Horror movies


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


MAD LOVE. MGM, 1935. Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive, Ted Healy, Sara Haden, Keye Luke. Based on the novel Les Mains D’Orlac by Maurice Renard (The Hands of Orlac). Director: Karl Freund.

   Directed by Karl Freund (The Mummy), Mad Love may not be the greatest horror movie released in the 1930s, but it’s a must-see for Peter Lorre fans. In his Hollywood debut Lorre portrays Dr. Gogol, a strange bald man fixated on Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) an actress at a Grand Guignol-type Parisian theater. His romantic infatuation with the married Yvonne will plunge him deep into a living nightmare, one in which he will commit coldblooded murder to possess her like an object.

   Adapted from Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac (1920), the plot follows Dr. Gogol’s attempt to win Yvonne’s affections by performing a radical experimental procedure on her husband, Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive). Orlac, a concert pianist, had his hands crushed in a train accident. So Gogol, in hoping that he can win Yvonne’s heart by performing surgery on her husband’s hands, does the unthinkable. He replaces Orlac’s hands with that of a newly deceased convict, one whose life has recently been taken by the guillotine. As one might imagine, this does not work out well for Stephen Orlac. Having the hands of a murderer isn’t exactly conducive toward rebuilding his career as a musician.

   But it’s not the plot that makes Mad Love worth a look. Rather, it’s Lorre’s performance, coupled with Freund’s direction and the general atmosphere of creepiness and dread that permeate the film’s aesthetic. Between light and shadow and close ups of Lorre’s deranged facial expressions, this movie captures what psychological horror ought to look like on screen.

   Although there’s some lighthearted relief in the form of Dr. Gogol’s inebriated housekeeper, the movie takes place in an off-kilter world, a land of mirrors and madness. Call it post-German Expressionism or proto-noir, if you will. And Lorre, as in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), gives an unforgettable performance.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE QUEEN OF SPADES Associated British-Pathé, UK, 1949; Monogram Pictures, US, 1949. Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell, Ronald Howard, Anthony Dawson, Miles Malleson and Ivor Barnard. Written by Rodney Ackland and Arthuir Boys, from a story by Alexander Puskin (first published in the literary magazine Biblioteka dlya chteniya, March 1834). Directed by Thorold Dickenson.

   Probably the most splendid ghost story ever filmed: lavishly produced, directed with moody elegance, intelligently written, and acted to a fare-thee-well, this is a film I can recommend to anyone who loves a fine, gothic chiller, with ghosts, obsession and satanic bargains. And it also has a used book store.

   Anton Walbrook stars as Suvorin, a frugal Russian Army Captain absorbed by a passion for money and how to get it. It’s a one-dimensional part, but Walbrook plays it with a fruity obsession worthy of George Zucco, which fits perfectly into Director Dickenson’s gothic milieu. Ronald Howard is the less interesting Decent Sort one usually sees played in horror films by John Boles or David Manners.

   Be that as it may, both men are pursuing Yvonne Mitchell, the ward/companion/indentured servant of Edith Evans, a lady of advanced years who looks more like Kharis than anybody’s guardian — she even drags a foot as she walks. Of course Ronnie is in love with the lady, but Anton has his own uses for the niece.

   Did I call Evans a “Lady of advanced years?” In this movie she’s so old, Suvorin finds her mentioned in an old book (found of course in a creepy used book store run by Ivor Barnard, who looks like a cross between Satan and a Pulpfest dealer) and learns that in her youth — sometime in the last century — she was rumored to have sold her soul to the Devil for the secret of wining at cards.

   Consumed with a desire to worm his way into the household and learn the dowager’s secret, Suvorin romances the niece from afar, arranges an assignation, and once inside breaks into Evans’ bedroom and wheedles, cajoles, bargains and threatens her until …

   I won’t give anything else away, but I will say that what follows resonates with surprising emotion, as we explore the feelings of the characters involved. It’s also elaborately creepy, a ghost tale set in magnificent surroundings that somehow add to the macabre atmosphere of the story, and leads to the strangest ending I have ever seen in a scary movie.

   Try this one; you won’t regret it.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X. Warner Brothers, 1939. Wayne Morris, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Lya Lys, Huntz Hall, Olin Howland. Written by Lee Katz and William J. Makin. Directed by Vincent Sherman.

   1939 was the year that brought us Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, Of Mice and Men, Wizard of Oz… and this, Bogie’s only horror film. He didn’t like it much, but it ain’t all that bad. It isn’t very good, either, but I found it fun.

   Wayne Morris, playing his usual likeable half-wit, is your typical movie reporter of the day: bluff, brassy and smart as a corn cob. As the story opens, he talks his way into an interview with a stage star (Lya Lys, in a rather good sub-Dietrich performance) only to find her dead in her apartment, her body drained of blood—and cue up the ominous music.

   Things take a surprising turn when Wayne’s paper splashes the story across the front page before telling the police, only to have the body disappear when the cops show up… then reappear alive (sort of; she now sports a goth look and talks like Robert Downey in his drug-using days) leading to Wayne getting fired by a typically apoplectic movie-style editor.

   Nothing daunted, our hero hooks up with his doctor buddy (Dennis Morgan) and consults with blood specialist Dr. Flegg (“Interesting stuff, blood!”) who assures him there’s nothing to see here, but….

   About this time we get a look at Dr. Flegg’s assistant, Doctor Quesne, and the jig is up, for it’s no less than Humphrey Bogart, made up like a reverse-Jolson, with pasty white face, dark lips and eyeshadow, with a shock of white in his hair. Doctor Flegg (John Litel, made up with satanic goatee and monocle) explains it all by saying Bogie’s “getting over a shock.”

   It would be easy to say the shock must be appearing in this picture, but as I said, it’s not all that bad. Return is done with typical Warners polish: elaborate sets, glistening photography (by Sid Hickox, of Dark Passage and Colorado Territory) and the usual cast of Warners bit players, all doing their reliable best and keeping a straight face when we learn that Dr Quesne is actually Doctor Xavier, an executed criminal brought back to life and now in need of human blood to keep going.

   I should add however that Return is also heavy-duty stupid. How so? Well for starters, we get a front-page headline of a murder out on the streets before the police can even get to the scene of the crime. Later, a detective tells Dennis Morgan that the coroner has ruled a death by natural causes — while the body is still lying on the floor!

   Further on, our persistent heroes, investigating the supposed death of Dr Xavier, go to the cemetery in the middle of the night and simply have the caretaker dig up the grave, which he does as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Xavier’s coffin turns up empty of course, whereupon the cops compound the stupidity by showing up to arrest Morris and Morgan for stealing the copse! Faced with all this, the notion of raising the dead seems but another improbability, and hardly noticeable.

   For those who don’t know how horror films end, I’m going to throw out a SPOILER ALERT! here and add that in deference to Bogie’s image, the writers allow him to perish shooting it out with the Law in a hail of police bullets. And it’s done well, an exciting moment in a film that can be fun if you’ll let it.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK. Hammer Films, UK, 1966. 20th Century Fox, US, 1966. Christopher Lee (Grigori Rasputin), Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Dinsdale Landen, Renée Asherson, Derek Francis. Director: Don Sharp.

   The physically imposing Christopher Lee is at his theatrical best in Hammer’s 1966 Rasputin: The Mad Monk. Filmed at England’s Bray Studios several days after shooting for Dracula: Prince of Darkness wrapped up, this biopic blended historical drama with Hammer’s trademark atmospheric Gothic horror. Although not one of the legendary British production studio’s most impressive releases, Rasputin: The Mad Monk benefited strongly not only from Lee’s nearly flawless performance, but also from Don Sharp’s workman-like direction which keeps the proceedings moving forward at a good pace.

   Before delving further into the plot, some historical background might prove useful to those less familiar with Russian history. There are few figures in 20th-century European history that loom larger in the collective imagination than the mysterious Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin.

   Although he never held an official position in the Russian Orthodox Church, Rasputin is best remembered as a bearded monk dressed in a long robe. Born to a peasant family in Siberia, Rasputin made his way to St. Petersburg and somehow manipulated his way to the royal family’s inner circle and became close to the Tsarina, spouse of Nicholas II, the last Romanov czar. Acting as a mystical healer to Alexei Nikolaevich, heir to the Russian throne, Rasputin gained enormous power in Russian politics. So much so that a group of conservative noblemen, unnerved by his influence over the Tsarina, plotted and carried out his assassination in 1916.

   That’s the official story, true to history. There have also been a series of theories, most of which have been debunked, about Rasputin’s murder at the hands of his political enemies. As for the character of Rasputin as portrayed in Rasputin: The Mad Monk is an amalgam of both the historical Rasputin and a mad villain very much in the Hammer mold. Christopher Lee’s Rasputin is larger than life, a raving megalomaniac, and very possibly an agent of the Dark Prince, Satan himself.

   When we first encounter Rasputin very early in the film, it’s under inauspicious circumstances. An innkeeper’s (Derek Francis) wife has taken very ill. Enter Rasputin, a tall, bearded, unkempt man in a long robe. Villagers had heard of a man with mystic, healing powers and sent for him to come to the assistance of the innkeeper’s wife. Somehow, someway this mysterious man is able to put his hands on the sick woman and bring her back from the brink of death.

   But who is this visitor and what does he really want? He is, we learn, Rasputin and he’s a hard drinking, lecherous sort who has his eyes on one of the young girls at the inn. When his attempts to seduce her are interrupted by a jealous young man who attacks him, Rasputin shows just how far his soul has fallen and that his rapacious appetite is not limited to food and drink. Not only does he lash out violently against his attacker, severing the man’s hand, Rasputin also ends up raping the girl who has clearly changed her mind about this dark seductive, mysterious stranger who, just hours ago, was lauded as a miracle worker for restoring a woman back to life.

   What happens next is the movie’s inciting event. Summoned in front of a church elder, Rasputin is asked to explain his violent, sexual behavior. This is not the first time that the film takes liberties with the historical record, for Rasputin never held an official position within the church. That said, the scene in question is a pivotal one for it gives the character of Rasputin to deliver a quasi-soliloquy in which a stunning tacit admission of the origins of his unique powers is proffered. It is through Lee’s physically imposing presence and deep voice that the depth of evil in Rasputin’s soul comes to the fore. By acknowledging that his power may not come from any divine source, but from Satan, the Rasputin as portrayed in this Hammer production enters the studio’s pantheon of villains.

   Lee portrays Rasputin as a wild man, capable of charming ladies and bending them to his will. He’s as much a Russian peasant monk as he is a counter-cultural guru, a bearded mystic that wouldn’t have looked so completely out of place in late 1960s London or San Francisco. Indeed, the Rasputin portrayed here is almost a proto-Charlie Manson. He’s clearly deranged and not a particularly polished individual. And yet he is able to somehow to cast a devilish spell over young women, including one of the Czarina’s ladies in waiting, Sonia (Barbara Shelley). Not only does he seduce her, he also hypnotizes her into injuring young Alexei, heir to the Romanov throne. This is part of Rasputin’s plot to ingratiate himself with the Tsarina (Renée Asherson): have Sonia injure Alexei and then have her convince the Tsarina to invite him into the royal palace to heal the young boy. Rasputin is nothing if not devious.

   It’s clear that Rasputin thinks he can charm his way into the royal family’s good graces. And it’s not as if he doesn’t seem to have the power. One of his biggest coups is convincing the Czarina to drop her current physician and employ the services of Dr. Boris Zargo, a physician that he met in a drinking hall and has taken on as a sidekick. This haughtiness eventually catches up to the mad monk. For it is when Boris realizes the degree to which Rasputin poses a clear and imminent danger not only to the Romanovs, but also to Russia itself, that he joins forces with two noblemen, Sonia’s brother, Peter (Dinsdale Landen) and his friend, Ivan (Francis Matthews) in a plot to take down Rasputin once and for all.

   The final sequence, in which Ivan invites Rasputin to a secluded cottage under the pretense of giving the sexually depraved mystic a chance to seduce his sister Vanessa (Suzan Farmer), is worth the wait. Up to that point, the movie advances at a good clip, but there’s little in the way of action or the authentic Hammer horror aesthetic. Not so in the unforgettable scene in which Rasputin, despite being poisoned and shot, refuses to die. It is a stellar performance that Lee pulls off. It worked as well as it did simply due to the British actor’s imposing stature.

   Still, despite the climatic ending, Rasputin: The Mad Monk doesn’t quite feel like the horror movie it could have been. It’s a biopic and an historical drama with palpable horror overtones rather than a straightforward horror film. As a biopic, the movie works well enough. But it suffers the problem inherent in many biographies adapted to celluloid; namely, that the protagonist becomes larger than life and the antagonist ends up a rather forgettable, minor figure so matter how much screen time he is given. Such is the case with the characters Peter and Ivan. Overall, forgettable and mediocre characters both.

   In many ways, the film was a stark departure from Hammer’s usual fare and one that doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of Lee’s vast output with the British studio. That doesn’t mean that Rasputin: The Mad Monk is not deserving of serious attention. In many ways, Lee’s Rasputin has been one of his more underappreciated performances, and it’s nothing if not captivating. Still, the movie could have benefited from stronger hero. Peter Cushing as a Russian nobleman? One can only imagine what the final product might have been.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE. Phoenix Cinematografica, Italy, 1971, as La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba. Phase One, US, 1972; dubbed. Anthony Steffen, Marina Malfatti, Enzo Tarascio (as Rod Murdock), Giacomo Rossi Stuart. Direcctor: Emilio Miraglia.

   The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave starts off as an uncomfortably sleazy enterprise before transforming into a gripping, moody Gothic thriller. Directed by Emilio P. Miraglia, this stylish Italian giallo film has the typical sex and violence that is prevalent in the genre. But what it also has – what gives the film a little something extra – is a Gothic atmosphere that owes as much to Roger Corman’s cinematic adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems as to the emerging Italian proto-slasher genre of which it is indubitably a part.

   Although an Italian film with dialogue in Italian (there’s also apparently an English language version), the movie is set in England. Aristocrat Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) lives a decadent lifestyle in his family’s estate. His wife, the beautiful redheaded Evelyn, has recently died. But not before he was able to confront her about her infidelities. So Alan is a little … mentally unbalanced. So much so that he has a penchant for bringing red headed prostitutes back to his lair so he can have his way with them.

   All that changes when he meets Gladys (Marina Malfatti), a stripper who Alan decides is going to be his next wife. All seems well finally for the tormented Alan. But when Alan’s family members begin to die in horrifically mysterious ways, it seems as if he may be cursed. Perhaps his wife Evelyn has indeed come back from the grave to exact revenge. Or maybe someone is playing a giant prank, a cruel trick to send the wealthy Alan over the edge in order to inherit his large fortune.

   If you can manage to overlook the giant plot holes in the story, you might just find yourself a bit enthralled with The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. Although it’s not nearly as good a film as Dario Argento’s output from the same era, it has a stylish flair, some really dark humor, and an effective score composed by Bruno Nicolai.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Paramount-Artcraft Pictures, 1920. Silent film. John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Martha Mansfield, Charles Lane, Cecil Clovelly, Nita Naldi, J. Malcolm Dunn. Based on the novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Director: John S. Robertson.

   Originally published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde introduced the reading public to two of the most well known characters in modern literary history: the conventional Victorian physician, Dr. Jekyll and his alter-ego, the uninhibited and cruel Mr. Hyde. Stylized as a detective story, one in which the reader does not discover that Jekyll and Hyde are merely two parts of the same man until the story’s ending, Stevenson’s novella highlighted the duality of man: That lying underneath man’s civilized, urbane exterior is a bestial side, one that later critics identified as lurking not far beneath a highly repressed Victorian society.

   Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, however, doesn’t read as if it was designed to impart any emphatic moral lesson. Instead, the work unfolds as a mystery tale and, to a lesser extent, an early work of the emerging genre of horror fiction. In that sense, it is as much of a thriller as the shudder pulp stories that it influenced decades later.

   Indeed, Stevenson’s novella is written from the point of view of a society lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson who begins an amateur investigation into the strange happenings concerning his friend, Dr. Jekyll. By the end of the tale, Utterson has learned that Dr. Jekyll and his strange friend, Mr. Hyde, are one and the same person. Two divided halves of the same self. This was a concept that Stevenson, who is still best known for his adventure fiction, apparently wanted to incorporate into his writings. In that sense, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been not only a literary success, but also a personal triumph for Stevenson as Jekyll and Hyde are now among the best known fictional characters in Anglo-American literature.

   Although it wasn’t the first effort to adapt Stevenson’s novella into a motion picture, Paramount/Artcraft’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) has ended up the default template for nearly all the subsequent movie versions. Arguably based more upon Thomas Russell Sullivan’s 1887 stage adaptation of Stevenson’s novella than the literary work itself, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stars John Barrymore in the dual title role, a performance that by all accounts solidified his Hollywood star power. Barrymore, who at the time was still best known as a stage actor, delivers an exceptional performance in his portrayal of two halves of the same individual man.

   The Dr. Jekyll that the audience first encounters in the film as opposed to the novella is both a physician and a philanthropist, a Victorian man of science who devotes considerable amount of time to helping the poor. He is a rather stiff, that is to say not particularly relaxed individual, who seems to be more interested in expanding his knowledge than in the more mundane, let alone sensual, aspects of life.

   Jekyll is, however, engaged to a charming lady named Millicent (Martha Mansfield). Millicent’s father, Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst) in the presence of friends Edward Enfield (Cecil Clovelly), Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane) and Utterson (J. Malcolm Dunn), tempts the ascetic physician with the possibility of exploring London’s less refined, if not downright seedy, locales. Observers have rightly noted that Carew’s temptation of Jekyll into the proverbial dark side seems to be based more on the character of Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) than on Stevenson’s work itself.

   Furthermore, at least some of the silent film’s intertitles include text that are directly borrowed from, or inspired by, Wilde’s literary portrait, and philosophical study of libertinism. Indeed, Sir Carew’s admonition that “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it” comes directly from Wilde.

   The turning point for Dr. Jekyll is when he meets Gina (Nita Naldi), a dance hall girl he encounters when Sir George Carew takes him to the seedier side of town. Jekyll is fascinated by her, but is actually somewhat embarrassed, if not repulsed, by the degree to which he finds himself attracted to her.

   Before he absconds back into the London night, Jekyll engages in a short conversation with Gina during which she shows him a large ornamental ring that she wears on her finger. She tells him that the ring acts as a vessel and that it contains poison. When Jekyll ends his encounter with Gina, it seems as if her poison ring is all but forgotten. The audience, which is familiar with foreshadowing, knows that this ring will very likely end up playing a prominent role in what follows.

   It is Jekyll’s encounter with Gina, a character that doesn’t appear in Stevenson’s novella, that sets him down a path from which he will never return, for it is his interaction with this dance hall girl that guides his decision to manufacture a chemical compound that will separate his good, philanthropic self from his baser, lecherous self – a part of him that he never acknowledged existed until he met her.

   Barrymore’s transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is perhaps the highlight of the film, for it showcases both his raw theatrical talent, specifically his ability to convey meaning with his facial expressions.

   The remainder of the film follows Dr. Jekyll and his diabolical alter ego, Mr. Hyde, as the latter embarks upon a path of death and destruction. Barrymore’s Hyde, dressed in a top hat and cape, lurks through London’s back alleys. Initially, Hyde seems to not only relish his inhibited self, but also appears to get away with his bad behavior.

   Things change, however, when he first injures a child, then escalates to murder, beating a man to death with his cane. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as much a tragedy, as it is a horror story. It’s the story of a man, who in his quest for scientific knowledge, ends up both becoming and subsumed by his repressed, animalistic self.

   Mastered in high definition from archival 35mm elements, the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray release of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that I recently had the opportunity to watch provides movie aficionados with an opportunity to watch a relatively clean, uncluttered version of this silent film, one that exists in the public domain.

   Released in 2014, the Kino Classics version also features a serviceable, but by no means outstanding, score by Rodney Sauer, one that is performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. There are moments during the film when the music seems intrusive, as if it were disconnected from what was occurring on screen.

   Still, for the most part, Kino’s Blu-Ray release is quite watchable, despite some elements that were clearly degraded in the course of time. There’s also the tinting factor. Although most of the film was photographed in standard black and white, there are several sequences that are now bathed in either a reddish or bluish hue. Given that the workmanlike photography by cinematographer Roy F. Overbaugh is not particularly artistic – certainly not on the level of his German Expressionist contemporaries – the tinting does little to either elevate or to decrease the overall rather flat, staid visuals.

   Indeed, apart from the sequences featuring prosthetics in which Jekyll transforms into Hyde and the fever dream scene in which Jekyll is confronted by a giant crawling spider, there’s little in the way of outstanding visual effects in this film. In many ways, it’s Barrymore and Barrymore alone who carries the movie. At the end of the day, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is Barrymore’s vehicle, one to which both Fredric March and Spencer Tracy were truly indebted.

   Without Barrymore’s uncanny transformation from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, it also remains uncertain whether the two characters in one would have lived in through not only March and Tracy, but also such disparate actors as Jack Palance, Kirk Douglas, and Michael Caine, all of whom took turns in portraying the quintessential man divided against himself.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


GHOST TOWN. Empire Pictures, 1988. Franc Luz, Catherine Hickland, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Penelope Windust, Bruce Glover. Director: Richard McCarthy.

   I’ve always been a fan of the Weird West, that sub-genre that blends elements of horror and the supernatural with Western themes. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pull off a really cohesive mash-up of the horror and Western genres. There’s always something that just doesn’t quite gel the way it should.

   Maybe it’s because the “rules” of the Western genre are so rooted in human nature and, for the lack of a better term, reality. Maybe it’s because we associate horror with nighttime, rather than with the blazing hot sun. No matter what, I often come away from my excursions into the Weird West with a sense of what might have been, how the proverbial visit might have gone better.

   That’s basically how I felt after watching Ghost Town, a Charles Band production from 1988. Screened in very limited release, this horror Western is better than you might expect, but it’s hardly what you might categorize as a great Western.

   Lead actor Franc Luz, while solid in the part, doesn’t ever seem totally comfortable in his role as Deputy Sheriff Langley, a lawman tasked with locating a missing woman. This quest – the hero’s quest – mysteriously takes him out of the present and into an Old West netherworld, somewhere between heaven and hell.

   Apparently, an entire town is being held hostage from moving onto the afterlife by an undead outlaw named Devlin (the late Jimmie F. Skaggs in an standout role). Truth be told, there’s not a whole lot of logical coherence in the plot. This is unfortunate. It’s almost as if the filmmakers decided that because the supernatural was at work in the story, there need not be an internal logic that would explain how Devlin was able to stay alive past death and hold a whole town in a void.

   Yet, despite my criticisms, I have to admit that I enjoyed watching Ghost Town. The cinematography is quite good. Better than in many horror movies from the 1980s in fact. Most significantly, it’s a fun movie. Not a good movie. But an enjoyable one.

  THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. Amicus Productions, UK, 1971. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Nyree Dawn Porter, Denholm Elliott, Jon Pertwee, John Bennett, Ingrid Pitt, Chloe Franks. Screenplay: Robert Bloch. Director: Peter Duffell.

   This four-story-in-one horror film from Amicus has one major flaw, at least looking back upon it now. In spite of the title, there is no blood in it. It was, in fact, rated GP at the time of its release, the equivalent of today’s PG.

   It is possible to give the audience a few chills without a lot of gore, and that’s all the movie does: give the audience a few chills along with a few twists of plot, most of which are foreshadowed well in advance.

   The setting for all four segments is a common looking house in the English countryside, rather large but otherwise not very imposing. But it has its secrets, and each of those who rent it out find out what exactly that means.

   Part One: A writer of horror stories finds that one of the crazed killers he writes about is coming to life and haunting him, but his wife can neither see nor hear the man. The biggest twist in all four stories comes in this one.

   Part Two: A newly retired tenant (Peter Cushing) finds a waxwork museum in town with a figure of a woman inside whose face begins to haunt him. A friend who comes to visit falls under the spell of the waxwork face as well. A rather tepid tale with a easily foreseen ending.

   Part Three: A man (Christopher Lee) who rents the house with his very young daughter hires a tutor for her, a woman who soon learns that this is not a happy twosome she is working for, especially the daughter (a spellbinding Chloe Franks).

   Part Four and the underlying connection between all four segments: An inspector from Scotland Yard comes to the village looking for a famous movie actor (Jon Pertwee), who has disappeared, seemingly (as it turns out) under the spell of a vampire’s cloak. More special effects are used in this segment than any of the others, to little avail.

   There are lots of famous names in the cast, but the stories are both dull and obvious. Personally, I expected more from Robert Bloch, and I was disappointed.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE FUNHOUSE. Universal Pictures, 1981. Elizabeth Berridge, Kevin Conway, William Finley, Cooper Huckabee, Miles Chapin, Sylvia Miles. Directed by Tobe Hooper.

   This stylish, if somewhat mediocre, horror film might as well have been entitled The Good, the Bad, and The Very Ugly. Because let me tell you: the monster in this Tobe Hooper directed feature is not just ugly; he’s very ugly. Hideous actually.

   Unfortunately, aside from the shock value of the creature’s disfigurement and the crisp photography, there’s not all that much that makes Funhouse an overly memorable horror film. That’s not to say that it’s a particularly bad film. It’s just that, overall, the film lacks both the character development and requisite memorable dialogue that could very have made it something that stood out from the pack.

   There were just so very many horror films released in the 1980s, many of which followed the standard plot of a final girl facing off against some sort of evil figure that it’s difficult to consider each one without reference to all the others. Indeed, in this particular regard, the plot of Funhouse doesn’t stray too far from the proverbial straight and narrow. There’s a female protagonist who, against her better judgment, gets caught up in a life-or-death situation and who, despite her meek nature, ends up defeating the evil antagonist. She is, in every respect, the final girl. The one who ends up surviving all the mayhem that transpires throughout the course of the film.

   Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) is a small town girl who lives with her parents and her kid brother. The latter is a prankster and something of a brat, it would appear. Against her better judgment, she ends up going with her friends to the carnival that has recently arrived in town. There, she and her date, as well as another couple, will make the fatal decision to spend the night in the funhouse.

   But, alas, something lurks – and drools – in the funhouse. And it’s not fully human. And it kills. This is essentially the entire plot. One, it should be noted, that doesn’t truly come into fruition until at least thirty or forty minutes into the film.

   Now again, don’t let me make you believe that Funhouse isn’t worth seeing. In many ways, it is. It’s actually, believe it or not, a fun movie, one that thankfully relies far more on atmosphere than gore to convey a general air of creepiness at the carnival.

   Harper, along with Sylvia Miles who portrays a fortuneteller, are strong female characters in a movie filled with overall unpleasant or just plain dull male characters. So the movie’s got a few things going for it. Just not enough to make it one that’s especially compelling, or one that stays in your mind for any length of time after you’ve left the movie theater. If you like horror movies set at carnivals, however, this one’s definitely worth checking out.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


TWO ON A GUILLOTINE. Warner Brothers, 1965. Connie Stevens, Dean Jones, Cesar Romero, Parley Baer, Virginia Gregg, Connie Gilchrist, John Hoyt, Russell Thorson. Producer-director: William Conrad.

   Two on a Guillotine, a decidedly uneven Gothic horror movie, features two esteemed character actors who will be quite familiar to anyone who watched more than their fair share of theatrical films and television from the 1960s; namely, Cesar Romero (perhaps best remembered now for portraying The Joker on Batman) and Dean Jones (star of The Love Bug in the movies and Ensign O’Toole on TV). The third star in Two on a Guillotine is singer-actress Connie Stevens, the lead female protagonist, a role that was meant to be a more serious, adult one than the parts she played in largely teenage exploitation fare in the late 1950s (Dragstrip Riot).

   In Two on a Guillotine, a film that well-known character actor William Conrad both produced and directed, Connie Stevens has a dual role. She portrays two different, but related, characters – a mother at the very beginning of the film and then later, her daughter. When we are first introduced to Stevens in her role as Melinda Duquesne, wife of the magician, Duquesne (Cesar Romero). She’s also a star in his show, playing the role of a damsel in distress with the seemingly magical ability to escape from the horrible fate that Duquesne sets out for her as part of his theatrical act. As the movie begins, we see her tied up with her arms around her head, with a man pushing a sword into her. But it is all an illusion, a trick. For she was never really in danger and the whole thing, as the camera soon demonstrates, was merely part of a stage act.

   Things seem all right between Duquesne and his wife, although there apparently are some difficulties in balancing their professional lives with caring for their young daughter. It’s not that their daughter is physically ill; it’s just that in his life, she seems to be something of any afterthought to the magician. He seems far more concerned with his newest and latest magic trick: a guillotine – with a razor sharp blade, no less. It’s an instrument of death and terror straight out of revolutionary France.

   The film quickly shifts in time to some two decades later, with the next scene at Duquesne’s funeral in sunny California. A young woman rushes up to the area where the coffin is located and the mourners are gathered. She looks just like Melinda Duquesne as we saw her earlier, but that’s impossible, for she hasn’t aged a day. The viewer attentive to the tropes of Gothic horror movies such as the one utilized in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) will quickly recognize what’s transpiring here. Namely, that this beautiful young woman isn’t Melinda at all, but she is Duquesne’s daughter, Cassie portrayed now by Stevens in her second role.

   Among those noticing Cassie at the funeral is intrepid reporter Val Henderson (Dean Jones), who soon learns that Duquesne’s last will and testament specified that his daughter Cassie inherit a fortune on the condition that she agrees to stay in his Hollywood mansion for seven nights. This leads us to the basis for the crux of the film: why would Duquesne want his estranged daughter to stay in his house? Is it possible that he’s really not really dead after all and has a magician’s trick up his sleeve?

   Those familiar with haunted house movies surely know the basic outline of what comes next. At first, Cassie decides that she will stay in the house – after all, she feels as if she deserves her estranged father’s fortune – and initially appears to give little regard to what might happen next. Soon, with Val and an adorable white house rabbit at her side, Cassie begins to encounter weird goings-on in the house. So much so that Val, who has fallen in love with her in the meantime, becomes determined that no harm come to her.

   Unfortunately, as the story continues to unfold, the tone of the movie becomes increasingly uneven. Shifting from moments of light, innocent romance between Cassie and Val to moments of tension and fright, Two on a Guillotine ends up suffering from an identity crisis. Is it a horror movie with light, comic overtones or a quirky, offbeat feature more indebted to René Claire’s I Married a Witch (1942)? Or was it intended to be a darker, more psychologically brooding horror films such as the similarly themed The Mad Magician (1954), starring Vincent Price in the title role?

   One possibility that may help explain the film’s tonal unevenness of this film is that the movie’s screenwriters, John Kneubuhl and Henry Slesar, are known to have worked primarily in television, a medium where one needed to be particularly cautious how far one could push the envelope. Indeed, there is definitely a flat, television feel to Two on a Guillotine. Cinematographer Sam Leavitt had a prolific career in Hollywood, but he didn’t lend this story the type of exceptional photography that would have elevated it from competent to something more memorable.

   One notable exception is found in the film’s singular dream montage sequence. Distraught and confused, Cassie has a bizarre, hallucinatory dream in which she images various scenarios that might explain, at least in part, what is transpiring all around her. It’s an experimental sequence in an otherwise lackluster film, at least in terms of photography.

   In terms of the film’s direction, credit goes to veteran character actor William Conrad who imparts the movie with a workmanlike quality. Although he was better known for his achievements in radio and as a television actor (Cannon, Jake and the Fat Man) who often portrayed a heavy or, in the case of exceptional, albeit nearly forgotten, film noir Tension (1949), in which he portrayed a Mexican-American police detective, William Conrad also worked as a behind the camera as a director as well.

   His primary work in that regard was in television rather than in cinema, directing episodes of genre-based series, both well known and obscure, including Highway Patrol, Bold Venture, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Route 66, and Naked City. Still, Conrad directed three other feature films: a western entitled The Man from Galveston (1963) starring Jeffrey Hunter, Preston Foster, and James Coburn, and the thrillers The Blood Runs Cold (1965) and Brainstorm (1965).

   In contrast to Conrad’s rather prosaic direction, the movie’s score works well quite with the subject matter at hand. Max Steiner, the legendary Hollywood composer whose work include such classic works of American cinema as King Kong (1933), Gone With the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942), and The Searchers (1956) is credited with a score which is neither too intrusive nor overwrought. The film’s initial scene (discussed above) in which Duquesne “stabs” Cassie’s mother is accompanied by music that fits the mood perfectly. Foreboding and chaotic, Steiner’s musical accompaniment to this scene opens the movie with an intensity that fits the on screen happenings to a hilt.

[WARNING] In the next two paragraphs, more of the story may be told than perhaps you would care to know, especially if you have not seen the film and think you might like to, someday.

   Unfortunately, there’s then little excitement and intensity in the movie until the ending when the big reveal happens, and Cassie learns that that her father is still alive. She also finds out that her mother died in a gruesome guillotine accident when she and her father were attempting to prepare for his next big act decades ago. And to make matters worse for her, Duquesne has come to believe that Cassie is really her mother, Melinda. Apparently he has brought her to the mansion so that he can “perfect” his guillotine trick.

   This is where the film’s tone most strikingly shifts from playful to intense. Duquesne’s reappearing act, as it were, reveals a dark, sinister underbelly at the heart of this film. He truly is mad and maniacal. The lighthearted, albeit contrived, romance between Cassie and Val disappears under the weight of the revelation that Cassie’s mother’s body is buried out somewhere in the yard and that her father is a homicidal maniac.

   Even though Romero was a highly competent character actor, his portrayal of Duquesne is not nearly as memorable as Vincent Price’s portrayal of Gallico in John Brahms’s aforementioned The Mad Magician. Also of note: Romeo himself does a disappearing act of sorts during most of the film, and has probably less than a total of ten minutes of screen time. Indeed, for most of the film, we just are witness to Cassie and Val investigating the strange goings-on in Duquesne’s seemingly abandoned mansion.

   In conclusion, Two on a Guillotine had the potential, at least on paper, to be a stronger, more sinister feature. The decision to play up the romance between Cassie and Val, not to mention the casting of Dean Jones who had a career of playing particularly non-threatening characters, made it nearly impossible for the film to end up being the fright fest that the movie posters portrayed it to be.

   Instead, the movie remains an historical curiosity at best, a black and white horror film produced a time when most were being released in color and a vehicle for Connie Stevens to pursue a more serious and mature acting career, one that never successfully got off the ground in the way that she had intended. While it has its moments, this decidedly quirky movie, by attempting to package lighthearted romance with psychological horror, ends up being an uneven mélange of genres and a rather average horror film, albeit one not without some charm.

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