Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dark Echoes (1977)

...aka: Curse of Captain Ghor, The
...aka: Dark Echo
...aka: Deep Echo
...aka: Maldiocao de Ghor, A

Directed by:
George Robotham

What we have here is an extremely hard-to-find Austrian / Hungarian / Yugoslavian 'underwater ghost / zombie' flick that, to my knowledge, was never released legitimately on DVD or VHS anywhere other than Argentina (who had a video released many years back through TVE), Poland (thanks for the info Humanoid!) and either Brazil or Portugal (judging by the Portuguese subtitles on the print I watched). I also can't find any verification online about whether it ever played theatrically or not. It's one of those movies that doesn't seem to have a poster or a video cover anywhere online. In fact, there isn't even very much information about this title over on IMDb either. Dark Echoes is very slow-going and is probably of minimal interest to most because of that, but still has some merit and parts of it are quite interesting. And since there actually weren't that many zombie movies released during the 1970s (LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, DAWN OF THE DEAD and ZOMBI 2 being the three major ones), it's probably worth a look for die-hard zombie movie completists.

Watching a combination of American, British and European (French, Hungarian, German...) actors filling out the cast, all of whom speak English with varying degrees of success, makes it a bit hard to get a feel for the location. The plot (which reminded me of the later The Fog) involves a series of mysterious murders plaguing a small, lakeside village in Austria. The local police (headed by Wolfgang Brook) are aided in their investigation by American psychic Bill Cross (Joel Fabiani), local writer Lisa Brueckner (Karin Dor) and others. The killer turns out to be a skull-faced zombie / ghost sea captain who resides in wreckage at the bottom of the lake during the day but sneaks up to the village at night to kill off the descendants of those responsible for his death years earlier. There's also some old backwoods witch with a raven on her shoulder who secretly leads a cult of young villagers. These scenes didn't seem to have a lot to do with the main plot but they're colorful and do provide some gratuitous nudity.

First, the negatives...
- It takes about an hour to actually get a good look at the killer, and the first introduction of it (which should have been jarring) is a bit fumbled.
- It's extremely talky and some of the dialogue is terrible.
- The 'idiot plot' syndrome rears its ugly head quite a few times, especially when Dor's character - one of the killer's targets - is left alone out in the middle of a field while a mob goes off into the woods chasing after the killer.
- It's lacking in blood / gore aside from one underwater stabbing and a gory decapitation.

Now on to the better stuff...
- The acting is decent.
- It's well photographed, including some decent underwater photography.
- The village setting is atmospheric, and good use is made out of crumbling old buildings.
- The music score is excellent.
- The zombie design (from John Chambers and Tom Burman) is actually really good.
- Despite the fact the zombie is kept off screen until near the end, the POV camerawork of a growling, heavy-breathing killer is well done and creepy.
- Several of the deaths, while lacking blood, are still effective, including a woman pushed out of a window and landing on a rocky embankment below.

And finally a little bit of trivia...
The director was born in Germany, relocated to the US where he played on UCLA's football team and then went on to work in Hollywood as a stunt double for the likes of Rock Hudson, Clark Gable and John Wayne. Dark Echoes marks his first and only film as director. He was married to lead actress Dor from 1988 until his death last year from Alzheimer's complications last year.


La setta (1991) [filmed in 1990]

... aka: Demons 4
... aka: Demons IV: The Sect
... aka: Devil's Daughter, The
... aka: La secta
... aka: Sect, The

Directed by:
Michele Soavi

I'm through with Michele Soavi! Through with his horror-ography, that is. Finally seen them all, from the 1985 documentary Dario Argento's World of Horror to 1994's Cemetery Man. It always feels good to see everything a director has to offer, right? My last watch is his 1991 film La setta aka The Sect, which was filmed over a two month period starting in September 1990 so it can be included here. The film was released here in America under an awful and misleading title I don't even want to type out again. There are some awesome visuals in here, along with nicely done production design courtesy of Massimo Antonello Geleng, excellent cinematography from Raffaele Mertes and a great score composed by Pino Donaggio. In addition, this thing is filled with perplexing, off-the-wall ideas that will make most viewers go "WTF?!," but, I think, in a good way. It's the first time I recall seeing a woman getting raped by a bird or a bunny rabbit using a remote control, that's for sure!

Unfortunately, like most of Michele's other movies, the dialogue is diabolical(ly awful), some of the lead actors are terrible and much of the story seems swiped from a popular movie directed by Roman Polanski. I'm sure you've heard of it before. While Polanski's film was a solid piece of work from top to bottom, Soavi's can be referred to as "ROSEMARY'S BABY: All dressed up with no place to go." Sometimes I get the impression that certain directors try to be weird for the sake of being weird, but lack the focus or talent to bring it all together in a cohesive, satisfying way, and Soavi has seemed to straddle that fence throughout his career.

Things start with a bunch of hippies (cue "Horse With No Name") being killed by cult members in California during the 1970s before jumping ahead 20 years to Frankfurt, Germany. Jamie Lee Curtis' sister Kelly Curtis stars in this one as an emotionally unstable school teacher. You can certainly see a family resemblance, though Kelly is more beautiful in my humble opinion. The major difference between the two is that Jamie Lee can act and Kelly cannot. Herbert Lom co-stars (and gives one of the film's only good performances) as an elderly, dying man Curtis almost runs over and then lets stay in her home. Lom carries around a mystery box he won't let anyone else touch, keeps drinking water and has special drops he keeps putting into his eyes. He sneaks a beetle into a sleeping Curtis' nose and from then on out things go all kinds of bat shit weird as her tap water turns an unnatural color of blue, her pet bunny starts watching TV, a piece of cloth starts trying to smother people, she starts hallucinating about wind chimes and a long tunnel leading about a mile underground is found in a secret room in her cellar (which she didn't know was there despite being in the home for eight months).

Describing the plot or trying to make sense out of it, is pretty much fighting an uphill battle, but it's best to describe this one as the aforementioned Rosemary's Baby spiced up with odd, sometimes surreal flourishes. There's a cult at work here, and Curtis is the innocent target, and people she knows and trusts are actually conspiring against her and the birth of the Antichrist may be a chief objective of the bad guys and, yeah, you know the rest. The ending tries to tie it all together, but it's muddled and lacking in motivation. The film is devoid of the characterization, strong performances, suspense, increasing paranoia and claustrophobia of Polanski's movie, even though there's plenty to enjoy from a strictly visual standpoint. But at the end of the day, it did manage to keep me both interested and entertained throughout.

La Setta was written by Soavi, Dario Argento (also one of three producers) and some other chap and features supporting performances from Euro horror regulars Mariangela Giordano (Peter Bark's generous mama in Burial Ground) as Curtis' friend, Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen aka the guy who doesn't really like horror flicks but gets typecast in them anyway) as a guy who cuts out a woman's heart for some reason or another, Tomas Arana (star of Soavi's The Church) as a bearded cult leader, Donald O'Brien (Dr. Butcher, Medical Deviate) and more. Soavi appears in a cameo on a TV set and supposedly Daria Nicolodi is in it (at least according to IMDb), even though I don't recall seeing her anywhere.

A brief overview of the films of Michele Soavi:

Il mondo dell'orrore di Dario Argento (Dario Argento's World of Horror) (1985) - Ironically, this documentary about the films of that other popular Italian director (whom Soavi obviously is heavily inspired by and used to work for) is among my favorite of Soavi's work. It's very well done. ★★★

The Valley (1985) - A horror-ific 4-minute music video for Bill Wyman's piece from Argento's Phenomena, complete with a young Jennifer Connelly. Cheese-city baby, even for the 80s. ★1/2

Deliria (Stage Fright) (1987) - Sometimes visually interesting, but otherwise routine Italian slasher (or "giallo" if you think everything made in Italy involving a killer is a giallo). It's been awhile since I last saw this one, but it didn't wow me much when I did. I may give it a re-watch sometime. ★★1/2

La chiesa (The Church) (1989) - An excellent first half (including a great period-set prologue of Teutonic knights slaughtering villagers) becomes way too silly in the second as a bunch of annoying people become trapped in an ancient cathedral where demons take over. Strong visuals and score, but indifferent acting, leaden pacing and poor dialogue keep it from greatness. There's also a silly direct copy of a scene from ROSEMARY'S BABY. Does Soavi love that movie, or what? ★★1/2

La setta (The Sect) (1991) - Looking over my other ratings, apparently I saved the best of Soavi's horror flicks - which seems to be his least talked about, for last. Color my surprised.

Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (1994) - I could write a thesis paper on the many ways this film simultaneously irritates me and leaves me colder than the corpses Rupert Everett keeps taking down, but I'll pass. ★★

*Mr. Soavi has seemed to turn his attention to Italian made-for-TV movies in recent years. I'm not sure if any of those qualify as "horror" or not.

In defense of veteran horror filmmakers/icons...

I've recently noticed a lot of director bashing going on, so I just wanted to throw my two cents in... Of course, this is all my personal opinion on some of the most talked-about horror filmmakers...
Say what you want, but Dario Argento's Mother of Tears was greatly entertaining to me personally. Yes it's fairly stupid (then again, so was Suspria), but some of the old magic - more prevalent in MOT than it has been since 1987's Opera - is still there. I also like The Stendhal Syndrome quite a bit, but MOT is undoubtedly more fun to watch. I also might enjoy it a bit more than Inferno, just because the tone of Inferno has always rubbed me the wrong way even though it's far classier and artier than MOT could ever dream of being. So for what it's worth, MOT renews my faith in Argento after being disappointed in most of his newer offerings.
Again, say what you want but I will continue to defend and admire George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead. People expect a lot out of George. I do, too, since Night and Dawn are two of my favorite horror movies. I was let down by Land, I hated Bruiser, so I was about over Romero before I watched this, but Diary has single handedly renewed my interest in him. In my opinion, it's his best film since the late 70s. The immediacy found in early Romero but lost to budget over the years has been found once again with his newest, lower-budgeted effort. It's also a hell of a lot better and more ambitious than either Cloverfield or [REC].
It seems Wes Craven does a movie or two each decade that's obscenely popular and hugely influence. In the 70s it was Last House (or The Hills Have Eyes), in the 80s it was A Nightmare on Elm Street and the 90s it was Scream. I hated Cursed, but Red Eye wasn't the end of the world. I still have faith in Wes as a director, as he seems to at least knock one out of the park every ten years or so, with some interesting moments in between.
I also don't really get the Tobe Hooper bashing. In my opinion, he's made more quality horror films than John Carpenter has. Carpenter's The Thing seems to be a rare film whose popularity transcends generations (the high amount of gore and its reliance on special effects a likely reason), while Hooper's TCM seems to be less impressive to the younger generation; many of whom proudly proclaim the remake or "The Beginning" is better. Personally, I think TCM is superior to anything Carpenter has done, but that's me.
I've never been a huge Stephen King fan but it's futile to critize someone so important to the genre over the past 30 years. I do enjoy some of his novels (though he's far from my favorite), and have enjoyed many films based on his writings; Carrie, The Dead Zone, Cujo, Misery, The Shining, etc. I don't think anyone I listed above deserves to be called a "hack."
I really can't comment much on the likes of Alexandre Aja, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth or whatever flavor of the month people seem to be obsessing over as they have not made enough films and perhaps need time to discover themselves. I'll just say that all have kept me at arm's length so far. I see some promise at times, but they've all fallen short of being able to impress me with any of their films and I already see a lot of repetition from them. If you look back at the likes of Romero, Craven, Hooper, Argento, Mario Bava, etc. you will notice they all struck gold and made revolutionary films right out of the gate, which are what ensured they'd even had careers in the first place. In other words, they achieved success the hard way - by earning it. If they'd made a couple of awful films to start as most of these new guys do, who knows if they'd even have the opportunity to make a third...
Many of today's genre filmmakers have careers based on hype and image, not on talent. If these guys had been around thirty years ago, they probably would have been chewed up and spit back out. You have to wonder where some of these newer fellas even get their juice from. I think Roth exploited the internet and his genre knowledge to win people over (riding Quentin Tarantino's coattails also proved beneficial, I'm sure), while Zombie obviously already had a tailor-made army of fans left over from his music career ready to embrace his filmmaking career regardless of whatever he put out. I think both still have a lot to learn, so hopefully they'll be able to grow as filmmakers instead of falling into traps.
I was startled that Zombie chose Halloween as a project after the success of The Devil's Rejects. He had to have done that strictly for the money, especially in light of the fact he'd publicly ridiculed remakes and those who made them. His "reimaging" excuse was simply horse *beep* and now I see people throwing that word around all the time, which gets on my last nerve. I have less faith in Roth, though. He's a mixture of ass kissing (to get projects off the ground) and half-assed (when it comes to the actual films). Hostel II was nothing more than a sex switch on the original and the exact type of cynical, soulless $$$ grubbing venture that I consider creative bankruptcy. I was really happy to see that film flop. The fact Zombie's Halloween did well (which I am still convinced boils down to brand name recognition alone) makes me hope he's able to parlay that success into something worthwhile. I'm still waiting on it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1983)

...aka: Mountain Top Motel

Directed by:
Jim McCullough, Jr.

I'm sure a lot of 80s horror freaks have seen this one based on the memorable tag line alone - "Please do not disturb Evelyn...she already is!" Anna Chappell stars as the elderly Evelyn, who's let out of a mental hospital and starts running the Mountaintop Motel, a scuzzy string of run-down shacks out in the sticks that would have me sleeping in the nearest ditch. She snaps again and, on a dark and stormy night, beings murdering people stranded at her hotel. Guests include a honeymooning couple, two reverends, a record executive and a pair of Barbara Mandrell clones who don't wear bras (as evidenced by a scene where both are caught out in the rain wearing flimsy white tops). Funny sounding cosmic music plays whenever Evelyn is up to something devious. She lurks around in underground catacombs spying on victims with her bugged-out eyes, hears her dead daughter's voice, sneaks snakes, roaches and rats into rooms and hacks people up with a sickle.

This isn't even in the same ballpark as the major movie it draws inspiration from - PSYCHO - but who's really expecting it to be? If you're more reasonable and have no expectations going in, it really isn't all that terrible. Shot on a very low budget in Louisiana, this has an effective desolate backwoods atmosphere and the sets are fairly good. There are a few good laughs (intended and otherwise), and some blood, and while the cast isn't exactly what I'd call professional, they are at least spirited about their respective roles. Larry Buchanan fans, if such a thing actually exists, will recognize Bill Thurman as an alcoholic reverend. Also in the cast are Virginia Loridans (also in the obscure VIDEO MURDERS), stunt man Gregg Brazzel, Amy Hill and James Bradford as the sheriff.
Not released until 1986.


Manhattan Baby (1982)

...aka: Evil Eye, The
...aka: Eye of the Evil Dead
...aka: Malocchio, Il
...aka: Possessed, The

Directed by:
Lucio Fulci

Filmed as Il malocchio (or The Evil Eye), this is a minor, surprisingly restrained effort from Italian splatter-master Fulci. George Hacker (Christopher Connelly) is an American archaeologist in Egypt (where part of this was filmed) with his wife (Martha Taylor) and daughter in a creepy Exorcist / Omen inspired opening. After acquiring a cursed medallion, he's temporarily blinded by blue light and returns to New York to recover. There, his young daughter Susie (Brigitta Boccoli) becomes possessed by an evil spirit. Sand, cobras and scorpions show up in the apartment, characters are transported back to Egypt and, in the only gory part, stuffed birds come to life to peck a guy named (insert ROSEMARY'S BABY reference here) Adrian Mercato's face apart. Some of the camerawork and music is good, but the typically bad dubbing and choppy editing detract from the overall effect. Cinzia De Ponti, as an au pair named Jamie Lee (get it?), was a former Miss Italy. Also in the cast are Giovanni Frezza (the annoying little blonde kid from THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY) as the son, Cosimo Cinieri and Carlo De Mejo. Fulci also appears in a cameo as a doctor. Not likely to please most of the director's fans, this is watchable yet skippable.

Saturn 3 (1980)

...aka: Helper, The
...aka: Saturn City

Directed by:
Stanley Donen

Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett (right after quitting Charlie's Angels) are a romantically inclined pair of research scientists at a space station on one of Saturn's moons who get more than they bargained for when they allow monotone baddie Harvey Keitel and his super-intelligent, high-tech android Hector on board. The 'bot has been programmed by its master to have the hots for Farrah and do anything to get her, which leads to a dead dog and an otherwise bloody retaliation. Despite having the luxury of riding the crest of sci-fi popularity generated by the first two STAR WARS films, the top-notch production work, some surprising bursts of violence and a little nudity, this was a big box office flop. It could have something to do with a high yuck factor watching Douglas and Fawcett (she 33, he the ripe old age of 64) pawing at each other in nausea inducing love scenes; but it's more likely the piss poor writing and acting. Farrah, naturally, is the worst offender of the bunch when it comes to cardboard "emoting," but Kirk also gives what might be his career worst performance, while Mr. Keitel was awkwardly dubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice. Martin Amis' horrendous screenplay, complete with quotable bad dialogue, eye-rolling attempts at humor and "borrowed" ideas from 2001, ALIEN, STAR WARS and just about every other popular film in the genre, is the pits. What makes it all even more appalling than your usual sci-fi misfire is that it features excellent sets and effects work; some of the best people in the business (including STAR WARS series vets) worked on this project. Original director John Barry was fired a few weeks into shooting and was replaced by Donen (SINGIN' IN THE RAIN), who certainly hit a career low point with this one. Donen also ended up passing away before its completion. Elmer Bernstein scored.


Two-Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

...aka: Centennial
...aka: 2000 Maniacs

Directed by:
Herschell Gordon Lewis

This centennial celebration of twisted humor and creative bloodshed is gore king Herschell Gordon Lewis' best movie. A Southern ghost town gets revenge on Northern "Yankees" who slaughtered their citizens a hundred years earlier by luring six unsuspecting tourists into the town as "guests of honor" for their very unusual (and very twisted!) 100-year celebration. The entire town then proceeds to trick (or force) their guests into participating in some ghoulish and lethal special events. Easily seduced by the studly Harper Alexander (Mark Douglas) and sexy Southern belle Betsy Montgomery (Linda Cochran), swinger couple Bea and John Miller (Shelby Livingston and Jerome Eden) are the first to go... After getting her finger sliced off with a pocket knife, Bea's pinned down and has her arm removed with an axe (which is later roasted over a fire at a barbecue while a bluegrass band wails a song about "Rollin' my sweet baby's arm!") and John gets so sloppy drunk that he’s easily coaxed into a bad position - having both of his arms and legs each tied to a different horse - and is pulled into four bloody pieces. More straight-laced couple David (Michael Korb) and Beverly (Yvonne Gilbert) bite it when he's put in a nail-lined barrel and rolled down a hill and she's tied down to a platform and is crushed under a huge rock (a play on the carnival dunking booth game).

Only bubbly blonde Terry Adams (played by "Playboy's Favorite Playmate" Connie Mason; about as bad an actress as they come) and school teacher Tom White ("Thomas Wood"/William Kerwin) are left to scurry around town and try to get the hell outta dodge. Jeffrey Allen is great as the jovial town mayor and scenes of the laughing and leering townspeople watching the mayhem in glee are unforgettable. The Pleasant Valley Boys do the memorable bluegrass songs, including "Old Joe Clark" and "Dixie," as well as "Rebel Yell" (The South's Gonna Rise Again), which was written by Lewis specifically for this film.

Filmed in St. Cloud, Florida (now the home of Disneyland), Lewis used the real-life citizens of that town in this film. The sound recording by producer David Friedman is atrocious! In 2004, director Tim Sullivan made a pseudo-sequel/remake called 2001 MANIACS, which mixed mean-spirited gore with tasteless/juvenile humor... and somehow managed to completely bypass the element of home-spun fun and regional charm this original provides.


Track of the Vampire (1966)

...aka: Blood Bath

Directed by:
Jack Hill
Stephanie Rothman

Against almost inconceivable odds, this mishmash of scenes from three different directors, filmed between 1962 and 1966, actually manages to take on some kind of surreal, alternative beauty at times. The two versions that were released are BLOOD BATH (which runs just 69 minutes and doesn't have any of the vampire scenes) and TRACK (which includes all of the footage added for TV showings and pushes the running time up to 80 minutes). Not everyone's going to want to watch it, but it's pretty fascinating and will be of particular interest to film buffs for its unusual production history. To make a long story short, (uncredited) executive producer Roger Corman had a scuffle with original director Jack Hill and fired him, then hired Stephanie Rothman to shoot some new footage to combine with Hill's effort and scenes from the shot-in-Yugoslavia Corman production PORTRAIT IN TERROR (which was originally called OPERATION TITIAN and starred Patrick Magee). William Campbell happened to be in both PORTRAIT and Hill's footage, so his presence is the common link that holds everything together. Well, sort of. It gets pretty confusing at times.

TRACK opens with an atmospheric sequence of huge shadows moving against buildings as a vampire stalks his prey. Shades of BUCKET OF BLOOD soon follow as the hilariously pretentious Max (Karl Schanzer) showcases his "quantum" paint gun artwork in a beatnik café. Max is jealous because he's being outsold on the local scene by Antonio Sordi's series of "Dead Red Nudes;" morbid paintings of nude women being murdered. Max and his girl Daisy (Marissa Mathes) end up getting into it when she pesters him to paint her and he agrees ("I shall entitle it... Portrait of an Idiot!") Daisy storms off, visits her blonde ballerina friend Dorian ("Linda"/Lori Saunders) and then ends up running across mysterious artist Sordi (Campbell). The two get to talking, she decides he's not so bad and ends up going back to his home to model for him. He paints her, kills her (with a meat cleaver) and then dips her body in molten wax. Dorian and Max, along with a few of Max's artist pals (Sid Haig and Jonathan Haze) and Daisy's sister Donna (Sandra Knight) search for her.

In the meantime, there's all kinds of crazy, enjoyable stuff going on. There's a very long sequence of a woman being chased around by a top hat/trench coat wearing Sordi (in this attire probably to show that it's not Campbell doing these scenes). It goes around a building, down a staircase, down a hill, through some woods, to the beach and finally ends up in the ocean! Sordi's multiple flashbacks/delusions involve a cursed ancestor and reuse some of the scenic footage from Portrait. It seems to be dubbed over and Patrick Magee is included as a jilted husband who's killed by (you guessed it!) hot wax. There's also mention of that ancestor being burned alive at the stake for his crimes. Sordi is visited by the ghost of Melizza, a former flame who shows up cackling in a haunted painting! She's also played by Lori Saunders (in a black wig). Speaking of Saunders, much time is spent with her frolicking on the beach in a bikini and there's a totally weird dance sequence set to classical music that goes on for several minutes, is shot from different angles, distances and through diamond and square panels to give us five similar images. There's also a memorable sequence on a carousel and much more.


Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (1967)

... aka: Blood Demon
... aka: Blood of the Virgins
... aka: Castle of the Walking Dead
... aka: Snake Pit, The
... aka: Snake Pit and the Pendulum
... aka: Torture Chamber
... aka: Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, The
... aka: Torture Room, The

Directed by:
Harald Reinl

Beautifully photographed, fast-paced, unique, colorful, atmospheric and even surreal at times, this combines elements from Gothic films popular at the time (not only limited to Bava, but stretching into Roger Corman's Poe series and the Hammer costume / period horrors of the day), but somehow manages to distinguish itself entirely. Definitely not a movie to be judged on literary faithfulness (it is based - very very loosely - on Poe's 'Pit and the Pendulum'), then again it doesn't really need to be. The film open with a standard prologue where hateful-looking Satanist/sadist/scientist Count Frederic Regula (Christopher Lee) is in prison awaiting execution for killing 12 virgins and using their blood in his experiments. He has a spiked gold mask slammed onto his face by a red-hooded executioner (shades of Black Sunday), is dragged into a small town's city square, tied to four different horses and then drawn-and-quartered (pulled apart). Before dying, he promises to get revenge on the descendants of both the judge who sentenced him (Lex Barker, who was a big star in Germany at the time) and the woman who managed to escape from his torture chamber and warn authorities (Karin Dor, the very lovely former wife of the director).

Thirty-five years later, strapping manly-man Roger Mont Elise (Lex Barker again) arrives in the same town to claim an inheritance. Said inheritance is Castle Andomai, a remote, crumbling castle far from the main town. Superstitious townspeople try to warn him not to go near the place, but he shrugs them off and decides to hire an apprehensive coachman (Dieter Eppler) to take him there. Accompanying them on the trip is a very strange priest named Father Fabian (Vladimir Medar) who claims he just needs a ride. And what a strange coach trip it turns out to be! At first, the countryside is serene and picturesque with a clear blue sky, moss-covered trees and quiet ponds. Suddenly, black-hooded men on horseback blaze the trail. They attack another coach, steal it and leave behind two female passengers; the beautiful Baroness Lilian von Brabant (Karin Dor again) and her cute blonde servant Babette (Christiane Rücker). Roger learns that Lilian is headed to the same exact location he is (she and Roger being, of course, the two descendants of the 'cursed' people from the opening segment) so he gives the two ladies a lift. And then things get really weird; almost fairy-tale like in the dark imagery. The carriage marches across a blood red sky... Every house on the way seems to have been burned to the ground... The fog grows thicker and thicker... At dark, the trees take on a sinister life of their own, with body parts protruding from the trunks, squawking ravens lining limbs and corpses hanging from the branches. It's all too much for the harried coachman, who promptly keels over from a heart attack! A strange man named Anathol (Carl Lange) also shows up long enough to kidnap the women and steal the carriage.

Roger and Fabian finally come across Castle Andomai and find Lilian and Babette unharmed inside. The four then discover why it has been nicknamed "The Bloody Castle." Inside is a virtual treasure trove of visual beauty and horrific set design, with prominent shades of blue, purple, green and gold in the backdrop. The art direction is exceptional. Many walls are covered with demonic, abstract paintings. Others are made entire of skulls. There are tons of secret passageways and every room is sealed off by razor sharp gates when characters enter or exit. Vultures line corridors. Many of the rooms are designed solely for torture, including one with a rack over a bed of spikes, one where the floor slowly pulls back to reveal a pit of poisonous snakes underneath and another where a huge pendulum emerges from the ceiling. All kinds of creepy crawlers (snakes, scorpions, rats, lizards, tarantulas) make appearances, and so does an undead-looking Christopher Lee again; at least long enough to explain his attempts to create a special "life elixir" and how he needs a virginal thirteenth victim to accomplish his goal. And Anathol, the guy who stole to coach/girls, turns up once again as Lee's ghostly accomplice.

Aside from the production design, the make-up effects are also good and there are several surprising visual effects using stop-motion animation. There's also some non-obtrusive comedy elements; both dark humored and lighthearted. Former "Tarzan" Lex Barker's (dubbed) performance is tolerable enough, even though these romantic male leads in Gothic horrors are easily forgotten when the other crazy cats pop up. Future Bond girl Karin Dor (who'd star in Hitchcock's Topaz the following year) does very well as the heroine, Vladimir Medar is a little broad, but amusing, comic relief and Lee does an equally fine job with limited screen time as the dour, blue-faced, cross-hating Regula. However, the movie is pretty much stolen by Carl Lange as Lee's gleefully sinister over-the-top sidekick.

Anyway, I totally loved every second of this one. It's very underrated, has awesome sets/art direction, great cinematography, a great cast, a great score, is wonderfully atmospheric and has the best Pendulum scene of all time; much better than the one Corman's crew staged in 1961. Anyone who loves Bava, Hammer Horror, Corman's Poe series, Gothic horrors, etc., should really enjoy it.


Friday, November 14, 2008

E tu vivrai nel terrore - L'aldilà (1981)

...aka: Aldilà, L'
...aka: And You Will Live in Terror
...aka: Beyond, The
...aka: Seven Doors of Death

Directed by:
Lucio Fulci

An artist (Antoine Saint-John) is attacked by a mob, who brutally chain whip, crucify and melt away his face with acid, in the monochrome pre-credit period sequence. Many years later, Liza (Catriona MacColl, who also starred in THE GATES OF HELL and THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY from the same director) inherits the same cursed Louisiana mansion/hotel and moves in there with renovation crew in tow. A rash of unexplained, supernatural events and mysterious, gory murders soon follow, and anyone who investigates the strange goings-on at the home face an appropriately gruesome demise. The home turns out to be housing one of the seven ancient gateways to hell, which is located somewhere in the flooded basement. A scary-looking ghoul keeps popping up all over the place, a plumber (Giovani De Nava) gets his eyeball squashed out by a zombie and the maid (Veronica Lazar) gets her head impaled on a spike. In a morgue, acid melts away a face and more zombies show up. A man is attacked by tarantulas in a library, who bite at his eyeball, nose and lips in close-up. There's also a mysterious blind-woman ("Sarah Keller"/Cinzia Monreale) with white eyes who keeps showing up warning of doom. Italian horror regular David Warbeck co-stars as a doctor who helps Liza try to figure out what's going on, and Al Cliver has a smaller role as another doctor.

Anyone familiar with the films of Fulci pretty much know what to expect here. There's little plot, a decent amount of atmosphere and grisly gore fx showcased in lengthy, graphic murder set-pieces. The pacing never seems quite right, though, and the film seems to drag in between the outbursts of gore. However, the storyline holds a little interest, the movie is surprisingly surreal at times and the ending is enjoyably ambiguous, so it's easy to see why this is one of the director's most acclaimed works.

Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of the film and, in association with his Rolling Thunder Pictures, prompted a limited theatrical re-release about ten years back, then a video reissue of the uncut version with an additional 10 minutes of (mostly) gore restored came. The cast and crew credits for the original Aquarius video release (as SEVEN DOORS OF DEATH) are mostly incorrect. To be perfectly honest, though, in some ways I prefer the shorted SDOD cut of the film to the longer cut. Sure that version was hacked to death and is missing some of the gore but it also moved along quicker and trimmed out some of the boring talky sequences that are basically redundant and do nothing for the film aside from bringing it to a screeching halt. And for some reason, I much prefer Seven Door's score to the one by Fabio Frizzi that's used in the original version.


Berserk! (1967)

...aka: Circus of Blood
...aka: Circus of Terror

Directed by:
Jim O'Connolly

At the Great Rivers Circus, aerialist Gaspar the Great's high wire act meets with tragedy when his tight rope snaps and somehow manages to wrap around his neck like a noose as he's falling; hanging him. Accident? The authorities seem to think so, but cold-blooded co-owner Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford) doesn't seem to care how he was killed. She doesn't hide the fact she thinks her performers are all expendable. She's all-business, all the time, and seems delighted that the publicity surrounding the death might increase box office sales. Hey, it's been a slow year! And just like in the 1960 gem CIRCUS OF HORRORS, that's just what happens; an occasional freak accident seems to bring the audience in in droves. Monica's frustrated business partner/part time lover Albert Dorando (Michael Gough) agrees that "People have a morbid curiosity about death" but is sick of dealing with Monica and demands she buy him out, forcing Ms. Rivers to use her feminine wiles to convince him to stay on for a bit longer ("I just may let you tuck me in tonight.") For starters, this is Joan Crawford and Michael Gough we're talking about and they're two of the effortlessly campiest people the genre has ever seen. Watching these two interact during the first few scenes is what I like to call camp nirvana. Actually it's almost too camp for this reviewer to handle. Well, almost. In any case, great stuff.

Arriving on the scene soon after the death of Gaspar is handsome, cocky performer Frank (Ty Hardin), who goes by the name "The Magnificent Hawkins." His act involves the dreaded "walk of death" where he walks a tightrope over a bed of razor-sharp bayonets while wearing a hood over his head. Both impressed by his act and by his physique, Monica decides to hire Frank as a replacement. Soon the two become lovers, and Frank starts to get a little greedy. He not only wants a big caravan with his name on it but also split ownership of the circus. Meanwhile, Albert is killed when someone hammers a spike through his head. This brings not only a Scotland Yard detective (played by Robert Hardy) to investigate, but also a cloud of suspicion that hangs over everyone at the circus. Monica and Frank are both chief suspects, but there's also Monica's faithful dwarf assistant Bruno (George Claydon), a strongman, a skeleton man, a bearded lady, a fortune teller and others who may have reason to be committing these murders. It's definitely a bad time for Monica's cherubic teen daughter Angela (Judy Geeson) to get kicked out of private school and return to the circus looking for work. And hard-drinking, tart-tongued tramp Matilda (Diana Dors) doesn't help matters either. She's convinced Monica is the killer and doesn't hesitate to let the world know how she's feeling. Even though she's married to magician Lazlo (Philip Madoc), Matilda tries to seduce Frank with a bottle of cheap booze in his trailer and is later involved in a memorable catfight with Marianne Stone. There's no shortage of suspects, but the eventual resolution is as illogical as it is unintentionally hilarious with the psycho, after finally being discovered, shrieking "Kill! Kill! Kill!" and darting out into the rain where he/she is immediately struck down by lightning!

In addition to the murders (including someone getting split in half with a giant electric saw blade), we get to see several long circus acts that really don't have anything to do with the plot, but do add to the overall atmosphere. Some viewers may find these tedious to sit through, but I liked watching most of them. There's a lion tamers act, a bunch of horses doing laps around the ring act and a knife thrower's act. There's also a great act involving 5-ton "Jody the Wonder Elephant," who walks over six women lying on the ground. My favorite act though is Phyllis Allen and Her Intelligent Poodles; which is basically a bunch of dogs doing a conga line, jumping through hoops, doing flips, jumping rope, dancing and walking the tight rope. It's a lot of fun, and the circus atmosphere itself is colorful and well presented in this film. There's even a musical number where four of the "freaks" do a song-dance called "It Might Be Me" while looking directly at the camera!

But when all is said and done, this entire film is pretty much dominated by that blistering force of nature known as Joan Crawford. As if being cast in a role obviously meant for someone in their mid to late 30s wasn't amusing enough, the 62-year-old gets to run around for much of the time in tights, panties and a ringmaster's coat (an outfit she admittedly still looks pretty good in). Flatteringly lit at all times (notice the shadows around her neck), with her trademark dark penciled-in eyebrows and her hair pulled back very tightly (is this what they did before face-lifts?) and complemented by some weird orange bun hair piece, she carries on entertainingly throughout. Much of her lines are either dripping with sexual innuendo as if written for a desirable young sexpot to recite or are extremely bitchy ("Look. Don't waste my time with these broken down has-beens. Some of them are as old as my elephants and twice as wrinkled!"). While you might squirm a little watching her awkward romantic scenes with her hunky male co-star (who was half her age when filming), it's still a blast to watch and is quintessential Joan in her twilight years the way we horror fans know her and love her.

Score: 6.5 out of 10

Buried Alive (1988)

...aka: Edgar Allan Poe's Buried Alive

Directed by:
Gérard Kikoïne

A former insane asylum called The Ravenscroft Institute has been transformed into a school for trashy-looking, overaged, troubled "teen" girls. Very pretty blonde science teacher Janet Pendleton (former Playboy Playmate Karen Witter) joins the Ravenscroft staff and immediately begins to have nightmarish visions while a mystery killer prowls around the school killing people. Robert Vaughn is top-billed as Dr. Gary Julian, who runs the institute, and the always welcome Donald Pleasence, as a goofy German doctor in a bad wig, may be behind all of it. Former porn queen Ginger Lynn Allen (playing a trouble-making bitch who ends getting her mouth stuffed with wet concrete) and Nia Long are the two tough main students. John Carradine, just as Naish and Karloff before him, was so ill he had to act in a wheelchair, but shows up in a minute-long cameo. He died later the same year in Milan, and this was his last film (and is also dedicated to him). Arnold Vosloo (years before THE MUMMY) plays a cop and William Butler plays Allen's boyfriend. There's also an ant-infestation, a black cat, a groupie shower scene and a scalping via electric mixer (!) to attempt to hold your interest, but this just simply isn't very good. The director made the much more interesting EDGE OF SANITY (1989), starring Tony Perkins in a Jekyll & Hyde type role, next.

Score: 2.5 out of 10

Brides of Dracula, The (1960)

Directed by:
Terence Fisher

Hammer's second vampire film (out of many) reunited director Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster and star Peter Cushing after their success in the hit HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). At the time, Christopher Lee refused to do the part and would not don the cape and fangs again until 1966's DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Instead of the dark, silent count, here we get blonde, charismatic and youthful-looking Baron Meinster (David Peel), a bloodsucker kept in check by his overbearing, haughty ma (Martita Hunt), who keeps him imprisoned with silver chains at her chateau, but still makes sure her son is well fed, if you catch my drift. The vampire is accidentally released by a beautiful French teacher (Yvonne Monlaur), who incidentally is just starting her position as a teacher at a nearby learning institution for girls... the perfect place for the Baron to find some naive young victims. Cushing expertly essays the role as vampire expert Van Helsing and Freda Jackson has a scene-stealing role as a fanatical housekeeper.

Fisher's solid direction, Malcolm Williamson's eerie score, rich color photography by Jack Asher, exquisite period/Gothic art direction from Bernard Robinson, a strong (and very interesting) undercurrent of sexual eccentricity that runs through the entire film and excellent performances make this an underrated effort from Hammer; my second favorite of all their vampire films (that I've so far, still have a few to go!). The cast includes Miles Malleson as a doctor, Henry Oscar, Mona Washbourne, Victor Brooks, Michael Ripper as a coachman and Vera Cook.


Landru (1962)

...aka: Bluebeard

Directed by:
Claude Chabrol

Less exploitative and more accurate than other versions of the same tale, this is the true story of French madman Henri-Desiré Landru (played here by Charles Denner), who seduced and murdered 11 women in France for their money, leading to his capture and beheading. Released theatrically in the U.S. as BLUEBEARD, it's a difficult movie to find these days on home video, even though a subtitled and dubbed VHS were released. Michèle Morgan, Danielle Darrieux, Hildegard Knef, Henri Attal, Juliette Mayniel (EYES WITHOUT A FACE), Stéphane Audran and Catherine Rouvel co-star. Originally titled LANDRU.

Score: Haven't seen it.

Blaue Hand, Die (1967)

...aka: Bloody Dead, The
...aka: Creature with the Blue Hand

Directed by:
Alfred Vohrer

One of the only German krimni features released to American theaters (under the title CREATURE WITH THE BLUE HAND and recut/badly dubbed for a 1971 double billing with BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT), this Edgar Wallace adaptation involves a cloaked lunatic with a spiked glove doing his thing around a castle and an insane asylum. One man is wrongly blamed for the killings and must prove his innocence. Klaus Kinski (in his 15th appearance in a film based on Wallace!) gets to play good and bad twins here. Harald Leipnitz stars as Inspector Craig, along with Carl Lange (THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM) as a doctor, Albert Bessler, Ilse Pagé and Siegfried Schürenberg. In 1987, director Samuel M. Sherman, along with special effects maestro Ed French, added new scenes and gory insert shots to spice up the film. Strangely, that cut of the film wasn't even released until 1999 as a part of the "Very Strange Video" collection. The Image DVD release contains both the original cut and the newer version, as well as a commentary track from Sherman.

Score: Haven't seen it.

Beauty and the Beast (1962)

Directed by:
Edward L. Cahn

Nearly forgotten version of the tale, with Mark Damon (HOUSE OF USHER) as a cursed duke who turns into a werewolf-like monster at nightfall. Only the love of a beautiful young woman (Joyce Taylor, remembered for her role in TWICE-TOLD TALES) can free him. This was the last film for director Edward L. Cahn (who died the following year) and also the final make-up effects job for legendary Universal makeup man Jack Pierce (who passed away in 1968). With Michael Pate and Merry Anders.

Score: Haven't seen it.

Backwoods (1986)

...aka: Geek

Directed by:
Dean Crow

A young couple (Christina Noonan and Brad Armacost), who pretend to be siblings but aren't (?), go hiking and camping in a secluded Kentucky forest. After Spam humor and a tent sex scene, they end up saving a young girls life. The girl's hillbilly father (Dick Kreusser) invites them back to his house for dinner, so they go and decide to stay a bit and help care for the little girl (Leslie Denise). William (Jack O'Hara), a drooling, toothless, bearded slob is the repulsive, retarded older son. He has a murderous past, kills animals, geeks chickens and watches the woman change clothes several times. Nothing much happens in the entire first hour (it plays more like a drama than a backwoods horror flick), so it's a relief when William finally goes nuts and starts attacking everyone. And it's all because Karen's hair is just like his late mothers (!?) While BACKWOODS isn't really anything special, it's actually pretty entertaining and has its moments. The cast is also pretty enjoyable; O'Hara is creepy enough to elicit chills and Noonan (not a bad actress) is a pretty good heroine who fights back, runs through the forest and sets up booby traps to help defend herself.

Filmed in Indiana as GEEK and very low budget, but worth a look fans of obscure backwoods horror flicks. If you want a somewhat similar and much more outrageous killer geek movie, check out LUTHER THE GEEK (1988).

Score: 4.5 out of 10

Ants! (1977) (TV)

...aka: It Happened at Lakewood Manor
...aka: Panic at Lakewood Manor
...aka: Terror at Lakewood

Directed by:
Robert Scheerer 

Nature runs amuck flicks were all the rage in the late 70s and we have Jaws (1975) to thank for that. Even though Spielberg's film was hardly the first of its type, it was such a huge hit that it single-handedly prompted hundreds (yes, hundreds) of similar killer animal films within the first five years of its release. By the end of that decade there were movies about killer cockroaches (1975's BUG), dogs (1976's The Pack, 1977's SLAUGHTER), worms (1976's Squirm), bears (1976's GRIZZLY; 1977's CLAWS), spiders (1977's Kingdom of the Spiders and TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO), whales (1977's Orca), piranha (1978's Piranha), octopus (1977's TENTACLES), crocs (1979's CROCODILE) and many other animal species. Some didn't even bother using a different animal and just replayed sharks again, such as Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976), Shark Kill (1976), TINTORERA (1977), Bermuda: Cave of the Sharks (1978) and - by my count - at least a dozen (!) more. Some went that extra mile by including multiple species of killer animal all in the same film, such as Long Weekend (1976), THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976), DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977) and THE BEASTS ARE ON THE STREETS (1978). Fitting right in with the killer animal flicks were the killer bug flicks. The ever-popular killer bee prompted numerous films such as 1976's The Savage Bees and no less that three 1978 releases: the big budget, all-star-cast, critically ridiculed THE SWARM, the Mexican production The Bees and the made-for-TV movie Terror Out of the Sky (a sequel [!] to The Savage Bees).

In case you haven't already guessed it, this TV movie involves (drum roll please...) killer ants. A first? Actually, no. Hell, it wasn't even the only killer ant movie of its year. EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, a cheese-fest about giant, super-intelligent ants starring Joan Collins, also debuted in 1977 (though it played in theaters, unlike this one). Ants! doesn't feature giant ants, just normal-sized ones... and yet it can't even claim to be the first to do that either. The vastly superior PHASE IV (1974) featured them as well, only three years earlier. And, of course, the killer ant movie to end all killer ant movies was Them!, a still highly enjoyable gem from way back in 1954.

Things center around the large Lakewood Manor hotel and a construction site right across the street, where workers are preparing to build another hotel / resort. Two men, one in the process of getting attacked by something tiny and black (wink), are accidentally buried when a bulldozer pushes a mound of dirt on top of them. When discovered, they're rushed off to the hospital, where the doctor informs crew boss Mike Carr (Robert Foxworth - 1979's mutant killer bear film Prophecy) and his co-worker Vince (Bernie Casey) that both men have high levels of toxins in their systems. One of the men dies. Next up, a little boy digging through a dumpster for bottles to help his divorcee mother, gets coated in ants, panics and jumps in the pool. He manages to survive, but the hotel cook isn't so lucky when ants emerge from the kitchen drain and kill him. Mike puts two and two together and decides to warn the staff what's going on. Everyone thinks his theory about killer ants is ridiculous, Mike gets pissed off and decides to take his frustrations out on the ant mound by destroying the colony with a bulldozer, sending millions of pissed off ants toward the hotel, which "trap" the remaining inhabitants inside. One ant bite is relatively harmless, but dozens of nibbles disorient, paralyze and kill.

There's a Love Boat style cast of familiar faces to ensure this got plenty of TV play back in the day. Lynda Day George has the female lead as Mike's girlfriend Valerie, who helps run the hotel for her elderly, wheelchair-bound mother Ethel (guest star Myrna Loy). Valerie is trying to coerce mom into retiring and selling out to a scumbag developer (Gerald Gordon) so that she and her boyfriend can move to San Francisco together. They, along with a young handyman (Barry Van Dyke) in the midst of a new romance with a runaway (Karen Lamm), become stuck in the hotel and have to head up to the third floor as they await help. A crew of police, firemen (headed by Brian Dennehy) and the Coast Guard show up for one of the most problematic rescue attempts ever organized. They almost drop a panicking girl from a ladder, make a fire ditch surrounding the hotel to keep the ants inside and, in the most hilarious bit, accidentally coat a mob of nosy onlookers with ants while trying to land a helicopter. Casey comes to the rescue by spraying down the screaming, ant-covered crowd with a fire hose! The final scene, with the three remaining people sitting in a room breathing through tubes of rolled-up wallpaper while ants crawl over their bodies is odd to put it mildly.

Hokey as this all is, it does provide a little fun. No concrete explanation is ever given for the attacking buggers, aside from asides from a scientist and bug expert about how we pollute our environment and it shouldn't surprise us that another species use poison against us. The ant swarm is accomplished via lots of close-ups, black specks painted all over the walls and a few poorly dated visual effects.

Publicity for this film usually centered around ants crawling on co-star Suzanne Somers' (playing the developers business partner) bare back and cleavage. If just the thought of Somers getting ambushed by ants while lying in bed basking in post coital glory after giving in the advances of her slimy and much older co-worker makes you chuckle then you're probably the target audience for this one. It was distributed in America by Live and U.S.A. Home Video on VHS. Fremantle Media handled the DVD release in 2006.

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