Horror movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP. PRC, 1946. Rosemary La Planche, Robert Barrat, Blake Edwards, and Charles Middleton. Written & directed by Frank Wisbar

FÄHRMANN MARIA. Pallas Film, Germany, 1936. Title translates to “Ferryman Maria.” Sybille Schmitz, Aribert Mog, Peter Voß, and Carl de Vogt. Written & directed by Frank Wysbar.

   The last German expressionist film before the Nazis took over, remade as a fitfully memorable little ghost story from the cheapest studio in Hollywood.

   To start with the remake, Charles “Ming” Middleton plays the ghost of ferryman Douglas, who was hanged on perjured testimony sometime before the film started. This, along with most of the rest of the plot, is conveyed in dull but cost-saving dialogue by cast members sitting in a studio mockup of a ferryboat being pulled in front of an obvious backdrop by Douglas’ successor, who scoffs dramatically when they conveniently remind him of Douglas’ dying promise to return and kill his persecutors and their descendants.

   Having brought the audience up to speed (if that word can be applied to this film) the B-movie Greek Chorus departs leaving the new ferryman to be confronted by Charles Middleton in fuzzy double exposure and swiftly dispatched.

   The dead ferryman’s replacement is his daughter-just-back-from-school Maria (Rosemary La Planche) whom the village elders tactfully or prudently refrain from telling about the local onus. When she forms an attachment for a Nice Young Man also under the curse (young Blake Edwards, no less) Middleton starts rattling his chains and the fight is on as Rosemary tries to put the ghost to rest and save the man she loves.

   Strangler in the Swamp is never very good, but it is at least consistently interesting. The studio-built swamp has a fine Gothic look to it, and the simple plot works rather nicely against this primitive backdrop. There’s also a well-judged (and incredibly cheap) scene where Rosemary runs through the town hounded by the ghost, and as she approaches each house, doors close in her face and lights go out.

   But the origin of Strangler is no less interesting than the film itself; it’s a loose remake of Fährmann Maria (1936) which Wisbar made in Germany just before coming to America. And the differences between the two films drop some interesting clues as to why Wisbar had to leave the country.

   In Fährmann, it’s not a vengeful ghost, but Death himself who preys on the little country village and kills its ferryman. Maria (Sybil Schmitz, a sensuous actress who also starred in Dreyer’s Vampyre) is a woman — possibly of questionable background, my German isn’t that good — who wanders into town looking for work and is hired to replace the ferryman by the kindly local Burgermeister. She quickly falls for a handsome young local, who falls back, but it seems he has a prior commitment with Death. And, as in the remake, Maria has to save him by herself.

   Standard Death-and-the-Maiden stuff so far, albeit photographed quite nicely on real locations, as opposed to Strangler’s set-bound atmospherics. But the kicker comes in Wisbar’s canny personification of Death.

   Death first appears as an elderly, lantern-jawed man in a priest’s cassock. But as the film progresses, this outfit subtly changes from scene to scene: death now wears a tunic with a high collar; then we notice flat epaulets and nipped-in waist; finally, the pants look more like riding breeches with jack boots.

   Any resemblance between Death’s eventual look and the fashion statement espoused by certain political groups sweeping to popularity in Germany in 1935 is understated, but there to be seen, particularly as Death is assisted in one scene by identically dressed men on white chargers, accompanied by military music. There’s even a telling moment when Death comes to the Village to take Maria. The villagers start to rally in outrage at losing their ferryman, but are ultimately cowed into submission.

   Obviously, a film like this wasn’t going to score a lot of points with the Powers that Were in the Reich, so Wisbar found it prudent to head west, where he found gainful employment at El Cheapo (pardon me, PRC) Studios till war’s end. Others here have noted his eventual success in Television, but his bottom-scrapers at PRC always seemed to me to have a haunting beauty sadly overlooked by film historians. Strangler in the Swamp has been called “PRC’s finest hour” but it’s actually just the most obvious example of the care and artistry Wisbar brought with him as a refugee to these shores.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD. Schneider-Filmverleih, West Germany, 1964. Also released as Night of the Vampires. Original title: Der Fluch der grünen Augen. Adrian Hoven, Erika Remberg, Carl Möhner, Wolfgang Preiss, Karin Field. Director: Ákos Ráthonyi.

    Cave of the Living Dead , a West German-Yugoslav production, is a pretty standard vampire movie that checks all the boxes and uses all the tropes. Let’s see. You’ve got an urbane police inspector skeptical of the supernatural, superstitious peasants, an array of beautiful women (some undead, some not), and an eccentric professor living high up in a castle. And of course, some unexplained mysterious deaths.

   But for all its schlock, this movie is actually a lot of fun. Part of it comes from its mashup of genres. What starts off as a pulpy detective yarn in which a big city inspector is sent to the backwoods of Yugoslavia to investigate a series of murders slowly reveals itself to be a supernatural yarn about sultry female vampires.

   Although not a particularly graphic film in terms of violence or gore, Cave is drenched in atmosphere. Filmed in black and white with a lot of natural light courtesy of candles or torches, this somewhat obscure horror film exudes a neo-Universal Horror classics aesthetic. It transports the viewer into its own claustrophobic village world.

   True, the dialogue is hardly sophisticated. And the plot often runs around in circles. But if you are looking for a unique Halloween month viewing, this one, which I personally watched on DVD, is worth a look.


    “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:


COMMENTS BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


    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.



COMMENTS BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


   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.


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

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?


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


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.]


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