Horror movies


Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE GHOST BREAKERS. Paramount Pictures, 1940. Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Anthony Quinn, Willie Best, Virginia Brissac, Noble Johnson, Tom Dugan, Paul Fix, Lloyd Corrigan Screenplay Walter DeLeon, based on a play by Paul Dickey Director: George Marshall.

   If you asked me to list the ten best comedy-mystery films of the Golden Age of Cinema there are certain films that could not be left off the list, The Thin Man, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, The Cat and the Canary, My Favorite Blonde … But there is only one film that could be in the number one spot, the perfect blend of comedy, mystery, and scares, The Ghost Breakers.

   It wasn’t a new story then. It had been filmed twice before in the silent era and was based on a play that had also been novelized (it’s available as a free e-book), and it would be filmed again with Martin and Lewis as Scared Stiff (1953), but when you find the perfect cast, directors, and script — helped along to no small extent by Bob Hope’s army of gag writers — familiarity is a small problem.

   Bob Hope is radio star Laurence (Larry) Lawrence in this one. His middle name is Laurence too: “My parents had no imagination.” Larry does a radio show in which he uses his contacts in the underworld, namely Raspy Kelly (Tom Dugan), to get the inside dope on racketeers. When he reveals gangster Frenchie Duval (Paul Fix) is running a diaper service racket and not cutting his men and partners in on it, Frenchie is unhappy and invites Larry over to ‘talk.’

   It’s the night of a spectacular thunder storm (“Basil Rathbone must be having a party.”) that keeps knocking the power out which will further complicate things, but the station assures Bob they have auxiliary power and the show will go on.

       Receptionist to Bob: “You were great tonight, in your own opinion.”

       Bob, taken aback with no comeback: “I’m working on it.”

   Larry was going on vacation after the show, but not as far as he fears Frenchie will send him.

   Staying at the same hotel is Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard), who has inherited an island off Cuba known as Black Island on which stands the old slave castle Castillo Maldito once owned by her ancestor Don Santiago — who doesn’t care to vacate the place it seems. Anyone who goes there save the old black woman caretaker (Virginia Brissac) and her zombie son (Noble Johnson in terrific makeup) dies.

   Paul Lukas is Mr. Parada who wants to buy the place for $50,000, but when Ramon Mederos (Anthony Quinn) calls and warns her against selling she pulls back. She’s sailing for Cuba that night and might as well see what she owns.

   Larry and his man Alex (Willie Best in one of his best roles) show up at the hotel with Larry packing Alex gun, and on the 14th floor Larry, Mederos, and Parada come together. Mederos is killed and Larry thinks he did it so he ducks into Mary’s room and she takes pity on him.

   Larry hides in her trunk and ends up in her stateroom sailing for Cuba when the police search her room and her trunk is loaded to take to the dock.

   There is a classic bit on the dock as Alex hunts among the myriad trunks for the one Larry is in.

       To policeman: “I used to be a porter, I just love trunks.”

   It gets even better when a drunk becomes convinced Alex is a ventriloquist when he hears Larry in the trunk.

   Once on board Alex informs Larry he couldn’t have shot Maderos because the gun is the wrong caliber, but by then Larry notices Goddard is in trouble and despite himself he decides to go to Cuba with her to investigate Black Island; though he might regret that a bit when someone tries to drop a fire bucket full of sand on his head on the foggy deck.

   Ghosts or not, there is a very real killer lurking in the shadows.

   In short order they end up in Cuba where Goddard meets an old friend who lives there, Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson), and he joins the quest to help her, but that night when he takes Goddard to a local club she realizes Larry and Alex have gone to the island ahead to protect her. She determines to go too, but before she can leave meets the threatening Francisco Mederos (Quinn playing twins). Once he is gone she decides to swim to the island despite the sharks and see for herself leaving a note for Geoff that Mederos spots and reads as well.

   And once on the island, they are all in for a surprise or two.

   The film moves at a clip, joke on top of scare on top of clever line on top of intriguing mystery. It never stops to breathe or let you, or let you worry if any t’s are left uncrossed and i’s undotted. (Lloyd Corrigan keeps appearing running into Mary but we never find out who he is or what his role was.) Hope and Goddard had previously starred in the hit The Cat and the Canary (another remake) which is why Ghost Breakers got made in the first place.

   A word has to be said about Willie Best in this film, because without him, much of this would not work. I suppose to be politically correct it must be mentioned the role is a common stereotype of the era as is Noble Johnson’s part as the zombie. I can understand why that might interfere with some people’s enjoyment of the film, but beyond that, and making no apologies for the prejudices of the time period, Willie Best, one of the best light support comics of his era, is every bit Bob Hope’s equal in this exchanging quips and punch lines as brightly and cleverly as Bob. He is no more cowardly than Bob, and his reactions are just as funny. Compare this to the more offensive similar role he plays in The Smiling Ghost, and you will see what I mean.

   It really is a pleasure to watch them playing off each other in this. They are much more a team here than the usual black supporting character of the era is in other films. He may play a servant, but he is every bit Bob’s equal in every scene, and the two characters show real affection and respect for each other while exchanging smart lines and gentle barbs. Even the few racial jokes are less offensive than most.

   The scenes at Castillo Maldito are the film’s highlight, and Marshall milks them for all they are worth, with specters, an organ that plays itself, secret passages, cobwebs on cobwebs, and one stunning moment when Goddard descends the staircase dressed in her ancestors black gown to the shock of zombie Johnson. There are some genuine frissons in these scenes of a type that won’t be seen again on screen until The Univited, a serious ghost story.

   You know this will all work out, the mystery of Black Island and Castillo Maldito will be solved and the killer revealed, and as you have to expect from the beginning there is at least one final kicker, but this is easily the best of a great tradition, and one of the rare perfect films ever made. There isn’t a single false step in it. No gag falls flat, no scene plays false including a punny bit where Bob and Goddard are trying to unscare each other with phony British airs while dancing and exchanging awful puns and word play. This would not work at all with almost anyone else, but these two have it down pat, and you can see the mischief in both their eyes. You have to know that scene was broken up numerous times by Bob and Paulette getting more risque than the censors would allow on screen.

   The Ghost Breakers is funny when it is supposed to be funny, and it is scary when it is supposed to be scary, and it sometimes manages to be both at once. There is even a pretty good clue which hadn’t been quite so over used in film then, though it was pretty old hat in books long before that.

   I first saw this around age ten and I recall it was pretty scary then. Less so now of course, but I still appreciate the art that goes into it, and every time I watch it I see something new in the three main characters performances: Hope, Goddard, and Best are the reason to watch this film and the three divide the pleasures surprisingly equally. They are reason enough to watch this one, even if it wasn’t the perfect model of its type.

   But don’t misunderstand, I am saying unequivocally that The Ghost Breakers is the best comedy mystery Hollywood ever made. There is everything else and then there is The Ghost Breakers.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


  OUANGA. George Terwilliger Productions, 1936. Also released as Drums of the Jungle and The Love Wanga. Fredi Washington, Philip Brandon, Marie Paxton, Sheldon Leonard. Written & directed by George Terwilliger.

   Most critics agree that the story behind this movie is more interesting than the film itself, but I found Ouanga possessed of a unique charm that kept me watching and even enjoying it.

   The plot is a simple affair, and writer/director Terwilliger had the sense to keep it that way. Clelie (Fredi Washington) is a Haitian plantation owner of mixed race, in love with the neighboring and very white planter Adam Maynard.

   The script hints that their relationship has been more than neighborly, but as the story starts, Adam is bringing his fiancée to the island and it ain’t Clelie — it’s whey-faced blonde Eve Langley, whom Clelie decides to kill with voodoo magic. And plot-wise that’s really about it, except that Clelie herself is pursued by mixed-race overseer LeStrange (Sheldon Leonard) who has his own murderous way of dealing with unrequited love.

   The story has a spare, allegorical feel to it, even down to the names of the putative hero and heroine (Adam & Eve) and the garden-like setting of the action. There’s also a fine dichotomy between the frank passion of the native peoples and the pallid complacency of their white counterparts. Terwilliger seems to enjoy cutting between vigorous folk ceremonies and tepid garden parties—and the passion in the clinches of Clelie and LeStrange quite overshadows the perfunctory romance of hero and heroine.

   Terwilliger, obviously influenced by William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island, went to Haiti to film authentic Voodoo ceremonies and did a lot of research for this film, but he got chased out by the local witch doctors, who killed a member of his crew.

   He ended up filming in Jamaica under primitive conditions and the result is terribly crude, but I found it oddly powerful as well — if you can get past the bad script, bad acting and laughable stunt-work. The Voodoo scenes here have a primitive and suitably awed quality to them such as I have seen nowhere else, as if the filmmaker were trying to convey to us something of his own dread and wonderment.

   Ouanga ended up being largely ignored by the public and shunted off by its distributors as an exploitation show, and frankly it deserved no better. But for those who can look past its incredible ineptitude, this in a unique and haunting bit of work.

   As a footnote, writer/producer/director George Terwilliger is something of a mysterious figure in the movies. An authentic pioneer of the cinema, he worked with D.W.Griffith and stayed busy in the silent era, but there’s a ten-year gap between his last silent film in 1926 and the appearance of Ouanga.

   Afterwards, the screenplay of this film was recycled into an all-black movie, The Devil’s Daughter (1939) but Terwilliger himself never made another film. He died in 1970.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. Universal International, 1959. Starring Eric Fleming, Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley, Bruce Gordon. Written & directed by Edward Dein.

   What could have been a campy disaster emerges as an off-beat effort with some memorable moments. Not a complete success, but much better than you’d expect from a Vampire Western.

   Things start quickly, with writer/director Dein showing off a fine sense of pace as a young lady dies mysteriously with (you guessed it) bite-marks on her neck — an escaping demon suggested by a shade flapping violently in the bedroom window, in a neat bit of understatement.

   From here we move on to some typical Western range-war dramatics, but no range itself, as if the budget couldn’t be stretched to include any wide open spaces. Or maybe Dein just wanted to keep things creepy and claustrophobic in this town-bound gothic.

   Whatever the case, the stock characters hang around saloon and offices going through their usual paces, with the Big Rancher pushing on the smaller ones, the Sheriff standing tough in the middle, the hot-head edging towards a showdown, and pious Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) trying to keep everyone above ground and unperforated while casting eyes on the local Rancher’s Daughter (Kathleen Crowley.)

   (PARENTHETICAL NOTE: A critic once pointed out that B westerns are rife with ranchers and ranchers’ daughters, but a positive dearth of ranch moms — either life on the prairie was hard on a woman, or else it was just too much bother and expense to hire another actress.)

   Things don’t have time to get dull before the mysterious stranger we’ve been expecting all along shows up in a memorable moment, rearing his horse in the moonlight in spooky slow motion. And it’s not long after that till he makes himself known to the locals as a sinister gun-for-hire in a scary shoot-out, which is one of those scenes I said you’d remember.

   The ghoulish gunman is played very ably by Michael Pate, an Aussie with a lean-and-thirsty look typed as a bad guy in Hollywood but capable of much broader range. In Curse he comes off as equal parts Cowboy and Creep: lean, graceful, and suggesting a certain complexity of character ably conveyed in a script that paints him more love-lorn than blood-thirsty but nonetheless deadly.

   Curse proceeds to ride a tricky trail between the conventions of the horror film and the clichés of the B-western. There’s a bit too much talk at times, but things finish off with a nifty round-up combining the best of both genres: When Preacher and Demon face each other on a dusty street, we pretty much know what’s going to happen — but how it happens, is immensely satisfying for fans of monsters and cowboys.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE INVISIBLE RAY. Universal Pictures, 1936. [Boris] Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   The Invisible Ray is a science fiction/horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as rival scientists. To no one’s surprise, Karloff’s the completely mad one and he’s out for revenge.

   And when it comes to B-film genre film tropes, this one’s got even more than just a mad scientist. It’s got forbidden love, cosmic rays from beyond space and time, a Carpathian castle, African tribesmen, a blind old woman, a Parisian Gothic setting, betrayal, revenge, and murder. All in less than ninety minutes. Did I mention it’s one the strangest films I’ve ever seen?

   Karloff portrays Dr. Janos Rukh, a creepy looking scientist who lives in his Carpathian home/laboratory with his blind mother (Violet Kemble-Cooper). Rukh has invented a telescope that allows him to see so far into space that he can see Earth’s ancient past.

   And one of the things he sees is pretty amazing – a meteor that crashed into Africa some millions of years ago. So Rukh, along with his wife Diana (Frances Drake), rival scientist Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton), Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) and his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), head out to Africa to find the giant rock and to do some experiments.

   Or something. It’s not exactly clear.

   What is clear, however, is that Rukh finds the meteor remnants and becomes poisoned by them. He calls his discovery Radium X because the meteor is an element out of this world! He ends up glowing in the dark and develops the ability to kill people with his touch. (Just go with it.) Benet (Lugosi) gives Rukh an antidote and they’re off back to Europe.

   But what happens in Africa doesn’t always stay in Africa. Rukh’s wife Diana has fallen in love with one of the expedition members, the boyish Drake. So Rukh stalks around in the Parisian fog and kills some poor sap that happens to look like him (although he really doesn’t) and fakes his own death, allowing his wife to marry Drake. Then he goes on a killing-and-revenge spree. The Stevens couple and Benet are the first to go. Rukh also uses an invisible ray, powered by Radium X, to destroy sculptures.

   If it all sounds both convoluted and ridiculous, that’s because it is. The movie tries to pack in tons of science fiction concepts into one movie, making it feel as if it’s really about four different short films in one tidy Karloff and Lugosi package.

   But that’s not to say that it’s not entertaining, because in a way it is. It’s just not one of Karloff’s, or Lugosi’s, best movies. Not by a long shot. But if you happen to watch The Invisible Ray with no expectations, preferably after midnight, you might just find yourself relishing the utter ridiculousness of it all.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE MIGHTY GORGA. American General Pictures, 1969. Starring Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady and Bruce Kimball. Written and directed by David L. Hewitt.

   Required viewing for bad movie buffs, this ranks right up there with Mesa of Lost Women and Robot Monster. Unlike those alternative classics, Mighty Gorga is in color, but that doesn’t help much — you can still see it.

   Anthony Eisley, once a star on network TV (Hawaiian Eye) stars as a circus owner fallen on hard times (not unlike the actor himself) who journeys to Africa in search of Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams, who can lead him to a legendary-jungle-monster-cum-boffo-box-office-attraction. Africa in this case appears to be the woods behind somebody’s back yard and the familiar landscape of Bronson Canyon, the perennial location of B westerns, here augmented by the sounds of jungle wildlife on the soundtrack: exotic birds (Bop-ooop-ooop-whaah-whaah-whaah!) lions and elephants, never seen but gamely referred to by the assorted players looking off-screen.

   It turns out Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams has been missing since the last safari; not to fear, though: his comely daughter (Megan Timothy) is running things in his absence, despite sabotage from a competing Great White Hunter, played by Scott Brady. Driven to desperate measures, Tony and Megan trek off into the ersatz jungle, guided by Tonga Jack’s treasure map.

   (Incidentally, Brady’s sabotage consists of setting fire to April’s animal compound, which might have been more convincing had the scenes matched up: he sets his fire at night and the characters react to it in the daytime — just a hint of things to come.)

   Writer/Director Hewitt ratchets up the tension (?) by cutting away frequently to scenes of the giant ape Gorga plodding amok through the jungle (?) terrorizing a native village that seems to be built of bamboo screens and 4’ x 8” plywood sheets, and it’s fitting to put in a word here about the monster: The Mighty Gorga is played mostly by someone in the top half of a really bad gorilla suit, with immobile features and cute button eyes. I say “top half” because we only get to see The Mighty G from the waist up, photographed from low-angles with bushes (standing in for tree-tops) in the foreground to attempt the illusion of height. Nice try.

   Anyway, our trepid explorers finally meet up with Mister G just in time to see him fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a burst of truly deplorable special effects. The T-Rex is represented by a plastic toy resembling a Pez Head, and for the fight scenes The Mighty Gorga is played by a hand puppet (his stunt double?) and his only visible wound is to get a splinter in his finger, which is removed by our plucky heroine, thus earning the monster’s undying gratitude, and there’s a lesson here for all of us, if we only look for it.

   Well, I know you’re all anxious to hear how this all comes out for yourselves, and I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say that Great White Hunter Tonga Jack is reunited with his daughter, they find the lost treasure (which looks like stuff from the clearance bin in the “Everything-for-a-Dollar” store) romance blossoms, the volcano explodes and—damn, I gave away the ending, didn’t I? Oh well, these reviews can’t all be gems of critical insight.

   But to conclude on a cheerier note, I should add that the acting in The Mighty Gorga is mostly better than you’d expect. Anthony Eisley, Kent Taylor and Scott Brady had all seen palmier days, but they trudge through this with admirable resolve and not a hint of embarrassment.

   Megan Timothy, who mostly appeared in Russ Meyer films, does the heroine duties capably, and really the only thespic disappointment is Bruce Kimball (star of several 60s skin-flicks) as the Native Medicine Man; decked out in a sarong and Cleopatra wig, he spends the movie summoning the monster with enthusiasm, but seems unable to get the New Yawk out of his voice, resulting in lines like: “Oh, Mighty Gawga, de infidels have come ta steal yoah treashah!” Immortal stuff for fans of bad filmmaking.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MAN MADE MONSTER. Universal, 1941. Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds. Director: George Waggner.

   In the same year that he took on the role of the hapless Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941), Lon Chaney Jr. portrayed Dan McCormick, also a doomed protagonist, in the quasi-Gothic horror film, Man Made Monster. Both movies form part of Universal Studio’s timeless horror canon. George Waggner, who also produced the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera, directed both films, which were released just months apart.

   Man Made Monster and The Wolf Man explore similar themes. A man transformed by powers beyond his control into something hideously monstrous, the duality of good and evil in every man, unrequited love, and the contrast between the pre-modern period of castles, horse-drawn carriages, superstition, and the modern era of automobiles, electricity, and science.

   That said, Man Made Monster is more of a Frankenstein-inspired mad doctor film than a supernatural creature film. Case in point: veteran horror film actor Lionel Atwill is cast as Dr. Paul Rigas, a conniving and creepy scientist who transforms the cringe worthy naïve Dan (Chaney) into an electro-biological murdering fiend. To no one’s likely surprise, Dr. Rigas’s creation develops a mind of his own and eventually ends the evil doctor’s time on Earth.

   Lon Chaney is actually quite good in this film, although not nearly as good as he would be in his skillful portrayal of Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. In Man Made Monster, his character, Dan McCormick, is a carnival entertainer who does tricks with electricity. Soon after the film begins, we see a bus crashing into a power line.

   As it turns out, Dan is the only one to have survived the horrific incident. Apparently, he has built up some sort of immunity to electricity. But he doesn’t really know what the word “immunity” means, leaving us to believe that the guy’s just not all that bright.

   Still, he’s willing to go visit Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) at his laboratory and to take part in some experiments to try to figure out how he survived what should have been a fatal electrocution. I should mention that Dr. Lawrence houses his lab in an estate complex known as The Moors and that Lionell Atwill’s character is a worker in the lab. Once we see him, we all but know Dan’s fate is sealed.

   Early on during his sojourn at The Moors, however, everything seems to be going okay for Dan. He’s living at this somewhat Gothic estate, playing with the Lawrence family dog, and flirting unsuccessfully with Lawrence’s niece/secretary, June (Anne Nagel). Without much success, because she’s otherwise occupied with her emerging love interest, newspaperman Mark Adams (Frank Albertson).

   Soon enough, though, Dr. Rigas demonstrates that he has his own wicked plans for Dan. With Lawrence out of town, Dr. Rigas (Atwill) conducts a series of bizarre experiments on the hapless Dan, transforming him into an electro-biological man-creature hybrid that needs constant bolts of electricity to survive. Rigas wants to create a race of electrically powered men who will be enslaved to men with superior intellects. Men like him. Or something.

   Altogether, Man Made Monster is a well-paced, solid horror movie. It’s not a classic, but it’s quite good. Chaney had some duds in his later years, but in this short little film, he really shows how talented an actor he can be. Watch for the scenes in which his character repeatedly drones the following three words: “I killed him.” The lines are chilling and Chaney delivers them well.

   Also worth looking for is the penultimate scene in which the family dog attempts to revive a dying, or dead, Dan McCormick (Chaney). It’s actually pretty heartbreaking, if you really stop to think about it. In many ways, it’s indicative of what this film’s really about: a scientist with an outsized ego preying upon a simple, cheerful man, dooming them both.

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.

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