Sunday, November 24, 2013

La noche de los asesinos (1974)

... aka: Im Schatten des Mörders (In the Shadow of a Murderer)
... aka: Los asesinos atacan de noche (The Murderers Attack at Night)
... aka: Night of the Assassins
... aka: Night of the Killers
... aka: Night of the Skull
... aka: Shadow of Murder
... aka: Sospiri

Directed by:
Jesus Franco

On a dark and stormy night, wealthy Lord Archibald Percival Marion (Ángel Menéndez) is attacked by someone wearing a skull mask, who knocks him over the head, handcuffs his hands behind his back and then takes him into the backyard and buries him alive. His body is promptly discovered when the much-younger lady of the house, Cecilia (Maribel Hidalgo), returns home later that evening. Police Inspector Victor Bore (Vicente Roca) is called in to investigate. So who has a motive for murder? Well, Cecilia's been unfaithful to her husband, so there's always her. Then there's poor Rita Derian (Lina Romay), Archibald's grown illegitimate daughter, who bears the scars of years of abuse at the hands of her father and stepmother. Because she was conceived with a servant, her father never even allowed her to use the family surname, and naturally Cecilia detests her. Something's definitely off about the sinister, snoopy housekeeper Deborah Potts (Yelena Samarina), as well as her extremely neurotic and mentally imbalanced husband Rufus (Luis Barboo), who's also a servant in the home. And then there's the Lord's respectable, well-to-do cousin Simon Tobias (William Berger) and his wife Marta (Evelyne Scott). All of the above (including the inspector; a friend of the deceased) are named in the will and thus could be the murderer for that fact alone.

Major Oliver Brooks (top-billed Alberto Dalbés) from Scotland Yard is called in to aid Inspector Bore. The will is finally opened and it's revealed to actually be two wills: one if the Lord dies of natural causes and the other just in case he's been murdered. The one not being used is to be automatically destroyed, and we know which one that is. The will that's read leaves everything to Rita; justified by Lord Archibald that it's the least he could do for how poorly he's treated her over the years. Naturally, this doesn't go over too well with everyone else. Cecilia loses it and sneaks into Rita's bedroom later that night and whips her with a belt. Immediately afterward, the evil stepmom becomes Victim #2 when the killer knocks her out, takes her down to the ocean, ties her to some rocks and lets the "force of the wind" do her in. As if matters weren't already complicated enough, a third will surfaces that includes Archibald's cousin Albert Pagan (Daniel van Husen), his wife Mariu (Susan Swan) and a second illegitimate offspring; this time a son named Alfred (Antonio Mayans). Oh brother.

Because of the murders, none of those included in either of the wills are permitted to leave until the crimes are solved. More people are murdered and most seem to be in accordance to a book the Lord was fond of called "The Book of the Apocalypse." In it, a passage stating "Earth to bury us. Wind to scourge us. Water to drown us. Fire to burn us" dictates a few of the deaths. Someone's covered in gasoline and set ablaze and another is drown in a bathtub. Despite the presence of multiple officers staying in the house, the killer is able to come and go pretty much as he / she / they please. By the time all is said and done, there are a dozen suspects, eight murders committed by three different people and two different Lords of the estate (one's a "phony" Lord)! Some of the plot revelations are poorly delivered and cause confusion.

If this didn't have his name signed to it (and many of his usual stable of actors), one would be hard pressed guessing this was a Jess Franco movie. For starters, it's shot, scored and scripted in a very conventional manner. This is the rare Franco film that seems to have been made under strict producer supervision; one that relies on a narrative plot and one that has very few of the director's indulgences. It's also one of the only films of his from this entire decade that isn't soaked in sex and nude scenes. There are only a couple of flashes of nudity and they're all very brief. The violence is also minimal in this near-bloodless mystery. It's going to be unsatisfying to most of the director's diehard fans, as well as most exploitation fans.

Both the poster and the credits claim it was based on the novel 'The Cat and the Canary' by Edgar Allan Poe. 'Cat' was actually a play written by John Willard, and the film itself has next to nothing to do with either 'Cat' or anything Poe had written. In actuality, it's very much in tune with the writings of Edgar Wallace. From the ridiculously endless roster of suspects to the masked assailant to the quirky police inspector who almost leaves his sombrero behind everywhere he goes, this is very similar in both style and story structure to many of the German "krimi" produced in West Germany throughout the previous decade... Only it's not quite as good.

Franco (who also appears in a small comic role) filmed it back to back with Le manoir du Pendu ("The Hanged Man's Mansion"), which featured the same cast but was never completed. Skull didn't merit a VHS release in America, but later was distributed on DVD by Image. Though competent, it's bland and ultimately forgettable.

Woman in the Room, The (1983)

... aka: Stephen King's Nightshift Collection Volume One: The Woman in the Room
... aka: Stephen King's The Woman in the Room

Directed by:
Frank Darabont

Frank Darabont is now a big name in Hollywood and it's extremely fitting that this is where it all began. Not only is Woman the first of many adaptations of writer Stephen King's work the director would become best known for, but it also sets down the familiar tone for much of his later films. It's very sensitive and emotional, deals strongly with moral issues and even has scenes set at a prison. A few years later, Darabont began writing or co-writing commercial genre films, such as the hit sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Freddy's Revenge (1987) and the entertaining remake of The Blob (1988). In 1990, he'd make his feature directorial debut with the (very good) thriller Buried Alive (1990), which starred Jennifer Jason Leigh and debuted on cable TV. Over a decade after crafting this initial short subject, he finally hit the big time with the King adaptation The Shawshank Redemption (1994); a prison drama that earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture and two for Darabont (Best Director and Adapted Screenplay). It would go on to become one of the most popular and beloved films of all time. Five years later, he tried to recapture some of that Shawshank magic again with The Green Mile (1999); another tearjerker with a prison setting based on a King novel. Audiences and critics responded favorably to it as well, and it was awarded four Oscar nods, including another Best Picture nomination. Darabont's fourth King film; The Mist (2007), an actual horror film, was moderately successful but didn't receive the same accolades thanks (at least partially) to an extremely downbeat, polarizing ending that was altered from the novel. From there, Darabont moved on the TV series The Walking Dead (2010 - ); both writing and producing the first (and easily the strongest) season of the massively popular cable zombie drama.

Made while Darabont was in his early 20s (he'd personally written King and gotten permission to film it for just one dollar), Woman runs 30 minutes, is quite low key and quiet and is essentially a pro-euthanasia drama. Middle-aged lawyer John Elliott (Michael Cornelison) is at a loss as to what to do with his frail, widowed mother, Donna (Dee Croxton). In a hospital dying of abdominal cancer, Donna has recently had cordotomy surgery that was supposed to alleviate all of her pain. She claims it hasn't. John, a put-upon son whose brother clearly isn't going to be of any help, is entertaining the idea of putting mom out of her misery and has been eyeing some powerful pain pills in his medicine cabinet. He keeps taking them to the hospital, but doesn't have the courage to actually give them to her. John has recently been assigned the case of a prisoner / Vietnam vet (Brian Libby), who's likely going to be executed for murder, and tries to find out through him what it feels like to kill someone before he makes his final decision. This is a well-done and affecting little short with good writing, camerawork (by Juan Ruiz Anchia, who'd move on to bigger things) and acting, but horror fans should take note that it's primarily a drama. The one moment of horror is an effective nightmare sequence set in a hospital corridor and elevator.

King has gone on record stating this is "clearly the best" of all the student / independent "dollar babies" based on his works. From what I've seen thus far, I'm apt to agree with him. It even ended up on the semi-finalist list for Oscar consideration in 1983. Woman (which was shot on 35mm for 35,000 dollars) was first issued to the masses as one half of the video Stephen King's Night Shift Collection in 1986, where it was paired with Jeff Schiro's The Boogeyman (1982). Both were based on stories in King's "Night Shift" anthology. Woman was also issued separately on its own by the label Interglobal Home Video. John Woodward's Disciples of the Crow (1983; based on King's story "Children of the Corn") and John Garrett's Emmy Award winning The Night Waiter (1987; which is not based on anything King wrote), were the featured tales in the follow-up Stephen King's Night Shift Collection II (1989).


Boogeyman, The (1982)

... aka: Stephen King's Nightshift Collection Volume Two: The Boogyman
... aka: Stephen King's The Boogeyman

Directed by:
Jeffrey C. Schiro

Movies with the name Stephen King attached to them were flying off video store shelves like hotcakes in the 80s, so some wily distributors got their hands on some student / independent short subjects based on the author's work and released several videos to cash in on the craze. King himself had offered up his stories to amateur filmmakers for a mere $1, "...as a way to give back a little of the joy the movies had given me." The resulting shorts would go on to be referred to as his "dollar babies." As part of the deal, a copy of the finished work was to be sent to King and none of the films were to be sold for a profit or screened theatrically without the author's permission. As a result, only a small handful of these actually made it out to the masses. Schiro, a student at NYU who took a stab at King's story "The Boogeyman" as his graduate thesis and didn't go on to do much else afterward outside of editing TV shows, was from all indications the very first "dollar baby." He also became one of only a select few whose effort gained nationwide distribution when it ended up on the tape Stephen King's Night Shift Collection, where it was paired with Frank Darabont's euthanasia drama The Woman in the Room (1983); King's personal favorite of all the shorts. A second Night Shift tape contained Disciples of the Crow; an adaptation of "Children of the Corn" shot in 1983 by John Woodward. Of these early shorts, the three aforementioned titles are apparently the only ones King had enough faith in for people to see. Other early shorts, including I Know What You Need (1984) by Rik Joel Carter, Last Rung on the Ladder (1987) by James Cole and Dan Thron, The Lawnmower Man (1987) by Jim Gonis and Cain Rose Us (1989) by David C. Spillers, may have a place on King's shelf but remain mostly unseen by others.

Lester Billings (Michael Reid) is having a hard time keeping his family together. Well, actually, he's having a hard time keeping them alive. As the film opens, he's just discovered the body of his 4-year-old daughter Shirl in the bathtub. Not long before that, his 5-year-old boy Denny was found dead in his bed. Policeman Sgt. Garland (Terence Brady) shows up to investigate but can't get anything out of Lester or his useless wife (Mindy Silverman), nor can he really prove Lester or anyone else for that matter had any involvement in either of the deaths. The coroner's report for both has written them off as crib deaths and each was found with a contusion on their head, but that's not enough evidence for a conviction. Lester goes to see psychoanalyst Dr. Harper (Bert Linder) and finally lets the cat out of the bag and tells him everything he couldn't tell the police; namely that both of the children had actually encountered the Boogeyman, who came out of the closet late at night and killed them. Is the erratic, paranoid, unhinged-acting Lester, who's prone to bouts of anger, actually an insane child murderer... or did the Boogeyman really do it?

This is easily my least favorite of the three early King shorts I've seen thus far. The sound design is pretty good, but the editing, photography and lighting are poor, the overbearing synthesizer score gets to be pretty annoying and the acting ranges from flat and wooden to histrionic and over-the-top. Reid's central turn as the disturbed father would have benefited a bit from more shading and nuance, though it's unfair to really blame him since the role is written that way. Now all of these debits would have been OK had this actually gone somewhere interesting, but it doesn't. The resolution is so poorly done and edited that it doesn't even really provide a concrete explanation, though I just assumed it was intended to stay faithful to the source story. The Boogeyman was shot on 16mm on a budget of 20,000 dollars and runs 28 minutes. The same story would be filmed multiple other times. Actually, there are currently three different versions listed on IMDb for just 2013 alone!


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Grave of the Vampire (1972)

... aka: Bébé vampire (Baby Vampire)
... aka: Die Gruft der Dämonen (Crypt of the Demons)
... aka: Die Gruft des Grauens (The Crypt of Horror)
... aka: La bara del vampiro (The Vampire's Coffin)
... aka: La tomba del vampiro (The Vampire's Grave)
... aka: Seed of Terror

Directed by:
John Hayes

College girl Leslie Hollander (Kitty Vallacher) and her boyfriend Paul (Jay Scott) pick the wrong night to go to the graveyard to make out. After he proposes to her (aw, how romantic!), undead-looking vampire Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki) comes crawling out of his tomb, breaks the boyfriend's back against a gravestone, feeds on him and then pulls Leslie into an empty grave and rapes her. She's taken to a hospital to recover, while police officers Lieutenant Panzer (Eric Mason) and Sergeant Duffy (William Guhl) are put on the case. With a missing corpse, one dead body completely drained of blood and a hysterical sexual assault victim on their hands, the officers have their work cut out for them. Panzer, however, isn't above thinking something supernatural may be at play, especially after Leslie responds in horror to a photo of Caleb (who's been dead and buried for three years) he shows her, but he's decapitated before he can get too involved in the investigation. Before leaving the hospital, Leslie's doctor informs her that she's pregnant and recommends an abortion. According to tests, what's inside her womb "isn't a human being" and somewhat parasitic. Thinking she's carrying her dead fiance's baby, Leslie refuses and takes off with Olga (Lieux Dressler), her roommate at the hospital who'd helped to take care of her.

Baby James is born 9 months later. Sickly and with a grey complexion, Olga keeps suggesting Leslie take the boy to the hospital because he won't drink milk. By accident, they discover that the baby will however drink blood. And that's what Leslie feeds it. Instead of a blood pump, she uses a syringe to drain her own blood to put into baby bottles. She somehow manages to raise James to adulthood; passing away soon after, a withered old lady from the hell she's put her body through. A now-grown James (William Smith) has vengeance on his mind; wanting to eliminate the man who raped and impregnated his mother and abandoned them. Knowing he likes to be around fresh young blood, James manages to track pops to a college, where he teaches an extremely popular night class on the occult under the alias Professor Adrian Lockwood.

James ends up enrolling in his father's class, where he meets a pair of much-different roommates; Anne Arthur (Lyn Peters) and Anita Jacoby (Diane Holden). Both James and Caleb are drawn to Anne; Caleb because she resembles his late wife Sarah and James because she's intelligent, compassionate and mature (plus he knows it'll piss off dad if he gets her first). Anita gets put on the back burner, but she's OK with that and has other objectives in mind. She's been doing her research and realizes that her professor is actually a centuries old vampire named Charles Croydon. Interestingly, she just wants him to turn her into a vampire. He slashes her throat instead and leaves her in the shower for her terrified roommate to find her. Charles / Caleb / Adrian finally decides to hold a séance with some of his favorite students (James and Anne included), where he attempts to put his dead wife's soul into Anne's body, leading to a face-off between absent father and bastard son.

Clearly very low-budget and hampered somewhat by such, this still offers enough creepy moments and does enough interesting things with standard vampire mythology to keep it feeling at least somewhat fresh. The vampire baby and half-vampire offspring angles have been done numerous times since this was made, but they were actually novel and quite unique concepts in 1972, and this really should be given credit for that. It also gives its two lead actors; both regular presences in exploitation and horror films, a chance to shine. Pataki makes for an excellent, classy-yet-cruel and very cold-blooded vampire, and this is one of the better actual roles and performances for Smith, who seems somewhat miscast but still does an acceptable job. The screenplay is credited to both the director and David Chase and was (supposedly) based on Chase's novel "The Still Life." It was filmed in just 11 days for about 50,000 dollars.

Hayes also made numerous soft and hard core films (using the alias "Harold Perkins" for the latter) and the genre films Dream No Evil (1971), Garden of the Dead (1972), which played on a double bill with Grave, and End of the World (1977) starring Christopher Lee. Chase went on to mostly TV work; writing numerous episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker before graduating to writing and directing such acclaimed shows as I'll Fly Away and The Sopranos. Grave has slipped into the public domain, so primarily subpar prints of the film are floating around. A restored, high definition print (which I clearly didn't watch!) was released earlier this year by Retromedia. Regardless of what shape you find it in, it's worth a look.

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