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.

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