Thursday, October 8, 2015


John Gilling, 1956
Starring: Paul Douglas, Eva Bartok, Leslie Phillips, Walter Rilla

Two reporters — the American Mike and English Howard — are taking a train across Europe to cover a music festival in Salzburg when their car becomes detached and they find themselves stranded in the strange kingdom of Gudavia, which is controlled by a totalitarian government and isolated from the outside world. At first determined to leave, they learn that a formerly famous scientist who disappeared from Europe has reinvented himself in Gudavia and has been experimenting on the local populace with terrifying results. Determined to capture the story, Mike and Howard risk their own lives to get the bottom of Gudavia’s mystery.

Director John Gilling may not be one of the most recognizable names in British horror, but he should be better remembered than he is today. He went on to direct some notable efforts — including The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), an early interpretation of Burke and Hare’s sordid history, as well as films for Hammer like The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Reptile (1966), and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). His zombie film for Hammer, the gripping, beautifully shot The Plague of the Zombies (1966), is their sole outing in this genre and predates Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) by two years.

But perhaps Gilling’s most neglected horror gem is The Gamma People, this essentially forgotten mashup of horror, comedy, nuclear terror, and Cold War paranoia. The film is set in the fictional country of Gudavia, a tiny, unknown country somewhere between Germany and Eastern Europe. And, perhaps curiously, the story — from director Robert Aldrich and Alfred Hitchcock Presents writer Louis Pollock — has a blend of Germanic and Soviet themes. The village looks like it was plucked from the Alps and borrows much from Frankenstein, including German-looking military uniforms and villagers’ outfits, a gloomy castle, and laboratory set piece. There is a whiff of Nazi human experimentation and the tribes of children who run around terrorizing locals were clearly modeled on the Hitler Youth.

There is something equally Soviet at play, for example the country is in the tight grip of totalitarian rule and they are utterly closed off from the outside world, like North Korea or Eastern Europe in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There are no trains, cars, telephones, or other messaging systems to allow anyone to escape or contact outsiders and eyes are everywhere. The film’s sense of postwar terror and the Red Menace extends to its use of mad science. Dr. Boronski is not just experimenting on humans in order to produce a “master race”-like country of savants and geniuses, but he is blasting people with gamma rays. The experiments are unpredictable and the doctor either creates mindless adult goons or child geniuses. This is one of the first horror films to focus on menacing children and though some of them have implied, rather than overt powers, it’s a subtle but effective addition to The Gamma People. Curiously, Boronski is played by engaging German actor Walter Rilla — the father of director Wolf Rilla, who would go on to director Village of the Damned just a few years later.

The two leads are equally enjoyable, even though they represent the film’s comic elements. Mike (Panic in the Streets’ Paul Douglas) is a brash, pushy American stereotype, while Howard (Carry On’s Leslie Philips) is a hilariously over-the-top Brit with a genteel accent and an eye for the ladies. Mike and Howard have an opposites attract sort of working relationship and there are some amusing romantic undertones: they are taking the scenic route to cover a music festival in Salzburg — where they happen to be the only two passengers in their entire car — and when they arrive in Gudavia, they are given the bridal suite of a hotel to share, with just one bed. Of course at the film’s conclusion, they are joined by some precocious children and a lovely young woman (an early appearance of Eva Bartok of Blood and Black Lace).

The Gamma People isn’t for everyone, but it comes recommended. It’s criminally under seen and has an effective balance of chills, humor, and science fiction. Though it’s occasionally unintentionally comical, scenes like the doctor’s torture-by-radiation-poisoning of Mike and his lady love is chilling. There are also some appealing visuals, including great shots of the countryside and elements of German expressionism. Weirdly, a few James Bond regulars worked on the film, including producer Albert Broccoli and cinematographer Ted Moore. And brace yourself for the creepy masks that the villagers are constructing for what is apparently an ancient pagan festival. I don’t believe it’s available on DVD, but you should be able to find it online with some clever searching.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Charles Saunders, 1958
Starring: George Coulouris, Vera Day

Dr. Moran is visiting the Amazonian jungle when he witnesses a local tribe sacrificing a lovely young woman to a tree god. Though one of his colleagues is killed trying to stop the sacrifice, Moran escapes with his life. Five years later, he has recovered from his trip and returned to England, along with the native Tanga, a ritual drummer, and a carnivorous tree, both of which he has installed in the basement of his mansion, right next to extensive lab equipment. There he plans to feed women to the tree — in an approximation of the native ritual — and use its sap to make a serum to bring the dead to life… like you do. Unfortunately his newest assistant, a beautiful young woman looking to trade in her career as a carnival dancer for some stability, has awakened his passion and could inadvertently ruin years of research.

Known as The Woman Eater in the US, this surprisingly enjoyable film is packed with completely ridiculous moments sure to have you in stitches — or cursing your television if this kind of schlock horror just isn’t your bag. For starters, killer plant films aren’t completely unheard of — horror-comedy The Little Shop of Horrors is a household name — and this underused trope has been explored in things like anthology film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its remake, Day of the Triffids, and even has a literary basis through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (which was adapted into a film costarring Vincent Price).

But it is admittedly tricky to make a homicidal tree frightening and the titular Womaneater has thick, flailing tentacles capped by what look like rubbery green flippers. The film is just incredibly campy in every way, shape, and form. Personally, I delight in a bit of camp where mad science is concerned, but this goes above and beyond — almost back to the days of US horror in the ‘30s and Lugosi’s frequent turns as an evil doctor — going so far as to name one of Moran’s primary scientific instruments “The Pulsometer.” And if you love cheesy sci-fi films with mad doctors and inexplicable experiments, this one is for you. 

Now, maybe I saw a slightly cut version of Womaneater, but I can’t figure out how the doctor suddenly realized that if he brought an Amazonian native and a man-eating tree back to his home in the English countryside, fed some women to the tree, and then harvested its sap, that he would be able to produce a serum that brought the dead back to life. Perhaps the film is going for a sort of “all natives practice voodoo” approach, as the one dead person Moran does successfully revive is little more than a mindless zombie. To his horror, he learns that Tanga, his native assistant — who sits around drumming in a loin cloth and presumably never leaves the basement — has only given him some of the facts and thus the years of research and thousands of dollars that he has poured into his experiments are for nought. He can use the serum to bring the bodies of the dead back, but Tanga vaguely explains that the minds of the revived dead “belong to us.” Presumably us means the members of Tanga’s tribe, but who the fuck knows?

The ending also makes no sense. Despite repeatedly insisting that he has no regard for women, he loses his mind when he learns that Sally (Vera Day of The Haunted Strangler) — the carnival dancer who randomly quits her job and comes to live and work in his house — is marrying someone else. The news that his experiments will only ever be partially successful doesn’t help and he retaliates by setting the tree on fire. Tanga, in response, stabs Moran in the back and then jumping into the burning tree, presumably so that they will immolate together. And somehow George Coulouris (seen in everything from Citizen Kane and Murder on the Orient Express) maintains a straight face and believable acting for the entire film, gleefully chewing scenery as he goes.

Despite the film’s casual racism, really cheesy monster, and unabashed use of stock footage, it’s surprisingly fun. I don’t believe it’s released on any official region 1 DVD, but you can find a serviceable DVD-R from Image. Personally I hate the idea of paying for a burned disc, so if you feel the same way you can also find it streaming online. My chief complain about Womaneater is that most of the British horror films from the ‘40s and ‘50s I’ve reviewed to date — including The Ghost of St. Michael’s, The Night Has Eyes, and Uncle Silas — include a malicious housekeeper or governess. The housekeeper in this film has loyally stayed on because she’s in love with Dr. Moran and is waiting around until he returns her feelings (not unlike Pete Walker’s much later The Confessional). Naturally she sets the concluding events in motion when she learns he loves Sally instead.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


David MacDonald, 1954
Starring: Patricia Laffan, Hugh McDermott, Hazel Court

A strange ship lands on the Scottish moors near an inn that is all but empty thanks to the winter season. The ship’s only living crew member is Nyah, a black vinyl-clad female alien from Mars determined to take male humans from Earth back with her to help with the Martian breeding program. Since the war on Mars between females and males resulted in a female victory, the male Martians have gradually degraded and are not considered suitable stock for procreation. But the handful of residents remaining at the inn are in no hurry to leave and work together to try to outwit her, though she clearly has superior technology, including sophisticated weapons and a robot companion.

Produced by the Danziger Brothers and distributed by British Lion, this low budget film is unmistakably kitschy and ridiculous, but it also has a certain charm and is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. When I first saw it, I was struck by two things — coincidental relationships with later works of fiction — that were difficult to leave behind. First, the Martian’s robot companion is named Chani, curiously also the name of the memorable love interest in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterwork Dune, which was written in 1965, so it’s possible that Herbert saw this film and was struck by this unusual name. According to the internet, it might be of Hebrew origin, though it kept Dune in my mind while I was watching the film. To be clear, the two Chanis have basically nothing in common. The film’s Chani is like a homicidal, slowly moving refrigerator, while Dune’s Chani is a captivating woman.

Obviously it would be unfair to compare Devil Girl From Mars to Dune, but it perhaps made me walk away imagining a richer back story for Nyah, the female alien, than really exists within the film. If one of Dune’s primary strengths is building such a complex universe, Devil Girl From Mars does sort of work towards building a compelling back story for the Martians. Somewhat like Mario Bava’s superior Planet of the Vampires, Nyah is from a violent but oddly sympathetic alien species who are forced to prey upon humans to save their dying race. I wish more had been done with this element of the plot, but it’s certainly one of the best parts of the film. I don’t know about you, but I definitely prefer sci-fi horror mashups where the aliens are fully developed characters rather than nameless monsters (…except, of course, Alien).

The film’s remote location on the Scottish moors — another of its best elements — reminded me of the recent, excellent Under the Skin, a more harrowing, abstract tale of a female alien landing on the moors to prey upon men. There were a number of early British horror films set on the moors (both English and Scottish) and the eerie locale lends itself well to low budgets and spooky visuals. The potboiler setting of the inn has its highs and lows. On one hand, it is really only an excuse to make roughly half the film’s scenes little more than a British tea-time drama with romantic intrigue and a bit of class friction. These overly talkie moments essentially revolve around two couples: a model trying to get away from her married reporter boyfriend, and a barmaid hiding an escaped convict who accidentally killed his wife. a couple  with lots of dramatic plots about a budding romance and an escaped convict. Devil Girl From Mars’ scenes basically go back and forth between these moments of personal drama and overwrought and tense moments where Nyah enters the inn, makes threats, goes away, rinse, repeat.

On the other hand, the low number of cast members makes the story a bit more believable, ratchets up the tension, and gives a claustrophobic feel to the proceedings. No one comes to their aid because they are isolated in the country in the middle of winter time, while an invisible wall Nyah has put up around the inn keeps them from going out for help. Despite the cheesiness of the film, there is something horrifying about Nyah’s intentions, though the discussion of what seems to be a planned invasion of Earth — where Martian women will visit major cities to kidnap human men — is never really resolved.

Incredibly, this was based on a stage play (!!!), which perhaps explains the basic sets and pared down story, but Devil Girl From Mars does have some interesting things going for it. Nyah’s imperviousness to human weapons, the advanced Martian technology, and her ray gun that can kill or stun is standard fare in contemporary science fiction, but this was possibly the first film to include a space ship made of living metal that can repair itself. And unlike many other sci-fi films from the period, this has strong sexual themes. Patricia Laftan’s Nyah resembles a modern day dominatrix more than she does any alien species. But like other British films from the period, she is ultimately not a match for the British citizens she goes up against. Despite their martial and technological advancements, the Martians have failed at that most basic of biological requirements — reproduction — and thanks to Nyah’s need for viable males, they are able to outwit her. The escaped convict agrees to go on board the ship and blow it up before it leaves the atmosphere.

Though much about Devil Girl From Mars is enjoyably silly, there are decent special effects and this is an interesting look at British sci-fi horror a few years before Quatermass. Prepare to find some scenes effectively eerie, but much of the running time is padded with unintentional hilarity — such as the robot Chani, whose ridiculous figure leeches away a bit of Nyah’s gravitas. I couldn’t help but wonder why Patricia Laffan (who stars as Nyah) didn’t appear in more genre films — she would have made a great Bond girl — though there is a solid, likable cast of familiar faces including Hugh McDermott (The Seventh Veil), Hammer and Roger Corman regular Hazel Court, Adrienne Corri (Vampire Circus), and John Laurie, who was like an early British horror version of John Carradine. Pick up the affordable DVD for some vintage horror that makes for fun Halloween season viewing.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s

I recently had the good fortune to be included in Spectacular Optical's second film anthology, Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. Edited by film writers and programmers Kier-la Janisse (House of Psychotic Women) and Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation), this impressive volume was released a few months ago and is focused on various aspects of the Satanic Panic: the decade-long fear of a Satanic conspiracy that gripped the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK in the 1980s and into the early ‘90s.

Convinced Satan lurked everywhere, the media, government, Christian right, and parents targeted pop culture from music videos to role playing games, and more. The book's various chapters discuss things like the memoir Michelle Remembers, Russ Martin’s satanic erotic novels, Dungeons & Dragons, Christian propaganda, kids’ cartoons, horror films, news broadcasts, music censorship, MTV, heavy metal, Christian rock, and crimes like the McMartin trial and Ricky Kasso case. My own chapter is on heavy metal horror films like Trick or Treat, Rocktober Blood, The Gate, Black Roses, and many more.

In addition to Janisse and Corupe, some of my fellow writers include Gavin Baddeley (Lucifer Rising: Sin, Devil Worship and Rock n’ Roll), Rue Morgue’s Liisa Ladouceur and Alison Lang, David Flint (Sheer Filth!), Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Rape Revenge Films: A Critical Study), Flavorwire’s Alison Nastasi, and many more. There are original illustrations from Rick Trembles and Mike McDonnell, and it's packed with stills, posters, comics, and plenty of great visuals.

The book is also the subject of a worldwide tour, with events and film screenings throughout Canada, in London, Austin, Australia, Boston, New York, and more. I'm conducting tonight's book launch in Philadelphia at PhilaMOCA. Join me at 7 p.m. for a multi-media tour of the satanic 1980s. Admission is $10 and I'll be selling books after the presentation. Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 2, 2015


Thorold Dickinson, 1949
Starring: Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell

Based on a story by Alexander Pushkin and set in 19th century St. Petersburg, Queen of Spades concerns a down on his luck Russian soldier, Captain Suvorin, who is determined to improve his lot in life, but cannot without the necessary finances or political connections for a promotion. After reading a book on the occult, he believes that a local aristocrat, Countess Ranevskaya, has sold her soul to the Devil in order to win a vast fortune gambling. Determined to discover the Countess’s secrets, Suvorin learns she has a niece, Lizaveta, who she treats as a maid. He woos Lizaveta in order to get into the Countess’s home, even though another honest, aristocratic solider is actually in love with her. Suvorin makes his way into the house, but before he can pry the Countess’s secrets from her, she dies. He admits his plan to Lizaveta, whose heart is broken. But the Countess’s death is not the last Suvorin will hear from her.

Queen of Spades made somewhat of a comeback in recent years, but it’s incredible to believe that this film has been neglected for so long. It’s easily one of the best British films of the ‘40s and deserves to have a much wider audience. Though it was well received at the time of its release, it never really made its way to the US and has languished in obscurity over the years, though it should be mentioned in the same breath as Gothic films like Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Gaslight.

Though this is more of a historical melodrama, there are a number of horror tropes, such as secret passages, ghosts, and occult tomes, and the story is fairly lurid. The Countess sold her soul in order to save her reputation; she had an affair with a member of her husband’s regiment and would have been ruined both socially and financially if her husband had found out. It is intimated that this affair was not the first and the Countess used a secret chamber in the house to indiscriminately sneak lovers into her bedroom, but the money she makes gambling ultimately protects her from these indiscretions. 

The impressive cinematography from Otto Heller -- who also worked on the even more impressive Peeping Tom -- is stark, textured, and certainly one of the film’s strong points. There are sounds and images layered on top of one another, perhaps influenced by Citizen Kane, such as a wonderful scene where Lizaveta lays on her bed and reads Suvorin’s deceptive love letters and the camera looks at her through a spiderweb. Images are reflected in mirrors and windows and the characters are regularly framed next to dramatic portraits and statues. 

In addition the memorable visuals, the performances are all wonderful. Stage actress Edith Evans is great as the Countess and the lovely Yvonne Mitchell (Demons of the Mind) is sympathetic as Lizaveta in her first film role. Ronald Howard (Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and son of renowned British actor Leslie Howard) is likable as Andrei, Lizaveta’s quiet, earnest, and concerned savior, and fortunately does not overdo his portrayal as the romantic hero. Keep an eye out for Anthony Dawson (Dial M for Murder, Dr. No), who has a small, but memorable role as the Countess’s grandson.

This is -- swoon -- absolutely Anton Walbrook’s (The Red Shoes) film. He has such a commanding presence that the scenes without him pale in comparison. Though Suvorin is unlikable and there is almost something perverse about him, Walbrook makes him compelling and charismatic, and he is undoubtedly one of the decade's best Byronic villains. He runs the full range from charming to mad and malevolent to pathetic and his performance here is a good example of the wide range of his talent. It is easy to believe how the impressionable, naive Lizaveta could have fallen in love with Suvorin, despite the fact that she knew nothing about him. Walbrook and highly underrated director Thorold Dickinson had previously worked together on the first version of Gaslight (1940) -- not to be confused with the enjoyable American remake with Ingrid Bergman -- which also comes recommended.

Walbrook was in roughly 50 films throughout his career, but he should have been in a lot more. Seriously, look at this profile. His picture should be in the dictionary next to the word "smoldering," as he fits both definitions.

Queen of Spades is a great film and only suffers from a few minor flaws. There are a few slow moments (mostly those without Walbrook) and overall I wish more time had been spent on the Faustian, supernatural plot rather than the melodramatic love story -- an issue with a lot of the Gothic melodrama-horror film mashups produced during the '40s. There are two scenes with singing and dancing, one set in a gambling hall and another during a ball, and though these look great, they feel as though they are only there to pad out the running time. 

Queen of Spades comes highly recommended. It’s on DVD with another underrated British horror film from the same period, Dead of Night, or on a superior region 2 disc from Studio Canal. You can also find it various places streaming online. It's definitely an appropriate choice for the Halloween season.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Charles Frank, 1947
Starring: Jean Simmons, Derrick De Marney, Katina Paxinou, John Laurie

When young Caroline Ruthyn’s father passes away, she is sent to her guardian, her Uncle Silas, whom she has never met. He had an unsavory past — and may be connected with a murder — but her father claims that Silas has mended his ways and is a dutiful Christian. When Caroline first goes to live with him, the estate is somber, but she is otherwise content and learns that an older female cousin — and a handsome suitor — are nearby. But Uncle Silas is really only interested in Caroline’s fortune and hopes she will marry his son, her disreputable cousin Dudley. When this doesn’t work, Silas makes increasingly sinister plans.

Based on the 1864 novel Uncle Silas by Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu, this is really more of a Gothic melodrama than a horror film, but contains a lot of the greatest hits of Gothic literature: a beautiful and vulnerable young heroine, a duplicitous older relative with designs on her, a spooky old house with foreboding wing, issues of inheritance, and murderous plots. Le Fanu might not be as familiar of a name as horror writers like Bram Stoker or H.P. Lovecraft, but his influence on the genre is nonetheless profound. He’s often remembered for the novella Carmilla, the origin of the lesbian female vampire trope, but Uncle Silas was his most popular work and also influenced the emerging mystery genre.

I’m a big fan of Gothic literature — the combination of spooky themes and overwrought melodrama is too much for me to resist — but Uncle Silas certainly has some of the genre’s weak spots. Many of these stories, including the first, The Castle of Otranto, have depictions of human behavior that are a little difficult to swallow. I can accept that Uncle Silas had a dark past, was ostracized from the family, has now reformed, and wants to be brought back into the fold. But Caroline’s father has an almost pathological commitment to welcoming Silas back into the family, so much so that he is inspired to write a codicil into his will. Though Caroline is quite close with an adult female cousin, Monica, who lives nearby, the will decrees that she should go and live with Silas, a man she’s never met who potentially committed a murder.

Luckily the film plays Silas’s true intentions close to the chest for awhile. He and the sweet-tempered Caroline become quite close and he seems very fond of her. While his son is portrayed as the true villain — drunkenly trying to manhandle Caroline on several occasions — Silas’s actions are murkier. Actor Derrick De Marney was only 40 years old when he was cast as Silas, even though the character is supposed to be significantly older — too old to want to marry Caroline himself, thus electing his grown son — and he is essentially only aged with a little make up, a white wig, and De Marney’s sound acting ability. He really is fun to watch and refuses to descend into full blown camp, with the exception of one or two delightful moments. Taking the opposite approach is Katina Paxinou, a renowned Greek actress cast as Madame de la Rougierre, Caroline’s hated former French governess. She reaches some amazing levels of histrionics.

I love the doll-like Jean Simmons, who was fresh off a great performance in Great Expectations (1946) and about to embark on Black Narcissus and Hamlet. Though I prefer her in darker roles like Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), where she really sizzles opposite Robert Mitchum, she is captivating here. But though she plays an innocent character in Uncle Silas, she at least avoids my most hated stereotype of all time: the utterly helpless young woman waiting around to be rescued. Caroline (thankfully they changed her name from Maud, as it is in the novel) is innocent and naive, but not swooning and defenseless. She is spirited, stands up for herself, and does come to understand that her uncle is not the sweet man he seemed to be in the first two acts of the film.

This Two Cities Films production is a little hard to find on DVD, though you can watch it on the BFI site. There’s also a Greek import DVD, though it’s region 2 only. This comes recommended to any fans of Jean Simmons, Gothic melodrama, or films with spooky dark houses. There’s some lovely cinematography from Robert Krasker (The Third Man) and there are certainly worse ways to pass 90 minutes.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Deardon, Robert Hamer, 1945
Starring: Michael Redgrave, Mervyn Johns, Frederick Valk, Roland Culver

One of the first horror anthology films, Dead of Night inspired a decade of beloved horror anthology films from Britain, such as Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and The House That Dripped Blood, as well as later American films like Creepshow and the Tales from the Crypt TV series. Though it may seem dated to some horror fans, it is certainly one of the most enjoyable entries in this subgenre, though I’m undoubtedly biased as I love horror anthology films and television shows. 

Made by Ealing Studios, who were primarily known for their comedies, Dead of Night was the first true horror film produced in Britain after the anti-genre boycott in place during WWII. Ealing used a handful of their regular directors, writers, and cinematographers to weave together five horror tales within one central framing narrative. Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti (Nicholas Nickleby) was responsible for segments "Christmas Party" and "The Ventriloquist's Dummy," Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda) made the comedic “Golfing Story,” Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets) directed “The Haunted Mirror,” and Basil Dearden (The Captive Hearts, Khartoum) was responsible for the opening story, “Hearse Driver,” and the rest of the framing story. 

An architect, Mr. Craig, arrives at a cottage in the English countryside and meets a room full of other people. He tells them that he has been having reoccurring dreams about all of them. The other guests encourage him to tell his story. They tell supernatural themed tales and treat the whole thing as a game -- all except the serious and rational Dr. Van Straaton, a psychiatrist, though he eventually has a story to tell. 

The first story, “Hearse Driver,” is abut a race car drive involved in a crash. While recuperating in the hospital, he sees a hearse pull up outside. The driver tells him, “Room for one more inside, sir.” Later, after he is out of the hospital, he prepares to get on a bus, but the bus driver tells him the same thing. Spooked, he misses the bus, which crashes moments later. This is based on E.F. Benson’s story “The Bus Conductor” and was adapted several times, namely for a Twilight Zone episode. Though this opening tale sets the tone, it is unfortunately the dullest entry.

“Christmas Party,” the second story, is told by the young Sally. It concerns a holiday party she attended with a number of other children. During a game of hide and seek she got lost and came across an upset little boy, who she consoled and put to bed. It turns out that the boy was a ghost, killed years earlier by his insane sister. This is a fairly utilitarian story, but is well told and entertaining. Based on a real life murder case, where 16-year-old Constance Kent brutally murdered her younger brother Frances in 1860, the same story also allegedly inspired Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone, an early British horror classic.

The third, “The Haunted Mirror,” is one of the two best. A woman buys her fiancĂ© a mirror that turns out to be haunted. At first, he begins to see a Victorian style room behind him every time he looks in the mirror. Soon he falls ill and becomes paranoid that she is having an affair. It turns out the mirror was last owned by a paralyzed man who killed his wife when he thought she was cheating on him. A similar plot was used in the Amicus anthology film From Beyond the Grave (1974).

The fourth entry is the comical “Golfing Story,” about two men fighting over the same woman. During a golfing game, they compete to the death for the woman they love and the loser is forced to commit suicide. He winds up coming back as a ghost and following his friend around, very much like An American Werewolf in London. This is a delightful story, though it feels a little out of place, and stars comic team Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who essentially played the same characters in The Lady Vanishes and other films throughout the ‘40s. 

Finally there is the excellent “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” the most famous segment of the film, which stars Michael Redgrave as a man accused of murder. His secret is that his dummy, Hugo, has a mind of its own. A version of this tale has been filmed many times since -- for everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Knock on Wood (1954), and Magic (1978) -- and the ending will not come as a surprise to modern viewers, but it is still effectively creepy. Redgrave, as always, is fantastic and I wish he had been in more genre films. There is a wonderful twist ending that implies Craig will never be able to leave his nightmare, something borrowed for later horror anthology films.

Overall, this comes highly recommended. It’s biggest flaw is that what was clever and horrifying in 1945 has been done to death since then, so there won’t be a lot of surprises for well versed genre fans. There is a two disc, restored version from Anchor Bay, which also includes another British horror film from this period, Queen of Spades (1949). It is sadly out of print, but if you search hard enough online, you will definitely be able to find it. Strangely, this was Ealing Studios only major contribution to the horror genre, but it's one of the strongest genre films of the '40s and represents a solid start for British horror cinema. Watch it on a dark and stormy night, or, as in the British tradition, at Christmas time.