Horror movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. Woolner Brothers Pictures, 1967. Ferlin Husky, Joi Lansing, Don Bowman, Merle Haggard, Linda Ho, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and George Barrows as the Gorilla. Written by Duke Yelton. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

   I followed up SLEEP. MY LOVE [reviewed here] by watching HILLBILLYS (sic) IN A HAUNTED HOUSE something in the manner of a man putting a gun to his head, hoping the culture shock wouldn’t kill me. Indeed, if I may compare-and-contrast, where SLEEP tends to be elegant and thoughtful, HILLBILLYS (sic) is nasty, brutish and short: eighty-eight minutes of forgettable songs, indifferent acting and a script for which the author must surely burn in Hell.

   I liked it quite a lot, actually. Sometimes it’s fun to turn off the Brains, and watching this is as close as one can come without the use of firearms or illegal substances. It was kind of fun, in a depressing way, to see Basil Rathbone, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. all spooking like troupers, playing bad guys in a monster movie one more time, buckling on their sneers, leers and menacing looks for one last waltz with a guy in a gorilla suit — something like the aging lawmen in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY trying to summon up a strength they no longer have, getting by on the vestiges of their legends. Or maybe just three actors in search of a paycheck.

   This was doggedly directed by Jean Yarborough, his last film and a fitting coda for an artist who, in his day, worked with all the big names in bad movies: Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, Rondo Hatton, Bela Lugosi… he even did an unacknowledged mini-adventure series with Mantan Moreland fighting Nazis in the tropics. Check out LAW OF THE JUNGLE or KING OF THE ZOMBIES. Both were directed — along with THE BRUTE MAN, THE DEVIL BAT and others too feeble to mention — by Jean Yarborough.

   Even in his hey-day, Yarborough’s style was nothing very remarkable, and HILLBILLYS (sic) is no better than the indifferent rest of his work, except in the ironic fact of its existence. It’s as if the gods of the B-movies had settled on this as this as the curtain line of a forgotten play, the destiny to which a plodding director must wander, Bogart-like, to his own personal Casablanca. Poetic justice, perhaps. Or maybe just doggerel.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Paramount Pictures, 1932. Charles Laughton (Dr. Moreau), Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke, Arthur Hohl, Stanley Fields. Screenplay by Waldemar Young & Philip Wylie, based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells. Director: Erle C. Kenton.

   Gawd, what a great film! Stunning sets, great acting, and a really well-constructed script. The part where Richard Arlen first lands on the Island and Charles Laughton keeps cracking his whip at half-seen things evokes shivers in even the most sophisticated horror-film addicts precisely because it plays on sophistication: the suspicion that someday this obese gargoyle will be without his whip, and the question of what will happen then.

   When the answer to that question comes, it lives right up to every expectation. On reflection, and considering that Erle C. Kenton, who directed this, also helmed House of Frankenstein / Dracula and Salome, Where She Danced, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate him as a potential auteur.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #45, July 1990.


DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Universal Pictures, 1936. Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden (Dracula’s Daughter), Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan (Professor Von Helsing), Gilbert Emery, Irving Pichel. Loosely based on the story “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   Not all sequels begin right where the previous one ended, but Dracula’s Daughter is one that does, with Dracula dead, with a wooden stake through his heart, and Professor Von Helsing is custody as the man responsible.

   Rather than hire an attorney, Von Helsing chooses a former student, now a well-known psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). As for Dracula’s body, it disappears from the Scotland Yard morgue and is burned by his daughter Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) in an attempt on her part to rid herself of her father’s curse.

   And who does she turn to? The same very earnest Dr. Garth, but as you can imagine, if ou haven’t seen the movie before, her attempts to save herself prove to be utterly in vain. No pun intended.

   The casting is well nigh perfect, the production and photography are both top notch, given the limited budget this film most likely had. The combination of stoic weariness and fear that Gloria Holden put into her role was exactly what the movie needed. I don’t think it gave her career much of a boost, though. She made a couple dozen films in her day, but I doubt that anyone remembers her for any of them but this one.

   The movie is in some circle widely regarded for its overt suggestions of lesbianism, summed up in a scene where Countess Zaleska, on the pretext of needing a female model to pose for her, requests the young girl to remove her blouse, and she does.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DOCTOR OF DOOM. Cinematográfica Calderón S.A., Mexico, 1963. Originally released as Las luchadoras contra el médico asesino. Young America Productions Inc., US, English dubbed version. Lorena Velazquez, Armando Silvestre, Elizabeth Campbell, Roberto Canedo, Chucho Salinas, Chabela Romero — and Gerardo Zepeda as “Gomar.” Written by Alfredo Salazar. Directed by Rene Cardona. American version produced by K. Gordon Murray.

   A film of surreal badness and genuine delight, this one has it all: wrestling women, mad scientist, ape-man, gangsters….. everything but cowboys, and I suspect they may have been in the original Mexican version.

   In fact, it may be impossible to fully appreciate the vision of Luchadoras/Asesino from what “Mexploitation” producer K. Gordon Murray turned into Doctor of Doom, but enough survives to boggle the mind.

   The plot is admirably straightforward: A mad doctor (imaginatively dubbed “The Mad Doctor”) has been kidnapping women off the street and removing their brains. We know, but the police don’t, that the flakey physician has been trying to transplant the brain of a gorilla into their skulls — always a project of dubious medical value, but there you are — but they tend to die once their brains are removed; thoughtless of them.

   (See what I did there? “Thoughtless?”) Anyway, I should add here for the sake of clarity that we don’t see The batty bone-setter’s face, but he’s aided by a cringing medical assistant, a bunch of small-time hoods, and a half-man/half-ape named Gomar, who has super strength and can be fitted with a bullet-proof suit when the heat is on.

   So right away we have the quintessential elements of old horror films and serials. The Police (Canedo & Salinas) are puzzled, in the time-honored tradition of monster-movie cops, but things take a turn when the demented doctor snatches the sister of pro-wrestler Gloria Venus (Lorena Velazquez, who looks unsettlingly like young Mary Tyler Moore) who also happens to be Canedo’s girlfriend. Joined by Golden Rubi (Campbell) the cops and the grapplers set out to get the bad guys.

   Which doesn’t involve a lot of detective work, because the screwy scientist has decided that what he needs for his project is a female wrestler (only logical when you stop to think about it) and while Venus and Rubi are after him, his hoods and Gomar are after them.

   Hang on a minute. I need to say here that because of legal restrictions south of the border in those days, this was made (ostensibly) as three short episodes which were then combined into a single feature film. Go figure. Anyway, the goons out after the girls kidnap the cops instead (!?) who are then rescued by the wrestling women, and everything ends happily except that the cracked quack has escaped with Gomar.

   Part two is more of the same, this time with an emphasis on discovering the real identity of the potty professor. Since there’s a character who’s been hanging around since chapter one trying to be helpful and pleasant, well… draw your own conclusions. Suffice it to say that we get more kidnappings, a fracas in the same Mad Lab that got busted up previously, and a fire that leaves the daffy doctor disfigured and thirsty for revenge.

   All this, though, was just a set-up for the Big Finish, as the paranoid practitioner captures another wrestling woman, plants Gomar’s brain in her skull, thus giving her super-strength (!?!) and sets her up as a masked rival wrestler to kill Gloria Venus in the ring, in a baroque vengeance worthy of Fu Manchu or a Sergio Leone Western, the whole thing wrapping up like a bizarre mix of Rocky and White Heat.

   What Doctor of Doom lacks in finesse — and it lacks a lot — it makes up in exuberance and a not-quite innocent charm, like an old Mascot serial or a horror flick from PRC. Director Rene Cardona, who launched wrestling super-star Santo into a cinematic career, handles it with just the right slap-dash energy and enough inattention to detail to keep things in constant motion.

   I’ll only add for you trivia completists out there that Doctor of Doom launched Lorena Velazquez into a short-lived series (see Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy) and even Gerardo Zepeda returned as Gomar in a semi-remake that surfaced here as Night of the Bloody Apes.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


RATTLERS. Boxoffice International Pictures, 1976. Sam Chew, Elisabeth Chauvet, Dan Priest, Ron Gold, Al Dunlap, Dan Balentine. Director: John McCauley.

   Schlock and awe is the name of the game in Rattlers, a low budget when-animals-attack movie from the 1970s. And yes, it’s a very 1970s movie. There’s a subplot about feminism and equal rights and some absolutely beautiful shots of vintage (from today’s perspective, that is) cop cars being driven around the California desert. And then there are the snakes. Although there’s nothing particularly 70s about them. To be honest, not all of them are rattlesnakes and it’s not even clear how close the actors got to them.

   But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that, despite its obviously low budget nature, the film doesn’t come off as an amateur production. I know now it’s trendy to poke fun at these types of films and, on some level, I get it. There are some unintentionally comedic moments to be found in Rattlers. But it’s not aiming to be high art either. It’s meant as escapist entertainment and was part of the zeitgeist. How many when- animals-attack films were there in the mid- to late 1970s? How many were inspired by the success of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975)?

   Sam Chew, who went on to become the narrator of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, portrays University of California herpetologist Dr. Tom Parkinson. He’s asked by a sheriff in the Mojave Desert to investigate a string of bizarre deaths. This is not the work of a serial killer, however. The culprits in this case couldn’t hold a knife to save their ophidian lives.

   Parkinson teams up with the very single and very feminist war photographer Ann Bradley (Elisabeth Chauvet) to investigate what is causing these snakes to attack humans in such a brutal manner. This leads them both to a local military facility where a megalomaniac officer is conducting illegal research on nerve agents. I think you can put two and two together.

   Laugh at Rattlers if you must, but unlike a lot of contemporary quickie low budget horror films that are little more than joyless gore fests, this one was actually attempting to be socially conscious and to say something.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL. Paramount, 1941. Ellen Drew, Philip Terry, George Zucco and Rod Cameron. Written by Stuart Anthony. Directed by Stuart Heisler.

   A unique mix of True Confession, Gangster Film and Monster Movie, done with a patina of Paramount gloss — perhaps too much so.

   Ellen Drew starts off the story telling us how she was lured into a life of shame, and how her brother (Philip Terry) got framed for murder trying to redeem her honor. There’s a bit too much of this, including a lengthy flashback to wholesome brother-and-sister life back in Grover’s Corners or wherever, where he’s the Church Organist and she’s eager to go out and make it in the Big City.

   Eventually Ellen heads for the bright lights, and we get a bit more romantic drama as she meets a nice young man (Robert Paige), falls in love, and marries him. And about the time an astute viewer starts asking “Where the hell’s the monster?” there’s a nice bit where the kindly old man who marries them shows a shoulder holster.

   At which point we segue into Gangster Film territory. It seems this romance has all been part of elaborate and somewhat unlikely scheme to lure our Ellen into prostitution –only hinted at here, but very broadly hinted.

   Well we’ve all; had relationships like that, haven’t we? Anyhow, her brother Phillip Terry (remember him?) gets wind of the whole shameful thing, quits pounding the organ and comes after the rat who done her wrong.

   But he’s up against a cold deck because the gang here includes Paul Lukas, Joseph Calleia, Marc Lawrence and Gerald Mohr, and the astute viewer (remember him?) won’t be surprised to see them quickly rub out a gangland rival, callously pin the crime on Phil, and swiftly get him railroaded to the Chair by DA-for-hire Onslow Stevens.

   That’s when George Zucco comes on — and high time, too — as a benign (for him) Mad Doctor who wants to advance Science by transplanting a human brain into a gorilla. Okay, if that’s what the kids are doing these days, that’s fine. There’s a nice brain-transplant scene, and finally we get to the Monster Movie as the gorilla-with-Phil’s-brain escapes to wreak vengeance on the bad guys.

   Any Monster-Lover who has lasted this long should enjoy a last twenty minutes or so of creepy menace and building tension as the bad guys get their brutal comeuppance. To his credit, director Stuart Heisler gets a lot of visual interest out of the ape prowling about the city rooftops and fire escapes, and it never looks as silly as it should. Then too, George Barrows’ gorilla mask seems unusually expressive here, evincing sorrow, alarm and rage from appropriate camera angles.

   But basically what you get here is about a third of a monster movie, and a long wait for it. The Monster parts make satisfying viewing, but what it takes to get there…. Well maybe that’s why God gave us Fast-Forward.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


WEREWOLF OF LONDON. Universal Pictures, 1935. Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Lester Matthews, Lawrence Grant, Spring Byington. Director: Stuart Walker.

   Warner Oland gives the overall rather dated Werewolf of London a welcome exotic, mystical flair that makes the otherwise somewhat staid film an enjoyable viewing experience. As the first mainstream werewolf movie ever produced by a major American studio, this Universal Pictures release is also notable for its makeup effects by Jack Pierce. A Hollywood legend in his own right, Pierce would go onto do similar work for the much better known (and better movie) The Wolf Man (1941) starring Lon Chaney, Jr.

   Henry Hull stars as the titular werewolf, a botanist named Wilfred Glendon. He has recently returned from an expedition in the Himalayas where he had a frightening encounter with a strange beast. That beast, as it turns out, was one Dr. Yogami (Oland), who himself is suffering from lycanthropy.

   Yogami arrives in London to tell Glendon that the botanist is about to turn into a werewolf and that a specific plant, one in the latter’s possession, can serve as an antidote. Glendon finds this preposterous, but he has his doubts. These are only strengthened when Glendon notices his hands are getting unusually hairy.

   As in The Wolf Man, which was released six years later, Werewolf of London is fundamentally a tragedy. Glendon’s story is a tragic one. His refusal to take seriously his condition, as well as his persistent neglect of his lovely wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), lead him down a dark and foreboding path that includes murder and ultimately, his own tragic demise at the hands of a Scotland Yard inspector.

   But unlike Larry Talbot (Chaney) in The Wolf Man, who appeared as a character in several follow up feature films and became a Universal Monsters icon who is still beloved today, Wilfred Glendon was a character that appeared once and was never heard from again. That is unless there is a remake that could give some fresh life into this somewhat dated feature, something that would give it a little more of a bite for contemporary audiences. Now that’s an idea that would make some fans of classic fans howl at the moon!

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN. 20th Century Fox, 1974. Victor French, Janee Michelle, Jean Durand, Mike Evans, Xernona Clayton, Lloyd Nelson, Ella Woods. Director: Ron Honthaner.

   Let me speak true from the outset. In no manner can The House on Skull Mountain, a low budget production filmed in Georgia, be considered a “good movie.” In terms of acting, direction, and plot development, this 1970s B-film falls short. It wouldn’t be completely unfair to call it a clichéd mess of a horror movie. There’s voodoo, racial politics, snakes, a zombie, and a gathering of people to are forced to spend the night in seemingly haunted house. There’s even a dark and stormy night. You get the picture.

   And yet I watched to the very end. Mainly because it’s not all that often that you find a horror movie with a nearly all African-American cast. But mostly because, despite everything I just told you, the movie is so clichéd and so over the top that it ends up being a delightfully guilty pleasure.

   One even gets the sense that at least one actor, namely Mike Evans (Lionel on the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons) was in on the joke. For the movie is indisputably silly. Example: no one in the movie seems to ever mention that the house is on a mountain with a giant skull carved into it. Granted, it’s just a cartoonist matte painting. But whatever. It’s Skull Mountain and it’s got a house built on the very top. And voodoo is all around. Because of course it is. Just listen for the bongo drums.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


HOUSE OF DARKNESS. International Motion Pictures, UK, 1948. George Melachrinos, Henry Oscar, Lesley Osmond, Alexander Archdale, John Teed, Grace Arnold, and introducing Lawrence Harvey. Written by John Gilling. Directed by Oswald Mitchell.

   A stylish little quota quickie that brought Lawrence (or Laurence) Harvey to the screen and established his persona for all time.

   Orchestra leader George Melachrinos, an arranger in the Mantovani/Kostelanetz mode, starts off the film relating a ghost story about visiting a haunted mansion, setting up a flashback to the lives of its last tenants, a family that make The Little Foxes look like the Brady Bunch.

   It seems sometime before the story started, stodgy eldest son John (Alexander Archdale) was left in control of an estate that younger half-brother Francis (Harvey) thinks should be his. And since John suffers from a weak heart while Francis has no heart at all, the writing — or more accurately the script — is on the wall for all to see, especially after John is out of the way and Harvey drives his other sibling off by convincing him that John’s Ghost walks the halls at night.

   No surprises here, but writer john Gilling (who went on to some fine horror flicks at Hammer) seems to have gauged Harvey’s screen persona perfectly (Brother John calls him “An insufferable, conceited cad,” which puts it very neatly) and written lines that only he could do this well. And when John’s ghost actually makes his return, it’s done with a creepy understatement that comes off very well indeed.

   House of Darkness doesn’t quite escape its quota quickie onus, but it works quite nicely as an effective ghost story and a showcase for an up-and-coming star who would have done better to stick to parts like this.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


  OLD DRACULA. American International Pictures, US, 1975. Originally released in the UK by Columbia-Warner Distributors, 1975, as Vampira. David Niven (Count Dracula), Teresa Graves (Countess Vampira), Peter Bayliss, Jennie Linden, Nicky Henson, Linda Hayden. Director: Clive Donner.

   The esteemed English actor David Niven, whose film career spanned over four decades, starred in many notable films including The Moon is Blue (1953), Carrington V.C. (1955), My Man Godfrey (1957), and Separate Tables (1958), for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor. In the latter stage of his career, Niven was perhaps best known for his appearance in two of the Pink Panther films.

   Then there’s Clive Donner’s oddball horror-comedy Vampira, aka Old Dracula, a spoof of vampire films mixed with a swinging sixties sensibility and a hint of Blaxploitation.

   While it’s not an overly memorable production, the movie benefits greatly from Niven’s fang-in-cheek portrayal of an aging Count Dracula. Ensconced in his Transylvanian castle, Dracula (Niven) is relegated to having his dimwitted assistant (Peter Bayliss) operate his home as a campy tourist attraction.

   When a bevvy of Playboy Playmates show up for a night at Dracula’s castle, Dracula sees it an opportunity to steal some blood from the young girls. Not that he wants to drink it. No. He wants some youthful blood that he can transfer into the body of his beloved dead wife, Vampira so that he can bring her back to undead life.

   Problem is, he mixes the blood of the different bunnies and well … one of them is Black. Lo and behold, he is able to resurrect Vampira. But she comes back as a Black woman (Teresa Graves). There’s some truly funny racial humor here, such as when Vampira ends up going to see a screening of a Jim Brown movie in London, or when Dracula says he’s afraid to go out at night with her (what would society think). What doesn’t work is a scene in which Niven appears in blackface.

   Movie fans might appreciate two other aspects to the film. Titled as Vampira in the United Kingdom, it was released by American International in the United States as Old Dracula to capitalize on the success of Mel Brooks’ much better film, Young Frankenstein (1974). That it didn’t have nearly the same cultural impact tells you that a title can only do so much.

   Also of note, some viewers will undoubtedly love the fact that Nicky Henson, whose starring role in Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1973), a exploitation movie about a gang of Satanic bikers made him an icon of cult horror film fans everywhere, has a pivotal role in Old Dracula. Which leads me to my final thought. Which is that in many ways, the actors in this production are much better than the script.

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