Sunday, August 28, 2016


Karel Reisz, 1964
Starring: Albert Finney, Mona Washbourne, Susan Hampshire, Sheila Hancock

When a hotel waiter-cum-serial killer, Danny (Albert Finney), impregnates a local maid (Sheila Hancock), he soon ingratiates himself in the household of her employer, one Mrs. Bramford (a perfect Mona Washbourne). He soon wins the old lady over with his brash charm and work; he is hired to spruce up her country home and moves in shortly after, coinciding with nearby police investigations of a missing woman whose body is believed to have been dumped in the river. Though Mrs. Bramford’s adult daughter (Susan Hampshire) takes an instant dislike to Danny, it doesn’t take much time before he has the attentions of all three women, which propels the household towards a violent conclusion.

Night Must Fall is a remake of the 1937 film starring Robert Montgomery, though both are actually adaptations of a 1935 play from Welsh writer Emlyn Williams, who also starred in the lead role during the original stage production (!). While I can’t help but see Reisz’s film as an offshoot of Psycho — whose 1960 release was followed by a swathe of imitators — it’s fascinating to think that the story’s real origins were in the ‘30s, coinciding with a more public understanding of the serial killer phenomenon; primarily in the United States, with such figures as the Cleveland Torso Murderer, Louisiana’s Robert Nixon, and Harry Powers (known as the West Virginia Bluebeard), while Germany’s infamous Peter Kurten had only been executed a few years prior. Night Must Fall actually has curious similarities to Psycho — the origins of both Norman Bates’ psychosis and Danny’s lies in childhood and complicated maternal relationships — but is, at least in some ways, a more fascinating tale as it refuses to explain away Danny’s madness in the final frames of the film. Even Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (also 1960) did not even risk this kind of ambiguity.

And unlike the male protagonists of Psycho, Peeping Tom, or William Wyler’s The Collector (1964), Albert Finney’s Danny is a sexually charismatic figure, one who is able to successfully manipulate and seduce the film’s female characters, who are powerless to stop him even when they know he is up to no good. In this sense, he is far more like the unhinged, violent protagonists of film noir — such as Bogart in films like Dark Passage and The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Michael Redgrave in Secret Beyond the Door, Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill, and Robert Ryan in basically everything — than he is like the cinematic killers of the ‘60s. Finney’s performance in this film is absolutely mind-blowing and it’s baffling to think why critics hated the film so much upon its release. In my mind, he’s always been more of a theater actor, which he certainly was during roughly the first two decades of his career, but if Night Must Fall isn’t proof of his talent, I don’t know what is.

Genuinely creepy in parts — thanks in part to some beautiful cinematography from Freddie Francis, who I’ve already written about extensively throughout my British horror series — this goes much further than a lot of the other psycho killer films of the period without showing any actual blood or violence. There is the suggestion of a headless body fished from the river, a head in a hatbox that Danny keeps as a trophy and occasionally gloats over, and the offscreen murder of old Mrs. Bramson, but the film’s most disturbing scene occurs when the stuffy old matron finally fulfills his wish and plays a game of “stern mother and naughty little boy” with him — a game of hide and seek with the kind of latent sadism and erotic undercurrent that would appear in Robert Altman’s slightly later The Cold Day in the Park (1969). Her refusal to continue the game is what finally breaks his hold on reality.

Part of what makes Night Must Fall such a masterful thriller, in my opinion, is that even though Reisz is upfront about the fact that Danny is a murderer from the opening frames (which the original film is not), it keeps you guessing about where things will end up and, also thanks to Finney’s performance, it’s not really clear just how unhinged Danny is until the film’s final moments. And, refreshingly, he is far from the only character with psychological issues, though many of these are only hinted at or not fully explored. The sense of class-based, economic antagonism — which appears throughout many British horror films of the ‘60s and early ‘70s — adds a palpable sense of tension; in an interesting twist, it’s reported that Mrs. Bramson herself was a servant as a girl and married well above her station. Curiously (SPOILER), she spends the majority of the film in a wheelchair, but jumps out of it moments before her death, adding to the sense that all is not quite right in the Bramford home.

Though it’s received a lot of criticism for being overwrought or even campy, I think Night Must Fall is perfect if you accept it for what it is: a domestic melodrama about a psychopath, rather than an outright horror film or serial killer thriller (and I admittedly don’t ascribe ascendency to any one of the three). Certainly, it should appeal to fans of any of the above, and anyone who enjoys Albert Finney owes it to him to see this at least once. Embarrassingly, it doesn’t have a proper DVD or Blu-ray release, and is only available as part of the Warner Archive collection, though, as always, I’m hoping a special edition Blu-ray release is on the way with a commentary track from Finney himself.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


William Wyler, 1965
Starring: Terence Stamp, Samantha Eggar

Freddie, a lonely young lepidopterist, finally decides to pursue the distance object of his affections, an art student named Miranda, after winning a sizable lottery pool at work, which allows him to retire and purchase a home in country. Courting Miranda involves stalking her, memorizing her schedule, and then kidnapping her with the use of chloroform. She wakes up in a basement shelter hidden behind Freddie’s home to find that he is in love with her and hopes she will come to return his affections. Freddie is not violent with her and she hopes to gain his trust in order to escape, faking an illness, and later attempting to seduce him, though all of it is in vain. Miranda begins to realize that he will never allow her to escape and she will probably die in captivity…

Based on John Fowles’ novel of the same name, this is technically an American-British coproduction, but I’ve included it as part of my lengthy British horror series, because it was shot in England and with English actors. Famously, the wonderful William Wyler gave up The Sound of Music for the chance to direct this film, his only title that could really be described as a horror film or thriller, and it is certainly a masterpiece in an already rich and dazzling career. With The Collector, Wyler actually subverted the very romantic tropes — which he used in a variety of flexible ways — that made him famous in films like Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, Roman Holiday, How to Steal a Million, and even Funny Girl.

As Hannibal Lector would tell Clarice Starling decades later in The Silence of the Lambs, “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” And though The Collector exists seemingly on a different planet than the British horror films produced by Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon — it has far more in common with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom — it is still rife with subtle themes of class division and cultural tension that appears as a subtext in many of the country’s genre films of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. There is the sense that Freddie wants to possess Miranda — who he watched grow up, as they are from the same home town — because she represents all the things he did not have. Strangely, he never attempts any sexual violence and her attempts to seduce him are met with outright disgust; her value seems to be more as a social and economic possession.

There is also a connection to Lolita (published in 1955, just eight years before Fowles’ novel) in the sense that The Collector is all about a man preserving and sustaining an impossible romantic fantasy; he’s not consumed by remembering a love lost, but a love that never really existed in the first place. Like Humbert Humbert, Freddie is perhaps monstrous and is certainly strange, but he’s fundamentally sympathetic, even likable. Lepidoptery is of course another connection between Nabokov, Lolita, and The Collector; like one of Freddie’s butterflies pinned in a glass case, he can only truly appreciate beauty in a fixed form, as an immobile object over which he has absolute control.

This is not to say that Wyler devalues Freddie’s love for Miranda in any way, despite his strangeness. Stamp, who didn’t think he was right for the role, but who was eager to work with Wyler nonetheless, is perfectly cast against type as the sensitive, if disturbed romantic hero. His unusual handsomeness and often dreamy expression work far more effectively than someone like Anthony Perkins — who Stamp apparently thought was going to win the role — though of course I’m biased. I would watch Terence Stamp watching paint dry and be riveted. The more disturbing aspects of Freddie’s character are established early on, thanks to a lengthy stalking ritual that takes up much of the first part of the film and a very subtle performance from Stamp. Additionally, Wyler’s refuses to share Freddie’s backstory, making him something of a figure of mystery and unpredictability.

Admittedly, I find Eggar repellent as an actress, though this works dramatically in Wyler’s favor; my dream script change of a happy ending — where Miranda realizes she does love Freddie and doesn’t want to return to her mundane normal life — would only have worked with Julie Christie, who was originally considered a shoo-in for the role. Stamp was ordered to remain cold and aloof from the actress throughout the shooting schedule and her sense of unease and distrust is palpable. To make matters worse for Eggar, she had rejected Stamp’s romantic overtures in the past and was fired immediately after production on The Collector began; she was only rehired and allowed to return, apparently, after agreeing to work with an acting coach.

The best (or worst, depending on your perspective) thing about this film — at least from where I’m sitting — is that the combined talents of Wyler and Stamp make it seem feasible that Miranda will come to return his love. Of course, this would be difficult at best, but something similar happens in films with complicated issues of consent like Kidnapped Coed, The Night Porter, Straight on Till Morning, and to a different degree, some of Walerian Borowczyk’s efforts like The Beast, where a victim falls for a perpetrator, or a rape turns into an act of mutual pleasure. In some ways, this is the ultimate expression of romantic fantasy taken to a particular extreme, and it’s easy to read it as a darker evolution of fairy tale themes, where a prince bestows a lifesaving kiss on a cursed, sleeping princess (obviously without her knowledge or consent), and this act alone ensures her love and devotion. Personally, I much prefer The Collector to Sleeping Beauty or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Of course, The Collector comes with the highest possible recommendation, thanks to the combined talents of Wyler, Stamp, and Fowles. Pick it up on Blu-ray, though I’m desperately hoping it will get the special edition restoration treatment it so richly deserves. The film was supposed to be shot in black and white, but Wyler changed to an oddly dark, subdued use of Technicolor, allegedly because of Eggar’s red hair, which means someone should really pull out all the stops for a high definition restoration. While this fictional person is at it, I’m also dying to see the original three-hour cut, which Wyler was forced to slim down for the theatrical release. I’m sure this additional footage is lost, but a girl can hope.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

THE HAND (1960)

Henry Cass, 1960
Starring: Derek Bond, Reed De Rouen, Bryan Coleman, Walter Randall

“Blast everybody and everything.”

The film opens with a division of the British Royal Army trapped in Burma, where they are threatened by hostile Japanese forces. During an interrogation, several of the men have their hands chopped off with a machete when they refuse to reveal the location of their base. Fast forward to postwar London, where an old, alcoholic bum is found with a stack of money, but missing in a hand, and Scotland Yard begins to investigate. But soon, the bum turns up dead, the doctor who performs the operation was first missing and then commits suicide, and it becomes clear that they’re dealing with something quite unusual: wartime secrets, a seemingly illicit marriage, blackmail, and much more.

For whatever reason, this film is generally regarded as a horror movie — which is why I’ve included it in my British horror series — but I have to admit that it was not at all what I was expecting. Coincidentally, I watched it at the same time that we did an episode on Mad Love (1935) over at Daughters of Darkness (which also coincidentally went live today), and I do have a fondness for horror films about transplanted parts and missings limbs, particularly those with humor (intentional or otherwise). Beginning roughly with Weine’s Hands of Orlac (1924) and continuing through Karl Freund’s great Mad Love and Robert Florey’s The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) — both of which featured the great Peter Lorre — to French films like Le main du diable (1943) and The Hands of Orlac (1960), the old severed hand is, or at least was, fertile ground for genre cinema. And yet, The Hand is not really a horror film at all, despite treading tentatively on horror ground.

Though director Henry Cass proved his genre chops when he made the fun, albeit very schlocky Blood of the Vampire (1958), The Hand is a cross between revenge film, lurid crime story, and detective tale; it is essentially a British version of the West German krimi genre that was popular during the ‘60s. Borrowing elements from earlier crime serials and ‘30s features — everything from Fantomas to Fu Manchu — the krimi films were actually primarily based on the novels of British writer Edgar Wallace. Essentially kicking off with The Fellowship of the Frog (1959), the subgenre ran for over a decade and generally follow a Scotland Yard detective investigating a series of incredible, strange crimes; the colorful roster of suspects and victims allows him to eventually close in on a killer, usually masked or costumed, and themes include sex, drugs, blackmail, organized crime, revenge, and a slew of red herrings.

And while The Hand initially seems like a war thriller — astoundingly, the opening has WWII continuing into 1946, which you can take as a grievous historical error or a sign that events are unfolding in some parallel universe — the WWII subplot is little more than a backdrop and makes no actual sense when connected to the crimes at hand. Like the krimi films, the plot practically gallops towards its nonsensical conclusion and seems more concerned with maintaining a brisk pace than making a whole lot of rational sense. And like the krimi films, there’s some stodgy if tolerant moralizing in the film’s closing scenes. But sadly, unlike the krimi, it contains very few lurid elements — just a doctor’s suicide, a severed hand that turns up in a dresser drawer, and so on — and lacks the lineup of familiar faces favored by both the krimi and horror genres, though diehard genre fans might recognize Harold Scott (The Brides of Dracula) as the homeless man or Garard Green (The Flesh and the Fiends) as the unfortunate surgeon.

I do have to admit to finding the banter banter between the inspector (Ronald Leigh-Hunt) and his second-in-command (Ray Cooney) delightful — most of their jokes focus on the latter wanting to get off early to see his apparently very demanding girlfriend — though I also have a wide tolerance for police procedurals and, admittedly, it made me wish I was watching Clouzot’s L’assassin habite... au 21 (1942) instead. There is something about the film that seems a little off; I’ve read other reviews guessing that some of the film was cut and this seems like the most rational explanation for why the ending is so choppy, nonsensical, and abruptly concluded.

Despite the fact that I have absolutely no sense of what anything happened the way it did, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying The Hand far more than I expected to. Still, it’s not really something I can defend. If you’ve seen a lot of krimi films, then you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into it and probably have a good time with the film. As far as I can tell, it isn’t available on home release, but you can find it streaming on Youtube and other places online.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Monthly Round Up: July 2016

Time for another monthly round-up! Over at Satanic Pandemonium I've been continuing my British horror series and I just wrapped up an in-depth look at the genre films of the studio Tigon British Film Productions. This month I'm going to move on to British horror films made in the '60s not under the particular umbrella of Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon. 

Over at Diabolique, we've continued our American Gothic-themed summer season. My essays for it have included:

Moral Degenerates: Rediscovering Leslie Stevens' Private Property (1960)
Gothic Madmen: John Brahm's Forgotten Horror Trilogy
The Mausoleum of All Hope and Desire: Southern Gothic Cinema, Part Two
Much of Madness, More of Sin: Edgar Allen Poe's "The Black Cat" on Screen
Gothic Film in the '40s: Doomed Romance and Murderous Melodrama
Gothic Film in the '40s: Domestic Terror and Supernatural Drama
I also reviewed Mondo Macabro's special edition Symptoms (1974) Blu-ray release, even though I wrote the liner essay. I couldn't help myself. 

I spent the last few months doing an in-depth series
 on the complete filmography of Polish director Andrzej Żuławski. With lots of emotion -- and wishing I could continue it forever -- I finished up the series with an essay on La fidélité (2000), his penultimate film. And even though I was supposed to take a few months off, I immediately began a new series on the completely filmography of British director Ken Russell with a look at some of his early Monitor episodes for the BBC, Elgar (1962) and Béla Bartók (1964)

For the podcast I co-host, Daughters of Darknesswe finished up our two-part look at independent American horror films inspired by Stephen Thrower's Nightmare USA. We did two American Gothic-themed double features: one on Roger Corman's The Raven & Masque of the Red Death, and another, All of the Them Witches: Superstition, Eyes of Fire, and the Calvinist Gothic

I also made a guest appearance over at 
Werewolf Ambulance, a horror-comedy podcast, where the hosts Alan and Katie were kind enough to endure me talking about my extreme love for Amityville II: The Possession for almost an hour. Incest, possession, a shit room, etc.


Freddie Francis, 1973
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Lorna Heilbron In Victorian England, Professor Hildern (Peter Cushing) uncovered a very strange humanoid skeleton while on an expedition to New Guinea. It is very old and oddly developed, so he begins studying it. Meanwhile, his psychiatrist brother, James (Christopher Lee), runs an asylum where Hildern’s wife has been a patient for many years; James informs his brother that she has recently passed away and that Hildern will now have to fund his own research. The despairing Hildern begins to recklessly experiment with the skeleton, which responds strongly to water, allowing Hildern to develop a serum. He tests it on his own daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), hoping to find a way to prevent her from inheriting her mother’s madness, which sets in motion a violent chain of events... Tragically, The Creeping Flesh represented the death knell for Tigon. Producer and studio head Tony Tenser sold the studio not long after and though I believe they made a few more sex films, this was their last genre film. But at least they went out on a high note. Throughout the last few weeks, I’ve written a lot about my love for Tigon’s films; many of which defiantly bucked the more conservative, traditional paths Hammer and Amicus wandered down and, even at their worst, are always interesting. This one in particular benefits from two strong performances (as always) from Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I can’t help but wonder if the studio knew it would be their final horror film, as the script really went all out and combined a lot themes popular in British horror at the time: mad science, madness and/or someone being driven insane, a killer on the loose, and supernatural evil. The Creeping Flesh is definitely among the series of great Lee and Cushing collaborations made in the early ‘70s, which, for a variety of reasons, amount to some of my favorite British horror films: Scream and Scream Again (1970, with Vincent Price), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), Horror Express (1972), Nothing But the Night (1973), and even The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). Though the script has its fair share of issue and it can’t quite top the fun quotient of something like Dracula A.D. 1972 or the sheer gumption of Horror Express, this one is thick with atmosphere, there’s also loads of delightful scenery chewing, and Cushing, in particular, is obviously having a great time as the over-the-top doctor. It was really in these later roles that he pulled out all the stops and really stepped away from the grim, measured performances of the early Frankenstein and Dracula films for Hammer to churn out the kinds of dazzling roles that made films like Corruption (1968), Twins of Evil (1971), and Fear in the Night (1972) stand out so vividly. In the case of this film, both Cushing and Lee are bolstered by competent handling from director Freddie Francis. He’s one of my favorites in British horror and he’s one of the few who worked prolifically for all three of the major genre studios. Even though his name is sometimes overshadowed by people like Terence Fisher, he has left an indelible stamp on English horror. For Hammer, he made films like early black and white suspense outings Paranoiac (1963) and Nightmare (1964), as well as helming later entries in their franchises like Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968). For Amicus, he not only worked on some of their anthology films, such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), but directed the more interesting single-plot efforts like my favorite, The Skull (1965), and The Psychopath (1966). He even had his hand in later horror from miscellaneous studios and ranged from the serious — such as Girly (1970) — to the patently absurd, like Trog (1970). This film was his only Tigon outing and though it’s their last, it’s definitely one of their best. The Creeping Flesh is one of those films that I just have to recommend, because I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed by the Cushing-Lee combo. And if you are, please don’t tell me about it. The film is available on DVD and I think at this point, I need hardly say how enthusiastic I am about the majority of these underrated Tigon films. I wish the studio had an opportunity to make more and, in a way, I feel like they’re poking fun at Hammer and Amicus a little bit with titles like The Creeping Flesh and some of their wilder, more out there films. The conclusion of this one in particular seems to acknowledge that: after spending the running time mashing together everything from mad science (I will never understand why he injects his daughter with the serum) to the dangers of arrogant British colonialism, Francis and company leave you wondering whether the events happened at all — as Hildern has presented them throughout via narration — or if he’s just totally barking mad and his brother (played with sublime disdain by Lee, who is a real cold bastard here) has been in the right all along.