Horror movies

    “Season of the Witch” was co-written and first recorded by singer-songwriter Donovan Leitch in 1966. Since then it’s been covered by dozens of other singers and bands, including most recently by Lana Del Rey and used as the theme song for Guillermo del Toro’s just released film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark:


    Horror House aka The Haunted House of Horror is a strange movie that defies easy categorization. Essentially a British giallo film, this Tigon Productions release from 1969 stars a nearly thirty-year old Frankie Avalon as a hip British teen (!!) who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery outside swinging London.

   The trailer doesn’t do a particularly effective job in conveying just how stylish the movie is, nor how shockingly gory it is in a few particularly sequences. Apparently both David Bowie and Boris Karloff were considered for roles in the movie, with Dennis Price taking the role meant for the latter. I can’t say that the plot, after it unfolds, is all that coherent. But it isn’t easily forgotten.


   This extended July 4th weekend, I decided to revisit one of the few horror movies set during this holiday season, I Know What You Did Last Summer. Based on the eponymous 1973 young adult novel written by Lois Duncan and with a screenplay penned by Kevin Williamson (Scream), the movie is a surprisingly effective, if somewhat vacuous, thriller.

   It’s perfect summer candy. Fun while you enjoy it, but nothing overly memorable. The trailer, with its voice-over narration, gives away the basic plot. Four friends accidentally run a man over and leave him for dead. But that’s not where their story ends. A year later, on Independence Day weekend, the man they thought had died returns with a vengeance.

   The vibe of the trailer is much like the movie: young and hip with a powerful soundtrack. My one complaint is that the trailer doesn’t fully capture how much Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) rather than Jennifer Love Hewitt carries the film. Without her, the movie really wouldn’t have worked.

   For NCIS fans, there is a special treat waiting for you in this one. Muse Watson, who portrayed the gruff Mike Franks on the show, plays the villain in this feature.

VOODOO ISLAND. United Artists, 1957. Boris Karloff, Beverly Tyler, Murvyn Vye, Elisha Cook, Rhodes Reason, Jean Engstrom. Screenwriter: Richard Landau. Director: Reginald LeBorg.

   There’s not a whole lot you can say about a horror movie that just isn’t scary, even with the presence of Boris Karloff at the top of the billing. But not only is Voodoo Island not scary, it’s boring.

   Boris plays a gent named Phillip Knight, one of those guys who debunks legendary ghosts and monsters on his TV show, and he’s hired in this film to go to a mysterious island in the South Seas by a real estate developer who’d like to build a luxury resort hotel there, if it weren’t for thefact that several others have gone there before, and only one has come back.

   And he’s in a walking catatonic trance.

   But this is the tamest voodoo island that you can ever imagine. True, there are natives lurking in the brush, and man-eating plants and other exotic flora, but most of the film is taken up by endless scenes of our intrepid explorers hacking their way across the island. I also don’t think there was ever much in the way of voodoo in the South Seas. From all I know about it, it’s a Caribbean sort of thing.

   To fill up the time, although it takes a while for them to warm up to it, there is the beginning of romance between two of the characters, and more than a hint of a lesbian overture by one of the female members of the expedition to another. I don’t think that Boris Karloff’s character knew that any of this was going on, but then again I’d like to think he was open-minded enough not to have cared.

   But to end this review where I began it, while Mr. Karloff is the only reason for anyone to see this movie, on any scale you can think of, it can’t possibly rank as among one of his better ones.


THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM. Lionsgate, UK, 2016. Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Daniel Mays, Eddie Marsan Screenplay by Jane Goldman based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd Directed by Juan Carlos Medina.

   I haven’t read the novel by Peter Ackroyd this film was based on, but based on Mr. Ackroyd’s previous work (Hawksmoor) I have to assume something went terribly wrong in the translation from book to screen. The year is 1880, and the Limehouse section of London has been rocked by a series of bizarre unrelated murders by a killer who designates himself as the Limehouse Golem, after murdering a rabbi who was studying the Golem of legend when he was struck down.

   Inspector Kildare of Scotland Yard is assigned to the case with Constable Flood (Daniel Mays) and a quote by the Golem from Thomas de Quincey’s book Murder as a Fine Art leads them to the British Library, where the book is found defaced by the Golem with his own notes leading to four suspects who had access to the reading room before the murder — Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), a musical comic and social commentator who performs in drag; John Cree {Sam Reid), a journalist and failed playwright who was recently poisoned and whose wife, former music hall star Lizzie (Olivia Cooke) Leno’s protegee, is on trial for his murder; Karl Marx; and, Victorian novelist George Gissing, the latter two providing brief and pointless cameos and filler as each suspect gets a scene as the supposed killer (I suspect Ackroyd used them to show the political and social unrest and injustice of the era in the novel since that was what both men were known for, but here they serve only as unconvincing red herrings and in Gissing’s case a visit to a Limehouse Opium den).

   Kildare soon becomes convinced that Cree is the killer, and that he can save Cree’s wife from the gallows if he can obtain a handwriting sample from the dead man and win sympathy for her as the wife who poisoned the Golem, but Cree destroyed all his own papers before his death and Lizzie Is curiously unwilling to be helped. A sample of Cree’s handwriting is the McGuffin the plot turns on, and source of one of the plots major twists (which is spelled out so obviously that I cannot imagine they expected anyone not to notice).

   Before going any further I should mention most of the cast is outstanding, especially Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth in the most demanding and theatrical roles. I wish I could say the same of Bill Nighy, an actor whose work I have greatly enjoyed elsewhere, but to call this performance one note would assume he ever achieves an actual tonal quality as Kildare. Even rushing to prevent an execution he can’t muster much.

   Poor man obviously read the screenplay.

   Some effort is made at providing a fair play solution, with red herrings presented, misdirection staged, and only a few plot contrivances to string the viewer along (with handwriting samples vital to their case the investigators drag their heels collecting the easiest of those needed because it would eliminate an attractive suspect thus making it all the easier for the viewer to figure out who did it — as if anyone didn’t early on).

   And there lies one of the film’s problems. While scrupulously providing red herrings and misdirection the script has also been showing us the killer’s motive, nature, and personality so clearly that when the big twist comes it is no twist at all — you will have figured it out long before the detectives do, and killed the big reveal that is supposed to be the major plot element. Frankly I am having trouble even writing the review without giving the game away.

   I’ll grant that the big twist might have fooled audiences even twenty years ago, and certainly in the Victorian period the story is set in, but in 2019 most of us have matured enough to think the once unthinkable, and once you even entertain the idea of the killer’s real identity everything that has gone before makes sense. Worse, if, like me, you caught on fairly early, then everything that happens simply convinces you more to the point you want to yell at Nighy’s character because it is so obvious.

   Not really where you want to be in a mystery.

   There are a few other minor problems from a historical standpoint. The Golem murders are headline grabbing news, yet handed to Kildare who has never investigated a homicide. We know enough about the Yard to know that passing difficult cases off on incompetents wasn’t how things worked. There was great social unrest in London in this period, riots, crime, and terrorism, and the Yard would have moved swiftly as they did eight years later with the Ripper to reassure the city. Abberline, who investigated the Ripper may have been a drunk, but he was a drunk with a reputation for solving crimes.

   Novelist or no, there is a point you have to nod to reality. In addition both Kildare and Flood are gay, and fairly openly so. I am not arguing there were no gay inspectors or constables, but this was a period when the Yard was raiding male brothels (at one point embarrassing the Royal family and government by capturing an heir to the crown in one) and persecuting gays and I would have to see some historical evidence that gay men were openly tolerated in the Metropolitan Police in this period. The idea of the barely closeted Kildare and the fairly open Flood (at least they are in the film) being tolerated in that environment much less assigned a sensitive case is unlikely, and if the book makes a believable argument for why or how, the film doesn’t bother. And there lies another problem, since I suspect a lot of dotted i’s and crossed t’s in Ackroyd’s book got left on the cutting room floor in lieu of sensationalism and melodrama.

   Many of my problems with the film are likely dealt with in the novel in light of Ackroyd’s known literary skills.

   It’s just one of several things in the film that work against the important suspension of disbelief needed in any film and especially in one with a historical setting. I’m far from a stickler about these things, but when they interfere with story logic they do bother me, and I know Ackroyd, an expert on this era and a fine novelist and biographer, knows better leading me to suspect the screenwriter and director just didn’t bother.

   The film is handsomely produced, and there is a certain underlying intelligence and literacy. There is brief nudity and quite a bit of gore as well as some disturbing scenes but nothing too gratuitous. The glimpse of musical hall life in Victorian London and the few bits of performances and plays are the best of the film, and you share young Lizzie’s euphoria on stage with her, so much so I wish they had dumped the murder mystery and made a film about the Victorian music halls instead.

   I suspect if you see it, you will feel the same.

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD. Amalgamated Productions, UK, 1958. MGM, US, 1962. Boris Karloff (Dr. Thomas Bolton), Betta St. John, Finlay Currie, Francis Matthews, Adrienne Corri, Francis de Wolff, Christopher Lee. Screenplay: Jean Scott Rogers. Director: Robert Day.

   In spite of the title, not so much a horror movie as it is a fictional docudrama of the early attempts to find a means of making surgery free of pain. The horror of these efforts comes in imagining, for example, having your leg amputated while you are strapped down and awake on the operating table, while a small auditorium of onlookers cheer the doctor on.

   Spurred on by seeing a former patient begging in the street with half a leg and half a mind as the direct result of one of his operations, famed surgeon Thomas Bolton is determined to do something about it. To this end and for the chemicals he needs, he finds himself swapping false death certificates to a local den of thieves who specialize in selling cadavers to the local hospital. (Christopher Lee plays one of the henchmen in the gang, a bloodthirsty chap named Resurrection Joe.)

   As you might expect, Boris Karloff as the beleaguered doctor is the star of the show, but so is the setting and the sharp and clear black-and-white photography. Any chills sneaking up and down your spine are only in your mind, and what could be worse than that?


WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY. Cineriz, Italy, 1961, released as Lycanthropus; MGM, US, 1963. Barbara Lass, Carl Schell, Curt Lowens, Maureen O’Connor, Maurice Marsac. Director: Paolo Heusch.

   Not nearly as salacious as the title would indicate, Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory is a surprisingly well-constructed Gothic horror movie. An Italian production featuring an international cast, the movie feels as if it’s an off-kilter amalgam of 1930s Universal Studios monster films, West German Edgar Wallace films, and early 1960s black and white horror cinema.

   Sure, it’s schlocky. But it’s undoubtedly effective in creating a claustrophobic setting in which a werewolf preys upon persons associated with a reformatory for girls who have gotten in trouble with bourgeois morality and the law.

   The trouble begins when Julian Olcott (Carl Schell) young, handsome physician is hired to teach science classes to the girls. Although the girls don’t know it, he has a shady past. Something about a young girl’s mysterious death at his last place of employment in Burlington, Vermont. But he’s seemingly a good guy and gets along well enough with the headmaster (Curt Lowens).

   Within his first week of being on campus, there’s a sudden brutal murder. One of the girls, who seemingly was blackmailing a faculty member over their illicit love affair, is mauled to death. Some suspect the groundskeeper. Others suspect a wolf in the forest. Even the police inspector is puzzled.

   Olcott teams up with one of his students, the inquisitive Priscilla (Barbara Lass) to investigate the strange happenings. Could it be that a werewolf is behind the mayhem? And what, if any, is Olcott’s connection to the deaths? After all, his field of scientific research prior to his employ at the school was (wait for it) lycanthropy.

   Now I’m not going to try to sell you on this film. It’s not for everyone. What it does, though, it does well enough to hold a viewer’s attention. I also think there’s also a strange undercurrent of sadness throughout the proceedings, a Central European fatalism that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I read the biographies of two of the leads. Barbara Lass was born Barbara Kwiatkowska-Lass in German-occupied Poland and was Roman Polanski’s first wife. Curt Lowens, who portrays the headmaster, was a German Jew who survived the Holocaust in hiding and went on to a lengthy acting career in which he often portrayed German soldiers.

   Maybe it’s there, maybe it’s not. But I felt as if both of these two actors conveyed, even if unintentionally, a certain world weariness, one that is difficult to put in words, but capable of being seen if one knows where to look.

         Tuesday, February 10.

DEATH SHIP. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1980. George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid. Director: Alvin Rakoff. [Watched on HBO.]

   I’m not too sure why I watched this. It’s not the sort of thing I am usually interested in at all. Maybe it’s because I like to warch George Kennedy in action as an actor.

   He’s in top form in this one. He plays a cruise ship capyain on his last voyage before being forcibly retired. He doesn’t get on at all well with either passengers or crew.

   But then the cruise liner is attacked and sunk by a huge hulk of a ship running circular patterns in the Atlantic totally unmanned — this is the “death ship.” Kennedy, plus his soon-to-be replacement (Richard Crenna) and a few others, including Crenna’s wife and two young children, are rescued, is that’s the word, by the killer ship.

   The movie is scary, all right, but it helps that the new passengers are dumber than you can possibly imagine. Even after two of the party have been killed off, in fairly gruesome fashion, they allow themselves to become separated and even easier prey.

   Eventually they discover that the boat had been a Nazi (of course) interrogation ship, and it is full of torture rooms, corpses, some complete, some not; only pieces of bodies, and lots and lots of cobwebs.

   Kennedy makes a fine Nazi. Why the ship turns against him and allows Crenna and his family to escape is not explained. For that matter, nothing is explained.

   Rated R, and if you don’t know why, you haven’t been paying attention. There is some nudity as well, but if you were to watch this movie and found it sexually stimulating, I would really prefer not to know you.


   Coming up on HBO this month are some more of the same: Humanoids from the Deep, The Legacy, Thirst (about vampires) and Silent Scream. I don’t plan on watching any of them [Nor did I.]


THE TERROR WITHIN. Concorde Pictures, 1989. George Kennedy, Andrew Stevens, Starr Andreeff, Terri Treas, John LaFayette, Tommy Hinckley. Director: Thierry Notz.

   Is this low-budget exploitation schlock, a wry homage to David Cronenberg and body horror cinema, or something that was deliberately made so it could be marketed for the late 1980s VHS market? Maybe it’s all three. For that’s the best way in which to describe The Terror Within. A movie that, at its core, is an unmistakably derivative post-apocalyptic science fiction/horror mash-up and that shamelessly borrows from such notable horror movies as Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). At its best, it attempts to channel those films’ main themes in a manner that’s at least vaguely entertaining.

   Both of these aforementioned films notably involved scenarios in which otherworldly — and decidedly unwelcome — beings ensconced themselves within human hosts’ bodies. Because that’s the main thrust of what happens in this Roger Corman-produced feature that had only a limited theatrical release.

   Set in the Mojave Desert after a biological weapons catastrophe that has wiped out the vast majority of humanity, the film follows the efforts of a small group of scientists holed up in an underground bunker while busy researching the effects the catastrophe had on their ecosystem. As you might well imagine, all is not well in this depopulated wasteland. The fallout has created a new race of mutants commonly referred to as gargoyles.

    Not only are they hideous, with the obligatory sharp teeth and guttural sounds, but they also have the capacity to impregnate human female hosts. It’s when a pregnant female survivor makes her way to the scientists’ bunker that the real trouble begins. I don’t think I’m giving away that much of what follows when I say that a mutant child is born and that little bugger grows up real fast. Judging the way it behaves in the bunker, you would think it had been raised by wolves.


THE PHANTOM SPEAKS. Republic, 1945. Richard Arlen, Stanley Ridges, Lynne Roberts, Tom Powers and Charlotte Wynters. Written by John K. Butler. Directed by John English.

THE MAN WITH TWO LIVES. Monogram, 1942. Edward Norris, Addison Richards, Marlo Dwyer, Eleanor Lawson, and Edward Keane. Written by Joseph Hoffman. Directed by Phil Rosen.

   Back in 1940, Universal made BLACK FRIDAY, which you may read about here. It’s about a gangster resurrected in the brain and body of a respectable professor (Stanley Ridges) and I have nothing to add to that review except that the story itself was resurrected twice by other studios.

   PHANTOM SPEAKS is the most obvious crib, with plot trajectory, minor details and characters lifted directly from the earlier film. More to the point, Stanley Ridges repeats his role as the gentle man of learning possessed by the spirit of a dead guy — increasing the eerie feeling of a movie come back to haunt us.

   In this case he’s rather asked for it, since he’s doing research into the paranormal and taken the logical (in spooky movies) step of contacting a killer on Death Row (Tom Powers, who was memorably offed by Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) and urging him to make contact from the beyond. Ridges makes himself receptive to Powers’ spirit, then finds the dead man’s will too strong to resist, sending us into BLACK FRIDAY territory, right up to a gritty ending back on Death Row, where the earlier film ended up as well.

   All this is directed with more energy and finesse that it deserves by John English, Republic’s serial ace, who throws in some noirish bits and keeps things moving, moving, moving, with the happy result of a film easier to watch & enjoy than you’d think.

   In between times, Monogram stuck in its tawdry oar with THE MAN WITH TWO LIVES, which is at once less polished and more interesting than either PHANTOM SPEAKS or BLACK FRIDAY.

   In this case, Edward Norris plays one of those bright young men you see in the movies, unfortunate enough to get run over by a car (another nod to BLACK FRIDAY) and killed outright. Fortunately for him and the story, his dad knows a doctor who has been experimenting with resuscitating dead animals, and he persuades his old buddy to have a go at sonny boy.

   The experiment succeeds, but just at that moment, a nasty gangster is executed for his crimes, and his spirit…. well you figured that out. This Monogram film is a shabby take-off on BLACK FRIDAY, but considerably grittier, with Norris taking over the dead man’s gang, bedding his floozy and leading the boys on an abortive heist that turns deadly.

    There’s even a bit of intelligent writing and deft playing in a tense cat-and-mouse exchange, with Norris holding a gun on the police detective (Addison Richards) who has him surrounded, each trying to talk his way around the other with an eye out for the main chance.

   All of which does very little to dispel the feeling of cheap imitation that was a hallmark at Monogram: the sets are shabby, the camera work perfunctory, and the direction largely absent. Yet I find myself fascinated by the notion that BLACK FRIDAY, like its monster, never really died.

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