulting his pride. He lives in a mansion with his sweet, albeit clueless mother and hosts children’s parties in full clown makeup. There is the sense that he has harnessed this power to account for a deep insecurity inspired by men like Holden — he tells his mother that you don’t get nothing for nothing and he has obviously made a trade for their comfort and fortune.

But what makes Night of the Demon truly great is its excellent sense of tension and abrupt, subtle moments of terror. A wind storm during the children’s party is particularly well done, though few things top the scenes set in the ominous forest outside Karswell’s mansion. In most of these scenes, it’s never clear whether the terror is wholly supernatural or is a product of suggestion or hypnosis. Some of the details are a bit silly, such the use of invisible ink, but a slip of cursed paper with runes on it seems to really have a life of its own. And unlike so many other supernatural horror films, the stark divide between believers and nonbelievers is never really resolved. Though Karswell’s magic seems to be real, Holden is never punished or reprimanded for refusing to believe in anything beyond the rational, measurable, or explainable, leaving with a strange balance between the two worlds.

Night of the Demon of course comes with the highest possible recommendation. This Columbia Pictures production’s only possible flaw is that it was cut for the American release (like so many British and European horror films) and transformed into a slightly different, worse film called Curse of the Demon. If this is the version you’re used to watching, give the film another chance uncut, under its proper title. This release fortunately has both versions, so you can compare at your leisure. It is the absolute perfect film to watch during Halloween.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM

Arthur Crabtree, 1959
Starring: Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow, Shirley Anne Field

“You seem to eat, sleep, and drink crime.”

A young woman is brutally killed when she receives a pair of trick binoculars that gauge out her eyes. Scotland Yard is confounded by this murder, which is only one of a series, and they’re annoyed by a wealthy local crime writer, Edmond Bancroft, whose popular books and articles often mock them. Unbeknownst to them, Bancroft has a mirror of Scotland Yard’s Black Museum in his basement. Despite his injured leg and often airtight alibis, as more crimes are committed, those close to Bancroft — such as his doctor and a woman who owns an antique shop he frequents — suspect that he is in some way connected to the murders.

Let me start off by saying that the absolutely wonderful Horrors of the Black Museum is one of the films that inspired my extensive series on British horror. The first of studio Anglo-Amalgamated’s memorable early horror films — including the similarly themed Circus of Horrors and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, one of the greatest films of all time — Horrors of the Black Museum is shockingly violent and sadistic for its time period and will delight anyone not interested in Hammer’s more restrained forays into Victorian horror. Producer and script writer Herman Cohen (I Was a Teenage Werewolf) apparently based the film on Scotland Yard’s Museum of Crime and a handful of real cases detailed within.

The film largely succeeds because of Michael Gough’s career-making turn as Edmund Bancroft, a role originally meant for Vincent Price. Price and Gough established their fame as villains at around the same time: while Price starred or co-starred in The Fly (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959), Return of the Fly (1959), The Tingler (1959), and The Bat (1959), Gough was fresh off a supporting role in Horror of Dracula (1958) and would so go onto Konga (1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Black Zoo (1963), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), and many more. His delightful combination of scenery chewing, diabolical glee, haughty superiority, and sadism are perhaps an obvious precursor to Price’s classic, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).

Horrors of the Black Museum is actually a coproduction with American International Pictures (AIP), and it shares that studio’s reliance on colorful, lurid horror films, such as those AIP made with director Roger Corman. This film’s director, Arthur Crabtree, was hired based on his previous balls to the wall horror sci-fi film, Fiend Without a Face, and he brings a similar sense of glee to this far superior film. Incredibly colorful with pleasantly creepy sets, the formula set up here — primarily female victims, sadistic murders, and protagonists as killers — that would also be followed in Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom. The victims are all primarily women who have embarrassed or threatened Bancroft, including his blonde bimbo of a girlfriend who is essentially staying with him for his money. After she leaves him, he has her headboard turned into a sort of guillotine, which he used to decapitate her. He also murders a shop keeper who tries to blackmail him with a pair of antique ice tongs that she has sold him for an exorbitant amount of money.

There is a lot about the film that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. SPOILERS: Bancroft is essentially hypnotizing his young assistant Rick to commit the murders and he shoots the clueless young man up with a solution that turns him into a Mr. Hyde-like monster. But no explanation is given for either of these things. Apparently the American version — which I haven’t seen — opens with a 10 to 15 minute sequence about hypnotism to make the film a bit more gimmicky, William Castle style, and to give the hypnotism explanation a bit more weight. And you know what? Those weren’t really spoilers, because the film beats you over the head with the fact that Bancroft is a crazed murderer. After each death, his doctor notices his advanced heart rate and other telling signs, while the woman at the antique shop is literally selling him the murder weapons and it takes her more than half the film to notice.

I really can’t heap enough praise on Horrors of the Black Museum. Next to Night of the Demon (1957), it’s probably the best British horror film of the decade and really sets the tone for much of what is to come in country’s genre output: garish murders, polite psychopaths, and a sense of campy sadism that I personally find infectious. It’s available on DVD, but hasn’t really received anything close to an ultimate release in the US. Though Criterion put out quite a few ‘50s British horror gems — and the slightly later Peeping Tom — I wish they would give the same attention to this film and its companion piece, Circus of Horrors.

Monday, October 19, 2015

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE

Arthur Crabtree, 1958
Starring: Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Michael Balfour, Kim Parker

In Canada, near an American air base, locals begin to mysterious die off and they’re horrifyingly found with their brains and spinal cords missing. Major Jeff Cummings investigates and hones in on Professor Walgate, who has been undertaking some strange experiments with telekinesis. Walgate later admits that he has developed unusual abilities possibly aided by the energy produced by nuclear experiments at the army base. His thoughts have turned into unknown invisible life forms responsible for the nearby murders. Nuclear power is enhancing the power of these creatures, who soon visibly manifest and begin all out warfare on the local populace.

One of Amalgamated Productions’ final efforts is this beloved cult film based on Amelia Reynolds Long’s story “The Thought Monster,” originally published in Weird Tales. Though it has some flaws — it has some pretty dull dialogue and plods along in parts — this represents some of the highs of ‘50s atomic horror. Set in Canada, allegedly to appeal to both US and British audiences, this English-shot film has most of the hallmarks of the genre. First up is the standard insipid leading man, played by the wholesome-looking Marshall Thompson, who briefly made a career out of these roles with films like It! The Terror from Outer Space and First Man into Space. The Leave It to Beaver-like lack of complexity in characters like Major Cummings is admittedly frustrating, but provides plenty of unintentional humor.

And of course there’s a female love interest — who needs to be rescued — in the form of Kim Parker’s Barbara. I can’t stress how much I hate these type of characters that plague ‘50s cinema, which is probably why my favorite genre from the period is film noir with its abundant use of the femme fatale. These manipulative, seductive, and often violent dames are the antithesis of Barbara’s faintly hysterical, helpless character that would fortunately begin to fade away in recent decades. At least she’s overshadowed by the typical mad scientist who causes the hubbub — this time with experiments in telekinesis — his thoughts literally become invisible brain-feasting monsters.

The monsters are of course the real reason to watch Fiend Without a Face and they represent some of the goriest effects in ‘50s British cinema. Like the admittedly superior Quatermass and the Pit, this was given an X certificate by British censors. The creatures do murder a number of people — by sucking out their brains — and in the film’s amazing final 15 minutes, they attack the professor’s home, flying through the air, and slithering along thanks to propulsion from their tail-like spinal columns. Though this is obviously a low budget affair, the film really benefits from great sound effects and the use of stop-motion animation for the monsters. After running amok, they are relatively easily defeated and the ending is a delightful gross out fest with the brain monsters melting into squishy puddles of goo.

Fiend Without a Face is far from perfect — most of it is Mystery Science Theater material — but if you consider yourself a fan of vintage horror, you really need to see this at least once. Amazingly, it’s been released by Criterion in a restored edition with some nice special features. It’s strange to think that you can see the brain monsters in fully restored cinematic glory, but there’s really nothing like them in all of ‘50s cinema. Director Arthur Crabtree, whose work here is admittedly a bit pedestrian, didn’t make a lot of horror films, but his two contributions are enough to put him permanently in the books for British horror. Immediately after this sci-fi horror classic, he went on to make Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), which I’ll explore tomorrow.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

FIRST MAN INTO SPACE

Robert Day, 1959
Starring: Marshall Thompson, Marla Landi, Bill Edwards, Robert Ayres

Lt. Dan Prescott, a young pilot, is chosen to helm a rocket powered plane in an experiment to reach a high altitude. His brother Chuck, a naval commander, doubts that Dan is the right choice because he’s headstrong, irresponsible, and has recently ignored orders and blown off paperwork after a mission to be with his girlfriend. During the high altitude mission, he goes further than he was supposed to and both Dan and the plane disappear. His parachute and the wreckage are found hundreds of miles away in New Mexico. Chuck begins to investigate and finds evidence that Dan’s aircraft has been to space. At the same time, a blood-thirsty monster begins a wave of terror, targeting hospitals and cattle farms, and evidence links it back to Dan’s plane.

After finding success with two collaborations between director Robert Day and star Boris Karloff — The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood — Amalgamated Productions continued with a fusion of sci-fi and horror in First Man into Space, after the script had been rejected by American horror studio AIP. Clearly influenced by American sci-fi classics of the ‘50s and Hammer’s early foray into the genre, The Quatermass Xperiment, First Man into Space is undeniably campy and ridiculous, but also mines the very real fears of a world on the brink of space exploration. Thanks to the Cold War, US and Soviet scientists were in a neck-to-neck race in the late ‘50s with the Soviets’ Sputnik 1 coming out ahead in 1957 as the first man-made object to orbit Earth. This effectively launched the “Space Race” and by 1959, the Soviets had sent a dog, Laika, to space. 

The USSR would also conquer human spaceflight — though not until in 1961 — so First Man into Space captures both the sense of excitement about space exploration and unease about what man might find there. Perhaps strangely, this is essentially a morality tale about the dangers of hubris and the consequences of man meddling where he perhaps shouldn’t be. Less obsessed with mad science than Corridors of Blood, First Man into Space also follows in the tradition of films like The Thing from Another World (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and The Trollenberg Terror (1958) in the sense that it is primarily a monster movie. And honestly, this is its true redeeming quality, even though the humanoid creature looks like it's made out of mud (or worse, shit).

The film’s use of science is patently ridiculous, but there is plenty of fun to be had from the fact that — SPOILER ALERT, sort of — Dan turns into a monster who is literally bloodthirsty. The groan-worthy explanation is that while in space, he absorbed a sudden about of nitrogen that — along with a protective shell that looks like rock or mud — permanently altered his metabolism and means that he needs to constantly absorb blood rich in oxygen to survive. I can’t say that the acting in the film is great, but Bill Edwards brings a certain sense of physicality and energy to the role and it’s easy to see the headstrong, wild Dan as a loose precursor to James Kirk.

Marshall Thompson (It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Fiend Without a Face) is the sort of staunch, serious, and faintly disapproving older brother character you would expect, though it’s a shame that hr just isn’t as interesting of a protagonist as Dan. Perhaps the most unintentionally funny character is Hammer regular Marla Landi (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Pirates of Blood River) as Dan’s girlfriend who — to Chuck’s great surprise — also happens to work at the base and follows Dan’s plight with the sort of teeth-grinding helplessness indicative of women's roles in the first few decades of cinema.

Amazingly, this film was released in Criterion’s Monsters and Madmen box set alongside The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, and US film The Atomic Submarine. If you like campy sci-fi horror as much as I do, this is well worth watching. Its slow pace, reliance on dialogue over action, and serious lack in the style department is mostly made up for by a sympathetic monster, many scenes that are unintentionally hilarious, and a palpable sense of anxiety. This Halloween season it would make a great double feature with Fiend Without a Face, as both involve British depictions of US soldiers and scientists encountering monsters from beyond. And come on, where else are you going to see a creature that's a mud-covered space vampire?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD

Robert Day, 1958
Starring: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Betta St. John, Finlay Currie, Francis Matthews

Victorian-era surgeon Thomas Bolton is among the best in his field, but is obsessed with finding a way to ease the agony of his patients and make surgery painless. Ignoring the disdain of his colleagues, he begins experimenting with various chemicals and gases and has some measure of success, but he begins to black out, act strangely, and even becomes addicted to some of the chemicals. He arranges a demonstration in front of his fellow doctors, but the patient awakens early and he is laughed out of the medical theater. As his mind and career deteriorate, a local gang — led by men named Black Ben and Resurrection Joe — blackmails him into participating in murder for profit.

This Amalgamated Productions picture is the second collaboration between star Boris Karloff and director Robert Day — read more about them both in my review of their first film together, The Haunted Stranglerand though it has some issues, I find it endlessly endearing. It would have been easy for them to retread the same ground as The Haunted Strangler and make this another riff on The Strange Cast of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After all, Bolton does inject a chemical that makes him act strangely — he has bouts of hysterical laughter and unpredictable violence — but the film fails to launch the doctor into strict horror film territory during his blackouts, but instead makes him a tragic, pathetic figure.

For the US theatrical release, MGM paired it as a double feature with Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory, which makes very little sense as, at its core and despite its lurid title, Corridors of Blood is really a Victorian-inspired melodrama with themes of mad science that dip into Frankenstein, medical experimentation, and the real life story of Burke and Hare. The character of Bolton himself seems to be based on the real pioneer of anesthesia — specifically nitrous oxide, which Bolton works with in the film — dentist Horace Wells. Wells had a failed demonstration, not unlike Bolton’s scene in the film, where a patient woke up mid-surgery, leading to his disgraced from the medical community. He eventually became addicted to chloroform, thanks to more experiments, and killed two prostitutes by dousing them with acid during a violent, drug-induced episode. At the end of Corridors of Blood, Bolton kills (or at least seriously maims) Resurrection Joe by throwing acid in his face.

Speaking of Resurrection Joe, this is an early role for Sir Christopher Lee, fresh off the previous year’s The Curse of Frankenstein. He may not have a lot of screen time, but he’s incredibly memorable as a black-clad villain who asphyxiates the less fortunates and sells their bodies to doctors for a hefty sum. Joe gives off the icy chill that made Lee so memorable in both benign and malevolent roles and, between bouts of murder for profit, he finds time to attempt raping a barmaid (buxom Hammer regular Yvonne Romain), whose cries of horror he seems to delight in.

Both men had the chance to play Frankenstein’s monster (albeit 26 years apart) and grave robbers, as one of Karloff’s break out mid-career roles was in Val Lewton’s powerful The Body Snatcher (1945). Like that film, Corridors of Blood makes great use of its Victorian setting and the grimness of London’s poor areas gives a palpable sense of gravity and horror. Life is cheap at best, meaningless at worst in a neighborhood known as the Seven Dials, which is where Bolton runs a weekly free clinic for the poor. It is also home to the seedy bar that houses Black Ben (From Russia with Love’s Francis de Wolff) and his unscrupulous gang who seduce the unfortunate in order to execute them.

Corridors of Blood comes recommended, though if you’re expecting an outright horror film, you might be disappointed. This works very well as a gruesome historical drama and its real-life elements are fascinating and subtly used. It would be an interesting companion piece to Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, though it deals more with the dangers of obsession and the loneliness of many factual scientific pioneers than any overt exploration of monstrosity. There are a few issues — for instance, the film could have done more with Bolton’s black outs — but if you’re as big of a Karloff fan as I am, you’ll find a lot to love. And mystifyingly, this was released by Criterion as part of their Monsters and Madmen set. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

THE HAUNTED STRANGLER

Robert Day, 1958
Starring: Boris Karloff, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan, Anthony Dawson

Writer James Rankin decides to investigate the potential innocence of notorious Victorian-era killer Edward Styles, a man convicted twenty years earlier of being a serial murderer known as the Haymarket Strangler and executed. As he becomes obsessed with proving Styles’ innocence, Rankin explores the Judas Hole, a music hall where the Strangler chose victims from among the dancers. He also arranges to have Styles’ body exhumed, but somehow this results in the murders beginning again, while Rankin grows more paranoid by the day.

Also known as Grip of the Strangler, this film from director Robert Day was written specifically for aging horror star Boris Karloff by his friend Jan Read. This Amalgamated Productions movie was filmed back-to-back with Fiend Without a Face, another Karloff vehicle, and the two were released in theaters as a double feature. Though it’s easy to remember Karloff’s films from the ‘30s as his best work — and I do love a lot of it — I think that honor actually goes to some of the films made in the last decade of his career: films like The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, The Raven, Black Sabbath, Comedy of Terrors (anyone who doesn’t like this film is dead to me), Mad Monster Party?, The Sorcerers, Targets, and even Curse With the Crimson Altar.

Though the film has plenty of campy moments and an obviously low budget, Karloff is a treasure. I don’t want to totally give away the ending, but needless to say his innocent, somewhat naive investigator goes very, very bad and this is essentially his retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Not only is the plot twist enjoyable — speaking as someone who generally hates them — but Karloff’s transformation is primarily delivered through a strong physical performance and is surprisingly effective. Like Frankenstein several decades before, part of his transformation apparently involved removing his dental bridge to give his face a sunken in, totally changed appearance — obvious evidence that practical effects, even inexpensive one, are much more powerful than CGI. Karloff is frightening as a pathetic — sort of sympathetic — researcher and as a more monstrous character, proving

But Karloff isn’t the only star here. Director Robert Day, alongside Fiend Without a Face’s director Arthur Crabtree, represents some of the most interesting genre talent in ‘50s England. The Haunted Strangler’s blend of exploitation, violence, and seediness is an early preview of what would soon appear in the films of Hammer and Amicus. Day would go on to make a series of sci-fi horror blends, including Corridors of Blood (1958) — also with Karloff — and First Man in Space (1959). Though it has the sci-fi themes that would obsess most of British genre filmmaking until Hammer came along, it also has a fantastic period setting (like Hammer) and makes great use of the foggy Victorian streets.

As I mentioned, there are some surprisingly exploitative and sleazy elements with the night club, wonderfully named the Judas Hole, which was initially considered as a title for the film. The tiny blonde Vera Day (Quatermass 2) struts her stuff and, like her role in Womaneater she’s little more than eye candy and/or a helpless victim. Also keep your eyes peeled for some grave robbing and a few disturbing scenes in an insane asylum — elements that would also soon make their way into films like Hammer’s Frankenstein series and The Flesh and the Fiends.

Stylish and solidly directed from Robert Day and with an amazing performance from Karloff, The Haunted Strangler comes highly recommended for anyone who enjoys early serial killer films, sci-fi tinged horror, and Victorian set genre films. And of course, if you like Karloff at all, this is worth watching at least once. Perhaps amazingly, it was released by Criterion in an all-out set called Monsters and Madmen that includes Corridors of Blood, First Man in Space, and The Atomic Submarine (a US film). The set includes plenty of nice special features, such as commentary tracks for all the films and some nice interviews.

Friday, October 9, 2015

THE TROLLENBERG TERROR aka THE CRAWLING EYE

Quentin Lawrence, 1958
Starring: Forrest Tucker, Laurence Payne, Jennifer Jayne

In the mountain town of Trollenberg, panic grows after a young climber is mysteriously killed — and decapitated — in the fog. A recently arrived UN agent, Alan, works with a local scientist to study a strange cloud hovering above the mountain that might be radioactive. A young woman, Anne, has been touring Europe with her sister and is inexplicably drawn to the area thanks to her psychic powers. It seems that alien beings reliant on the cold have come to the area and their intentions are far from friendly — particularly towards Anne. As they begin to prey upon locals, the team works to stop them in time.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the convention of the unreliable narrator — popular in novels and films — where you realize at a certain point in the story that you can’t trust what the protagonist/narrator has been telling you. In the case of The Trollenberg Terror, I’m basically the unreliable reviewer in the sense that I’m not pretending to have any foundation of rational bias as I write this review and you might even not want to believe I word I say. I am absolutely gaga for ‘50s sci-fi horror films and The Trollenberg Terror aka The Crawling Eye, as it is known to US audiences, is a solid example of the type of trash I go wild for. 

Inspired by Hammer’s work turning the Quatermass TV serial into the hugely influential film, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), the relatively forgotten Southall Studios adapted the TV serial The Trollenberg Terror into a feature-length film retaining the same director, Quentin Lawrence, as well as some overlapping cast members. Fortunately there’s a script from Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster, though I can’t pretend that the film is flawless — but the flaws are critical to its charm. The film is admittedly overly talkie and wastes a lot of potential in not revealing the Lovecraftian monsters until the last ten minutes. They’re delightfully tentacled beings with a giant, central eye that sometimes seems to jiggle, though I think that was not particularly intentional but is more a result of shoddy effects work.

Despite dialogue-heavy moments and a desperately low budget, there is plenty that The Trollenberg Terror has going for it. The snowy mountain setting is used to great effect and can be found in some of the decade’s more enjoyable sci-fi horror efforts, including The Thing from Another World (1951) and Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman (1957). There’s a particularly excellent opening sequence where three young men are climbing the mountain. Two are visible, while the third, their friend, is out of frame, lost in the fog. He screams that is something is coming and is violently killed while his friends listen helplessly. They soon glimpse his headless body, which falls down the mountain.

There are also some great scenes where the titular “terror” is able to possess the dead. In one of the film’s most chilling scenes, a man believed to be lost on the mountain returns, but he is not quite the same. He stumbles awkwardly and doesn’t have full control over his limbs. It turns out he’s deceased and has been reanimated and sent back with the task of killing Anne. The film is actually unclear about why the creatures want her dead. She is drawn to the mountain because she can sense them psychically, but the film fails to really develop this angle. Not much ado is even made over the fact that she’s psychic — she and her sister have a traveling mind reading act, which many believe to be a clever gimmick — and this complete lack of exposition winds up being sort of comical. Despite these setbacks, Janet Munro (The Day the Earth Caught Fire) is adorable as Anne and keeps the character captivating.

The film really should have ended with Anne’s power being instrumental in defeating the creatures, but instead it’s totally swept under the carpet. Ultimately, there’s no reason for her to have psychic powers at all and they just function as a sort of interesting oddity. The film uses the old ‘50s standby of military assistance in its overblown conclusion. Randomly, jet planes and firebombing are a suddenly available option — with some ridiculous stock footage thrown in for good measure — and they also hilariously attempt to use Molotov cocktails against the monsters. Things sort of come off the rails in the last few minutes thanks to some laughable effects, but as I said earlier, this is just part of the film’s charm.

Should you watch The Trollenberg Terror? Absolutely, it’s fantastic. John Carpenter cited it as an influenced on one of my favorite of his films, The Fog. It’s also a great example of the highs (and lows) of ‘50s sci-fi horror. Though there are some terrible effects and lackluster direction, there’s some nice cinematography from Monty Berman and effectively creepy sound effects. Plus, you get such slices of delight like the scene where a woman from the inn is fleeing from the monsters and just happens to forget her child. Alan, the protagonist who just happens to be a UN agent and has “seen this sort of thing before,” offers almost every single other character alcohol and cigarettes at various points in the film. Also known as Creature from Another World (1958), The Creeping Eye (1958), and The Flying Eye (1958), you can and should pick it up on DVD from Image Entertainment.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

THE GAMMA PEOPLE

John Gilling, 1956
Starring: Paul Douglas, Eva Bartok, Leslie Phillips, Walter Rilla

Two reporters — the American Mike and English Howard — are taking a train across Europe to cover a music festival in Salzburg when their car becomes detached and they find themselves stranded in the strange kingdom of Gudavia, which is controlled by a totalitarian government and isolated from the outside world. At first determined to leave, they learn that a formerly famous scientist who disappeared from Europe has reinvented himself in Gudavia and has been experimenting on the local populace with terrifying results. Determined to capture the story, Mike and Howard risk their own lives to get the bottom of Gudavia’s mystery.

Director John Gilling may not be one of the most recognizable names in British horror, but he should be better remembered than he is today. He went on to direct some notable efforts — including The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), an early interpretation of Burke and Hare’s sordid history, as well as films for Hammer like The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Reptile (1966), and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). His zombie film for Hammer, the gripping, beautifully shot The Plague of the Zombies (1966), is their sole outing in this genre and predates Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) by two years.

But perhaps Gilling’s most neglected horror gem is The Gamma People, this essentially forgotten mashup of horror, comedy, nuclear terror, and Cold War paranoia. The film is set in the fictional country of Gudavia, a tiny, unknown country somewhere between Germany and Eastern Europe. And, perhaps curiously, the story — from director Robert Aldrich and Alfred Hitchcock Presents writer Louis Pollock — has a blend of Germanic and Soviet themes. The village looks like it was plucked from the Alps and borrows much from Frankenstein, including German-looking military uniforms and villagers’ outfits, a gloomy castle, and laboratory set piece. There is a whiff of Nazi human experimentation and the tribes of children who run around terrorizing locals were clearly modeled on the Hitler Youth.

There is something equally Soviet at play, for example the country is in the tight grip of totalitarian rule and they are utterly closed off from the outside world, like North Korea or Eastern Europe in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There are no trains, cars, telephones, or other messaging systems to allow anyone to escape or contact outsiders and eyes are everywhere. The film’s sense of postwar terror and the Red Menace extends to its use of mad science. Dr. Boronski is not just experimenting on humans in order to produce a “master race”-like country of savants and geniuses, but he is blasting people with gamma rays. The experiments are unpredictable and the doctor either creates mindless adult goons or child geniuses. This is one of the first horror films to focus on menacing children and though some of them have implied, rather than overt powers, it’s a subtle but effective addition to The Gamma People. Curiously, Boronski is played by engaging German actor Walter Rilla — the father of director Wolf Rilla, who would go on to director Village of the Damned just a few years later.

The two leads are equally enjoyable, even though they represent the film’s comic elements. Mike (Panic in the Streets’ Paul Douglas) is a brash, pushy American stereotype, while Howard (Carry On’s Leslie Philips) is a hilariously over-the-top Brit with a genteel accent and an eye for the ladies. Mike and Howard have an opposites attract sort of working relationship and there are some amusing romantic undertones: they are taking the scenic route to cover a music festival in Salzburg — where they happen to be the only two passengers in their entire car — and when they arrive in Gudavia, they are given the bridal suite of a hotel to share, with just one bed. Of course at the film’s conclusion, they are joined by some precocious children and a lovely young woman (an early appearance of Eva Bartok of Blood and Black Lace).

The Gamma People isn’t for everyone, but it comes recommended. It’s criminally under seen and has an effective balance of chills, humor, and science fiction. Though it’s occasionally unintentionally comical, scenes like the doctor’s torture-by-radiation-poisoning of Mike and his lady love is chilling. There are also some appealing visuals, including great shots of the countryside and elements of German expressionism. Weirdly, a few James Bond regulars worked on the film, including producer Albert Broccoli and cinematographer Ted Moore. And brace yourself for the creepy masks that the villagers are constructing for what is apparently an ancient pagan festival. I don’t believe it’s available on DVD, but you should be able to find it online with some clever searching.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

WOMANEATER

Charles Saunders, 1958
Starring: George Coulouris, Vera Day

Dr. Moran is visiting the Amazonian jungle when he witnesses a local tribe sacrificing a lovely young woman to a tree god. Though one of his colleagues is killed trying to stop the sacrifice, Moran escapes with his life. Five years later, he has recovered from his trip and returned to England, along with the native Tanga, a ritual drummer, and a carnivorous tree, both of which he has installed in the basement of his mansion, right next to extensive lab equipment. There he plans to feed women to the tree — in an approximation of the native ritual — and use its sap to make a serum to bring the dead to life… like you do. Unfortunately his newest assistant, a beautiful young woman looking to trade in her career as a carnival dancer for some stability, has awakened his passion and could inadvertently ruin years of research.

Known as The Woman Eater in the US, this surprisingly enjoyable film is packed with completely ridiculous moments sure to have you in stitches — or cursing your television if this kind of schlock horror just isn’t your bag. For starters, killer plant films aren’t completely unheard of — horror-comedy The Little Shop of Horrors is a household name — and this underused trope has been explored in things like anthology film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its remake, Day of the Triffids, and even has a literary basis through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (which was adapted into a film costarring Vincent Price).

But it is admittedly tricky to make a homicidal tree frightening and the titular Womaneater has thick, flailing tentacles capped by what look like rubbery green flippers. The film is just incredibly campy in every way, shape, and form. Personally, I delight in a bit of camp where mad science is concerned, but this goes above and beyond — almost back to the days of US horror in the ‘30s and Lugosi’s frequent turns as an evil doctor — going so far as to name one of Moran’s primary scientific instruments “The Pulsometer.” And if you love cheesy sci-fi films with mad doctors and inexplicable experiments, this one is for you. 

Now, maybe I saw a slightly cut version of Womaneater, but I can’t figure out how the doctor suddenly realized that if he brought an Amazonian native and a man-eating tree back to his home in the English countryside, fed some women to the tree, and then harvested its sap, that he would be able to produce a serum that brought the dead back to life. Perhaps the film is going for a sort of “all natives practice voodoo” approach, as the one dead person Moran does successfully revive is little more than a mindless zombie. To his horror, he learns that Tanga, his native assistant — who sits around drumming in a loin cloth and presumably never leaves the basement — has only given him some of the facts and thus the years of research and thousands of dollars that he has poured into his experiments are for nought. He can use the serum to bring the bodies of the dead back, but Tanga vaguely explains that the minds of the revived dead “belong to us.” Presumably us means the members of Tanga’s tribe, but who the fuck knows?

The ending also makes no sense. Despite repeatedly insisting that he has no regard for women, he loses his mind when he learns that Sally (Vera Day of The Haunted Strangler) — the carnival dancer who randomly quits her job and comes to live and work in his house — is marrying someone else. The news that his experiments will only ever be partially successful doesn’t help and he retaliates by setting the tree on fire. Tanga, in response, stabs Moran in the back and then jumping into the burning tree, presumably so that they will immolate together. And somehow George Coulouris (seen in everything from Citizen Kane and Murder on the Orient Express) maintains a straight face and believable acting for the entire film, gleefully chewing scenery as he goes.

Despite the film’s casual racism, really cheesy monster, and unabashed use of stock footage, it’s surprisingly fun. I don’t believe it’s released on any official region 1 DVD, but you can find a serviceable DVD-R from Image. Personally I hate the idea of paying for a burned disc, so if you feel the same way you can also find it streaming online. My chief complain about Womaneater is that most of the British horror films from the ‘40s and ‘50s I’ve reviewed to date — including The Ghost of St. Michael’s, The Night Has Eyes, and Uncle Silas — include a malicious housekeeper or governess. The housekeeper in this film has loyally stayed on because she’s in love with Dr. Moran and is waiting around until he returns her feelings (not unlike Pete Walker’s much later The Confessional). Naturally she sets the concluding events in motion when she learns he loves Sally instead.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS

David MacDonald, 1954
Starring: Patricia Laffan, Hugh McDermott, Hazel Court

A strange ship lands on the Scottish moors near an inn that is all but empty thanks to the winter season. The ship’s only living crew member is Nyah, a black vinyl-clad female alien from Mars determined to take male humans from Earth back with her to help with the Martian breeding program. Since the war on Mars between females and males resulted in a female victory, the male Martians have gradually degraded and are not considered suitable stock for procreation. But the handful of residents remaining at the inn are in no hurry to leave and work together to try to outwit her, though she clearly has superior technology, including sophisticated weapons and a robot companion.

Produced by the Danziger Brothers and distributed by British Lion, this low budget film is unmistakably kitschy and ridiculous, but it also has a certain charm and is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. When I first saw it, I was struck by two things — coincidental relationships with later works of fiction — that were difficult to leave behind. First, the Martian’s robot companion is named Chani, curiously also the name of the memorable love interest in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterwork Dune, which was written in 1965, so it’s possible that Herbert saw this film and was struck by this unusual name. According to the internet, it might be of Hebrew origin, though it kept Dune in my mind while I was watching the film. To be clear, the two Chanis have basically nothing in common. The film’s Chani is like a homicidal, slowly moving refrigerator, while Dune’s Chani is a captivating woman.

Obviously it would be unfair to compare Devil Girl From Mars to Dune, but it perhaps made me walk away imagining a richer back story for Nyah, the female alien, than really exists within the film. If one of Dune’s primary strengths is building such a complex universe, Devil Girl From Mars does sort of work towards building a compelling back story for the Martians. Somewhat like Mario Bava’s superior Planet of the Vampires, Nyah is from a violent but oddly sympathetic alien species who are forced to prey upon humans to save their dying race. I wish more had been done with this element of the plot, but it’s certainly one of the best parts of the film. I don’t know about you, but I definitely prefer sci-fi horror mashups where the aliens are fully developed characters rather than nameless monsters (…except, of course, Alien).

The film’s remote location on the Scottish moors — another of its best elements — reminded me of the recent, excellent Under the Skin, a more harrowing, abstract tale of a female alien landing on the moors to prey upon men. There were a number of early British horror films set on the moors (both English and Scottish) and the eerie locale lends itself well to low budgets and spooky visuals. The potboiler setting of the inn has its highs and lows. On one hand, it is really only an excuse to make roughly half the film’s scenes little more than a British tea-time drama with romantic intrigue and a bit of class friction. These overly talkie moments essentially revolve around two couples: a model trying to get away from her married reporter boyfriend, and a barmaid hiding an escaped convict who accidentally killed his wife. a couple  with lots of dramatic plots about a budding romance and an escaped convict. Devil Girl From Mars’ scenes basically go back and forth between these moments of personal drama and overwrought and tense moments where Nyah enters the inn, makes threats, goes away, rinse, repeat.

On the other hand, the low number of cast members makes the story a bit more believable, ratchets up the tension, and gives a claustrophobic feel to the proceedings. No one comes to their aid because they are isolated in the country in the middle of winter time, while an invisible wall Nyah has put up around the inn keeps them from going out for help. Despite the cheesiness of the film, there is something horrifying about Nyah’s intentions, though the discussion of what seems to be a planned invasion of Earth — where Martian women will visit major cities to kidnap human men — is never really resolved.

Incredibly, this was based on a stage play (!!!), which perhaps explains the basic sets and pared down story, but Devil Girl From Mars does have some interesting things going for it. Nyah’s imperviousness to human weapons, the advanced Martian technology, and her ray gun that can kill or stun is standard fare in contemporary science fiction, but this was possibly the first film to include a space ship made of living metal that can repair itself. And unlike many other sci-fi films from the period, this has strong sexual themes. Patricia Laftan’s Nyah resembles a modern day dominatrix more than she does any alien species. But like other British films from the period, she is ultimately not a match for the British citizens she goes up against. Despite their martial and technological advancements, the Martians have failed at that most basic of biological requirements — reproduction — and thanks to Nyah’s need for viable males, they are able to outwit her. The escaped convict agrees to go on board the ship and blow it up before it leaves the atmosphere.


Though much about Devil Girl From Mars is enjoyably silly, there are decent special effects and this is an interesting look at British sci-fi horror a few years before Quatermass. Prepare to find some scenes effectively eerie, but much of the running time is padded with unintentional hilarity — such as the robot Chani, whose ridiculous figure leeches away a bit of Nyah’s gravitas. I couldn’t help but wonder why Patricia Laffan (who stars as Nyah) didn’t appear in more genre films — she would have made a great Bond girl — though there is a solid, likable cast of familiar faces including Hugh McDermott (The Seventh Veil), Hammer and Roger Corman regular Hazel Court, Adrienne Corri (Vampire Circus), and John Laurie, who was like an early British horror version of John Carradine. Pick up the affordable DVD for some vintage horror that makes for fun Halloween season viewing.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s

I recently had the good fortune to be included in Spectacular Optical's second film anthology, Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. Edited by film writers and programmers Kier-la Janisse (House of Psychotic Women) and Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation), this impressive volume was released a few months ago and is focused on various aspects of the Satanic Panic: the decade-long fear of a Satanic conspiracy that gripped the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK in the 1980s and into the early ‘90s.

Convinced Satan lurked everywhere, the media, government, Christian right, and parents targeted pop culture from music videos to role playing games, and more. The book's various chapters discuss things like the memoir Michelle Remembers, Russ Martin’s satanic erotic novels, Dungeons & Dragons, Christian propaganda, kids’ cartoons, horror films, news broadcasts, music censorship, MTV, heavy metal, Christian rock, and crimes like the McMartin trial and Ricky Kasso case. My own chapter is on heavy metal horror films like Trick or Treat, Rocktober Blood, The Gate, Black Roses, and many more.

In addition to Janisse and Corupe, some of my fellow writers include Gavin Baddeley (Lucifer Rising: Sin, Devil Worship and Rock n’ Roll), Rue Morgue’s Liisa Ladouceur and Alison Lang, David Flint (Sheer Filth!), Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Rape Revenge Films: A Critical Study), Flavorwire’s Alison Nastasi, and many more. There are original illustrations from Rick Trembles and Mike McDonnell, and it's packed with stills, posters, comics, and plenty of great visuals.

The book is also the subject of a worldwide tour, with events and film screenings throughout Canada, in London, Austin, Australia, Boston, New York, and more. I'm conducting tonight's book launch in Philadelphia at PhilaMOCA. Join me at 7 p.m. for a multi-media tour of the satanic 1980s. Admission is $10 and I'll be selling books after the presentation. Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 2, 2015

QUEEN OF SPADES

Thorold Dickinson, 1949
Starring: Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell

Based on a story by Alexander Pushkin and set in 19th century St. Petersburg, Queen of Spades concerns a down on his luck Russian soldier, Captain Suvorin, who is determined to improve his lot in life, but cannot without the necessary finances or political connections for a promotion. After reading a book on the occult, he believes that a local aristocrat, Countess Ranevskaya, has sold her soul to the Devil in order to win a vast fortune gambling. Determined to discover the Countess’s secrets, Suvorin learns she has a niece, Lizaveta, who she treats as a maid. He woos Lizaveta in order to get into the Countess’s home, even though another honest, aristocratic solider is actually in love with her. Suvorin makes his way into the house, but before he can pry the Countess’s secrets from her, she dies. He admits his plan to Lizaveta, whose heart is broken. But the Countess’s death is not the last Suvorin will hear from her.

Queen of Spades made somewhat of a comeback in recent years, but it’s incredible to believe that this film has been neglected for so long. It’s easily one of the best British films of the ‘40s and deserves to have a much wider audience. Though it was well received at the time of its release, it never really made its way to the US and has languished in obscurity over the years, though it should be mentioned in the same breath as Gothic films like Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Gaslight.

Though this is more of a historical melodrama, there are a number of horror tropes, such as secret passages, ghosts, and occult tomes, and the story is fairly lurid. The Countess sold her soul in order to save her reputation; she had an affair with a member of her husband’s regiment and would have been ruined both socially and financially if her husband had found out. It is intimated that this affair was not the first and the Countess used a secret chamber in the house to indiscriminately sneak lovers into her bedroom, but the money she makes gambling ultimately protects her from these indiscretions. 

The impressive cinematography from Otto Heller -- who also worked on the even more impressive Peeping Tom -- is stark, textured, and certainly one of the film’s strong points. There are sounds and images layered on top of one another, perhaps influenced by Citizen Kane, such as a wonderful scene where Lizaveta lays on her bed and reads Suvorin’s deceptive love letters and the camera looks at her through a spiderweb. Images are reflected in mirrors and windows and the characters are regularly framed next to dramatic portraits and statues. 

In addition the memorable visuals, the performances are all wonderful. Stage actress Edith Evans is great as the Countess and the lovely Yvonne Mitchell (Demons of the Mind) is sympathetic as Lizaveta in her first film role. Ronald Howard (Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and son of renowned British actor Leslie Howard) is likable as Andrei, Lizaveta’s quiet, earnest, and concerned savior, and fortunately does not overdo his portrayal as the romantic hero. Keep an eye out for Anthony Dawson (Dial M for Murder, Dr. No), who has a small, but memorable role as the Countess’s grandson.

This is -- swoon -- absolutely Anton Walbrook’s (The Red Shoes) film. He has such a commanding presence that the scenes without him pale in comparison. Though Suvorin is unlikable and there is almost something perverse about him, Walbrook makes him compelling and charismatic, and he is undoubtedly one of the decade's best Byronic villains. He runs the full range from charming to mad and malevolent to pathetic and his performance here is a good example of the wide range of his talent. It is easy to believe how the impressionable, naive Lizaveta could have fallen in love with Suvorin, despite the fact that she knew nothing about him. Walbrook and highly underrated director Thorold Dickinson had previously worked together on the first version of Gaslight (1940) -- not to be confused with the enjoyable American remake with Ingrid Bergman -- which also comes recommended.

Walbrook was in roughly 50 films throughout his career, but he should have been in a lot more. Seriously, look at this profile. His picture should be in the dictionary next to the word "smoldering," as he fits both definitions.

Queen of Spades is a great film and only suffers from a few minor flaws. There are a few slow moments (mostly those without Walbrook) and overall I wish more time had been spent on the Faustian, supernatural plot rather than the melodramatic love story -- an issue with a lot of the Gothic melodrama-horror film mashups produced during the '40s. There are two scenes with singing and dancing, one set in a gambling hall and another during a ball, and though these look great, they feel as though they are only there to pad out the running time. 

Queen of Spades comes highly recommended. It’s on DVD with another underrated British horror film from the same period, Dead of Night, or on a superior region 2 disc from Studio Canal. You can also find it various places streaming online. It's definitely an appropriate choice for the Halloween season.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

UNCLE SILAS

Charles Frank, 1947
Starring: Jean Simmons, Derrick De Marney, Katina Paxinou, John Laurie

When young Caroline Ruthyn’s father passes away, she is sent to her guardian, her Uncle Silas, whom she has never met. He had an unsavory past — and may be connected with a murder — but her father claims that Silas has mended his ways and is a dutiful Christian. When Caroline first goes to live with him, the estate is somber, but she is otherwise content and learns that an older female cousin — and a handsome suitor — are nearby. But Uncle Silas is really only interested in Caroline’s fortune and hopes she will marry his son, her disreputable cousin Dudley. When this doesn’t work, Silas makes increasingly sinister plans.

Based on the 1864 novel Uncle Silas by Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu, this is really more of a Gothic melodrama than a horror film, but contains a lot of the greatest hits of Gothic literature: a beautiful and vulnerable young heroine, a duplicitous older relative with designs on her, a spooky old house with foreboding wing, issues of inheritance, and murderous plots. Le Fanu might not be as familiar of a name as horror writers like Bram Stoker or H.P. Lovecraft, but his influence on the genre is nonetheless profound. He’s often remembered for the novella Carmilla, the origin of the lesbian female vampire trope, but Uncle Silas was his most popular work and also influenced the emerging mystery genre.

I’m a big fan of Gothic literature — the combination of spooky themes and overwrought melodrama is too much for me to resist — but Uncle Silas certainly has some of the genre’s weak spots. Many of these stories, including the first, The Castle of Otranto, have depictions of human behavior that are a little difficult to swallow. I can accept that Uncle Silas had a dark past, was ostracized from the family, has now reformed, and wants to be brought back into the fold. But Caroline’s father has an almost pathological commitment to welcoming Silas back into the family, so much so that he is inspired to write a codicil into his will. Though Caroline is quite close with an adult female cousin, Monica, who lives nearby, the will decrees that she should go and live with Silas, a man she’s never met who potentially committed a murder.

Luckily the film plays Silas’s true intentions close to the chest for awhile. He and the sweet-tempered Caroline become quite close and he seems very fond of her. While his son is portrayed as the true villain — drunkenly trying to manhandle Caroline on several occasions — Silas’s actions are murkier. Actor Derrick De Marney was only 40 years old when he was cast as Silas, even though the character is supposed to be significantly older — too old to want to marry Caroline himself, thus electing his grown son — and he is essentially only aged with a little make up, a white wig, and De Marney’s sound acting ability. He really is fun to watch and refuses to descend into full blown camp, with the exception of one or two delightful moments. Taking the opposite approach is Katina Paxinou, a renowned Greek actress cast as Madame de la Rougierre, Caroline’s hated former French governess. She reaches some amazing levels of histrionics.

I love the doll-like Jean Simmons, who was fresh off a great performance in Great Expectations (1946) and about to embark on Black Narcissus and Hamlet. Though I prefer her in darker roles like Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), where she really sizzles opposite Robert Mitchum, she is captivating here. But though she plays an innocent character in Uncle Silas, she at least avoids my most hated stereotype of all time: the utterly helpless young woman waiting around to be rescued. Caroline (thankfully they changed her name from Maud, as it is in the novel) is innocent and naive, but not swooning and defenseless. She is spirited, stands up for herself, and does come to understand that her uncle is not the sweet man he seemed to be in the first two acts of the film.

This Two Cities Films production is a little hard to find on DVD, though you can watch it on the BFI site. There’s also a Greek import DVD, though it’s region 2 only. This comes recommended to any fans of Jean Simmons, Gothic melodrama, or films with spooky dark houses. There’s some lovely cinematography from Robert Krasker (The Third Man) and there are certainly worse ways to pass 90 minutes.