Thursday, June 30, 2016

Monthly Round Up: June 2016

You may have noticed that in the last few months, I haven't been posting on Satanic Pandemonium quite as much as in years past. While I've always been busy -- I am, after all a workaholic -- the last six months in particular have pulled me in a number of directions. Previously, I posted on here anywhere from four to six times per week; now I'm down to generally two. Part of this is due to Diabolique Magazine; I had been a contributor there off and on for the last few years, but in February I became the site's Assistant Web Editor and was recently offered the position of Associate Editor.

Satanic Pandemonium is still my baby and, in a lot of ways, I think I view it as a sort of ongoing portfolio of my writing. And I'm still keeping on with this British horror series that will likely go on through 2016 and possibly into 2017. But since I'm now doing arguably more writing for other publications than I am here, I've decided to do a round up at the end of each month to share what I've been getting up to elsewhere.

Over at Diabolique, I've spent the last few months working my way through an extensive series of essays on the complete filmography of Polish director Andrzej Żuławski. Recently, I've written about his opera adaptation Boris Godounov (1989), his Chopin biography La note bleue (1991), and his return to violence and hysteria, Szamanka (1996).

We've also begun an American Gothic-themed summer season at Diabolique, where I've contributed the following essays:
Dementia: The Grimy Intersection of Film Noir and Low Budget Horror
Medieval Hysteria, Supernatural Evil, and The Witch: An Interview with Director Robert Eggers
Robert Altman’s Gothic Trilogy: Re-imagining the Woman’s Film
“So Be It” — An Interview with Neil Edwards on Sympathy for the Devil: The True Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgement
The Mausoleum of All Hope and Desire: Southern Gothic Cinema, Part One

I also reviewed Arrow's fantastic Italian horror set, Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio Miraglia, definitely a contender for release of the year.

For the podcast I co-host, Daughters of Darkness, we finished up our four-part exploration of Żuławski's films and released the first of two episodes inspired by Stephen Thrower's Nightmare USA, where we discuss low budget American horror like Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Messiah of Evil, and Grave of the Vampire.

And finally, FAB Press is reprinting and will soon ship out Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia of the 1980s, a Spectacular Optical book released last year, to which I contributed a chapter.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Gordon Hessler, 1970
Starring: Alfred Marks, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing

“TRIPLE DISTILLED HORROR... as powerful as a vat of boiling ACID!”

Based on Peter Saxon’s novel The Disoriented Man, this film is a bit disorienting and I’m not sure if a brief summary can really do it justice. There are essentially three plots that eventually converge: the first involves a man jogging in London who collapses and winds up in the hospital. Throughout the film, every time he resumed consciousness, he is missing a new limb, but the nurse attending him refuses to explain. The second plot involves a military official returned to London from some maybe fascist (?) country. He kills a number of superior officers by doing what appears to be an inspired interpretation of the Vulcan death grip. The final and loosely central plot is focused on a violent serial killer and rapist who preys on the city’s women and drains them of their blood. A detective hunts him down and investigates the deaths, which horrify the city’s police officers and morgue workers. The detective consults a strange doctor who runs an organ and limb transplant clinic... 

This co-production between American International Pictures and British studio Tigon is a huge mess and is indicative of the kind of bumbling interference on the part of AIP that also made complete messes of films like The Haunted House of Horror and, to a lesser extent, The Curse of the Crimson Altar. While The Haunted House of Horror was horrifically saddled with Frankie Avalon and The Curse of the Crimson Altar was blessed by the aged, wheelchair-bound presence of Boris Karloff (still on top of his game despite little to do in the film), Scream and Scream Again is nearly saved by the presence of the great Vincent Price, though he seems just as confused by the plot as I was.

And yet... as with Tigon's earlier lovable disaster, The Blood Beast Terror, I know it's a mess, I can explain to you why 
— and there's just really no reason to avoid the honest truth — but that doesn't stop Scream and Scream Again from being incredibly entertaining. The script does it absolutely no favors, as the three plots randomly stop and start and careen into one another, but despite that and a number of other flaws, it’s just so much fun. As with my thoughts on The Blood Beast Terror, I will fully admit that I'm just not trustworthy where this film is concerned. Though there are a fair amount of stylish sets and costumes, the movie has an undeniably grungy feeling — which feels strangely out of place and which I love — and is populated with unlikable characters and some very nasty violence. And what the hell is with the Nazi subplot? It’s actually very difficult to fully describe the plot without giving things away, as scene after scene reveals more and more ridiculousness. Personally, I don't care a bit about spoilers and usually dole them out with no warning, but it just seems wrong in this case.

Director Gordon Hessler made some lesser known films that built on Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s Edgar Allen Poe series, such as The Oblong Box (1969), Cry of the Banshee (1970), and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971). While I genuinely love all of these, despite their flaws, Scream and Scream Again is certainly his wildest and most interesting ride. Thanks is due in no small part to Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee, all of whom appear in this film, though not necessarily together and, much to my dismay, none of them really have a significant amount of screen time. While Cushing and Lee obviously had entwined careers and developed quite a beloved partnership — one that shaped the face of British horror — Price and Lee had only just worked together for the first time in Hessler’s previous film, The Oblong Box, where they also only shared one scene. Price and Cushing worked together on a handful of titles, namely the wonderful Madhouse. The three would work together again only once more over a decade later in Pete Walker’s unexpectedly delightful House of the Long Shadows (1983).

There are some other familiar faces, many of whom are quite welcome additions to the film, including Judy Huxtable (Die Screaming Marianne, no relation to Bill Cosby’s TV family), Yutte Stensgaard (Lust for a Vampire), Peter Sallis (Taste the Blood of Dracula), Christopher Matthews (Scars of Dracula), and British TV actor Alfred Marks. Marks is basically the star of the film and is quite likable as the head inspector. I don't know what it is about these Detective Inspector characters — perhaps a combination of watching British TV comedy and repeatedly reading Conan Doyle stories as a child — but I can't get enough of them. Marks is not quite on the level of John Williams in Dial M for Murder or Donald Pleasence's character in Death Line (who is, really), but he's a solid force within the film.

One of my favorite elements is the great score from David Whitaker, who used the kind of wild jazz much more frequently found in continental horror, such as the films of Jess Franco. Whitaker also scored Vampire Circus and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde — imagine what a triple feature that would make. Although, as much as I love the score, it makes a lot of the film seem even more ridiculous, namely a lengthy scene where the police chase the killer, first by car and then on foot. They capture him and handcuff him, but he gets away by ripping off his own hand, and the chase continues. I’m not making this up.

Scream and Scream Again comes highly recommended and I love the film, but it will really only appeal to a certain audience. Open-mindedness and a certain irrepressible joie de vivre is key. The film is available on a double feature, single disc DVD from MGM’s Midnite Movies along with Hessler’s more conventional outing with Price and Lee, The Oblong Box. (Though it's still pretty bananas, at least compared to more straightforward British horror fare.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Michael Armstrong, 1969
Starring: Frankie Avalon, Jill Haworth, Dennis Price A group of friends in swinging London decide that they’re bored with their usual routine of partying, drinking, and wearing outrageous clothing, so when one of them suggests that they visit a supposedly haunted manor in the country, they jump at the idea. Unfortunately, they’re followed by the persistent older boyfriend of one of the girls and after they hold a seance, everything begins to go wrong and it seems there’s a murderer among them. Their American ringleader, Chris, convinces them that — because obviously one of them has to be the killer — they should solve the mystery on their own. They proceed to corroborate their stories, destroy the evidence, and hide the first body from the police, which does nothing to slow the steadily rising body count… It’s not that terrible of a film, but I almost can’t even bring myself to review The Haunted House of Horror — something that hasn’t really happened since my fateful streak of essays on Italian Jaws ripoffs during my animals attack series in January of 2013, when I nearly lost the will to live — and that’s basically because of the film’s offensively absurd premise and the casting of American teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon. It’s controversial to say — because I currently live in Philadelphia, his hometown — but I fucking hate Frankie Avalon. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but I would probably rather be waterboarded than sit through a marathon of “beach party” movies. Director Michael Armstrong — best known for Mark of the Devil (1970) — helmed The Haunted House of Horror, something I’m sure he regrets, as the production was sort of yanked out from under him and tampered with by US distributor, American International Pictures, who had a financial stake despite the fact that this is a Tigon British Film Productions effort. As with Tigon’s The Curse of the Crimson Altar, AIP insisted on a role for Boris Karloff, though he was too ill to participate in this film, which is why there’s a more sizable role for the Scotland Yard detective. Though the script was a project Armstrong had worked on since he was a teenager, he was forced to jettison some of the more serious social commentary and, to add insult to injury, he was forced to cast Frankie goddamn Avalon; he was expected to play a teenager despite being 30 years old during filming. Avalon is implausibly described as “the epitome of swinging London” by one of the other characters and his cockamamie idea is basically responsible for the entire plot. They arrive at the haunted house, like you do when you leave a boring party, and one character exclaims, “To hell with the drinks, let’s have an orgy.” But of course they settle on a seance. Zzzzz. The seance basically serves as a reason for them to split up and wander the house alone, where, of course, someone gets murdered. Then Avalon’s character Chris, the group’s de facto leader, declares — for some reason that makes no real sense — that he intends to solve the murder on his own, going so far as to hide the body so the police don’t discover it and interrupt his investigation. Yes, you read that right. Avalon does, however, have some spectacular dialogue. His argument for solving the murder on his own is that the murderer must be from their group of friends (what?) and he says, “How can any one of you prove that you didn’t kill Gary?” The answer, from his girlfriend Sheila replies, “We’re not insane.” Later, Avalon counters that the killer could be male or female: “Any psychopath, male or female, can have superhuman strength when aroused.” He is not wrong. Sheila is played by Jill Haworth, who I think is one of the more unsung genre actresses. She got her start with small roles in The 39 Steps (edit: the remake, not Hitchcock's original, as I mistakenly thought originally, for which she was not even born) and Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula, and went on to appear in cult films like It! and Horror on Snape’s Island. She’s really the best thing about The Haunted House of Horror. And the single best thing about the film’s IMDB page is the (as far as I can tell unfounded) trivia line, “Jill Haworth was on drugs during filming,” which fails to take into account the fact that David Bowie, who had been in an earlier short film directed by Armstrong, was supposed to appear in the film. Armstrong’s original script would undoubtedly have made a much better film and this is yet another case of producers interfering when they should not be. There is a surprising level of violence and gore, though it might seem so elevated because it provides a contrast for the inane scenes of teenagers wandering in the dark. It has an interesting visual style and is unusually colorful, a bit like a poor man’s version of a Bava-era giallo film (and there are even bright red mannequins in the opening scene). I wonder if this has anything to do with why the sweet hell everyone is wearing yellow. The only real value to The Haunted House of Horror is to see how it functions as a proto-slasher. It’s a clear link in the evolution of themes found in “old dark house” films like The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Old Dark House (1932) to other midway points like Bay of Blood (1971) and The Centrefold Girls (1974) to ‘80s slashers like Friday the 13th (1980). It’s not that the film doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, but it’s so frustratingly uneven and so obvious that the studio interfered with the original plan for the film. If, for some reason, you are really determined to see this one, it’s available in the coffin-shaped Tigon Collection alongside a slew of the studio’s superior films like Witchfinder General, The Body Stealers (another baffling one), The Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Beast in the Cellar, and Virgin Witch. I don’t think it will come as any surprise when I say I can’t recommend this one and if you do decide to watch it — as I’m sure some Frankie Avalon fans will want to — then best of luck to you.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


Michael Reeves, 1968
Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Patrick Wymark, Hilary Dwyer

Based on Ronald Bassett's novel Witchfinder General, the film loosely details the exploits of real life lawyer and witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (16201647), who operated during the English Civil War. Hopkins is selfish, murderous, and totally unsympathetic in his search for power rather than truth. He and his accomplices scour the countryside, torturing accused witches  the accusations often come without any proof  and then charging the local magistrates for their work. They accidentally cross paths with Richard, a young solider, and Sara, a lovely farm girl he has recently married. Hopkins and his cohorts imprison, torture, and kill the priest who has raised and cared for Sara, then one of them rapes her. Richard is determined to get revenge, despite the considerable amount of power Hopkins possesses.

Though Witchfinder General doesn't quite live up to the brutal antics of later German film Mark of the Devil (1970), it is still one of the greatest witch-hunting films in horror history and has been suggested as a candidate for the greatest British horror film of all time. While I don't think that's true, it has a number of pleasures, is undoubtedly very well made, and deserves its cult reputation. Though Price gives a great performance as Hopkins, it is strange to see him in a film with actual torture and rape. He plays against type, refusing to chew the scenery, ham it up, or work himself up into a comically maniacal lather. As Hopkins, he is deadly serious and outright unlikable. Though the violence of Witchfinder General isn't graphic enough to really shock today, it is plenty horrifying compared to the average Price film.

Witchfinder General also has a reputation among horror fans for the infamous hatred between Price and director Michael Reeves. Price wasn't Reeves first choice for the starring role (he wanted Donald Pleasance), a fact that Reeves apparently reminded the famous actor of frequently. Price also allegedly complained a lot on set, because the film was mostly shot outdoors rather than in a comfortable sound stage. The set certainly seemed like a tense, humorless place, but this benefits the production far more than it harms it. Price, who was constantly skeptical of Reeves’ abilities, eventually admitted that the film was an understated triumph.

Price and Reeves were supposed to reunite for The Oblong Box (1969), but Reeves died during pre-production and Gordon Hessler took over the film, reworking Reeves’ script about Jekyll and Hyde-like twins. His accidental death at 25 of a barbiturate overdose put a halt to a potentially brilliant career in British genre films and robbed Tigon British Film Productions of one of its brightest stars. Witchfinder General is actually a co-production between Tigon and American International Pictures (AIP), an arrangement they repeated for distribution purposes several times over the years with mixed results, as AIP sometimes demanded the inclusion of American actors (as in the case of Tigon's next outing, The Haunted House of Horror). AIP kept their meddling to a minimum here (one suspects Reeves would not have tolerated it), but for the US release of the film, they used the title The Conqueror Worm in a lousy attempt to cash in on Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. “The Conqueror Worm” is the title of one of my favorite Poe poems, but it doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with Witchfinder General or witch hunting. 

Though this is not one of my favorite Price films, in part because of its utter humorlessness, it is undeniably a successful and important work of genre cinema. Witchfinder General is a raw, bitter, and loveless work. Nary a tender emotion is experienced in the duration of the film and when the stark ending comes, it is ultimately a relief. Price is great in this atypical role and there are a number of strong performances from British horror regulars, including Reeves' old friend and regular Ian Ogilvy (The She Beast), Hammer regular Rupert Davies (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), and Patrick Wymark (Repulsion, Where Eagles Dare) all make welcome appearances and Hilary Heath (in the similarly themed if somewhat more fun Cry of the Banshee, also with Price) is memorable as Sara. 

This film comes highly recommended and is something every genre fan should see at least once. Witchfinder General is available on a single disc DVD or as part of the MGM Vincent Price Scream Legends box set. If you’re going to purchase or rent an older version, be on the look out for cuts. It was heavily censored in the UK upon its release and though it remained almost unscathed in the US, it was ignored by audiences for some reason.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


Vernon Sewell, 1968
Starring: Peter Cushing, Glynn Edwards, Robert Flemying, Wanda Ventham In Victorian England, a strange, apparently vampiric beast is stalking the countryside, preying upon attractive young men and ripping out their throats to drink their blood. Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing) and Sergeant Allan (Glynn Edwards) are on the case, though the only witness has been driven insane by the sight of the killer and a number of confusing clues — including some large scales — are discovered at the scenes of each crime. Soon the trail leads back to the suspicious Dr. Carl Mallinger (Robert Flemying), an entomologist not too keen on helping them with the investigation, and his daughter, Clare (Wanda Ventham). I’m going to give it to you straight: a lot of people seem to hate this film (allegedly including Peter Cushing), but I am just not one of them. I can’t bring myself to apologize, but I also can’t pretend that it’s some forgotten masterpiece of British horror; it basically steals wholesale from Hammer’s The Gorgon (1964) and The Reptile (1966), and if you continue reading I am going to ruin the plots of all three films for you in one fell swoop. A controlling and mildly deranged scientist with a beautiful young daughter (or assistant, in the case of The Gorgon, which disappointingly strips the film of any implied incestuous themes), seems to be loosely connected to a strange monster terrorizing the countryside. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the monster turns out to be the girl, in were-beast form. The Hammer titles are stunningly, almost offensively obvious: in The Gorgon, the titular monster is a figure from Greek mythology (though Ovid is probably still spinning in his grave over that one) and in The Reptile it’s — you guessed it — a were-reptile. But with The Blood Beast Terror, Tigon British Film Productions went a completely different route with a ridiculously overwrought title that just fills me with glee, but has nothing to do with a were-moth. And yes, let that one sink in for a minute. A were-moth. A were-Death’s Head moth, even. The US title, The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood, is somehow even more absurd (and inaccurate). There’s no reason that The Blood Beast Terror should be such a flop, as it involves Peter Cushing, capable director Vernon Sewell (though, let’s face it, he’s no Terence Fisher and also can’t compete with Tigon’s biggest name, Michael Reeves), and screenwriter Peter Bryan, who worked on some of my favorite Hammer titles, including The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Brides of Dracula (1960). Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother — seriously, look at how similar their eyes are) gives a solid performance as Clare, though she’s nowhere near as sympathetic as either of the female leads in The Gorgon or The Reptile, which I found a little refreshing. It’s a shame she isn’t given more to do. Probably the biggest disappointment of all is that Dr. Mallinger was supposed to be played by the late, great Basil Rathbone, but after his death, the role went to Robert Flemyng. Thanks to the latter’s performance in one of my favorite films, Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, I will never say anything bad about him, but… Rathbone. Undeniably, The Blood Beast Terror has a lot of flaws — a major part of the plot involves Quennell going quite unbelievably undercover on vacation with his daughter to track Mallinger and Clare when they flee the scene — but there are some great moments of atmosphere. There are even some surprisingly solid effects when Mallinger tries to transform young men into a suitable mate for his daughter, which almost (I said almost) makes me wish there were more attempts at the whole killer were-moth theme. But brace yourself for the amazing dialogue and be prepared that there’s an absurdly inadequate amount of exposition, which is also somewhat the case for The Gorgon and The Reptile. And in terms of the ending, I can’t even do it justice, so you’re just going to have to watch it, but — like a lot of the ‘60s Hammer films — it does involve copious amounts of fire. Admittedly, there are a lot of scenes of British people being British (and inexplicable filler sequences of people fishing), something you either have the taste for or you don’t. I love it so much that I’ve signed myself up for a year (possibly two, at this rate), of writing exclusively about British horror films for Satanic Pandemonium. In other words — and I feel like I keep saying it throughout this review — but when it comes to The Blood Beast Terror, my opinion is not really to be trusted. Luckily there has to be at least one person who agrees with me, because Redemption put it out on DVD, so you can and should watch it, though you may regret doing so while sober.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


Vernon Sewell, 1968
Starring: Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele, Mark Eden, Virginia Wetherill

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) goes in search of his missing brother (Denys Peek) after receiving a strange phone call. He finds his way to a town called Greymarsh, where he is invited to stay at an ancestral lodge owned by Morley (Christopher Lee), which also happens to be home to a raucous party hosted by Morley's young niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell). Despite everyone's assertions that his brother was never there, he uncovers some strange clues and begins to have vivid hallucinations in the middle of the night. He learns that he has been dreaming of legendary figure Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), the evil witch of Greymarsh and Eve’s ancestor. A wheelchair bound local occult expert, Professor Marshe (Boris Karloff), gets involved, but Robert is unsure whether Marsh is trying to help or hurt his investigation and it becomes less and less clear who can really trust.

Tigon British Film Productions’ second horror film is also their first foray into satanic horror and, though it has something of a mixed reputation, is well worth tracking down. Based loosely — trust me, very loosely — on one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, “Dreams in the Witch House,” it's a little bit satanic (the general premise revolves around a witch cult), occasionally psychedelic, and has some of the best actors in the genre under one haunted roof: Boris Karloff in one of his final horror roles, and one in which he sadly contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized, Christopher Lee (somehow this is only Lee and Karloff’s second collaboration together after 1959’s Corridors of Blood roughly a decade earlier), Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough. It’s a shame that the film’s lead, Mark Eden (Séance on a Wet Afternoon) is not quite up to snuff. There’s nothing specifically wrong with him, but he can’t compete with the roster of greats he’s up against.

The film’s nebulous female lead, Eve, is played coquettishly by Virginia Wetherell (Demons of the Mind), who sports quite a bit of nudity. Unfortunately, Eden is absolutely no match for her and it actually feels like she’s not given enough to do (though Steele and Lee suffer from similar fates). Wetherell’s Eve becomes Manning’s partner in detective work — though her role in the events is left convincingly vague for awhile — and also in the sack, when they begin an affair. She’s involved in some of the obligatory shots of a scandalous ‘60s party, perhaps to further stress that the contemporary setting and mild sexual themes (including fetish wear and a disappointingly tame orgy) set Tigon apart from either Hammer or Amicus. 

I’ve always loved the general premise of someone searching for a missing family member/loved one — which Hammer used well a number of times — but here it’s sort of scraping the very bottom of the barrel and the twists and reveals are all a bit obvious at best and awkwardly handled at worst. Admittedly though, there are some wonderful moments when Robert realizes that his nightly dreams might have some basis in reality, as exemplified by his discovery of a secret corridor and another scene where a cut he received in a dream appears in his waking hours. In general, the film makes pleasant use of a number of horror tropes: the folk festival that leaves behind a sense of vague unease, a Gothic manor house, rumors of a secret cult, and a creepy old occult expert. Steele’s Lavinia and the psychedelic visuals that accompany her are the film’s most unique aspect — she’s painted blue and seems to include S&M as a regular part of her satanic rituals (as she should). Really though, I wish she had been given a more robust presence — and Steele herself apparently complained that she was kept isolated from the other actors and not given enough interaction with them. 

Though it was hard to get ahold of for awhile, Kino Lorber finally released The Curse of the Crimson Altar on Blu-ray, though under its American title of The Crimson Cult (which I actually really hate). To make things a little more confusing, you can also find it listed as The Reincarnation, Spirit of the Dead, and Witch House. Be aware of which edition you're purchasing; the earlier US releases under The Crimson Cult are the cut American prints, and while the Kino Blu-ray is uncut, it weirdly subs out the original soundtrack for something different. You might want to just play it safe and pick up the British Blu-ray instead. I definitely recommend the film despite its flaws — I actually have a huge soft spot for the film, even if it seems otherwise — though it stands mostly as a solid forerunner to the studio’s two future masterpieces, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw


My Żuławski retrospective continues over at Diabolique, this time with a look at the director's opera adaptation, Boris Godounov (1989).

"In Andrzej Żuławski’s unusual career full of cinematic outliers and revolutionary masterpieces, there is nothing quite like his lone opera adaptation, Boris Godounov (1989). Admittedly, that’s really saying something. Though it’s perhaps surprising that someone who explored the horror and crime genres with as much enthusiasm as he did frenzied romances would also delve into a classical form, but it shouldn’t come as a shock that he would eventually turn to opera. The director was a lifelong theatergoer and music fan; he adapts scenes from Hamlet, Richard III, and Chekhov’s The Seagull in The Devil (1972), L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), and L’amour braque (1985), respectively, and his distinctive use of music, often in collaboration with the composer Andrzej Korzynski, is one of the most singular features of his films."

Finishing reading over at Diabolique!

Daughters of Darkness: Episode 7

The latest episode of the podcast I co-host, Daughters of Darkness, is now up over at Diabolique.

From the site (which is also where you can download it):

In the seventh episode of Daughters of Darkness, Kat and Samm conclude their four-part exploration of the career of director Andrzej Zuławski, beginning with a discussion of La note bleue (1991). This unconventional biographical drama explores the fading relationship between Chopin and French writer George Sand, which is complicated by the intrusion of her teenage daughter, Solange (played by Zuławski’s then partner and longtime muse Sophie Marceau), who is also in love with Chopin.

Next they look at Zuławski’s first Polish-made film in nearly two decades, the strange and sublime Szamanka (1996), about an uncontrollable young woman whose sexual relationship with an anthropologist begins to consume his life. Finally, they explore La fidélité (2000), his final film with Marceau, which follows a headstrong artist and her difficult, but passionate marriage to a book publisher that is thrown into chaos when an attractive young photographer enters her life. They wrap up the episode with a discussion of Zuławski’s recent, final film, Cosmos (2015), an absolutely beautiful adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s absurdist novel of the same name, about two young men who discover an existential mystery at a boarding house in the countryside.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Michael Reeves, 1967
Starring: Boris Karloff, Catherine Lacey, Ian Ogilvy, Elizabeth Ercy, Victor Henry

Professor Marcus Montserrat, a downtrodden medical hypnotist, has developed the technology to transfer thoughts. He and his wife Estelle are eager to try it out and convince a bored young man, Mike, to come back to their rundown apartment. They are successful and find that they can physically feel everything Mike is experiencing; they are also able to telepathically control him. What begins as a way for two aged, restricted people to take a vacation from their lives soon turns sinister as Montserrat’s wife becomes power mad and sadistic, encouraging Mike towards increasingly dangerous, violent behavior that leads to theft, physical violence, and even murder. Montserrat is the only one who can stop her.

This was the first horror film from Tigon British Film Productions, a studio founded by producer Tony Tenser in 1966. Tenser worked primarily in mainstream, exploitation, and genre cinema; in the years before he founded Tigon, he had a hand in productions like Gothic horror film The Black Torment (1964), the horror-tinged Sherlock Holmes adaptation A Study in Terror (1965), and Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966). Tigon is generally considered as sort of a lesser sibling to British studios like Hammer and Amicus, but it’s always held a special place in my heart. This is primarily thanks to their emphasis on satanic and folk horror; while Hammer generally focused on lush, period-set adaptations of classic horror texts and Amicus cornered the market on anthology tales, Tigon released films like Curse of the Crimson Altar and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and of course the great Witchfinder General.

And speaking of that film, its director, the unfortunately not long for this world Michael Reeves, made a definite imprint on the studio’s legacy and that of British horror in general. After his first film, She Beast (1966) with Barbara Steele — not for Tigon — he turned to this second, surprisingly successful production, which allowed him to team up with the studio a third time for Witchfinder General. He made quite an impression on British genre cinema and it’s a shame his career was cut short by his death of an accidental overdose in 1969 when he was just 25 years old.

While a lot of praise heaped on Reeves is no doubt exaggerated by his early passing, a number of fans and critics have suggested that he should be seen as something of a genre auteur. I can’t say for sure whether or not I agree with this — Witchfinder General is undoubtedly a masterpiece — as The Sorcerers is not necessarily an overlooked triumph, but at the very least hints at a promising future career. The film has a number of strengths: namely the compelling premise, featuring an aged but still great Karloff in one of his last roles, which is an interesting riff on the kind of mad science-fueled horror that could be found in England in the ‘50s with titles like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and especially The Haunted Strangler (1958) or Corridors of Blood (1958), both of which starred Karloff. 

But The Sorcerers also has a number of weaknesses: the script is unfulfilling and doesn’t resolve a number of interesting issues it raises, possibly because the original screenplay from John Burke was largely re-written by Reeves and his friend Tom Baker (no, not that Tom Baker), allegedly to appeal more to the censors. There’s definitely an emphasis on action — including a number of convincing fight scenes, with Mike and his friend rolling around in oil at an auto-mechanic repair garage or breaking everything in sight at an antique shop — and psychological tension rather than sex or violence. Though Reeves ups the ante with some increasingly perverse whims on the part of Estelle, the camera cuts away at a number of crucial scenes and there’s something a little repetitive in the formula.

Karloff allegedly asked for some script changed, because he wanted to play Montserrat’s character more sympathetically than was initially intended, which I’ve seen some critics list as being a misstep, though I disagree. On one hand, it’s a shame that he sort of plays second fiddle to Catherine Lacey (The Lady Vanishes), but she’s fantastic as the unexpectedly sadistic Estelle. Part of her ferocious joy lies not only in spurning Mike onto increasingly horrible actions, but she admits that much of it comes from the battle of wills with her husband himself. Her motivation for not simply killing him herself (or having Mike do it) is that the game would just not be the same without him there attempting to thwart her and steal back Mike’s will. 

The talented, prolific Ian Ogilvy, who was close friends with Reeves and would return to work with him on Witchfinder General, is a bit wasted here. Mike’s ennui is never explained and I think the director missed an opportunity to also re-interpret the attractive young psychopath type that emerged in British horror with a vengeance during this period in films like Peeping Tom, Night Must Fall, and The Collector. At first he seems like a real bastard, but instead (and somewhat disappointingly) he turns out to be quite a nice guy, with all his misdeeds solely Estelle’s blame. 

All in all, The Sorcerers is an interesting experiment and even though it isn’t a totally successful one, it comes recommended. As I mentioned, it’s an interesting take on the evolution of the mad doctor in British horror and is also yet another film to explore the tension between generations. In this case, it unusually shows the similarities rather than the differences between Montserrat’s aged group and Mike’s; both are bored, locked into their narrow social groups like caged animals. It’s a shame the film wasn’t given full range to explore how dark those impulses can become when finally released. Pick it up on Blu-ray.

Sunday, June 5, 2016


Paul Annett, 1974
Starring: Calvin Lockhart, Peter Cushing, Marlene Clark, Michael Gambon, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring

Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart), an eccentric millionaire and big game hunter, has called together a number of unusual people to his isolated island home. He tells them that they are all connected by one thing — death — and that he believes one of them to be a werewolf. His plan is to use his hunting prowess and an elaborate surveillance system to force the werewolf to reveal him or herself, so that he can kill it once and for all. He uses a number of methods to induce this, including exposing them to silver, wolfsbane, and moonlight, but things don’t quite go as he expected…

This fucking movie. I am both horrified and delighted that my series on Amicus’ genre films will go out with this incredibly strange — and not entirely successful — werewolf film by way of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, though the script is actually based on the short story, "There Shall Be No Darkness,” by James Blish. It’s gimmicky, thanks to something describes as a “Werewolf Break” (I wish I was kidding) and the opening the following declaration in both voice over and text: “This film is a detective story — in which you are the detective. The question is not, ‘who is the murderer?’ but ‘who is the werewolf?’ After all the clues have been shown, you will get a chance to give your answer.” And, no joke, there is really a break at the climax of the film that cuts to the faces of the various suspects and asks you to name the killer.

I really might be The Beast Must Die’s target audience, as it’s a horror-mystery hybrid and I am an absolute junky for mystery/crime fiction (and films), whether they are well-made or are just entertaining garbage. This falls somewhere in the middle and I have to admit to finding the “Werewolf Break” to be a really fun idea, even though director Paul Annett apparently hated it and it was inserted after the fact by producer Milton Subotsky. It reminds me of a little bit of a forerunner to something’s like Clue’s alternate endings, though it is of course no where near as entertaining or successful as that example.

Admittedly, the film is a bit schlocky. There’s absolutely no way to know who the werewolf is, so there’s not even a point in having the break. Hilariously, the mythic beast is actually a dog wearing a fur coat, because of budgetary constraints, though there is some decent gore on occasion. It’s easy to make fun of, but the film really does have a few interesting moments. First and foremost is the fact that a successful black character is, quite unusually, the protagonist, played with charisma by Calvin Lockhart (in everything from Predator 2 and Wild at Heart to Coming to America and Twin Peaks; Fire Walk with Me). He sort of inadvertently winds up becoming the hero, when he makes an ultimate sacrifice at the end of the film. He could have easily become an antagonist, but the film curiously doesn’t go in this direction, though it also doesn’t give any of the other characters much motivation or direction. 

A primary issue is that the script veers much too far from the course of both its source stories. On one hand, there aren’t enough murders or red herrings as in And Then There Were None, so the group isn’t forced to band together for survival. They wander sort of aimlessly for the majority of the film. And though they’re all introduced as having some sort of dark past, very little is made of this (with the exception of one character who is a cannibal and has exceptionally hairy hands and arms). Secondly, The Most Dangerous Game pits a desperate protagonist against a malevolent genius driven mad by power — and this film instead tries to combine those two figures loosely into one, which just does not work. 

The real delight, at least for me, is in the casting of some of England’s finest genre actors: Peter Cushing as an eccentric doctor who happens to be a werewolf expert; Charley Gray as a snooty diplomat, who has sneering down to a fine art; and Anton Diffring as a sort of security consultant that hides out behind the scenes, keeping track of all the cameras and monitors (at least until he is bumped off). Creepily, none of the other guests know of his existence and also do not learn of his death. And let’s not forget Michael Gambon (!!) as a sickly, suffering musician and the heavenly Marlene Clark (of Ganja and Hess ), who really shines as the impatient wife, at least when the script allows her room to do so.

I can’t help but recommend The Beast Must Die, which you can find on DVD. As I said, it’s not perfect, but it’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re a sucker for any of the elements that hooked me in: the incredible cast, nonsensical werewolf elements, and a murder mystery that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — not that that slows anyone down in this case. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Effusively romantic and yet profoundly melancholic, Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989) is Żuławski’s almost perversely cerebral take on love — much of the central relationship unfolds through language games and wordplay — though it also contains some of the director’s most erotic sex scenes. Out of all his other works, this is perhaps the most similar to his first French film, L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) — which also featured French pop singer Jacques Dutronc in a starring role — and both appear to be straightforward romantic dramas about the developing relationship of a seemingly ill-matched couple. But Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours is so much more; at once lyrical and maddening, its themes of mortality, love, language, and trauma result in one of Żuławski’s most difficult to define, poetic films.

A brilliant computer programmer who has recently created a new language, Lucas (Dutronc), is informed that he has a mysterious terminal disease, one that will rapidly attack the language center of his brain and cause him to lose his memory before killing him. Thanks to a chance meeting at a café, he falls in love with the much younger, troubled Blanche (Sophie Marceau), who has had some recent success with a traveling nightclub act as a psychic. He follows her to a seaside resort, determined to give their relationship a chance despite their numerous personal obstacles and the memories of trauma that haunt them both.

The single element that makes the film so unusual — and, in a way, inaccessible — is the near constant manipulation of language and particularly the use of paronomasia that began with Żuławski’s previous film, 
L’amour braque, but is also of key importance here. Lucas says, “My words string along like pearls,” and they essentially bind together his sense of self, his disease, and his complicated relationship with Blanche. Word games serve as a form of seduction, but naming acts in a far more complicated function, as it is at once poetic and pedantic.

It is perhaps here that autobiographical elements creep into the film; Lucas’s relationship with the much younger Blanche parallels Zuławski’s lengthy partnership with Sophie Marceau not only in terms of the age gap, but in the sense that it hints at a particular exchange of power. Pygmalion — the mythic sculptor who fell in love with one of his own creations — has been frequently evoked to describe their relationship, but it’s also worth considering Svengali, the antagonist of du Maurier’s influential but somewhat forgotten novel 
Trilby (the inspiration for Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera)in relation to both the director and the protagonist of Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jour.

A beautiful young English girl who is the object of adoration for many men, Trilby falls prey to Svengali, a sinister Eastern European hypnotist and musician, who transforms her into a successful singer. While neither Lucas nor Zuławski possess his villainous qualities, Svengali molds Trilby into a talented performer with the use of hypnotism, which is coincidentally also an important element of Blanche’s stage act. Her partner, the hysterical, turban-clad François (Sady Rebbot), using the stage name of the Raj de Pondichéry, must first put her in a trance before she can use her mediumistic powers. Like Trilby, who doesn’t remember a moment of her singing career while conscious, Blanche claims to have no memory of what she has told audience members. She says that being on stage is “a black hole… I’m there but not really.” She admits to being taken back to the kitchen where she crouched as a child, watching her father abuse her mother.

Though Lucas does not use hypnotism on her, he subtly manipulates her through language. Their lexicons — distinct because of differences in age, class, intelligence, and education, as well as Blanche’s compulsive need to rhyme — begin to bleed together. In the essay “On Language as Such,” Walter Benjamin discussed the connection between mind, identity, and language. He wrote, “Because the mental being of man is language itself, he cannot communicate himself by it, but only in it” (65). Lucas defines himself, remembers himself, and orders the mind that is slipping away from him, purely through language. Many of Zuławski’s protagonists attempt to violently exert control over a world thrown into chaos, but Lucas’s attempts are internalized and gentle, arguably even creative rather than destructive.

Benjamin implies that the use of words, particularly to name things, is a fundamentally creative act and, in essence, a divine one. “Language is therefore both creative and the finished creation; it is word and name” (68). Lucas’s way of connecting with Blanche through language, then, is not only an instructive act and a fertile one, but is also in itself a type of union. Through words, he finds himself in Blanche; he tells her, “My love, my life, when I’m lost, I find you. My speech is nourished by you.”

The function of storytelling, wordplay, and even confession — their respective traumatic pasts and the resultant emotional pain link them together just as much, perhaps even more so than sexual attraction — is what makes 
Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos joursand Lucas himself so different from other romantic tales of older men finding love with younger partners at the seaside. Classic literary examples, like Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Nabokov’s Lolita, or even Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, generally involve the protagonists imposing an elaborate fantasy on the object of their desire, while Lucas seems to approach Blanche from a place of innocence, a genuine desire to know rather than the will to possess.

An example of this can be found in their first romantic scene together, in his hotel room in Biarritz, where he has followed her. In a profoundly tender moment, she falls asleep in his lap and he undresses her and puts her to bed without any sexual overtures; as in
L’important c’est d’aimer (and a similar scene in Possession), Żuławski conveys a moment of romantic love stripped of its erotic connotations. But unlike L’important c’est d’aimer, where there is obviously a sense of frustrated tension between the potential lovers, here there is a rare moment of peace and almost luminous understanding that echoes an earlier line of Blanche’s dialogue: “I came looking for you because you touched my heart.”

In general in Żuławski’s films, love is sudden, chaotic, and ultimately random, striking haphazardly into the lives of his protagonists. It acts as a powerful, often violent agent of change. The majority of these relationships revolve around a love triangle and this is one of Żuławski’s only films without one. He coyly references this in two mirrored scenes: one in which Blanche gets into bed with her husband (who she seems to be married to in name only), a bisexual who is already there naked with another man, and a later scene where Lucas sits down on a bed that has two naked women in it.

Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours 
takes quite a different approach to love and it is perhaps his most tender film. Here love is about knowing; about shedding the masks we wear and putting the performative aspects of life to rest; and about understanding mutual experiences of suffering. It’s difficult for me to resist the impulse to read this film, along with La note bleue (1991) and La fidélité (2000) — in other words, his three films with Sophie Marceau after their relationship began on the set of L’amour braque— as deeply personal catalogues of an intense, but complicated partnership.

Żuławski shows that in both positive and negative ways, to some extent love involves a dissolution of individual identity, the merging of respective traumas and personal pain. Blanche, manipulated by everyone around her and unable to really ever shut out psychological agony thanks to her alleged psychic gifts, cries, “Love means pain, lots of pain.” The film is littered with examples of romantic couples who drive each other to despair, violence, and even death. For example, Lucas and Blanche’s first meeting is in a café (a common setting for romantic turbulence in Żuławski’s films), where they witness a domestic dispute between a potentially drunk middle aged couple that ends with a tearful reconciliation.

Their first sex scene is a disturbing blend of sexual and psychic intimacy. He tells her, “talk to me like you’re in a trance,” and the sequence entails a sort of therapy session. She tells him of the abuse she suffered as a child and reveals she knows that his parents died at night, in a body of water, which corresponds to his repeated flashbacks of his father drowning his mother, presumably an act of jealousy. Though many of them adopt a nonlinear (or seemingly nonlinear) structure, this is one of Żuławski’s few films to make use of the flashback, particularly during moments when Lucas is slipping away because of his illness, or when Blanche is slipping into a trance state —  in other words into liminal spaces where their earliest, deepest pain exists as if in some sort of temporal loop.

The film’s central contradiction is that people come together in love with seeming inevitability, even though it often destroys them. Lucas says, “I hate weddings, couples, betrayals, people tearing each other apart,” mere moments before he tells Blanche that he loves her. While it would be a stretch to say that the film has masochistic themes, love is bound up inextricably with suffering. I’ve already written about Dostoyevsky’s influence on Żuławski — particularly in regards to his two previous films, 
Le femme publique, a loose adaptation of the novel Demons, and L’amour braque, inspired byThe Idiot — and the author’s words in a story with several parallels to Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” ring true for Żuławski’s film: “We can only love with suffering and through suffering. We cannot love otherwise, and we know of no other sort of love” (157).

But unlike the unnamed protagonist of this rather sentimental story, who decides to commit suicide because he is convinced of his own utter ridiculousness, Lucas contends with more than just emotional suffering or existential crisis thanks to his rapidly advancing disease. With the exception of tuberculosis, that Romantic-era plight often symbolic of the tormented artist, terminal illness is not an overwhelmingly popular subject in cinema (though I’m intentionally ignoring the dozens of recent, milquetoast female-centered melodramas with cancer-related plots). In Susan Sontag’s seminal
Illness as Metaphor, she conjectured that this is because “it seems unimaginable to aestheticize the disease” (20).

While Lucas’s specific plight is unnamed, he’s told that it is a virus that “kills 400 a year” and its onset is rapid, inexplicable; it will consume his brain. It’s difficult to romanticize terminal illness — and thus its victims — because it sits at the crossroads of social taboo and our unconscious fears of death. Sontag wrote, “Any disease that is treated as a mystery and acutely enough feared will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious… Contact with someone afflicted with a disease regarded as a mysterious malevolency inevitably feels like a trespass; worse, like the violation of a taboo. The very names of such diseases are felt to have a magic power” (6).

Of course, exceptions of this abound when disease is used as a symbol for moral decline, mental illness, or even a general state of existential suffering — as Lucas’s seems to be. Sontag wrote much about the historical perception of a link between disease and mental illness and even just general unhappiness, moody temperaments, and repressed desire, quoting Thomas Mann’s 
The Magic Mountain: “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed” (Sontag 20-21). In general, Mann used disease frequently throughout his novels: the protagonist of The Magic Mountain contracts tuberculosis, Death in Venice’s Gustav von Aschenbach dies of cholera, syphilis is a main theme in Doctor Faustus, and the heroine of The Black Swan is inadvertently given a short-lived second youth thanks to uterine cancer.

Many decades before Thomas Ligotti would suggest something similar in 
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Mann even hinted that life itself is a disease. He forged a link between biological and spiritual damnation in The Magic Mountain when he wrote, And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter? Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial? The first step toward evil, toward desire and death, was taken precisely then, when there took place that first increase in the density of the spiritual, that pathologically luxuriant morbid growth, produced by the irritant of some unknown infiltration; this, in part pleasurable, in part a motion of self-defense, was the primeval stage of matter, the transition from the insubstantial to the substance. This was the Fall” (285-286).

Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours takes place in a world parallel to The Magic Mountain, with a cast of Żuławski’s typically colorful side characters populating the Biarritz resort, the film lacks the caustic if somewhat complicated nihilism of Mann’s novel, with its bleak ending that implies the protagonist is going off to die in the First World War. In a strangely optimistic conclusion, Żuławski’s protagonists walk into the Atlantic, committing suicide together. This is also the culmination of the film’s numerous water themes, which range from visual references (Lucas takes a bath fully clothed) to verbal ones, as well as the lake that serves as the location of his parents’ murder-suicide. Lucas says, “Love is a pond that can drown you.” Earlier in the film, he tells Blanche, obliquely referencing his illness, “I’m like a bathtub, letting the water run out.” She says, “Let it run out on me.”

Carl Jung wrote of water (particularly sea water) as symbolic of the collective unconscious, while it is often described in mythology and literature as a place of exploration and transformation, the “sea change into something rich and strange” that Shakespeare wrote of in 
The Tempest. This is not the lonely, stormy sea of Joseph Conrad, another of Żuławski’s major literary influences; some of the film’s last lines of dialogue note it as a place of rebirth for the two lovers: “Like the current flowing into the river, like Blanche, awakening in love with her lover. By accident, not knowing where or when, they’ll complete the circle again as children.” As a result, their suicide feels more like a beginning than an untimely end, a way to a reassemble themselves from broken parts. He tells her, “Even if we’re different, together we’re whole.”


Kevin Connor, 1973
Starring: Peter Cushing, Ian Carmichael, Donald Pleasence, David Warner, Angela Pleasence

The very last in Amicus’s series of eight horror anthology films, From Beyond the Grave takes a bit of a different approach and introduces some new talent. While the most frequent writer-director pairing was that of American genre writer Robert Bloch and cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis, this film served as the directorial debut for Kevin Connor, who went on to direct a few more Amicus efforts — like The Land That Time Forgot (1975) and At the Earth’s Core (1976) — as well as a slew of made-for-TV films and even Motel Hell (1980). The film’s four stories were based on tales from British horror author Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes. Though pretty much unknown to American audiences, his most famous book is probably The Monster Club, which went onto be a lone post-Amicus anthology film for producer and studio head Milton Subotsky.

Admittedly, I really love this film, partly because it has such an exceptional cast full of some of my favorite British actors from the period, and primarily because it features Peter Cushing in one of my favorite of his roles. He appears in the framing segments, which all take place at an antique shop called Temptations Limited — the kind of place I fantasized about finding old books with sinister magic powers as a kid. Cushing plays the grizzled proprietor, who sort of sits back and observes as a number of unsavory characters attempt to scam him out of valuable — albeit cursed — items. This trope of bad things happening to bad people can be found in nearly all the Amicus portmanteau films, as well as some of the stand-alone plots, but is used particularly delightfully here.

In the first tale, “The Gatecrasher,” a man named Edward buys a very old mirror from the shop at a reduced price, after he insists it is a fake (though he knows it’s quite valuable). It inspires he and his friends to hold a seance one night during a dinner party. Unfortunately for him, the mirror is possessed by a murderous figure who encourages him to kill young women. After a number of deaths, the figure materializes in the flesh and murders Edward, so that Edward can take over guardianship of the mirror. Gleefully macabre, this would probably be a fairly average entry if not for David Warner, who stars. He has that sort of stern, but appealing and almost uniquely British brand of charisma where the look on his face says that he disapproves of you and all your life choices. Ah, David Warner, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one upped in the second tale, “An Act of Kindness,” by the father-daughter duo of Donald and Angela Pleasence, playing a bereft former serviceman and his strange, adult daughter. They come into the frustrated life of Christopher (the delightful Ian Bannen of Gorky Park, Eye of the Needle, The Watcher in the Woods and roughly 800 other films), after he steals a war metal from the antique shop. Christopher hates his job and is relentlessly bullied by his wife (Diana Dors at her most shrewish, which is saying something). He befriends the serviceman and begins an affair with his daughter, Emily, but soon realizes that Emily possesses a diabolical power that will change his life…

If you need one reason to watch From Beyond the Grave outside of Peter Cushing’s glorious presence or David Warner’s somnambulistic yet effective turn as a serial killer, then let it be the two Pleasences together, looking eerily alike and playing so well off each other that I wish they had done not only more films together in general, but particularly more genre films. Angela, generally forgotten alongside her more famous father, has had a steady, productive career, particularly in British crime television (one of my guilty pleasures), though her starring role in Larraz’s Symptoms, made the same year as From Beyond the Grave, is not to be missed.

My least favorite of the bunch is the still enjoyable episode, “The Elemental,” where a businessman (comic actor Ian Carmichael) has a chance encounter with a witch (stage actress Margaret Leighton) on a train, who tells him that an invisible creature called an elemental is attached to him and is dangerous, even homicidal. He doesn’t believe her until the thing tries to murder his wife and he reaches out to her for help. Thanks to the combination of Carmichael and Leighton, this is the most comedic tale — with a really great exorcism sequence — but it has a grisly twist at the end. I actually think that’s part of why I enjoy From Beyond the Grave so much; it’s more consistently macabre than Amicus’s other anthology films, less tongue-in-cheek, and isn’t afraid to be unpleasant or even violent at times.

The final tale, “The Door,” has my favorite premise of the bunch: a writer (Ian Ogilvy of Witchfinder General) buys a beautifully carved door from the antique shop, one that was apparently once the entryway to a totally blue room. His wife (Lesley-Anne Down of Countess Dracula) seems to have a strange psychic connection to the door and soon the writer becomes obsessed with it, learning that it actually a portal to another, far more dangerous dimension. This surprisingly beautifully-shot episode borrows a bit from The Skull, but is a pleasantly Gothic spin one of the horror tropes most beloved to me: the maniacal occultist who has returned to terrorize a susceptible artist/writer.

From Beyond the Grave is available on DVD and it comes highly recommended for anyone who enjoys anthology films — particularly those of you fed up by trite storylines or the insistence on a tongue-in-cheek approach to genre cinema. It also makes me happy that the portmanteau film was able to go out on such a strong note and this film remains a fond farewell to an interesting, entertaining (if somewhat short-lived) trend in British horror cinema.