Horror movies


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

WRONG TURN. Saban Films, 2021. Charlotte Vega, Adain Bradley, Bill Sage, Emma Dumont, Dylan McTee, Daisy Head, Matthew Modine. Director: Mike P. Nelson. Currently streaming on Showtime.

   From the trailer, you’d think that this was primarily a political film about the so-called divide between the rural and urban parts of the country. But it’s not. Not in the way one might expect. If anything, Wrong Turn – a reboot of the eponymous film series that began in the early 2000s – is a surprisingly clever backwoods thriller that upends expectations at nearly every turn (pun intended).

   Matthew Modine, who older viewers will always remember as the iconic Private Joker in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), portrays Scott Shaw, a suburban Dad in search of his daughter Jen (Charlotte Vega). She, along with her friends, have gone missing along the Appalachian Trail in western Virginia.

   Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Jen and her friends, when they strayed from the path, found themselves amongst a bizarre mountaintop cult. With echoes of The Wicker Man (1973) and the first season of True Detective, this effectively creepy horror film plays with the viewers expectations of what is about to happen and then radically subverts them. It’s a well shot film, as well. One that imposes a claustrophobic sense of doom on the proceedings.

   Unfortunately, due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, Wrong Turn   played theatrically for only one night. It deserved better. If you happen to get a chance to see it streaming, it’s worth a look. It’s not a classic in the making, but it’s certainly well above average and doesn’t overly insult the viewer’s intelligence.

   One caveat. The first fifteen minutes or so can be exceedingly tedious. This is because one gets the sense that the entire movie will be a “hipsters versus rednecks” scenario. Trust me. It’s not. It is significantly more thoughtful than that, even if the ultimate statement the movie intends to make is ultimately muddled.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE STEPFATHER. Screen Gems / Sony, 2009. Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley, Amber Heard, Sherry Stringfield, Paige Turco. Screenplay by J.S. Cardone, based on a earlier screenplay by Donald E. Westlake. Director: Nelson McCormick.

   Let me be upfront. The Stepfather, a tepid remake of the eponymous 1987 cult film about a serial killer who repeatedly invites himself into people’s families, is not a particularly good movie. It’s formulaic, predictable, and easily forgettable. But it has an undeniable shlock charm to it. It may be silly, but it moves at a rapid clip. So much so that the movie’s glaring weaknesses don’t become truly obvious until it’s all over.

   Case in point: there are a few moments in The Stepfather, at least in the first thirty minutes or so, in which the suspense morphs into parody. Indeed, there were a few scenes in which I imagined being in a theater watching the movie and hearing teenagers and twenty-somethings snicker uncontrollably at the proceedings. But for the last hour or so, the movie takes on a more serious – and sinister – tone and these sequences are easily relegated to one’s cinematic memory hole.

   The plot is threadbare. Serial killer and all-around weirdo Grady Edwards/David Harris (Dylan Walsh) has a habit of going from place to place and finding single moms to charm. Soon enough, he’s the new stepfather in town. That is, until the children disappoint his exacting parental standards. Then off he goes on a murderous rampage.

   His latest target is the exceptionally naïve Susan Kerns Harding (Sela Ward) and her two young children. Little does he know that Susan also has a wayward teenage son off at military school who may not be so eager to put up with his nonsense. Enter Michael Harding (Penn Badgley) who turns out to be the one rational actor in the whole affair, especially in comparison to his cloying and annoying girlfriend Kelly Porter (Amber Heard), whose only role in the movie seems to be to cast doubt on Michael’s suspicions that his newfound stepdad is a killer.

   There really aren’t any surprises in the movie. And my summary of the plot doesn’t really give away any spoilers. We know from the first scene in the film that the stepfather is a murderous creep. This takes away the “is he or isn’t he” suspense which could have made this a taut and thrilling movie.

   As it is, The Stepfather is little more than fleetingly mediocre entertainment. Not particularly offensive. But not particularly good, either.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE BLACK SLEEP. Bel-Air Productions/United Artists, 1956. Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney, John Carradine, Bela Lugosi, Herbert Rudley, Patricia Blake, Phyllis Stanley, Tor Johnson. Director: Reginald Le Borg.

   The eponymous black sleep in the movie’s title is not a state of being. Rather, it is a thing – a fictional mysterious potion from the Indian subcontinent that puts its users into a deep, quasi-hypnotic state. It’s therefore fittingly ironic that a movie about a sleep-inducing substance is, for the first thirty minutes or so, rather soporific itself.

   Despite the best efforts of the always enjoyable Basil Rathbone to liven things up with philosophical speeches about medicine and the human condition, the first half of The Black Sleep is a stilted, talky affair.

   All that changes in the second half. That’s when this Bel-Air production decides to let its inhibitions fall asunder and for schlocky insanity to ensue. How insane, you ask? Let’s just say that John Carradine portrays a stark raving madman locked in a basement dungeon who believes he is a Crusader out to conquer Jerusalem.

   Like many other horror films from the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Black Sleep is set in Victorian England. Rathbone portrays Sir Joel Cadman, an esteemed surgeon who embarks on a series of highly unethical medical experiments on live human subjects. He has his reasons, of course. His beloved wife has been in a coma for months and he believes that, with the right among of experimentation on others, he can find a way to successfully operate on her and bring her back to full life.

   Cadman, in a conniving manner, enlists the aid of Dr. Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) to further his work. It’s only a matter of time, however, before Ramsay learns the true nature of Cadman’s vicious work.

   The true star of this horror film, however, is neither Rathbone nor Rudley. That honor goes to veteran character actor Akim Tamiroff. Here, he portrays Odo, a Romani tattoo artist in cahoots with Sir Joel (Rathbone). With a smile a mile wide and his notable South Caucasian accent, Tamiroff chews the scenery and makes the whole affair far livelier than it would have been in his absence.

   Final word about the billing: aside from John Carradine, the movie also has two other horror greats listed in the cast; namely, Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi. Neither actor has any lines. Chaney portrays a brute whose brain and mind were destroyed by Cadman’s experiments, while Lugosi portrays Cadman’s mute butler.

   It’s always nice to see these greats on screen, but there’s something obviously very sad about how low both actors’ star powers had fallen by the mid-1950s. This was to be Lugosi’s last complete cinematic role, excepting the truly atrocious Plan 9 From Outer Space (1957).

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

BLACK MOON. Columbia Pictures, 1934. Jack Holt, Fay Wray, Dorothy Burgess, Clarence Muse. Screenplay: Clement Ripley & Wells Root. Directed by Roy William Neill.

   Despite the attitudes of the time, this Columbia horror film is almost a companion piece to Val Lewton’s classic, I Walked With a Zombie, and an effective and suspenseful tale of horror and mystery.

   Jack Holt is well to do businessman Stephen Lane, married to the mysterious Juanita Perez (Dorothy Burgess) who is obsessed with the voodoo culture of the island where she grew up. As the film opens she is playing the voodoo drum for their young child Nancy (Cora Sue Collins), while downstairs a psychiatrist warns Stephen to let her obsession play out on its own, causing him to put off joining her on her planned return to visit her plantation owner Uncle Dr. Raymond Perez (Arnold Korff) who raised her after her parents were killed in a native uprising.

   The next day Stephen’s secretary Gail Hamilton (Fay Wray) presents him with the passports needed, adding that she would like to resign because of a romantic entanglement, not telling him that reason is that she is helplessly in love with him, but he persuades her she is needed by his wife and she reluctantly agrees to accompany her to the island.

   Meanwhile Juanita loses her temper when a friend of her Uncle tries to prevent her from going to the island. Things are bad there, and her presence can only make things worse. While a child there it seems that she became deeply involved in voodoo ceremony thanks to a black nursemaid Ruva (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) and the local voodoo priest Kala (Laurence Criner). Her Uncle fears for her safety and sanity.

   Turns out he is right.

   Once on the island things proceed to get worse. Gail is frightened for Nancy and Anna (Eleanor Wesslehoeft), Nancy’s nurse, clashes with Ruva. When Gail cables Stephen to hurry to the island the native who sent the cable is murdered.

   Stephen arrives on a schooner captained by an American, “Lunch” McClaren (Clarence Muse) who is going to marry a local girl and warns Stephen the locals are in a dangerous mood. Stephen’s arrival is joyful for his daughter and a relief for Gail, but only for a short time. Anna has died in an unlikely accident and now Ruva is Nancy’s new nurse.

   Meanwhile Juanita has gone completely native as the priestess of the voodoo religion.

   When Lunch asks Stephen’s help to try and rescue his girl friend who is the sacrifice for that nights ceremony he witnesses Juanita in her guise as priestess before shooting and wounding Kala. Having failed to kill the high priest they now face an uprising as Juanita wants Nancy and plans to sacrifice Stephen and Gail. Forced to barricade themselves in the house they are driven out by a fire. Dr. Perez and Lunch escape but Nancy, her father and Gail are taken.

   Perez and Lunch manage to rescue the adults, but Nancy is still with her mother, and now the high priest has chosen to sacrifice the child with Juanita wielding the blade.

   Stephen and Lunch return for the child, will they be in time, will Juanita sacrifice her own child in her maddened hypnotic state…

   With an intelligent screenplay by Clement Ripley and Wells Root, atmospheric direction by the always interesting Roy William Neill, and a good cast, the film builds fine suspense, a real sense of impending doom. True Holt is a bit too old and stout, but he’s always good as a stalwart hero. Fay Wray doesn’t have much to do but look scared and pretty, and she does that just fine. Dorothy Burgess is quite good as the increasingly mad and cruel Mrs. Lane.

   More interesting for a film of this time is Clarence Muse. Despite his nickname “Lunch,” he is far from the usual comedy relief. In fact, other than a few lines his role is absolutely straight and courageous. He doesn’t have a single scene when he shows any more fear or concern than anyone else in the film, in fact he is the hero’s greatest ally, far more competent and intelligent than the white sidekicks in most films, all of which is unusual for a film from this era and goes someways from the simple superstitious natives in revolt elements of the plot.

   In fact, Dr. Perez is hardly presented as a Colonial paragon, and the screenplay brings out that he and those who came before him have oppressed the locals and driven them to extremes, nor or Ruva or Kala punished for their roles in the revolt, something fairly remarkable considering the fate of most such characters even in films today (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

   Black Moon isn’t a perfect film. It meanders here and there, the screenplay could use tightening, it doesn’t always live up to Neill’s atmospherics and inventive camera work, but on the whole it is a terrific little movie that compares well to Lewton’s more masterful I Walked With a Zombie.

   

THE NIGHT WALKER. Universal Pictures, 1964. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Judith Meredith, Hayden Rorke. Rochelle Hudson. Opening narration: Paul Frees. Screenplay: Robert Bloch. Director: William Castle.

   “…when you dream, you become … a Night Walker!” Or so goes the closing line of the opening narration, by the voice that also often did the lead-in to Escape, the greatest suspense radio show of all time. Sorry to say, in spite of all the talent that was involved in the making of this movie, it’s all downhill from here.

   It might have the murky reception our local cable company gives us of WTBS, but I think the plot was pretty murky to begin with. Barbara Stanwyck is married to an older man, rich, blind, and jealous – a dangerous combination — who, from overhearing her talk in her sleep, accuses her of having an affair with another man. He strikes her, she leaves, he goes upstairs and immediately dies in a laboratory explosion.

   Is she free? Not exactly. She begins to have nightmares, nightmares so real she is convinced they really are. Robert Taylor, who was her husband’s lawyer, is sympathetic, but he’ s hard to convince that she is doing nothing but dreaming. In the meantime, visions of Irene’s dead husband, even more badly disfigured than before, continue to haunt her.

   Is it real or is it all a dream? With Robert Bloch’s credentials as a combination fantasy/horror/mystery writer, it’s impossible to say in advance. Unfortunately, it was also almost impossible for me to stay awake. I’m awake now, but I really don’t think this movie will keep me awake later.

   I think that dreams are too personal to bring them very effectively to the screen. It’s been done, but with bigger budgets than this. Phony-looking make-up jobs and spinning cameras just don’t cut it, at least not any more.

– Reprinted from Mystery*File #32, July 1991, in slightly revised form.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE GORILLA MAN.  Warner Bros., 1943. John Loder, Ruth Ford, Marian Hall, Richard Fraser, Lumsden Hare, Paul Cavanagh, John Abbott, Mary Field and Charles Irwin. Written by Anthony Coldeway. Directed by D. Ross Lederman.

   Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it seems to me that if you watch a movie titled The Gorilla Man, you should expect to see at least one Ape Suit in the picture. Imagine then, my disappointment to learn that the eponymous anthropoid is just the nickname hero John Loder got from fellow-soldiers in recognition of his climbing skills on a commando raid.

   Well, life is full of disappointment, especially for those of us looking for cheap thrills. But in fact, Gorilla Man does offer a modicum of shivers, thanks mainly to character actor John Abbott, who plays a particularly sadistic henchman to mildly-mad doctor Paul Cavanagh.

   The whole thing gets a bit over-complicated, thanks mainly to writer Coldeway’s efforts to turn a then-topical spy story into a monster movie, but here goes:

   Doctor Cavanagh runs a sanitarium on the channel coast, where he gets secret orders from Berlin. You see he’s really one of those respectable-looking Nazi spies, who seem to have overrun England in wartime movies like this. Anyway, he’s warned by radio signals that Loder and his men are en route back home from a raid, and that Loder has vital information that must at all costs be kept from Army Brass. Quick as a button, henchman Abbott greets the returning raiders as they land, finds Loder slightly wounded, and spirits him off to Cavanagh’s phony hospital.

   Bwa-(as they say)-ha-hah!

   But Loder does get Germany’s secret invasion plans to the General, so Cavanagh switches to Plan B — there’s always a plan B in these things — which involves making Loder look crazy, so he won’t be believed. To this end, they release Loder and follow him around, killing helpless young ladies he comes into contact with, a task that psycho Abbott is just tickled plumb to death to carry out.

   Add a dubious General into the mix, stir in a sneering Police Inspector, a jilted girlfriend who meets a grisly end, and you have an hour that moves briskly enough, served up with Warners’ usual polish. And as I say, John Abbott is really quite creepy, lurking about with google-eyed glasses and a sick grin.

   But damn, where’s a Gorilla Suit when you need one!

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: I had a nickname in my unit too, where my comrades affectionately called me “that sorry sunuvabitch.” But I digresss….

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE UNDYING MONSTER. 20th Century Fox, 1942. James Ellison, Heather Angel, John Howard, Bramwell Fletcher, Heather Thatcher, Aubrey Mather, Halliwell Hobbes. Screenplay by Lillie Hayward and Michael Jacoby, based on the novel by Jessie Douglas Kerruish (Heath Cranton, UK, hardcover, 1922. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1936). Directed by John Brahm.

   This is a B-movie. Don’t get confused because it is well done, it’s a B by a director, John Brahm, who was about to breakout into a brief A career (The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Brasher Doubloon) before eventually ending up directing television. What he does here is to bring an A sensibility and skills to a B film for all its B trappings and cast.

   The novel, by Jessie Douglas Kerruish, is among other things, one of the best werewolf novels ever written. Admittedly that isn’t a very wide area, there’s Dumas’s The Wolf Leader, Stevenson’s updated Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris, and in modern times, a handful of books by Poul Anderson, Stephen King, Robert McKinnon, Gary Brander, and Richard Jacoma, but for all their popularity in film, there are relatively few literary werewolves worth noting.

   I guess they are too hairy and smelly to be as sexy as vampires.

   The novel is somewhat more serious and better than the film, though the basic story is the same. John Hammond is the scion of cursed family haunted by a monster that takes the life of the oldest born. He brings in a friend to help and it is discovered an ancient Viking curse turns the Hammond men into ravening beasts at a certain age. Much of the novel is uncovering that curse and then finding a way to reverse it before it is too late.

   It is an excellent supernatural novel that comes close to actually making werewolves halfway believable and is full of invention and ideas. Of its kind it is a small and distinguished classic.

   The film keeps the central idea, but loses much of what makes the novel a classic of its kind.

   Yet in its own way the movie, B as it is, is a minor classic too, standing comfortably only just behind The Wolfman and The Werewolf of London despite its cheaper production values.

   John Howard (Paramount’s Bulldog Drummond) is John Hammond, scion of the Hammond family, and “victim” of the family curse when his little dog is killed by something in the dark on a foggy night. Not much later there is a human death and Scotland Yard is brought in.

   Inspector Craig (Aubrey Mather) thinks this is the perfect case for scientific detective Robert Curtis (James Ellison who had a relatively brief career as a minor leading man and cowboy star) and his female assistant Christy (Heather Thatcher), who is a bit on the screwball side and something of a suffragette (the period is Pre-WW I), who is dispatched to Hammond manor to lay the beast, or the murderer, whichever it may be.

   Largely set-bound, Brahm does a good job with dark and light and fog to keep everything swirling around all the fuzzy edges. There is a claustrophobic feel to the film of something awful in the shadows that is well contrasted with Ellison’s bright scientific mind trying to shine light in all those dark corners, even if that light may reveal something science isn’t ready for

   This film is as close as you get in the period to “Sherlock Holmes Meets the Wolfman.”

   Things aren’t easy either, Hammond’s beautiful sister (Heather Angel) is endangered, butler Halliwell Hobbes is hiding something, and Dr. Bramwell Fletcher is downright suspicious — is he just jealous of Curtis attraction to Heather Angel, or is there something more going on? He is certainly hiding something.

   He knows something.

   And why is he poisoning John Hammond?

   It’s a fast moving movie, and builds to a fine finish on the cliffs with the mystery of the Hammond curse laid at last, very nearly finally for Curtis.

   In some ways the most interesting character in the film is Heather Thatcher’s Christy, Watson to Curtis Holmes. She is a modern mature woman, not a helpless young thing, and she has some actual skills though she is in part comic relief. For once though you can actually see why Curtis might have her around. She isn’t just there to point a gun at the bad guy after Curtis exposes him or look good around the office.

   This is no masterpiece. Younger viewers may not have as much patience with it as those of us who grew up on B films.

   I would still like to see a more faithful adaptation of the Kerruish novel, but this is damn good on its own and hold up fairly well.

   For now you can catch it on YouTube, and it is actually worth a look.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

SCREAM OF FEAR. Columbia Pictures, US, 1961. Originally released as Taste of Fear (Hammer Films, UK, 1961). Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee. Writer: Jimmy Sangster. Director: Seth Holt. Currently can be seen on YouTube.

   Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) is a beautiful young paraplegic who hasn’t seen her father in almost ten years. Following the suicide of her nurse in Switzerland, she is invited to his estate on the French Riviera, where she meets stepmother Jane (Anne Todd) for the first time. Apparently, Mr Appleby has been called away on business and is not expected back for several days.

   She becomes concerned and, gradually, even suspicious. One night, Penny sees her father’s corpse in the summerhouse, propped in an armchair and staring blankly ahead, but the place is empty upon her return. Jane believes it was a hallucination brought on by grief and that the death of Penny’s nurse is causing unnecessary concern for her father. The family physician, Dr Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee), suspects this too and even suggests her paraplegia may be psychosomatic.

   Penny is adamant that she is sane and that her disability, due to a horse-riding accident, is nothing but serious. After seeing her father’s body again, Penny is even more terrified, and finds her only support in the sympathetic chauffeur Bob (Ronald Lewis). They begin to suspect that Anne has murdered her father, or at least may have covered up an accidental death, and that she wants to drive Penny insane in order to seize control of the Appleby estate. The pair investigate, and Penny’s quest to prove her sanity thrusts her into a situation that is dangerously real.

   Hammer Studios may be best known for their horror films, principally involving Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster shot in lurid Pathecolor, but they had an extensive list of black and white thrillers to their name. Many of these are tremendously gripping – though most, nowadays, are all too easily overlooked.

   Christopher Lee once said that this was the best film Hammer ever made, and that is no surprise. It was certainly scripted by their best writer, Jimmy Sangster, who also serves as producer for the first time. Its success led to further thrillers in a similar vein, most notably the Oliver Reed-starring Paranoiac and The Nanny with Bette Davis, and though Scream of Fear (its US title) doesn’t boast such star names (Christopher Lee’s role is more of a recurring cameo), it doesn’t need any, offering instead strong performances, a relatable protagonist, plenty of atmosphere and a tense, beguiling story that will keep viewers guessing.

   The disabled-person-in-jeopardy angle may be a familiar one, but it serves the picture well, framing Penny as a stoic character, resolutely defiant in the face of easy condescension and the risible assumption that a physical disability may in some way hamper a person’s intellectual faculties. This, needless to say, proves to be the undoing of certain characters, and that third-act twist is like a sock to the jaw. Highly recommended.

Rating: ****

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

MAN MADE MONSTER. Universal, 1940. Lon Chaney Jr, Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds, and Corky. Screenplay by Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz, Len Golos and George Waggner – who also directed. Currently available on YouTube here.

   The distillation of all earlier “Mad Scientist” movies and the template for those that followed.

   Lon Chaney Jr, in his first horror film, stars as “Dynamo” Dan, a circus performer whose act enabled him to survive a crash into an electric line pole that killed five others. Recruited by kindly old Electro-Biologist Hinds, he quickly falls into the clutches of Hind’s assistant, the redoubtable Lionel Atwill, who is convinced he can create a race of mindless, obedient Supermen—if only he can find the right subject.

   Bwaa-(as they say)-ha-haaah!

   No surprises here, but a bit of actual pathos as Lon becomes increasingly dependent on Atwill’s “treatments” and ends up a super-charged (and somewhat preposterous) zombie. He kills kindly old Hinds at Atwill’s bidding… and is sent to the Electric Chair, with rousing results.

   All this is much less awful than it sounds, thanks to a fast-moving script, Waggner’s brisk direction, and some moody lighting by Elwood “Woody” Bredell, who went on to define the look of film noir with classics like Phantom Lady, The Killers, and The Unsuspected.

   And credit must also be given to “Corky” an incredibly expressive little dog, who went on to Criss-Cross, The Danny Thomas Show, and Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.

   

Reflections on Halloween Movies Past
by Jonathan Lewis

   

   For my Halloween movie viewing this year, I revisited two films that I had previously watched and reviewed for this blog. United Artists’ White Zombie (1932), reviewed here, and Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935), reviewed here.

   Both are films that I had enjoyed and appreciated. Both also were movies that I had the chance to see screened in 35mm here in Los Angeles, the former at UCLA and the latter at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema.

   White Zombie, in which Bela Lugosi plays the ultra-sinister Haitian villain named Murder Legendre, was the first proper zombie movie released by a Hollywood studio. (How zombies went from creations of Haitian voodoo to that of viruses and outbreaks merits a whole different discussion). And Werewolf of London, starring Warner Orland and Henry Hull, was the first proper werewolf movie.

   The movies are, in some ways, clunky by today’s standards. (One might say they were even clunky for their time.) But that doesn’t really matter. While Werewolf of London is a bit more stylish and grounded, both movies have a timeless, nearly dreamlike quality to them.

   They are both, in many ways, fairy tale romances as well. It wasn’t until I watched both consecutively that I realized that, fundamentally, both movies are about doomed love triangles. In both movies, a man ends up sacrificing himself so that the woman he loves could be with her one true love.

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