Horror movies

Some Morbid Reflections

THE NEANDERTHAL MAN. United Artists, 1953. Robert Shayne, Joyce Terry, Richard Crane, Beverly Garland. Written by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen. Directed by E. A. Dupont.

   It would be easy to pick at this shabby film for the confused story, wooden acting and choppy continuity — I mean how tacky is it when the movie credits misspell the name of the top-billed actor? And as long as we’re carping, there’s the scene where Beverly Garland walks into the background and is replaced by another actress, or the muddled montage where a sabre-tooth tiger attacks a car, intercut with footage of a bobcat and something hitting the windshield that looks like a suction-cup Garfield. And don’t let’s forget the stiff and unconvincing rubber mask that’s supposed to be a primitive beast-face.

   Robert Shayne is remembered these days as Inspector Henderson on The Adventures of Superman but he did his share of Mad Doctoring in things like Face of Marble and The Indestructible Man. Here he gets to pull out a few stops and rave in the approved Lugosi style as a scientist (in what field I’m not exactly sure, and I suspect the writers weren’t either) who believes Neanderthal Man was our intellectual equal — a motif in some recent TV Commercials — and has developed a serum that will regress stuff.

   As the film opens, he has used this on a house cat and a housekeeper, and when he tries it on himself he turns into the frozen-faced boogeyman of the title, lumbering amok about the countryside trying to make things lively.

   The first disturbing element comes when he carries off a local gal and (it’s pretty clearly implied) brutally rapes her. But later on, after he abducts a waitress and they spend the night in a cave, she comes out in the morning and begs the surrounding posse to spare his life. Which makes one wonder just what went on, but I suspect that here again the writers had no idea.

   For me though, the most unsettling part came earlier, in the standard scene where Shayne is being scoffed at by his scientist-peers after showing them a display that “demonstrates” how Neanderthal was more advanced than Cro-Magnon, and when they ask him for proof, he calls them stupid.

   A silly scene, poorly written, but something about the temper of our times made it resonate with me. There are people coming on national TV these days who publicly boast that they can’t understand Evolution and want us to elect them President.

   There are others who call us stupid if we ask for proof of what they say — as I sat watching the Mad Doctor spouting the same clichés about being misunderstood, I almost expected him to blame the Liberal Media.

   And it got me to wondering if some of the public figures of these days maybe watched too many late-late shows. Or has public discourse moved to the level of a cheesy old horror flick? Which may be the scariest thing we’ll see this Halloween.

   Pleasant dreams, children…..


THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK Universal, 1946. Gale Sondergaard, Benda Joyce, Kirby Grant, Rondo Hatton. Written by Eric Taylor. Directed by Arthur Lubin.

   A relic from the declining days of Universal’s Horror cycle, when they seemed to be making monster movies more from force of habit than anything else, this combines elements from their Sherlock Holmes series to little effect.

   The Spider Woman first appeared, fittingly enough, in The Spider Woman (Universal, 1944), pitted against Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in a rather convoluted scheme whereby she gets men to sign over insurance policies to her cohorts, then drives them to suicide by having a pygmy (Angelo Rossito in blackface!) plant a poisonous spider in their bedrooms, and if that sounds a bit byzantine to you, just wait and see what she hatched for Strikes Back.

   Her minion here is played by Rondo Hatton, the legendary non-actor who first came to prominence in another Holmes film from ’44, The Pearl of Death, and in those days when Universal was crowding its monsters into things like House of Frankenstein/Dracula, it probably seemed like a sure bet to team him up with Sondergaard; too bad they couldn’t come up with some suitable deviltry for them to get into.

   Okay, so the story here is that Sondergaard lives in a creepy old house outside a farming community and she pretends to be blind so she can hire young girls as nurse/companions (the latest being Brenda Joyce, as the film opens) and slowly drain the blood out of them to feed to a poisonous plant, then have Rondo sneak out at night and feed some of the deadly vegetable to the livestock on nearby farms — you with me so far? Well the idea is that when the cattle die, the farmers will abandon their farms and then she can buy up the land at bargain prices.

   Oh, how the mighty are fallen. I mean back in the old days, Im-Ho-Tep was trying to revive his centuries-old beloved; Victor Frankenstein strove to create life, and the Invisible Man dreamed of World Domination. But all the Spider Woman can come up with is a Real Estate deal. The discerning critic can only say “Big Whoop,” and weep by the waters of Babylon.

   It doesn’t help either that this picayune plot unfolds at a near-imperceptible pace in a film remarkable only for the fact that no one really dies in it except (SPOILER ALERT!) the bad guys. The only casualties are cattle, leading me to wonder if this was in fact intended as a scary movie for cows.

   It certainly won’t do much for humans.

CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN. Columbia, 1955. Richard Denning, Angela Stevens, S. John Launer, Michael Granger, Gregory Gay, Linda Bennett, Tristram Coffin. Story & screenplay: Curt Siodmak. Director: Edward L. Cahn.

   This one starts right out in third gear as soon as the credits have been shown, with an obvious gangster being killed in his office — shown in silhouette his spine is being snapped by what’s apparently a dead man who has climbed through his window — and the story and the action never let up for the full run of the movie, some 70 minutes long.

   The next to die at the hands of one of these radio-controlled atomic-powered zombies (for that is what they are) is the District Attorney. What do the two victims, most definitely on opposite sides of the law, have in common? Will there be more? That’s the question that the head of the police laboratory, Dr. Chet Walker (Richard Denning), must answer, with the use of good logic and handy Geiger counters.

   One can easily forget that Denning did make a few movies of this type after being Mr. North for a while then becoming Mike Shayne for a while after that, finally ending up in the governor’s office on Hawaii Five-O. His youthful earnestness stood him in good stead in these 50s monster thrillers, I think, for those very reasons.

   This one was a lot of fun to watch, crisply filmed with solid plotting and lots of snappy action. A week later now, most of what I saw has started to disappear, noticeably so. Chinese food for the mind, I think.

I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. American International Pictures, 1957. Michael Landon, Yvonne Lime, Whit Bissell, Barney Phillips, Guy Williams. Director: Gene Fowler Jr.

   I watched this movie last week — available only on collector-to-collector DVD — and I deliberately put off writing this review until now. I might have seen this movie back when I was in high school, but if I did, I found only the first five or ten minutes to be even remotely familiar. After that I remembered only nothing.

   And I was disappointed. The movie made its makers millions of dollar on only pocket change, and it’s a cult classic right up there with the best of them. And I was disappointed. What’s all the fuss about, I wondered. The acting is straight out of high school drama productions, and the story is stalled in first gear for most of the first half.

   The special effects are OK — i.e., the werewolf costume — but no better than that, and the story simply that of high school rebellion, if not incipient juvenile delinquency, both themes that were very common in second-rung movie theaters and drive-in’s of the day.

   Maybe you had to have seen it back then, I thought, and there’s probably some truth to that.

   But here it is a week later, and many of the scenes are still with me, vividly so — flashes of the movie here and there, even the parts that I thought were slow and unwieldy. The sudden outbursts of anger on the part Michael Landon as Tony Rivers, the teenager of the title. The smugness of Whit Bissell, as the town psychiatrist who thinks that Tony will make a good subject for his experiments in regressing patients to the past by means of a serum he has developed. The innocence and unwavering crush on Tony by Yvonne Lime as his high school sweetheart. The matter of factness of Barney Phillips as the police detective who handles the case in solid nuts-and-bolts Dragnet-style.

   Filmed for peanuts and against all of the odds, the men and women who made this movie somehow managed to trap lightning in a jar. It took me a while, but now I’m convinced. This one’s a classic.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

BLOODSUCKERS. Titan Film Distribution Ltd., UK, 1970, as Incense for the Damned. Chevron Pictures, US, 1971. Patrick MacNee, Peter Cushing, Alexander Davion, Patrick Mower, Johnny Sekka, Madeline Hinde, Edward Woodward, and Imogen Hassall as Chriseis. Screenplay by Julian Hoare, based on the novel Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven. Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis as Michael Burrowes.

   Before you get excited about that cast and the bona fides of this film know going in, it is, by any definition, a bomb.

   Brilliant Oxford don Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) is missing in Greece, upsetting his friends back at Oxford including the man who expects him to fill his chair, Peter Cushing. Tony Seymour (Alexander Davion), a fellow friend and former student has arrived asked by the Foreign Office to look into Fountain’s case since there are hints of some trouble in Greece. Along with Penelope (Madeline Hinde) Richard’s fiance and friend and student Bob (Johnny Sekka) Seymour sets out for Greece where he enlists Major Longbow (Patrick MacNee) in the search.

   It soon turns out Fountain has gotten in with a fast and nasty set, in particular a silent beauty named Chriseis (Imogen Hinde) and there are a string of bodies in their wake — victims of a vampire. His friends rescue Fountain and return him to England but after consulting an expert on vampire cults (Edward Woodward) realize too late that Fountain himself is infected.

   This troubled film was rejected by everyone involved with it, not the least Simon Raven, the brilliant gadfly of low behavior among the upperclasses who wrote the novel it was based on. Raven, best known for the Alms for Oblivion and First Born of Egypt sequences of novels (and a co-author credit on one of the Bond films) following a group of less than noble nobility and upper class types across British society in the post war 20th Century, often wrote borderline genre fiction including the thriller Brother Cain, and the mystery novel Feathers of Death. Doctors Wear Scarlet (the title refers to the robes worn by those at Oxford with a doctorate), a psychosexual vampire novel, was his most successful blend of his subject and genre fiction, a genuine classic among admirers of vampire fiction (chosen one of the 100 Best), and well worth reading for lovers of the form.

   Raven’s brand of razor wit, bitchiness, suggested perversion (and actual perversion), the ruthless immorality of the upperclasses, suspense, intrigue, low humor, and gossip is never even suggested here, the best the film manages being a vague suggestion of bi-sexuality which at least was true to the novel. What Raven’s novels brilliantly serve cold and bitter this film doles out in overheated attempts at perversion that, for all the nudity, look like a Mid-Western high school drama class attempt at a production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer.

   Cushing and MacNee do the best they can with guest star roles, but you have to wonder if MacNee was relieved mid-picture when his character plunges to his death at the end of the Greek segment. Woodward has the ungrateful role of explaining Raven’s very sexual take on vampirism (a metaphor for sex to begin with, or at least venereal disease in Stoker) in some attempt to bring reason to this mess of a film.

   The title has it half right. This film sucks.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE WALKING DEAD. Warner Brothers, 1936. Boris Karloff, Ricardo Cortez, Edmund Gwenn, Marguerite Churchill, Warren Hull, Barton MacLane. Director: Michael Curtiz.

   If you haven’t yet seen The Walking Dead, do so. You’re in for a real treat. But I don’t mean the AMC television show. No, I mean the taut programmer directed by famed Warner Brothers director Michael Curtiz. Starring the legendary Boris Karloff, this proto-noir thriller squeezes in melodrama, social commentary, and suspense in a running time just over an hour long. All that, and some beautifully filmed camera shots at unsettling angles and an economical use of light and shadow to convey meaning.

   The plot isn’t all that inventive. Karloff portrays John Ellman, an ex-con and general all around sad sack, who gets framed for the murder of the judge who put him in the slammer in the first place. Making matters even worse for the music-loving and piano-playing Ellman is the fact that his serpentine lawyer (Ricardo Cortez) is in bed with the very racketeers who framed him. Ellman’s sentenced to the chair and despite some last minute attempts to stay the execution, gets put to death.

   Or does he? Enter the bespectacled foreign scientist, one Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) who brings – you guessed it – Ellman back to life.

   Although he’s alive again, there’s something just not quite right about Ellman. Maybe he is beholden to supernatural forces from beyond the grave. Whatever the case may be, it’s not long until Ellman exacts revenge on the men who unjustly sentenced him to death. Blending horror with social realism, The Walking Dead is an effective thriller that’s well worth your time.

MIMIC. Miramax, 1997. Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Alexander Goodwin, Giancarlo Giannini, Charles S. Dutton, Josh Brolin, Alix Koromzay, F. Murray Abraham. Based on the short story “Mimic,” by Donald A. Wollheim (Astonishing Stories, December 1942). Director: Guillermo del Toro.

   The basic plot is simple enough. A laboratory-created insect called the Judas breed is developed to kill off a city filled with cockroaches which are spreading a deadly disease primarily affecting children. Even though the new insects were specifically designed to die out within a single generation, you can guess what comes next.

   The reason both the story and the film is titled “Mimic,” is because the new insect creatures have developed by rapid evolutionary means a way of avoiding detection — and that is by outwardly mimicking their number one predator, humans.

   Not everyone in the cast makes it out of the movie alive, qualifying it as more of a horror film than a science-fictional one. Gorgeously if not sumptuously filmed, including plenty of small details, it’s a scary film, too — until, that is, the human-shaped insectoids actually appear on the screen. They’re ugly enough all right, but not nearly as fearsome as the anticipation.

   There are plenty of plot holes, too, which I needn’t go into, I suppose, as only someone such as myself who prefers story lines that make sense would care.

   Me, though, I wished that as much attention were made to the story line as was paid to the cinematography and special effects. It’s one of those movies that you have to decide to sit back and watch, without asking too many questions, hoping things will sort themselves out later. A second watching may answer some of the questions I had, but as for me, the one ride is the only ride I’m going to take.

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