Horror movies


WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY. Cineriz, Italy, 1961, released as Lycanthropus; MGM, US, 1963. Barbara Lass, Carl Schell, Curt Lowens, Maureen O’Connor, Maurice Marsac. Director: Paolo Heusch.

   Not nearly as salacious as the title would indicate, Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory is a surprisingly well-constructed Gothic horror movie. An Italian production featuring an international cast, the movie feels as if it’s an off-kilter amalgam of 1930s Universal Studios monster films, West German Edgar Wallace films, and early 1960s black and white horror cinema.

   Sure, it’s schlocky. But it’s undoubtedly effective in creating a claustrophobic setting in which a werewolf preys upon persons associated with a reformatory for girls who have gotten in trouble with bourgeois morality and the law.

   The trouble begins when Julian Olcott (Carl Schell) young, handsome physician is hired to teach science classes to the girls. Although the girls don’t know it, he has a shady past. Something about a young girl’s mysterious death at his last place of employment in Burlington, Vermont. But he’s seemingly a good guy and gets along well enough with the headmaster (Curt Lowens).

   Within his first week of being on campus, there’s a sudden brutal murder. One of the girls, who seemingly was blackmailing a faculty member over their illicit love affair, is mauled to death. Some suspect the groundskeeper. Others suspect a wolf in the forest. Even the police inspector is puzzled.

   Olcott teams up with one of his students, the inquisitive Priscilla (Barbara Lass) to investigate the strange happenings. Could it be that a werewolf is behind the mayhem? And what, if any, is Olcott’s connection to the deaths? After all, his field of scientific research prior to his employ at the school was (wait for it) lycanthropy.

   Now I’m not going to try to sell you on this film. It’s not for everyone. What it does, though, it does well enough to hold a viewer’s attention. I also think there’s also a strange undercurrent of sadness throughout the proceedings, a Central European fatalism that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I read the biographies of two of the leads. Barbara Lass was born Barbara Kwiatkowska-Lass in German-occupied Poland and was Roman Polanski’s first wife. Curt Lowens, who portrays the headmaster, was a German Jew who survived the Holocaust in hiding and went on to a lengthy acting career in which he often portrayed German soldiers.

   Maybe it’s there, maybe it’s not. But I felt as if both of these two actors conveyed, even if unintentionally, a certain world weariness, one that is difficult to put in words, but capable of being seen if one knows where to look.

         Tuesday, February 10.

DEATH SHIP. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1980. George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid. Director: Alvin Rakoff. [Watched on HBO.]

   I’m not too sure why I watched this. It’s not the sort of thing I am usually interested in at all. Maybe it’s because I like to warch George Kennedy in action as an actor.

   He’s in top form in this one. He plays a cruise ship capyain on his last voyage before being forcibly retired. He doesn’t get on at all well with either passengers or crew.

   But then the cruise liner is attacked and sunk by a huge hulk of a ship running circular patterns in the Atlantic totally unmanned — this is the “death ship.” Kennedy, plus his soon-to-be replacement (Richard Crenna) and a few others, including Crenna’s wife and two young children, are rescued, is that’s the word, by the killer ship.

   The movie is scary, all right, but it helps that the new passengers are dumber than you can possibly imagine. Even after two of the party have been killed off, in fairly gruesome fashion, they allow themselves to become separated and even easier prey.

   Eventually they discover that the boat had been a Nazi (of course) interrogation ship, and it is full of torture rooms, corpses, some complete, some not; only pieces of bodies, and lots and lots of cobwebs.

   Kennedy makes a fine Nazi. Why the ship turns against him and allows Crenna and his family to escape is not explained. For that matter, nothing is explained.

   Rated R, and if you don’t know why, you haven’t been paying attention. There is some nudity as well, but if you were to watch this movie and found it sexually stimulating, I would really prefer not to know you.


   Coming up on HBO this month are some more of the same: Humanoids from the Deep, The Legacy, Thirst (about vampires) and Silent Scream. I don’t plan on watching any of them [Nor did I.]


THE TERROR WITHIN. Concorde Pictures, 1989. George Kennedy, Andrew Stevens, Starr Andreeff, Terri Treas, John LaFayette, Tommy Hinckley. Director: Thierry Notz.

   Is this low-budget exploitation schlock, a wry homage to David Cronenberg and body horror cinema, or something that was deliberately made so it could be marketed for the late 1980s VHS market? Maybe it’s all three. For that’s the best way in which to describe The Terror Within. A movie that, at its core, is an unmistakably derivative post-apocalyptic science fiction/horror mash-up and that shamelessly borrows from such notable horror movies as Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). At its best, it attempts to channel those films’ main themes in a manner that’s at least vaguely entertaining.

   Both of these aforementioned films notably involved scenarios in which otherworldly — and decidedly unwelcome — beings ensconced themselves within human hosts’ bodies. Because that’s the main thrust of what happens in this Roger Corman-produced feature that had only a limited theatrical release.

   Set in the Mojave Desert after a biological weapons catastrophe that has wiped out the vast majority of humanity, the film follows the efforts of a small group of scientists holed up in an underground bunker while busy researching the effects the catastrophe had on their ecosystem. As you might well imagine, all is not well in this depopulated wasteland. The fallout has created a new race of mutants commonly referred to as gargoyles.

    Not only are they hideous, with the obligatory sharp teeth and guttural sounds, but they also have the capacity to impregnate human female hosts. It’s when a pregnant female survivor makes her way to the scientists’ bunker that the real trouble begins. I don’t think I’m giving away that much of what follows when I say that a mutant child is born and that little bugger grows up real fast. Judging the way it behaves in the bunker, you would think it had been raised by wolves.


THE PHANTOM SPEAKS. Republic, 1945. Richard Arlen, Stanley Ridges, Lynne Roberts, Tom Powers and Charlotte Wynters. Written by John K. Butler. Directed by John English.

THE MAN WITH TWO LIVES. Monogram, 1942. Edward Norris, Addison Richards, Marlo Dwyer, Eleanor Lawson, and Edward Keane. Written by Joseph Hoffman. Directed by Phil Rosen.

   Back in 1940, Universal made BLACK FRIDAY, which you may read about here. It’s about a gangster resurrected in the brain and body of a respectable professor (Stanley Ridges) and I have nothing to add to that review except that the story itself was resurrected twice by other studios.

   PHANTOM SPEAKS is the most obvious crib, with plot trajectory, minor details and characters lifted directly from the earlier film. More to the point, Stanley Ridges repeats his role as the gentle man of learning possessed by the spirit of a dead guy — increasing the eerie feeling of a movie come back to haunt us.

   In this case he’s rather asked for it, since he’s doing research into the paranormal and taken the logical (in spooky movies) step of contacting a killer on Death Row (Tom Powers, who was memorably offed by Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) and urging him to make contact from the beyond. Ridges makes himself receptive to Powers’ spirit, then finds the dead man’s will too strong to resist, sending us into BLACK FRIDAY territory, right up to a gritty ending back on Death Row, where the earlier film ended up as well.

   All this is directed with more energy and finesse that it deserves by John English, Republic’s serial ace, who throws in some noirish bits and keeps things moving, moving, moving, with the happy result of a film easier to watch & enjoy than you’d think.

   In between times, Monogram stuck in its tawdry oar with THE MAN WITH TWO LIVES, which is at once less polished and more interesting than either PHANTOM SPEAKS or BLACK FRIDAY.

   In this case, Edward Norris plays one of those bright young men you see in the movies, unfortunate enough to get run over by a car (another nod to BLACK FRIDAY) and killed outright. Fortunately for him and the story, his dad knows a doctor who has been experimenting with resuscitating dead animals, and he persuades his old buddy to have a go at sonny boy.

   The experiment succeeds, but just at that moment, a nasty gangster is executed for his crimes, and his spirit…. well you figured that out. This Monogram film is a shabby take-off on BLACK FRIDAY, but considerably grittier, with Norris taking over the dead man’s gang, bedding his floozy and leading the boys on an abortive heist that turns deadly.

    There’s even a bit of intelligent writing and deft playing in a tense cat-and-mouse exchange, with Norris holding a gun on the police detective (Addison Richards) who has him surrounded, each trying to talk his way around the other with an eye out for the main chance.

   All of which does very little to dispel the feeling of cheap imitation that was a hallmark at Monogram: the sets are shabby, the camera work perfunctory, and the direction largely absent. Yet I find myself fascinated by the notion that BLACK FRIDAY, like its monster, never really died.


THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL. Hammer Films, UK, 1960. Also released in the US as House of Fright and Jekyll’s Inferno. Based on the 1886 novella “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Paul Massie (Dr. Henry Jekyll / Mr. Edward Hyde), Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee, David Kossoff, Norma Marla, Francis De Wolff, Joy Webster. Director: Terence Fisher.

   Hammer’s The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll isn’t a particularly good film, but it’s one I’d nevertheless recommend watching. Not so much for the screenplay or the direction – both competent but no more – but for the production design and the aesthetic, the sets that don’t remotely look like sets, the color scheme, the sense of otherworldliness.

   These, as much as the acting, are what make Hammer Films worth viewing. Somehow, on their somewhat limited budgets, the studio was able to create overtly theatrical horror dramas that unfolded as much in deeply saturated colors as in dialogue.

   This adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella about the duality of man is no exception. If neither Paul Massie, who portrays both Jekyll and Hyde, nor Christopher Lee, who portrays a friend to both men, deliver supremely memorable performances, that isn’t to say that there isn’t other things happening on screen to keep the viewers attention for the duration.

   There are a few scenes set at a London nightclub called The Sphinx that are beautifully executed and lavishly designed. Similarly, there’s a short montage sequence in which Mr. Hyde visits the seedy side of town, making an appearance at a fight club and later at an opium den. But these are unfortunately few and far between in what is basically a rather talky movie that doesn’t do the material justice.


INVISIBLE GHOST. Monogram, 1941. Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, John McGuire, Clarence Muse, and Betty Compson. Written by Helen Martin and Al Martin. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis.

   Not a good movie by any means, but a better one than you might expect, thanks to some subtle work at the margins by Director Lewis and writer Helen Martin.

   Reviewers who tackle this one describe the plot as indescribable, then go on and try to describe it, so instead of that, I’ll just give a quick description:

   As the story opens, Middle-aged Charles Kessler (The writers seem not to have noticed that Lugosi was Hungarian.) sits in his big lonely mansion, still pining for his absent wife (Compson) who ran off years ago with his best friend. It turns out though that she didn’t run very far; Bela’s bosom buddy was killed in a car crash that gave his wife (Betty Compson) amnesia, and for years she has secretly lived somewhere about the grounds, hidden and cared for by the gardener (?!) lo these many years.

   It also seems that from time to time the Mad Missus gets out of the cellar to go lurking around the yard, and whenever Kessler sees her, it puts him in a hypnotic trance and he gotta go out and kill somebody.

   Got that?

   Okay, so like I say, as the story starts there have been maybe a half-dozen murders in and around the Kessler Manse, and we get another one pretty quick – a maid who was once involved with Ralph (John McGuire), the boyfriend of Kessler’s daughter; surprisingly, the writers hint very subtly that she may have been pregnant with his child.

   At any rate, Kessler strangles her, Ralph gets convicted of her murder (Déjà-vu for McGuire, who suffered a similar fate in Stranger on the 3rd Floor the previous year.) and is executed, whereupon his twin brother (also McGuire) turns up chez Kessler to find out whodunit.

   At this point the writers have strained logic and credulity well beyond the breaking point, so I won’t detail any more plot, but I will say that there are glimmers of real creativity in this mess.

   Joseph H. Lewis was a director who could be counted on to add style to anything he worked on, from The Singing Outlaw (1937) to the legendary Gun Crazy (1950), and while he can’t do anything with the leaden illogic of the story, he throws in some flashy camera angles and lighting effects, and actually gets a very naturalistic performance out of Lugosi when he’s not killing anyone — I like Bela, but underplaying was never his forte.

   Even more remarkably marginal is the butler Evans, played by Clarence Muse. Muse was one of the few black actors of his time who brought dignity to every role he had, and he delivers it here with assurance. Whether chiding the (white) maid for gossiping about their employers, or just shooting a knowing look when the cops start interrogating him, he projects an intelligence far above the plot at hand.

   Part of this may have been the co-writing of Helen Martin. I haven’t been able to corroborate this, but IMDB identifies her as the same Helen Martin who helped found the American Negro Theater and appeared on Orson Welles’ stage production of Native Son before going on to a lengthy career as a character actress in films and television.

   This would fit. Clarence Muse himself was a Black Activist and helped found the Harlem Lafayette Theater about the same time Martin was working with Welles. And the writing and playing of his Black Servant part is far more intelligent and subtle than any other comparable part in the movies of its time.

   To see what I mean, you have only to consider the scene where he encounters John McGuire as the dead man’s twin and speculate on how skilled comic performers like Mantan Moreland or Willie Best would have handled it. Then look at how Muse does it: a subtle double-take, then he calmly announces the visitor, walks calmly to the kitchen and quietly asks the cook, ”Do I look pale?”

   Moments like this aren’t enough to keep Invisible Ghost from being a very bad film indeed, but they help make it a very memorable one anyway.



WITCHCRAFT. Lippert Films, 1964. Lon Chaney Jr., Jack Hedley, Jill Dixon, Viola Keats, Marie Ney. Director: Don Sharp.

   Although the plot is highly derivative – there are really no thematic elements you haven’t seen before in a Gothic horror film – Witchcraft is actually a strongly effective horror movie. Filmed in crisp black and white, the movie makes ample use of limited settings. In terms of its ability to delivery a general feeling of supernatural otherworldliness throughout the proceedings, this Lippert Films production certainly punches well above its weight.


   In his final proper film role, Lon Chaney Jr. portrays Morgan Whitlock, patriarch of the enigmatic Whitlock clan. Rumor is that the Whitlocks are involved in witchcraft and have been for generations. Furthermore, legend has it that in the seventeenth-century, one of the Whitlock women was accused of being a witch and was subsequently buried alive. The main beneficiary of this act was the Lanier family that has since owned much of the Whitlock family estate.


   So when, in the current era, Bill Lanier (Jack Hedley) begins plans to build a modern development on the Whitlock lands, it’s only a matter of time before the tension between the two families comes to a head. Unfortunately, Bill Lanier wasn’t careful enough in his instructions to the construction crew who, unbeknownst to him, bulldoze the Whitlock graveyard. That sounds bad in and of itself. It’s far worse when that act of recklessness frees Vanessa Whitlock (Yvette Rees), the accused witch from centuries ago, from her living tomb!

   Although the acting in Witchcraft is pretty much average with no standout performances, the cinematography is excellent. There’s also a pervasive feeling of weirdness that permeates the film, giving it an otherworldly quality. Much of this, I think, is probably due to Don Sharp’s direction. Although not widely known outside of horror film circles, Sharp was a director who made the most of what he had to work with.


THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. Hammer Films, UK, 195(. Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee, Francis de Wolff and Arnold Marle. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on the play The Man in Half Moon Street, by Barre Lyndon. Directed by Terence Fisher.

   The Hammer team at the top of their form, with a superior effort mostly overlooked these days.

   The tale is a familiar one by now, with Anton Diffring as the mysterious doctor who never ages – as long as he can get a gland transplant every ten years. The complications are predictable, but scenarist Sangster runs through them at a brisk trot, and Director Fisher works particularly well here with the photographer and set designer to evoke an atmosphere of lavish horror: all twisting stairways and foggy streets, imparting an air of mystery to Sangster’s straightforward script.

   Anton Diffring anchors the film firmly in Dorian Gray territory with a Hurd-Hatfield-like performance of restrained emotion and glassy countenance. Hazel Court projects sexy intelligence, and Christopher Lee and Francis De Wolff do well in less colorful parts. But the acting honors here go to a lesser-known actor: Arnold Marle, who plays Dr. Ludwig Weiss, the old guy who has been been keeping Anton alive all these years, but is no longer up to the task.

   This character speaks as the conscience of the piece, and Marle does a helluva job. He was an actor in German Cinema from its early days, fled the Nazis as so many did, and carved out a long career on the stage, with frequent jumps to movies & TV. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but when Dr. Weiss speaks wearily about the folly of sacrificing individuals for an idea, you can feel Marle’s life talking to you.

   It’s a performance and a role that adds depth to a good-looking film, and it lifts The Man Who Could Cheat Death an important notch above the other fine Hammer movies of its time. This is one worth seeing.

THE DEVIL-DOLL. MGM, 1936. Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton. Based on the novel Burn Witch Burn by Abraham Merritt. Director: Tod Browning.

   After serving 17 years in a French prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a former banker escapes. With him is a scientist who has a formula for shrinking everything, including living creatures, to a sixth of their size.

   There is a small problem, however. Brain matter in humans is reduced as well, and anyone shrunken in size by the formula becomes a slave to the mental powers of those using it. This, of course, is a fine way to extract revenge upon those who have done you wrong.

   The special effects are spectacular, but in truth all they can do is make this old-fashioned melodrama just barely digestible.

— Reprinted and slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. Woolner Brothers Pictures, 1967. Ferlin Husky, Joi Lansing, Don Bowman, Merle Haggard, Linda Ho, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and George Barrows as the Gorilla. Written by Duke Yelton. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

   I followed up SLEEP. MY LOVE [reviewed here] by watching HILLBILLYS (sic) IN A HAUNTED HOUSE something in the manner of a man putting a gun to his head, hoping the culture shock wouldn’t kill me. Indeed, if I may compare-and-contrast, where SLEEP tends to be elegant and thoughtful, HILLBILLYS (sic) is nasty, brutish and short: eighty-eight minutes of forgettable songs, indifferent acting and a script for which the author must surely burn in Hell.

   I liked it quite a lot, actually. Sometimes it’s fun to turn off the Brains, and watching this is as close as one can come without the use of firearms or illegal substances. It was kind of fun, in a depressing way, to see Basil Rathbone, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. all spooking like troupers, playing bad guys in a monster movie one more time, buckling on their sneers, leers and menacing looks for one last waltz with a guy in a gorilla suit — something like the aging lawmen in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY trying to summon up a strength they no longer have, getting by on the vestiges of their legends. Or maybe just three actors in search of a paycheck.

   This was doggedly directed by Jean Yarborough, his last film and a fitting coda for an artist who, in his day, worked with all the big names in bad movies: Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, Rondo Hatton, Bela Lugosi… he even did an unacknowledged mini-adventure series with Mantan Moreland fighting Nazis in the tropics. Check out LAW OF THE JUNGLE or KING OF THE ZOMBIES. Both were directed — along with THE BRUTE MAN, THE DEVIL BAT and others too feeble to mention — by Jean Yarborough.

   Even in his hey-day, Yarborough’s style was nothing very remarkable, and HILLBILLYS (sic) is no better than the indifferent rest of his work, except in the ironic fact of its existence. It’s as if the gods of the B-movies had settled on this as this as the curtain line of a forgotten play, the destiny to which a plodding director must wander, Bogart-like, to his own personal Casablanca. Poetic justice, perhaps. Or maybe just doggerel.

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