Horror movies


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE PREMATURE BURIAL. American International Pictures, 1962. Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney, Heather Angel, Alan Napier, John Dierkes, Richard Miller. Screenplay by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell, based on the story by Edgar Alan Poe. Directed by Roger Corman. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, DirecTV and others.

   Put aside the plot for now. For this third entry into Roger Corman’s Poe cycle of films fundamentally revolves around an idea, a concept. And that is: what would it be like for a man deathly afraid of being buried alive to actually be buried alive? How would he act? What would he do to those who accidentally (or purposefully) entombed him? How could a filmmaker put reflect his psychological state cinematically?

   In terms of reflecting this morbid concept on screen, The Premature Burial succeeds admirably. And then some. Ray Milland, although too old for the part, does a great job in portraying a man who afraid of being buried alive that he allows all the life to be sucked out of him. Hazel Court, who portrays his long-suffering wife, is there to both support and scold him. She clearly doesn’t want to have to spend the rest of her years with a man with one foot already in the grave.

   Based on the eponymous Edgar Allan Poe short story, The Premature Burial is enriched with claustrophobic sets and a chillingly effective score from Ronald Stein. The film also makes ample use of a rich color palette, both in terms of set design and lighting. Corman’s use of jump cuts do not work nearly as effectively as do the lush atmospherics.

   The movie also benefits greatly from the presence of three great character actors. Alan Napier, who is now best remembered as the butler Alfred in the live-action Batman TV series, portrays the father-in-law of the protagonist. And John Dierkes and Dick Miller portray two graverobbers who end up being key to how the story unfolds.

   Back to the plot. I’ll be honest. It is a little more than creaky. The ending is simply a little too pat, even for a low budget horror film. That’s unfortunate given that the credited screenwriters were none other than Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell. But that’s not what this film is about. It’s a concept film. And a good, albeit not great one, at that.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST. Republic Pictures, 1945. John Abbott, Charles Gordon, Peggy Stewart, Grant Withers, Emmett Vogan, Adele Mara, Roy Barcroft. Loosely based on the 1819 short story “The Vampyre” by John Polidori. Director: Lesley Selander.

   Make no mistake about it. This one is a cheapie. From the very first scene, you can see that it’s filmed primarily on a sound stage. And the running time – a total of 59 minutes – also solidifies the fact that this one was a quickie. Get it made, get it released, make some money, move on to the next film.

   Despite its low-budget origins, The Vampire’s Ghost remains a rather fun little horror film. A large part of that has to do with the somewhat unusual script. Not unusual in terms of its structure – this one fits well within the confines of the traditional Hollywood screenwriting formula – but because of myriad aspects, both big and small, that make this somewhat obscure vampire film more memorable than it could have been.

   Look no further than the original story writer and co-screenwriter. It’s none other than science fiction pulp writer Leigh Brackett. Her first credited work in cinema, The Vampire’s Ghost is hardly The Big Sleep (1946), let alone Rio Bravo (1959). But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

   Here, the vampire in question isn’t an Eastern European nobleman ensconced in his castle. No. Instead, he’s an urbane expatriate Englishman living somewhere in southern Africa. What’s his profession, you ask? He runs a bar/nightclub/gambling place where sailors come to drink and try their luck at the card table. Already unusual, right? There’s definitely a noir aspect to this vampire film, as well as a western one. Who would think that what motivated a vampire to murder would be his finding out that he was cheated at cards by both a sailor and a saloon waitress?

   Unfortunately, despite the better than average plot details, The Vampire’s Ghost remains an overall talky affair with a lot of mediocre acting. There’s just not that much action, let alone special effects. But the atmospheric moments are good – if stagey – and the final sequence is definitely memorable. In a fun way. There isn’t all that much to analyze in the film. It is what it is. If you like tropical settings and have the ability to immerse yourself in a fantastic world of vampires and voodoo drums pulsing through the steamy jungle night, then you might enjoy this one. There are far worse ways of spending an hour.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. Hammer Films, UK, 1963. Universal International, US, 1963. Clifford Evans, Edward de Souza, Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel, Barry Warren. Writer: Anthony Hinds (as John Elder). Director: Don Sharp.

   Neither a Dracula film nor part of the Karnstein Trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, Twins of Evil), The Kiss of the Vampire is a lesser- known, but thoroughly enjoyable, stand-alone vampire movie from Hammer Films. Combining the standard tropes of vampire films with atmospheric dread, the movie neither aims for cheap thrills, nor does it condescend to its audience. Much of the on-screen horror in the film is psychological rather than physical. The battles fought here are as much internal as they are external.

   The plot follows Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne Harcourt (Jennifer Daniel), a newly married couple traveling on their honeymoon. When their car breaks down somewhere in Bavaria, they are forced to stay at a local inn run by an elderly, seemingly childless couple. Within hours, they receive an invitation for dinner from one of the village’s most prominent citizens, one Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman).

   Ravna, along with his two adult children, seem to take a strong liking to the Harcourts and invite them back for a masked ball. But little does this mild-mannered English couple know that Ravna is a vampire and the leader of a demonic cult. Once Marianne gets swept up into their satanic grasp, it’s up to Gerald and the alcohol-ravaged Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) to harness supernatural forces to (literally) beat the devil.

   While the film doesn’t tread too far off the beaten path in terms of storytelling, what it does, it does well. Indeed, it’s a film that I’ve already watched more than once, and I confess I enjoyed it even more the second time around. The masquerade sequence is exceptional. One wonders how much Roman Polanski was influenced by it, given how a masked ball plays a similarly important role in the third act of his The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Final thought: the final frame is hauntingly memorable and involves a swarm of vampire bats. Chillingly effective stuff.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE CITY OF THE DEAD. Vulcan Films, UK, 1960. Trans-Lux, US, 1962, as Horror Hotel. Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis, Valentine Dyall. Written by George Baxt and Milton Subotsky. Directed by John Moxey. Easily found on YouTube, among other sources, including Amazon Prime.

   A decade before John Llewellyn Moxey directed The Night Stalker (1972), he, under the name John Moxey, honed his skills in the supernatural genre with The City of the Dead, aka Horror Hotel (reviewed here earlier on this blog by Dan Stumpf).

   Beautifully filmed in crisp black and white with an ongoing visual sense of impending menace, the movie draws upon New England witchcraft lore to tell a tragic tale of what happens when one gets too fascinated by the darkness.

   WARNING: Possible Spoilers Ahead. Eager and intrepid college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), intrigued by her professor’s lecture on witch burnings seeks to do further research on the morbid topic. Little does she know that her professor, one Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) is himself a purveyor of the dark arts. In a twist that would be repeated with greater effect and recognition that same year in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the first act of the film follows the would-be protagonist from a relatively secure setting to a hotel where she will meet her doom.

   But unlike in Psycho where the killer is a human, albeit a tremendously disturbed one, in The City of the Dead, the killers are very much empowered by a dark, supernatural force. As it turns out, when the good people of the fictional hamlet of Whitewood, Massachusetts, burned a witch at the stake in 1692, they didn’t actually kill her so much as curse their own descendants for all eternity.

   The witch (Patricia Dressel) that they thought they had put to death is very much alive. And in 1960, she’s the proprietor of the Raven Inn, the “horror hotel.” As in Psycho, it’s up to others to figure out what happened to a beautiful young woman who mysteriously disappeared at a hotel. Here, it is Nan’s brother and her boyfriend team who up to solve the puzzle and defeat the coven of witches responsible for the co-ed’s murder.

   There’s a particular aesthetic to The City of the Dead that makes it a stronger and more compelling film than its rather clumsy sets and relatively short running time would suggest. The witch burning sequence at the beginning is top notch. So is the final sequence set in a graveyard. There’s definitely a letdown of dramatic tension in the second act, but this only makes the tense scenes that much more visceral. For his part, Lee puts in a strong performance, but it’s nowhere near his best nor most memorable.

   Still, this is an overall enjoyable horror film that is worth a look this upcoming Halloween season. One final note. The film contains a seemingly incongruous jazz score. One would think that it would be horribly out of place in such a macabre film. But it works quite effectively in reminding the viewer of the era in which the movie was made. And, for those of us who enjoy early 1960s British horror films, movies that were just a little more innocent than the color horror films of the 1970s, that’s not such a bad thing.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

AND SOON THE DARKNESS. EMI/Warner-Pathé, 1970. Pamela Franklin, Michele Dotrice, Sandor Elès, John Nettleton, Clare Kelly. Story and screenplay: Brian Clemens & Terry Nation. Director: Robert Fuest.

   In 1970, one year before he worked with Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (reviewed by me here), Robert Fuest directed And Soon The Darkness, a lesser known, but occasionally effective little thriller. Minimalist at its core and with a score reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann, the movie is a slow burn. So much so that, one is tempted to give up after twenty minutes or so. The movie just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But it eventually reveals itself to be a solidly constructed, if haphazardly edited, psychological thriller. One that relies far more on atmosphere and an overarching sense of dread than on violence and gore.

   The plot follows two twenty-something British woman on holiday in rural France. Bicycling their way through the sparsely populated countryside, the two eventually become the unwitting prey of a sexually deviant killer in the surrounding area. When Cathy (Michele Dotrice) and Jane (Pamela Franklin) stop in a café for a drink and some rest, they see a handsome stranger (Sandor Elès) a few tables away. They eventually continue on and decide to take another break in the woods. That’s where the two have a bit of an argument, with Cathy deciding that she wants to just stay put and sunbathe. Jane decides, with more than a little nudging on Cathy’s part, to ride on and makes her way to the next village.

   But Cathy never shows up. What happened to her? Jane doesn’t know, but she is determined to find out. That handsome stranger from the café shows up and introduces himself as Paul. He also says he works in law enforcement and is down in this area because of a murder of a female tourist a while back. He has an obsession with the crime. There’s something not right about Paul, though. He seems to be holding something back. Still, he is willing to help Jane look for Cathy.

   The story follows Jane as she tries to navigate the perils of being lost and confused in a strange land. Not all of the locals speak English very well, but one of them knows enough to tell her that the local gendarme is trouble. There’s a middle-aged English woman who lives alone out here. Who is she? Why is she here? And the gendarme’s father, a deaf World War I veteran, seems to have a few screws loose.

   There’s a natural sensibility to the movie, one that doesn’t rely on special effects or gimmicks. One intuitively feels the danger lurking behind the bucolic farmland. On the surface, everything seems so perfect, so charming. Baked under the warm French sun, the landscape radiates with warmth and community. But beneath this façade is something much more sinister. Something Jane will confront when she stumbles upon a decaying trailer park, one that serves as a most vivid contrast with the splendor of the natural world.

   Although the film plays with the viewer’s expectations, it is never overtly manipulative. Still, there is something almost artificial about the ending. As if the viewer has been slightly cheated out of a comprehensive explanation for everything that has occurred. What the film lacks is a theme. There’s no coherent underpinning to the whole enterprise. Yes, you’re thrilled. And the chills are real. But to what end?

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR. Tigon Pictures, UK, 1968. America International, US, 1970, as The Crimson Cult. Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Mark Eden, Barbara Steele, Michael Gough. Based on a story by Jerry Sohl and (uncredited) “The Dreams in the Witch House,” by H. P. Lovecraft. Director: Vernon Sewell.

   The Curse of the Crimson Altar, a psychedelic gothic horror film which was released in the United States under the title The Crimson Cult opens with a shocking scene of violence. There’s a blue-faced witch (portrayed by the legendary horror queen Barbara Steele), a bunch of scary looking characters dressed in robes and black leather, and a woman being whipped. And it appears as if this motley crew is trying to force a rather mild-mannered Englishman to sign his name in a large book. What in blazes is going on, you ask yourself.

   Well, it turns out that there’s a cult at work. A cult which, based on the movie’s mise-en-scène, seems to really have a deep attachment to the color red. Crimson, to be specific. And as any savvy consumer of films dealing with the occult or “Satansploitation,” knows all too well, an innocent person is almost certainly going to be swept up in the cult’s unheavenly deeds!

   Enter Robert Manning (Mark Eden), an antiques dealer in London. His brother has gone missing and he’s determined to find out where his sibling has gone. What Manning doesn’t know is that his brother was the aforementioned mild-mannered Englishman swept up into the cult’s demonic grasp. So, much like in The Wicker Man (1973), which this horror film clearly presages, a man searches a small somewhat isolated village for a missing person, only to be the unwitting mark of a pagan cult. And much like in The Wicker Man, the cult’s leader is portrayed by the irreplaceable Christopher Lee. Seeing Lee’s entrance into the movie is a delight; you know at that point, that no matter how clunky or formulaic the movie might turn out to be, that you’re going to at least benefit from his singular theatrical presence.

   But Lee is not the only famous horror actor to make an appearance. Boris Karloff, in one of his final roles, portrays Professor John Marsh, a leading scholar of witchcraft. Although Karloff was in the final years of his life, his speech and cadence were spot on. It’s pure unadulterated Karloff.

   As you may have surmised by my comments so far, it’s pretty clear that I thoroughly enjoyed The Crimson Cult. But it is a good film? Yes and no. It’s definitely a little predictable and Eden is not a particularly dynamic lead. As a Tigon production, it also doesn’t have the unique Hammer film aesthetic. But if you take it for what it is, you might have a little fun with it. There’s definitely a late 1960s psychedelic vibe to the whole affair – an attempt to capitalize on the counterculture era? – and the movie benefits from never taking itself too seriously. I read online that the script was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933). That may very well be the case, but it was not listed in the credits.

   

THE FACULTY. Miramax, 1998. Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Josh Hartnett, Shawn Hatosy, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Chris McDonald, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Jon Stewart, Daniel von Bargen, Elijah Wood. Director: Robert Rodriguez.

   High school was not a lot of fun for me back when I had to go, and if this movie is anything like how life in high school was some 40 ears after that, I’m not sure I’d want my kids to go now, another 20 years later, what with ostracizing on social media, body-shaming and other cyber-bullying, all things students my age in the late 50s would probably would have been happy to do if only they’d had the opportunity.

   But as the title suggests, the problem that the students at Herrington High are having in this movie are with the faculty, who are beginning to act stranger and stranger: when the school nerd (Elijah Wood) and the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and head cheerleader (Jordana Brewster) watching from a closet together see the football coach (Robert Patrick) and another faculty member (Piper Laurie) force a strange small creature into the ear of the school nurse (Salma Hayek) they know something is really seriously wrong.

   Can the entire faculty have been taken over by unhuman aliens? Delilah and Casey join up with a few other similar outcasts, each in their own way, to find out and to warn the police, to no avail. Shades of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, referenced several times, along with The Breakfast Club, in other words.

   A strong and lengthy list of cast members, including Jon Stewart in a brief role as a biology teacher, and Bebe Neuwirth as the school principal, makes this one work. I have only begun to skim the surface of what I could discuss about this movie, some scenes of which will stay with me for a long time. One might wish that the aliens remain unseen, or at least I did. Alien beings are always more fearsome if you know they’re there, but you can’t see them.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


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

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

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

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

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


    “Season of the Witch” was co-written and first recorded by singer-songwriter Donovan Leitch in 1966. Since then it’s been covered by dozens of other singers and bands, including most recently by Lana Del Rey and used as the theme song for Guillermo del Toro’s just released film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark:


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