Horror movies


   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.


THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL. Hammer Films, UK, 1960. Also released in the US as House of Fright and Jekyll’s Inferno. Based on the 1886 novella “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Paul Massie (Dr. Henry Jekyll / Mr. Edward Hyde), Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee, David Kossoff, Norma Marla, Francis De Wolff, Joy Webster. Director: Terence Fisher.

   Hammer’s The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll isn’t a particularly good film, but it’s one I’d nevertheless recommend watching. Not so much for the screenplay or the direction – both competent but no more – but for the production design and the aesthetic, the sets that don’t remotely look like sets, the color scheme, the sense of otherworldliness.

   These, as much as the acting, are what make Hammer Films worth viewing. Somehow, on their somewhat limited budgets, the studio was able to create overtly theatrical horror dramas that unfolded as much in deeply saturated colors as in dialogue.

   This adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella about the duality of man is no exception. If neither Paul Massie, who portrays both Jekyll and Hyde, nor Christopher Lee, who portrays a friend to both men, deliver supremely memorable performances, that isn’t to say that there isn’t other things happening on screen to keep the viewers attention for the duration.

   There are a few scenes set at a London nightclub called The Sphinx that are beautifully executed and lavishly designed. Similarly, there’s a short montage sequence in which Mr. Hyde visits the seedy side of town, making an appearance at a fight club and later at an opium den. But these are unfortunately few and far between in what is basically a rather talky movie that doesn’t do the material justice.


INVISIBLE GHOST. Monogram, 1941. Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, John McGuire, Clarence Muse, and Betty Compson. Written by Helen Martin and Al Martin. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis.

   Not a good movie by any means, but a better one than you might expect, thanks to some subtle work at the margins by Director Lewis and writer Helen Martin.

   Reviewers who tackle this one describe the plot as indescribable, then go on and try to describe it, so instead of that, I’ll just give a quick description:

   As the story opens, Middle-aged Charles Kessler (The writers seem not to have noticed that Lugosi was Hungarian.) sits in his big lonely mansion, still pining for his absent wife (Compson) who ran off years ago with his best friend. It turns out though that she didn’t run very far; Bela’s bosom buddy was killed in a car crash that gave his wife (Betty Compson) amnesia, and for years she has secretly lived somewhere about the grounds, hidden and cared for by the gardener (?!) lo these many years.

   It also seems that from time to time the Mad Missus gets out of the cellar to go lurking around the yard, and whenever Kessler sees her, it puts him in a hypnotic trance and he gotta go out and kill somebody.

   Got that?

   Okay, so like I say, as the story starts there have been maybe a half-dozen murders in and around the Kessler Manse, and we get another one pretty quick – a maid who was once involved with Ralph (John McGuire), the boyfriend of Kessler’s daughter; surprisingly, the writers hint very subtly that she may have been pregnant with his child.

   At any rate, Kessler strangles her, Ralph gets convicted of her murder (Déjà-vu for McGuire, who suffered a similar fate in Stranger on the 3rd Floor the previous year.) and is executed, whereupon his twin brother (also McGuire) turns up chez Kessler to find out whodunit.

   At this point the writers have strained logic and credulity well beyond the breaking point, so I won’t detail any more plot, but I will say that there are glimmers of real creativity in this mess.

   Joseph H. Lewis was a director who could be counted on to add style to anything he worked on, from The Singing Outlaw (1937) to the legendary Gun Crazy (1950), and while he can’t do anything with the leaden illogic of the story, he throws in some flashy camera angles and lighting effects, and actually gets a very naturalistic performance out of Lugosi when he’s not killing anyone — I like Bela, but underplaying was never his forte.

   Even more remarkably marginal is the butler Evans, played by Clarence Muse. Muse was one of the few black actors of his time who brought dignity to every role he had, and he delivers it here with assurance. Whether chiding the (white) maid for gossiping about their employers, or just shooting a knowing look when the cops start interrogating him, he projects an intelligence far above the plot at hand.

   Part of this may have been the co-writing of Helen Martin. I haven’t been able to corroborate this, but IMDB identifies her as the same Helen Martin who helped found the American Negro Theater and appeared on Orson Welles’ stage production of Native Son before going on to a lengthy career as a character actress in films and television.

   This would fit. Clarence Muse himself was a Black Activist and helped found the Harlem Lafayette Theater about the same time Martin was working with Welles. And the writing and playing of his Black Servant part is far more intelligent and subtle than any other comparable part in the movies of its time.

   To see what I mean, you have only to consider the scene where he encounters John McGuire as the dead man’s twin and speculate on how skilled comic performers like Mantan Moreland or Willie Best would have handled it. Then look at how Muse does it: a subtle double-take, then he calmly announces the visitor, walks calmly to the kitchen and quietly asks the cook, ”Do I look pale?”

   Moments like this aren’t enough to keep Invisible Ghost from being a very bad film indeed, but they help make it a very memorable one anyway.

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