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Something Weird (1967)
Something for Every HGL Fan
In some ways, this is H.G. Lewis's "Citizen Kane." He let himself truly express himself in this one, unrestrained by conventions of logic or continuity. It actually has more special effects than most of his movies – and less of them are gore than in most of the non-adult movies as well. The levitation scene is amazing – low budget filmmakers had been levitating people more effectively than that since Melies – but then he tops everything with the "blanket attack" sequence. Lewis must have been reading Leary, because he allows that LSD could be used for a peaceful purpose, although of course he also gives us a typical 60s "freakout" on top of it (acid can be used for good, but it has to hurt, I guess). This is a movie for a very special audience, which thankfully has found it.
River's Edge (1986)
Thoughtful Effective, and Funny
In many ways, this movie defined what I was not at the time – suburban, stoned, a metalhead – and it was an opportunity for me to feel moral superiority over "normal" American teenagers. But, I think that I was drawn in on a similar level to the movies I identified with more closely from the punk world ("Repo Man," "Sid & Nancy," "Suburbia"), which were themselves fairly critical adult statements about youthful apathy. This movie offers a kind of uncertain hope in the form of Keanu Reeves' character (and he's never been better), but in the end we begin to wonder if he did the right thing for the right reasons, or sort of blundered into it the way Crispin Glover blunders into a fanatical dedication to being wrong. It does remain thoughtful, if scary, and effective on other levels as well, including humor, oddly enough.
Satanis: The Devil's Mass (1970)
No surprises, but good enough
This movie doesn't contain much that's really exciting, much less surprising, about the early Church of Satan, but it does show LaVey and his cronies at a time when he was still optimistic and not cynical about the future of his organization. There are also great shots of the Black House during its heyday (before the "androids" took over) and some interesting footage of Togare the lion. The filmmakers seem to have decided that Satanism wasn't as shocking as they'd hoped, so they went for humor where possible, and that wears thin after a while. The interviews where LaVey speaks for himself are fairly good, but the interviews with other Church members are annoying and at times you can see the embarrassment on Anton's face when someone else speaks – nobody in this film, aside from LaVey and his family, went on to become any kind of leader in the tiny marginalized world of the Left Hand Path, and that should tell you something about the quality of membership in SF at the time. I still find it an interesting piece, but I think about 40 minutes could be shaved off without losing anything.
The Exterminator (1980)
Vigilante Fantasy with Some Ideas
This post-"Death Wish" vigilante fantasy film is also symptomatic of America's identity crisis over Vietnam. Particularly the unedited director's cut makes Vietnam into a central motif – the men who were in Nam can trust one another, regardless of which side of the law they work, but cannot ultimately trust anyone else. The former War Protester love interest problematizes this nicely for the cop hero, who must decide whether his loyalty is to her and the law or to the comrade-in-arms who has become a killer of the criminals he is powerless to stop. Something about Ginty as the vigilante does work, he's "nice" enough that at times we identify with him, but also remote and isolated enough that we can believe him as he becomes increasingly violent and sadistic in living out our fantasies of revenge. Nice use of New York locations, especially Central Park, the Battery, and the old Meat-Packing district (back before it was all trendy nightclubs).
Bob Clark before he was family-friendly
Bob Clark will probably always be remembered for directing and producing "A Christmas Story," (or in some circles for the "Porky's" movies), but for me he is the director of "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" and the producer of this odd little gem. In spite of the lurid subtitle, there is no on screen depiction of anything like necrophilia, just a very matter-of-fact retelling of the story of Ed Gein, backed by a sparse organ score. There are elements of black humor, as when the ghoul tells the corpse of his mother that he thinks that maybe a woman he recent met "isn't quite all there" because she talks to her dead husband in séances. Mostly though, the very convincing portrayal by Roberts Blossom makes this an effective and interesting movie, better - in my humble opinion - than the better-known "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" which came out the same year and claimed to tell the same story (it didn't).
Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
Great Cast Saves Simple Movie
To my mind, this is a really great cast: Lon Chaney, Jr., Raymond Burr, Tom Conway, and a young Woody Strode. In spite of the poverty-row level of production and a flawed script, these guys give it their best and deliver. The female lead, Barbara Peyton, isn't functioning on the same level, nor is her rival, Carol Varga, but Gisela Werbisek as an ancient witch-woman gives us at least one great female performance. This is not, by the way, the same as the Ed Wood-scripted "Bride and the Beast," about a woman who lusts after a gorilla. No, this woman betrays her husband for a man who is "little more than a beast" and then watches as her new lover transforms, little by little, into an ape. Or maybe not. It all may be (seems to be?) in his head, a guilt-complex over committing murder, and all that 50s psycho-babble. It's fun, but not really a proper monster movie. Know that going in and you may enjoy.
OK, but hardly solid history
Most of the narrative to this is a simplification of Nicholas Goodricke-Clark's book "The Occult Roots of Nazism." That's probably why it isn't awful - Goodricke-Clark did a good job on fact-checking and avoided conspiracy theory to look at some of the more esoteric origins of National Socialist ideology. The first problem is that there isn't much visual evidence to support this – a documentary has little to do except show images from roughly the same era and allow implied connections with the narrative. But, the real problem here is that this documentary in general falls into the category of "Fascinating Fascism," to use Susan Sonntag's term. It is a parade of old propaganda images that attempts to justify its existence by drawing connections between Blavatsky and Crowley and the NSDAP that are tenuous at best. Concepts are undefined (what does it mean that "Rudolf Hess was a convinced mystic" by the time he met Adolf Hitler?). Influences are exaggerated (Goodricke-Clark discusses Guido von List's tiny religion, the film implies that millions of German soldiers in WWI believed it). There are few outright distortions, but this should be seen more as entertainment than as scholarship.
The Amazing Transplant (1970)
Odd Reflection on Sex from another Age
This is a movie about a man's penis, however that penis is never shown (what would Lacan say?). It falls into the category of "roughie," which is to say that the plot makes it sound nastier than what we actually see on the screen. Essentially, Arthur, a young virginal man who envies his friend's sexual prowess arranges to have the friend's penis transplanted to his own body when the friend conveniently dies of a rare virus. Having heard that his friend was really into women with gold earrings, Arthur finds that he can no longer control himself when any woman wears gold earrings, and he assaults them, rapes them, and sometimes kills them (it's not clear why he kills some and not others, except that some of them have to survive to tell the tale or the plot doesn't work). Of course, this being a smut film, all the women Arthur encounters wearing gold earrings are of course young and pretty. The rapes are also fairly tame, even by roughie standards, which I tend to attribute to the director, Doris Wishman (an actual woman as opposed to the many pseudonymous women in the business at the time). She also uses the movie as a means of exploring the many ways women respond to rape – some of them blame themselves, some of them are angry at the world, some of them decide they actually liked it after the fact, etc. She also touches on some interesting questions of the then-illegal status of abortion, as the doctor who performs this mad operation is an illegal abortion-doctor. Of course, Doris was no feminist, and this film is today mostly a goofy example of smut from a pre-penetration era, but there isn't another like it, even in the oeuvre of Edward D Wood.
Killers from Space (1954)
Worth Some Consideration
This is directed by W. Lee Wilder, the less famous brother of Billy, and co-written by their other brother Myles. W. Lee Wilder has a small oeuvre of off-beat, very-low-budget films, most of which seem to reflect his status as an immigrant to the "land of opportunity" and his lower status therein. In this case, the terror of American McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia is palpable, even the soundtrack seems to enforce a sense of depression and disillusionment. The wonderful old film zine "Delirious" had a special feature on W. Lee's work back in the 90s, and observed the use of the "eyes" motif in this film – from the Bug Eyed Spacemen of the title, to the doctor's eye-reflector, to the extreme closeup on the gas station attendant's eyes to the "unsleeping eye of radar" mentioned in the opening narration. Life for a European immigrant in 1950s America may have seemed to be filled with eyes, with watching and snooping. When the FBI man interrogates the protagonist's wife, he quotes more or less from J. Edgar Hoover's text _Masters of Deceit_, a handbook for nosy suburbanites to snitch on their suspicious neighbors.
Tower of London (1962)
Corman Does Shakespeare?
This is probably the closest Roger Corman ever came to directing Shakespeare. It's a remake of a 1939 film that tells the story of Richard III, minus all the Shakespearean language. Corman added elements of Macbeth (and Hamlet?) to make it perhaps even a bit classier, but also so he could show lots of ghosts. Vincent Price, who played a drunken Clarence in the original, gets promoted to Richard for this version, and also gets a nasty hump on his back (the most pronounced of any version I've seen). It's good, solid costume drama, with extensive and creative use of torture chambers. Honestly, I somewhat prefer Richard as an unabashed villain, as portrayed by Ian McKellen, not as a tortured and haunted man, desperately trying to justify himself and flee his tormentors, but Price holds up well, and the photography and sets are memorable.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney is the Man to Watch
Having read the original book (in translation, admittedly), I feel safe in saying that it is not great literature. But, as has happened many times, a mediocre piece of literature has allowed artists to tap into a kind of archetype and rise above the material to create something more. This version probably sticks closer to the source material than any other, although my personal favorite scene is derived from Edgar Allen Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." The creeping through the catacombs, the various torture and strangulation devices, the love scene atop the Paris Opera House, all of these I recall from the book (the book is mostly action, since it has so little else to offer). And of course, the chandelier crashing into the audience, which no version has dared to skip. But, what really brought in the audiences was Lon Chaney, Sr.'s exquisitely horrible makeup, and it is this, along with his tortured performance, that make it really worthwhile today. If you have any ability to watch silent films whatsoever, this is the one to see.
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
Needs Vincent Price
The role of Sardonicus is perfect for Vincent Price (and his servant would have been good for Peter Lorre) - who unfortunately isn't in the movie. I don't know why Castle didn't hire price for this – maybe he was busy, maybe he asked for too much money, maybe they'd had problems working together on "The Tingler" and "House on Haunted Hill." Whatever it was, it's a shame, because this kind of Gothic horror movie really demands the best possible casting. I like the story well enough - of a man whose punishment for grave robbing is to have his face permanently twisted into a tortured smile, somewhat like the Joker or the main character in "The Man Who Laughs." He hires a brilliant young doctor to help, blackmailing him by threatening to torture the woman he loves when he balks at applying a dangerous new technique. The gimmick this time was that the audience was given the chance to "vote" on Sardonicus's fate at the end - mercy or torment. In reality, only the torment-ending was ever shot, so the vote was a fake. Did George W Bush attend a screening?
Crawford and Castle, Together
This one has a certain class, lent to it by Crawford and by the script by Robert Bloch of "Psycho" fame (and of the Lovecraft circle). It's a bit convoluted, as a movie, but it works. Any lesser actress would be hard to watch as the melodramatic mother released from a mental institution 20 years after murdering her husband and his lover. My favorite part is where Joan comes on to her adult daughter's new boyfriend. You'll probably figure out the ending before it comes, but watching it unfold is lots of fun. No gimmick this time out, I guess having Joan Crawford on the marquee was enough, even for William Castle!
Mad Love (1935)
"Impossible? Napoleon said that word is not French!"
Cinematographer Karl Freund (he shot "Dracula," having directed "The Mummy" a few years earlier), was called in to direct his countryman Lorre in this marvelous example of 30s horror. There's a more relaxed sense to this one, as if he's feeling more comfortable in the job - or perhaps just more comfortable working in English. The story comes from "The Hands of Orloc," and is an oft re-told tale of a pianist who loses his hands in an accident, only to have a brilliant scientist replace them with those of a murderer. Of course, he comes to believe his hands are urging him to kill, but it's the mad doctor obsessed with the wife of the pianist who's really to blame. I had forgotten that Colin Clive of "Frankenstein" played the pianist, and there are certain touches that make me wonder if his friend James Whale might have turned up on the set to help out here and there. Freund keeps his odd angles and other expressionistic elements, though.
A Rip-off with Style
I really love this movie. It is unabashedly an effort to cash in on and outdo "Psycho," and as such it is made with audiences who loved that movie in mind, complete with visual references and in-jokes for fans. But better for me, Castle takes the gender-bending murderer/ess theme to a new height, quite daringly for 1961. Every time I see it, I go through a moment of not being able to remember if the actor "Jean Arless" actually is male or female. You'll figure it out pretty quickly, and of course you'll see the "surprise" ending coming a mile away, but it's still great fun to watch, and unusually complex for a Castle thriller. As with most Castle movies, this one had a gimmick. Close to the end it has a "fright break" in which audience members too frightened to watch the end could go over to the "Coward's Corner" and ask for their money back. The break still appears on the screen on video or TV, but you can't get a refund for not watching the end.
The Devil Bat (1940)
A Lesson In Assertiveness
This is one of the poverty-row pictures from Bela's history. The plot is an important lesson in avoiding passive-aggression. Bela plays a brilliant chemist who creates a formula, then sells it to his bosses for $10,000. The company proceeds to make a mint, and decides to give him another $5,000 bonus to express their thanks. Lugosi decides this isn't enough, but, even though they're very friendly and approachable, he doesn't ask them for more. Instead, he goes back to his lab and creates a giant maniacal bat that kills everyone wearing after-shave. Now, I ask you, how is that going to solve anything? Even assuming that he could kill off the whole of the family that wronged him, and that he could get away with it, he'd still be poor. Anyway, I like Lugosi in this one pretty well, partly because he balances his "friendly Dr. Caruthers" and his Mad Scientist pretty nicely. Dave O'Brien as the unethical but honest reporter is fun to watch as well.
White Zombie (1932)
Lugosi's Lost Classic
Although this is also a low-budget, tiny studio production, it has a great deal more creativity and atmosphere than the later movies Bela would stoop to. Lugosi is a voodoo practitioner named "Murder" LeGrande who is hired by a selfish rich man to Zombify the woman who spurns him on her wedding night. He also keeps a gang of Zombies around – the various men he killed in his ascent to power – as personal bodyguards, and regularly provides Zombies to the sugar plantation the rich man runs. But, most importantly, he skulks around the plantation showing off his famous double-jointed hypnosis technique and glaring at the camera in extreme-closeup. The unfortunate boyfriend of the White Zombie woman spends a lot of the movie in "mourning" (aka a drunken stupor) and eventually teams up with the charming Van Helsing-equivalent reverend to destroy the evil that plagues the land. One of the greats.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Not to be Missed
I've never quite made up my mind whether I like this or "Cat People" best, but they're both classics of the genre. In the 1940s, when horror was generally on the decline, and suffering from severe unoriginality, Val Lewton of RKO studios came along and more or less single-handedly rescued the genre. He hated the titles of most of the movies, which were invented by the studio, but he would come up with a concept to subvert them and get a good young writer to come up with an interesting story that fit. This one is very much a classic Gothic romance, with elements in common with "Rebecca," set in the West Indies and utilizing the voodoo tradition for atmosphere. More than that, though, it explores issues of colonialism in a surprisingly daring way for the period and genre, with the black servant characters often seeming the most human among the decadent white family. Not to be missed.
Night of the Demon (1957)
Psychological Horror at its Best
An adaptation of MR James short story, "The Casting of the Runes," this is also a wonderfully atmospheric and psychological exploration of the power of Black Magic. A highly skeptical psychic researcher (played by the appropriately stiff Dana Andrews) comes to realize that he is just as susceptible as the "suckers" to the power of suggestion, and must find a way out of the curse which has been placed on him by a cult leader he plans to expose. The Satanist in this case is excellently portrayed by Niall MacGinnis, who manages to be charmingly mild and sinister by turns. Tourneur, the director, wanted to shoot the whole movie without ever showing the monster – it could have all been in the imagination of the characters – but the studio insisted and made a big, goofy bear-like demon for the end (occasionally glimpsed in earlier scenes). It doesn't really ruin it, in fact when I was a kid, that was my favorite part.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Hammer Makes its Mark
This was the movie that really put Hammer studios, and Peter Cushing, on the map. It was a brilliant move, at a time when horror had shifted over almost completely to sci fi and giant mutant beasts, to start a project of remaking the classics with atmosphere, drama, color, and a bit more graphic content. Folks who know me won't be surprised that I generally prefer the older 30s Universal versions of the movies, but I have to admit that Hammer is always enjoyable. In this case, they really seem to have returned to the source material effectively, and even added a bit to it without overdoing it. As I recall Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, he was a victim of scientific hubris, but not quite such a cad - but this seems to make sense, as his disregard for the laws of man could easily translate to disregard for sexual mores, much as it did for the men in Shelley's own life. It's a bit longer than the Universal version, and it takes quite a while before we see the monster, but it's enjoyable throughout.
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
This sequel doesn't hold up as well as the original, particularly when you compare it to Universal's "Bride of Frankenstein," which works much better with the subject material. This version finds Cushing, having escaped the hangman's noose, hiding out under the name of "Stein" in a small German town, practicing medicine in a 19th Century free clinic. A local doc figures out his identity and asks to be taught how to make monsters. The monster in this one is disappointingly normal-looking and the pacing is slower than the previous one. Where "Bride" took the premise to new heights, this one just kind of stays at the same level as the last one. Also sadly lacks Christopher Lee, who may have been too busy with "Horror of Dracula" at the time. It's good, but not quite up to par.
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Offbeat but fun sequel
I like this one a lot better than the previous sequel, even though it also lacks Christopher Lee. Cushing seems more interested in the script, though, and the whole concept is more engaging. Basically, Frankenstein is now working with an aging and drunken doctor in yet another small German town, and he discovers a means to preserve a soul and place it into (of course) a dead body. This time, though, he decides to try taking the soul of his young assistant, executed for a crime he did not commit, and place it into the body of said assistant's hot young lover (Susan Denberg), after she kills herself. The new man-woman becomes dedicated to killing the men who raped her and set him up to be framed. Again, this is rather racy stuff for the material, and there's an unfortunate lack of monster makeup (except for part of the film, in which Denberg has a facial deformity), but I quite enjoy it.
Fun, if not Classic
This is a really cynical tale of obsession, corruption, and revenge. All of Dr. F's noble qualities are expunged at this point of the series, and he has become an archetype of brilliant degradation. He blackmails a young couple by discoveri...ng they have been using the boy's job at a hospital to steal and sell illegal drugs (19th century hippies, apparently). He wants to rescue his former assistant from the mental ward to find out the results of some diabolical experiment from a previous installment. It all goes awry, of course, and the doc once again uses his brain-swapping talents to turn his former employee into his latest creation. This is a fun one, if not quite a classic.
13 Ghosts (1960)
While not as great for me as "House on Haunted Hill" and "The Tingler," this one still manages to be light-hearted ghostly fun. I particularly like that most of the movie is told from a child's-eye-view (and this seems to help one ignore some of the apparent logical inconsistencies), and that the kid loves ghosts – which most of the intended audience no doubt identified with. Unlike a lot of similar thrillers of the time, there is no doubt left in the audience's mind at the end that there are, in fact, ghosts in the house, although the living appear to be nearly as bloodthirsty and at least some of the shocks are portrayed as fake (figuring out which is which is part of the fun). Margaret Hamilton was clearly beyond worrying about being typecast, and seems to have quite enjoyed being "the witch" as well.
The Black Cat (1934)
Uneven but brilliant in places
Uneven but brilliant, this presages the career of Edgar Ulmer nicely, even to the point of containing dubbed-after-the-fact dialogue and some oddly unresolved plot points. David Manners is, if possible, even more wooden under Ulmer's direction than under Browning's in "Dracula," and he serves as a kind of goofy foil to the surreal showdown of Lugosi and Karloff. Karloff plays the head of a Satanic cult with relish, and Lugosi is the debatable "good" guy who is fanatically obsessed with avenging his wife. The whole thing takes place in a fascinatingly Art Deco Spooky Old House (the first time, I believe, a style other than Gothic had been used), with sliding doors, dead women in glass cages, artillery charts, and a convenient self-destruct lever. A somewhat overlooked classic of horror.