Tuesday, June 28, 2016

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN

Gordon Hessler, 1970
Starring: Alfred Marks, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing

“TRIPLE DISTILLED HORROR... as powerful as a vat of boiling ACID!”

Based on Peter Saxon’s novel The Disoriented Man, this film is a bit disorienting and I’m not sure if a brief summary can really do it justice. There are essentially three plots that eventually converge: the first involves a man jogging in London who collapses and winds up in the hospital. Throughout the film, every time he resumed consciousness, he is missing a new limb, but the nurse attending him refuses to explain. The second plot involves a military official returned to London from some maybe fascist (?) country. He kills a number of superior officers by doing what appears to be an inspired interpretation of the Vulcan death grip. The final and loosely central plot is focused on a violent serial killer and rapist who preys on the city’s women and drains them of their blood. A detective hunts him down and investigates the deaths, which horrify the city’s police officers and morgue workers. The detective consults a strange doctor who runs an organ and limb transplant clinic... 

This co-production between American International Pictures and British studio Tigon is a huge mess and is indicative of the kind of bumbling interference on the part of AIP that also made complete messes of films like The Haunted House of Horror and, to a lesser extent, The Curse of the Crimson Altar. While The Haunted House of Horror was horrifically saddled with Frankie Avalon and The Curse of the Crimson Altar was blessed by the aged, wheelchair-bound presence of Boris Karloff (still on top of his game despite little to do in the film), Scream and Scream Again is nearly saved by the presence of the great Vincent Price, though he seems just as confused by the plot as I was.

And yet... as with Tigon's earlier lovable disaster, The Blood Beast Terror, I know it's a mess, I can explain to you why 
— and there's just really no reason to avoid the honest truth — but that doesn't stop Scream and Scream Again from being incredibly entertaining. The script does it absolutely no favors, as the three plots randomly stop and start and careen into one another, but despite that and a number of other flaws, it’s just so much fun. As with my thoughts on The Blood Beast Terror, I will fully admit that I'm just not trustworthy where this film is concerned. Though there are a fair amount of stylish sets and costumes, the movie has an undeniably grungy feeling — which feels strangely out of place and which I love — and is populated with unlikable characters and some very nasty violence. And what the hell is with the Nazi subplot? It’s actually very difficult to fully describe the plot without giving things away, as scene after scene reveals more and more ridiculousness. Personally, I don't care a bit about spoilers and usually dole them out with no warning, but it just seems wrong in this case.

Director Gordon Hessler made some lesser known films that built on Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s Edgar Allen Poe series, such as The Oblong Box (1969), Cry of the Banshee (1970), and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971). While I genuinely love all of these, despite their flaws, Scream and Scream Again is certainly his wildest and most interesting ride. Thanks is due in no small part to Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee, all of whom appear in this film, though not necessarily together and, much to my dismay, none of them really have a significant amount of screen time. While Cushing and Lee obviously had entwined careers and developed quite a beloved partnership — one that shaped the face of British horror — Price and Lee had only just worked together for the first time in Hessler’s previous film, The Oblong Box, where they also only shared one scene. Price and Cushing worked together on a handful of titles, namely the wonderful Madhouse. The three would work together again only once more over a decade later in Pete Walker’s unexpectedly delightful House of the Long Shadows (1983).

There are some other familiar faces, many of whom are quite welcome additions to the film, including Judy Huxtable (Die Screaming Marianne, no relation to Bill Cosby’s TV family), Yutte Stensgaard (Lust for a Vampire), Peter Sallis (Taste the Blood of Dracula), Christopher Matthews (Scars of Dracula), and British TV actor Alfred Marks. Marks is basically the star of the film and is quite likable as the head inspector. I don't know what it is about these Detective Inspector characters — perhaps a combination of watching British TV comedy and repeatedly reading Conan Doyle stories as a child — but I can't get enough of them. Marks is not quite on the level of John Williams in Dial M for Murder or Donald Pleasence's character in Death Line (who is, really), but he's a solid force within the film.

One of my favorite elements is the great score from David Whitaker, who used the kind of wild jazz much more frequently found in continental horror, such as the films of Jess Franco. Whitaker also scored Vampire Circus and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde — imagine what a triple feature that would make. Although, as much as I love the score, it makes a lot of the film seem even more ridiculous, namely a lengthy scene where the police chase the killer, first by car and then on foot. They capture him and handcuff him, but he gets away by ripping off his own hand, and the chase continues. I’m not making this up.

Scream and Scream Again comes highly recommended and I love the film, but it will really only appeal to a certain audience. Open-mindedness and a certain irrepressible joie de vivre is key. The film is available on a double feature, single disc DVD from MGM’s Midnite Movies along with Hessler’s more conventional outing with Price and Lee, The Oblong Box. (Though it's still pretty bananas, at least compared to more straightforward British horror fare.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR

Michael Armstrong, 1969
Starring: Frankie Avalon, Jill Haworth, Dennis Price A group of friends in swinging London decide that they’re bored with their usual routine of partying, drinking, and wearing outrageous clothing, so when one of them suggests that they visit a supposedly haunted manor in the country, they jump at the idea. Unfortunately, they’re followed by the persistent older boyfriend of one of the girls and after they hold a seance, everything begins to go wrong and it seems there’s a murderer among them. Their American ringleader, Chris, convinces them that — because obviously one of them has to be the killer — they should solve the mystery on their own. They proceed to corroborate their stories, destroy the evidence, and hide the first body from the police, which does nothing to slow the steadily rising body count… It’s not that terrible of a film, but I almost can’t even bring myself to review The Haunted House of Horror — something that hasn’t really happened since my fateful streak of essays on Italian Jaws ripoffs during my animals attack series in January of 2013, when I nearly lost the will to live — and that’s basically because of the film’s offensively absurd premise and the casting of American teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon. It’s controversial to say — because I currently live in Philadelphia, his hometown — but I fucking hate Frankie Avalon. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but I would probably rather be waterboarded than sit through a marathon of “beach party” movies. Director Michael Armstrong — best known for Mark of the Devil (1970) — helmed The Haunted House of Horror, something I’m sure he regrets, as the production was sort of yanked out from under him and tampered with by US distributor, American International Pictures, who had a financial stake despite the fact that this is a Tigon British Film Productions effort. As with Tigon’s The Curse of the Crimson Altar, AIP insisted on a role for Boris Karloff, though he was too ill to participate in this film, which is why there’s a more sizable role for the Scotland Yard detective. Though the script was a project Armstrong had worked on since he was a teenager, he was forced to jettison some of the more serious social commentary and, to add insult to injury, he was forced to cast Frankie goddamn Avalon; he was expected to play a teenager despite being 30 years old during filming. Avalon is implausibly described as “the epitome of swinging London” by one of the other characters and his cockamamie idea is basically responsible for the entire plot. They arrive at the haunted house, like you do when you leave a boring party, and one character exclaims, “To hell with the drinks, let’s have an orgy.” But of course they settle on a seance. Zzzzz. The seance basically serves as a reason for them to split up and wander the house alone, where, of course, someone gets murdered. Then Avalon’s character Chris, the group’s de facto leader, declares — for some reason that makes no real sense — that he intends to solve the murder on his own, going so far as to hide the body so the police don’t discover it and interrupt his investigation. Yes, you read that right. Avalon does, however, have some spectacular dialogue. His argument for solving the murder on his own is that the murderer must be from their group of friends (what?) and he says, “How can any one of you prove that you didn’t kill Gary?” The answer, from his girlfriend Sheila replies, “We’re not insane.” Later, Avalon counters that the killer could be male or female: “Any psychopath, male or female, can have superhuman strength when aroused.” He is not wrong. Sheila is played by Jill Haworth, who I think is one of the more unsung genre actresses. She got her start with small roles in The 39 Steps (edit: the remake, not Hitchcock's original, as I mistakenly thought originally, for which she was not even born) and Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula, and went on to appear in cult films like It! and Horror on Snape’s Island. She’s really the best thing about The Haunted House of Horror. And the single best thing about the film’s IMDB page is the (as far as I can tell unfounded) trivia line, “Jill Haworth was on drugs during filming,” which fails to take into account the fact that David Bowie, who had been in an earlier short film directed by Armstrong, was supposed to appear in the film. Armstrong’s original script would undoubtedly have made a much better film and this is yet another case of producers interfering when they should not be. There is a surprising level of violence and gore, though it might seem so elevated because it provides a contrast for the inane scenes of teenagers wandering in the dark. It has an interesting visual style and is unusually colorful, a bit like a poor man’s version of a Bava-era giallo film (and there are even bright red mannequins in the opening scene). I wonder if this has anything to do with why the sweet hell everyone is wearing yellow. The only real value to The Haunted House of Horror is to see how it functions as a proto-slasher. It’s a clear link in the evolution of themes found in “old dark house” films like The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Old Dark House (1932) to other midway points like Bay of Blood (1971) and The Centrefold Girls (1974) to ‘80s slashers like Friday the 13th (1980). It’s not that the film doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, but it’s so frustratingly uneven and so obvious that the studio interfered with the original plan for the film. If, for some reason, you are really determined to see this one, it’s available in the coffin-shaped Tigon Collection alongside a slew of the studio’s superior films like Witchfinder General, The Body Stealers (another baffling one), The Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Beast in the Cellar, and Virgin Witch. I don’t think it will come as any surprise when I say I can’t recommend this one and if you do decide to watch it — as I’m sure some Frankie Avalon fans will want to — then best of luck to you.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

WITCHFINDER GENERAL


Michael Reeves, 1968
Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Patrick Wymark, Hilary Dwyer

Based on Ronald Bassett's novel Witchfinder General, the film loosely details the exploits of real life lawyer and witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (16201647), who operated during the English Civil War. Hopkins is selfish, murderous, and totally unsympathetic in his search for power rather than truth. He and his accomplices scour the countryside, torturing accused witches  the accusations often come without any proof  and then charging the local magistrates for their work. They accidentally cross paths with Richard, a young solider, and Sara, a lovely farm girl he has recently married. Hopkins and his cohorts imprison, torture, and kill the priest who has raised and cared for Sara, then one of them rapes her. Richard is determined to get revenge, despite the considerable amount of power Hopkins possesses.

Though Witchfinder General doesn't quite live up to the brutal antics of later German film Mark of the Devil (1970), it is still one of the greatest witch-hunting films in horror history and has been suggested as a candidate for the greatest British horror film of all time. While I don't think that's true, it has a number of pleasures, is undoubtedly very well made, and deserves its cult reputation. Though Price gives a great performance as Hopkins, it is strange to see him in a film with actual torture and rape. He plays against type, refusing to chew the scenery, ham it up, or work himself up into a comically maniacal lather. As Hopkins, he is deadly serious and outright unlikable. Though the violence of Witchfinder General isn't graphic enough to really shock today, it is plenty horrifying compared to the average Price film.

Witchfinder General also has a reputation among horror fans for the infamous hatred between Price and director Michael Reeves. Price wasn't Reeves first choice for the starring role (he wanted Donald Pleasance), a fact that Reeves apparently reminded the famous actor of frequently. Price also allegedly complained a lot on set, because the film was mostly shot outdoors rather than in a comfortable sound stage. The set certainly seemed like a tense, humorless place, but this benefits the production far more than it harms it. Price, who was constantly skeptical of Reeves’ abilities, eventually admitted that the film was an understated triumph.

Price and Reeves were supposed to reunite for The Oblong Box (1969), but Reeves died during pre-production and Gordon Hessler took over the film, reworking Reeves’ script about Jekyll and Hyde-like twins. His accidental death at 25 of a barbiturate overdose put a halt to a potentially brilliant career in British genre films and robbed Tigon British Film Productions of one of its brightest stars. Witchfinder General is actually a co-production between Tigon and American International Pictures (AIP), an arrangement they repeated for distribution purposes several times over the years with mixed results, as AIP sometimes demanded the inclusion of American actors (as in the case of Tigon's next outing, The Haunted House of Horror). AIP kept their meddling to a minimum here (one suspects Reeves would not have tolerated it), but for the US release of the film, they used the title The Conqueror Worm in a lousy attempt to cash in on Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. “The Conqueror Worm” is the title of one of my favorite Poe poems, but it doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with Witchfinder General or witch hunting. 

Though this is not one of my favorite Price films, in part because of its utter humorlessness, it is undeniably a successful and important work of genre cinema. Witchfinder General is a raw, bitter, and loveless work. Nary a tender emotion is experienced in the duration of the film and when the stark ending comes, it is ultimately a relief. Price is great in this atypical role and there are a number of strong performances from British horror regulars, including Reeves' old friend and regular Ian Ogilvy (The She Beast), Hammer regular Rupert Davies (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), and Patrick Wymark (Repulsion, Where Eagles Dare) all make welcome appearances and Hilary Heath (in the similarly themed if somewhat more fun Cry of the Banshee, also with Price) is memorable as Sara. 

This film comes highly recommended and is something every genre fan should see at least once. Witchfinder General is available on a single disc DVD or as part of the MGM Vincent Price Scream Legends box set. If you’re going to purchase or rent an older version, be on the look out for cuts. It was heavily censored in the UK upon its release and though it remained almost unscathed in the US, it was ignored by audiences for some reason.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR

Vernon Sewell, 1968
Starring: Peter Cushing, Glynn Edwards, Robert Flemying, Wanda Ventham In Victorian England, a strange, apparently vampiric beast is stalking the countryside, preying upon attractive young men and ripping out their throats to drink their blood. Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing) and Sergeant Allan (Glynn Edwards) are on the case, though the only witness has been driven insane by the sight of the killer and a number of confusing clues — including some large scales — are discovered at the scenes of each crime. Soon the trail leads back to the suspicious Dr. Carl Mallinger (Robert Flemying), an entomologist not too keen on helping them with the investigation, and his daughter, Clare (Wanda Ventham). I’m going to give it to you straight: a lot of people seem to hate this film (allegedly including Peter Cushing), but I am just not one of them. I can’t bring myself to apologize, but I also can’t pretend that it’s some forgotten masterpiece of British horror; it basically steals wholesale from Hammer’s The Gorgon (1964) and The Reptile (1966), and if you continue reading I am going to ruin the plots of all three films for you in one fell swoop. A controlling and mildly deranged scientist with a beautiful young daughter (or assistant, in the case of The Gorgon, which disappointingly strips the film of any implied incestuous themes), seems to be loosely connected to a strange monster terrorizing the countryside. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the monster turns out to be the girl, in were-beast form. The Hammer titles are stunningly, almost offensively obvious: in The Gorgon, the titular monster is a figure from Greek mythology (though Ovid is probably still spinning in his grave over that one) and in The Reptile it’s — you guessed it — a were-reptile. But with The Blood Beast Terror, Tigon British Film Productions went a completely different route with a ridiculously overwrought title that just fills me with glee, but has nothing to do with a were-moth. And yes, let that one sink in for a minute. A were-moth. A were-Death’s Head moth, even. The US title, The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood, is somehow even more absurd (and inaccurate). There’s no reason that The Blood Beast Terror should be such a flop, as it involves Peter Cushing, capable director Vernon Sewell (though, let’s face it, he’s no Terence Fisher and also can’t compete with Tigon’s biggest name, Michael Reeves), and screenwriter Peter Bryan, who worked on some of my favorite Hammer titles, including The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Brides of Dracula (1960). Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother — seriously, look at how similar their eyes are) gives a solid performance as Clare, though she’s nowhere near as sympathetic as either of the female leads in The Gorgon or The Reptile, which I found a little refreshing. It’s a shame she isn’t given more to do. Probably the biggest disappointment of all is that Dr. Mallinger was supposed to be played by the late, great Basil Rathbone, but after his death, the role went to Robert Flemyng. Thanks to the latter’s performance in one of my favorite films, Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, I will never say anything bad about him, but… Rathbone. Undeniably, The Blood Beast Terror has a lot of flaws — a major part of the plot involves Quennell going quite unbelievably undercover on vacation with his daughter to track Mallinger and Clare when they flee the scene — but there are some great moments of atmosphere. There are even some surprisingly solid effects when Mallinger tries to transform young men into a suitable mate for his daughter, which almost (I said almost) makes me wish there were more attempts at the whole killer were-moth theme. But brace yourself for the amazing dialogue and be prepared that there’s an absurdly inadequate amount of exposition, which is also somewhat the case for The Gorgon and The Reptile. And in terms of the ending, I can’t even do it justice, so you’re just going to have to watch it, but — like a lot of the ‘60s Hammer films — it does involve copious amounts of fire. Admittedly, there are a lot of scenes of British people being British (and inexplicable filler sequences of people fishing), something you either have the taste for or you don’t. I love it so much that I’ve signed myself up for a year (possibly two, at this rate), of writing exclusively about British horror films for Satanic Pandemonium. In other words — and I feel like I keep saying it throughout this review — but when it comes to The Blood Beast Terror, my opinion is not really to be trusted. Luckily there has to be at least one person who agrees with me, because Redemption put it out on DVD, so you can and should watch it, though you may regret doing so while sober.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR


Vernon Sewell, 1968
Starring: Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele, Mark Eden, Virginia Wetherill

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) goes in search of his missing brother (Denys Peek) after receiving a strange phone call. He finds his way to a town called Greymarsh, where he is invited to stay at an ancestral lodge owned by Morley (Christopher Lee), which also happens to be home to a raucous party hosted by Morley's young niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell). Despite everyone's assertions that his brother was never there, he uncovers some strange clues and begins to have vivid hallucinations in the middle of the night. He learns that he has been dreaming of legendary figure Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), the evil witch of Greymarsh and Eve’s ancestor. A wheelchair bound local occult expert, Professor Marshe (Boris Karloff), gets involved, but Robert is unsure whether Marsh is trying to help or hurt his investigation and it becomes less and less clear who can really trust.

Tigon British Film Productions’ second horror film is also their first foray into satanic horror and, though it has something of a mixed reputation, is well worth tracking down. Based loosely — trust me, very loosely — on one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, “Dreams in the Witch House,” it's a little bit satanic (the general premise revolves around a witch cult), occasionally psychedelic, and has some of the best actors in the genre under one haunted roof: Boris Karloff in one of his final horror roles, and one in which he sadly contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized, Christopher Lee (somehow this is only Lee and Karloff’s second collaboration together after 1959’s Corridors of Blood roughly a decade earlier), Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough. It’s a shame that the film’s lead, Mark Eden (Séance on a Wet Afternoon) is not quite up to snuff. There’s nothing specifically wrong with him, but he can’t compete with the roster of greats he’s up against.

The film’s nebulous female lead, Eve, is played coquettishly by Virginia Wetherell (Demons of the Mind), who sports quite a bit of nudity. Unfortunately, Eden is absolutely no match for her and it actually feels like she’s not given enough to do (though Steele and Lee suffer from similar fates). Wetherell’s Eve becomes Manning’s partner in detective work — though her role in the events is left convincingly vague for awhile — and also in the sack, when they begin an affair. She’s involved in some of the obligatory shots of a scandalous ‘60s party, perhaps to further stress that the contemporary setting and mild sexual themes (including fetish wear and a disappointingly tame orgy) set Tigon apart from either Hammer or Amicus. 

I’ve always loved the general premise of someone searching for a missing family member/loved one — which Hammer used well a number of times — but here it’s sort of scraping the very bottom of the barrel and the twists and reveals are all a bit obvious at best and awkwardly handled at worst. Admittedly though, there are some wonderful moments when Robert realizes that his nightly dreams might have some basis in reality, as exemplified by his discovery of a secret corridor and another scene where a cut he received in a dream appears in his waking hours. In general, the film makes pleasant use of a number of horror tropes: the folk festival that leaves behind a sense of vague unease, a Gothic manor house, rumors of a secret cult, and a creepy old occult expert. Steele’s Lavinia and the psychedelic visuals that accompany her are the film’s most unique aspect — she’s painted blue and seems to include S&M as a regular part of her satanic rituals (as she should). Really though, I wish she had been given a more robust presence — and Steele herself apparently complained that she was kept isolated from the other actors and not given enough interaction with them. 

Though it was hard to get ahold of for awhile, Kino Lorber finally released The Curse of the Crimson Altar on Blu-ray, though under its American title of The Crimson Cult (which I actually really hate). To make things a little more confusing, you can also find it listed as The Reincarnation, Spirit of the Dead, and Witch House. Be aware of which edition you're purchasing; the earlier US releases under The Crimson Cult are the cut American prints, and while the Kino Blu-ray is uncut, it weirdly subs out the original soundtrack for something different. You might want to just play it safe and pick up the British Blu-ray instead. I definitely recommend the film despite its flaws — I actually have a huge soft spot for the film, even if it seems otherwise — though it stands mostly as a solid forerunner to the studio’s two future masterpieces, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw

BORIS GUDOUNOV

My Żuławski retrospective continues over at Diabolique, this time with a look at the director's opera adaptation, Boris Godounov (1989).

"In Andrzej Żuławski’s unusual career full of cinematic outliers and revolutionary masterpieces, there is nothing quite like his lone opera adaptation, Boris Godounov (1989). Admittedly, that’s really saying something. Though it’s perhaps surprising that someone who explored the horror and crime genres with as much enthusiasm as he did frenzied romances would also delve into a classical form, but it shouldn’t come as a shock that he would eventually turn to opera. The director was a lifelong theatergoer and music fan; he adapts scenes from Hamlet, Richard III, and Chekhov’s The Seagull in The Devil (1972), L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), and L’amour braque (1985), respectively, and his distinctive use of music, often in collaboration with the composer Andrzej Korzynski, is one of the most singular features of his films."

Finishing reading over at Diabolique!

Daughters of Darkness: Episode 7

The latest episode of the podcast I co-host, Daughters of Darkness, is now up over at Diabolique.

From the site (which is also where you can download it):

In the seventh episode of Daughters of Darkness, Kat and Samm conclude their four-part exploration of the career of director Andrzej Zuławski, beginning with a discussion of La note bleue (1991). This unconventional biographical drama explores the fading relationship between Chopin and French writer George Sand, which is complicated by the intrusion of her teenage daughter, Solange (played by Zuławski’s then partner and longtime muse Sophie Marceau), who is also in love with Chopin.

Next they look at Zuławski’s first Polish-made film in nearly two decades, the strange and sublime Szamanka (1996), about an uncontrollable young woman whose sexual relationship with an anthropologist begins to consume his life. Finally, they explore La fidélité (2000), his final film with Marceau, which follows a headstrong artist and her difficult, but passionate marriage to a book publisher that is thrown into chaos when an attractive young photographer enters her life. They wrap up the episode with a discussion of Zuławski’s recent, final film, Cosmos (2015), an absolutely beautiful adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s absurdist novel of the same name, about two young men who discover an existential mystery at a boarding house in the countryside.