Horror movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

MAN MADE MONSTER. Universal, 1940. Lon Chaney Jr, Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds, and Corky. Screenplay by Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz, Len Golos and George Waggner – who also directed. Currently available on YouTube here.

   The distillation of all earlier “Mad Scientist” movies and the template for those that followed.

   Lon Chaney Jr, in his first horror film, stars as “Dynamo” Dan, a circus performer whose act enabled him to survive a crash into an electric line pole that killed five others. Recruited by kindly old Electro-Biologist Hinds, he quickly falls into the clutches of Hind’s assistant, the redoubtable Lionel Atwill, who is convinced he can create a race of mindless, obedient Supermen—if only he can find the right subject.

   Bwaa-(as they say)-ha-haaah!

   No surprises here, but a bit of actual pathos as Lon becomes increasingly dependent on Atwill’s “treatments” and ends up a super-charged (and somewhat preposterous) zombie. He kills kindly old Hinds at Atwill’s bidding… and is sent to the Electric Chair, with rousing results.

   All this is much less awful than it sounds, thanks to a fast-moving script, Waggner’s brisk direction, and some moody lighting by Elwood “Woody” Bredell, who went on to define the look of film noir with classics like Phantom Lady, The Killers, and The Unsuspected.

   And credit must also be given to “Corky” an incredibly expressive little dog, who went on to Criss-Cross, The Danny Thomas Show, and Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.

   

Reflections on Halloween Movies Past
by Jonathan Lewis

   

   For my Halloween movie viewing this year, I revisited two films that I had previously watched and reviewed for this blog. United Artists’ White Zombie (1932), reviewed here, and Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935), reviewed here.

   Both are films that I had enjoyed and appreciated. Both also were movies that I had the chance to see screened in 35mm here in Los Angeles, the former at UCLA and the latter at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema.

   White Zombie, in which Bela Lugosi plays the ultra-sinister Haitian villain named Murder Legendre, was the first proper zombie movie released by a Hollywood studio. (How zombies went from creations of Haitian voodoo to that of viruses and outbreaks merits a whole different discussion). And Werewolf of London, starring Warner Orland and Henry Hull, was the first proper werewolf movie.

   The movies are, in some ways, clunky by today’s standards. (One might say they were even clunky for their time.) But that doesn’t really matter. While Werewolf of London is a bit more stylish and grounded, both movies have a timeless, nearly dreamlike quality to them.

   They are both, in many ways, fairy tale romances as well. It wasn’t until I watched both consecutively that I realized that, fundamentally, both movies are about doomed love triangles. In both movies, a man ends up sacrificing himself so that the woman he loves could be with her one true love.

UNIVERSAL’S CREEPER SERIES:
Three Movie Reviews by Dan Stumpf.

   

THE PEARL OF DEATH. Universal, 1944. Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade), Evelyn Ankers, Rondo Hatton.
Based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Director: Roy William Neill.

HOUSE OF HORRORS . Universal, 1946. Robert Lowery, Virginia Grey, Bill Goodwin, Martin Kosleck, Alan Napier, Virginia Christine, Howard Freeman, Joan Shawlee and Rondo Hatton. Screenplay by George Bricker & Dwight V. Babcock. Directed by Jean Yarborough.

THE BRUTE MAN. Universal/PRC, 1946. Rondo Hatton, Tom Neal, Jan Wiley, Jane Adams. Screenplay by George Bricker and M Coates Webster, from a story by Dwight V Babcock. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

   Universal is fondly remembered as the home of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and other classic horrors, but they had their share of misfires too. Kharis was more wet blanket than monster, no one could decide what Paula the Ape Woman looked like, the Mad Ghoul stalled out early…

   And then there was The Creeper.

THE PEARL OF DEATH

   A certain amount of controversy has attached to Rondo Hatton, some seeing him as a victim of crass exploitation, others as a man who willingly used his misfortune as best he could. Scott Gallinghouse’s perceptive biography (RONDO HATTON: Beauty Within the Brute, Bear Manor, 2019) paints a picture of a man who enjoyed his brief and tenuous stardom, was celebrated in his home town, and played it up, entertaining guests, and visiting wounded GIs in Army Hospitals.

   Hatton played bits and extras in Hollywood for years until someone spotted him for a choice part in PEARL OF DEATH (1944: reviewed here ) a superior entry in the Sherlock Holmes series which used Hatton sparingly and to eerie effect as “The Hoxton Creeper” a hulking, silent, spine-snapping killer.

   Finding a new Horror Star dropped in their laps, Universal slipped him into JUNGLE CAPTIVE (1945) and THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946, a spin-off from the Sherlock Holmes series, with Gale Sondergaard) then somebody looked back at PEARL OF DEATH and decided it was impressive enough for Universal to launch a series, produced by Ben Pivar (of the Mummy movies) who brought his own working-class perspective and lack of interest to bear, with the usual tepid results.

   Pivar’s series kicked off with HOUSE OF HORRORS and a better-than-average cast. Alan Napier does a dead-on Waldo Lydecker impression as an art critic, and Howard Freeman is even better as his effeminate replacement. Top honors, however, must go to Martin Kosleckd sculptor.

   Kosleck occupied a niche in horror movies somewhere between Peter Lorre and Dwight Frye, and his greatest moment came in HOUSE OF HORRORS, as a demented sculptor at odds with the Art World, who sends the Creeper out to murder his critics — an idea that recalls various versions of THE GOLEM. Kosleck’s art isn’t much good, but it is sort of interesting, and I’d like to see how his style might have developed… but any semblance of atmosphere is dispelled as soon as Rondo Hatton opens his mouth to speak and there is just No Talent here. It wouldn’t have taken much brains to write a script where the Creeper stays silent – just some interest and maybe a little imagination – but that was obviously more than Pivar wanted to invest.

   THE BRUTE MAN, released later the same year, is even tackier and less interesting. Hatton died soon after it wrapped, and Universal, with tastefulness rare for them, decided not to release it. Instead, they sold it to PRC (an even cheaper studio) who put it out as part of their steady trickle of sub-B flicks. Historians of both studios (and there are some) usually use this as an excuse not to discuss BRUTE MAN, which is probably the kindest cut of all.

   I have to say, though, that BRUTE and HORRORS set their monster loose amid flophouses, tenements and seedy second-hand stores, bad as they are (and maybe because of Ben Pivar’s penny-squeezing) these movies evoke that seamy background kind of effectively; it’s like David Goodis wrote a monster movie.

   Strictly as an aside, imagine my surprise when I saw Rondo Hatton and Elena Verdugo, the campy Gypsy Girl in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, in a classy movie like THE MOON AND SIXPENCE (1942) which just goes to show what a many-splendored thing The Movies is.
   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE PREMATURE BURIAL. American International Pictures, 1962. Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney, Heather Angel, Alan Napier, John Dierkes, Richard Miller. Screenplay by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell, based on the story by Edgar Alan Poe. Directed by Roger Corman. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, DirecTV and others.

   Put aside the plot for now. For this third entry into Roger Corman’s Poe cycle of films fundamentally revolves around an idea, a concept. And that is: what would it be like for a man deathly afraid of being buried alive to actually be buried alive? How would he act? What would he do to those who accidentally (or purposefully) entombed him? How could a filmmaker put reflect his psychological state cinematically?

   In terms of reflecting this morbid concept on screen, The Premature Burial succeeds admirably. And then some. Ray Milland, although too old for the part, does a great job in portraying a man who afraid of being buried alive that he allows all the life to be sucked out of him. Hazel Court, who portrays his long-suffering wife, is there to both support and scold him. She clearly doesn’t want to have to spend the rest of her years with a man with one foot already in the grave.

   Based on the eponymous Edgar Allan Poe short story, The Premature Burial is enriched with claustrophobic sets and a chillingly effective score from Ronald Stein. The film also makes ample use of a rich color palette, both in terms of set design and lighting. Corman’s use of jump cuts do not work nearly as effectively as do the lush atmospherics.

   The movie also benefits greatly from the presence of three great character actors. Alan Napier, who is now best remembered as the butler Alfred in the live-action Batman TV series, portrays the father-in-law of the protagonist. And John Dierkes and Dick Miller portray two graverobbers who end up being key to how the story unfolds.

   Back to the plot. I’ll be honest. It is a little more than creaky. The ending is simply a little too pat, even for a low budget horror film. That’s unfortunate given that the credited screenwriters were none other than Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell. But that’s not what this film is about. It’s a concept film. And a good, albeit not great one, at that.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST. Republic Pictures, 1945. John Abbott, Charles Gordon, Peggy Stewart, Grant Withers, Emmett Vogan, Adele Mara, Roy Barcroft. Loosely based on the 1819 short story “The Vampyre” by John Polidori. Director: Lesley Selander.

   Make no mistake about it. This one is a cheapie. From the very first scene, you can see that it’s filmed primarily on a sound stage. And the running time – a total of 59 minutes – also solidifies the fact that this one was a quickie. Get it made, get it released, make some money, move on to the next film.

   Despite its low-budget origins, The Vampire’s Ghost remains a rather fun little horror film. A large part of that has to do with the somewhat unusual script. Not unusual in terms of its structure – this one fits well within the confines of the traditional Hollywood screenwriting formula – but because of myriad aspects, both big and small, that make this somewhat obscure vampire film more memorable than it could have been.

   Look no further than the original story writer and co-screenwriter. It’s none other than science fiction pulp writer Leigh Brackett. Her first credited work in cinema, The Vampire’s Ghost is hardly The Big Sleep (1946), let alone Rio Bravo (1959). But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

   Here, the vampire in question isn’t an Eastern European nobleman ensconced in his castle. No. Instead, he’s an urbane expatriate Englishman living somewhere in southern Africa. What’s his profession, you ask? He runs a bar/nightclub/gambling place where sailors come to drink and try their luck at the card table. Already unusual, right? There’s definitely a noir aspect to this vampire film, as well as a western one. Who would think that what motivated a vampire to murder would be his finding out that he was cheated at cards by both a sailor and a saloon waitress?

   Unfortunately, despite the better than average plot details, The Vampire’s Ghost remains an overall talky affair with a lot of mediocre acting. There’s just not that much action, let alone special effects. But the atmospheric moments are good – if stagey – and the final sequence is definitely memorable. In a fun way. There isn’t all that much to analyze in the film. It is what it is. If you like tropical settings and have the ability to immerse yourself in a fantastic world of vampires and voodoo drums pulsing through the steamy jungle night, then you might enjoy this one. There are far worse ways of spending an hour.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. Hammer Films, UK, 1963. Universal International, US, 1963. Clifford Evans, Edward de Souza, Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel, Barry Warren. Writer: Anthony Hinds (as John Elder). Director: Don Sharp.

   Neither a Dracula film nor part of the Karnstein Trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, Twins of Evil), The Kiss of the Vampire is a lesser- known, but thoroughly enjoyable, stand-alone vampire movie from Hammer Films. Combining the standard tropes of vampire films with atmospheric dread, the movie neither aims for cheap thrills, nor does it condescend to its audience. Much of the on-screen horror in the film is psychological rather than physical. The battles fought here are as much internal as they are external.

   The plot follows Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne Harcourt (Jennifer Daniel), a newly married couple traveling on their honeymoon. When their car breaks down somewhere in Bavaria, they are forced to stay at a local inn run by an elderly, seemingly childless couple. Within hours, they receive an invitation for dinner from one of the village’s most prominent citizens, one Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman).

   Ravna, along with his two adult children, seem to take a strong liking to the Harcourts and invite them back for a masked ball. But little does this mild-mannered English couple know that Ravna is a vampire and the leader of a demonic cult. Once Marianne gets swept up into their satanic grasp, it’s up to Gerald and the alcohol-ravaged Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) to harness supernatural forces to (literally) beat the devil.

   While the film doesn’t tread too far off the beaten path in terms of storytelling, what it does, it does well. Indeed, it’s a film that I’ve already watched more than once, and I confess I enjoyed it even more the second time around. The masquerade sequence is exceptional. One wonders how much Roman Polanski was influenced by it, given how a masked ball plays a similarly important role in the third act of his The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Final thought: the final frame is hauntingly memorable and involves a swarm of vampire bats. Chillingly effective stuff.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE CITY OF THE DEAD. Vulcan Films, UK, 1960. Trans-Lux, US, 1962, as Horror Hotel. Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis, Valentine Dyall. Written by George Baxt and Milton Subotsky. Directed by John Moxey. Easily found on YouTube, among other sources, including Amazon Prime.

   A decade before John Llewellyn Moxey directed The Night Stalker (1972), he, under the name John Moxey, honed his skills in the supernatural genre with The City of the Dead, aka Horror Hotel (reviewed here earlier on this blog by Dan Stumpf).

   Beautifully filmed in crisp black and white with an ongoing visual sense of impending menace, the movie draws upon New England witchcraft lore to tell a tragic tale of what happens when one gets too fascinated by the darkness.

   WARNING: Possible Spoilers Ahead. Eager and intrepid college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), intrigued by her professor’s lecture on witch burnings seeks to do further research on the morbid topic. Little does she know that her professor, one Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) is himself a purveyor of the dark arts. In a twist that would be repeated with greater effect and recognition that same year in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the first act of the film follows the would-be protagonist from a relatively secure setting to a hotel where she will meet her doom.

   But unlike in Psycho where the killer is a human, albeit a tremendously disturbed one, in The City of the Dead, the killers are very much empowered by a dark, supernatural force. As it turns out, when the good people of the fictional hamlet of Whitewood, Massachusetts, burned a witch at the stake in 1692, they didn’t actually kill her so much as curse their own descendants for all eternity.

   The witch (Patricia Dressel) that they thought they had put to death is very much alive. And in 1960, she’s the proprietor of the Raven Inn, the “horror hotel.” As in Psycho, it’s up to others to figure out what happened to a beautiful young woman who mysteriously disappeared at a hotel. Here, it is Nan’s brother and her boyfriend team who up to solve the puzzle and defeat the coven of witches responsible for the co-ed’s murder.

   There’s a particular aesthetic to The City of the Dead that makes it a stronger and more compelling film than its rather clumsy sets and relatively short running time would suggest. The witch burning sequence at the beginning is top notch. So is the final sequence set in a graveyard. There’s definitely a letdown of dramatic tension in the second act, but this only makes the tense scenes that much more visceral. For his part, Lee puts in a strong performance, but it’s nowhere near his best nor most memorable.

   Still, this is an overall enjoyable horror film that is worth a look this upcoming Halloween season. One final note. The film contains a seemingly incongruous jazz score. One would think that it would be horribly out of place in such a macabre film. But it works quite effectively in reminding the viewer of the era in which the movie was made. And, for those of us who enjoy early 1960s British horror films, movies that were just a little more innocent than the color horror films of the 1970s, that’s not such a bad thing.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

AND SOON THE DARKNESS. EMI/Warner-Pathé, 1970. Pamela Franklin, Michele Dotrice, Sandor Elès, John Nettleton, Clare Kelly. Story and screenplay: Brian Clemens & Terry Nation. Director: Robert Fuest.

   In 1970, one year before he worked with Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (reviewed by me here), Robert Fuest directed And Soon The Darkness, a lesser known, but occasionally effective little thriller. Minimalist at its core and with a score reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann, the movie is a slow burn. So much so that, one is tempted to give up after twenty minutes or so. The movie just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But it eventually reveals itself to be a solidly constructed, if haphazardly edited, psychological thriller. One that relies far more on atmosphere and an overarching sense of dread than on violence and gore.

   The plot follows two twenty-something British woman on holiday in rural France. Bicycling their way through the sparsely populated countryside, the two eventually become the unwitting prey of a sexually deviant killer in the surrounding area. When Cathy (Michele Dotrice) and Jane (Pamela Franklin) stop in a café for a drink and some rest, they see a handsome stranger (Sandor Elès) a few tables away. They eventually continue on and decide to take another break in the woods. That’s where the two have a bit of an argument, with Cathy deciding that she wants to just stay put and sunbathe. Jane decides, with more than a little nudging on Cathy’s part, to ride on and makes her way to the next village.

   But Cathy never shows up. What happened to her? Jane doesn’t know, but she is determined to find out. That handsome stranger from the café shows up and introduces himself as Paul. He also says he works in law enforcement and is down in this area because of a murder of a female tourist a while back. He has an obsession with the crime. There’s something not right about Paul, though. He seems to be holding something back. Still, he is willing to help Jane look for Cathy.

   The story follows Jane as she tries to navigate the perils of being lost and confused in a strange land. Not all of the locals speak English very well, but one of them knows enough to tell her that the local gendarme is trouble. There’s a middle-aged English woman who lives alone out here. Who is she? Why is she here? And the gendarme’s father, a deaf World War I veteran, seems to have a few screws loose.

   There’s a natural sensibility to the movie, one that doesn’t rely on special effects or gimmicks. One intuitively feels the danger lurking behind the bucolic farmland. On the surface, everything seems so perfect, so charming. Baked under the warm French sun, the landscape radiates with warmth and community. But beneath this façade is something much more sinister. Something Jane will confront when she stumbles upon a decaying trailer park, one that serves as a most vivid contrast with the splendor of the natural world.

   Although the film plays with the viewer’s expectations, it is never overtly manipulative. Still, there is something almost artificial about the ending. As if the viewer has been slightly cheated out of a comprehensive explanation for everything that has occurred. What the film lacks is a theme. There’s no coherent underpinning to the whole enterprise. Yes, you’re thrilled. And the chills are real. But to what end?

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR. Tigon Pictures, UK, 1968. America International, US, 1970, as The Crimson Cult. Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Mark Eden, Barbara Steele, Michael Gough. Based on a story by Jerry Sohl and (uncredited) “The Dreams in the Witch House,” by H. P. Lovecraft. Director: Vernon Sewell.

   The Curse of the Crimson Altar, a psychedelic gothic horror film which was released in the United States under the title The Crimson Cult opens with a shocking scene of violence. There’s a blue-faced witch (portrayed by the legendary horror queen Barbara Steele), a bunch of scary looking characters dressed in robes and black leather, and a woman being whipped. And it appears as if this motley crew is trying to force a rather mild-mannered Englishman to sign his name in a large book. What in blazes is going on, you ask yourself.

   Well, it turns out that there’s a cult at work. A cult which, based on the movie’s mise-en-scène, seems to really have a deep attachment to the color red. Crimson, to be specific. And as any savvy consumer of films dealing with the occult or “Satansploitation,” knows all too well, an innocent person is almost certainly going to be swept up in the cult’s unheavenly deeds!

   Enter Robert Manning (Mark Eden), an antiques dealer in London. His brother has gone missing and he’s determined to find out where his sibling has gone. What Manning doesn’t know is that his brother was the aforementioned mild-mannered Englishman swept up into the cult’s demonic grasp. So, much like in The Wicker Man (1973), which this horror film clearly presages, a man searches a small somewhat isolated village for a missing person, only to be the unwitting mark of a pagan cult. And much like in The Wicker Man, the cult’s leader is portrayed by the irreplaceable Christopher Lee. Seeing Lee’s entrance into the movie is a delight; you know at that point, that no matter how clunky or formulaic the movie might turn out to be, that you’re going to at least benefit from his singular theatrical presence.

   But Lee is not the only famous horror actor to make an appearance. Boris Karloff, in one of his final roles, portrays Professor John Marsh, a leading scholar of witchcraft. Although Karloff was in the final years of his life, his speech and cadence were spot on. It’s pure unadulterated Karloff.

   As you may have surmised by my comments so far, it’s pretty clear that I thoroughly enjoyed The Crimson Cult. But it is a good film? Yes and no. It’s definitely a little predictable and Eden is not a particularly dynamic lead. As a Tigon production, it also doesn’t have the unique Hammer film aesthetic. But if you take it for what it is, you might have a little fun with it. There’s definitely a late 1960s psychedelic vibe to the whole affair – an attempt to capitalize on the counterculture era? – and the movie benefits from never taking itself too seriously. I read online that the script was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933). That may very well be the case, but it was not listed in the credits.

   

THE FACULTY. Miramax, 1998. Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Josh Hartnett, Shawn Hatosy, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Chris McDonald, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Jon Stewart, Daniel von Bargen, Elijah Wood. Director: Robert Rodriguez.

   High school was not a lot of fun for me back when I had to go, and if this movie is anything like how life in high school was some 40 ears after that, I’m not sure I’d want my kids to go now, another 20 years later, what with ostracizing on social media, body-shaming and other cyber-bullying, all things students my age in the late 50s would probably would have been happy to do if only they’d had the opportunity.

   But as the title suggests, the problem that the students at Herrington High are having in this movie are with the faculty, who are beginning to act stranger and stranger: when the school nerd (Elijah Wood) and the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and head cheerleader (Jordana Brewster) watching from a closet together see the football coach (Robert Patrick) and another faculty member (Piper Laurie) force a strange small creature into the ear of the school nurse (Salma Hayek) they know something is really seriously wrong.

   Can the entire faculty have been taken over by unhuman aliens? Delilah and Casey join up with a few other similar outcasts, each in their own way, to find out and to warn the police, to no avail. Shades of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, referenced several times, along with The Breakfast Club, in other words.

   A strong and lengthy list of cast members, including Jon Stewart in a brief role as a biology teacher, and Bebe Neuwirth as the school principal, makes this one work. I have only begun to skim the surface of what I could discuss about this movie, some scenes of which will stay with me for a long time. One might wish that the aliens remain unseen, or at least I did. Alien beings are always more fearsome if you know they’re there, but you can’t see them.


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