Horror movies


BURN, WITCH, BURN. Anglo-Amalgamated Films, UK, 1962; American International Pictures, US, 1962. Originally released in the UK as Night of the Eagle. Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon, Kathleen Byron. Screenplay by Charles Beaumont & Richard Matheson (and George Baxt uncredited), based on the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber. Director: Sidney Hayers.

   At times Burn, Witch, Burn, aka Night of the Eagle, feels as if it’s an extended and psychedelically revved up episode of The Twilight Zone. I suppose that’s not all that surprising given the fact that Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, both of whom contributed to the famed CBS series, co-wrote the screenplay for this offbeat supernatural horror film. Although filmed in a noticeably flat black and white, making it highly adaptable to television screens in the early 1960s, Burn, Witch, Burn retains a Gothic, strikingly off kilter atmosphere that I found to be quite effective.

   Adapted from Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife (1943), the movie stars Peter Wyngarde as Norman Taylor, a sociology professor at a British medical college who discovers that his wife has taken to witchcraft. This is especially troubling for Taylor as he vehemently denies the existence of the supernatural. After he forces his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair) to part with her magical paraphernalia, things start going really badly for the both of them. Could it be that Tansy was correct that her spells were protecting him from a greater evil in their midst? If so, what does that mean for Taylor’s skepticism, let alone their marriage?

   Alternatively creepy and self-consciously ludicrous, the film also features another character, albeit a decidedly uncredited one: a stone eagle statuette perched on top of the college where Taylor works. Perhaps the less said about that mighty bird the better. Keep in mind that when there are witches afoot in England, inanimate objects don’t always stay inanimate — especially at night.


CRUSH THE SKULL. 2015. Tim Chiou, Chris Dinh, Katie Savoy, Chris Riedell. Director & co-screenwriter: Viet Nguyen.

   It’s safe to say that, even if you don’t much care for horror/comedy mash-ups, you’ll come away feeling that there is something almost magical about the screen chemistry between the two leads in Crush the Skull, a quirky thriller which defies traditional genre categories.

   Directed by Viet Nyugen (iZombie), the film stars Chris Dinh and Katie Savoy as Ollie and Blair, two deadbeat thirty-year-olds who, for money and kicks, disguise themselves as painters and rob houses when the owners are away. There’s something just so natural about these two characters and their witty, occasionally caustic, always lovable banter that make this otherwise uneven, occasionally bewildering, film worth a look.

   Like any good horror story, Crush the Skull begins with a premise that’s also inherently a morality tale pushed to the extreme: What happens if robbers break into a house only to learn that it’s actually a serial killer’s lair and these would-be criminals become captives? It’s certainly an intriguing idea, albeit not the most creative one ever pitched. But if you mix it up with a docudrama style of filmmaking and a deadpan sense of humor – and indeed, fun – you might just end up with something that punches higher than its weight.

   That’s the case with Crush the Skull, or at least it was for me. Truth be told, I don’t care all that much for the “serial killer’s lair” theme, and it took some effort for me to adjust myself to that. We know, to some degree, what motivates serial killers. It’s the supernatural, the unexplainable and unbelievable that’s even more frightening than human evil and which interests me far more.

   But the film does its best to provide the viewer with some twists and turns along with some unanswered questions that aren’t fully resolved until the haunting final frame. All told, I can’t say that this recent feature isn’t without its flaws, including a rather prolonged backstory, but it shows a self-conscious sense of fun that makes it far more memorable than your typical serial killer thriller.

DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL. Allied Artists, 1957. John Agar, Gloria Talbott, Arthur Shields, John Dierkes, Mollie McCard, Martha Wentworth. Director: Edgar G. Ullmer.

   With a title like this, you can probably figure out a fully-formed plot synopsis of your own and have it come out awfully close to the one that powers this one along. Gloria Talbott plays the daughter of you know who, which I’m sure you’ve already guessed from the cast listing, but now as a orphan she goes by the name of Janet Smith. What she does not know is that on her 21st birthday, she will inherit a large estate.

   Her guardian is a gentleman named Dr. Lomas, and as she and her fiancé (John Agar) visit him together in her family mansion, he finds himself duty-bound to tell her in private about her father. Strange events — murderous events — begin to happen the same evening. Can she have inherited her doomed father’s fate of turning into a werewolf at the time of the full moon?

   Well, not a lot of this makes much sense, and maybe the plot you might have put together yourself would have made a better film along these same lines than this one. But as the director, Edgar G. Ulmer manages to keep the action extra spooky, especially indoors, with all kinds of innovative camera angles and an excellent use of black and white lighting. Less effective is the mist effect used in outdoor scenes, which comes off only as if you’re looking through a smeared-up lens.

   One other big plus is that Gloria Talbott never looked lovelier than she does in this movie, made the same year as The Cyclops, reviewed here. This one’s ten times better, if not more, and if you’re so inclined, which I assume you are, having read this far, the movie is well worth searching out for.


DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. Made-for-TV movie, CBS, 24 October 1981. Charles Durning, Robert F. Lyons, Claude Earl Jones, Lane Smith, Tonya Crowe, Larry Drake, Jocelyn Brando. Director: Frank De Felitta.

   As an adult, returning to a horror film that scared the living daylights of me as a kid is always a fascinating experience. Before the film even begins, I am asking myself whether it’s going to be as terrifying, vivid, or scary as I remember it being. Is it going to look just plain silly, forcing me to doubt my youthful aesthetic judgment? After all, some kids just know when a movie stinks and when it’s good, right?

   Enter the scarecrow. Dark Night of the Scarecrow, to be exact. As a made-for-TV movie originally aired on CBS, the movie has no particular right to be that good, let alone that memorable. As it turns out, I remembered a lot of it pretty well. Not so much the minor details, but the general atmosphere of suspense and the visceral nature of the revenge-driven plot. It’s a very unsettling movie, both emotionally and visually.

   Then there’s Bubba. Portrayed by the late Larry Drake (L. A. Law, Darkman), Bubba Ritter is a kind, mentally challenged 36 year-old living with his mother on the outskirts of a small rural town. Drake’s performance is, in a word, unforgettable. He is able to convey his character’s childlike innocence, love for his mother, and his fear of the cruelty that surrounds him.

   Case in point: the local men inhabiting this festering hole of bigotry are pieces of work. In particular, there is the morally repugnant Otis P. Hazelrigg (an exceptionally well cast Charles Durning), a loathsome bitter man who hates Bubba and loathes his friendship with Marylee Williams, a local girl (Tonya Crowe). When it looks as if Bubba may have been responsible for the girl’s murder, Hazelrigg and three other men exact vigilante justice on the terrified Bubba, shooting him dead in cold blood trembling for his life in a cornfield.

   After the men are acquitted, things begin to get downright strange in the town. A mysterious scarecrow starts appearing, haunting the guilty consciences of the men responsible for Bubba’s death. It is a supernatural occurrence or a prank designed into frightening the men into confessing their crime? After all, Bubba’s mother vowed that that there are other forms of justice than that dished out in courthouses. The violent deaths meted out to largely unsympathetic Bubba’s executioners in Dark Night of the Scarecrow demonstrate just how right she was.


CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN. United Artists, 1958. Richard Anderson, Elaine Edwards, Adele Mara, Luis Van Rooten, Gar Moore, Felix Locher. Screenplay: Jerome Bixby. Director: Edward L. Cahn.

   There are two primary ways of looking at Curse of the Faceless Man. Either it’s a hodgepodge of horror film tropes with more than a smidgen of themes generously, um…. borrowed from Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932). Or it’s a loving, living homage to Universal’s entire Mummy series, modified to a Southern Italian setting in which the mystical Etruscan and Roman past loom large over the scientific present.

   As an admirer of director Edward L. Cahn’s ability to make the most out of what are admittedly low-budget productions, I’m more akin to give the film the benefit of the doubt and call it an homage, albeit one clearly designed to exploit interest in the mummy film sub-genre and to make a quick buck off of it. To paraphrase the famous saying from Seinfeld: not that there’s anything wrong with that.

   Richard Anderson, who went on to feature in The Six Million Dollar Man, portrays Dr. Paul Mallon. He, along with his fiancée, Tina Enright (Elaine Edwards), is residing in modern day Italy in the outskirts of the town that was once the Roman city of Pompeii.

   After an archaeological dig discovers the remains of a faceless mummy-like man in the ruins, strange things begin happening. First, the driver tasked with transporting the mummy is mysteriously killed. Second, and more significantly for the story, Tina begins to have visions of the faceless mummy, as if she has some unexplainable connection to him and to the distant past (shades of The Mummy).

   But what could it be? Is she the reincarnated descendant of a Roman elite family? And who is this faceless man and what does he want? Dr. Carlo Fiorello (Luis Van Rooten) and his daughter, Maria (Adele Mara) are both on the case. Working at the local museum, they’re determined to unravel the mystery of the faceless man once and for all!


BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT. New World Pictures, 1971. John Ashley, Mary Wilcox, Leopoldo Salcedo, Eddie Garcia, Ken Metcalfe, Vic Diaz. Screenwriter-director: Eddie Romero.

   It’s never a good sign when, fifteen minutes or so into a movie, you decide to pick up the DVD case and read the back of it to help you figure out what in the world is going on. Unfortunately, that’s what I felt compelled to do watching the opening of the Eddie Romero’s Filipino/American horror production, Beast of the Yellow Night.

   Sure, it’s a low budget horror film, but the plot seemed so incredibly muddled and the picture quality (Alpha Video) was pretty low, so I needed some context as to what was transpiring in front of my very eyes.

   That said, once I had some idea of the basic plot and once the movie finally started to make a little more sense, I began to appreciate — ever so slightly – Beast of the Yellow Night for what it is: namely, a grindhouse film that tries to be philosophical and one which occasionally succeeds in elevating a forgettable werewolf film into something bordering on the thoughtful, admirably so, and yet one which mainly falls flat.

   Former pop sensation John Ashley portrays two characters. The first, Joseph Langdon, is an American soldier who deserted his unit in the Philippines and engaged in all sorts of nefarious acts. In order to save himself from Filipino soldiers hot on his trail, Langdon makes a devil’s bargain – literally – with Satan (a grinning, scenery chewing Vic Diaz).

   Some decades later, Langdon returns to life in the guise of American businessman, Philip Rogers. Satan wants Rogers to do his nefarious bidding, but when Rogers refuses, he soon learns that he’s cursed. Disobey the devil and you turn into a hideous beast, or so it would seem. That’s about all there is to the movie.

   And one more thing: Joseph Langdon may be a tortured soul, but he’s no Larry Talbot.


THE DEVIL’S MEN. Crown International, 1977. Released in English worldwide as Land of the Minotaur. Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing, Luan Peters, Costa Skouras, Fernando Bislani, Anna Mantzourani. Director: Kostas Karagiannis.

   Say what you will about the meandering plot and the sloppy editing, this one’s got atmosphere — creepy, breathtaking atmosphere. Filmed on location amongst ancient Greek ruins, The Devil’s Men aka Land of the Minotaur features Peter Cushing as Baron Corofax, a red robed Carpathian villain working on behalf of an ancient demonic force working through a fire breathing stone minotaur. Also on hand is Donald Pleasence as Father Roche, an Irish priest committed to fighting Satan.

   Now if that’s not your idea of a ridiculously subpar, but nevertheless eminently enjoyable, 1970s exploitation thriller, I don’t know what to tell you. The dialogue, I admit, is laughable, and the plot unfolds haphazardly, with little rhyme or reason, often leaving the viewer in the dark as to whether what’s transpiring on screen is happening at all or just a reflection of the characters’ innermost fears.

   And yet, I wanted to continue watching until the very end. Part of it, I admit, has to do with my sheer pleasure at seeing Cushing and Pleasence, two gentlemanly actors who gave horror films a sense of class that is sadly lacking in many films today. It’s also that the film, as I mentioned earlier, has so much atmosphere that it would have been a shame not to marvel at the ancient Greek ruins and to immerse myself visually in the dusty ruins of a long forgotten civilization.


FIRST MAN INTO SPACE. MGM, UK/US, 1959. Marshall Thompson, Marla Landi, Bill Edwards, Robert Ayres, Bill Nagy, Carl Jaffe, Roger Delgado. Director: Robert Day.

   Watching First Man into Space, one cannot help but be reminded of The Quatermass Experiment, in which a rocket ship returns to Earth with an extraterrestrial menace in its midst. The same is essentially true for this surprisingly effective low-budget science fiction flic about a hubristic Air Force pilot who, in his obsessive quest to become the titular first man in space, ends up a victim of cosmic rays or such.

   And by “victim,” I mean that his endeavor in the stars transforms into a genuinely creepy looking bloodsucking monster that needs to kill and to feed in order to survive. Although First Man into Space is, at times, exceedingly talky (much like similar science fiction films from the era), it nevertheless has enough chills and thrills to keep the viewer engaged for the relatively scant running time.

   The crisp black and white cinematography, while nothing spectacular, is nevertheless much better than in many of the cheapie creature films from the same era. I can’t promise that you’ll love this movie, but I think that you’ll find that it’s a bit better than its title and premise suggest.

CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE. Howco International Pictures, 1976. Jack Elam, Dub Taylor, Dennis Fimple, John David Carson, Bill Thurman. Director: Joy N. Houck Jr.

   For a horror movie, Creature from Black Lake honestly isn’t all that good. For a spunky low-budget thriller, however, this mid-1970s creature feature really isn’t all that bad.

   While it’s hardly a classic, the movie simply exudes passion and spirit. Combining both shaky handheld camera effects with creepy music, Creature from Black Lake has campy humor, chills and thrills, and some interesting things to say about the counterculture and the place of Southern whites in American society. Ultimately, however, it’s a buddy film – the story of two University of Chicago classmates who travel down South to investigate the sighting of an apparent Bigfoot type creature in the Louisiana swamps.

   Although many of the actors aren’t particularly well known, one of them is certainly well known, especially by Western genre fans. That would be Jack Elam who, in this film, portrays a bearded and often drunk Bayou wild man who has a run in with the mysterious swamp creature.

   Elam’s presence in this film, while hardly a highlight of his career, lends the film both comic relief (Elam can be really funny!) and a sense of campy fun. Sometimes a film doesn’t need to be all that good – in a technical sense – to be enjoyable.


SUPERNATURAL. Paramount Pictures, 1933. Carole Lombard, Allan Dinehart, Vivienne Osborne, Randolph Scott, H. B. Warner. Director: Victor Halperin.

   Much like White Zombie, which I reviewed here, Supernatural, also directed by Victor Halperin, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There are so many loose strands that one loses count. Add on top of that some sequences that really don’t even fit very coherently into this narratively challenged movie.

   In much the same way as White Zombie, which I caught as part of the UCLA Festival of Restoration last year, Supernatural unfolds like a fairy tale, as if one is caught in a silly dream where plot takes a back seat to a simultaneously innocent and sinister atmosphere and mood.

   Indeed, it’s all rather good, albeit senseless fun.

   Featuring Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott as a couple who must face off against a con man, the disembodied spirit of a recently executed murderess, and possibly a murderer in their close circle, the film has so many subplots that ultimately go nowhere. With an omnipresent musical score than zips right along and a few ridiculously charming attempts at special effects, this pre-code horror (horror-comedy?) programmer still isn’t really what you’d call a solid work of filmmaking. But in spite of its numerous flaws, given the financial and technological restraints of the era, it’s nevertheless a far better product than you might initially think.


DRACULA. Universal Pictures, 1979. Frank Langella (Count Dracula), Laurence Olivier (Professor Abraham Van Helsing), Donald Pleasence, Kate Nelligan, Trevor Eve, Jan Francis. Screenplay: W. D. Richter, based on a play by Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston, based in turn on the novel by Bram Stoker. Music by John Williams. Director: John Badham.

   Although it’s been quite a while since I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), there are quite a few aspects of the text that I remember quite well. Or at least I think I do. And not just plot points or vividly realized scenes such as when Dracula crawls down a wall. I’m talking about the work’s atmosphere, its sense of impending doom and sheer weirdness. Because let’s face it: >Dracula is an early example of modern weird fiction.

   Personally, I don’t think Stoker wrote the best vampire story ever told and I’ll leave it to you to decide which one you might think is the best. But I’ll readily admit that Stoker was remarkably effective in vividly describing a decidedly off-kilter world, one in which the notion of an undead Carpathian ruler haunting Victorian London doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Now, that’s an accomplishment and a testament to why Dracula is still read and appreciated to this very day.

   As far as film adaptations of Stoker’s novel go, I’m definitely of the opinion that the original Bela Lugosi version (1931) is the one I like the best (some people believe that the concurrent Spanish version is even better). To me, there’s something about Lugosi as Dracula that’s just so classic, so darn iconic that it’s difficult for me to fully imagine other actors stepping into the famed vampire’s shoes (or cape), though the late, great Christopher Lee comes pretty close.

   I remember watching Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version in the theater and didn’t come away super impressed. There were some great moments, to be sure, but it just seemed so lavish, so colorful that somehow I didn’t see it as a fully authentic realization of Stoker’s vision. Keanu Reeves, who I don’t dislike as an actor and who I thought was great in Speed (1994), didn’t seem to me to be an effective choice for the role of Jonathan Harker. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

   It was with this background that I finally got around to watching the 1979 film version, one that transports the entirety of the proceedings to England and is closest to the spirit, if not the story, of Stoker’s novel.

   Directed by John Badham, this one features Frank Langella as Dracula and Laurence Olivier as vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. Langella, it seems to me, is a fairly effective Dracula, particularly because the story played up the romantic and seductive aspect of the Dracula and Lucy relationship.

   Olivier, with a faux Dutch/Flemish accent, is an extraordinarily effective Van Helsing and really transforms the movie into a serene, melancholy operatic experience, one aided by John Williams’ hauntingly beautiful score. Olivier’s Van Helsing is a forlorn, world-weary warrior, someone who takes no pleasure in what he must do to stop Dracula.

   This version, which never garnered the same degree of critical attention as the original or Coppola’s version, is definitely worth watching for those who haven’t seen it. Also, for those who may have seen it decades ago and not again since then, it’s worth taking the time to rediscover how extraordinarily well this film holds up. It helps that, in this late 1970s version, Dracula crawls down a wall not once but twice. Chillingly sublime weirdness at its very best.

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