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Monday, October 31, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 31: HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Along with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), this was one of the films that heralded Hammer Studios as a revolutionary force to be reckoned with in the post-war horror cinema landscape. Less a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic novel, DRACULA, than a mid-20th century re-jiggering of many of its elements for an audiences that might find Universal and Lugosi's take on the Count to be a tad stage-bound and genteel, HORROR OF DRACULA is the simplest iteration of the classic vampire yarn's tropes imaginable and can be seen as the template for how to tell a vampire story to a modern audience until stuff like FRIGHT NIGHT and Anne Rice happened.

Recounting the plot is pointless as it's all essentially a template that boils down to a bitter war between Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and Count Dracula (Christopher Lee), with good inevitably triumphing over evil; something we've seen before, certainly, but it's the atmosphere, the look of the film, and the brisk telling of the tale that make this iteration of it a classic. Dracula's castle is a triumph of set design and realization, his dark-haired and very hungry bride is quite memorable, and the events that transpire once the undead suckface reaches England are just a horror fan's banquet of the basics done right. We also get the one-two punch of Lee and Cushing in career-defining roles that they would both go on to repeat several times (in some cases to diminishing returns, if truth be told), and of many, Lee's Dracula is the definitive screen version of Bram Stoker's arch-vampire, and I can totally understand why. He's very tall, urbane, imposing and regal as all get out, but once his facade of aloof nobility is seen through and the vampire stands revealed, Lee's Dracula very much takes the fight to his human opponents and gets very physical indeed, seeming all the while to actually revel in being darkly, irredeemably evil.

I mean, look at this fucking guy! I'd be scared of a vampire if I ran into one in real life anyway, but Lee managed to fairly radiate a palpable, primally-chilling malevolence that even later vampires that had shape-shifting makeup and animatronic technology to bolster them could not begin to approach. Lee's Dracula was a menace of the first order that needed to be expunged from the face of the earth, and Cushing's Van Helsing was just the dude to handle that thankless task. Though a man of cold, hard science and rationality, Van Helsing was smart enough to call a spade a spade when he saw one and thus he dealt with Dracula with the single-minded focus of a master surgeon eliminating a particularly stubborn cancerous growth.

HORROR OF DRACULA is absolutely worth your time if you've never seen it (and even if you already have), both as a textbook example of how this kind of thing can be done right and with no extraneous bullshit, and more importantly as a reminder that vampires are supposed to be fucking scary, not sparkly and all Emo, unlike those found in a certain tamponathon franchise whose name I will not besmirch this review with.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 30: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)

Not to go on All-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not men?


—“The Law,” from “The Island of Doctor Moreau” (1896) by H.G.Wells

After several years of having no choice but to enjoy its lurid charms via a "gray market" DVD of a print of it culled from Turner Classic Movies, one of my all-time favorite flicks, 1932’s (or 1933’s, depending on your source of info) ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, is finally available on legitimate DVD from those loving preservationists over at Criterion, and I pre-ordered it the second I heard of its imminent release.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a fantastically sick and twisted little movie that got in there just before the infamous Hayes Code was instituted and took away all the really nasty sex, violence and evil shit that made moviegoing worthwhile in the early days of Tinseltown.

Will H. Hayes: the human douche nozzle who ruined old school Hollywood.

After the Hayes Code was in place, Hollywood cleaned up its act considerably, under threat of serious penalties, and didn’t really get its balls back until the 1950’s, a shot in the arm that led to the freer expression of the Sixties and Seventies (and then, for the most part, films pussied-out again bigtime, but that’s a subject for another post).

Anyway, I first saw ISLAND OF LOST SOULS during my formative years but I was too little to fully grasp exactly why it had been banned in the United Kingdom for some twenty-five years after its release. It was a black & white flick about some queeny guy with a mustache and a white suit who lived on a remote island and made really lame-looking human/animal hybrids. There was no graphic violence, no cussing, and certainly no naked ladies, so what was the big deal?

Oh, the wisdom that comes with growing up and seeing the same movie through eyes that had gone on to witness films such as DAS CAVIAR DINNER and BARNYARD BANG...(Don't ask.)

For those not in the know, the movie’s based the 1896 novel quoted at the start of this post, and it centers around a guy who gets unwillingly stuck on the island of one Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton, utterly burning down the house with a spectacular display of major league gayness and questionable sanity), a medical genius who has somehow managed to create a horde of grotesque and disturbing “men” from a variety of wild animals.


Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton) and friend.

The products of apparently anesthesia-free radical surgery and ray treatments, Moreau’s creations are rather a sorry lot who have been conditioned to live by a series of laws intended to curb their innate animal behaviors and mold them into regular Joes. Don’t ask me what the purpose of such experimentation is; I guess simply to be able to say that he was able to do it? To fulfill some crazed need to play God? Fuck if I know, but one thing becomes clear very early on: Moreau is barking mad, his cultured exterior masking a whip-wielding psychotic who appears to get off on the suffering of his “children.”

Just another fun-filled day on the Island of Doctor Moreau. NOTE: the dude with the serious sideburns is none other than Bela "Pull the string!" Lugosi as the Speaker of the Law. Yowza!

Being stuck on Moreau’s creepy, vine-tangled and fog-enshrouded island is bad enough, but our uninteresting castaway is set to be married to an equally uninteresting fiancée (who of course sets out to find him), so Moreau decides to give his most successful creation a field test. The Doc unveils Lota (Kathleen Burke), a sultry brunette in a pre-Dorothy Lamour “exotic” island girl getup (this was back in the days when hot, non-Caucasian chicks were considered exotic) who has never seen a fully human male other than the Doc and his assistant (actually a big deal; those two seem like an obvious couple to me, and as this was a pre-ccode film, they very well could have been), and hopes sparks ignite between Lota and the stranded cipher.
Kathleen Burke as Lota, the Panther Woman: say hello to your grandpappy's stroke-material.

As the viewers figure out before our boring hero does, Lota is revealed to have been altered from a panther into a prime piece of surfer-boy’s masturbation fantasy — no "pussy" jokes, please — but her shy and tentative attempts at “making friends” with the castaway go straight down the toilet once he notices her hands are reverting to their original clawed configuration and is understandably freaked the fuck out. Moreau orders poor, terrified Lota back to “the House of Pain” for a surgical touch-up, and awaits the arrival of the fiancée so he can turn one of his male hybrids loose on her. So not only do we get crazed punishment with a bullwhip and twisted medical experiments, we are also treated to Moreau’s intention to see if regular humans can successfully mate and possibly reproduce with his semi-human creatures, many of whom resemble a bunch of hairy, shirtless skells of the type that staff many restaurants in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. And when you think about it, the castaway would have gotten off (pun intended) relatively easy in the bargain since Lota is a bit of a looker (though the scratches would suck), while his virginal fiancée would have been relegated to savage rape by a literal man-gorilla (or something; it’s not made fully clear just what the guy is). It’s just plain sick, offensive, and gross.

And I love it.

Can you imagine being in the theater in 1932 and having your sensibilities offended by sadism, unholy “scientific” delvings, and intimations of bestiality and rape? That stuff’s still heavy nearly eighty years on, so seeing ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in those days must have been a serious brain-melter. Even the Doc’s well-earned and horrifying fate comes off as weak in comparison (thematically, anyway; being vivisected sans anaesthesia by a bunch of clumsy manimals would really bite the big one).

Lesson to be learned: be kind to animals!

So what was the delay in releasing this dark and sleazy classic to DVD? Today’s youth needs to see that it wasn’t all Busby Berkeley creating a religion for show tunes devotees or the Our Gang kids putting a positive spin on juvenile truancy, and that when their elders piss and moan about how today’s cinema is leading to moral turpitude they’re talking out of their asses. I’d love to see a contemporary director even attempt to go where this dusty old hairball did and not be publicly executed by watchdogs for decency in film. Good luck with that one, bucko. And any movie that serves to inspire some of Devo's classic work — specifically "Jocko Homo" and the title of their first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! — is automatically okay by me, but this movie earned its place in my heart on its own very twisted merits.

"Us not that smart but us read CINE-MISCREANT!"

Saturday, October 29, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 29: THE SEVENTH CURSE (1986)

Betcha didn't expect to find a Chow Yun Fat movie on this list, didja? Believe it or not, this Category III cult fave was my first exposure to the excellence that is Chow Yun fat. Directed by Ngai Kai Lam, the same loon who gave the world the mind-bendingly gory and ultra-violent RIKI-OH (aka THE STORY OF RICKY), THE SEVENTH CURSE is an odd amalgam of its era's typical Hong Kong action flicks, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-inspired death traps, martial arts mayhem, and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM with some broad comedic bits thrown in. At its heart, it's a straight-up horror movie, but one that had its primary flavor somewhat diluted and derailed by too many disparate elements in what I'm guessing was an attempt to have it appeal to too many audiences at once or else alleviate its considerable "darkness."

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!!

The vile sorcerer Aquala (Elvis Tsui).

While on an expedition in Thailand to find herbs with which to hopefully cure AIDS, a bespectacled police physician, Dr. Yeun (Chin Siu Ho, best known in the West for his roles in THE TAI CHI MASTER and FIST OF LEGEND), encounters "the worm tribe" and disrupts evil sorcerer Aquala's human sacrifice of a beautiful girl, "Betsy" (Sau-Lai Tsui), to the horrifying animate skeleton/shape-shifting monster "Old Ancestor."

"Old Ancestor" in its less-robust form.

Aquala (Elvis Tsui) is a black magician straight out of the Mola Ram school of heavies and he wields an assortment of baleful skills, chief among which is the "little ghost," a foul creature that he produces from inside his cape that flies through the air, viciously attacks its targets, and eagerly sucks their blood.

The ravenous wrath of "little ghost."

So, with that in mind, you can guess he's not at all pleased with Yuen fouling up his ritual, thus prompting him to hit the good doctor with a horrible "blood curse" that causes parts of his victim's body to agonizingly burst and spew thick red paint blood. (It's phony-looking but that only adds to the charming gross-out effect.) Though seriously injured, the doctor helps Betsy escape back to her tribe, so she kindly strips naked and cuts into one of her own breasts to supply the doctor with a cure that will hold his curse at bay for one year.

There's nothing like a little utterly gratuitous nudity.

When the year runs out, Yeun is confronted by a member of Betsy's tribe (Dick Wei) who summons him back to Thailand so he can try to effect a cure for both the doc and the girl, whose face has become disfigured in the wake of Aquala's curse. Following the advice of his occult-savvy pal, Wei Si Li, aka "Wisely" (Chow Yun Fat), Yeun returns to Thailand and accompanies the tribesman on the quest for the antidote, dogged along the way by the cute but incredibly annoying unnecessary comic relief reporter Tsai-Hung (the gorgeous Maggie Cheung). The trio encounters all kinds of nastiness, gore and sadistic violence and when the irritating reporter ends up in Aquala's clutches, the heroes aim to rescue her and the tribe's children, who have been taken so their blood can serve as the base for a magic potion, extracted from a stone crusher/juicer that squishes the kiddies into liquid goo (in a scene like something out of a child's nightmare). And after that there's still the matter of curing the doc and Betsy's curses, plus kicking Aquala's evil ass and wiping out the Old Ancestor once and for all, so you could say that the doc's dance card is pretty full.

THE SEVENTH CURSE is very lively from start to finish but it does suffer from the aforementioned elements that throw a bit of a monkey wrench into its proceedings.The comedy, mostly stemming from Maggie Cheung's reporter character, doesn't work and when it happens it transforms the film into a whole other movie entirely. The action and martial arts sequences are well done but they also seem to belong in another film, especially the RAIDERS-style death traps and the blatant swipe of RAIDERS' gigantic rolling stone ball, this time with the ball being swapped out for the huge dislodged head of an ancient idol. The schizophrenic tonal shifts are all the more unfortunate because the horror story at the film's core is quite strong and would have made for an instant classic had all the needless bullshit been excised entirely. It's dark stuff of a rather Lovecraftian order and as such should have been treated with the seriousness of a heart attack.

But all of that can be overlooked when a movie is as balls-out entertaining as this one is. The hero's a bit bland but everyone else in the cast more than makes up for his relative lack of character. As monsters go, Old Ancestor's kinda neat, what with starting out as a dirty-fighting skeleton and later morphing into a cross between the Alien and the winged form of Princess Dragon Mom from INFRA MAN and all, and the little ghost is one vicious little bastard whose malevolence far outweighs the in-your-face obviousness of it being a cheaply-made prop that looks like a dime store baby doll as altered with some liquid latex and a hot glue gun by an LSD-addled member of the Manson Family. And let us not forget the presence of thirty-year-old Chow Yun at as the appropriately-named Wisely. He's the kind of character who's mellow and urbane but knows all kinds of obscure shit about the black arts for no particular reason, so he's quite handy to have around when this kind of shit is going on. And does he fight the film's Big Bad with a crucifix, holy water, counter-spells or even exorcism? Fuck that shit; that stuff's for pussies. In this narrative, using that crap's like showing up to a knife fight armed with nothing but your flaccid dick in your hand. Wisely knows better, so he shows up at the last possible minute, armed with a motherfucking missile launcher and two loads that he uses to blast Old Ancestor into showering chunks that have not a hope in hell of re-animating. The first missile blows a huge hole clean through the monster, allowing it to observe its own beating heart before it's hit by the second shot, which scatters its remaining mass like a handful of thrown jacks. And when all is said and done, Wisely isn't even impressed with himself.

Chow Yun Fat, in an early moment of awesomeness, shows us how to properly sort out unholy creatures from the underworld.

I would have preferred a whole film about just Wisely and could have totally done without that bland-assed Dr. Yuen, but I guess a Wisely-versus-monsters flick would have been over two seconds after Wisely found out about the given threat and called a tactical thermo-nuclear strike to deal with it, after which he'd simply chill out in his study with a tumbler of Scotch as he waited for the radiation to die down. Oh, well...

Friday, October 28, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 28: SONNY BOY (1989)

"Can this be me? This pitiful thing I see trapped in this mirror?"
-the film's protagonist, upon seeing his reflection for the first time

A favorite horror sub-genre of mine is that of the maniac family, and there are few within that small sub-genre that come anywhere near the sheer sickness that practically drips from SONNY BOY. It's one of those movies where I'm firmly convinced all involved intentionally set out to make the most fucked-up, twisted film that's humanly possible to craft, but even in a morass of derangement like this, the power of the unfortunate protagonist's simple, basic humanity refuses to be expunged. But more on that aspect later.

In the semi-surreal New Mexico town of Harmony, a young couple is murdered by Weasel (Brad Dourif), a sleazy thug who then steals their car, not noticing their six-month-old baby boy in the convertible's back seat. From there, the baby ends up in the hands of Slue (the hulking Paul Smith), a sociopathic local crime lord who lives on a desert hog farm with his cross-dressing "wife," Pearl (David Carradine in what is unquestionably his most outrageous role). NOTE: no mention whatsoever is made of the fact that Pearl is quite obviously a man — complete with a strap-on set of fillable faux breasts for nursing — and that only makes her status within the story that much more interesting.

David Carradine as the doting Pearl.

Though Slue is quite clearly established as the dominant one in their relationship, Pearl overrules the annoyed Slue's intention to feed the infant to the hogs and lovingly adopts the child as her own, naming him Sonny Boy.

Not exactly a LION KING-like moment of new baby celebration.

In no time the viewer sadly realizes that Sonny Boy would have been better off had he been the next day's hog shit because Slue, though allowing Pearl to play doting mommy, takes control of the poor kid's "training," thrusting him headlong into a pitiless regimen of "strength-building" physical and psychological torture that over the course of seventeen years turns the child into Slue's personal biddable bipedal attack dog. The poor kid lives in a state of unwashed squalor, chained in an empty water tower and fed live chickens, and among other endless acts of cruelty foisted upon him, on his sixth birthday Sonny Boy is given "the gift of silence" by Slue: the fat, creepy bastard cuts out the boy's tongue. At age twelve, the kid reflects (in voiceover, which is how the film is narrated by a character with no tongue) on how his adoptive father teaches him "games of strength and love," such as dragging the kid behind the family car over the desert rocks and sand, noting how "each game makes me stronger, giving me a skin of armor so strong that not even fire can harm me."

By the time he's a young, handsome man (though certainly quite feral and visibly filth-covered), Sonny Boy is carted around in an old-fashioned ice cream truck and used by his adoptive father as a lethal weapon turned loose against all who would fuck with his rule over the town and possibly put the kibosh on his various criminal operations. And I neglected to mention that Slue is something of a painter who seeks entry into the posh Californian arts community, and he somehow figures to use Sonny Boy as part of his delusional plan to achieve that goal.

That setup is irresistible and the whole movie can be counted as worth one's time — and it's definitely worthy of its cult status — but once it's established its bona fides the film kind of loses its twisted way, shifting gears into a full-on study of poor Sonny Boy's burgeoning humanity once he escapes from his water tower confinement and runs loose in Harmony, greatly to the consternation of the townspeople. That's all well and good but we've seen the whole "Mowgli meets civilization" thing many times before and while it's nice to have our abused hero away from the clutches of his psycho family and discovering his more tender side with the willing help of a cute local girl (who must have no sense of smell whatsoever), when the film's Level 10 sickness factor is gone, what remains is not unlike a very twisted '80's teen movie scenario that simply putts along until it reaches its apocalyptic climax and combination uplifting/ludicrous epilogue. I get that part of the film's point was to show that despite the tortures he's endured, his sorry, violent existence can't quite squash Sonny Boy's most basic, agonized humanity, and the telling of that half of the story is not terrible by any means, but I really feel the movie loses a great deal of its uniqueness with its sudden redemptive shift in tone.

As poor Sonny Boy cowers during the onslaught of understandably outraged and heavily-armed locals, Pearl defends her family like the kickass mom she is.

Nonetheless, the first half/two-thirds of the movie is uniquely vile and twisted and well worth seeking out. The only problem with doing so is that as of this writing, SONNY BOY is not legally available on DVD in the United States unless you manage to track it down on a dodgy "gray market" copy burned to disc from an old VHS tape or laserdisc version. I first saw it ages ago on a friend's laserdisc copy and wanted to snag it for myself in a legit release, but still no dice. Then again it took forever for the classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS to come out on DVD and Blu Ray — hitting just a few days ago, as a matter of fact — so hope springs eternal, much like poor Sonny Boy's innocent basic humanity.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 27: DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE (1980)

"Fucked up," thy name is DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE. Shot a year before the "slasher" boom of the 1980's kicked off with FRIDAY THE 13th (1980), so it can't be considered as having been influenced by that explosion of cinematic carnage, DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE is permanently set in time thanks to its end-of-the-disco-era elements and its lack of blood showering everywhere (that kind of thing didn't become common until after FRIDAY THE 13th's sanguinary excesses). But don't think its lack of blood makes it any less nasty than its more cutlery-fetishizing brethren...

Somehow managing to be even more simple/sparse in the plot department than most films in the sub-genre while simultaneously containing more genuine character development/motivation than nearly all other slasher films combined, DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE follows the sad and twisted path of Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi), a twitchy loner who works at an industrial incinerator plant. The adult product of horrible abuse by stovetop fire at the hands of his sadistic mother who punished him for every perceived "sinful" thought, Donny's in his thirties and still lives at home with the now-aged harridan, a pitiful case of having been emotionally crushed and stunted into a state of arrested adolescence. While witnessing a co-worker nearly get fatally immolated during an on-the-job accident, Donny's utter lack of reaction or concern about the incident gives us our first real indication that something's seriously wrong with the guy. (Thanks to his failure to help his co-worker, we also see that Donny is not exactly well-liked by his fellow employees, most of whom regard him as a freak.) Upon arriving home after the incident, Donny discovers his mother dead in her favorite chair and at last, free of her domineering physical presence and perpetual verbal abuse, his mind snaps and his first act of rebellion is to play his (crappy made-for-the-movie) disco music at top volume. Thus empowered by disco — long known to be the soundtrack of rebellion — and fueled by the hectoring voice of his mother in his head, Donny skips work, builds a large fireproof room in his house (or maybe it was always there and merely hidden), buys an asbestos-worker's head-to-toe fireproof suit from an army surplus store (???) and embarks on a joyless spree of picking up young, attractive women, taking them to his house, rendering them unconscious and then chaining them naked from the ceiling of the fireproof room. Then he breaks out the flamethrower.

Once his screaming victims have been torched, Donny dresses their charred bodies in his dead mother's clothes and arranges them in the living room, all the while conflicted by clashing childlike emotions of providing the corpses with "love and comfort" and a violent hatred and distrust of women engendered by his treatment by his mother. Basically, it's PSYCHO's Norman Bates taken to a particularly savage extreme, so it's only a matter of time until Donny's towering dysfunction, utter inability to function outside of his house of horrors, and a series of hallucinations collapse his fucked-up world around him, and its a fall that's agonizing to watch.

There's a fine line between horror and the "psychological thriller" but DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE gets my vote as a horror flick due to its theme of the endless cycle of abuse coupled with its hideous death-by-flamethrower hook and charred zombie hallucinations. Who doesn't find immolation to be possibly the most excruciating of possible death scenarios? It's bad enough to be caught in a house fire or a flaming car wreck with no chance of escape but to to have some faceless maniac chain you naked from a ceiling and incinerate you alive as part of a premeditated course of psychotic intent? Jesus fucking Christ... If that doesn't count as straight-up horror, I don't know what does.

As or the movie itself and its overall tone, I don't know quite what to think. I found it far too bleak and depressing to be even remotely entertaining, which is not to say that it is at all badly made, and it's so dark and dour from its opening moments that it's a complete and total bring-down that doesn't thrill with the frisson (Ooh! Fancy film-fuck word!) one experiences with most horror films. It's just a miserable, hate and sadness-filled well of despair and I'm not sure I can recommend it to anyone unless they dig been terminally depressed. You thought SOPHIE'S CHOICE made you want to slit your wrists or jump off the nearest bridge? That film has nothing on DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE's low-budget grimy atmosphere. I've seen DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE twice, once when first encountered on DVD and a second time a couple of days ago when watching it to refresh my memory for purposes of this review, and I assure you I will never return to it.

Now that that's over, I feel the urge to take a long, thoroughly-scrubbed shower and watch something like THE SECRET OF MAGIC ISLAND (1956, France/Italy; released in the U.S. in 1964), a movie entirely populated by cute little puppies and kitties and all sorts of other adorable critters having happy adventures. Anything to wash the charbroiled stink of DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE from my consciousness.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 26: THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)

Perhaps the most Satanic title card ever, which is only appropriate for this particular movie.

Often unfairly overlooked in the post-EXORCIST era, this Hammer offering about Satanism is one of their more compelling non-series gems that fairly cries out for a modern re-discovery.

With a screenplay by Richard Matheson — author of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and the original I AM LEGEND, as well as several classic episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE — based upon the novel by British horror master Dennis Wheatley (TO THE DEVIL-A DAUGHTER and UNCHARTED SEAS, among numerous others)

Duc Nicholas de Richeleau (Christopher Lee): taking no shit from Satan-worshiping scum.

In 1930's England, the Duc Nicholas de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and his friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) look into the sudden mysterious disappearance of their friend, young Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), who has not been seen or heard from by friends or relatives or several months, though it's known he recently and suddenly bought a large house. The Duc and Rex make their way to Simon's house and find an elegant party filled with assorted classy and exotic types in full swing, which a nervous-acting Simon explains away as "a meeting of a little astronomical society" led by the suave and sinister Mocata (Charles Gray at his slimiest, and that's really saying something), who clearly holds some sort of power over Simon. Also present is the equally on-edge Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), whom Rex is sure he recognizes from somewhere (which she denies, though it's obvious she's lying) and who storms off when she discovers the Duc and Rex are not members of the society, and as the Duc cases the room for information it becomes apparent that the society's members are discussing matters of the occult involving planetary conjunction and such. Noting the presence of the outsiders, Mocata takes Simon aside and bids him to throw out the Duc and Rex, which he politely does, but not before the Duc begs five minutes in which to look through a telescope that's upstairs. Simon obliges but the Duc uses the time to check out the upstairs and finds a mostly empty room, decorated with parchments claimed by Simon to be "just decoration, relics," and the room's floor bears a large and ornate diagram...

Just another day for that wacky Mocata (Charles Gray).

Hearing strange sounds, the Duc bursts into a closet and discovers live chickens in a basket, thus leading him to correctly and irately deduce that Simon is now a dabbler in the black arts. With Simon being the son of a deceased dear friend, the Duc looks upon Simon as a son and he would rather see the young man dead than messing about with the occult. Though having known Simon for over ten years, the Duc never before spoke of certain aspects of his life but now that his friend's son is involved in all this devil-junk, the Duc reveals that his studies into assorted esoteric practices has given him a rather serious working knowledge of things most dark, and when the terrified Simon refuses to let the Duc and Rex stay, the Duc knocks the young man out and he and Rex haul his unconscious body out of the house and speed away in the Duc's chauffer-driven sedan. Once at the Duc's home, the Duc uses hypnosis to free Simon from the society's spell and place a "symbol of protection," a silver crucifix on a chain, about his neck, along with an order not to remove it. When Simon is asleep, the Duc informs the dubious Rex that Evil — note the capital "E" — and the powers of darkness are "a living force which can be tapped at any given moment of the night," an act proven when the still-under-hypnosis Simon practically strangles himself in an unsuccessful bid to remove the crucifix from around his neck. When the Duc's butler walks in and sees Simon choking, he removes the crucifix, after which Simon promptly escapes out the nearest window. Breaking into Simon's house in hope of finding him, the Duc and Rex instead run into an eerie spirit — that looks like nothing so much as a creepily-smiling West Indian dude in a red diaper — that materializes from the symbol on the ritual room's floor. After breaking free of its controlling gaze, the Duc realizes that Mocata is some sort of high-level, Crowley-esque Satanic adept with actual black magic powers and from that moment on embarks on a crusade to save Simon from the arch-fiend's diabolical clutches before he can be re-baptized into the the way of the Left-Hand Path, and the only key to finding Simon lies in locating the mysterious Tanith. What ensues is a battle of the so-called rational world colliding head-on with seemingly impossible things that the ancients knew only too well to be both very real and very, very deadly shit that nobody should mess with. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but Satan himself even shows up in the horned form of the Goat of Mendes (look it up), so these are not your garden variety burnout Satanists that the Duc must reckon with. These guys are no goddamned joke, and you'd better believe that.

"Hi, kids! It's me, your old pal Satan! And I brought Pop Rocks!!!"

Though its thrills are comparatively low key by today's standards, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT offers very fantastical occult goings-on in a recognizably mundane setting that would fit right in with the events seen in stories like NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957) and ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), and the end result feels like some oddball installment of either MASTERPIECE THEATER or MYSTERY. Drenched in Britishness from head to cloven hoof, this one's definitely something to add to your Netflix queue.

Poster from the original U.K. theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 25: HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959)

In the late 1950's, the horror films generated by Hammer Studios upped the level of violence/gore and sex/gratuitous female flesh by degrees that only increased with each passing year, especially as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties, and with that popular acceptance and box office success came films that took advantage of that new leniency. The most infamous from that early wave of British responses to the trend is this nasty little shocker that possesses several moments that everyone who's seen it has permanently burned into their memories, especially if they encountered HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM during their impressionable childhoods. That's when I first saw it — I was around eight years old — and look at what happened to me...

The horror begins in London when a pretty young woman receives a package containing a pair of binoculars. Intrigued, she puts the binoculars to her eyes, which are suddenly penetrated by pressure-sensitive spring-loaded six-inch spikes, causing her agonized death.

One of the most shocking moments of 1950's horror cinema (or any other era, for that matter).

As the detectives of Scotland Yard begin to investigate this crime, the third horrific murder in two weeks, creepy, sensationalistic true crime author Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough, aka Alfred in four of the Batman films) arrives to pump them for information, an enthusiastic gleam in his shifty eyes. Quite familiar to the police due to his constant sniffing about for gruesome case details to use in his books and magazine articles, Bancroft lives and breathes crime and to all observers, he is unhealthily obsessed with crime in general and with the current murders in particular, resulting in his health being endangered from his alarmingly high blood pressure. Needless to say, Bancroft's obsession is so intense because he's the vicious maniac the police are searching for but he's beyond suspicion due to his ubiquity at the station and also thanks to his pronounced limp. But despite his frail physicality, Bancroft is one sick, sick motherfucker who orchestrates the murders so he'll have new material to write about, and also keeps a "black museum" in the basement of his house, a sanctum decorated with classic instruments of torture and accented with life-size manikins demonstrating what happens to those who endure the wielding of such contraptions in the hands of sadistic torturers. Bancroft also employs a young assistant named Rick (Graham Curnow), to whom he administers mind-controlling drugs that turn the lad into a programmable killer that Bancroft dispatches to commit a series of ever-escalating slayings. (When under Bancroft's murderous influence, Rick's complexion turns green and wrinkly for no apparent reason.)

But Bancroft's dark path is not without its obstacles. He pays rent for and gives cash to his sleazy, gold-digging blonde bombshell girlfriend, Joan (the lusciously curvaceous June Cunningham), but she's tired of being a kept woman in an isolated flat who's never taken anywhere and only used as a sex toy (strongly implied but not explicitly stated). Joan also viciously insults him as being "less than a man" (we know what that means) and makes fun of him being a "cripple," but the real problem lies in her knowledge of the dark deeds Bancroft gloats about while drunk and her intention to leave him, possibly to spill what she knows, all of which only adds fuel to the fire of Bancroft's oft-stated hatred and distrust of women. (He may be a misogynistic pig but at least he's up front about it.) Bancroft also buys the signature weapons used in the killing spree from an aged antique dealer who's smarter than she initially lets on, and once she realizes that the goods she sold to Bancroft are the same ones used in the murders, she seeks to cushion her retirement with cash extorted from her customer. (She doesn't go to Scotland Yard to rat Bancroft out because she fears guilt by association for selling the items to him.) Bancroft's personal physician is also no slouch in the reasoning department and after a recent examination of his patient, he begins to suspect the writer of being involved in activities that are considerably less than savory. Then there's Rick's burgeoning romance with a pretty young thing that threatens to upset his boss' control over him and possibly expose Bancroft's twisted activities. With all of that mishegoss threatening to boil over, it's only a matter of time until it all ends very, very badly.

Marvelously and unashamedly lurid, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM is like the cinematic cousin to the gory horror and crime comics that led to U.S. Senate sub-committee hearings in the early 1950's, only much better written than those often hacked-out efforts (pun most definitely intended), so check it out if you've never seen it. I promise you won't be disappointed, and how could you not be hooked after that hideous opening scene?

Monday, October 24, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 24 : HOMICIDAL (1961)

"A WORD OF WARNING! Please don't reveal the ending of this picture or your friends will kill you - IF THEY DON'T, I WILL!" - William Castle

How many movies can you name where the director makes that kind of threat at the flick's end?

Easily the best of the many ripoffs to come in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock's epochal PSYCHO (1960), I had the pleasure of going in cold and seeing HOMICIDAL at Manhattan's Film Forum when it ran there a little over a year ago, and I gotta say it's tough to discuss gimmick-meister William Castle's HOMICIDAL without giving away its surprises but I'll give it a shot. Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is to state that it's an over-the-top, played straight but campy parody of the Hitchcock proto-slasher classic (an aspect I did not expect going in).

Ventura, California, September 5th: sinister blonde Emily (Joan Marshall, billed as Jean Arless) purchases a gold wedding band, checks into a hotel as "Miriam Webster" and cryptically offers a handsome bellboy two-thousand bucks to marry her on September 6th, after which the marriage will be immediately annulled. The bellboy accepts the deal and the pair set off to the house of a certain justice of the peace at midnight on the 6th, where they awaken the justice to perform the wedding in the wee hours. When the ultra-short ceremony concludes and the justice moves to cop a kiss from the bride, "Miriam" produces a long knife from her clutch and repeatedly stabs the justice in the stomach, in full view of the man's wife and the horrified bellboy, after which she flees the scene, stealing the bellboy's car to make her getaway. Abandoning the stolen car and switching to her own ride, Emily tears down the highway while hearing on a radio news report that the justice she stabbed has died, thus making the assault an outright murder. Arriving at the home she shares with the aged wheelchair-bound and mute family nurse, Helga (Eugenie Loentovich), Emily cleans the murder weapon and creepily announces the savage killing she committed to the old woman, gleefully noting that the justice "died screeeeeeeeaming!!!" The following morning, Emily fixes breakfast for the fearful and helpless Helga when the real Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin), a florist, arrives, bearing flowers for the aged nurse...

Emily (Jean Arless) in Miriam's florist shop, moments before trashing the place in a fit of rage.

As the story unfolds, we discover that Emily has recently returned from Denmark, where years before she met Warren, the real Miriam's half-brother, who visits Emily and Helga every Thursday. Warren's already rather flush but is on the verge of inheriting a huge sum of money, and as his mysterious backstory unfolds, an avalanche of bizarre family secrets deluges the audience. It's also seen that Emily has the hots for Karl (Glenn Corbett), a young swain who runs a soda shop/pharmacy, and she will stop at nothing to make him hers, despite the fact that Karl and Miriam are an item. So what we have here is a love triangle with a genuine maniac at its center, twisted family history and secrets, (of much interest, especially in the climate of fifty years ago), a police investigation into the murder that dredges up all kinds sordid shit, and when the stunning final truth as to the whys and wherefores regarding Emily are finally revealed, it's a climax that nearly rivals that of PSYCHO in terms of material that must have been truly mind-blowing or its era's audience. My advice to you is to check this one out and try to put yourself in the place of a viewer watching it in 1961.

Director William Castle's movies were notorious for the cheesy/fun gimmicks employed in promoting them, and in the case of HOMICIDAL there was a moment toward the film's end where the house lights come up and "fright break" clock counting down forty-five seconds appears onscreen, signaling how much time the audience has in which to follow a yellow stripe out of the auditorium into the lobby if they're too scared to handle what's about to happen at the ending. Once in the lobby, chickenshit audience members can get their money back, provided they stand in the "coward's corner" and allow those who sat through the whole film to file past and bear witness to their shameful cowardice. (That was back in 1961; the Film Forum's manager told the audience up front that there would be no refunds.)

The "fright break" timer, as seen from where I sat in the audience.

In the audience when I saw the film, a guy and his wife — obvious plants — freaked out when the timer appeared, screaming that they just couldn't take the sheer horror onscreen and, as the guy showered himself with popcorn, they swiftly fled the theater. There was a smattering of applause.

The yellow stripe leading out of the auditorium to...

...the "Coward's Corner." This is the couple that "freaked out."

Reserved seating.

Me and the lovely Sukihoshi simulate being a pair of complete and utter pussies. (Hey, in my case you are what you eat!)

Yer Bunche, forever traumatized by the horrors witnessed onscreen.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 23: GINGER SNAPS (2000)

Excellent in just about every way, GINGER SNAPS is one of the few werewolf movies to look at matters lycanthropic from a female point of view and also, significantly, link that aspect to matters menstrual. It's not the first time that's been done in horror — Peter S. Beagle's "Lila the Werewolf" and Alan Moore's "The Curse" immediately spring to mind — but the handling of it here involves the universal horror of adolescence writ large and the result is glorious.

This Canadian entry is proof of what can be done with a low budget and a hell of a lot of talent and intelligence. Drawing once more upon the lycanthropy/horrors of puberty theme, GINGER SNAPS deals with two uber-morbid and very close high school-age sisters, a pair of creepy misfits who, like good old Carrie White, have yet to have their first periods. The older of the two, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), finally starts her menstrual cycle but has the misfortune of that event coinciding with local animal attacks that turn out to be the work of a particularly savage werewolf. The monster catches her newly bloody scent and, in a scene intended to look and feel like a rape (according to the film’s co-scriptwriter), mauls the living shit out of her.

The newly wolfy and hyper-sexualized Ginger (Katharine Isabelle): on the prowl or some meat...

Ginger survives and in no time flat begins to exhibit a hitherto unseen level of aggression, both socially and sexually — NOTE: keep in mind that lycanthropy is a communicable disease — to say nothing of such undeniable signs of wolfing out as getting furry in odd places, her teeth becoming more suited to tearing flesh, and the tail that she’s sprouted from out of nowhere, all of which happens when the moon isn't even full, so you know it's really bad. Ginger's younger sister, Brigitte (Emily Perkins), realizes what’s happening and sets out to cure her sister, and if that doesn’t work, it'll be time for a more permanent solution…

Sorry, but there are some things Pamprin just ain't made to handle.

One of the rare werewolf movies from a female perspective, GINGER SNAPS is highly recommended for its genuine scares, well-handled lycanthropy/puberty metaphor, and its wicked DeGRASSI HIGH MEETS THE HOWLING sensibility. And the first sequel’s actually pretty good! If you choose only one film from this countdown, this is one of the handful you should seriously consider. (I also strongly favor NIGHT OF THE DEMON and DAGON.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 22: DAGON (2001)

Oh, the many squirm-inducing pleasures of DAGON, the horror flick that ranks as my very favorite of the current century.

Picture, if you will, a vast undersea expanse, all sound muted by the water that envelops you as shafts of light from the distant surface provide scant illumination. You swim through this seemingly endless dreamlike environment, your movements slow and clumsy, body leaden with the weight of your scuba gear and aided by the beam of a flashlight. Suddenly, through the murky darkness you encounter an opening in the ocean’s floor that is clearly the skillfully crafted work of hands unknown, a wide portal that is at once ocular, oral and vaginal in its aspect. You swim into its yawning maw and curiously explore this tunnel leading to…where or what you cannot begin to fathom. Your hands explore the eerily striated walls of the portal, and as your fascinated gaze scans what lays before you, the pallid face of a beautiful, raven-tressed mermaid smiles up at you.

She swims into clear view and you marvel at her strange beauty as her thick hair swirls about her, borne by invisible currents and exposing her lovely, buoyant breasts. This nubile vision swims over, unafraid, and removes your facemask and re-breather’s mouthpiece. Your senses reel as she kisses you, deeply and passionately, and you don’t even notice you no longer require your heavy equipment to breathe, so caught up are you in the deep-sea maiden’s unexpected ardor.

Then, with a ravenous shriek, she bares a dental array that would give a piranha pause and you awaken with a start.

It was only a dream, but you have just awakened from a harbinger of an infinitely worse, living nightmare from which there is no hope of escape for you or the companions who accompanied you on what was meant to be a relaxing getaway on a chartered yacht off the coast of Spain. You have just entered the world of the fish-god Dagon, and you’re about to learn some dark and ancient truths that will affect you in ways you would never have expected.

That’s the basic setup for Stuart (RE-ANIMATOR) Gordon’s masterful H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, DAGON (2001), the hands down finest of the many cinematic translations of the author's famously creepy works, and it really took me and my buddy Chris by surprise when we rented it to watch during the Thanksgiving weekend some nine years ago. Things get boring as hell in Connecticut during Thanksgiving (more boring than usual, that is) so Chris and I annually search for some flicks with which to kill the time. We drove all over Fairfield County on the night after this particular Thanksgiving, hitting several DVD rental stores before nearly giving up after not finding anything that piqued our craving for any kind of diversion on film/DVD. Our last stop, at some obscure video store somewhere in Trumbull, yielded gold in the form of DOG SOLDIERS — an incredible werewolf movie that I may add to this list of flicks to discuss — and DAGON, and neither of us knew a damned thing about either film. Both turned out to be exceptional but it's DAGON that really got under my skin and it's the one I immediately recommend when asked for a horror movie recommendation. (That surprises most folks who know me since I'm an out, loud and proud werewolf advocate, but DAGON is so good that it overrules my natural affinity for my beloved lycanthropes.)

The story follows the waking nightmare a group of yachters, two couples, find themselves in when their vessel hits something off the coast of Spain and begins to sink. One couple remains on the boat while the other makes their way to the isolated fishing town of Imboca in search of help, only to discover that the place is populated by hideous human-marine life hybrids, the direct result of generations of human women bearing the children of the ancient fish-god Dagon. I will say no more other than to state that the male protagonist discovers some very dark truths during the course of the story and there's even a very weird climax that, from a certain perspective, could be considered a happy ending.

There's a lot — and I do mean A LOT — going on in the narrative and chief among its many malignant wonders (to my way of thinking, anyway) is Macarena Gomez as Uxia Cambarro, the beautiful large-eyed mermaid from the opening dream sequence.

In the dream she was every man's mermaid fantasy brought to alluring life but in the incredibly creepy reality of the remote fishing village of Imboca, she’s the wheelchair-bound high priestess of the evil oceanic god who gets his condomless hump on with mortal women, thus spawning the aforementioned race of human/sea monster hybrids.

Uxia’s clearly one of those creatures, but even though she boasts a pair of floppy, sucker-laden tentacles in place of a scaly fish tail (which she possessed in the opening dream sequence), to say nothing of the enormous, gasping gills on her ribcage, she’s got that wild-eyed-and-crazy look that I find irresistible. (Yeah, you could say I have some issues...)

Crazed, incestuous, sacrificial dagger-wielding evil half-breed or not, I’d love a taste of her saltwater charms. Plus, unlike a traditional mermaid, with Uxia you’ve got a pretty good idea of where the pussy is. Always a plus.

No bullshit, if you haven't seen DAGON, run out and rent it immediately. It's fairly low on gore and violence but it's got an appropriately high creep factor that translates the crawly, sticky/slimy feel of Lovecraft's tales of cross-species interbreeding to the screen, and getting across the flavor of his works had never been truly successful in the movies until this one. HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

As KRS-1 so wisely said back in the days, "You can't trust a big butt and a smile."

Friday, October 21, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 21: A BAY OF BLOOD (1971)

Initially released in the U.S. as CARNAGE but swiftly withdrawn due to disappointing box office and re-released as TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, the title under which it played the grindhouse circuit for years, this Italian slaughterhouse of a film is of interest as the root from which the "slasher" genre as we now know it grew. The Ground Zero for that category, if you will.

The massively and needlessly convoluted plot is pretty much beside the point since the whole thing is nothing more than a blatant excuse to cram as many gory murders onto the screen as possible — something it does with unabashed gratuitousness — but it all has to do with several concerned parties vying for the inheritance of a secluded bay and the house on its attendant land. We really don't get to care about any of the characters (who can really only be described as such in the most rudimentary sense of the word), so their gruesome demises have no impact save for their graphic savagery when compared to films of its era, in which respect the movie is almost a decade ahead of its time. The work of famed director/cinematographer Mario Bava (PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, DANGER! DIABOLIK, and many others of interest), A BAY OF BLOOD nowadays reads like a textbook "how to" for the films that would imitate this film (and aspects of John Carpenter's far superior HALLOWEEN from 1978) and come to dominate the horror genre of the 1980's and beyond, starting with FRIDAY THE 13th in 1980, and it pretty much invented the following slasher genre tropes:
  • Remote location with a lake to facilitate nude swims by the cast's buxom females
  • POV shots as the killer stalks their human prey
  • A cast of characters who are nothing more than ciphers to be mutilated, dismembered, hanged, immolated, et cetera
  • The "creative kill," in which one or more characters are polished off in ways that simultaneously repel and amuse
  • A plot that is utterly irrelevant to what this kind of thing's audience wants to see, namely tons of vicious, gory murders
  • Few, if any, real scares, just meat for the hacking
With that recipe, innumerable slasher films turned the world's movie theaters into charnel houses and it all got codified right here. Yes, I know Herschel Gordon Lewis was cranking out his signature, revolutionary ultra-gory (and notoriously cheapjack and filmically crude) stomach-churners as far back as 1963's landmark BLOOD FEAST (a steaming pile if ever I saw one, despite its historical importance), but while Lewis' work was pioneering, what Bava achieved here took what Lewis hatched and refined it (somewhat) into the perfect formula for brainless cinematic fare that unapologetically knew exactly what it was, aspired to nothing other than being what it knew its audience was there for, and could be cranked out or peanuts to rake in an assload of money. And, as previously stated, this film was shamelessly imitated, but no film ripped it off to the degree that the first FRIDAY THE 13th and its endless sequels did, in many cases going so far as to outright crib some of A BAY OF BLOOD's signature killings, most notably this one from FRIDAY THE 13th PART II (1981), which stands as perhaps the prime example of the "fuck and die" trope:

A humping couple is memorably run through with a long spear that penetrates the pair and is seen protruding through the underside of the bed, and much the same thing occurs in FRIDAY THE 13th PART II:

So if you're a fan or scholar of the whole slasher phenomenon of the 1980's (and beyond), A BAY OF BLOOD is definitely worth a look for its Rosetta Stone-like status in one of the horror genre's most (often justly) maligned sub-strata. Plus, even with the passing of four decades since its initial release, it's murders are still quite vicious and genuinely shocking, my favorite being a hooked machete to the throat of a fleeing victim that features a nasty closeup of her throat being slit open. Great for the kiddies!