Horror movies


THE MUMMY. Universal Pictures, 1932. Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Arthur Byron, Edward Van Sloan, Bramwell Fletcher, Noble Johnson. Director: Karl Freund.

   It’d been a couple of years since I last saw The Mummy, but that was on DVD. Seeing the 1932 Universal film on the big screen, as I had the opportunity to do last weekend, was a particularly enjoyable experience.

   The classic horror film begins with the famous Universal Pictures propeller airplane flying around the Earth (see below), before quickly transitioning into the opening credits set to the hauntingly familiar score taken from Tchiakovsky’s “Swan Lake.” First, the names Carl Laemmle and Boris Karloff, now so familiar to classic movie fans everywhere, appear on the screen. Then soon, the players are introduced and the movie’s narrative begins.

   Directed by Karl Freund, The Mummy not only is a thoroughly enjoyable pre-Code thriller, but it also set the template for mummy and Egyptian supernatural themed movies yet to come. Boris Karloff portrays Imhotep, a resurrected mummy, now lurking about modern Cairo, all in the hopes of bringing his lost love, the princess Ankh-es-en-amon, back to life – or at least a living death! When he encounters the lovely half-British, half-Egyptian Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), he realizes that she is the living reincarnation of his long lost love. What diabolical schemes will the cursed Imhotep come up with so he can reunite with his ancient love!

   An altogether enjoyable film, The Mummy nevertheless progresses at a noticeably slow pace. Indeed, reaction shots interspersed through the film clearly indicate that the movie was produced at a transitional time for commercial cinema when silent films were giving way to talkies. Karloff and Johann, however, have some unique and expressive faces that long reaction shots and close ups only enhance the viewer’s immersion in the story.


THE WHITE REINDEER, Finland, 1952. Original title: Valkoinen peura. Mirjami Kuosmanen and Kalervo Nissila. Written by Erik Blomberg and Mirjami Kuosmanen. Directed by Erik Blomberg.

   Since Writer/Director Blomberg and Writer/Leading-Lady Kuosmanen were married, this is obviously a family project. It’s also quite a memorable film: Not a horror movie (though it’s listed in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia) as much as a grim fairy tale or a spooky folk song.

   I should say for starters that this is set in contemporary Lapland, the northernmost part of Finland, and though there are villages with substantial houses, everyone seems to spend most of their time in smallish tents or huts (Yerts, maybe?) out in the frozen wilderness, catching and herding reindeer, or whatever people used to do before there was Cable TV.

   The film opens with a mysterious woman staggering out of the snowy wastes and into a hut where she dies and gives birth to a baby, which is cared for by the locals, who name her Pirita, and she grows up a scene or two later into Ms. Kuosmanen. And as you’re probably unfamiliar with this actress, I’ll just say she is devastatingly beautiful, with one of those radiant complexions that seem crafted to show off large haunting eyes and a sensuous mouth.

   Pirita marries Aslak, a local hunter (played by Kalervo Nissila, a Kent Smith type), but when he goes off hunting after the honeymoon, she gets into a snit and goes to visit the local shaman for a love potion that will make her irresistible.

   What follows is a beautifully-done scene, murky and moody, as the Shaman does his medicine-show-magic, gives Pirita the usual potions and instructions on the proper rites… and then discovers what Pirita didn’t now herself: she’s a witch!

   Too late it seems. There follows another creepy scene or two as Pirita performs the rites in front of one of the most imposing totems I’ve ever seen in the movies (and needless to say, with the kind of flicks I watch, I’ve seen a totem or two in my day….) and finds she can transform herself at will into the eponymous white reindeer, pursued by one hunter after another (i.e. irresistible to men!) but when they catch her she transforms again and kills them — just how is never shown, but she’s suddenly sporting a set of very sharp teeth.

   Visually, this film is simply stunning, shot almost entirely outdoors in one of the most haunting landscapes on earth, with epic shots of vast snowy landscapes dotted with scraggly trees, ribboned with migrating herds of reindeer, miles long, shifting and curling about the countryside. We get breathtaking scenes of the principals racing around on skis or reindeer-pulled toboggans, and eerie night-time tableaus with the snowscapes bathed in eerie moonlight as everyone’s breath turns into clouds of evanescent mist.

   And then there’s Ms. Kuosmanen, sometimes glowing and beautiful in the classic Hollywood tradition, and other times… well let’s just say that when the killing mood is on her she can produce the kind of predatory smile we wouldn’t see again till Barbara Steele turned up in Black Sunday.

   Indeed, the only real letdown here is the final chase, as Aslak her husband chases down the White Reindeer, with a conclusion straight out of some old and plaintive ballad. The chase itself is done in a surprisingly flat and objective manner and just fails to generate the emotion it should.

   That’s a minor carp though. It’s a film I’ll remember, a film I’ll watch again, and as I finished it, it occurred to me that with the oppressive landscapes and Ms. Kuosmanen’s striking beauty, you could call it Bergmanesque: Ingmar or Ingrid, take your pick.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

PHARAOH’S CURSE. United Artists, 1957. Mark Dana, Ziva Rodann (as Ziva Shapir), Diane Brewster, George N. Neise, Alvaro Guillot, Ben Wright. Director: Lee Sholem.

   Sometimes low-budget features pleasantly surprise you. Despite a near complete lack of critical appreciation, Pharaoh’s Curse is everything you could hope for from a somewhat obscure 1950s horror film, and more.

   True, the director Lee Sholem is more widely known for churning out timely product than for any particular artistic vision. And yes, the actors and actresses in the cast are hardly household names. But if you give the movie a chance and dig a little deeper, you may just unearth a dusty little nostalgic treasure in the form of a charmingly simple archaeological-themed thriller.

   At a running time of less than seventy minutes, Pharaoh’s Curse doesn’t indulge in too much backstory. The movie gets into the heart of the matter pretty quickly. American-accented British officer Captain Storm (how’s that for a name!) is dispatched from Cairo to find out what has happened to an international archaeological expedition.

   Along the way, Storm (Mark Dana) and his party encounter a mysterious exotic woman by the name of Simira (Israeli actress Ziva Shapir). She claims that her brother is with the expedition and that she knows the quickest way to get there. Sounds simple enough, right?

   As it turns out, the archaeological party is already knee deep in trouble, having broken the seal on a mummy’s wrappings. And you know what that means, of course! A curse and a living corpse back from the dead determined to guard his tomb against would-be grave robbers.

   There’s also the matter of Simira. Who, or what, is she exactly and what is her relationship with the ancient Egyptian past? It’s up to the intrepid Captain Storm to solve a supernatural mystery emanating like a hot desert wind out of the distant Egyptian past!

   Now don’t get me wrong. Pharaoh’s Curse is hardly of the same quality, aesthetically or dramatically, as Hammer Films’ The Mummy (1959), which I reviewed here and which stars the always wonderful to watch Peter Cushing. Pharaoh’s Curse is filmed in black and white rather than in lavish color; Death Valley, California has to stand in for Egypt; and the characters occasionally meander down the same interior hallways.

   That said, the actors all appear to be taking their roles seriously, lending this movie a spunky authenticity notably absent from so many science fiction and horror films from the same era. The movie may never be a classic, but that doesn’t stop it from being thoroughly escapist fun.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TOURIST TRAP. Compass International Pictures, 1979. Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Robin Sherwood, Tanya Roberts, Dawn Jeffory, Keith McDermott. Director: David Schmoeller.

   There are slasher films and there are supernatural horror movies. And there are those films that are a bit of both subgenres, movies in which the deranged maniac killer has borderline supernatural abilities. Think John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), in which Michael Myers is both figuratively and literally the Boogeyman.

   Then there’s Tourist Trap, a creepily quixotic slasher film with supernatural elements that are so very over the top as to preclude the movie from making a whole lot of narrative sense. Add in in a beautifully weird main theme by Italian composer Pino Donaggio (heard above) and a crazed leading man performance by Chuck Connors – the Rifleman himself – and you’ve got yourself one totally off kilter, but inescapably fun late seventies horror film.

   Tourist Trap begins as so many other low-budget horror films do; namely, with a group of young attractive girls and a couple of their male friends stranded in the middle of nowhere with car trouble. Then, wouldn’t you know it? A Good Samaritan (Connors) comes along and offers to help the kids with their troubles. The guy’s a little weird and lives alone in a house filled with stuff that belongs in a circus tent, but hey, there’s no one else around, so why not accept the old geezer’s offer.

   So from what I’ve told you, you probably have a fairly soon sense of where the movie is going from here?

   Thing is: you’d be wrong. All because I didn’t mention the mannequins that come to life and kill one of the youngsters during the first five minutes of the film. You see, one of the two guys in our coterie of stranded travelers makes the initial foray into a house up the road while seeking help. Within minutes, mannequins – the type you’d see in a store – come to life and murder him. It’s from then on that you know you’re not watching just another slasher film.

   But still, it’s difficult, without spoilers, to tell you how very weird the movie is going to get. Borrowing elements from Gothic horror, the best atmospheric Hammer films, all American road trip films, and mad scientist films, Tourist Trap ends up being a wild nonsensical ride that is simultaneously darkly comical and genuinely horrifying. The closest horror movie I could use as a point of comparison is The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), which I reviewed here, which is similarly not easy to describe, but hard to forget.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. American International Pictures, 1964. Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Umberto Rau, Christi Courtland. Screenplay: William F. Leicester & Logan Swanson (Richard Matheson), based on the latter’s novel I Am Legend. Directors: Ubaldo Ragona & Sidney Salkow.

   Since it’s been over a decade since I read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), I’m afraid I won’t be of much use in comparing The Last Man on Earth with the original text from which it was adapted. But suffice it to say, this low budget horror film is one of the bleakest movies I’ve recently viewed. Both in plot and mood, The Last Man on Earth resonates with hopelessness.

   And not just any type of despair, but an almost borderline nihilism that, when it’s all over, makes it almost difficult to wish it had turned out all that differently. In a very real sense, it’s the script’s fatalism that makes it both a far more compelling story than other vampire tales, but which ultimately ensnares it into a narrative trap in which things simply cannot work out for the protagonist no matter how hard he tries to make it so. Simply put, being the last man on the planet is not an inevitable position.

   Vincent Price, in a role largely bereft of his trademark wit and ironic detachment, portrays Dr. Robert Morgan. He’s a scientist by trade and a family man by nature. When we first encounter him, we see that he’s living alone in a house in a world marked by abandonment and decay. There are vampires on the prowl every night and as far as we know, he’s the sole survivor of a plague that has devoured humanity and left death and vampirism in its wake. So Morgan, year after solitary year, hunts vampires by day and locks himself inside his house at night.

   All that changes when he encounters a mysterious woman who, like him, travels freely in daylight. But who is she and what clues does she possibly hold to help Morgan solve the puzzle of what happened to the world? The answer, such as it is, isn’t so much predictable as it is a depressingly commentary on humanity.

   Perhaps that was the whole point of the screenplay: to be an acerbic political observation. Fair enough, but then again one need not be beaten over the head with wooden stakes for ninety minutes to make a point.


FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF Diana Films, 1960. Jerry Warren Productions, 1964. Lon Chaney Jr, Yolanda Varela, Rosita Arenas and German Valdez (Tin Tan.) Written by Juan Garcia, Gilberto Martinez Solares, Alfredo Salazar, Fernando de Fuentes and Jerry Warren. Directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares, Rafael Portillo and Jerry Warren.

   Some films amaze the viewer by the very fact of their existence; they stretch the boundaries of Cinema and Reality to become not just movies but memorable experiences in themselves. Thus it is with Face of the Screaming Werewolf.

   A bit of backstory here: In 1960 popular Mexican comedian Tin Tan (German Valdez) starred in La Casa del Terror, as a sleepy wax-museum worker whose boss is actually a mad scientist trying to raise the dead. (His failures get covered in wax and put on display; well, what else would you do with them?)

   The mad doctor brings a mummy (Lon Chaney Jr.) back to life only to find that it was actually a mummified werewolf (also Lon Chaney Jr.) Got that? Hilarity ensues as the werewolf goes on a rampage and everybody chases everybody else around in the South-of-the Border equivalent of Abbott and Costello Meet Godzilla. “And so much for that movie,” you might think.

   But a few years later, American Producer Jerry Warren bought Casa del Terror, cut out almost all of Tin Tan’s scenes, spliced in some footage from The Aztec Mummy (1957) re-dubbed the whole mess into English (of sorts) and sprang it on an unsuspecting public as Face of the Screaming Werewolf.

   The results recall the eerie surrealism of early Cocteau melded with the gritty feel of Italian neo-realism. A bit of synopsizing is in order here, so I’ll insert a “SPOILER ALERT!” even though I have see the film twice and still can’t figure it out.

   We open with a couple of doctors hypnotizing Rosita Arenas into recalling a past life as an Aztec Princess. A young boy sneaks into the lab to eavesdrop and later stows away with the doctors and Rosita when they explore the lost temple (actually a Mexican tourist spot) and find the Aztec Mummy. Who is the boy and how does he figure in the interrelationships of the other characters? We never know because he drops out of the story as the scientists discover another mummy (Lon) and take them both back to civilization for study.

   Then, as the Scientists are exhibiting their mummified relics (to other scientists I guess; the writers never bother to tell us) the lights go out, shots are fired and gangsters make away with the Lon-mummy, which turns up in the Mad Doctor’s laboratory/wax-museum, is brought back to life and promptly turns into a werewolf. Occasionally we get a glimpse of someone sleeping in the Museum, whom I later discovered was Tin Tan.

   Are you following things so far? Good, because at this point it all gets a bit confusing. The werewolf is subdued by a flashlight and locked up in the lab where it turns back into Lon Chaney Jr, looking sad and agonized as ever. Meanwhile the Aztec Mummy (remember him?) also comes back to life and carries off Rosita (remember her?) and they both get run over in traffic.

   We now cut to a pair of detectives investigating all this and we find out Rosita has a sister (Yolanda Varela.) Lon turns back into the Wolfman, breaks out, carries off Yolanda and Tin Tan charges off to the rescue.

   Clearly this is a complex story, and one that will take several viewings to fully comprehend and appreciate. I should note that the DVD I watched had some jarring breaks and hesitations toward the end that tended to vitiate the experience. I consoled myself by reflecting philosophically that I could have paid more for a better copy, but it would still be Face of the Screaming Werewolf.

From Beyond is a 1986 film based on the story of the same name by H. P. Lovecraft. Richard Band wrote the film score.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB. Hammer Films, UK, 1964. Columbia Pictures, US, 1964. Terence Morgan, Ronald Howard, Fred Clark, Jeanne Roland,George Pastell, Jack Gwillim, John Paul, Dickie Owen. Screenwriter-director: Michael Carreras.

   Directed, written (under the credited name “Henry Younger”), and produced by Michael Carreras, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is a Hammer film about well … you guessed it, an archaeological expedition that unearths a mummy’s tomb and becomes the object of the mummy’s revenge.

   Ronald Howard, perhaps best known for starring in the 1954 Sherlock Holmes series, portrays John Bray, a Cambridge archaeologist who seeks to unravel the mysteries of the ancient Egyptian past. After his French colleague is murdered in the desert, he and his would-be betrothed, Annette Dubois (Jeanne Roland) make their way by boat up the Nile with the intention of returning to London.

   It is on that fateful trip that they encounter Adam Beauchamp (Terence Morgan), a mysterious Englishmen who inserts himself into their lives and knows far more about ancient Egyptian history than it first appears. But who is he and what does he want with Annette? That’s the crux of the story.

   When compared with Hammer’s The Mummy (1959) that I reviewed here, this later film comes across as a rather tepid and an uninspiring attempt to capitalize upon the former’s aesthetic, narrative, and musical genius. Indeed, without Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the movie just isn’t all that memorable in terms of its actors and their stage presence. But that doesn’t mean that one should completely write off this admittedly clunky mid-1960s horror film as purely derivative and as having no particular intrinsic value as a film onto itself.

   Although this is not a particularly well-crafted film, it’s actually significantly better than its harshest critics would suggest. True, often the art design leaves a lot to be desired and the supposedly ancient Egyptian artifacts look cheap and plastic. And yes, the story takes a well to fully coalesce into a coherent narrative. That said, however, the film does compensate for these flaws by introducing a few new elements and surprises into the mummy film corpus.

   These include a subplot with an inherent critique as to how mummies were often used in the West for cheap thrills and entertainment purposes and (Spoiler Alert) the finale in which it is revealed in which the film’s nominal villain is the mummy’s brother, who is revealed to be Beauchamp (Morgan).

    Due to a curse, he has been condemned to everlasting life as a mortal human being roaming the Earth alone for thousands of years. It’s a curious little twist, one that’s just enough to rescue The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb from the obscurity it that would have befallen it had merely been a weak reworking of the brilliant Hammer original.


MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. American International Pictures, 1971. Jason Robards, Herbert Lom, Christine Kaufmann, Adolfo Celi, Maria Perschy, Michael Dunn, Lilli Palmer. Screenwriters: Christopher Wicking & Henry Slesar, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Director: Gordon Hessler.

   When adapting what many critics consider to be the original modern detective story to film, there’s a temptation to do so in a manner that adheres too closely to the original text.

   That’s definitely not a problem for Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, a film that’s so anarchic in spirit that it ends up little resembling Edgar Allan Poe’s locked door mystery. Borrowing as much from The Phantom of the Opera (1943) as from Poe’s tale, this uneven, but still enjoyable, American International production blends gothic horror, an early 1970s Paella Western aesthetic, and a sly commentary on the demarcations between the profession of acting and living in “real life.” The movie also benefits a rather unique score by the Argentine composer and conductor, Waldo de los Ríos.

   The plot revolves around an early twentieth-century Parisian theater troupe of the Grand Guignol variety. Led by the mercurial Cesar Charron (Jason Robards), the troupe includes a myriad of colorful members. In the midst of their theatrical run of a stage adaptation of Poe’s eponymous story, Charron finds that his cast and crew, both former and present, are being targeted for murder.

   It’s only when the bodies start piling up that Charron begins to suspect that his former friend and rival, Rene Marot (Herbert Lom) is behind the horrific killings. Thing is: Marot is believed to be dead, having taken his own life after murdering Cesar’s wife’s, Madeline’s (Christine Kauffman) mother (Lilli Palmer) with an axe.

   At the end of the day, however, it’s not the convoluted murder mystery plot that makes Murders in the Rue Morgue worth watching. Rather, the film is more an exercise in style and reflective of a certain type of Gothic horror cinema, one in which dreams, flashbacks, and hallucinatory sojourns play important roles in elucidating how the characters’ pasts and presents converge in tragic ways. The movie’s not a horror classic and doesn’t hold up very well when compared with Roger Corman’s Poe films, but it’s the product of a certain type of daring that was a hallmark of 1970s commercial cinema.

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