Horror movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


  OUANGA. George Terwilliger Productions, 1936. Also released as Drums of the Jungle and The Love Wanga. Fredi Washington, Philip Brandon, Marie Paxton, Sheldon Leonard. Written & directed by George Terwilliger.

   Most critics agree that the story behind this movie is more interesting than the film itself, but I found Ouanga possessed of a unique charm that kept me watching and even enjoying it.

   The plot is a simple affair, and writer/director Terwilliger had the sense to keep it that way. Clelie (Fredi Washington) is a Haitian plantation owner of mixed race, in love with the neighboring and very white planter Adam Maynard.

   The script hints that their relationship has been more than neighborly, but as the story starts, Adam is bringing his fiancée to the island and it ain’t Clelie — it’s whey-faced blonde Eve Langley, whom Clelie decides to kill with voodoo magic. And plot-wise that’s really about it, except that Clelie herself is pursued by mixed-race overseer LeStrange (Sheldon Leonard) who has his own murderous way of dealing with unrequited love.

   The story has a spare, allegorical feel to it, even down to the names of the putative hero and heroine (Adam & Eve) and the garden-like setting of the action. There’s also a fine dichotomy between the frank passion of the native peoples and the pallid complacency of their white counterparts. Terwilliger seems to enjoy cutting between vigorous folk ceremonies and tepid garden parties—and the passion in the clinches of Clelie and LeStrange quite overshadows the perfunctory romance of hero and heroine.

   Terwilliger, obviously influenced by William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island, went to Haiti to film authentic Voodoo ceremonies and did a lot of research for this film, but he got chased out by the local witch doctors, who killed a member of his crew.

   He ended up filming in Jamaica under primitive conditions and the result is terribly crude, but I found it oddly powerful as well — if you can get past the bad script, bad acting and laughable stunt-work. The Voodoo scenes here have a primitive and suitably awed quality to them such as I have seen nowhere else, as if the filmmaker were trying to convey to us something of his own dread and wonderment.

   Ouanga ended up being largely ignored by the public and shunted off by its distributors as an exploitation show, and frankly it deserved no better. But for those who can look past its incredible ineptitude, this in a unique and haunting bit of work.

   As a footnote, writer/producer/director George Terwilliger is something of a mysterious figure in the movies. An authentic pioneer of the cinema, he worked with D.W.Griffith and stayed busy in the silent era, but there’s a ten-year gap between his last silent film in 1926 and the appearance of Ouanga.

   Afterwards, the screenplay of this film was recycled into an all-black movie, The Devil’s Daughter (1939) but Terwilliger himself never made another film. He died in 1970.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. Universal International, 1959. Starring Eric Fleming, Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley, Bruce Gordon. Written & directed by Edward Dein.

   What could have been a campy disaster emerges as an off-beat effort with some memorable moments. Not a complete success, but much better than you’d expect from a Vampire Western.

   Things start quickly, with writer/director Dein showing off a fine sense of pace as a young lady dies mysteriously with (you guessed it) bite-marks on her neck — an escaping demon suggested by a shade flapping violently in the bedroom window, in a neat bit of understatement.

   From here we move on to some typical Western range-war dramatics, but no range itself, as if the budget couldn’t be stretched to include any wide open spaces. Or maybe Dein just wanted to keep things creepy and claustrophobic in this town-bound gothic.

   Whatever the case, the stock characters hang around saloon and offices going through their usual paces, with the Big Rancher pushing on the smaller ones, the Sheriff standing tough in the middle, the hot-head edging towards a showdown, and pious Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) trying to keep everyone above ground and unperforated while casting eyes on the local Rancher’s Daughter (Kathleen Crowley.)

   (PARENTHETICAL NOTE: A critic once pointed out that B westerns are rife with ranchers and ranchers’ daughters, but a positive dearth of ranch moms — either life on the prairie was hard on a woman, or else it was just too much bother and expense to hire another actress.)

   Things don’t have time to get dull before the mysterious stranger we’ve been expecting all along shows up in a memorable moment, rearing his horse in the moonlight in spooky slow motion. And it’s not long after that till he makes himself known to the locals as a sinister gun-for-hire in a scary shoot-out, which is one of those scenes I said you’d remember.

   The ghoulish gunman is played very ably by Michael Pate, an Aussie with a lean-and-thirsty look typed as a bad guy in Hollywood but capable of much broader range. In Curse he comes off as equal parts Cowboy and Creep: lean, graceful, and suggesting a certain complexity of character ably conveyed in a script that paints him more love-lorn than blood-thirsty but nonetheless deadly.

   Curse proceeds to ride a tricky trail between the conventions of the horror film and the clichés of the B-western. There’s a bit too much talk at times, but things finish off with a nifty round-up combining the best of both genres: When Preacher and Demon face each other on a dusty street, we pretty much know what’s going to happen — but how it happens, is immensely satisfying for fans of monsters and cowboys.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE INVISIBLE RAY. Universal Pictures, 1936. [Boris] Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   The Invisible Ray is a science fiction/horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as rival scientists. To no one’s surprise, Karloff’s the completely mad one and he’s out for revenge.

   And when it comes to B-film genre film tropes, this one’s got even more than just a mad scientist. It’s got forbidden love, cosmic rays from beyond space and time, a Carpathian castle, African tribesmen, a blind old woman, a Parisian Gothic setting, betrayal, revenge, and murder. All in less than ninety minutes. Did I mention it’s one the strangest films I’ve ever seen?

   Karloff portrays Dr. Janos Rukh, a creepy looking scientist who lives in his Carpathian home/laboratory with his blind mother (Violet Kemble-Cooper). Rukh has invented a telescope that allows him to see so far into space that he can see Earth’s ancient past.

   And one of the things he sees is pretty amazing – a meteor that crashed into Africa some millions of years ago. So Rukh, along with his wife Diana (Frances Drake), rival scientist Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton), Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) and his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), head out to Africa to find the giant rock and to do some experiments.

   Or something. It’s not exactly clear.

   What is clear, however, is that Rukh finds the meteor remnants and becomes poisoned by them. He calls his discovery Radium X because the meteor is an element out of this world! He ends up glowing in the dark and develops the ability to kill people with his touch. (Just go with it.) Benet (Lugosi) gives Rukh an antidote and they’re off back to Europe.

   But what happens in Africa doesn’t always stay in Africa. Rukh’s wife Diana has fallen in love with one of the expedition members, the boyish Drake. So Rukh stalks around in the Parisian fog and kills some poor sap that happens to look like him (although he really doesn’t) and fakes his own death, allowing his wife to marry Drake. Then he goes on a killing-and-revenge spree. The Stevens couple and Benet are the first to go. Rukh also uses an invisible ray, powered by Radium X, to destroy sculptures.

   If it all sounds both convoluted and ridiculous, that’s because it is. The movie tries to pack in tons of science fiction concepts into one movie, making it feel as if it’s really about four different short films in one tidy Karloff and Lugosi package.

   But that’s not to say that it’s not entertaining, because in a way it is. It’s just not one of Karloff’s, or Lugosi’s, best movies. Not by a long shot. But if you happen to watch The Invisible Ray with no expectations, preferably after midnight, you might just find yourself relishing the utter ridiculousness of it all.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE MIGHTY GORGA. American General Pictures, 1969. Starring Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady and Bruce Kimball. Written and directed by David L. Hewitt.

   Required viewing for bad movie buffs, this ranks right up there with Mesa of Lost Women and Robot Monster. Unlike those alternative classics, Mighty Gorga is in color, but that doesn’t help much — you can still see it.

   Anthony Eisley, once a star on network TV (Hawaiian Eye) stars as a circus owner fallen on hard times (not unlike the actor himself) who journeys to Africa in search of Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams, who can lead him to a legendary-jungle-monster-cum-boffo-box-office-attraction. Africa in this case appears to be the woods behind somebody’s back yard and the familiar landscape of Bronson Canyon, the perennial location of B westerns, here augmented by the sounds of jungle wildlife on the soundtrack: exotic birds (Bop-ooop-ooop-whaah-whaah-whaah!) lions and elephants, never seen but gamely referred to by the assorted players looking off-screen.

   It turns out Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams has been missing since the last safari; not to fear, though: his comely daughter (Megan Timothy) is running things in his absence, despite sabotage from a competing Great White Hunter, played by Scott Brady. Driven to desperate measures, Tony and Megan trek off into the ersatz jungle, guided by Tonga Jack’s treasure map.

   (Incidentally, Brady’s sabotage consists of setting fire to April’s animal compound, which might have been more convincing had the scenes matched up: he sets his fire at night and the characters react to it in the daytime — just a hint of things to come.)

   Writer/Director Hewitt ratchets up the tension (?) by cutting away frequently to scenes of the giant ape Gorga plodding amok through the jungle (?) terrorizing a native village that seems to be built of bamboo screens and 4’ x 8” plywood sheets, and it’s fitting to put in a word here about the monster: The Mighty Gorga is played mostly by someone in the top half of a really bad gorilla suit, with immobile features and cute button eyes. I say “top half” because we only get to see The Mighty G from the waist up, photographed from low-angles with bushes (standing in for tree-tops) in the foreground to attempt the illusion of height. Nice try.

   Anyway, our trepid explorers finally meet up with Mister G just in time to see him fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a burst of truly deplorable special effects. The T-Rex is represented by a plastic toy resembling a Pez Head, and for the fight scenes The Mighty Gorga is played by a hand puppet (his stunt double?) and his only visible wound is to get a splinter in his finger, which is removed by our plucky heroine, thus earning the monster’s undying gratitude, and there’s a lesson here for all of us, if we only look for it.

   Well, I know you’re all anxious to hear how this all comes out for yourselves, and I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say that Great White Hunter Tonga Jack is reunited with his daughter, they find the lost treasure (which looks like stuff from the clearance bin in the “Everything-for-a-Dollar” store) romance blossoms, the volcano explodes and—damn, I gave away the ending, didn’t I? Oh well, these reviews can’t all be gems of critical insight.

   But to conclude on a cheerier note, I should add that the acting in The Mighty Gorga is mostly better than you’d expect. Anthony Eisley, Kent Taylor and Scott Brady had all seen palmier days, but they trudge through this with admirable resolve and not a hint of embarrassment.

   Megan Timothy, who mostly appeared in Russ Meyer films, does the heroine duties capably, and really the only thespic disappointment is Bruce Kimball (star of several 60s skin-flicks) as the Native Medicine Man; decked out in a sarong and Cleopatra wig, he spends the movie summoning the monster with enthusiasm, but seems unable to get the New Yawk out of his voice, resulting in lines like: “Oh, Mighty Gawga, de infidels have come ta steal yoah treashah!” Immortal stuff for fans of bad filmmaking.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MAN MADE MONSTER. Universal, 1941. Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds. Director: George Waggner.

   In the same year that he took on the role of the hapless Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941), Lon Chaney Jr. portrayed Dan McCormick, also a doomed protagonist, in the quasi-Gothic horror film, Man Made Monster. Both movies form part of Universal Studio’s timeless horror canon. George Waggner, who also produced the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera, directed both films, which were released just months apart.

   Man Made Monster and The Wolf Man explore similar themes. A man transformed by powers beyond his control into something hideously monstrous, the duality of good and evil in every man, unrequited love, and the contrast between the pre-modern period of castles, horse-drawn carriages, superstition, and the modern era of automobiles, electricity, and science.

   That said, Man Made Monster is more of a Frankenstein-inspired mad doctor film than a supernatural creature film. Case in point: veteran horror film actor Lionel Atwill is cast as Dr. Paul Rigas, a conniving and creepy scientist who transforms the cringe worthy naïve Dan (Chaney) into an electro-biological murdering fiend. To no one’s likely surprise, Dr. Rigas’s creation develops a mind of his own and eventually ends the evil doctor’s time on Earth.

   Lon Chaney is actually quite good in this film, although not nearly as good as he would be in his skillful portrayal of Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. In Man Made Monster, his character, Dan McCormick, is a carnival entertainer who does tricks with electricity. Soon after the film begins, we see a bus crashing into a power line.

   As it turns out, Dan is the only one to have survived the horrific incident. Apparently, he has built up some sort of immunity to electricity. But he doesn’t really know what the word “immunity” means, leaving us to believe that the guy’s just not all that bright.

   Still, he’s willing to go visit Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) at his laboratory and to take part in some experiments to try to figure out how he survived what should have been a fatal electrocution. I should mention that Dr. Lawrence houses his lab in an estate complex known as The Moors and that Lionell Atwill’s character is a worker in the lab. Once we see him, we all but know Dan’s fate is sealed.

   Early on during his sojourn at The Moors, however, everything seems to be going okay for Dan. He’s living at this somewhat Gothic estate, playing with the Lawrence family dog, and flirting unsuccessfully with Lawrence’s niece/secretary, June (Anne Nagel). Without much success, because she’s otherwise occupied with her emerging love interest, newspaperman Mark Adams (Frank Albertson).

   Soon enough, though, Dr. Rigas demonstrates that he has his own wicked plans for Dan. With Lawrence out of town, Dr. Rigas (Atwill) conducts a series of bizarre experiments on the hapless Dan, transforming him into an electro-biological man-creature hybrid that needs constant bolts of electricity to survive. Rigas wants to create a race of electrically powered men who will be enslaved to men with superior intellects. Men like him. Or something.

   Altogether, Man Made Monster is a well-paced, solid horror movie. It’s not a classic, but it’s quite good. Chaney had some duds in his later years, but in this short little film, he really shows how talented an actor he can be. Watch for the scenes in which his character repeatedly drones the following three words: “I killed him.” The lines are chilling and Chaney delivers them well.

   Also worth looking for is the penultimate scene in which the family dog attempts to revive a dying, or dead, Dan McCormick (Chaney). It’s actually pretty heartbreaking, if you really stop to think about it. In many ways, it’s indicative of what this film’s really about: a scientist with an outsized ego preying upon a simple, cheerful man, dooming them both.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. American International, 1971. Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas, Virginia North, Peter Jeffrey. Director: Robert Fuest.

   The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a movie that defies easy categorization. A horror film with strong comedic elements, it manages to be satirical, surreal, disturbing, a murder mystery, and and a Gothic love story all within its running time of slightly over ninety minutes. With lavish art deco settings, a soundtrack consisting of music from the 1920s, and some genuinely disconcerting moments of visual horror, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a film, love it or hate it, that you won’t soon forget.

   Veteran horror actor Vincent Price stars as the title character, a hideously disfigured doctor/organ pianist living in an old English manor with an art deco interior. He’s seeking revenge against the nine physicians he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. Caroline Munro, in an uncredited role, portrays Phibes’s deceased wife.

   But the doctor isn’t about to commit murder by any ordinary method. No, he’ll have none of that. Rather, he decides to use the Biblical plagues as his guide. So there’s death by bats, frogs, locusts. You get the picture. Aiding him in his diabolical quest for revenge is his beautiful but mute female assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North) who appears in a series of both stunning, and stunningly odd, outfits throughout the film.

   As the bodies of physicians pile up, the quasi-bumbling Inspector Harry Trout (Peter Jeffrey) takes the lead on the case. Trout, who is occasionally called “Pike” by his boss (got to love fish humor!), is well meaning, but is consistently late to the scene of the crime.

   Trout teams up with the lead physician on the deceased Mrs. Phibes’s case, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), to solve the murder mystery and to catch Dr. Phibes. It’s feared that Cotten, or at least his firstborn son, is an eventual target.

   It’s all good fun, with lots of dark, understated humor. There’s death by golden unicorn impaling, a bizarrely enchanting dance scene with Price and North, and so much more. It’s all quite difficult to describe, but suffice it to say, Price is simply magnificent in his portrayal of one of the strangest villains ever. He’s creepy, campy, devious, and satirical. That said, if you don’t particularly care for Price, you probably ought to skip this movie.

   Similarly, if you try to take The Abominable Dr. Phibes too seriously, you won’t enjoy it. But if you want something that’s both offbeat and memorable, watch this film late at night, the later the better. They don’t make movies like this much anymore, horror films that are also intelligent comedies. And that’s pretty frightful.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN. United Artists, 1956. Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Pascual García Peña, Eduardo Noriega, Julio Villarreal, Lupe Carriles. Directors: Edward Nassour & Ismael Rodríguez.

   Imagine you’re watching an average B-Western about a goodhearted rancher from Texas in both a business and romantic rivalry with a mean-spirited rancher from Mexico. The movie is in color; the acting by Guy Madison and Patricia Medina isn’t all that bad; and the foreboding Mexican landscape is well integrated into the storyline.

   So you keep watching. Somewhat entertained, somewhat bored, and now and again remembering the film was billed as a creature feature. Then nearly an hour into the film, a giant, deeply angry stop-motion T-Rex (a fairly impressive special effects achievement considering the film is from 1956) makes its way out of the local swamp and wreaks all sorts of havoc on cows and humans alike.

   That’s The Beast of Hollow Mountain for you. Based on a story idea by King Kong special effects innovator, Willis O’Brien, it’s all good fun. While not a particularly great film, the mid-fifties movie is actually quite entertaining provided you go into it with the right mindset.

   The last twenty minutes or so, when the T. Rex finally emerges from its mountain hideaway, make up for the fact that you had to wait an entire hour to see the creature. This too long a delay really does make the film significantly less compelling than it could have been.

   But getting back to the dinosaur. What a creature! The giant feet making an impression in the mud, the giant teeth and red tongue, and eyes that convey anger. It’s a far more impressive movie dinosaur than the one that appeared in The Giant Behemoth, which I reviewed here. That said, at least in that particular film, we actually got an impressive political backstory as to why the dinosaur decided to stomp all over London. In The Beast of Hollow Mountain, all we really know is that local legend held that there is a – you guessed it, a monster – in the mountain.

   There are some fairly harrowing moments, such as when the dinosaur claws at — and peers into — the roof of a shack where two would-be victims are cowering, and when protagonist Jimmy Ryan (Madison) swings back and forth on a rope hanging from a limb of a tree, luring the dim-witted dinosaur to its swampy doom. And listen for the birdsongs. Whether they were deliberately recorded or whether they were merely picked up during filming doesn’t much matter. They really help establish an atmospheric setting for the world’s first, and dare I say, preeminent, dinosaur western film.

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