Horror movies

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.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Universal Pictures, 1943. Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Dennis Hoey, Lon Chaney Jr. Screenplay: Curt Siodmak. Director: Roy William Neill.

   Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man is a horror film starring Lon Chaney Jr. In this quixotic production, Chaney reprises his role as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, the eponymous character of Curt Siodmak’s 1941 horror classic about a man who, against his own volition, turns into a werewolf during the full moon.

   Along for the ride through this fairy tale land are Iloney Massey as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein, Patric Knowles as Dr. Frank Mannering, Talbot’s physician, and Bela Lugosi as a rather underwhelming Frankenstein Monster. Saving the film from its preposterous premise, encapsulated so clearly in the film’s title, is the skillful direction of Roy William Neill. (I reviewed Neill’s Gothic masterpiece, The Black Room starring Boris Karloff, here).

   The plot is basic enough. Grave robbers come across the Talbot tomb in a very eerie looking cemetery somewhat reminiscent of the one seen in the beginning of Lew Landers’s The Return of the Vampire (reviewed here). Their attempt to rob the family tomb is thwarted by Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man who turns out not to be so dead after all.

   Ever since he was initially bitten by a werewolf and transformed into one himself, Larry simply cannot die. He kills at night during the full moon and he hates himself for it. He simply wants to die. Indeed, that’s what takes up the majority of the film’s time — seeing a somewhat pathetic and moping Chaney/Talbot wonder around from place to place trying to find someone who will help him end his cursed existence. One person he seeks out is the elderly, mysterious Gypsy woman, Maleva, portrayed by the Russian actress, Maria Ouspenskaya, who had the same role in Siodmak’s The Wolf Man.

   Talbot and Maleva make their way through central Europe where Talbot encounters Baroness Frankenstein (Massey) and urges her to turn over her father’s records. He wants to learn how her father’s experiments might help him die. Talbot also inadvertently discovers an iced over Frankenstein Monster (Lugosi) and releases him from his frozen tomb. One really has to suspend disbelief to make it through this part of the film.

   Soon, Dr. Mannering (Knowles), who was Talbot’s physician earlier in the movie, shows up and decides that he’s going to become a mad doctor. He ends up both strengthening the Frankenstein Monster and, with the assistance of a full moon, turning Talbot into a werewolf on the same night.

   Finally, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man go at it, fighting as monsters do. It’s actually a fun little sequence with memorable camera angles and a visually stunning Gothic laboratory setting. But the monster versus monster fight doesn’t last long. One of the townspeople, against the advice of the mayor (Lionel Atwill), decides he’s going to sabotage the Frankenstein Castle and kill the monsters.

   When the movie ends — too abruptly, it should be noted — it would seem as if both the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man have been laid to rest. (The 1944 sequel, House of Frankenstein, reviewed here by Dan Stumpf and by Walter Albert here, will demonstrate that this was not the case).

   While Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man isn’t a particularly good horror film, it’s actually a fairly decent monster movie. True: Chaney’s character really doesn’t do much but whine and beg people to help him die. And Lugosi is not Karloff. But Roy William Neill’s direction makes the film an enjoyable, if admittedly mindless, viewing experience. Quirky camera angles, great settings, and skillful uses of shadow and lighting make this transparent effort by the studio to capitalize on the successes of both Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolf Man significantly better than it could have been in a far less capable director’s hands.

  HORROR EXPRESS. Benmar Productions/Granada Films, 1972. A Spanish/British production; released in Spain as Pánico en el Transiberiano. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Telly Savalas, Julio Peña, Silvia Tortosa, Ángel del Pozo, Helga Liné, Alice Reinheart. Director: Eugenio Martín.

    “The following report to the Royal Geological Society by the undersigned, Alexander Saxton, is a true and faithful account of the events that befell the society’s expedition in Manchuria. As the leader of the expedition, I must accept the responsibility for its ending in disaster. But I will leave, to the judgement of the honorable members, the decision as to where the blame for the catastrophe lies…”

   I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I love movies that take place on trains, and all but one half of one percent of this one does, so what does that tell you? And any movie with both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in it has got to be worth watching, and doubly so when they’re on the same side — well, friendly rivals, I would say.

   Christopher Lee plays Professor Saxon, a British anthropologist, on board the Trans-Siberian Express from China to Moscow, along with the frozen body of a monstrous-looking humanoid discovered in a remote Manchurian cave (as if remote and Manchurian never appeared in the same sentence before). A colleague, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing) is also on board, but only fortuitously so.

   Or even luckily so. Both men are needed, as it so happens, since the creature in its sealed crate must be responsible for the series of mysterious deaths that quickly ensue — but how? — even before the train starts off on its long trek through the isolated snow-covered Siberian wasteland — the eyes of the victims sucked purely white, their brains wiped clean, as smooth as a baby’s bottom. (We get to view the makeshift autopsy on the moving train.)

   There is an explanation, a science-fictional one, but the real fun is watching a pair of true professionals (Lee and Cushing) enjoy themselves immensely, or so they make us believe. (Cushing’s wife had died just before filming began, and he nearly backed out of his role.) As for Telly Savalas, as a loudly flamboyant Cossack officer (to put it mildly), the less said the better, at least by me.

NOTE:   The video link above is of the final four or five minutes only. To see the movie in its entirety, go here.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH. Allied Artists Pictures, 1959. Gene Evans, André Morell, John Turner, Leigh Madison, Jack MacGowran, Maurice Kaufmann, Henri Vidon. Directors: Douglas Hickox & Eugène Lourié.

   The Giant Behemoth is an America-British science fiction/horror film starring Gene Evans (who appeared in several Samuel Fuller films and in Richard Fleischer’s Armored Car Robbery, which I reviewed here) and André Morrell (Quatermass and the Pit).

   The two actors portray scientists tasked with stopping a giant radioactive dinosaur from reeking havoc on England. Think Godzilla transported to Cornwall and London and you’ll have a pretty good idea what this film is all about.

   That’s not to say it’s simply a throwaway creature feature with amateurish acting and even worse special effects. It’s not. Ukrainian-born director Eugène Lourié, who had worked as a production/set designer for such directors as Jean Renoir, Max Ophüls, and Samuel Fuller, clearly put care into the project. Indeed, while no cinematic masterpiece or a classic worthy of academic scholarship, The Giant Behemoth is actually a solid 1950s sci-fi film, one that showcases the fact that worries about the effects of atomic testing were hardly limited to Japan.

   The plot is about as straightforward as you would expect. Dead radioactive fish wash up on the Cornwall beach and American marine biologist Steve Karnes (Evans) is on the case. He partners up with British scientist, Professor James Bickford (Morell) to figure out what is going on.

   It turns out there’s a giant Paleosaurus on the loose. Oh, and it’s radioactive too. (And why wouldn’t it be?) The two men work with the British military to stop the behemoth, but not before the growling giant lizard stomps around London a bit, wrecking a power station and picking up a car and dumping it in the Thames.

   The film can definitely feel dated at times. It takes suspension of disbelief to fully appreciate the film for what it is, namely a better than average monster movie. The movie neither goes for cheap thrills, nor demonstrates implicit contempt for its audience. Slow moving at times, The Giant Behemoth admirably avoids the stilted, laughably amateurish acting that plagued too many of the creature features of that era. Both Evans and Morell appear to take their roles seriously. The story’s not much, but then again it doesn’t need to be.

   By far, the weakest aspect of the film is that it’s so obviously a knockoff or, if one is feeling charitable, an homage, to Godzilla. And as in the original Japanese version, we don’t see much of the creature for the first thirty minutes or so. It’s in the ocean somewhere doing whatever dying radioactive dinosaurs do. We’re supposedly just waiting in suspense for the guy to show up. Problem is: in The Giant Behemoth, the oversized angry dinosaur takes a bit too long to appear on the screen in its full glory.

   The movie does, however, succeed in having some great moments. While the special effects are, in many ways, completely antiquated, there are a couple of scenes in which the dinosaur is lurking about London that just look just fabulous in crisp black and white. I’ll take those over most lavish and expensive computer graphics any day.

   I wouldn’t call The Giant Behemoth a great film by any stretch of the imagination. But, provided you know what you’re getting yourself into, that doesn’t stop it from being a surprisingly enjoyable one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE BLACK ROOM. Columbia Pictures, 1935. Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh, Robert Allen, Thurston Hall, Katherine DeMille. Director: Roy William Neill.

   The Black Room, although not as well known as the classic Universal Studios horror films from the same era, is a taut, suspenseful, and visually crisp Gothic thriller starring Boris Karloff. In a memorable performance that demonstrates his strength as an actor, Karloff portrays two twin brothers, the evil, dissolute Gregor and the charmingly naïve Anton, the last remaining members of the de Berghmann family.

   Directed by Roy William Neill (best known for directing some of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies), the film makes skillful and economical use of decorative settings, shadowy lighting, unique camera angles, and repetitive music to convey a sense of impending doom and otherworldliness. As Joe Dante accurately notes, there is a fairy tale quality to The Black Room. The majority of film takes place in a castle, there’s horses and carriages a plenty, a prophecy fulfilled, and a beautiful maiden endangered by a madman and his demonic love for her.

   The plot is fairly straightforward. We’re transported to a dreamlike land somewhere in central Europe. Twin brothers, Gregor and Anton, are born and their father, patriarch of the de Berghmann dynasty, isn’t happy about it. Not without good reason, for there’s a prophecy that holds that, when twin brothers are born in the family, the younger brother will end up killing the older one.

   Specifically, it’s been written that younger brother kill commit fratricide in the black room, the castle’s oubliette. Although they are twins, we learn that Gregor is one hour older than his brother Anton, who was born with a paralyzed right arm. (How else would we tell them apart?) The stage is set for mystery and murder.

   Fast forward twenty years. We learn that the disheveled Baron Gregor (Karloff) is a brute, a dissolute tyrant in a castle keeping busy by oppressing the peasants and violating their women. The townsfolk have had just about enough, but they aren’t quite sure how to get rid of the mad baron. Assassination attempts have been made on his life.

   Enter twin brother, dapper and naïve Anton, also portrayed by Karloff, who returns to his hometown after traveling in Europe. The two brothers reunite. After killing Mashka (Katherine DeMille) who witnessed his criminal acts, evil brother Gregor abdicates and turns power over to Anton, but not for long. Gregor lures Anton into the eponymous black room, pushes him down into a pit where he dies, a knife resting between his body and his right arm.

   This is when Karloff’s skill as an actor really shines through. Now, he’s portraying a third character, as it were: evil Gregor pretending to be Anton. The murdering nobleman has his sights set on the beautiful, white-clad Thea (Marian Marsh, often bathed in a soft white light), niece of Colonel Hassell (Thurston Hall).

   But she’s not in love with the baron. Her heart belongs to the upstanding Lt. Lussan (Robert Allen) who ends up being convicted for the murder of Col. Hassell, a murder that Gregor-as-Anton commits when the colonel unmasks his true identity. If it sounds somewhat complicated, trust me when I say it’s really not.

   Karloff is a skilled enough actor to pull off these three distinct roles. Roy William Neill’s direction gives the viewer enough time and visual cues to easily follow what’s happening every step along the way, including in the final showdown where the prophecy is indeed fulfilled after a dog forces Gregor-as-Anton to use his right arm, demonstrating to everyone that he’s an imposter.

   The Black Room has some particularly notable camera work, which makes the film significantly better than many other horror films from the same era. Most of the time, the viewer is not on the same eye level as are the characters. Often times, the actors are shot from angles either significantly beneath them, even at foot level, or above them. This gives the impression that we are meant to be conscious of our role as spectators, peering through the looking glass into a fantastic realm. Look, also, for the scene in which the camera looks up at Anton right before his brother pushes him down into the pit.

   The film, perhaps not surprising in a movie about twin brothers, also makes ample use of mirrors and reflections. For instance, the first we see of Gregor immediately after he murders Mashka is as a reflection a mirror, shot at an angle. There’s also a great soliloquy in which Gregor-as-Anton talks to himself in a mirror and an eerie scene in which Gregor talks to himself in a reflection in the black room.

   The film repeatedly juxtaposes faith with superstition. There are numerous scenes with crosses and crucifixes, both in and out of a graveyard. Likewise, there are two important scenes in which Thea and Lt. Lussan have intense discussions in front of Virgin Mary statues. As far as superstition, there is not only the matter of the prophecy, but also a black cat – one real and one made of wood – that shows up in the film. It’s worth looking out for.

   In conclusion, The Black Room is one of those forgotten gems of 1930s cinema. It may not be a classic, but in many ways it’s as good as many of the best known Universal films from the same era and far better than the Universal B-films from the late 1930s and early 1940s.

   Karloff is on the top of his game here. There’s one scene in which he as Gregor is holding a knife and talking to himself as he carves a pear, demonstrating just how crazed and inattentive he is. That’s the type of acting that makes the film really worth watching. The story, while not the most creative, is not bad either.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. Hammer Films, UK, 1957. Released in the United States as The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. Forrest Tucker, Peter Cushing, Maureen Connell, Richard Wattis, Robert Brown, Michael Brill, Wolfe Morris, Arnold Marlé, Anthony Chinn. Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, based on his 1955 BBC teleplay entitled The Creature. Director: Val Guest.

   Running just over 90 minutes, The Abominable Snowman stars Peter Cushing (Dracula, The Mummy) as an English botanist on an ill-fated Himalayan expedition to find the mythical Yeti.

   The film is, in many ways, more of a psychological thriller than a traditional horror film. Both the claustrophobic isolation of the Himalayas and the tension between members of the expedition party play far more prominent roles in the narrative than do the Yeti, whom we see only briefly toward the end of the film.

   The plot is relatively straightforward. John Rollison (Cushing) and his wife, Helen (Maureen Connell) are living and working in the Tibetan monastery, Rong-ruk. They are guests of the enigmatic Lama (Arnold Marlé) who seems to know a lot more than he lets on. Although Rollison isn’t in the best physical shape in the world, he insists upon joining the expedition of the loud-mouthed American guide and showman, Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker). Helen isn’t happy about the arrangement.

   The party’s goal is find the Yeti. But Friend and his associates have different goals than Rollison. Friend, a conman and a fraud, wants to capture a Yeti alive and sell it to a carnival show. Rollison, more pure of heart, wants to study and learn about the Yeti.

   He posits both that Yeti are intelligent, sentient creatures and that they are merely biding their time on Earth, hidden up in the Himalayan peaks, until man destroys himself. They also have quasi-hypnotic powers.

   The doomed explorers do manage to find and to kill a Yeti, setting into motion a chain of events that leave Rollison the sole surviving member of the expeditionary party. The most important scene in the movie occurs in an ice cave when Rollison finally encounters live Yeti. He makes eye contact with one of them and realizes that his theory about Yeti intelligence was indeed correct.

   The film, a product of the anxieties of the Atomic Age, imparts a fairly obvious message about how man’s hubris may end up being his downfall. The theme of what it means to be civilized also features prominently in the film. This is notable given the fact that the late 1950s were the beginning of the end for British imperialism.

   While I would not go so far as to say that The Abominable Snowman is a particularly notable film, I found the story about how the Yeti will be man’s successors to be thought provoking. Unfortunately, the production quality now seems considerably dated.

   The film’s pacing can feel a bit slow. Indeed, unlike The Mummy (also from Hammer films two years later and reviewed here earlier on this blog), which remains an absolute gem, The Abominable Snowman, while not a bad film, really doesn’t stand up to the test of time. Perhaps that is one reason why, in late 2013, Hammer Films announced that they are planning to remake this oft-neglected British cult classic.

   In conclusion, The Abominable Snowman is certainly worth watching at least once, if only for the ominous Eastern-themed music, bells, and chants that provide the film with a strong fosters a sense of both wonder and of impending doom. The monastery setting, which features considerably in the movie, is also visually stunning. It’s a reminder that the film was meant to transport the viewer into a different realm of existence and human understanding.

   While I probably won’t watch the 1957 version again any time soon, I’m quite looking forward to seeing how the forthcoming remake turns out. I only hope the filmmakers do make it more of a psychological thriller than a creature feature.

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