Monday, November 10, 2008

Lift, De (1983)

...aka: Goin' Up
...aka: Lift, The

Directed by:
Dick Maas

Up until the time of its release, this was one of the highest grossing horror films released in Europe. Hard to believe, I know. A possessed, killer "lift" (elevator) is making life hell for workers and customers at a new office building/high rise... so it's up to an elevator repairman (Huub Stapel) and a female reporter (Willeke Van Ammelrooy) to get to the bottom of things. A guy is decapitated, drunken young women suffocate and steam until they're forced to lose their tops and a blind man falls down the elevator shaft. Despite an admittedly silly premise, it's fairly slick and surprisingly well made, colorfully photographed, witty and creatively directed, helping to partially make up for the the lack of reasoning or explanation behind the lethal lift and the atrocious English-language dubbing (in the Media video release I own, anyway). The VHS version released by Ingram International Films is subtitled, though there is currently no R1 DVD as of this writing. The director (who did the serial killer horror AMSTERDAMNED after this one) also scripted and did the score. In 2001, he remade this for American audiences as THE SHAFT, which starred Naomi Watts right before she became famous and is so self-aware and absurdly over-the-top it almost plays like a parody of this one.


Ceremonia sangrienta (1973)

... aka: Blood Castle
... aka: Blood Ceremony
... aka: Bloody Countess, The
... aka: Female Butcher, The
... aka: Legend of Blood Castle, The
... aka: Vergini cavalcano la morte, Le

Directed by:
Jorge Grau

While by no means a classic, this slow-moving but atmospheric Spanish / Italian co-production from director Jorge Grau (best known for his popular, environmentally conscious zombie flick LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE) is at least a well-made and mature attempt at Gothic horror. Originally titled Ceremonia sangrienta (Blood Ceremony), this was released numerous times in the U.S. under various titles; The Female Butcher was the (cut) original theatrical release title, while The Bloody Countess and The Legend of Blood Castle were just a couple of the VHS release titles. There could very well be others. Lucia Bosé, who gives a very good performance (considering the uneven English-language dubbing) stars as the legendary "Blood Countess" Erszebet Bathory, who killed "610 Nubile Virgins!" and bathed in their blood to maintain her youth... and to impress handsome nobleman Karl Zimmer (Espartaco Santoni), who seems more interested in bedding the innkeeper's pretty daughter Marina (Ewa Aulin) than anything else. Zimmer eventually helps out the countess by seducing women, slitting their throats and letting the blood leak out through a hole to fill a bathtub downstairs. Of course, the townspeople finally catch on, and the bad Countess finds herself in a very Edgar Allan Poe-ish situation at the conclusion.

I'd be lying if I said the film didn't lose me from time to time (American pre-release cutting seems to be the culprit), but it's still fairly interesting, has an authentic period setting (good sets, costumes, great-looking castles, lots of fog, etc) and is a bit more restrained (the most graphic gore is a scene when falcons eat another bird) than I expected. It also approaches the subject matter in a completely different fashion than the Hammer film COUNTESS DRACULA (1971), which made the 'eternal youth' angle real whereas it's left more ambiguous here.

The cast includes Ana Farra as a housekeeper, Silvano Tranquilli as a doctor, Lola Gaos, Enrique Vivó as the mayor, María Vico, Ángel Menéndez and Franca Grey.


Last Wave, The (1977)

...aka: Black Rain

Directed by:
Peter Weir

“A dream is a shadow of something real." Truly bizarre, one-of-a-kind thriller mixes horror, fantasy, mystery, social statement and courtroom drama into an intriguing vision of the apocalypse. Lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a married corporate taxation specialist with two young daughters, is curiously assigned a case involving five Aboriginal men accused of murdering a man whose heart simply stopped beating. Meanwhile, Australia is being hit with one strange weather phenomena after another; nonstop rain, freak hailstorms on clear, sunny days, solar spots, black sludge falling from the sky... Suddenly plagued by creepy nightmares, David sets out to find the truth, insisting his wife (Olivia Hamnett) and kids split town because of some obscure impending danger and becoming involved with one of the accused (David Gulpilil, from Nicolas Roeg's acclaimed film WALKABOUT) and an elusive, mysterious tribal elder (Nandjiwarra Amagula) in the process. What he learns might just be that the end of mankind is right around the corner. But with just about all of mankind oblivious to the obvious signs around them, will anyone believe him? Or is it already too late?

Scripted by the director, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu, who are sensitive to the plight of the Aboriginal people, both legally (civil law trumping tribal law at every turn) and socially (the parallels to the American Indian and other indigenous people across the globe who were misunderstood and pushed to the outskirts of society by European settlers). Weir manages some extremely chilling and powerful set pieces here (the dream sequences pack a low-key punch) and he's ably supported here by Chamberlain's ingratiating lead performance, the believable presence of real-life aboriginees Gulpilil and Amagula, Charles Wain's supremely eerie score and Russell Boyd's densely murky cinematography, but the film is simply not going to appeal to everyone out there; especially those who prefer a more standard storytelling process. It's very much in the company of Weir's PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, and possesses the exact enigmatic qualities that will either fascinate or frustrate, depending on the viewer.

Winner of two awards from the Australian Film Institute (cinematography and sound) and nominated for five more (lead actor, director, script, score and Max Lemon's editing). The Criterion Collection DVD is a pristine print with the trailer and a good, but brief, interview with Weir.


Nightflyers (1987)

Directed by:
Robert Collector

Sometime in the 21st Century, assorted male and female scientists, lured under false pretenses for a damage assessment space mission, end up trapped on a smoky, haunted spaceship run by the spirit of an evil woman holding her manufactured male clone "son" Royd (Michael Praed) hostage. "She" uses lasers to cut off fingers and heads, sucks a victim out of airlock, blows another up, possesses headless corpses and keeps track of it all on red-eye video monitors. After just about everyone is killed, Miranda (Catherine Mary Stewart, from NIGHT OF THE COMET) and Royd must team up, locate the mother's core unit and destroy it. Guest star Michael Des Barres gets to rant and rave as a drug-addicted telepath. Also in the cast are John Standing, Lisa Blount, James Avery (the dad from "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air") and Helene Udy. Producer Robert Jaffe adapted the novella by George R.R. Martin, that tries (and for the most part, fails) to be a literate combination of science fiction and horror, though Gene Warren's Fantasy II and Robert Short provide some very decent special effects (inside and outside the ship), and the sets are excellent. Director Robert Collector hides under the alias "T.C. Blake" for this dark and dreary flick. I'd pretty much classify it as a misfire, but it's still somewhat watchable.


Nightmare (1963)

...aka: Here's the Knife, Dear: No Use It
...aka: Spiral of Terror

Directed by:
Freddie Francis

Out of all the films produced by Hammer, this is one of the most beautifully filmed. As a matter of fact it could very well be the best looking black-and-white production to ever come from the studio. So here's a big salute to veteran cinematographer John Wilcox and his gorgeously clean use of light and shadow to create a dark, sinister mood within the confines of a large mansion. Having legendary DP Freddie Francis (whose work on such films as THE INNOCENTS, THE ELEPHANT MAN and many others will never be forgotten) in the director's chair also helps to ensure this is as visually arresting as they come. When she was just 11 years old, Janet (Jennie Linden, a last minute substitution for Julie Christie) witnessed her insane, cackling mother (Isla Cameron) stab her father to death. With mum now safely locked away in an asylum, now-teenage Janet is trying to move on and piece her life back together. The fact she's plagued by horrible nightmares and wakes up screaming almost every single night makes it a bit difficult. She's also afraid she might have somehow inherited her mother's psychosis. Janet's a bit on edge these days... and very fragile... and her compassionate private school teacher Mrs. Lewis (Brenda Bruce) isn't the only one to notice...

Deciding Janet needs a break, Mrs. Lewis arranges for her to go back to her childhood home for a protracted stay. Occupying the place now are her temporary guardian, and the families attorney, Henry Baxter (David Knight), newly-hired nurse Grace Maddox (Moira Redmond), housekeeper Mrs. Gibbs (Irene Richmond) and chauffeur John (George A. Cooper). Unfortunately, there's no peace and quiet to be had in this home, as Janet's nightmares continue and she begins seeing horrific things (a stabbed corpse, a creepy woman in white lurking around...) that are sending her dangerously close to the edge. It's best for me not to reveal any more of the story, but let's just say there are several surprises in store not only for the principle characters in this film but also the viewer. Written and produced by Jimmy Sangster, and obviously influenced by several key psychological horror classics of that time, notably LES DIABOLIQUES (1955) and PSYCHO (1960), NIGHTMARE manages to set itself apart to a degree. Aside from the impressive visual presentation and the twisting storyline, there are some genuinely eerie moments here and a well-maintained air of tension, paranoia and suspense that pervades the entire film.

It's also very well acted. Even though it would have been interesting to see first choice Julie Christie in the lead role, Jennie Linden does quite well and is very effective as the sincere, sometimes hysterical teenager who wants a normal life but always seems a moment away from cracking. Christie's decision to back out at the last moment ended up being a wise choice on her part. The role she took instead, Diana Scott in DARLING, ended up winning her the 1966 Best Actress Oscar. Redmond is superb also in an intricate, tricky role I can't go into much detail about, and there are good character bits by just about everyone in the supporting cast (Bruce, Cooper, Richmond, etc. are all great). Knight is the only one who disappoints a bit with a bland, one-note performance, but his part isn't as big as his top-billing might suggest and he doesn't really do the film any major harm. Also with Clytie Jessop, John Welsh and Timothy Bateson.


Night Wars (1987)

Directed by:
David A. Prior

Trent (Brian O'Connor) and Jimmy (Cameron Smith) are two Nam vet buddies who escaped a POW prison camp only to face worse horrors at home when the past literally comes back to haunt them. They're harassed by a soldier they left behind and a sadistic traitor who helped torture them, and when they're attacked in their dreams, they emerge with real scars (a la A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET). The two deck out in camoflauge and carry high-powered machine guns into their dreams to fight back after one's wife is raped and killed by a ghost. Dan (GRIZZLY ADAMS) Haggerty is the top-billed guest star. He plays a psychiatrist who tries to "help" by holding them at gunpoint, drugging them and tying them up in his office! The premise is somewhat new, but the unconvincing Nam flashbacks look like the stars are playing War Games in the woods behind their house, the dialogue ("Let's do it!," "I'm scared, man!") is annoying and the action and horror scenes just aren't very exciting.

Prolific director David A. Prior also combined the war and horror genres in THE LOST PLATOON (1989) and also directed the genre films SLEDGE HAMMER (1984; an early shot-on-video slasher), KILLER WORKOUT (1987), MARDI GRAS FOR THE DEVIL (1992) and MUTANT SPECIES (1995) in between all his cheapo action movies. He scripted from a story he wrote with his brother Ted Prior and William Zipp (both of whom acted in his previous films).

Score: 3.5 out of 10

Night Stalker, The (1972) (TV)

Directed by:
John Llewellyn Moxey

Right after his long stint working on Dark Shadows (the TV show and two theatrical releases) Dan Curtis returned to produce this excellent TV movie, which benefits from top-notch acting, good location work and a witty, suspenseful script by Richard Matheson (based on an unpublished Jeff Rice story). He also brought over talented British filmmaker John Llewellyn Moxey (HORROR HOTEL) to direct. In Las Vegas, unstoppable reporter (and, as his harried boss puts it, "amateur bloodhound") Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) gets assigned to cover a story involving a young woman found dead… completely drained of blood and with puncture marks on her neck. More victims follow and fit the same m.o., as Kolchak tries in vain to convince the authorities that what they are actually dealing with is a 70-year-old, super-strong vampire named Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater). He ends up right in the middle of "the largest manhunt in Las Vegas history," but the district attorney (Kent Smith), county sheriff (Claude Akins), police chief (Charles McGraw) and others want to cover it all up and "don't want to cause a panic." Kolchak is just interested in uncovering the truth and bears witness to the vampire robbing a blood bank, taking dozens of bullet hits, throwing cops around with ease and keeping a victim tied to a bed in his home for quick late-night snacks.

McGavin is great fun in this role; energetic, quick-witted, no-nonsense, sardonic, pushy, courageous… and his rapid-fire sarcastic exchanges ("What do you want? A testimonial from Count Dracula?") with flustered, screeching editor-in-chief Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) are highlights of the film. Atwater's silent bloodsucker is pretty creepy, too, especially in close-up. Carol Lynley is pretty much wasted however as the token lady in distress. Also in the cast are Ralph Meeker, Stanley Adams, Elisha Cook, Jr., Larry Linville and Virginia Gregg.

After the success of this TV movie, Curtis, followed with THE NIGHST STRANGLER, the second pilot film for the eventual television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which lasted from 1974 to 1976. The MGM DVD contains both films and two interesting interviews with Curtis.


Night Strangler, The (1973) (TV)

...aka: Time Killer, The

Directed by:
Dan Curtis

Second pilot episode (following THE NIGHT STALKER) to the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975) is almost as good as the terrific original. Driven out of Las Vegas by the corrupt officials, reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) and editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) have relocated to Seattle, Washington. Both begin working for The Daily Chronicle, a newspaper owned by stern publisher Llewellyn Crossbinder (John Carradine), who reminds the boys, "Mind your p's and q's!" A new string of murders, all young women, begin in the Pioneer Square district; each victim having been strangled to death by a madman so strong he crushes their necks. A little blood is also removed with a syringe. Doing some research, Kolchak discovers that the same exact style of murders have been going on in the city (6 killings every 23 years) as far back as 1889! Witnesses claim the killer, an alchemist old enough to be around for the Civil War, who lurks around the shadows of the city in a top hat and trench coat, takes up residence in an underground city with the skeletal remains of his long dead family and is described by one witness to have "the strength of ten men and the face of a corpse!"

Again blessed with a well-balanced script by Richard Matheson, this has ample does of comedy and terror and follows the same format as the first film without losing much of the freshness of the concept. The ending, which resolves the story in convoluted 'mad scientist' terms is slightly disappointing, but otherwise, this is an excellent follow-up. And the supporting cast is first-rate; Jo Ann Pflug as a fast-talking dancer/psychology undergrad, Wally Cox as a researcher, Scott Brady as the police captain who wants to keep the murder spree a secret, Al ("Grandpa Munster") Lewis as an unshaven drunken tramp living underground and Margaret Hamilton as an anthropology professor who explains how to make "the elixir of life." Also with Richard Anderson, Nina Wayne, Virginia Peters, Ivor Francis and Anne Randall. The ending, with Kolchank, Vincenzo and Pflug on their way to New York City, and presumably more cases of horror and supernatural phenomena, is a set-up for the TV series.


Notte degli squali, La (1988)

...aka: Jaws Attack
...aka: Night of the Sharks
...aka: Noche del tiburón, La

Directed by:
Tonino Ricci

"Italian International Films Presents" a JAWS copy with MIAMI VICE-style trappings, lots of boats, helicopters, explosions, bad floral-print clothing and palm trees. Treat Williams is David Zeigler, an unshaven shark hunter living in Cancun with his beautiful girlfriend Juanita (Nina Soldano) and cigar-chomping black sidekick Paco (Antonio Fargas), who dresses like Colonel Sanders. A millionaire playboy (John Steiner) sends out some thugs to get back a stolen disc that David's brother gave him before getting gunned down. On it is information about the whereabouts of two-million dollars in sunken diamonds. Meanwhile "Cyclops," a giant one-eyed shark, eats anyone who gets near the water. Incidentally, the killer shark has nothing to do with the rest of the plot, and is probably in it so the video could be in the horror section of video stores when they released it. It's an Italian/Mexican/Spanish production that seems to have been shot in English (even the Italian actors) and the acting isn't bad, but it's pretty boring and sometimes even hard to follow. Good funky electronic music score, though.
Janet Agren has very little to do as the ill-fated ex-wife of the main character (well, she does get to participate in one of the scant horror scenes but that's about it); ditto Christopher Connelly as a priest. The director, who also previously made at least two other killer shark movies (BERMUDA: CAVE OF THE SHARKS in 1978 and ENCOUNTER IN THE DEEP in 1979) used the alias "Anthony Richmond" for this one.


Il terzo occhio (1966)

... aka: Das Dritte Auge
... aka: Killer with a Third Eye, The
... aka: Le froid baiser de la mort (The Cold Kiss of Death)
... aka: Third Eye, The

Directed by:
"James Warren" (Mino Guerrini)

I've seen this mentioned before as the "precursor" to, or the "inspiration behind," D'Amato's infamous bad taste gore fest BUIO OMEGA (1979). Now that I've actually seen it, I can verify without a shadow of a doubt D'Amato's film flat out copies this one, almost scene-for-scene in many instances. The storyline, the characters, the plot complications and even many of the sickest ideas were snatched wholesale from this one. And if you want to get technical, since the writers of Il terzo occhio are not really given their due in the Buio Omega credits (only Guerrini [under his real name Giacomo] is credited with "story" while the other three writers are completely ignored), D'Amato's film is actually more akin to being called a rip-off than a legit remake. But, as fate would have it, the re-do would go on to acquire a strong cult following over the years (one that's not completely undeserved), while the original has been forgotten and is nearly impossible to find. It was restored and released on DVD first in Germany (an excellent print judging by the stills I've seen), but the only place to find an English-subtitled version for the longest time was Video Search of Miami. Sadly, their VHS version is a horribly murky, dark, washed out and barely viewable print that certainly didn't help this film's reputation any over the years.

Franco (credited as "Frank") Nero, clean-cut and extremely handsome here, stars as wealthy young count Mino Alberti, who lives in a huge, four-story white mansion with his horrible mother, Countess Alberti (played by Olga "Sunbeauty" / Solbelli, from Mill of the Stone Women), and the overworked, long-suffering family maid, Marta (Gioia Pascal, which is possibly a fake name since the credits have been Anglicized, though I don't recognize this actress). Mino's father died in a tragic accident a few years back and now he's at the mercy of dear old mom, who has a sick idea of what motherhood should entail. She's miserable, controlling and has a special peephole built into her wall where she can keep an eye on her son as he entertains female guests in his bedroom.

Marta the maid, secretly pines for Mino and bitterly detests any woman striking her employer's fancy. Both women conspire to drive away Mino's beautiful fiancée Laura Campi ("Diana Sullivan" / Erika Blanc, in a blonde wig) by being unbelievably bitchy to her. When that doesn't work, they arrange for a little "accident" to occur by cutting the brake lines on Laura's car, which leads to a fatal crash over a rocky embankment into the ocean. Strangely, Laura's body is never recovered. After an altercation, the Countess fires Marta. Infuriated, Marta knocks the old crone down a flight of stairs (gouging out her eye in the process!), strangles her to death and makes it look like an accident.

Losing both his fiancée and mother in the same day, Mino returns home and starts to slowly lose his mind. Not quite right to begin with (his Norman Bates-like hobby is killing and stuffing birds in a specially built laboratory), Mino starts inviting women back to the mansion to kill. First up is "international dance star" Maria Margot (Marina Morgan), who strips down to pasties during her strip-tease in a smoky blues club. Mino lures her into his bed; the same bed where he keeps Laura's fresh corpse snugly tucked in (!), then strangles her. Marta sees it all and offers up a new arrangement. If Mino will marry her, she won't go to the cops when he gets that urge to murder and will help him dispose of the bodies. She even suggests they use hydrochloric acid so no traces are found.

Mino then murders Loredana, a prostitute, and presumably other women in the area over a long period of time. A year after the murders first began, a surprise visitor shows up; Laura's younger, red-headed, nearly identical looking sister Daniela (also played by Blanc). Mino thinks Daniela is the second coming of Laura, showering her with attention and romantic candle-lit dinners. He also starts treating his former maid / "wife" like an insignificant slave again. Marta goes into a jealous rage and heads after Daniela with a butcher knife... Those familiar with D'Amato's film know this is pretty much where Buio Omega ends, but this one still has about twenty minutes left to go as Mino forces Daniela at gunpoint into his car for a road trip of terror en route to the beach.

From a technical standpoint, this is a fairly well-done film. The direction, score, script and acting are all above average. There's plenty of suspense and some sudden bursts of violence to keep you awake. A real bird is even sliced open and gutted at one point. The subtext and implications are also extremely perverse for 1966, which may be why it didn't receive a very glowing reception back in its day nor much of a international release. Though there wasn't any full-on nudity in the version I saw, the film shows about as much flesh as possible for a mid-60s mainstream release.

Nero goes a bit over-the-top at times, but he's still effective in his role. Blanc is likewise fine, just given an uninteresting part in this early film. She'd later prove to be much more adept at playing femme fatales than virtuous heroines. The real standout performance here is from the unknown Pascal, who doesn't appear to have ever acted in anything else. I frequently see this listed as a giallo, but I don't think it really qualifies as such. It's more of a psychological horror film with Gothic undercurrents, and has more in common with films like Psycho than any of the gialli I've seen. There are no black gloved killers running amok or mysteries to solve here, folks.

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