Wednesday, 27 February 2013

House of 1,000 Dolls (1967)

House of 1,000 Dolls (La casa de las mil muñecas) is not, despite the presence of Vincent Price in the cast, a horror movie. This 1967 German-Spanish co-production is a thriller, and it’s unfortunately not quite as outlandish as a bare outline of the plot would suggest.
Vincent Price is the Great Manderville, a celebrated illusionist. But he and his wife Rebecca (Martha Hyer) have a sideline. They use their act as a cover for a more lucrative business - kidnapping girls for the white slavery trade.

The girls end up in a brothel in Tangier, a brothel known as the House of 1,000 Dolls. To gain admission a customer must produce a token - a small doll.

One of the girls, Diane (Maria Rohm), has managed to get word to her fiancé Fernando. Fernando is now on Diane’s trail and has arrived in Tangier where he has met up with his friends Dr Stephen Armstrong (George Nader), an American criminal pathologist, and his Danish wife Marie (Ann Smyrner). But the criminal syndicate that runs the House of 1,000 Dolls does not take kindly to Fernando’s efforts to trace his missing girlfriend.

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Stephen Armstrong and his wife are drawn into the case, much against the wishes of the policeman in charge of the investigation, Inspector Emil (Wolfgang Kieling).

Manderville has been tiring of his life of crime. He is convinced that sooner or later the police will catch up to them, and he wants out. But will the leader of the syndicate, known only as the King of Hearts, permit him to leave the organisation?

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The movie was shot in Spain and makes use of some reasonably impressive locations. Director Jeremy Summers, an Englishman, has spent most of his career in television, this being one of his few feature films. He manages to pull off a few fairly impressive action set-pieces, such as the pursuit of Fernando in the junkyard and the fight among the abandoned railway carriages. All in all he does a competent job although the pacing might have been benefited from being accelerated just a little.

Vincent Price is good, as always, but really should have been given more to do. In particular more should have been made of his character’s skills as an illusionist although they are used effectively in one brief scene. George Nader gets more screen time and while he’s an adequate hero he doesn’t have the presence of a Vincent Price.

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Martha Hyer is quite good as Rebecca, Wolfgang Kieling makes the most of his role as Inspector Emil while Yelena Samarina is excellent as the sadistic madam of the brothel, Madam Viera. European cult favourite Maria Rohm pops up in a small role.

There’s no sex or nudity and while there’s plenty of violence none of it is in any way graphic. There is the hint of perversity that you expect from a 1960s European exploitation movie, most of this perversity being provided by the villainous Madam Viera.
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MGM have provided a good 16x9 enhanced transfer preserving the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It’s a barebones release, as you tend to expect from MGM, and it’s quite expensive.

House of 1,000 Dolls has some of the feel of the eurospy movies that were so popular at the time bit it needed to be a bit more over-the-top. As it stands it’s reasonably entertaining in an undemanding way. Worth a rental.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Boogie Man Will Get You1The Boogie Man Will Get You is a horror comedy made at Columbia in 1942, with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in the starring roles. Horror comedies are far from being my favourite sub-genre but this one does have a certain charm. And more importantly, it has some genuine laughs.

Professor Nathaniel Billings (Boris Karloff) owns a colonial-period tavern which he is very anxious to sell, due to a crippling mortgage inflicted on him by Dr Arthur Lorencz (Peter Lorre). Dr Lorencz is the mayor, coroner, justice of the piece, public notary and sheriff of the town. In fact he holds every public office it is possible to hold. Professor Billings believes his prayers have been answered when a slightly eccentric young woman arrives and (much to the Professor’s surprise) actually wants to buy this dump, which she fondly imagines can be turned into a charming hotel. She has no experience in running hotels, but she has cash and that’s good enough for Professor Billings, and for Dr Lorencz.

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Unfortunately her ex-husband shows up. He wants to save his ex-wife from her folly, but it is too late. The contract has been signed, with due formality and with the sort of wildly inappropriate Latin quotation of which Dr Lorencz has a ready supply.

Professor Billings makes one stipulation when he sells the tavern. He asks to be allowed to continue his scientific experiments in his laboratory in the basement, a request to which the new owner readily agrees. Professor Billings is trying to create a superman who will win the war. Sadly so far all he has created is a series of corpses of unlucky travelling salesmen whom he persuaded to serve as subjects for his mad experiments.

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When Dr Lorencz gets wind of Professor Billings’ project he is anxious to become a partner and collaborator, science being a hobby of his. Once Lorencz joins in the craziness accelerates.

While this was not a big-budget production it does boast a pretty impressive mad scientist’s laboratory with some pretty cool gadgets such as the capsule thing in which the unlucky experimental subjects are placed.

Boris Karloff displays a ready talent for comedy in this movie. He is both genial and totally bonkers. Peter Lorre of course was extremely gifted at comedic roles and both of these fine actors over-act outrageously. They prove to be a superior comedy team. Both Professor Billings and Dr Lorencz are equally mad. Dr Lorencz goes nowhere without his Siamese kitten which he keeps in an inside pocket of his jacket, a kitten with an unerring nose for crime and corruption.

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The supporting actors, including Jeff Donnell in drag as Billings’ housekeeper, do their best  and are generally fine although the movie is of course totally dominated by the antics of Karloff and Lorre.

Lew Landers was a prolific director of B-movies in various genres and does a capable enough job, although all he really needs to do is let Karloff and Lorre do their thing.

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This is one of the four movies included in Columbia’s extremely good Boris Karloff: Icons of Horror Collection. There are no extras but the transfer is exceptionally good.

The Boogie Man Will Get You is good-natured fun that is hard to resist and the presence of two great actors in full flight is enough to carry the movie through its modest 66-minute running time. Highly recommended if horror comedies are your thing, and even if they aren’t it’s worth giving this one a chance.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Berserk (1967)

Circuses and horror have always been natural bedfellows, and this combination works again in the British 1967 Herman Cohen production Berserk, one of Joan Crawford’s classic 60s horror movies.

And just look at the cast! Not just Joan Crawford, but Michael Gough as well. And in supporting roles Diana Dors and Judy Geeson, actresses more than capable of carrying a movie on their own. Plus wonderful British character actors like Geoffrey Keen, Robert Hardy and Philip Madoc. For cult movie fans this is an absolute dream cast.

Crawford plays circus owner Monica Rivers. The Great Rivers Circus is struggling financially until one of its major attractions, the highwire star the Great Gaspar, is killed during his act. The resultant publicity assures the circus of packed houses for the remainder of its British tour. Of course the Great Gaspar has to be replaced, but as luck would have it on the very night he is killed a highwire performer known as the Great Hawkins (Ty Hardin) turns up looking for a job.  He’s a complete unknown but Monica gives him one chance to prove himself. His act, working sixty feet above the ground not just without a net but above a forest of bayonets, and blind-folded to boot, is an immediate sensation. Soon Hawkins is not just one of the circus’s best-paid performers, he is also sharing Monica Rivers’ bed.



One tragic accident can be excused as just one of the risks that circus performers accept as part of their life, but when shortly afterwards a second death occurs Scotland Yard starts to take a keen interest in The Great Rivers Circus. For this second death was unquestionably murder.

These deaths have the effect of spooking the circus community badly. All the performers are wondering who will be next to die. The most outspoken of the performers are Lazlo (Philip Madoc) and his partner Matilda (Diana Dors), who do a magic act in which Matilda is sawn in half. They’re convinced that Monica Rivers is to blame, but they have no real evidence.


Scotland Yard sends a senior officer, Detective-Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy) to investigate. Monica Rivers isn’t thrilled by his presence but there’s nothing she can do. And Monica has her hands full dealing with her new lover the Great Hawkins (who wants to become her partner in ownership of the circus) and her wayward daughter Angela (Judy Geeson). Angela has just been expelled from school. She wants to be part of the circus, and she gets her wish when knife-throwing wizard Gustavo decides he needs a new partner. It’s a dangerous act but Monica realises that she can’t stop Angela from becoming part of the circus. It’s in her blood.

Director Jim O’Connolly isn’t exactly a name to be conjured with. His career as a director was very brief, although it did include another interesting horror film, Tower of Evil. Aben Kandel and producer Herman Cohen shared the screenwriting duties. They decided not to overdo the horror, relying on the magic of the circus itself to carry the film. It was a sound decision, giving the circus performers plenty of opportunities. George Claydon as midget clown Bruno Fontana has a field day. Bruno is an apparently insignificant figure but in fact he knows everything that goes on in the circus. Milton Reid as the Strong Man, Golda Casimir as the Bearded Lady and Ted Lune as the Skeleton Man all have lots of fun.


Joan Crawford is of course very much the star, but her performance is unselfish. She knows she’s working with good people and she’s content to let them shine in their supporting roles, confident that her star power will be undiminished. And of course she’s right. The supporting players take full advantages of their opportunities, with Diana Dors being especially impressive.

Ty Hardin (best-known to Australians for his starring role in the 1969 Australian TV adventure series Riptide) as the Great Hawkins is potentially the weak link amongst so much talent but he’s actually very good and holds his own pretty well.


Columbia’s DVD release is 16x9 enhanced and looks great.

With its circus setting and it’s superb cast Berserk could hardly fail to be entertaining, and it lives up to its potential pretty well. It’s solid entertainment with considerable camp value and I can’t see how any self-respecting cult movie fan wouldn’t enjoy this picture. Warmly recommended, and if you love circus movies or you’re a Joan Crawford then it becomes a must-see movie.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

She Freak (1967)

she freak2She Freak was written and produced by David F. Friedman in 1967 so you know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get classic 60s sexploitation or possibly classic 60s exploitation gore. If those are your expectations from this movie, then they’re dead wrong.

There are of course exploitation elements in the movie (there’d have to be with a title like that) but they’re downplayed to an extraordinary degree. This movie in fact has all the hallmarks of being a personal pet project of Friedman’s. Friedman was not the sort of guy to be involved in a movie that wasn’t going to make money but in this one instance it seems like he decided he just wanted to make a movie for himself.

Friedman’s background was in the world of the carny and it’s a world he always loved deeply. This movie is a love letter to that world.

This is, naturally, a low-budget movie but unusually for a 1967 exploitation cheapie it’s in colour which allows it to revel in the glamour of carny life.

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As far as the plot is concerned it is to a large extent a remake of Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 shocker Freaks. In fact the scenes that bookend the movie exactly parallel the scenes that bookend Freaks. We start with a group of punters viewing a particularly gruesome side-show attraction, a monster that as the carny barker tells us was partly made by God and partly made by Man. Then the bulk of the movie is a flashback that tells us how this woman came to be a freak.

Jade Cochran (Claire Brennen) is a waitress in a grungy diner. She hates her job and she hates her boss. She is convinced that one day she will have all her dreams. And her dreams are all about money. When the advance man from a carnival arrives at the diner and asks to be allowed to put up a poster promoting the carnival Jade thinks she sees her chance. Compared to what she has now working in a carnival has to be an improvement. So she runs off to join the carnival.

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She is befriended by a stripper who works the girlie show and she gets a job at the midway diner. She likes the carny life, except for one thing. She can’t stand the freaks. They repulse her.

It soon becomes obvious that the one thing that Jade really wants out of the life is to find the richest most eligible bachelor in the carnival and marry him. Ironically that man, Steve St John (Bill McKinney), is the man who runs the freak show. But he has lots of money and he has a big expensive car and that’s enough to hook Jade, and pretty soon Jade has hooked him. They get married. Unfortunately on a physical level the man who most attracts her is Blackie, one of the ride men. Blackie is a loser and a lowlife but he’s good-looking and sexy in a rough bad boy sort of way and Jade goes for that big time. Jade’s mistake is to think she can be married to Steve St John while still having the occasional roll in the hay with Blackie. Her even bigger mistake is to underestimate the loyalty of carny people, particularly the freaks.

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If you’ve seen Freaks you know where this is headed.

While it follows the plot of Tod Browning’s classic movie rather closely She Freak cannot compare to Freaks in shock value. Of course it’s doubtful if any movie can compare to Freaks in shock value.

The actual horror doesn’t kick in until the very end of the movie, although when it does kick in it delivers its chills pretty effectively. Most of the movie though is just a story of carny life, and it views that life in the same affectionate manner that Tod Browning viewed it. Tod Browning had also started life as a carny and both he and David Friedman never lost their love for that life, and never lost their ability to see the poetry and the romance and the excitement and the camaraderie of show life.

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Whether you actually enjoy the movie depends entirely on how you feel about the world of side-shows and carnivals. If you’re fascinated by that world (which I admit that I am) then you’ll love the behind-the-scenes glimpses of that world, all shot in a real travelling carnival. If that world doesn’t entrance you then you may lose patience with the very long wait until the horror begins. This is also very unusual for a David Friedman film in that there is absolutely no nudity at all.

Something Weird have released She Freak as part of a two-movie set that also includes H. G. Lewis’s A Taste of Blood. As usual with Something Weird’s offerings the transfer is limited by the quality of the source material as many of the exploitation movies of the 60s only survive in rather battered prints and in most cases the original negative is long lost. In this case they’ve found a reasonably good print and the colours are still pleasingly vivid without the fading that afflicts so many low-budget movies.

I liked this movie, but unless you’re a carny fan I’d have to be a bit hesitant about recommending it. If you are a carny fan then go for it.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Mahakaal (1993)

mahakaal-221x300Mahakaal (The Monster) might be a Bollywood rip-off of Wes Craven’s 1984 US smash hit Nightmare on Elm Street, but it’s a very entertaining one.

This Ramsay Brothers production entered production in 1988 but was delayed for several years because they were beaten to the punch by Mohan Bhakri’s Nightmare on Elm Street rip-off. It was finally released in 1993, by which time the Indian horror boom was all but over. While it’s a late entry in the Bollywood horror cycle don’t let that put you off. It's still a very good horror movie.

Shyam Ramsay and Tulsi Ramsay directed while Gangu Ramsay was responsible for the cinematography and co-produced the film with Chander Ramsay.

The movie starts with a very impressive dream sequence in which a young college student, Anita (Archana Puran Singh), is menaced by a monster wearing gloves equipped with razor-sharp knives.   When she wakes up her nightgown is torn and she has claw marks on her arm. This nightmare was an uncomfortably real one.

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Anita is in love with Prakash but she has also attracted the attention of Randhir. Randhir is a bit of a bad boy while Prakash is a clean-cut young man. Anita’s father, who happens to be the local chief of police, approves wholeheartedly of Prakash.

Anita’s friend Seema is in love with Prakash’s friend Param. They’re all university students and life is very pleasant for them. Until the nightmares start. Seema has the nightmares as well, and Param will soon find to his cost that the nightmare monster doesn’t pick favourites as far as gender is concerned. He wants to kill them all.

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Inevitably one of the nightmares has fatal results and one of this group of friends faces a charge of murder as a result. No-one will believe the person’s crazy story about someone being torn to shreds by an apparently invisible killer. When the monster strikes again Anita’s father finally breaks down and admits that he knows something that may explain the killings. A few years earlier a crazed killer who wore gloves equipped with blades was kidnapping children and sacrificing them in order to increase his powers in black magic and sorcery. One of the children he kidnapped and murdered was Anita’s sister Mohini. Anita’s father buried the killer alive, but now it appears that wasn’t enough. The killer, Shakaal, has evidently used his black magic powers to enter the world of nightmares. That’s bad enough, but what if he finds a way to enter the real world?

Anita’s father is sceptical of superstitious beliefs in black magic, but even he is shaken. Anita’s mother has no such doubts and consists a holy man, who warns her of the dire consequences if Shakaal is not stopped. The eventual result will be the ultimate horror, Mahakaal.

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The acting is fairly standard by Bollywood standards, in other words it’s generally pretty good. Being a Bollywood movie there is of course singing and dancing but that’s par for the course and it’s one of the charms of Bollywood movies. One of the less enjoyable things about Bollywood productions is the comic relief. Comic relief is bad enough at the best of times, but comedy is a commodity that does not travel well. On this occasion the comedy is provided by Johnny Lever who plays Canteen, so named because (obviously) he runs the university cafeteria. Canteen has a bit of a Michael Jackson fixation (remember that the movie started production in the late 80s) and also has fantasies about being Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, or possibly getting a role in a movie by the famous Ramsay Brothers. He’s initially mildly amusing but the novelty wears off pretty quickly, especially when he starts to pop up as Canteen’s brothers as well.

The most impressive features of this movie are the visuals. There are some spectacular and imaginative set-pieces that compare very favourably with the best horror movies made anywhere. The special effects are mostly good and the make-up effects are excellent. Shakaal is a wonderfully effective movie monster. I personally think he looks more impressive than Freddy Krueger.

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The long running time of 132 minutes may put some people off but that’s also par for the course in Bollywood movies and this one has enough genuine chills to make it worthwhile for horror fans to persevere. And if you like gore you’ll be reasonably happy.

Mondo Macabro’s DVD presentation offers a very good print. It’s paired with the equally entertaining Tahkhana in the Bollywood Horror Collection volume 3. It’s in Hindi with English subtitles. All of Mondo Macabro’s Bollywood horror releases are worth seeing and if you’ve acquired a taste for Bollywood horror then Mahakaal is highly recommended.

The Cobweb

I've reviewed MGM's 1955 melodrama The Cobweb on my other movie blog, Classic Movie Ramblings. This is a film that cult movie fans may well find to be worth checking out - it's totally insane.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Hunchback of the Morgue (1973)

Hunchback of the Morgue1Hunchback of the Morgue (El jorobado de la Morgue) is one of Paul Naschy’s non-werewolf horror flicks from the 70s. It’s a tragic horror movie about a man who is turned into a monster by mistreatment.

Javier Aguirre directed, with Naschy co-writing the script.

Naschy is Gotho the hunchback, who works in the morgue at the hospital. He is mildly retarded and is by nature a gentle and sensitive soul but he is continually teased and tormented not just by children but also by medical students at the hospital.

Gotho has befriended a patient in the hospital, a girl dying from consumption. In fact they’d been childhood friends and now Ilse (María Elena Arpón) has no family of friends to care about her. She only has Gotho. She is devoted to him, and he is equally devoted to her.

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When some medical students mock Gotho for his attachment to Ilse he shows the first ominous signs of violence. He attacks the students. Fortunately one of the female doctors at the hospital has taken a liking to the unfortunate hunchback and treats his injuries after he is attacked by children.

Of course eventually the day comes when Ilse dies. Her body is to be used for anatomy lessons for medical students but Gotho steals the body and hides it in a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels that he has discovered, a labyrinth that only he knows about. Gotho cannaot accept Ilse’s death and he asks a famous medical researcher for help. Dr Orla (Alberto Dalbes) is a brilliant man but he is also, as we soon discover, a mad scientist.

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Dr Orla promises to bring Ilse back to life in exchange for the use of Gotho’s underground lair as a laboratory (since the university has ordered him to cease his crazy experiments). In fact Dr Orla has his own agenda, a scheme for creating artificial life. Whether he ever really intends to try to bring Ilse back to life is somewhat uncertain.

Things don’t work out the way Gotho expected, and they won’t work out the way Dr Orla expected either. Gotho will seek a violent and hideous revenge for the wrongs inflicted on him.

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Although the makeup effects aren’t that great Naschy gives one of his best performances. He’s both sympathetic and genuinely frightening. The relationship between Gotho and Ilse is touching and is rendered with sensitivity. The supporting cast is good with Alberto Dalbes making an excellent mad scientist.

The real highlight of the movie is Gotho’s subterranean labyrinth, a magnificent gothic setting for what is in fact a gothic horror movie despite its modern setting.

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Mya’s DVD is light on extras but offers a very good anamorphic transfer.

Hunchback of the Morgue is a good old-fashioned monster movie with a sympathetic monster that raises the question who is the real moster, Gotho or the people who tormented him. In this sense it’s very much in the style of the old Universal monster movies that Naschy loved so much, but with 1970s gore. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

First Man Into Space (1959)

First Man Into Space1First Man Into Space is, oddly enough given its American setting, a 1959 British science fiction movie. It’s cheesy but it does have some interesting and original ideas.

Lieutenant Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) is a US Navy test pilot. His brother Commander Charles Prescott (Marshall Thompson) is in charge of a project involving rocket-powered experimental aircraft. The aircraft are carried aloft by a B-29 and then released. The objective is to fly into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and eventually beyond the atmosphere into space.

The Y-12 rocket plane reaches a record altitude but then loses control and crashes into a field. Dan Prescott is unhurt but his brother suspects that he made an error of judgment. In fact he suspects that Dan deliberately disobeyed orders. There has always been tension between the two brothers. Charles is the responsible one who always obeys orders while Dan is always pushing the limits of not just his own endurance but of any kind of discipline.

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Despite the accident the Navy wants to go full speed ahead with the project and the Y-13 is ready to go. This time there is no question that Dan disobeys orders. Instead of turning the aircraft and returning to Earth he keeps going and leaves the Earth’s atmosphere, thus fulfilling his dream of being the first man into space. Unfortunately he then loses control and has to eject the nose cone containing the cockpit. The nose cone is found in a field but there is no sign of the pilot. The canopy has been shattered and Charles realises there is no way his brother could have survived.

So far it’s a straightforward science fiction adventure but now it takes a dramatic turning into monster movie territory. The nose cone of the Y-13 is coated in a strange unidentifiable substance. And now a series of gruesome murders takes place in the area where the Y-13 came down.

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Charles Prescott and Doctor van Essen (Carl Jaffe) come up with a theory. If there was life in space it would need protection from cosmic rays. The strange substance coating the nose cone of the aircraft could be such a protective coating. Could Dan have had an encounter with some sort of alien life form that lives in the vacuum of space?

In fact we already know that Dan encountered a strange cloud on his ill-fated mission.

Charles and van Essen also suspect that Dan himself was coated in this substance and that Dan is the monster, a monster that for some reason craves blood.

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If Dan is still alive and has become some sort of monster, how much of his personality still survives? Will it be possible to save him, or to cure him?

This is a sympathetic monster movie with a monster who is a genuinely tragic figure. This was common enough in American monster movies but is more unusual for a British production.

The acting is more than adequate with Marshall Thompson and Bill Edwards being more than just cardboard heroes. Roger Delgado (better known as The Master in Doctor Who) contributes an amusing cameo as a mercenary Mexican politician.

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The monster makeup is quite effective. This movie makes very extensive use of stock footage, but the stock footage is well chosen and used effectively.

Overall this movie is quite a bit more interesting than you might expect with some moments of real horror and some poignant moments. It’s an often overlooked movie and it’s well worth a look.

The Region 4 offers an acceptable print without any extras.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Isle of Forgotten Sins (1943)

Monsoon1Edgar G. Ulmer’s Isle of Forgotten Sins (AKA Monsoon) is a typical example of Ulmer’s low-budget movies. Ulmer couldn’t do the spectacular visuals that he’d been able to do on his early big-budget movies like The Black Cat but he still managed to come up with a stylish and very entertaining (and rather outrageous) adventure romp.

Ulmer made the movie on a six-day schedule, which was more than enough time for Ulmer who was a master at making interesting movies on impossibly low budgets with impossibly tight shooting schedules.

Marge Willison (Gale Sondergaard) runs a bar, gambling  joint and brothel called The Isle of Forgotten Sins on a South Pacific island. Marge is in love with Captain Mike Clancy (John Carradine), a rambunctious  rogue who spends his life drinking, fighting and looking for ways to make easy money. When he recognises the voice of Captain Krogan (Sidney Toler) he thinks he’s found his chance. Krogan was the skipper of the Tropic Queen, which supposedly went down with all hands and with $3 million in gold bullion. But Captain Krogan and his purser are obviously very much alive and Mike figures that Krogan knows where the gold is.

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In fact this is just what Krogan hoped would happen. His plan is to let Mike and his partner Jack, who are expert deep-sea divers, retrieve the gold and then Krogan and his confederates will steal it. Mike knows this was Krogan’s plan but he’s confident that he can outfox him.

Mike and Jack spend much of the movie trying to kill each other since they are rivals for Marge’s affections. Now they have to stop trying to kill each other long enough to get that gold. While this is going on one of Marge’s girls kills a client so Marge and her girls have to flee. Mike decides to cut them in on the deal.

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The diving sequences and the various miniatures sequences are pretty good when you consider the movie was made on a zero budget. In any other movie they’d have looked hopelessly hokey but Ulmer always could get away with stuff like this. There’s plenty of fun in this movie and plenty of action. The strange storm sequence with the clouds mirroring each other like a crazy Rorschach blot in the sky is a typical clever Ulmer touch.

John Carradine chews every piece of scenery in sight, and Sidney Toler approaches his role with the same gusto. Gale Sondergaard males a great madam and their spirited performances are a delight to watch.

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While Mike and Jack try to raise the sunken gold a huge storm approaches the island. The native chief warns Krogan that a big wind and a big wave are going to wash the island away - there is much bad magic in sea and sky. But everyone else is too intent on getting their hands on that gold to worry about the impending cataclysm.

Ulmer was a major director who found himself trapped in the world of ultra-low budget movies but instead of bewailing his fate he got on with the job and turned out a series of fascinating oddities, with this film as well as Bluebeard (also with Carradine in one of his best-ever roles) and the amazingly paranoid film noir Detour being among the highlights of his 1940s work for PRC. No matter how small the budgets all of Ulmer’s movies are worth a look. All contain touches that show a master film-maker at work.

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Alpha Video’s DVD is typical Alpha Video. It’s a horrible print but at least it’s watchable and the dialogue is understandable.

If you’re an Ulmer fan this one is worth chasing up, especially if you can get hold of the DVD at a bargain price. Highly recommended as an exercise in sheer fun.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Before I Hang (1940)

Before I Hang1In Before I Hang (a curiously  appropriate title although not quite in the way we initially expect), made by Columbia in 1940, we once again see Boris Karloff as a mad scientist sentenced to death, and of course we fully expect that once again he will cheat the executioner. You have to wonder why any executioner would bother to try to hang Karloff!

This time Karloff is Dr John Garth, a kindly doctor who has been working on a serum to defeat old age. Unfortunately when he tried it on a human subject it failed, and Dr Garth took pity on his elderly patent and ended his sufferings. Not surprisingly this resulted in his being charged with murder, convicted, and sentenced to hang.

Dr Garth is convinced he was very close to success with his serum, but tragically it seems that now he will never get the chance to complete his experiments. Then fate takes a hand. The prison doctor is a great admirer of Dr Garth’s work and he convinces the sympathetic warden to allow Dr Garth to continue his work in prison until the date of his execution.

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Dr Garth now has just three weeks to perfect his serum.

Of course when you’re working in a prison hospital you have to work with the materials that are to hand. If you need blood then the most convenient source is condemned prisoners. But that means working with murderers’ blood! And who can tell what might happen if the experimental subject is inoculated with a serum made from murderers’ blood?

Dr Garth does perfect his serum, and the results seem more than promising. But the serum has other results as well, which Dr Garth could not possibly have predicted.

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This is the sort of role at which Boris Karloff excelled - he gets to play a gentle kindly man who only wants to serve humanity and he gets to play a terrifying monster as well. As usual Karloff is equally effective in both roles and he gives us a monster with whom we can sympathise to an extraordinary degree. We desperately want things to turn out well for Dr Garth but of course we know that since this is a horror movie that’s not very likely. Dr Garth’s struggle to overcome the consequences of his one scientific mistake is both tragic and moving, and this is due almost entirely to Karloff’s greatness as an actor.

The supporting cast comprises the sort of fine character actors who helped so much to make this period of movie-making a golden age. Evelyn Keyes doesn’t get enough to do as Dr Garth’s daughter Martha but what she does do she does well.

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Director Nick Grinde was one of those solid journeyman directors who rarely reached any great heights but were good at bringing in B-movies on time and on budget and could be relied upon to produce satisfactory results in just about any genre.

As with so many horror movies this one explores the theme of science trying to do too much, to go too far. In the world of horror movies this is always a dangerous thing to do. As Dr Garth tells a young colleague, in the war that science wages against death there will be casualties. It’s by no means an anti-science movie; it merely points out that scientific advances always come with a price.

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This movie is one of four in Columbia’s excellent Boris Karloff: Icons of Horror Collection. The transfer is of very high quality although it’s lacking in extras. But at the price this set is a must-buy for all serious horror fans.

Before I Hang is a solid horror B-movie that would be reasonably entertaining anyway but Karloff’s performance gives it that extra something that elevates it a little above the usual B-movie standard. Recommended.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Vampire Circus (1972)

Vampire Circus2Vampire Circus was one of Hammer’s best 1970s productions. This was partly because they’d brought in a lot of new blood - producer Wilbur Stark, screenwriter Judson Kinberg and director Robert Young. The result was a gothic horror movie that felt fresh and original.

Combining circuses with horror always works well and this movie handles the combination particularly well. The circus us more than just a colourful background setting - the Circus of Nights is the cause of the horror.

It starts with what seems like a very traditional Hammer opening sequence. Led by the Burgomeister, villagers with flaming torches descend upon the castle of the evil Count Mitterhaus, who has been seducing and murdering the village girls. The castle is razed and the wicked count is staked. Before he dies the count threatens not just the destruction of the village but also all  its children.

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Sixteen years later his threat seems to be coming true, although not in quite the way you’d expect of a vampire movie. The village is being decimated by a horrific plague. The surrounding villagers have put a cordon around the village and threaten to shoot anyone who tries to leave. The village doctor believes this is purely a medical problem and forms a plan to escape and reach the capital so he can bring back medicines to cure the plague.

With the village under quarantine the last thing you’d expect would be for the circus to come to town, but that’s what happens. The Circus of Nights is led by a gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri). In fact she’s someone the townspeople should recognise but don’t.

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What the villagers don’t know is that the circus is composed mostly of vampires and their plan is not just to carry out Count Mitterhaus’s threat, but also to resurrect the count. They will start by killing the children of the men who led the attack on the count’s castle. There isn’t really much more to the plot than that but it’s more than sufficient for a gothic horror film. The focus is on atmosphere and on the characters of the men who had destroyed the vampire count.

The setting is the usual Hammer 19th century setting but the circus adds a fresh new feel. Director Robert Young handles proceedings with skill.

Apart from Thorley Walters who plays the Burgomeister (and plays the part very well as usual) the actors are mostly fairly new to Hammer, although Anthony Corlan who plays the mysterious animal tamer Emil had appeared previously in Taste the Blood of Dracula. He’s particularly impressive. Also impressive is Lalla Ward (later to be better known as Romana II in Doctor Who) as a vampiric acrobat.

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The circus scenes are the highlight of the movie and feature some quite impressive visual effects with acrobats transforming into bats and panthers transforming into beautiful women. There’s also a memorable routine with an almost naked panther woman. And of course there’s an evil clown.

There’s more nudity than was usual in Hammer films and there’s a general air of depravity and perversity that is more reminiscent of European horror than of Hammer’s usual offerings.

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The Synapse combo set includes both DVD and Blu-Ray discs. Both transfers are excellent but the DVD is so good that the Blu-Ray transfer is more or less superfluous. Also included is an excellent and fairly lengthy (and very informative) documentary on the making of the film.

Vampire Circus proves that Hammer could still make the grade in the early 70s. This is a gothic horror classic and is highly recommended.