Horror movies


DEATH CURSE OF TARTU. Thunderbird International Pictures, 1966. Fred Piñero, Babbette Sherrill, Bill Marcus, Mayra Gómez. Screenwriter-director: William Grefe.

   To say that Death Curse of Tartu was made outside the Hollywood system is an understatement. Not only was this low budget horror film made outside of Hollywood, it was made way outside the State of California. This isn’t a West Coast production or even an independent New York film. This is a Florida production through and through.

   The product of cult film writer-director William Grefe, Death Curse of Tartu is the type of movie specifically tailored for the drive-in impresario attempting to bring in a swath of teenage spectators.

   Filmed in the Florida Everglades, this cheap production features a cast of relative unknowns, some of whom are far better actors than the others. It’s the type of movie that is valuable for the independent spirit behind it rather than for the admittedly low-rent finished product.

   The plot? It’s easily summed up in one sentence. A group of archaeology students and their teacher travel deep in the Everglades, disturb the sacred burial ground of a witch doctor (that would be Tartu), and suffer the consequences for their sacrilegious foolishness.

   If you turned on the movie in the middle, though, you wouldn’t have the faintest idea that these teenagers were being attacked by an Indian witch doctor. That’s because Tartu is able to take the form of wild animals. Pretty creative. Also, it was a great way to save money on special effects and make up.

   But I shouldn’t be so hard on Death Curse of Tartu. There’s spunk in it and some genuine heart behind it, and you do finally get to see Tartu in action. It’s just that there’s a lot of dead time (pun intended) where not much at all happens. And the soundtrack — if it could be called that — is about the most mind-numbing, repetitive thing I’ve encountered lately.


DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN. United Artists, UK/US, 1961. Kieron Moore, Hazel Court, Ian Hunter, Kenneth J. Warren, Gerald Lawson. Ditector: Sidney J. Furie.

   Kieron Moore comes off more as unhinged than diabolical at the eponymous Dr. Blood in Doctor Blood’s Coffin, a modern Gothic thriller with just enough atmosphere and suspense to keep the viewer engaged throughout. Directed by the prolific Canadian director, Sidney J. Furie, this British horror film benefits tremendously from a score composed by Buxton Orr, who also is credited with the soundtrack for the underappreciated science fiction thriller, First Man Into Space (1959) that I reviewed here.

   Set in early 1960s Cornwall, the film borrows heavily from themes Mary Shelley introduced into modern horror literature. Dr. Blood, who returns to his small Cornish village, is a stifled genius. At least that’s how he sees himself. Feeling as if only he could test his theory on living patients, he would be able to break all frontiers in medical knowledge and be able to bring the dead back to life!

   It doesn’t take a scientific genius to know where Dr. Blood’s unholy schemes are headed. Indeed, as the movie progresses, Dr. Blood amps up his narcissism as the concomitant body count rises. The only people who are able to keep him somewhat steady are his father, a local physician (Ian Hunter) and Linda Parker (Hazel Court), the nurse in his father’s employ. She’s a lonely widow who takes a shine toward the younger Dr. Blood. Soon enough, she’s come to suspect that her newfound love isn’t being exactly honest with her.

   Even though at times the movie progresses as a somewhat languid pace, Dr. Blood’s Coffin is best appreciated as a slow boiler. It takes a while to warm up, but once it’s done, Dr. Blood emerges as a truly memorable villain, one whose story is as much a tragic as it is a warning against tampering with Nature. Although there’s no breakout star performance – Moore is a fine actor, but he’s no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee – the movie has solid acting throughout and would be likely appreciated by fans of Hammer’s crime and horror films.


FINAL EXAM. Motion Picture Marketing / Embassy Pictures, 1981. Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, Ralph Brown, DeAnna Robbins, Sherry Willis-Burch, John Fallon. Written and directed by Jimmy Huston.

   Odd. Amateurish. Creative. Atmospheric. These are just four ways to describe this low-budget “madman on the campus” thriller. Filmed on location in North Carolina, Final Exam features an extremely effective musical score and a cast replete with first-time actors and relative unknowns. All of them, despite their lack of on screen experience, do an admirable job in making this offbeat slasher film something far more memorable than it truthfully deserves to be.

   The plot isn’t particularly difficult to follow. It’s finals week at a small liberal arts college somewhere in the US South and the remaining students on campus are involved in studying and partying. There’s also the jock-filled fraternity that decides it’s a good idea to pull a major prank on campus, one that involves a simulated terrorist attack. This naturally sets up one of the major characters, a nerdy fellow named Radish (Joel Rice) into believing the prank is real, leading him to phone the local sheriff who is less than pleased to learn that the whole thing was a false alarm.

   But what happens next is no prank. Soon enough, a knife-wielding madman shows up on campus and begins his senseless murderous rampage. (I say “senseless” not just as a means of describing psychopathic murders, but also because the film controversially provides no motive for the killer. Whether that makes it more effective or less is up to the viewer to decide.) The main characters – from the jock to the blonde girl having an affair with the chemistry professor – come face to face with the lurking evil in their midst.

   Typical for the genre, there is a studious, morally upright final girl who (spoiler alert) not only kills the killer, but also survives the ordeal. Courtney (Cecil Bagdadi) is filled with self-doubt and is insecure about her future. She doesn’t feel as if she has it easy either in terms of looks or marketable skills. But somehow she finds the internal strength to not only keep on living in the midst of the evil that overtakes the campus, but to also defeat it.

   I’d be exaggerating if I said that there were any deep philosophical themes explored in Final Exam, a movie that’s far more grindhouse than art house. But there are several thematic elements that merit further exploration, such as the effect of fraternity pranks on college campuses, the psychological insecurity of college students soon to embark on their journey into the “real world,” and the randomness of life itself.

   Indeed, Radish is constantly badgering Courtney with seemingly useless observations about how there are psychopaths out there in the world who would do innocent people harm. Taken as a metaphor for the difference between the relative security of a college campus and the dog-eat-dog reality of post-collegiate life, Final Exam deserves a far higher grade than many of the other derivative slasher films that were released in the wake of John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween (1978). And much like Halloween, this film eschews gore and relies more on atmosphere, suspense, and a haunting soundtrack to make an impact on the viewer.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

DR. JEKYLL AND THE WEREWOLF. Spain, 1972. Originally released as Doctor Jekyll y el Hombre Lobo. Paul Naschy, Shirley Corrigan, Jack Taylor, Mirta Miller. Story: Paul Naschy. Director: León Klimovsky.

   In Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf, the iconic Spanish horror star Paul Naschy reprises his role as the cursed Count Waldemar Daninsky, a man stricken with lycanthropy. In other words, he’s a werewolf. And like the cursed Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) of Universal Monsters fame, Daninsky is a brooding type, one who wishes nothing more than to escape the fate that the dark side of nature has seemingly imposed upon him.

   Naschy is a fine actor, portraying both the tragic Daninsky and the werewolf version of himself with a physicality rarely seen in horror movies made nowadays. But it’s not his portrayal of a werewolf that makes this Spanish horror film worth a look. Rather, it’s his portrayal of Mr. Hyde, that iconic villainous id first introduced to the world by Robert Louis Stevenson that sets this otherwise clumsy, occasionally sleazy, horror movie apart from derivative grindhouse fare.

   In a somewhat convoluted and admittedly silly plot – one that throws in horror trope after horror trope for good measure – Daninsky ends up in England where his new love Justine (Shirley Corrigan) introduces him to Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jack Taylor), grandson of the Victorian Era physician who unlocked the formula for dividing man into his good and evil halves. Jekyll thinks that he’s found a way to cure Daninsky of his curse. Amazingly, it involves turning Daninsky into Mr. Hyde and then using an antidote that will forever get rid of the lycanthropy and Mr. Hyde!

   As you might imagine, things don’t exactly go as planned, leaving the fiendish Mr. Hyde to embark upon a reign of brutal, sadistic terror. Naschy might very well be remembered for portraying one of cruelest, most unhinged versions of Dr. Hyde ever set to celluloid. Indeed, there are moments in the film – one scene in particular that involves Mr. Hyde torturing Justine – that are so far over the top and out of context from the rest of the movie that they actually serve to pull the viewer’s attention away from the narrative.

   That’s a shame, for Naschy’s Mr. Hyde is a truly memorable villain. The director could have done so much more with the natural talent he had on his hands, but instead seems to have gone for shock value galore over what could have been a much better, atmospheric horror film.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Gregg Palmer, Allison Hayes, Autumn Russell, Joel Ashley, Morris Ankrum, Marjorie Eaton, Gene Roth. Director: Edward L. Cahn

   Zombies of Mora Tau is best thought of as two distinct movies in one: an enjoyable, if not overly imaginative, B-horror film and a clumsy, downright boring crime drama with supernatural elements thrown into the mix. Directed by Edward Cahn, Zombies of Mora Tau had the potential to be a guilty, campy pleasure. But it just ends up as a rather forgettable low-budget horror movie, one that was churned out for audiences without much thought to either characterization or coherency.

   One thing is for sure. The movie doesn’t waste any time getting to the heart of the matter. The film opens with a scene in which a chauffeur (Gene Roth) is driving the young, beautiful Jan Peters (Autumn Russell) to her grandmother’s house in Africa. Along the way, he runs over a man standing in the middle of the road. But he insists that it’s fine because it wasn’t a really a man. It was a zombie!

   You see, Grandmother Peters (Marjorie Peters) has set up a homestead in Africa to be close to her “deceased” husband, a sailor who is one of the living dead that haunt the region. Jan doesn’t believe her grandmother’s voodoo hokum.

   That is, until a group of conniving diamond thieves show up to retrieve treasure from a sunken vessel – the very same boat that Grandmother Peter’s husband was on. Apparently, there is some curse that keeps the zombie sailors in a state of living death.

   As I mentioned previously, the movie had all the makings of a solid B-movie. After the first act, the movie unfortunately transitions into a third-rate crime film in which the diamond hunters battle both amongst themselves and against the zombies, all for the sake of sunken treasure in a remote corner of Africa. One wonders if the gang would have been better off by robbing a jewelry store back home.

COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE. American International Pictures, 1970. Alternative title: The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire. Robert Quarry (Count Yorga), Roger Perry, Michael Murphy, Michael Macready, Donna Anders, Judy Lang. Narrator: George Macready. Screenwriter-Director: Bob Kelljan.

   We first meet Count Yorga as he is conducting a seance attended by six couples in modern day (1970s) Los Angeles, as they try to contact the deceased mother of one of the young women in the party. Several of those attending do think it is a party, making jokes and general fun of the proceedings. They shouldn’t have.

   After the seance, one of the couples takes the Count, a recent arrival from Bulgaria, home to what looks like a veritable castle somewhere in the Hollywood Hills. They have trouble leaving and have to stay the night stranded on the castle grounds in their Volkswagen bus, unknowingly allowing a strange visitor enter while they are sleeping.

   Matters progress very well from these, at least from Count Yorga’s perspective. The others investigate, even to the extent of calling in a doctor who is an expert in blood disorders. It slowly dawns on them who (or what) they are dealing with. A direct confrontation is in order, and and from the viewer’s perspective, it proves most amusing as well as chilling.

   And this is the effect of the entire movie, which when it started out was intended to be a soft-core pornography film, a few hints of which still remain. This may be one of the first vampire films to take place in a modern day setting, and in spite of its low budget, it manages to take good advantage of that fact very well. The ending, by the way, is one well worth waiting for.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE INITIATION. New World Pictures, 1984. Vera Miles, Clu Gulager, Daphne Zuniga, James Read, Marilyn Kagan, Robert Dowdell. Director: Larry Stewart.

   First thing you need to know about the The Initiation is that there’s gratuitous violence and nudity. It’s a mid-1980s slasher film geared toward a teenage audience, so what do you expect? Second thing you need to know is that the plot, which includes too many standard horror film tropes to count, doesn’t end up making a whole lot of sense.

   If you accept these two caveats and just go with it, you might find yourself as I did: surprisingly enthralled by a low-budget horror film that punches well above its weight and ends up being far memorable than it actually deserves to be.

   Clu Culager and Vera Miles portray Dwight and Frances Fairchild, an upper middle class suburban Texan couple. They seemingly have it all. He’s well known in real estate and is the owner of a large department store. She’s a little high strung, but there’s a good reason for that. She’s constantly worried about her college age daughter, Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga) who suffers from repeated nightmares. Vivid ones in which she sees herself as a young girl stabbing a strange man who is subsequently consumed in a horrific fire.

   Scary stuff made even scarier by the fact that this is a particularly stressful time for Kelly. You see, she’s pledged a sorority and this is Hell Week where new recruits have to run the proverbial gauntlet. Fortunately, she’s got a handsome psychology graduate student (James Read) by her side. And he’s not only a budding love interest! He’s also an expert in parapsychology who comes to suspect that Daphne’s bad dreams aren’t dreams at all, but rather are memories of something terrible that happened in her past.

   But what? Could Kelly’s traumatic visions have something to do with an escaped inmate who has come back to exact bloody revenge on her father and all those rebellious and rambunctious teenagers who get in his way? And what’s the deal with Kelly and her mother looking at their reflections in the mirror all the time? By the time the film wraps up, all such questions will be resolved. Whether or not you consider the answer to the great mystery about who Kelly is to be a satisfactory one, however, will largely depend on your tolerance for gaping plot holes and – how should I put this – “inventive” screenwriting.

   The Initiation isn’t a great movie, but it’s a good one for its genre. Plus it’s always a pleasure to see Clu Gulager in a horror movie. He steals every scene he’s in. That has to count for something.


BRAINIAC. Mexico, 1962. Original title: El barón del terror. Abel Salazar, German Robles. Written by Federico Curiel and Adolfo Lopez Portillo. Directed by Chano Urueta.

   Not merely a bad movie, but a true alternative classic. In Bizarro World, this would be Gone with the Wind.

   But you have to admire their cheek. The makers of Brainiac took a hackneyed story, low budget and laughable special effects and just ran with it: A devil-worshipping aristocrat executed by the Mexican Inquisition in 1661 returns 300 years later (apparently on a comet… you can see the string on it when it “drops” to Earth!) to take revenge on the descendants of the judges who condemned him. It appears though that the centuries have taken their toll on his personal appearance, and he is now one of the silliest looking monsters in the movies, complete with clunky pincer-hands and a rubber head that pulsates in times of passion.

   In practically no time sat all we’re into the whole revenge thing, and we see where he got the name Brainiac, as the monster hypnotizes victims with his unworldly eyes (we know this because someone shines a flashlight on his face at odd moments) and they are rendered immobile as he shuffles forward, grabs them with his pincers and sucks their brains out with his two-foot forked tongue…. Ewwww!

   For purposes of plot the Baron can still assume his mortal appearance, and he has lots of money so he can dress well, get around and host lavish parties, where he sneaks a bite of Brain now and then as he pursues his diabolical revenge. The police, meanwhile, follow along and look suitably puzzled as they pick up light-headed corpses (“Another one with the brain sucked out!” “What a coincidence!”) and a handsome young Astronomer puzzles over the missing comet (“I would have sworn it landed near here!”)

   Okay, so it ain’t exactly subtle. But Brainiac is fast-moving and generally weird enough (one reviewer called it “low-budget surrealism done up as a horror film.”) to keep you watching, especially at the (WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!!) gripping finale, when the Brainiac advances on his last victim (who happens to be the young Astronomer’s lovely fiancée… what are the odds?) and the police finally figure the whole thing out and charge to the rescue.

   But first they have to stop off at the Police Station, so we get a lot of supposedly suspense-building cross-cutting of the Brainiac stalking the heroine, close-ups of her screaming, close-ups of his tongue sticking out, close-ups of the hero yelling “Stop! Stop it!” and then the two trench-coated cops plod in… wielding flame-throwers!

   Okay, so they didn’t stop at the station to get reinforcements. They didn’t put on any special gear or ask for technical advice, they just grabbed a couple flame-throwers from wherever they keep them at a Mexican Police Station and plodded to the rescue. But somehow that image of two dumpy guys in suits melting down a guy in a rubber mask seemed to encapsulate the charming absurdity of the whole piece.

   Brainiac may not be what you’d call a good movie, but I daresay you’ll never forget it.

THE DUNWICH HORROR. American International Pictures, 1970. Based on the story by H. P. Lovecraft. Music by Les Baxter. Director: Daniel Haller.

   I watched this movie with what you might call a severe handicap. I’ve never read the story it’s based on, and what’s more I think the whole Chluthu Mythos is bunkum, to speak frankly, and to sum it up quickly, this movie did nothing to change my mind.

   The first half, though, I have to tell you is stylishly done, with some good performances by the players, especially by Dean Stockwell in a standout performance as a last living member of the Whateley family, shunned by the townsfolk of Dunwich for years, and by Ed Begley as Dr. Henry Armitage, who as the movie begins has just finished a lecture at Miskatonic University in nearly Arkham.

   It turns out that the charismatic and soft-spoken Wilbur Whateley needs the famed and very rare book called the Necronomicon for his own purposes, and to that end he captivates a very pretty student named Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) into driving him home from the University library, and what’s more, into staying the night in his very antique and picturesque family mansion.

   And in that mansion, guarded over by Wilbur’s aged, wild-eyed grandfather (Sam Jaffee) is a room, locked and barred with a secret inhabitant inside. All is deliciously filmed, with loads of anticipatory suspense until, alas, the secrets begin to be revealed, and the film goes into all kinds of psychedelic contortions to avoid showing us who or what has been hidden away for so long in that room.

   But where this affair really goes off the rails is the point where the story stops making sense. A female friend of Nancy’s goes to the mansion alone to rescue her, without Professor Armitage, and does she open the door? Need you ask?

   This occurs right around the halfway point, and for me it was downhill the rest of the way. Lovecraft fans seem to be only so-so on this film, so if you’re one also, you need not take only my opinion on it, even though their reasons may not be the same as mine. A big plus is the very effective musical score by Les Baxter, a portion of which you can listen to here, and in one of his final roles, Ed Begley is as always a joy to see on the screen.


HORROR HOTEL. Trans-Lux, US, 1962. First released by Vulcan Films, UK, 1960, as The City of the Dead. Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis, Valentine Dyall. Written by George Baxt and Milton Subotsky. Directed by John Moxey.

   You really need to see this.

   Expertly done on a small budget, Horror Hotel opens in the 1600s colonial village of Whitewood, Massachusetts, with a witch (Patricia Jessel) being burned at the stake, calling down a curse on the place as her lover (Valentine Dyall) looks on. Jump cut about 300 years and we’re in a college classroom where Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee) passionately relates the episode to a room of rather superannuated students. Some scoff, but pretty coed Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) asks to do further research, and the eager-to-help pedagogue suggests with a sly look in his eye that she try poking around in an out-of-the way village… called Whitewood.

   Nan’s boyfriend (Tom Naylor) and brother (Dennis Lotis) pooh-pooh the idea, but in no time she’s driving through dense, forbidding fog to the remote hamlet, pausing only to pick up a mysterious hitchhiker (Valentine Dyall again) before she arrives at the blighted hamlet, finds a rather dank and forbidding Inn, meets the landlady (Patricia Jessel again!) and sinister things start happening, slowly at first, but quickly building up to a grand and nasty finale.

   Cinematographer Desmond Dickenson, whose credits include Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and Michael Gough’s Konga, fills the screen with memorable creepiness; low-lying mist covers the ground and obscures the buildings, hiding the cheap sets wonderfully, and the camera shifts to odd angles at times, never arty but constantly surprising.

   The players put earnest effort into their parts, even the stock types. Ms. Jessel evokes the spirit of Judith Anderson effectively, with maybe a touch of Barbara Stanwyck. Christopher Lee is a shade too patently fanatic as the sinister professor, but I saw a lot worse back in my college days. And Betta St. John does a wonderful horror-movie heroine, perky and terrified in equal measure.

   The plot unspools quickly, with a few clever twists, and if Horror Hotel never hits the Classic mark, it doesn’t miss it by much. In all, a pleasantly terrifying way to spend an October evening.

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