Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Robert Hartford-Davis, 1968
Starring: Peter Cushing, Sue Lloyd, Kate O’Mara, Noel Trevarthen

A renowned plastic surgeon, Sir John Rowan (Peter Cushing), is at a party with his young girlfriend Lynn (Sue Lloyd), a model, when things get out of hand. He wants to leave, but she’s being fawned over by a photographer, and a scuffle breaks out in the crowd; a photo light falls over, smashing right on Lynn’s face, ruining it. It becomes Rowan’s obsession to make a surgical breakthrough and repair her beauty, and he begins experimenting with a series of (I believe) hypothalamus transplants, which at first seems like a miraculous cure and her face is restored without any hint of scarring or trauma. But this is only temporary and soon Rowan must replace the transplant, causing him to find increasingly homicidal ways to procure new glands…

Anyone who reads this blog is well aware of my frenzied love for Peter Cushing (two words: slap fetish), but I have to admit that while I really enjoy Corruption, I don’t quite rank it alongside some of his other performances from the late ‘60s through early ‘70s, though the bar is set quite high with things like the Sherlock Holmes (1968) TV series, Twins of Evil (1971), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), Fear in the Night (1972), and — drumroll — Horror Express (1972). In a weird way, I think the fact that Corruption was unavailable for so long has inflated its reputation, a bit, as a truly nasty piece of work. Cushing is nowhere near as maniacal as he is in Twins of Evil or Fear in the Night, or even Madhouse (1974), and the film’s interesting twist (this isn’t really a spoiler) is that he is goaded into killing by Lynn, who is almost maniacally obsessed with becoming beautiful — and staying that way. Though they have some traits in common, Sir John Rowan is a far cry from the Baron Frankenstein.

It’s also strange to think how neglected director Robert Hartford-Davis has been compared to other British genre directors; no disrespect to Terence Fisher or Pete Walker, but there are other talents out there. Hartford-Davis directed some other horror films, such as The Black Torment (1964), Incense for the Damned (1970), and The Fiend (1972), all of which I’ll be reviewing for my British horror series. If I had to sum up these titles (including Corruption), I think the best way I could describe them is flawed, but always interesting, and as far as low budget genre cinema goes, there’s not a lot more than I could ask for. I’m hoping some of his other titles get more attention and wider releases in the future. Unlike some of the other British genre directors, who as a rule tended to stick to similar themes, Hartford-Davis is at least in part interesting because he was all over the place. Corruption is essentially a riff on the glorious Eyes Without a Face (1960), but is a thoroughly British grindhouse interpretation of the material (though admittedly it doesn’t approach the level of insanity found in Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orloff or Michael fucking Pataki’s Mansion of the Doomed…).

One of the best — and also most awkward — things about the film is that everything is set in swinging London. This results in a lot of unintentional, often unpleasant humor, and it has everything from a ridiculous party to an Austin Powers-like photo shoot that must be seen to be believed. Swinging London is admittedly one of my favorite time period settings for late ‘60s/early ‘70s horror and I hope that one day I can do a swinging London film festival, complete with things like Psychomania, Deadly Sweet, Dracula A.D. 1972, Raw Meat, and Scream and Scream Again. (Appropriate costumes will be mandatory.) Speaking of costumes, Cushing’s Sir Rowan is endearingly out of place in his fiancee’s world and, like so much British cinema from this period, much of the tension — and his encroaching, increasingly sweaty and disheveled madness — comes from this divide between free-wheeling youth and the reserved, traditional older generation.

I think part of why this film was soured a bit for me — and where some of the aforementioned youth comes into play — is the twist ending, although it’s not quite a surprise twist, but more a directional change of course, a sharp left turn that basically transforms this into a home invasion film (and with very, very few exceptions, I hate those). Rowan and Lynn go off to an isolated seaside cottage and hope to ensnare a lonely young woman, but she isn’t all that she seems. And so on. Despite that, this is a solid effort from Hartford-Davis and Cushing, who both seem to be having a great time, though I believe Cushing later said it was one of his worst films. Hammer-regular Kate O’Mara (The Vampire Lovers, The Horror of Frankenstein) is sadly underused, but keep your eyes peeled for other genre actresses like Vanessa Howard (Girly) and Valerie Van Ost (The Satanic Rites of Dracula).

Even though it’s not among my favorite Cushing films, or even British horror movies, Corruption is one of those sleaze gems that soundly fits under the description of “grindhouse” — so of course it’s fitting that it was restored and released on Blu-ray by the great Grindhouse Releasing with two versions of the film (the US/UK version and the gorier and more explicit European cut) and a load of special features. They go above and beyond with all of their releases — and all of the titles they chosen really have something special — but this was an obvious labor of love and both the release and the film come recommended. And let us not forget the amazing tagline: “CORRUPTION Is Not A Woman's Picture! Therefore: No Woman Will Be Admitted Alone To See This Super-Shock Film!” Perhaps the real problem is not with Corruption, but that I’m a woman and I watched the film alone.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Roy Boulting, 1968
Starring: Hywel Bennett, Hayley Mills, Billie Whitelaw

“No puppet master pulls the strings on high
Proportioning our parts, the tinsel and the paint
A twisted nerve, a ganglion gone awry,
Predestinates the sinner and the saint.”
—George Sylvester Viereck’s “Slaves”

A troubled young man, Martin, spies a pretty girl in a toy store while she’s making a purchase and he’s in the act of stealing a duck. Pretending to be mentally challenged, he gets away with a minor complaint against him and the girl, Susan, a librarian studying to become a teacher, takes pity on him. This leads to a dangerous infatuation with Susan, who comes to know him as “Georgie”; he goes so far as to get himself invited to live at the boarding house run by Susan’s mother. Martin’s brother Pete, who lives in an asylum, is actually handicapped and it is their family that seems to somehow be the root cause of Martin’s own disturbance; his anxious mother and domineering stepfather certainly don’t help matters. These tensions, combined with his fixation on Susan, lead him down a dark and violent path...

What the actual hell? Twisted Nerve has what is probably the most insane premise out of all the British young psycho killer films (with the possible exception of the far more brutal Night Must Fall, though that film begins far more conventionally); at minimum, Twisted Nerve definitely has the most tasteless premise. It certainly couldn’t be made today and even though this is likely to offend someone, somewhere, I can’t help but love the sheer cheek of it. Directed by the somewhat unknown Roy Boulting — of films like Design for Murder and There’s a Girl in My Soup, though he’s perhaps best known for producing his brother John’s absolutely amazing British noir Brighton Rock (1947)he does a solid job building suspense here.

But the film absolutely belongs to British television fixture Hywel Bennett, whose performance as Martin/Georgie is nearly able to overcome some of the film’s issues. In particular, his facial control is unforgettable, and much of his subdued, almost sedate performance lies in subtle changes of expression that indicate whether he’s still Martin or has switched into Georgie. Often this happens without a moment’s notice. And if it wasn’t enough that he’s pretending to have some sort of mental disorder out of boredom (and barely masked psychopathy), the film also pushes the limits of sexual content with some scenes of male nudity and implied masturbation. Martin seems to have body dysmorphic disorder, or at least some very serious sexual issues, akin to those of Peeping Tom.

An obvious precursor to this film, Peeping Tom’s screenwriter, the wonderful Leo Marks, also penned Twisted Nerve. Disturbingly, the title is taken from the above quoted poem by a fascinating but basically forgotten figure, George Viereck, a German-born writer. Viereck emigrated to the United States in the 1890s (around the same time as my own family, as a random side note of absolutely no interest to anyone but myself), where he developed a reputation as a poet — curiously one with homoerotic themes, which also appear in Twisted Nerve. As his writing career grew, thanks to some work in the fields of psychoanalysis and science, he met and developed relationships with everyone from Tesla to Hitler, and even Aleister Crowley. But Viereck was a staunch supporter of Hitler and eventually landed himself in prison in the US for his vigorous support of Nazism. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Twisted Nerve, but was too fascinating for me not to at least mention, and I can’t help but wonder if the well-read Marks — himself a veteran of the espionage and code-breaking fields during WWII — used Viereck as something of an inspiration for Martin.

It’s also a bit unfair to just rest the complete success of the film at the feet of either Marks or Bennett, as there’s a great supporting cast, which includes a number of established stage actors who also made appearances in genre films, such as Billie Whitelaw (The Omen) as Susan’s mother, Frank Finlay (The Deadly Bees) as Martin’s stepfather, and the delightful Barry Foster (Frenzy) as a lascivious tenant, whose side role is my favorite thing about the film. He's so wonderful that it's almost unfair to the other actors. It’s weird for me to see Hayley Mills in a horror movie — I’m familiar with her solely because of the Disney Channel’s incessant screening of The Parent Trap when I was a kid — but she’s very well used here in the sort of wide-eyed, well-meaning innocent role that pops up in a lot of these types of films. She begins to get wise to "Georgie," which at least elevates her a bit from the hapless victim type that Hammer couldn't get away from during this period.

Twisted Nerve comes recommended, though it’s probably not quite what you’d expect, unless you've seen a lot of these English psychopath films. There are a few murders — Martin uses his sudden lack of fixed identity and new residence to provide him with an alibi — though they are relatively bloodless or occur off-screen. The most famous thing about the film is actually the Bernard Herrmann score, which has one of the single most punishing songs in any horror film, though it should come as no surprise that Herrmann turns it into a compelling and oddly flexible theme that repeats throughout the film in several different ways; you’ll also probably recognize it from Kill Bill. Pick Twisted Nerve up on DVD. It’s got nothing on Straight on Till Morning, but really, what has?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


Jim O’Connolly, 1967
Starring: Joan Crawford, Judy Geeson, Ty Hardin A traveling circus in Europe is prey to a number of tragedies — beginning with a tightrope walker falling to his death — before it becomes clear to Scotland Yard and to the circus owner, Monica Rivers, that a madman is loose under the big top. Suspects include Rivers herself, who has profited off the first death by taking advantage of media attention, as well as the Great Hawkins, a guarded, sometimes violent man who has convinced Monica to give him a starring role as the new tightrope walker, and various other squabbling members of the circus, all of whom seem eager to stab each other in the back. Tensions increase further when it becomes obvious that Rivers and Hawkins have begun a romantic relationship, despite the fact that she is much older than he is, and when her young daughter is thrown out of boarding school and joins a circus act with the knife thrower... It’s amazing to think that Joan Crawford’s final two film roles were in British horror films (Berserk and Trog, which I will explore at a later date), while her last really great role is in Robert Aldrich’s slightly earlier 1962 film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? That film costarred Crawford’s archnemesis, Bette Davis, who coincidentally also wound down her career with a number of truly fine (and some very over the top) performances in genre films: Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Nanny (1965), the completely bonkers The Anniversary (1968), Burnt Offerings (1976), and, my personal favorite, The Watcher in the Woods (1980) — among others — outdoing poor Crawford once and for all. But ironically, when I think of Crawford — and my favorite of her films — I think of circus horror, namely Tod Browning’s 1927 film The Unknown, where a very young Crawford stars alongside Lon Chaney in my favorite of all his performances. Berserk is admittedly a world away from The Unknown — that film being a sort of precursor to body horror as Chaney plays an allegedly armless knife thrower — and has far more in common with campy British films like Circus of Horrors (1960) and The Black Zoo (1963), though Berserk horrifyingly spends much of its running time filming the circus performances themselves, possibly in an effort to pad its weak plot. At first I found this really annoying, but by the time the film shoehorned in what is maybe the eight of these (a “death defying” elephant show), I was just weak with laughter. I think it’s probably all about your tolerance level and managing expectations, as Berserk is short on violence, short on gore, all but devoid of sex (though some is lightly implied) and nudity, and has a plot that barely goes through the motions. But it is not light on Joan Crawford — who prances around in a leotard and high heels while in her 60s — and for this, I have to love the film at least a little bit. I tend to be a bigger fan of actors than actresses from classic Hollywood, but I’ve always admired Crawford for her weighty presence, her seemingly innate sense of campiness, and the sheer force of will that made it seem like nothing was ever impossible, she just had to set her mind to something to make it possible. She may lack some of Bette Davis’s subtlety or range (sorry Joan), but there was really no one quite like her. Few actresses, then or now, could convincingly pull off a relationship with a much younger man (not that the bland Ty Hardin does her any favors) at 60+, and there’s a particularly great scene where she tells Hawkins that she’s not interested in anything more than a physical relationship and basically laughs in his face about the suggestion of love. For me, the film’s biggest disappointment is that — SPOILER ALERT — Crawford is not the killer. I generally prefer her at her most insane, as in the glorious film noir, Possessed (1947), but there is a (perhaps intentional?) riff on Crawford’s notorious reputation as a mother from hell. The film’s killer is, completely implausibly, Rivers’ sweet and innocent daughter (played by the wonderful Judy Geeson, who I am a little bit in love with thanks to her performances in films like Goodbye Gemini, 10 Rillington Place, and Fear in the Night), who is so desperate for her mother’s love that she snaps. Allegedly Christina Crawford was considered for the role (her mother refused), which is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. In general, the film is overwhelmed by female characters, despite some solid appearances from Michael Gough as Rivers’ hapless business partner and Robert Hardy as a Scotland Yard detective. Hardy, who seemed destined to play a figure of authority and had a presence in horror and thriller films from the period, such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), Psychomania (1971), and Demons of the Mind (1972), nearly steals the film out from under Crawford. Nearly. One of my least favorite actress of all time, Diana Dors, is allowed to be particularly terrible here, and has the best death scene in the form of a magician’s trick, where she is accidentally sawed in half. Berserk is one of those films that I’m not sure I should recommend, but I have a strange compulsion to do so. You can find it on DVD, though anyone who expects a lot from their circus horror should keep in mind that this is a far cry from Freaks — brace yourself for the music number — but it’s really worth watching just for some of Crawford’s dialogue, like “I’m not running a charm school.” I love her and I’m not sorry.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Monthly Round Up: August 2016

Time for another monthly round-up! Here at Satanic Pandemonium, I've been continuing my British horror series and I just launched into films made in the '60s not under the particular umbrella of Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon, loosely organized by theme: for example, I'm just wrapping up a look at films made about psycho killers. 

Over at Diabolique, we've continued our American Gothic-themed summer season, which is winding down now. For it, I concluded The Mausoleum of All Hope and Desire: Southern Gothic Cinema, Part 3.
I also wrote about: Japan Cuts 2016: Burst City, Artist of Fasting, and The Sion Sono
Vinegar Syndrome's new Blu-ray release of Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil's Son-in-LawArrow's new Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection box set
Kino's new Blu-ray of Fritz Lang's Destiny
Provocative Pessimism: Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog

I'm also doing an in-depth series on the complete filmography of British director Ken Russell, which is continued on with The Debussy Film.

For the podcast I co-host, Daughters of Darknesswe explored mad science in American cinema (and beyond) with a double feature, Transplant Terror: From Mad Love to Mansion of the Doomed, and in in-depth look at Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó with the episode Private Vices, Public Virtues: Orgies and Excess in Miklós Jancsó and Beyond, which covers everything from the erotic films of Tinto Brass to Pasolini, Fellini, Hungarian politics, and more.