Ratings Key



★★★★
= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
★★★
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Gargoyles (1972) (TV)

Directed by:
B.W.L. Norton

Author, university professor and anthropologist Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde), who specializes in demonology and the occult, and his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt), take a station wagon trip across the desert. During a stop at Uncle Willie's Desert Museum in "Devil's Crossing," they learn from Uncle Willie himself (Woody Chambliss) about an Indian legend and then shows them a horned, winged inhuman-looking skeleton that he's found nearby. Dr. Boley is skeptical at first, but after something (or more specifically, some things) start attacking Willie's shed and punctures the roof with its claws, his doubt quickly vanishes. Willie is knocked out, burns up in a fire and Mercer and Diana flee with a skull of one of the creatures to an out-of-the-way hotel run by drunken, lonely old Mrs. Parks (Grayson Hall, who'd just wrapped her final season of the vampire soap Dark Shadows a year earlier). After unsuccessfully trying to warn the police, the gargoyles flip a car over, get their claws on Diana and retreat to their cave dwelling, while Dr. Boley tries to organize a posse to help locate her. Eventually everyone discovers that the evil creatures have been patiently waiting for 500 years for their opportunity to claim possession of the Earth.

This is one of several '70s tele-films that's semi-famous for scaring the bejesus out of countless children when it first debuted on ABC TV. So how well has does it hold up after all these years and for those of us who aren't looking at it through nostalgic rose-tinted glasses? Actually, not too bad. I enjoyed it for the most part. It moves along briskly, is well made and entertaining. The Emmy-winning lizard-like gargoyle designs and makeup (contributed by Del Armstrong, Ellis Burman and Stan Winston) are still wonderful creations. I must admit that I preferred the first half of the movie when things were a bit more obscured. Toward the end more fantasy-oriented things begin... Such as a couple of the gargoyles that start talking... In English... With bizarre, electronically-altered voices. I guess that was necessary to give them their motive, but it sucks the creep factor right out of the film. I could ask other questions, such as "Why would a winged monster need to ride a horse?" or "Why are the gargoyle eggs (yes, "gargoyle eggs") three times the size of a grown gargoyle?" but I guess it's not really all that important.

The cast includes Bernie Casey (who's excellent) as the lead gargoyle and a young Scott Glenn as a motorcyclist. Richard Moll is supposedly in there somewhere too but I don't recall seeing him. Perhaps, he plays one of the monsters? Unlike many other TV movies from its era, this title is very easy to find. There were several video releases, a laserdisc release and a 2000 DVD release from VCI Home Video (an excellent quality print).

★★1/2

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Frankenstein - 1970 (1958)

...aka: Frankenstein 1960
...aka: Frankenstein 1975

Directed by:
Howard W. Koch

You can almost imagine the creators of this one sitting in an office successfully pitching their product to backers. For starters, Hammer's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and American International's (I WAS A) TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN were both big hits the previous year. Secondly, there's the novelty of having Boris Karloff, most associated with his role as "The Monster" in the classic Universal series of course, being able to tackle the mad doctor role for the very first time in a contemporary setting. Throw in some atomic age mumbo jumbo (very on-trend in the 50s) and some then-high tech lab sets located in catacombs beneath a Gothic castle and you've got a fairly clever premise that blends the old with the new. While the results are far from spectacular, this also isn't the complete washout I've seen it written off as either.

To celebrate the 230th anniversary of the writing of Mary Shelley's book, a small crew travels to Germany to film the pilot for a proposed TV series. They chose Castle Frankenstein as their shooting location and even tap sinister, facially-scarred Baron Victor Frankenstein (Karloff), the weary last descendant of the legendary family, to be one of the show's stars. Little do they know, but Victor's actually splicing together his own hulking monster in his lab... and he needs fresh body parts! When his kindly servant Shuter (Norbert Schiller) discovers what the mad doc is up to, he's hypotised, murdered and has his organs removed and transplanted into the creature. Instead of utilizing lightning (hey, this is 1958!), Victor sticks it in his "atomic steam generator" and is able to bring the monster (which is bandaged from head to toe) to life. The only catch is that it still needs a pair eyeballs...

The list of proposed organ donors includes film director Douglas Rowe (Don 'Red' Barry), starlet Carolyn Hayes (Jana Lund), script girl Judy Stevens (Charlotte Austin), publicist Mike Shaw (Tom Duggan), cameraman Morgan Haley (John Dennis) and even Victor's own friend and colleague Wilhelm Gottfried (Rudolph Anders). Karloff gets plenty of screen time here; some call his performance campy, and perhaps it is, but he's still a lot of fun to watch here. Still, we have to deal with the uninteresting love lives of the side characters. The director has the hots for his lead actress, but she's not interested, and the publicist is in love with the script girl, but she's the director's ex-wife and still carries a torch for him, etc. Though Karloff completely dominates the proceedings, Austin (who starred in the Ed Wood-scripted THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST the very same year) is the only one who manages to stand out amongst the supporting cast.

The sets are quite good (especially considering the 110K budget) and it was shot in Cinemascope, but the film suffers a lot from pacing problems and drags in the middle after a very promising and amusing opening twenty minutes. We also never get a look at the square-headed monster (played by Mike Lane) as it's covered from head to toe in bandages the entire time. In fact, the French release title of this translates to FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE INVISIBLE MAN!

It was released on VHS in 1997 by Warner Home Video (a pan/scan presentation) but wouldn't make its way to DVD until October of 2009 on the box set "Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics," which is also distributed by Warner. The other titles on the set are THE WALKING DEAD (1936), YOU'LL FIND OUT (1940) and ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945).

★★

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Alien degli abissi (1989)

...aka: Alien: Creature from the Abyss
...aka: Alien: La creature des abysses
...aka: Alien from the Deep

Directed by:
Antonio Margheriti

Science professor/reporter Jane ("Julia McKay"/ Marina Guilia Cavalli) and her cameraman Lee (Robert Marius), both of whom work for Greenpeace, travel to a remote, barely-populated island to investigate claims of illegal toxic waste dumping. They sneak into E Chem; a large, heavily-guarded geothermal plant, catch them throwing barrels of waste into an active volcano and take video evidence. As they're leaving, security camera catch them snooping around. Gruff Colonel Kovacs (Charles Napier, doing that hard-ass, jaw-clenching bad guy routine we love him for), the guy who runs E Chem, sends out some guards to capture them. Lee is smart enough to hide the tape before being apprehended. Jane, on the other hand, stows away on a helicopter, manages to leap out into a lake and is then pursued by the guards through the jungle. Jane is lucky enough to bump into brainy-looking, tobacco-chewing "snake hunter" Bob (Daniel Bosch), who's there on the island to acquire snake venom to see to a pharmaceutical company. With his help, Jane manages to get to safety, at least temporarily. She still plans on sneaking back over to E Chem to rescue Lee and locate the hidden video. We are now over 50 minutes into this movie and only one question remains: "Where in the hell is that alien?"

Rest assured, it does finally show up. At first we get mere glimpses of the beast's giant claw as it reaches out and kills people. The monster burrows through the ground and also seems to have either acidic blood or toxic blood that's been effected by the dumped waste. In other words, getting the green blood-gunk on you is bad news as it melts away your flesh. Several characters refer to it as an alien here. What I don't get is why they even bothered having it be an alien in the first place. They've already spent so much time with the chemical dumping plot, so why not just make it a mutant creature spawned from toxic waste? Oh well, I guess "Mutant Metal Crustacion from the Deep" just doesn't have that special ring to it. Well actually, I like the ring of that better, but it probably wouldn't have the same ability to rope in fans of ALIEN (1979) and ALIENS (1986). Speaking of ALIENS, the finale here is almost an exact carbon copy of its finale. The James Cameron film featured a tank top clad Sigourney Weaver using one of those yellow loading dock contraptions to push the alien out of a time lock into space, while this one features a tank top clad heroine using a yellow bulldozer to push the alien into a volcano. So much for originality.

You will need some patience to make it through this one. It's slow moving, the dialogue is pretty cheesy ("Don't come on to me, you snake squeezer!") and many of actors are poorly dubbed, but patience is rewarded with one of the most bizarre-looking monsters ever created. The best way to describe it by calling it an upright scrap metal crab. It's black, oily, skinny and very tall... and its claws are bigger than its body! The fact that someone actually designed this huge thing full scale is also pretty great and makes me resent CG effects more than I already do. There's a decent amount of violence (including a face being ripped off) and jungle action (including a scene where three guys are killed by leaping cobras in a cave), quite a few explosions and some decent miniature model work of the plant being destroyed. Technically, it's a well-made, well-budgeted movie, but as a whole it's still a bit too predictable, derivative and routine to have much staying power. Prolific Euro horror regular "Alan Collins" / Luciano Pigozzi has a good-sized role as nuclear physicist Dr. Geoffrey.

There's no R1 DVD release. I don't think it was ever released here in the U.S. on video either. It was one of the last films from Margheriti (billed here under his usual "Anthony M. Dawson" alias), who worked steadily in Italian films from the late 50s until the early 90s (and passed away in 2002). His other genre work (as director) includes HORROR CASTLE (1963), CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964), THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964), WILD WILD PLANET (1966), SNOW DEMONS (1967), SCHOOL GIRL KILLER (1968), SCREAMS IN THE NIGHT (1968), WEB OF THE SPIDER (1970), SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE (1972), KILLER FISH (1978) and CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980).

★★

Black Castle, The (1952)

Directed by:
Nathan Juran

Adapting the alias "Richard Beckett," Englishmen Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) travels with his faithful servant Romley (Tudor Owen) to a small Austrian village to investigate the recent disappearances of two of his friends who were last seen in the area. He assumes Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally), a sadistic count who seems to have a stranglehold over the entire village, has something to do with it because of an altercation that occured years earlier in Africa that cost him one of his eyes. Ronald has managed to snag an invitation to a hunting competition taking place on von Bruno's grounds (he's even imported a vicious black leopard in for the occasion) and decides to use the opportunity to search for either his friends (granted they're still alive) or evidence that will implicate the count in murder. What Ronald doesn't plan on is falling in love with his host's mistreated wife Elga (Rita Corday), who was forced into marrying a man who has no problem flaunting his infidelities in front of her. Various complications ensue, castle physician Dr. Meissen (Boris Karloff) becomes an unlikely ally and brutish, mute manservant Gargon (Lon Chaney, Jr.) lurks around in the hallways.

You certainly get your money's worth with this Universal production. Not only is it a well-made, extremely entertaining and nice-looking effort recalling the studio's classic era days, but it's also fast-paced, fairly well-plotted (Jerry Sackheim scripted) and offers up a pinch of just about every single genre under the sun. There's swashbuckling action, an exciting hunting adventure, romantic drama and excellent Gothic castle sets, secret passageways, a pit full of hungry alligators, a torture dungeon, a truly sadistic villain and Karloff and Chaney on hand for us horror fans. Both horror stars do what's asked of them here in their smaller supporting roles, but the film centers primarily around Greene and McNally. Thankfully, both actors are great in their roles. Greene is very charismatic and likable as our hero and McNally (in a role that will likely bring to mind the character of Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) gives a terrific performance as the evil, eyepatch-wearing count. In addition, there are nice supporting turns from Michael Pate and John Hoyt as von Bruno's cronies and novel use is made of a fake death serum; an idea later recycled for the all-star Gothic horror THE BLACK SLEEP (1956).

Director Juran would go on to make the cult horror favorites 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957), THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957) and ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (1958), but this is just as noteworthy - if not moreso - than his better-known films. The music score is all stock (including familiar snippets from THE WOLF MAN) and Bud Westmore (whose work adorns over 500 films) did the makeup.

Universal issued an excellent print of the film as part of their "Boris Karloff Collection" set, which also includes the films NIGHT KEY (1937), TOWER OF LONDON (1939), THE CLIMAX (1944) and THE STRANGE DOOR (1951; which was also written by Sackheim).

★★★

Sorcerers, The (1967)

Directed by:
Michael Reeves

Elderly, impoverished professor Dr. Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) promises to painlessly cure stammering, self consciousness, anxiety and other psychological problems through "medical hypnosis." He and his wife/assistant Estelle (Catherine Lacey) run a small clinic out of their own home where they treat patients, but are actually looking for a guinea pig in their mind-control experiments as young antiquity store owner Michael (Ian Ogilvy) soon finds out. While hanging out in a cafe, Michael is approached by Marcus, who promises "an extraordinary evening" if he'll simply follow him home. Michael, who's looking for some excitement and getting a bit bored hanging out in swingin' London clubs with his mechanic best friend Alan (Victor Henry) and sort-of girlfriend Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy), takes him up on the offer, allows the professor to hook him up to a machine, some psychedelic swirls are projected onto his face and now the professor and his wife can control his every action. Not only that, they can also feel exactly what he feels.

Though Marcus wants to immediately share his discovery with the scientific community so it can be used for good, Estelle talks him out of it. She wants vindication for him having been laughed at and discredited by his peers 30 years earlier, which effectively ended his professional career and caused them financial hardship ever since. Estelle first uses their hold over Michael to make him break into a store and steal a fur coat. She then wants to feel the exhilaration of speeding across the country on a motorcycle and the adrenaline rush associated with physical violence. The more she experiences, the more power-mad she becomes. Estelle incapacitates her already frail husband, destroys his equipment and eventually forces Michael to stab his ex-girlfriend (Susan George) to death with a pair of scissors and strangle a pop singer (Dani Sheridan). Michael's chums begin to realize something's not quite right and the cops (led by Ivor Dean) start to close in on him.
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I'm not quite sure what the "point" of this might be, but the storyline itself is full of subtext that helps to keep things interesting. We have an older couple controlling and living vicariously through a young host; experiencing the thrills and highs of a liberated, carefree youth that they likely never had a chance to experience in their own lifetime. As compromise, any time Michael experiences pain or injury, it's also felt by Marcus and Estelle. We also have the power play between husband and wife. From all indications, Estelle has been a supportive, subservient housewife for many years, always cooking her husband dinner and dilligently assisting him in his experiments. The very moment she gets a little control, she uses her newfound freedom to lash out, get the upper hand on her husband and enact out her own little violent scenarios.
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Though the film certainly falls short of its true potential, often seems unfocused and spends too much time showcasing lame pop acts at the nightclub (likely to appeal to a younger audience), this still has its merits. Especially noteworthy are the two lead performances; Karloff does a fine job engaging our sympathies, and he's matched every step of the way by Lacey in the showier role as the increasingly unhinged wife.
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Director Reeves had previously made THE SHE-BEAST (1965), went on to his greatest glory a year after this one with WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) and died of an "accidental barbituate overdose" in 1969 right before production was to begin on THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a project that was handed over to director Gordon Hessler. He was just twenty-five years old. Production company Tigon Film Distributors also released CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964), which was co-written by Reeves, who also served as second unit director on the film.
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Allied Artists handled theatrical distribution here in the U.S., though it's never been officially released here on DVD.

★★1/2

Monday, November 23, 2009

Corridors of Blood (1958)

...aka: Doctor from Seven Dials

Directed by:
Robert Day

In 1840's London, esteemed surgeon Dr. Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff), who is renowned and respected by his peers for both his speed and his efficiency, is trying to find a way to perform painless surgeries. You see, in those days before anesthesia, anyone needing an operation or limb removed were simply strapped down to a table and forced to undergo the painful procedure completely conscious, which often led to some nasty psychological complications later on. At his home-lab, Dr. Bolton begins experimenting with nitrus oxide and other chemicals he thinks may alleviate pain, using himself as a guinea pig and keeping notes of all his findings in a small notebook. When he thinks he's made a breakthrough, he presents his findings to the medical board and is humiliated when things backfire and his patient freaks out. He returns to his lab and decides to begin experimenting with opium. Unfortunately, he's already created too much skepticism from his peers, who've put a block on his access to chemicals and refuse to let him do another demonstration on his findings. Even worse, after dozens of times inhaling the opium compound, he's become a pathetic drug addict who's quickly losing his surgical skills and suffers from blackouts and periods of amnesia.

Whilst on the chemical, Dr. Bolton stumbles into a rowdy tavern in the grotty Seven Dials district and gets hopelessly immersed in the schemes of several shady characters who have been selling suspiciously fresh corpses to the same medical college Bolton's son Jonathan (Francis Matthews) attends. Burly tavern owner Black Ben (Francis De Wolff), with help from his lover Rachel (Adrienne Corri) and a facially-scarred thug named Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee) have been killing the drunken and destitute who wander into the establishment. They get their hands on Dr. Bolton's medical notes and blackmail him into signing the death certificates of their victims. Bolton eventually finds himself hiding out there in a back room, carrying on with his experiments and slowly succumbing to both his addiction and delirium, while the authorities (led by Nigel Green) start closing in.

Despite the fact this wasn't released until four years after it was made and often on a double bill with the fun if inferior Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory (1961), this is a very well made period horror-drama with top notch sets, a strong screenplay and excellent performances. It's an especially good showcase for Karloff, whose well-intentioned character always manages to engage our sympathies even when he's hopelessly siding with evil. Watching the actor go from a driven and caring doctor to a weakened, drug-addled, mindless shadow of his former self is one of the major reasons to see the film, but there's also good work from De Wolff, Corri and much of the rest of the cast. In support, Lee; tall, lean, strikingly dressed in a tophat and all black attire and often standing silently in the background, makes the most of his role as a remorseless killer. The cast also includes Betta St. John as Karloff's daughter-in-law, Finlay Currie as a colleague, Basil Dignam as the hospital board chairman and a young Yvonne "Warren"/ Romain as an abused barmaid.

Day also made the Karloff vehicle The Haunted Strangler (1958) for the same company (Amalgamated Productions). Criterion picked the film up for distribution and have put out an excellent quality DVD with plenty of extras. They also released it as part of a "Monsters and Madmen" box set, which includes the two Karloff/Day collaborations as well as Day's First Man Into Space (1959) and the sci-fi / thriller The Atomic Submarine (1959).

★★★

Grim Reaper, The (1961)

... aka: Thriller: The Grim Reaper

Directed by:
Herschel Daugherty

The popular Thriller series hosted by horror legend Boris Karloff ran from Fall 1960 to Spring 1962 on NBC and made an impact on lots of kids during its day, including a young Stephen King, who has called it "the best horror series ever put on TV." Unfortunately, of the 60+ episodes that were made, only six of them were officially released. This one, along with "The Incredible Doktor Markesan," "Masquerade" (also directed by Daugherty), "The Prediction," "The Premature Burial" and "The Terror in Teakwood" were all issued (separately) on VHS in 1996 by MCA/Universal. And sadly, that was it. Even though some (bootleg) sites offer the entire series on DVD-R, this has yet to see the legitimate box set release it so deserves. "The Grim Reaper" (which aired June 13, 1960 and was the 37th and final episode of the first season) was directed by prolific TV director Herschel Daugherty, who directed 16 episodes of the show and even more episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This one's also noteworthy for featuring William Shatner in an early starring role. Shatner and Daughtery would also work together on an episode of AHP that very same year, as well as several episodes of Star Trek in 1966.



"Someone is in mortal danger as sure as my name is Boris Karloff!"


In 1848 France, Pierre Radin (Henry Daniell) shows up at a boardinghouse looking for his reclusive artist son, only to find he's hung himself and left behind a painting of a skeletal Grim Reaper brandishing a scythe. Over a hundred years later, wealthy mystery writer Beatrice Graves (Natalie Schafer) is living up to her eccentric reputation by surrounding herself with offbeat things. She lives in a has a creepy old mansion, drives around town in a hearst and has just recently purchased the Grim Reaper painting at an auction to hang over her fireplace. Bea's not exactly the upbeat type; she's got a drinking problem and her latest husband, much-younger actor Gerald Keller (Scott Merrill) seems to have eyes for her secretary Dorothy (Elizabeth Allen) instead of her. In comes concerned nephew Paul (William Shatner), who wants to share some information about the painting, which is believed to be cursed. The past fifteen owners have all died unexpected, violent deaths and it's rumored that the painting bleeds whenever someone's about to die. When an inebriated Beatrice is found dead at the bottom of the stairs and it's revealed that Gerald has inherited everything, is it murder, is the story about the painting being cursed true or is it perhaps a combination of factors at work?

One of the most fondly remembered of all of the episodes in the series, and boasting one of the creepiest endings as well; solidly scripted by Robert Bloch (complete with some black comedy, a couple of decent twists and even an Addams Family reference) and nicely acted. Daniell and Karloff (the stars of the 1945 Val Lewton-produced classic The Body Snatcher) unfortunately do not appear in any scenes together here. Daniell appears for just for a few minutes during the opening scene and Karloff only has hosting duties in this one.

Boris Karloff Blogathon November 23-29

In celebration of Boris Karloff's 122nd birthday, a wonderful site named Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog has decided to host a "Boris Karloff Blogathon" and are encouraging fellow film buffs, horror fans and/or admirers of the actor to participate in honoring the horror legend this week. If you have a movie blog, happen to stumble upon this and would like to contribute something, please make a trip to the link above, send them an email and sign up. Unfortunately, I probably won't be able to do a ton of reviews this particular week (got family coming in from out of town), and much of Karloff's work falls outside the years this particular blog covers (1950 to 1990), but I'm aiming to see at least three Karloff films I've yet to see. The blogathon ends November 29th, so the more Boris shout-outs, the better. I'm going to start my dedication with a brief bio and filmography and go from there.
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Born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887 in Camberwell, London, England, Boris Karloff would go on to become one of the most respected, admired and acclaimed actors of all time; arguably the best to appear with regularity in horror films. Sadly, he himself never realized his importance or influence as a performer during his own lifetime, having a self-deprecating sense of humor about it all (he's been quoted as saying "My wife has good taste. She has seen very few of my movies!") After a spell at London University, Karloff emigrated to Canada in 1909, spent around ten years with a touring company and eventually settled in Hollywood, where he worked as a truck driver and sidelines player in silent features. He appeared in such films as THE BELLS (1926; his very first horror feature) and THE UNHOLY NIGHT (1929) before being offered a contract with Universal Studios. After the death of Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi's refusal to play the role after his success in DRACULA, Karloff was offered the role of the monster creation in James Whale's timeless classic FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and delivered a multi-layered performance that shocked both critics and audiences; giving the hulking mass of strewn together body parts an unexpectedly disarming child-like quality. Whale used him again as a sinister butler in his great black comedy THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) and he was the first actor to portray THE MUMMY in a talkie that same year in Karl Freund's atmospheric film of the same name. Karloff would return to England to play another Mummy-like role as an Egyptologist back from the dead in THE GHOUL (1933) and make his first of many subsequent films with fellow horror star Lugosi in 1934's THE BLACK CAT, which allowed him the chance to play one of his most despicable characters; sadistic devil-worshipper Hjalmar Poelzig.

Karloff would go on to reprise the role that made him famous several more times, most notably in Whale's outstanding follow-up, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), where he gave a brilliant, touching and relatable turn as an unloved, misunderstood and outcast member of a shallow and judgemental society. After the genre went into decline after Bride, he made spotty appearances in a few decent horror films and thrillers (most notably doing an outstanding job portraying good/bad twin brothers in 1935's underrated period horror-drama THE BLACK ROOM) and was in great form again playing a club-footed torturer to Basil Rathbone's Richard III in TOWER OF LONDON (1939). In THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939), his wronged scientist avenged his death at the gallows by luring judge and jury to his home and then murdering them off one-by-one. The late 30s also saw him playing Chinese master-sleuth James Lee Wong in a series of five films, beginning with MR. WONG, DETECTIVE.

The 1940s saw a brief resurgence in horror (which died out again by 1946), but Boris managed to headline three excellent Val Lewton-produced chillers, where he gave notable villainous turns in ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945; playing a Greek general), THE BODY SNATCHER (1945; as a murderous grave-robber in one of his very best roles) and BEDLAM (1946; as Master Sims, sadistic asylum master). The 50s saw lots of TV work, two Abbott and Costello horror comedies and more turns as evil-doers, mass murderers and mad doctors. In THE STRANGE DOOR he was more or less wasted playing a manservant torn between doing the bidding of his evil master and helping out a young couple. In 1952's THE BLACK CASTLE he portrayed a similar conflicted supporting role as a murderous doctor. Other horror roles this decade include playing a skeptical scientist in VOODOO ISLAND (1957), a Jekyll and Hyde-like figure in THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (1958), the titular mad doctor in FRANKENSTEIN - 1970 (1958) and a well-intentioned but drug-addicted surgeon who makes an unholy pact with grave robbers in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958).

In the 60s, Karloff was cast as a sorcerer in Roger Corman's horror spoof THE RAVEN (1963), appeared in Mario Bava's seminal horror anthology BLACK SABBATH (1963) in the chilling "The Wurdulak" segment (his only vampire role; he also hosted the American release version of the film), played Nahum Witley in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), one of the very first films based on an H.P. Lovecraft story and provided the voice of Boris von Frankenstein in the animated kiddy film MAD MONSTER PARTY in 1967. Toward the end of his career and in ill health, Boris gave an affecting and very knowing performance as aged horror star Byron Orlok, a character patterned more or less after himself and believes fictional horrors are no competition for real-life ones, in Peter Bogdanovich's impressive debut film, TARGETS (1968). Mr. Karloff wrapped up his long and distinguished career with four pretty awful U.S./Mexican genre films, where he shot his footage in California to be incorporated into footage shot south-of-the-border.

Having appeared in around 70 horror features, Karloff cemented his reputation by appearing on and/or hosting numerous horror/mystery television shows, including Boris Karloff Mystery Playhouse, Out of This World, Suspense, Tales of Tomorrow, Thriller and The Veil. In addition to his screen highlights, Karloff received acclaim for his stage performances in Arsenic and Old Lace and The Lark (receiving a Tony nomination the latter) and was one of the founding members of the Screen Actor's Guild.

Karloff Horrorography [1950-1968]

THE STRANGE DOOR (1951), THE BLACK CASTLE (1952), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953), THE MONSTER OF THE ISLAND (1954), SABAKA (1954), VOODOO ISLAND (1957), CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958), DESTINATION NIGHTMARE (1958), FRANKENSTEIN - 1970 (1958), THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (1958), JACK THE RIPPER (1958), THE VEIL (1958), THE PREDICTION (1960), THE GRIM REAPER (1961), MASQUERADE (1961), THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1961), TERROR IN TEAKWOOD (1961), THE INCREDIBLE DOKTOR MARKESAN (1962), THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963), THE RAVEN (1963), THE TERROR (1963), DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (1966), CAULDRON OF BLOOD (1967), MAD MONSTER PARTY? (1967), THE SORCERERS (1967), ALIEN TERROR (1968), THE CRIMSON CULT (1968), DANCE OF DEATH (1968), THE FEAR CHAMBER (1968), SNAKE PEOPLE (1968), TARGETS (1968)

I've seen Jack the Ripper, The Veil, Die, Monster Die! and Targets but haven't gotten around to doing the reviews for them just yet. Some of the titles listed are from the shows Thriller and The Veil, but were released in the U.S. as features on video so I'm including them here.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ashes of Doom (1970)

Directed by:
Don Arioli
Grant Munro


Made by the Department of National Health and Welfare (with financing from The National Film Board of Canada), this is an anti-smoking horror-short which may have been filmed as a commercial. Set sometime in the 17th Century, it opens with a neurotic, chain-smoking woman (Nadia Salnick) lighting her umpteenth ciggie with a candle. Surrounding her are loads of over-filled ashtrays. A gust of wind blows out the candles, a pale-faced Dracula (played by the director) floats in from the window, the woman passes out, the vampire bites her and then coughs up smoke and keels over himself. The end. The opening title is spelled out with ashes and it runs just two minutes (half of which are credits).
If you would like to view this (courtesy of YouTube), just click right HERE.

★★

Ring of Terror (1962)

Directed by:
Chuck L. Paylow

Review coming soon.

House of the Dead, The (1978)

...aka: Alien Zone
...aka: Last Stop on 13th St.
...aka: Zone of the Dead

Directed by:
Sharron Miller

Passable low-budget anthology (with linking segments) has its moments. Mr. Talmudge (John Ericson), a married plumbing supply salesman away from home on business, leaves his mistress' home and heads back toward his hotel. On the way there he becomes lost and temporarily ducks into a building to avoid a thunderstorm. The building he chooses just so happens to be a funeral parlor, where a nameless motician (Ivor Francis) shows up, gives him some coffee, engages in small talk and then insists Talmudge be given the grand tour of his establishment. While perusing a room full of new arrivals, the mortician tells his new guest how each person ended up there and four variable tales of terror unfold.

The first story involves a hateful school teacher (Judith Novgrod) who is ambushed by a swarm of vampire children in her home. Tale #2 involves a suave serial killer/photographer (Burr DeBenning) who lures women to his home, murders them and then films his crimes. The third (and) best story is a black comic tale of a rivalry between New York homicide Detective Malcolm Tolivar (Charles Aidman) and Scotland Yard's finest Inspector Wendell McDowal (Bernard Fox). Both men have been singled out by Rolling Stone Magazine as being in the running for World's Best Detective and both have really let it go to their heads. While having dinner, Malcolm receives a cryptic note telling him that in three days someone he knows will die and McDowal decides to stay a bit longer in the U.S. to see if he can determine who sent it and why. In the final tale, an insensitive office worker (Richard Gates) falls down an elevator shaft and finds himself being held prisoner in a small, enclosed room where his captor threatens to crush him with a wall of spikes and serves him a steady diet of beer over a prolonged period of time. The film then returns to Mr. Talmadge and the mortician to wrap up their story.

In a fashion similar to EC Comics, each of the tales has an obvious moral message that's not only hammered into our heads during the story but also reaffirmed by the mortician. On the whole, it's visually unimpressive, dimly lit and very tame, but all of the stories have some merit. The first has a couple of genuinely creepy moments. The second utilizes POV camerawork in a fairly interesting way, with the camera stationary in the corner of the killer's room as he does in three victims. The third story is witty, well-written and has great performances from the lead actors. The fourth is completely ambiguous and may be the weakest of the bunch, but it's still fairly interesting. The wraparound is well acted, especially by a suitably creepy Francis.

On IMDb, the film is listed under the misleading ALIEN ZONE title (if there were aliens present at any point I must have missed 'em) and has run times ranging from 100 to 79 minutes. The copy I watched from Mill Creek is the title I've listed it under and runs just 77 minutes. I'm not sure if what I saw was a print censored for TV or what, but I didn't see any of the obvious tell-tale signs this had been cut and the stories seem paced about right. It was filmed in Oklahoma and is gore and special effects free.

★★

Saturday, November 21, 2009

La momia azteca contra el robot humano (1958)

... aka: Aztec Mummy vs. the Human Robot, The
... aka: Human Robot, The
... aka: Humano Robot, El
... aka: Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, The

Directed by:
Rafael Portillo

Sometimes going into a movie completely blind is a good idea. Other times it's not. In this case, I probably should have done my homework before jumping right to the third film of this particular series I was unfamiliar with, but I honestly didn't know this was the third film of a series when it popped up on TCM Underground at 2am. All I know is that I saw "mummy" and "robot" in the title and I just had to see it. The good news is that I didn't really have to see either The Aztec Mummy (1957) or The Curse of the Aztec Mummy (1957) beforehand to follow what was going on here. The filmmakers were kind enough to recycle footage from both of them. As a matter of fact, around 2/3rds of this film's 65-minute run time is a flashback recap to the previous installments. While that personally helped me catch up on what I missed, it also puts this into that lazy cash-grab category that's really impossible to defend.

Dr. Edward Almada (Ramón Gay), his wife Flora (Rosa Arenas) and his assistant Pinacate (Crox Alvardo) invite two scientists over to their home and then go into great detail about their previous run-ins with both a resurrected mummy and the evil Dr. Krupp aka "The Bat" (Luis Aceves Castañeda). We learn that Flora is the reincarnation of Xochi, an Aztec maiden set to be sacrified by her village. She, along with her warrior lover Popoca (Ángel Di Stefani), are apprehended and killed when they try to flee. Popoca still lives on as a mummy in the temple ruins, springing to life any time someone lays a finger on a valuable bracelet and gold breastplate. After an unsuccessful attempt to raid the temple, the mummy's home crumbles to the ground and he's forced to relocate to a cemetery crypt. Dr. Krupp and his acid-scarred accomplice Bruno hypnotize Flora into helping them locate the mummy. They take his treasure (again) and then face dire consequences when the mummy crashes the lab, basically kills all the bad guys and then goes back to his resting place. All of the events listed above are from the first two Aztec Mummy films... and now we only have about 20 minutes left!

In the new footage, Edward and Pinacate discover that Dr. Krupp actually managed to escape the snake pit the mummy had thrown him into through a trap door and is up to no good again. He steals some radium and a brain and constructs a radio-controlled "human robot," which is basically one of those box robots with cylinder arms with the addition of a human head enclosed in a glass bubble. They bring it to the cemetery and into Popoca's new resting place to see if it can defeat the mummy. Unfortunately, the guaranteed campy showdown between the bucket of bolts and the heap of dusty old rags ended prematurely after a prolonged bear hug and just a couple of shoves. Oh well, I enjoyed it while it lasted. All 30 seconds of it.

The film was acquired by K. Gordon Murray 's American International for U.S. consumption and, along with the second film in the series, was sold directly to TV. As a public domain title, it's been released by just about every label under the sun. In 2006, BCI Eclipse released all three movies on one set.

★1/2

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wizard of Gore, The (1968)

Directed by:
Herschell Gordon Lewis

Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) performs a popular Grand Guignol-style magic act where he brings an unlucky lady or two up on stage, straps or ties them down and then brutally murders them before a live, possibly hypnotized audience. What everyone in the crowd sees is torture, agony and bloody bodily dismemberment, but the "victim" manages to ultimately walk off-stage completely clean and completely unharmed... at least for the time being. Soon after, each of the female volunteers die under mysterious circumstances in the exact fashion they died on stage. There's the woman-sawed-in-half chestnut (utilizing a chainsaw), a spike driven all the way through a head, eyeballs poked out, a punch press through the gut and some messy sword swallowing. While the cops investigate, Montag makes sure his tracks are covered by sneaking into the morgue and stealing the corpses. Talk show host Sherry Carson (Judy Cler) and her detective boyfriend Jack (Wayne Ratay) become regulars at Montag's show and start looking into things. Sherry even arranges for him to appear on her popular TV show "Housewives Coffee Break."

Well, I'm not going to sugarcoat it. This was my least favorite of the five schlock-gore films I've seen from Lewis so far. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for it. Maybe I never will be. Call me crazy, but if I'm going to sit through something horribly acted, horribly written, horrible edited and horribly made, I at least want it to make sense. The premise itself is admittedly a fairly clever way to set up all the gore murders (which are the only reason to see this), but all the "reality vs. illusion" bull this one tries to pull out at the very end was just flat out annoying. To me, it felt like various story points were laid out that would require some clarification later on, and then they took the the easiest, laziest possible way out. However they word it, it essentially boils down to a frustrating "it was all just a dream" equivalent in the very end. Then again, when things are as inept and nonsensical as they are here, all it takes it throwing in a couple of camera swirls and you're suddenly being praised for being a surrealist.

Montag himself is extremely grating and extremely loud. Not only are his redunant monologues flat out boring to listen to, but he's asked to overenunciate every other word as if he's trying to make sure people two blocks down the street can hear him. The other actors are dreadful and there's not a single likable or charismatic actor to be found in the entire film. I know that bad performances can be found in all of Lewis' movies, but there's a difference between endearingly amateurish and obnoxious. I just didn't find much of the charm here that I found in some of his better offerings.

The gore sure does hit the spot at times though, so I can at least give it that much credit. The effects (concoted by the director, assistant director Allison Louise Downe and Robert Lewis) are often cheap-looking and shoddy (obvious mannequins, shifting wigs...), but when they work, they're suitably nasty. Montag also likes to gleefully play around with the brains, eyeballs, innards and the blood of his victims. Filmed in 1968 but not released until two years later, Wizard not only went on to inspire the bad taste cult hit BLOODSUCKING FREAKS (1976), but was also remade in 2007 starring Crispin Glover as Montag. The newer version is actually far less gory than the movie that inspired it.

Many labels (Continental, Midnight, Rhino...) issued this on VHS throughout the 80s. Something Weird eventually picked up the entire Lewis catalogue for distribution on DVD, and gave this one a special edition release. It's also available on a Lewis box set.

★1/2

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Metamorphosis (1989)

...aka: DNA formula letale
...aka: Lizard
...aka: Reanimator 2
...aka: Regenerator

Directed by:
George Eastman

With his funding falling through and a promising research project about to be prematurely cancelled, Virginia University geneticist Dr. Peter Houseman (Gene Le Brock) decides to rush through his experiments before his superiors decide to pull the plug. He first tries out his serum (which is supposed to increase cell regeneration to the point where aging is halted) on a baboon, but it dies. Then for some reason that puts into question just how bright Dr. Houseman may actually be, he decides to play guinea pig by strapping himself to a chair and getting the serum shot via syringe directly into his brain through his eyeball (!) He emerges temporarily unscatched and has a brief chance to bask in an increased sex drive and higher energy levels before the obligatory bad stuff starts happening. A sexy blonde student tries to tempt him, but he's more interested in romance with single mom Sally (Catherine Baranov), an auditor sent to check up on how Peter has been spending his grant money.

Right after getting involved with Sally, Peter's nastier side starts to emerge. He starts frequently losing his temper, showing signs of super-human strength and suffering from blackouts and bouts of temporary amnesia. During a trip to the zoo, the animals seem to freak out at his mere presence. He's haunted by visions of going to a whorehouse and knocking around a prostitute (Laura Gemser), then realizes he actually did attack her. Peter disappears into the woods for an entire week, but reemerges a week later looking like hell and claiming he's dying. His assistant, Willy Carson (David Wicker), Catherine and some colleagues attempt to help, but it's too late. Peter keeps rapidly aging until he's a wrinkled, bald old man. And from there, instead of just withering away to a pile of bones, he slowly regresses into some prehistoric lifeform just in time for a mild holiday rampage about town.

Writer/director Eastman, best known as an actor (and for his starring role in the 1980 gore-fest THE GRIM REAPER), shot this one for the Italian production company Filmirage, who were also responsible other 80s/90s video favorites as MONSTER HUNTER (1981), GHOST HOUSE (1987), STAGE FRIGHT (1987), WITCHERY (1988) and the legendary TROLL 2 (1990). It was filmed in America with English-speaking actors (of varying degrees of talent), is poorly lit and amounts to little more than a lesser retread of Cronenberg's version of THE FLY (1986), but is still mildly watchable. The premise itself (far-fetched as it is) isn't bad, there's reasonable pacing (at least for the first hour) and some of the make-up effects are OK. However, it also has one of those drawn-out finales - of monster-doc pursuing Catherine and her thoroughly irritating son Tommy (Jason Arnold) through the lab - that never seems to end. And when this finally does present the fully-formed regressed state of Dr. Houseman, hopefully you don't have a mouth full of soda or you might spit it out all your TV screen when you burst out laughing.

Lead actor Le Brock and Stephen Brown (who plays a aged professor here), also starred in the Filmirage production LA CASA 5 / BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1990). Gemser gets a credit for costume design. Here in America, it was originally released to VHS by Imperial Entertainment in 1990 and is now a common fixture on those Mill Creek bargain sets (the copy I viewed is from "50 Chilling Classics"). In Spain it was released as a sequel to RE-ANIMATOR.

★★

Chin nin lui yiu (1990)

...aka: Chase from Beyond
...aka: Demoness from Thousand Years
...aka: Qian nian nu yao
...aka: Thousand Year Ghost

Directed by:
Patrick Yeung

An elderly wizard (Hou Hsiao) does battle with an evil witch (Meg Lam) over what the subs call "the Bead of Hell," which is basically a glowing blue orb. The witch kills him with a fireball and the wizard's two acrobatic, flying female "fairy" students - Yun Yu Yi (Joey Chan) and Siu Yi (Gloria Yip) step in to defend the magical bead. The witch freezes Siu Yi, while Yun flees with the prized possession into some time warp, with the witch following hot on her heels. One thousand years later, arrogant Captain Mambo (Jacky Cheung) and the Royal HK Police Force have just successfully taken down a master criminal. While driving home later that evening, the captain stumbles upon Yun, who is still being pursued by the witch ten centuries later. Mambo takes Yun back to his apartment and allows her to stay there, little knowing what he's about to get himself into but finding himself falling in love with her all the same (and vice versa). Meanwhile, the police are investigating a series of (off-screen) decapitation murders in the area that are possibly related to the witch's emergence in the city. It's later unveiled that the only way to stop her from destoying mankind is to combine the Bead of Hell with another orange-colored one called "Heaven's Sun Bead," which still needs to be located.

The film would have been better if had stuck to the main plotline, but instead it throws in a load of side characters who are downright annoying; constantly mugging and making goofy facial expressions right at the camera. Aside from that, this has enough action and moments of endearing hokiness to keep it watchable. The blossoming romance between Mambo and Yun actually reminded me a lot of SPLASH (1984), with the man letting a strange but beautiful woman unfamiliar with the modern world stay in his apartment until her true identity is revealed. There's a love montage and a love theme song, too. But the film is at it's best when there's fighting going on and boasts some excellent stunt and wire work. A highlight is Yun and Siu's battle with the witch in a large cave at the beginning and end of the film, which incorporates lots of flips, flying, spinning, jumping and swordfighting. Eventually they even start hurtling stalactites at one another! There's also a bizarre subplot likely inspired by GHOSTBUSTERS which involves two paranormal investigators who have all kinds of gadgets they can use to sniff out ghosts. They can also call forth "The King of Hell," a goofy looking blue cartoon face with three eyeballs who says things like "Don't eat chewing gun!" and "Don't bullshit me!"

You can pretty much gouge whether you want to bother with this one by viewing the trailer...



There's no official U.S. release of this one. The bootleg version I saw (which seems derived from a VHS source) had burnt in English subtitles. The subs are white and frequently placed in front of white clothing and furniture; making it impossible to see all of the dialogue.

★★

Witch Academy (1990)

...aka: Little Devils

Directed by:
Fred Olen Ray

What we have here is an S&M-themed horror farce filmed exclusively in one house and littered with familiar faces, hit-or-miss slapstick gags, rubbery monsters and a generous helping of female flesh. At a sorority house, cruel queen bee Wanda (Suzanne Ager) and her underlings, bitchy Tara (Michelle Bauer) and bimbo Darla (Ruth Collins), are at a loss when plans to attend a party fall through. Bored, they decide to invite ultra-geeky would-be pledge Leslie Perkins (Veronica Carothers) over and plan to completely humiliate her. They mock Leslie's clothes as soon as she arrives and chain her up in the basement. There, she's visited by none other than The Devil himself (Robert Vaughn), who transforms Leslie into a sexy vixen who pretends to be Leslie's sister "Becky" and plots to get her own revenge on the sadistic sorority girls who mistreated her. She also occasionally turns into a large lizard monster who sucks out blood with a long tube-like tongue. Priscilla Barnes shows up as the sorority's sexy house mother, as does Jay Richardson as a sleazeball professor, just in time to fall victim to the creature.

The film's raison d'être is clearly to showcase the charms of the actresses on hand, and the film is reasonably successful on that front. Four of the five actresses have their own nude scenes and spend the bulk of their screen time running around dressed in bras, panties, mini-skirts and see-through lingerie. Not only that, the five are also given a platform to engage in farcical comedy and do their very best with the material handed to them. Unfortunately, the material handed to them just isn't all that good. I could never figure out where the "witch" in the title really stems from. Aside from making a telephone blow up (off-screen) several times, the sorority girls are never seen using any kind of special powers at any point in the film, though they'd obviously come in handy after a certain point. There are also some issues with tone. At times it seems like your standard cheapie horror-comedy spoof of deliberately cheesy gags (including a scene directly referencing the blood test in Carpenter's THE THING) and at others it seems like it's trying to find light humor in sadomasochistic behavior, kidnapping and cruelty.

The copyright in the credits says 1990, but it wouldn't be released until years later. In 1993, a heavily-edited version (minus all of the nudity) made its way onto the USA Network's Up All Night program. I found a listing for a German VHS release (under the original title LITTLE DEVILS) on Amazon from the mid 90s but the first home video release I'm aware of in the U.S. is the 2002 DVD through Ray's own company Retromedia. It's worth a look for fans of the actors, but I wouldn't really recommend it to anyone else.

★1/2

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Flesh Eaters, The (1961)

Directed by:
Jack Curtis

Pampered, bitchy, alcoholic actress Laura Winters (Rita Morley) needs to get to Provincetown in a hurry to prepare for a new stage production. Her secretary and personal assistant Jan Letterman (Barbara Wilkin) pays pilot Grant Murdoch (Byron Sanders) three times his normal fee to fly them there, despite warnings of a nasty tropical storm heading their way. An hour from their destination, the engine freezes and they're forced to land on a small, uncharted island until the bad weather clears. Almost immediately, they stumble upon German marine biologist Professor Peter Bartell (Martin Kosleck), who's there doing research on aquatic life (so he claims) and offers them food and shelter in his tent until they're able to leave. But Bartell is up to more devious things. He's a former Nazi who's carrying on some kind of experiment on living, glowing crystaline parasites that live in the ocean and like to feast on human flesh. Using powerful electric currents, he also plans on transforming all of the little critters into one gigantic monster. After Laura, Grant and Jan find a beach full of dead fish bones and a human skeleton, Bartell unties their plane and pushes it out to sea; trapping the new visitors there until he has a chance to dispose of them.

Considered by some to be one of the first American gore films, this was filmed several years before BLOOD FEAST (1963), though it wouldn't be released until a year after. And yes, it is indeed quite bloody at times. There are scenes of the parasites eating through a leg (and then getting cut off with a knife), boring their way through a stomach and stripping bodies down to skeletons in seconds, plus some icky moments involving the monsters and a blood-oozing empty eye socket. Though the amount of on-screen grue instant distinguishes it, THE FLESH EATERS also deserves credit in many other areas. As a matter of fact, there's enough positive here, and such a Corman-like efficiency to the whole thing, that I wouldn't hesitate listing it as a great example of how to create much from very little.

For starters, it's surprisingly well-written by early graphic novelist Arnold Drake. Drake has not only come up with a clever and interesting premise, but also created colorful characters and given them very witty, sometimes hilarious dialogue that make even the talkier moments a pleasure to watch. Good lines without a good cast might go waste, but thankfully most of the actors here do a fine job with their roles, particularly Kosleck and Morley. Ray Tudor also has a memorable supporting role as a goofy beatnik who washes up onto the island just when things start getting nasty. Nearly the entire film takes place on a lone stretch of beach, but the beautiful black-and-white cinematography and interesting shot compositions make the absolute most of the location and adequately pull off the desolate island feel. That's even more impressive when you take into consideration this was filmed in Long Island.

Director Arnold (who also shot the film under a pseudonym) would unfortunatley never make another genre film and passed away in 1970. Barbara Wilson (TERROR IN THE MIDNIGHT SUN) appears during the opening sequence. Radley Metzger was the editor. The Dark Sky DVD is an excellent quality print and contains a nazi experimentation sequence removed from the finished film, as well as outtakes.

★★★

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rush Week (1989)

Directed by:
Bob Bralver

Raunchy comedies set on college campuses were very popular in the 80s (and still are). So were slasher movies (ditto). RUSH WEEK combines the two and the results are, surprisingly enough, not too bad. Ambitious journalism major Toni Daniels (Pamela Ludwig), a new transfer to Tambers College, immediately joins the school paper and is given her first assignment; covering Rush Week activities. Toni's actually more interested in stories with some meat to them, such as what happened to Julie Ann McGuffin (Kathleen Kinmont), a law student just reported missing by a concerned roommate. While covering her assigned story, Toni bumps into hunky b.m.o.c. Jeffrey Jacobs (Dean Hamilton), begins seeing him and finds out his former girlfriend, who was also the daughter of school dean Russel Grail (Roy Thinnes), was viciously murdered the previous year. All of the new victims (killed by a cloaked, masked figure brandishing a medieval axe) have been secretly posing nude for fat, bald, bearded cafeteria worker Arnold Krangen (John Donovan), who pays the ladies off with marked hundred dollar bills.

Unlike many of its slasherkin, there's something of a plot here and, while a bit routine at times, the storyline, plot twists and roster of multiple suspects are handled with competence by both the director and writers. Ludwig gives an appealing performance, which is pretty important to the film's success since it revolves mostly around her character. The fact she also enlists the aid of fellow college chums in medical and computer studies was also a clever touch. However, I doubt someone as bright as she appears to be would put herself in the situation she does at the finale. Production values are mostly fine and a good number of the supporting actresses provide the requisite T&A. One thing that's noticably missing is gore, and that's not going to set too well with some viewers. In fact, you have to wait over an hour to get any blood at all (the first three kills are all off-screen). Even then, there's just a quickie axe-to-the-chest and a decapitation.

As with nearly every post-ANIMAL HOUSE film set on a college campus, the humor is pretty crude (parties! mooning! grave robbing!) and a decent amount of time is dedicated to showcasing it. Jeffrey's frat house, where all the cool, fun-loving guys hang, is in some kind of rivalry with another frat house full of stuffy, rich, uptight preps. During one scene, Jeff and a few of his brothers crash a classy reception at their snobby rivals' home and substitute a gay cowboy porno for their initiation video. Other comic gems involve sneaking an actual human finger into a guy's french fries (guess someone just saw THE HITCHER) and tricking a prostitute into screwing a corpse! Rush Week at this particular school also culminates in an annual "fright night" costume party. They even get The Dickies to show up and perform two songs. Their entertaining show involves the lead singer popping out of a coffin dressed like a vampire and the lead guitarist wielding a hilariously huge chainsaw-guitar.
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Gregg Allman of all people shows up as Toni's student advisor/boss. He's a hippie named Cosmo and one of his two briefs scenes has him meditating in a room with a topless woman. Arthur Roberts (who plays the alien guy in the 1988 remake of NOT OF THIS EARTH) makes an even briefer (uncredited) appearance as a future college student's father. The cast also includes Todd Eric Andrews (star of ZAPPED AGAIN!, another campus comedy), Laura Burkett (the girl featured in the BLOOD BEACH ad art) and Dominick Brascia (director of EVIL LAUGH and others).

★★1/2

Girls on the Road (1972)

...aka: Hot Summer Week

Directed by:
Thomas J. Schmidt

Self-proclaimed "wallflowers" Karen Moore (Dianne Hull), bespeckled class valedictorian, and Debbie Rae (Kathleen Cody), blonde cheerleader, plan a week-long trip to Big Sur for their graduation and to get away from their overly-strict parents. Before they arrive at their destination, the little hellraisers break about every single traffic violation in the course of about two minutes, cause a traffic accident by slamming on their brakes, cause a second accident by flashing a guy, drive around flipping everyone the bird and get pulled over by the cops for "littering" (i.e. throwing one of their bras out the window). They discuss losing their virginity, argue a little and giggle a lot. Just missing out on a news broadcast about a psycho strangler on the loose, they also decide it would be a swell idea to start picking up hitchhikers. Well, except for ones who are ugly ("Ugh, who'd pick them up?") or gay ("That's all we need... a couple of fags!"). I guess some could view this as being typical teenage behavior, but it didn't exactly make me not want to see them cross paths with the serial killer. Which, of course, is exactly what happens.
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The misadventure of the carefree girls are cut with the story of Will (Michael Ontkean), a young soldier just back from 'Nam who's naturally pretty fucked up. Blue-tinted flashbacks show his therapy sessions, where he's basically brushed off by his uncaring shrink (Michael Kopsche). Will gets into a bar brawl, smashes a bottle over a guy's head and kicks another in the crotch right before hitting the highway to hitch a ride. Guess who pulls over to give him a lift? Why Karen and Debbie, of course! Will's on his way to "The Institution;" a free love hippie commune where he thinks guru John (Ralph Waite, the patriarch of The Waltons) can help him. Karen ends up falling for troubled hottie Will, while Debbie becomes intrigued by older man John, but both are apprehensive about giving up their virtue to either of those sketchy cats. Not even up for consideration is a weird-o hippie named "The Maker" (John McMurty), who carries around a dove, stares intensely at the girls, likes to wear glittery face paint and reminded me of Buffalo Bill from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
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Primarily a coming-of-age tale where our naive heroines must quickly grow up after being forced into various unpleasant, bizarre and/or sexual situations, it also certainly has a place in the horror genre (and was promoted as such on video), with the serial killer aspect, a stragulation, various mentally-disturbed characters and a killer who - once finally revealed - goes completely nutzoid and attacks with an axe. The acting isn't bad, but there's a God awful AM radio tune ("Fantasy in Love") that plays repeatedly and the film doesn't appear to have actually been finished, concluding with a highly unsatisfying freeze frame right when things start getting good.
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The cast includes Pamela Serpe (wife of actor Greg Evigan) as a hippie seductress, Cliff Emmich as a truck driver, stuntman-turned-director Charlie Picerni and 70's skin flick queen Uschi Digard, who can be seen for about five seconds sitting on the beach. There's no DVD to my knowledge, just an ancient VHS released by Unicorn Video.
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★★

Sunday, November 15, 2009

La vergine di Norimberga (1963)

... aka: Back to the Killer
... aka: Castle of Terror, The
... aka: Horror Castle
... aka: Panic
... aka: Terror Castle
... aka: Virgin of Nuremberg, The

Directed by:
Antonio Margheriti

Max Hunter (George Riviere) and his wife Mary (Rossana Podesta) arrive in Germany from the U.S. to stay in a huge ancestral castle formerly occupied by Max's dead father, who presumably passed away during WWII. The home comes equipped with a butler named Fritz, a Mrs. Danvers-like maid named Marta (played by Anny Degli Uberti), a few servant girls and the mysterious, facially scarred Erich (Christopher Lee), who was a former colleague of the father's and runs a museum out of the castle dedicated to showcasing various torture devices. Their very first night there, Mary is awakened by a thunderstorm and screaming. She goes downstairs and finds a freshly-killed woman inside an iron maiden type contraption called a "Virgin of Nuremberg;" a sarcophagus with strategically placed spikes that gouge out the eyes when the door is closed.

Mary passes out and awakens the next day only to discover the body is missing and no one believes her story, despite the fact one of the servants has turned up missing. Everyone around her seems like they're hiding something, which only feeds her paranoia. The husband promptly goes away on business and a hooded figure tries to break into Mary's room later that night. She stabs him on the hand, escapes and later ends up catching the same figure kidnapping a woman (Lucile Saint-Simon) and dragging her to a torture chamber located underneath the castle. There, the woman has a cage strapped to her face, where a hungry rat is unleashed from the other side to gnaw off part of her nose! What's going on? Who's the cloaked figure? Why is he killing women? Why is an American FBI agent (played by Jim Dolen) lurking about? And why is everyone in the house acting so damn sneaky? Everything's conveniently wrapped up with some WWII flashbacks, which mixes newly filmed scenes with stock footage.

The art direction, sets and Riccardo Pallottini's lush color cinematography are all ace in this great-looking, nicely done Gothic horror. The pacing is much brisker than many similar films from the period and the film never really seems to drag. It's also quite grisly at times. There are some exciting moments in here too, such as when one of the men find themselves in an enclosed room quickly filling with water, while Margheriti is able to showcase a nice visual eye in scenes such as when our heroine is frantically running around outside and we see flashes of the trees illuminated by flashes of red or orange. Though the dubbing and dialogue are a bit annoying at times, the storyline itself is both fun and holds some surprise. The wrap-up is fairly well-done, and the unveiling of the identity of the hooded killer is one of those great Phantom of the Opera-esque horror moments worth waiting for. One thing I didn't care much for was Riz Ortolani's overbearing score, which is sometimes inappropriately jazzy, especially at the start.

It was based on a novel by Frank Bogart, which was adapted by Margheriti (who also did the special effects), Ernesto Gastaldi and Edmond T. Greville, (who directed the 1960 version of The Hands of Orlac which also featured Lee and Saint-Simon). It was originally released in the U.S. in a cut version titled Horror Castle. The 2004 DVD release from Shriek Show (under the original title The Virgin of Nuremberg) looks great and is uncut, though Lee has been dubbed by another actor even in this English-language version.

★★★

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Woodchipper Massacre (1988)

Directed by:
Jon McBride

Donna Michelle Productions was a very short-lived indy distributor who pissed off a lot of people during the 80s by releasing some of the absolute worst amateur home video horrors known to man. Their catalogue included such titles as THE ABOMINATION (1986), SPLATTER FARM (1987), the seldom-seen documentary MONSTERS & MANIACS (1988) and this would-be black comedy from the same guy responsible for CANNIBAL CAMPOUT (1988), also a Donna Michelle exclusive. There's no two ways about this one. You'll either find it amusing and endearingly awful or you'll want to rip your hair out one strand at a time from sheer aggravation. Unfortunately, I'm in the second camp. The loud overacting and incessant mugging for the camcorder from the entire obnoxious cast is downright merciless. It just never stops. I found it slightly amusing for about five minutes... And then I just wanted to be put out of my misery.
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Dad (Perren Page) is going to be out of town for business, so he leaves his three kids - eldest son Jon (the director), middle daughter Denice (Denice Edeal) and youngest Tom (Tom Casiello) - in the care of their dear Aunt Tess (Patricia McBride) for the entire weekend. Tess is not only a terrible cook but she's also a fascist, religious nutso bitch who never shuts up and won't let them watch horror movies. She refuses to let grown Jon go on a date. Denice can't even dust a table to her satisfaction. And she forbids little Tom from listening to rock music, demands he clean his pig sty of a room and tries to confiscate his prized Rambo survivalist knife as soon as he gets it in the mail. Not only that, she has a catalogue of annoying bible quotes and old school phrases that constitute the majority of her dialogue.
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During a struggle in the kitchen over the knife, Tom accidentally stabs auntie. The three then decide to dismember her corpse, freeze the body parts and then feed them through a wood chipper in the backyard. So what are they gonna do when Tess' ex-con son Kim (Kim Bailey) shows up looking for his momma and some money? Probably exactly what you think they're gonna do. But will they be able to adequately disposes of two bodies and clean up the yard before dad gets back? The suspense just wasn't killing me and this barely even qualifies as a horror film, let alone a "massacre." I don't really hold that against it, but what I do have a problem with is the fact none of this was particularly clever or funny and it's far too tame to be the outrageous black comedy it so desperately wants to be. The cartoon-like music score is appropriate for the material but the director seems to have coached the cast to scream every one of their lines, likely so the camera's built-in microphone would pick it up.
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Mr. McBride would later form an unholy union with the Polonia Brothers, which would result in such efforts as FEEDERS (1996), FEEDERS 2: SLAY BELLS (1998), BLOOD RED PLANET (2000) and many more. Even though there are thousands of excellent movies out there with no DVD release, this one has one (complete with audio commentary) from the recently revived Camp Motion Pictures.

★1/2

Friday, November 13, 2009

You'll Like My Mother (1972)

Directed by:
Lamont Johnson

Young widow Francesca (Patty Duke) travels via bus to a small, snowbound Minnesota town to visit the mother-in-law her late soldier husband (who was killed during the Vietnam War) was dying to introduce her to before his untimely passing. Immediately upon arriving, Francesca is shocked to find herself greeted with outright cruelty from her husband's bitter, icy mother Katherine Kinsolving (Rosemary Murphy). Mrs. Kinsolving claims she knew nothing of her son's marriage, doesn't hesitate to tell her she's not wanted there, insinuates that all she cares about is money and suggests Francesca, who's very pregnant and about to pop at any moment, give the baby up for adoption! Also living in the home is mute, mentally retarded Kathleen (Sian Barbara Allen), a sister the husband failed to mention even having. Francesca plans to leave as soon as possible and catch the first bus out, but finds herself stranded when her mother-in-law's car won't start. The weather gets worse, the roads are eventually blocked off and she finds herself in a hellish situation with people who may or may not be who they actually claim they are, including Kenny (a pre-Waltons Richard Thomas), a family "cousin" who's lurking in the shadows and might be a rapist and murderer on the lam.
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Francesca's food and drinks are drugged, she's locked up in an upstairs bedroom and finally ends up going into labor. Mrs. Kinsolving, a nurse, helps her during delivery, but claims the baby is stillborn and orders her daughter to dig a hole and bury it in the backyard! Kathleen may not be all there, but she's a good-hearted type who has instead hid the baby in the attic. She also scores a key for the room and gives it to Francesca, so she can sneak out to care for the baby until the snow clears and there's an opportunity for her to escape.
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Based on a then-popular novel by Naomi A. Hintze, adapted for the screen by Jo Heims (who'd just scored with PLAY MISTY FOR ME), this extremely unpleasant but absorbing and compelling psychological horror tale manages to separate itself from similar films in a variety of ways. On the outset, it may remind one most of the 1965 Hammer effort DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (1965), but it's completely without that film's over-the-top camp appeal contributed mainly by the larger-than-life presence of Tallulah Bankhead. Here, the premise is disturbing and completely plausible. The wintery atmosphere, and the feel of being trapped and isolated, is milked for all its worth and the suspense and tension are both expertly modulated throughout. The sick relationship that unfolds between Mrs. Kinsolving and Kenny is done with a fair amount of tact. Best of all, the director has managed to get four outstanding performances from his actors.
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I just recently gave Duke a hard time for her shrill portrayal of Rosemary in LOOK WHAT'S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY (1976), but she gives a terrific performance in this one. You genuinely feel invested in her character (she's poor, doesn't have a family of her own, has recently lost her husband and now finds herself in this horrible situation) and care about what happens to her and her little baby. Ditto for the little-known Allen (who received a Golden Globe nomination for her work here), who's excellent in a memorable role as the abused Kathleen, a role that requires her to convey everything through unintelligible grunts and facial expressions alone. The usually wholesome Thomas is suprisingly creepy and Murphy is perfection as the ice cold mother-from-hell.
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One minor flaw here is the clumsy use of voice-over narration to convey Francesca's inner thoughts. Though thankfully only used a couple of times, it struck me as being completely unnecessary. Sometimes erroneously listed as a made-for-TV movie, this actually received a limited theatrical release in 1972 via Universal before making its TV debut a year later on NBC.
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★★★1/2
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