Wednesday 26 December 2007

Vampyr (1932)

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Grey is truly one of the most disturbing films ever made. It’s totally unlike most modern horror movies – there are no sudden scares, there’s no gore, there’s almost no plot. What it does have is a succession of images of isolation and alienation and dread, images that are more unsettling because they’re so mysterious. Nothing is clear-cut, the line between dream and wakefulness and between delirium and reality isn’t just blurred, it’s completely erased.

The picture is incredibly fuzzy and washed out but this isn’t because the film has deteriorated, it’s how Dreyer wanted it. The story goes that the film camera they were using had a small hole in it which resulted in the film being partially exposed so that the picture had huge areas that were completely washed out, huge patches of vivid whiteness. Dreyer was delighted, and decided the whole movie would be shot that way! And he was correct – it doesn’t seem like a gimmick, it just seems totally right. As well as the blotches of intense whiteness the movie has shadows everywhere, shadows which might be the shadows of people or maybe they’re shadows without people.

Tuesday 25 December 2007

Satan’s Blood (1978)

Ana and Andres are on their way to the park with their dog when they encounter another couple, Bruno and Berta. Bruno claims to be an old college friend of Andres’ although, oddly enough, Andres just can’t recall him at all. When Bruno and Berta invite them back to their house for drinks they see no harm in accepting. After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I mean, they seem like a nice couple and they’re not likely to be devil-worshippers or anything like that, are they? But of course this is a horror movie, so they most certainly can be devil-worshippers! Satan’s Blood (Escalofrío) is an intriguing 1978 slice of Spanish erotic horror released on DVD by those fine folks at Mondo Macabro. And like most of the offerings from this company that I’ve encountered, this movie is a lot better than you might expect.

Ana and Andres are offered some unusual wine, and some rather odd cigarettes, and pretty soon Bruno suggests that they give the old ouija board a spin, just for amusement. This certainly gets things happening, and pretty soon Ana and Andres are joining their hosts for some naughty bedroom fun (although in this case it’s naughty living-room fun). So far it’s been an entertaining evening, but from this point on things start to get unsettling, with disturbing psychological games involving suicide and a series of unexplained and upsetting events. The evening starts to take on the logic of nightmare, and the coming of daylight brings only terror and confusion, as our innocent young couple find themselves in an escalating waking nightmare. Director Carlos Puerto does a fine job in slowly building an atmosphere of the weird and the uncanny. The acting is competent, and the effects aren’t fantastically ambitious but the ones that are used are used effectively. There’s a staggering amount of nudity, but it would be difficult to describe it as gratuitous nudity – it is after all a movie about terrifying sexual and emotional games (among other things) so any coyness about sex would have weakened the film considerably. There’s a certain amount of gore but it isn’t overdone. It’s a movie that relies more on a slow developing of an atmosphere in which the protagonists feeling increasing trapped and out of control rather than on overt scares. In this it succeeds very well. Recommended for eurohorror enthusiasts. The DVD transfer is extremely good, and the extras include an interesting short documentary on Satanism.

Saturday 22 December 2007

The Killer Shrews (1959)

The Killer Shrews has the distinction of having a premise that is remarkably silly even by the standards of 1950s science fiction/horror B-movies. A team of scientists on a remote island are working to solve the overpopulation problem by finding ways to make people smaller. They’re experimenting on shrews, but instead of making the shrews smaller they end up making them bigger. In fact they make them into dog-sized venomous killer shrews. Being dog-sized is convenient, since the giant killer shrews are portrayed in the film by dogs cunningly disguised as giant killer shrews. Except that they still look like dogs, dogs in scraggly furry suits. For close-up shots the shrews are portrayed by the most un-lifelike puppets you’ve ever seen. Captain Thorne Sherman has just arrived in his boat bringing supplies, and is forced to find shelter on the island from a hurricane. Naturally the chief scientist has a beautiful daughter, and naturally Captain Thorne falls for her. He then finds himself besieged in the scientists’ house with hundreds of killer shrews trying to tunnel through the walls.

Apart from the sight of dogs in toupees masquerading as shrews the highlight of the movie is the captain’s ingenious plan to construct a tank out of old chemical drums so that the survivors of the siege can reach his boat. The Killer Shrews is definitely one of those so-bad-it’s-good movies. Entertaining when you’re in the mood for such things.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (1972)

The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (La Dama rossa uccide sette volte) is one of the tiny handful of films made in the early 70s by Emilio Miraglia. It’s an interesting hybrid. It’s mostly a giallo, with all the typical giallo ingredients – high fashion photography, expensive cars, glamorous women, and lots of grisly murders. But it adds some gothic horror elements to the mix – a family curse, cobweb-enshrouded crypts, a castle, and decadent aristocrats. The results are even more bizarre than you might expect. This is one very strange movie, and it gets stranger and stranger. The plot is even more incomprehensible than the average giallo plot. It’s something to do with a painting of two sisters, the Black Queen and the Red Queen, and sisterly hatred and revenge repeated at intervals down through the centuries. It’s now 1972, so one of the current generation of sisters works in a fashion house. Her sister Evelyn is dead, or at least she’s supposed to be dead, but the mysterious killer in the red cape looks a lot like her. There’s lot of bed-hopping and drugs and hints of kinky sex and the other excesses of the rich and glamorous, and everyone seems to have a motive for murdering everyone else. The body count rises steadily while the police remain baffled.

The plot is eventually explained, and it’s as convoluted and unlikely as you could hope for. What the movie lacks in coherence it mostly makes up for in style and pace and overall weirdness, and the climax is spectacularly gothic. The DVD release by Noshame (which also includes Miraglia’s earlier The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave) is absolutely gorgeous. I wouldn’t describe either movie as a masterpiece but they’re both off-beat enough to be worth seeing if you’re a fan of eurohorror.

Thursday 13 December 2007

Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968)

Ingmar Bergman’s Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf) was made in 1968. It opens with Alma, the wife of an artist, telling us about his disappearance. They had moved to a lonely cottage on an island. She had found his diary, and she then recounts the events described in his diary. The audience is therefore getting her interpretation of his interpretation of events, and the audience then adds a third layer of interpretation. As a result the film is unusually ambiguous. The artist, Johan, is troubled by nightmares. His nightmares and his memories are so entwined that is difficult to know which of the events shown in the film might actually have happened and which are purely the products of his troubled imagination. To make thing even more ambiguous, Alma implies that she had started also to see what she referred to as his ghosts. Did she start to share his madness? Or were some of these nightmarish incidents real?

The film is absolutely dripping with gothic atmosphere and imagery. There is a castle on the island, or at least we’re told there is, but we can’t really say for sure that it really exists. The black-and-white cinematography by Sven Nykvist is both ravishing and deeply disturbing. Most of the time the images seem fairly realistic in themselves but every now and then Bergman throws in a piece of true nightmare imagery, like the man who walks up the walls. Or a particularly alarming scene involving a woman’s face (I won’t spoilt it by telling you any more). At the end of the movie you’re left feeling that you really need to watch it again. Does it qualify as a real horror movie? I think it does. Quite apart from the horror of madness there’s the constant feeling that the world of nightmare and the world of everyday reality are bleeding into each other, and there’s also the ever-present feeling that Alma is in real danger. A very unsettling movie. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Tod Browning’s 1936 film The Devil-Doll is based, very loosely, on Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch Burn. It tells the story of two escapees from Devil’s Island, one a mad scientist, the other a banker (played by Lionel Barrymore) who had been falsely accused of embezzlement. The mad scientist is working on a scheme for reducing humans to one-sixth their present size – he is convinced this will be a huge boon for humanity. The banker just wants revenge on his partners who framed him. When the mad scientist dies the banker realises that his insane scheme could aid his own schemes for revenge. He teams up with the widow of the scientist (an immensely enjoyable performance by Rafaela Ottiano as the most crazed and obsessed mad scientist you’ve ever seen). I suspect that Browning never intended this movie to be take seriously – like hi later (and very underrated) Miracles for Sale it seems to be done very much tongue-in-cheek. And it’s immense fun. The special effects work superbly. I was going to add “by 1936 standards”, but in fact they look thoroughly convincing even by today’s standards. There is some real creepiness involved with the miniature human dolls. Barrymore is almost as over-the-top in his performance as Ottiano – he’s obviously having a good time. The plot comes together quite satisfactorily in the end, with surprisingly little in the way of moralising. The humour is genuinely amusing without being annoying, which wasn’t always the case with movies of his period that tried to mix humour and horror. This is really a wonderfully engaging movie with just the right mix of laughs and chills, enjoyable acting performances, and very able direction by Browning.

Sunday 9 December 2007

Night of the Werewolf (1981)

Night of the Werewolf was I believe the ninth of the Spanish films in which Paul Naschy played the role of the Polish nobleman/werewolf Waldemar Daninsky. He wrote the screenplays for these movies, and this one is directed by him as well. Although made in 1981 it’s very much a 70s gothic horror movie making no concessions whatsoever to changing tastes in horror cinema in the 80s. In fact Naschy throws in everything gothic he can think of – it was witches, vampires and werewolves. The problem with werewolves, I find, is that they never look convincing. They always look like a guy in silly make-up. This one is fairly typical – the make-up effects are OK but I still think werewolves look silly. It does have beautiful but evil female vampires though, and a beautiful but evil female witch. The plot hangs together better than you might expect. Three beautiful but evil female anthropologists - yes, we’re starting to see a bit of a pattern here - decide it would be fun to raise the bloody countess, Elizabeth Bathory (the one who liked to bathe in virgins’ blood because it’s good for the complexion) from the dead. Someone else has already inadvertently raised a old buddy of hers, Waldemar the werewolf, from the grave. He’s not really evil. OK, he rips people apart, but he’s really sorry afterwards. He apparently needs to find the love of a Good Woman in order to save his soul. He fins himself opposing the wicked machinations of the beautiful but evil Elizabeth Bathory and her beautiful but evil henchwomen.

It’s entertaining, it has plenty of suitably gothic sets and Naschy is pretty effective at creating gothic atmosphere – if in doubt, more fog! If you like 70s euro gothic horror (and what right-thinking person doesn’t love 70s euro gothic horror) there’s no reason to think you won’t like this movie.

Saturday 8 December 2007

Whore (1991)

Whore, made by Ken Russell in 1991, is an odd little film. Much of the time star Theresa Russell (as Liz, the whore of the title) addresses the camera directly, giving it a slightly stagey feel (it was in fact adapted from a play). In some ways it’s a very uncompromising and very confronting look at the realities of prostitution, but it combines this with comedy, often rather black comedy. It takes us through one day in the life of a prostitute in a major US city, during which she has major problems with her pimp, tells us about her past and her child, and we see her with a variety of tricks. The movie spells out quite plainly that a good deal of the unpleasantness of the prostitute’s life would be eliminated if prostitution were legalised, a sensible course of action that seems unlikely to be taken in most places any time soon.

Whore was too odd and unconventional to have any chance of box office success and most people seem to dislike it. I thought the strange mix of ingredients worked. The comedy makes the bleakness of Liz’s life bearable, and prevents her from seeming too much of a victim. Theresa Russell’s performance is, like the movie itself, very stylised but I thought it was excellent. I read somewhere that it was Ken Russell’s answer to Pretty Woman. It has a message but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. It doesn’t glamorise the prostitute, nor does it demonise her. Amid the sordidness of life on the street it’s a very funny film. I liked it.

Friday 7 December 2007

Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966)

Christopher Lee is best known for his portrayals of the vampire count in the many Hammer Dracula movies, but his finest moment came in a comparatively little known 1966 Hammer movie, Rasputin, The Mad Monk. This is Christopher Lee as you’ve never seen him before – it’s an extraordinarily dynamic and extravagant performance, a completely over-the-top performance. I’m not really a Christopher Lee fan, but as Rasputin he’s sensational. This is a movie that is cheerfully untroubled by historical accuracy. Lee’s Rasputin is evil, certainly, but he’s so full of life you can’t help feeling some sympathy for him. Early on he tells his superior at the monastery that he likes to commit big sins so that God will have something worthwhile to forgive him for.

The other actors are totally overshadowed by Lee, but Barbara Shelley is good as lady-in-waiting to the Czarina who is ruthlessly used by Rasputin. Director Don Sharp does a solid job and keeps the film rolling along at a good pace. Rasputin, the Mad Monk is worth seeing, in fact it’s worthy buying on DVD, just for Christopher Lee. Not a movie to take very seriously, but it delivers plenty of entertainment.

Saturday 1 December 2007

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

One Million Years B.C. was one of the most expensive movies made by England’s Hammer Studios, and it was a gamble that paid off at the box office. Whether you like this movie depends very much on whether you’re a fan of the stop-motion animation techniques of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. If you are, you’ll love it – there’s lots of it in this movie, and Harryhausen did a very fine job of it (although unfortunately on a couple of occasions they resorted to using blowups of common iguanas, which looked like blowups of common iguanas). It does have other things going for it, though, and I don’t just mean Raquel Welch in a fur bikini although she does look rather fetching). There’s some rather nice location shooting, done in the Canary Islands I believe, and it’s visually surprisingly impressive, and the visuals still hold up pretty well. Some skilful use of colour as well. One of the more interesting things about the movie is the almost total lack of dialogue, apart from grunts. It was a fairly brave thing to do, but it works quite well. OK, the plot is pretty basic, but even telling such a basic story without dialogue (and without even the title cards they had in the silent days) is a challenge. The actors do a reasonable job of it, and although Ms Welch might not be held in terrifically high esteem as an actress she acquits herself quite adequately. The plot involves a romance (well, it’s about as romantic as you can really imagine a caveman and a cavewoman getting) who come from two different warring tribes, spiced up with encounters with dinosaurs. Overall it’s entertaining, it looks good, it moves along at a brisk pace and as long as you don’t let the idea of humans and dinosaurs living at the same time upset you too much there’s plenty of fun to be had.

Thursday 29 November 2007

Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970)

Jess Franco’s 1970 Count Dracula (Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht was promoted at the time as being the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel up to that date. In fact it’s probably still the movie adaptation that remains closest to the original book. Personally I don’t care about the faithfulness of adaptations, but this is certainly a very good version of this much-told tale. Franco was fortunate in being able to assemble a very strong cast indeed, with Christopher Lee as the Count, Klaus Kinski as Renfield, Soledad Miranda as Lucy and Herbert Lom as van Helsing. In the accompanying interview Franco claims that to the best of his recollection this film was actually Christopher Lee’s idea, and that he was very excited about the prosect of being able to play Dracula as Stoker had written the character. Lee’s enthusiasm for the project pay dividends – he gives a great performance, far better than in any of the vampire movies he did for Hammer Studios. As superb as his performance is, it’s Kinski (as so often) who steals the film. Franco recounts that while most actors will battle a director to get more lines, Kinski would do the opposite – he much preferred to have as little dialogue as possible and to show emotions rather than talking about them, and this movie shows just how well Kinski was able to do just that. Herbert Lom is wonderful as van Helsing, and Soledad Miranda is mesmerising as Lucy. Apparently Christopher Lee wasn’t too happy at first about her casting, but after the first day’s shooting he had to admit that Franco was absolutely right about her. The movie boasts higher production values than most of Franco’s films, some glorious sets and some luscious location photography. It just drips gothic atmosphere, but not the overdone rather stagey gothic atmosphere you often get in horror movies.

For those who think Jess Franco’s movies contain too much nudity and gore – this one has no nudity at all, and virtually no gore. The Region 1 DVD release contains an exceptionally interesting interview with Uncle Jess, and it looks magnificent. It’s worth buying this one just for the performances of Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski (and I’m not even a Christopher Lee fan). For those who like their literary adaptations to be reasonably faithful to the source material this is a must-buy, and it’s really a must-buy for any self-respecting horror movie fan.

Saturday 24 November 2007

Jungle Bride (1933)

A ship sinks off the coast of Africa, and four mismatched survivors find themselves having to survive in the wild beat-infested jungle! This is the idea behind Jungle Bride, a 1933 offering from Monogram Pictures. The four castaways include an actor who is facing an accusation of murder if and when he reaches civilisation (he is of course innocent, this is the movies after all), his buddy, the man who is hunting him, and the woman whose brother he is alleged to have slain. The woman is (it goes without saying), beautiful, glamorous and blonde. Pretty soon they’re living a kind of Gilligan’s Island existence, but enlivened by the occasional wrestling match with man-eating lions (and it turns out that savage man-eating lions are not very good wrestlers). In between encounters with the wildlife (most of which is, surprisingly enough in a Hollywood movie of this vintage, actual African wildlife – not a tiger in sight) tensions simmer between Gordon Wayne (the accused killer) and John Franklin (the man hunting him) owing to the fact that they’re both in love with the aforementioned beautiful, glamorous and blonde Doris. Since Doris is played by Anita Page, on loan from MGM and looking stunning and very sexy, one can hardly blame them. The bonus here is that Ms Page can actually act - I use the present tense since she is apparently still very much alive and made a movie as recently as 2004. And since it’s a pre-code movie, her costumes are at times quite skimpy and on occasion she dispenses with clothing altogether. The rest of the acting is what you’d expect from a Monogram B-picture, but it doesn’t really matter. This is not exactly Hamlet, and Charles Starrett as Wayne is only required to look hunky, which is just about within his acting range. This is the sort of film that is very much for B-movie aficionados – those of us who adore cheesy social effects, rickety sets and amusingly bad acting. I you are such a person, then Jungle Bride is definitely fun.

Thursday 22 November 2007

Scarlet Diva (2000)

Anna Battista, the heroine of Scarlet Diva, is a rich, successful, critically acclaimed actress who is, at the ripe old age of 24, bored and disillusioned with acting and with her life of excess. She wants to be a director. She is working on a screenplay about a rich, successful, critically acclaimed actress who is bored and disillusioned with acting and with her life of excess. Anna Battista is played by Asia Argento. At the time the movie was made Asia Argento just happened to be a rich, successful, critically acclaimed 24-year-old actress directing her first feature film, called Scarlet Diva. Given all that, you’d expect this movie to be wildly self-indulgent, insanely self-reflexive and highly autobiographical, and you’d be right on the money. The most surprising thing about Scarlet Diva is that she gets away with it. The main reason she gets away with it is that it’s a wonderfully stylish and visually impressive movie. She’s not Dario Argento’s daughter for nothing. She might not have a great deal to say in this movie, other than telling us about the extraordinary capacity for self-destruction possessed by rich celebrities (something that isn’t exactly going to come as a great shock to most of us) but she tells her story economically and with flair and as director she is always in complete control. The movie’s other saving grace is an unexpected sense of humour. Argento’s acting is as excessive as everything else in the film, but it’s undeniably effective and powerful. As both star and director Argento is not afraid to go over-the-top and to take risks, and there’s a certain brutal honesty to the movie, and to her portrayal of a character clearly based to a very large extent on herself. There are more than enough pluses to balance out the self-indulgence, and the result is an impressive feature film debut.

Monday 19 November 2007

The Devil's Nightmare (1971)

The Devil's Nightmare is a 1971 Belgian-Italian co-production, and it’s actually a rather little gothic horror flick. A busload of travellers find themselves forced to spend the night in a gothic castle. We’ve already seen their host, in the opening scene, a flashback to World War 2 in which we see him killing his infant daughter. Now we find out the reason for his appalling action – there is a curse on the family, a curse that causes the eldest daughter in each generation to become a succubus. The baron thinks he’s managed to evade the curse, but he’s made a miscalculation. There is an unexpected guest in the castle, and she is indeed a succubus. She sets out to destroy the other seven guests, and to destroy each of them in an appropriate way – with each guest representing one of the seven deadly sins. The movie is actually considerably better than it sounds. Erika Blanc makes a wonderfully creepy and mysterious succubus, the killings are handled with a small amount of gore and a much larger amount of imagination, there’s plenty of gothic atmosphere, and there are a plethora of ingenious plot twists. The baron also dabbles in alchemy, which is always fun. The devil puts in an appearance, and a delightfully sinister devil he is, and there’s a young priest-in-training who finds himself exposed to temptations of both the flesh and the spirit. An unexpectedly proficient slice of eurohorror, and all highly entertaining.

Sunday 18 November 2007

Female Trouble (1974)

Female Trouble is the first of John Waters’ early pre-Hairspray films that I’ve seen. It’s every bit as gross as I expected it to be, but it is also extremely funny. Divine is Dawn Davenport, who runs away from home after her parents fail to buy her a pair of cha-cha heels for Christmas. She embarks on a career in crime, and encounters a very odd couple who own a hairdressing salon. Their fetish is crime as beauty, and photographing crime. Dawn’s criminal career really accelerates after this point, leading her to murder and to her greatest starring role. John Waters uses this story for some rather biting and surprisingly effective satire on America’s obsessions with fame and crime. Waters regular Mink Stole plays Dawn’s bizarre daughter Taffy, whose favourite pastime is recreating car accidents in the living room. The DVD includes a commentary track by Waters himself – he really does superb commentary tracks and this is no exception. Typical Waters weirdness and bad taste, and all highly entertaining.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

I’m not sure if this is really a cult movie, but it is an under-appreciated movie, and it isBillion Dollar Brain, released in 1967, was the third of the Harry Palmer spy movies of the 1960s. Some people don't regard it as a true Ken Russell movie but I don’t agree. I think it has his visual signature all over it. And it has the characteristic Russell excess. It has almost nothing in common with the earlier Harry Palmer films. There's no pretence here of a realistic spy thriller. Billion Dollar Brain has more in common with Dr Strangelove, or even Apocalypse Now. This is the strange, deluded, paranoid world of the right-wing zealot. It's a surreal world of plots, both imaginary and real, a glimpse inside the mind of a madman. It's the mental landscape of the obsessed. If you’ve always wondered what a Ken Russell spy movie would be like, this is it. If you were going to compare it to another Ken Russell film it would have to be The Devils, with General Midwinter's rabidly anti-communist conservative fanatics in place of the religious fanatics of the later movie. The plot concerns an attempt by a crazed Texan oil billionaire to overthrow Soviet communism. In many of the British spy movies of the 60s there is no moral difference between the Cold War antagonists. That's not the case here – in this movie the Russians are unequivocally the good guys.

Harry Palmer provided Michael Caine with one of his best roles and he turns in a fine performance. Karl Malden is superb as corrupt CIA agent Leo Newbigen. It’s a role that allows him to be more flamboyant and more morally ambiguous than usual and he’s clearly enjoying himself. Ed Begley is terrifying as General Midwinter, while Oscar Homolka is delightful as the cynical but extremely likeable KGB chief Colonel Stok. Billion Dollar Brain looks superb, with some fascinatingly odd and interesting sets and enormous visual flair. It also benefits from a great score by Richard Rodney Bennett. This isn't just a real Ken Russell movie, it's a great Ken Russell movie. It's a fantastic movie. I can't recommend this movie too highly.

Monday 12 November 2007

Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1974)

The conventional wisdom is that the 70s was a period of decline for Hammer Films. This was certainly true in a financial sense, as a series of poor business decisions eventually doomed the studio. It was certainly not true in a qualitative sense though, and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (made in 1972 but not released until 1974) provides further evidence of just how good some of their movies of this era are. Brian Clemens, one of the best British television writers of the 60s and 70s (in fact arguably one of the best British television writers ever) was brought in as writer and director. It’s the only film he ever directed, which is surprising because he did an excellent and extremely professional job– it’s visually interesting, well-paced and consistently entertaining. It’s also very unconventional for a Hammer film. At this time Hammer were trying to breathe new life into the gothic horror genre with interesting and slightly off-beat entries like Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (also written by Brian Clemens), and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter overturns all the established clichés of the studio’s previous vampire flicks – it has vampires that drain their victims of their youth rather than their blood, vampires that need to be killed in different ways, and vampires that are unworried by sunlight. It also adds some of the flavour of other movie genres, and was clearly influenced by both Japanese samurai movies and Italian spaghetti westerns. Interestingly enough, it also seems to have itself been a major influence on the much later (and absolutely superb) Japanese anime horror movie Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

Captain Kronos is an Austrian officer turned professional vampire hunter. When a number of young women are found horribly and inexplicably aged he and his partner, the hunch-backed Professor Hieronymos Grost, are called in. They immediately suspect vampiric activity, and along with a beautiful young gypsy woman they picked up along the way (Captain Kronos seem to have a bit of an eye for the ladies) they set out to uncover the mystery and find a way to slay the undead fiends. Horst Janson is moody but charismatic as Kronos, Caroline Munro is more than competent in the role of the gypsy girl Carla, and John Cater is delightful as Grost – although he’s a hunchback he is not a figure of fun, and is both highly knowledgeable in vampire lore and an active and very useful partner to Kronos. Lois Daine is suitably enigmatic and slightly disturbing as the daughter of the noble but slightly disturbing Durward family and Ian Hendry is fun in a small role. With Clemems showing plenty of flair in both the writing and directing departments this is really a great little film that deserved more commercial success. It’s possible that the one weakness of the movie, undoubtedly because of Clemens’ television background, is that it probably needed a bit more sex - by the standards of other contemporary Hammer movies it’s rather tame in this area which may have hurt it a little at the box office. Overall though it’s a movie I recommend very highly.

Saturday 10 November 2007

The Hellfire Club (1961)

The notorious 18th century Hellfire Club would, you would think, make a great subject for a movie. Unfortunately the 1961 British film The Hellfire Club is not that movie. The Hellfire Club itself plays a marginal role in the film, which is really just a swashbuckling adventure romp. The good news is, if you happen to like swashbuckling adventure romps then this one is a pretty good example of the breed. Keith Michell makes a dashing, brave and noble hero as the son of a wicked lord (and leading figure in the infamous Hellfire Club). He and his mother flee the said wicked lord but his mother is killed and he realises he cannot go back to the family estate now. So, naturally, he runs off to join the circus. As you do. When word comes that his father is dead he returns to claim his title and his inheritance only to find that his wicked cousin has got there first. He enlists the help of a slightly shady lawyer (Peter Cushing), and with his pals from the circus sets out to right the wrongs that have been done to him. The movie has the look of a Hammer film, and includes a number of regular Hammer players, although in fact it has no connection with that studio. There’s plenty of action, lots of narrow escapes, and an abundance of swordplay. Not a great movie, but entertaining escapist entertainment.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Mill of the Stone Women (1960)

Mill of the Stone Women is a somewhat neglected classic from the early days of the Italian gothic horror boom. Made in 1960, it’s a film that relies on atmosphere and creepiness rather than thrills or action. Fortunately it has both atmosphere and creepiness in abundance. It’s set in the Netherlands, presumably sometime in the 19th century, and most of the action takes place inside a windmill owned by Professor Wahl. It is in fact a kind of wax museum, with the windmill providing the motive power for a series of moving tableaux of macabre subjects – hanged women, and assorted female murderers and murder victims. There is of course a ghastly secret hidden here, involving the professor, his enigmatic daughter Elfy and his partner, a disgraced doctor. The daughter apparently suffers from the sort of unspecified and mysterious ailment that tends to afflict beautiful daughters in gothic horror movies. The professor and his medical colleague have taken drastic and unnatural steps to prolong her life. All goes well until young Hans arrives at the mill and the aforementioned mysterious daughter seduces him. Hans is already in love with another woman, Liselotte, who is one of Professor Wahl’s art students. Hans and Elfy argue, and Elfy collapses, apparently dead. Naturally things are more complicated than that, but you’ll have to watch the movie for yourself to find out how. And this movie is very much worth watching for yourself. You effectively get not one but two mad scientists, some great sets with gigantic windmill-type wheels and gears, the very very macabre waxwork tableaux, and some reasonably effective acting. Robert Boehme as the professor and Wolfgang Preiss as his doctor accomplice are suitably sinister. The voluptuous Scilla Gabel has just the right air of strangeness and exotic beauty as Elfy, while Dany Carrel is equally beautiful and very likeable as the rather effervescent Liselotte. Pierre Brice is adequate as the hero of the piece, Hans. Mill of the Stone Women is worthy to be counted among the cream of the Italian gothic horror movies, perhaps not quite as good as the greatest of Mario Bava’s films but a very very fine film. It’s impossible to find anything to seriously complain of in the Mondo Macabro DVD release – the movie (shot in Technicolor) looks terrific. If you enjoy subtle horror this movie is an absolute must-see.

Monday 5 November 2007

The Violent Years (1956)

The Violent Years isn’t just a juvenile delinquent movie, it’s a JD movie scripted by Ed Wood jnr! And it has the classic Ed Wood touches – lots of incredibly but amusingly clunky speechifying, dialogue that you have to hear to believe, and some very interesting hints of gender-bending. A gang of bad girls dress up like men and carry out a series of daring and violent armed robberies. They become involved in a communist conspiracy to vandalise schools and desecrate the flag. The most interesting of their escapades, however, comes when they terrorise a couple of innocent young kids making out in Lovers’ Lane. They force the girl to get partially undressed and tie her up. They then march her boyfriend off into the woods, start forcibly undressing him, and the last shot we see is the leader of the girl gang starting to remove her clothes. The poor boy is clearly about to suffer a fate worse than death. These girls are beyond bad! The pyjama party scene is also pretty memorable. We eventually find out that it’s not really Paula’s fault (Paula being the chief of this gang of female delinquents) – she’s been the victim of terrible child abuse. Instead of giving her love and lots of mother-daughter heart-to-heart talks her uncaring mom just keeps buying her expensive new dresses and a new convertible every year for her birthday. The poor kid! Luckily the kindly judge is on hand at the end to instruct parents on the proper way to bring up their children – lots of attention, frequent church-going and regular beatings in the woodshed. The most entertaining thing about the movie is the way Wood’s own preoccupations keep subverting the ostensibly conservative social message. Not only do these girl hoodlums engage in cross-dressing, they also call each other by masculine names – Paula becomes Paul, Georgia is known as George, Phyllis becomes Phil, etc. One can only assume that censors at the time didn’t even realise what Wood was up to here.

The acting is bad of course, but it’s good bad, it’s the sort of bad acting that is required by the sort of dialogue that Ed Wood wrote. The DVD release from Something Weird also includes a second girl JD movie, Girl Gang, which I haven’t had a chance to look at yet. The Violent Years looks pretty good for a 50-year-old low-budget movie. It may not be the best JD movie I’ve seen, but it is the most bizarre and the most interesting, and it really is a must-see.

Saturday 3 November 2007

Eugénie de Sade (1970)

Jess Franco’s Eugénie de Sade is his attempt at an adaptation of a work by the notorious Marquis de Sade. A young woman is initiated by her father, a writer who regards himself as misunderstood genius, into the pleasures of murder. Franco certainly has a knack for creating disturbing female killers, women who seem to be driven to kill by overwhelming forces or emotions – in Female Vampire it’s her insatiable vampiric hunger, in She Killed in Ecstasy it’s a woman taking revenge for the death of her beloved husband, and in Eugénie de Sade it’s Eugénie’s obsessive, and incestuous, devotion to a dominating father. The relationship with her father is handled with considerable subtlety, and Soledad Miranda is mesmerising as Eugénie. She makes us believe that Eugénie is as much a victim as a monster. She is an innocent drawn into evil. Paul Muller is very good, and very creepy, as her father, Albert Radeck. Franco himself plays the role of another writer, a man who has followed Radeck’s literary career with great interest, and is now equally fascinated by his criminal career. Radeck regards murder not merely as an intellectual recreation for superior minds, but seems to see it also as a form of art, and the movie very effectively pursues this link between literature and cruelty, and between art and death. If murder can be a subject for art, can murder itself become art? The film raises such questions in a rather uncomfortable way, and Franco’s ability to make murder both entertaining and beautiful serves to make the viewer even more uneasy. The link between sex and death, always an unsettling element in horror, is even more disturbing than usual in this film. Most of all the film makes is disquieting because it takes de Sade’s ideas seriously, and it compels us to take them seriously as well. We can disagree violently with those ideas, and in fact we probably should disagree violently with them, but it may well be both useful and healthy to at least face up to the existence of such questions, and to admit their relevance to an understanding of our own civilisation. Jess Franco remains one of the few directors able to crate genuine erotic horror; not horror with added sex, but horror in which the erotic and the horror are inextricably linked. While there are still many who dismiss Franco as a film-maker, Eugénie de Sade is a movie that is compelling, fascinating and brilliant.

Friday 2 November 2007

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The daughter of the great surgeon Dr Génessier is horribly disfigured in a car accident. She is left virtually without a face. Her father is determined to restore her to her original beauty, whatever the cost. His assistant Louise is devoted to him, with good reason – her own face had been horrifically damaged but he had repaired the damage so well that no trace of her accident remained. She kidnaps beautiful young women for him, young women whose faces will be removed to provide his daughter’s new face. Georges Franju’s 1960 Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage) is one of the classics of the horror genre; it has influenced a host of subsequent movies, some of which are little more than copies of this film. Few of these later movies have captured the essential feel of Eyes Without a Face however. Although the surgical scenes are remarkably graphic for a movie of its era the overall impression is one of restraint. Franju’s treatment of his subject matter is resolutely non-sensationalistic, and visually the movie is lyrical and haunting, and even poetic, rather than horrific. In an interview included on the DVD Franju points out that Dr Génessier is not a mad scientist – he is a sane man who does insane things. His motivations are rational; he simply takes them to insane extremes. Pierre Brasseur is frightening as Dr Génessier because his manner is so calm and reasonable. Edith Scob’s performance as the daughter is mesmerising and eerie. Her face is covered with a mask for most of the movie, and she movies in a strange and wraith-like manner, as if she is not really a living person at all. Since her accident she is so disconnected from the world of ordinary people that she is really more of a living ghost. It’s not a movie that is likely to terrify a modern audience, but it remains disturbing. It’s a strange and strangely beautiful film, and it’s a film that every horror fan must see. And if you’re not a horror fan, see it anyway.

Thursday 1 November 2007

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

There have been few totally successful movie adaptations of the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Die, Monster, Die!, directed by Roger Corman protégé Daniel Haller in 1965, is certainly a brave attempt. It makes no attempt to be a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, but it does achieve a reasonably Lovecraftian feel (as does Haller’s later, and very underrated, The Dunwich Horror). Haller lays the gothic atmosphere on with a trowel, but it looks great. There’s no point in underdoing a gothic atmosphere! The social effects are cheap but surprisingly effective. An elderly and ailing Boris Karloff turns in a wonderful performance as Nahum Witley, whose family have long dabbled in forbidden things. Karloff plays the entire movie in a wheelchair, but still dominates proceedings and is as charismatic as ever. The rest of the cast manage adequate performances. Haller’s direction and pacing really can’t be faulted, and at just under 80 minutes it’s a taut and rather gripping chiller with some moments of real weirdness. Special mention must also be made of Terence de Marney, whose brief appearances as the family retainer Merwyn are delightfully creepy. Die, Monster, Die! should please most fans of gothic horror, and I think Lovecraftian enthusiasts will find it reasonably satisfying. A classic piece of 60s horror, and highly recommended.

Sunday 28 October 2007

To the Devil…a Daughter (1976)

To the Devil…a Daughter, released in 1976, is best-known for being the last horror film made by Hammer Studios. It was a commercial success, but it came too late to save the studio. Hammer had been trying desperately to update their image and to get away from the gothic horrors that had been so successful for them but were now starting to feel a little tired, and were also starting to lose their commercial appeal. Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula were attempts to bring their Dracula franchise into the modern world. Unfortunately they tried too hard to be superficially contemporary, with pop music and kids in outrageous (and now embarrassingly dated early 70s fashions. At the same time they felt like the old gothic horrors transplanted uneasily into modern settings. They failed to give Hammer’s image a modern feel and the company teetered towards ruin. Ironically, To the Devil…a Daughter shows that they were quite capable of making the sorts of films that would have allowed them to compete very successful against the new-style horror movies of the 70s. They’ve abandoned the studio entirely, the movie is set partly in modern Germany and mostly in modern Hollywood. It has a very gritty realistic feel. There’s lots of gore, and the violence packs a real punch. There’s also lots of sex, but the sex doesn’t have that traditional Hammer feel. It feels real, rather than being simply naughty. And they’ve assembled the strongest cast ever seen in a Hammer movie. Christopher Lee gives the best performance I’ve ever seen from him, as a renegade Satanist priest. It’s a very restrained performance, and the restraint gives it real menace. Richard Widmark plays an author of books about the occult who tries to stop this renegade priest’s nefarious activities. Widmark hated every moment of the filming and apparently made himself generally disliked. In spite of this he gives a good performance. Nastassia Kinksi is a young nun who only slowly realises she’s been dedicated to the power of darkness. She has to project a mixture of innocence, corruption, and depraved and earthy sexuality, which she manages with no trouble at all. As you’d expect. Denholm Elliott plays her father, a man who is unravelling more and more by the moment, jumping at shadows and completely overpowered by his fears. He always does such parts well, and he does this one extremely well. I’m always surprised, after Callan, to see Anthony Valentine playing a non-evil character. He plays a friend of Widmark’s who gets drawn into this struggle, while Honor Blackman plays his slightly hippie-ish much older girlfriend. They both acquit themselves admirably. There are also some familiar faces from Hammer’s glory days, like Derek Francis as the bishop.

There’s not much to the plot, but there doesn’t really need to be. It simply requires Widmark to stop Christopher Lee from creating an incarnation of the evil Aztaroth, which he intends to do through the nun Catherine (Kinski). Peter Sykes directs the film with flair and imagination. It looks good. It looks modern, but without making the mistake of looking too much of its period. The acting is superb. It should have been an absolutely superb horror film. And mostly it is. The ending, though – to say the ending is anticlimactic would be putting it mildly. It’s as if they just got tired and decided to pack up and go home without bothering with a dramatic finale. Overall, though, this is a seriously underrated movie. If it didn’t save them, it at least allowed Hammer to bow out of horror on a high note.

Thursday 25 October 2007

The Bad Seed (1956)

One of my all-time favourite cult movies is The Bad Seed. One of the most delightful things about this 1956 flick is trying to figure out just how seriously it was meant to be taken. At first it’s hard to believe it was supposed to be taken seriously at all, but then you remember that it was the 1950s. It’s the story of the mayhem caused by a wicked girl, played magnificently by Patty McCormack. She’s like Satan’s answer to Shirley Temple. It seems to be the film’s intention to show that bad heredity can produce monsters even in the most wholesome all-American middle-class families, although personally I’m not surprised that such a cloyingly nice and respectable family would cause a child to become a murderous killer! And you have to consider the effect of 50s TV as well. One can only take so much of Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons without wanting to pick up an axe. The producers decided that the ending of the stage play would be too real for a 1950s audience so they changed it. That usually means, in Hollywood, that a saccharine-drenched phoney happy ending gets grafted on, but in this case the new ending just makes a weird film weirder. It’s a very bad film, but as camp it succeeds brilliantly. In fact as a piece of unintentional camp it’s right up there with Valley of the Dolls. This is a film that is not to be missed.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

The Black Abbot (1963)

The Black Abbot (Der Schwarze Abt) is my second German Edgar Wallace krimi, and while it’s not quite as outrageous as The Door with the Seven Locks it’s not far behind, and the gothic atmosphere is even more delightfully overdone. The plot is too intricate for me even to attempt a synopsis, but it involves forgery, blackmail, madness, hidden treasure, various complicated criminal schemes, forced marriages, crooked accountants, embezzlement, and a mysterious masked black abbot. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, the pacing is relentless, the comic relief (once again provided by Eddi Arent) isn’t overly annoying and is even amusing at times, and the sets look wonderful. The acting is pretty good as well. And it’s terrific fun!

Saturday 20 October 2007

Date Bait (1960)

Date Bait is a 1960 juvenile delinquent movie that has all the ingredients you could hope for – teenage dope fiends, hot rods, violence, parents that just don’t understand, and young lovers in trouble. Susan is in love with Danny, but her dad (who is a bit of a square) thinks he isn’t good enough for her. Brad is in love with Susan, but Susan is Danny’s girl. And Brad has a brother who is a dope dealer, and Brad has started to sample the merchandise. When Danny gets beaten up, and then Susan’s dad tells her she can’t see him again, what else can Danny and Susan do but elope to Las Vegas? But now Danny is in even bigger trouble – he could go to gaol for corrupting a minor! Even though they’re really really in love. Will young love triumph in the end?

The acting is as gloriously inept as you could wish for. Dick Gering as Brad is hilarious as he battles the temptation of those little packets of white powder – he’s shaking like he’s about to explode. Danny and Susan are most amusing as they eye the double bed in their motel room, and the realisation hits them that they’re actually going to Do It. But it’s OK, because they’re married. They’re basically Good Kids. If only Susan’s parents could realise that! Susan’s parents are the sorts of people who made the 50s the decade it was. Date Bait also boasts some of the most embarrassing songs you’ll ever hear. The title tune is particularly memorable. You won’t want to remember it, but you will. This one is a treat for all fans of JD movies.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)

Emilio Miraglia is a remarkably obscure Italian director of the 1970s who enjoyed great success with his first feature, made a few more movies, and then seems to have disappeared. The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (La Notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba), made in 1971, was promoted art the time as a gothic horror film but is really a giallo with some hints of the supernatural. These supernatural elements serve to make it even more incomprehensible than the average giallo. At this point I have to be honest and admit that this is perhaps my least favourite genre of cult movie, so it’s possible that fans of this type of movie may enjoy this one a lot more than I did. What it does have going for it is that Italian visual flair that saved many a giallo from disaster. Like me, you might not have the remotest idea of what is supposed to be going on, but it all looks impressive.

The plot has something to do with an English lord who is haunted by the death, in childbirth, of his first wife Evelyn. She had apparently been having an affair, and in his frequent hallucinatory states he relives his discovery of the affair and her subsequent death. This drives him (for some obscure) to want to whip and then murder red-headed prostitutes. He then decides to remarry. After that point the plot becomes even more impenetrable, but there are plots involving assorted family members. The acting is on the whole merely adequate, although Erika Blanc is very good as one of the strippers with whom the troubled lord becomes involved. Of course to complain about the plot of an Italian horror movie is to completely miss the point of Italian horror, which was always mainly about the visuals. This movie isn’t as impressive as the best efforts of director like Bava or Argento but it still has enough style to make it worth seeing. The DVD release by a company called NoShame is impressive. It’s packaged with another Emilio Miraglia movie, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. The movie looks superb, there are quite a few extras, and you get a red queen action figure as well. If you do happen to be a giallo fan you’ll certainly want to pick up a copy of the Emilio Miraglia Killer Queen Box Set.

Saturday 13 October 2007

Beat Girl (1960)

Jennifer is a teenage rebel, who hangs out in coffee bars with crazy beatniks and listens to wild music. Some of the crowd she’s mixed up with do even worse things, like dancing and listening to rock’n’roll records. Yes, this is one of those wonderful juvenile delinquent movies. In fact it’s Beat Girl, a British example from 1960, a movie that ran into major censorship problems at the time. Most reviewers don’t have a good word to say for this film, but it’s actually rather intriguing, and it certainly boasts an interesting cast – including Christopher Lee and a very young Oliver Reed. While it superficially takes the side of Jennifer’s parents, and the movie was undoubtedly intended that way, to modern viewer Jennifer’s father and step-mother come cross as rather sinister extremely stupid and terrifyingly inept, as well as petty and vindictive. The movie does also make an effort to explain the alienation of these young juvenile delinquents (not surprisingly the threat of nuclear annihilation being a major part of the explanation). The acting ranges from excruciatingly bad to rather good, with Christopher Lee as an oily strip-club owner and Adam Faith as one of Jennifer’s crowd of disillusioned teenagers being especially good, and Noëlle Adam as the step-mother being particularly bad. The script is clunky but it’s also full of wonderful 1960 hip slang. The creepiest part of the whole movie is her dad’s model city that he hopes to build one day (he’s an architect) – he’s going to reduce urban stress by ensuring that people never have to have any contact with anyone else in his futuristic city of high-rise towers. No wonder those crazy kids are rebelling! It’s all the fault of modernist architects. Eventually young Jennifer discovers that her step-mother has a shameful past – she used to be a stripper. This naturally causes Jennifer to want to be a stripper as well (no, that part didn’t make sense to me either) and leads inevitably to murder. It’s best not to think about the plot too much the scenes in the coffee bar are fun, the sound-track is interesting, and fans of the juvenile delinquent genre will find plenty to enjoy. An odd but weirdly entertaining movie in its own way.

Thursday 11 October 2007

The Witch’s Mirror (1962)

The Witch’s Mirror (El Espejo de la bruja) is really two movies. The first half is a ghost story/revenge from the grave story, and the second half is a surprisingly grisly mad scientist movie. A woman is murdered by her husband so he can marry someone else, but the first wife has a godmother who dabbles in witchcraft, and this allows her to return from the dead to seek vengeance. It was made in Mexico in 1962, and although on occasion it suffers from what was clearly a very low budget – some of the effects are very crude indeed – on the whole it’s an efficient piece of gothic horror. The acting is generally adequate, the sets are wonderfully gothic, there are some nice visual touches, and the atmosphere is effectively creepy. Not as good as The Black Pit of Dr M, but still good enough to have me seeking out more Mexican horror.

Monday 8 October 2007

Royal Flash (1975)

Harry Flashman is a coward, a cad, a liar and a bully. His principal interests in life are gambling and whores. He is also a certified military hero, the only survivor of the gallant defence of Piper’s Fort in Afghanistan in 1842. At the time the relief column arrived he was in fact desperately trying to save his own skin by surrendering the fort, but when his unconscious body was found wrapped in the British flag appearances suggested that here indeed was a Noble Manly Hero. While still basking in this totally undeserved glory Flashman encounters an up-and-coming German politician named Bismarck in the company of the notorious courtesan Lola Montez, with fateful consequences both for himself and for the history of Europe. Royal Flash, the 1975 film based on the second of George MacDonald Fraser’s immensely successful series of Flashman novels, seemed to have most of the ingredients required for a hit movie – director Richard Lester was riding high after the enormous success of The Three Musketeers and its sequel, the movie’s cast included a galaxy of British acting talent, the locations were simply gorgeous, it was photographed by the great Geoffrey Unsworth, and it offered a combination of adventure, comedy and romance. Alas, it was not to be, and the movie failed at the box office. I suspect it failed partly because in order to really enjoy the Flashman novels the reader requires at least a cursory knowledge of 19th century history, and mainstream cinema audiences were likely to be left somewhat perplexed by the plot. If you don’t have at least a rough idea of Bismarck’s historical significance and the course of German unification, and if you’ve never heard of Lola Montez, you’re going to miss much of the fun, which relies on the skilful and witty way in which Fraser (who also wrote the screenplay) weaves together historical facts and the career of his mythical anti-hero. It’s also a slightly quirky movie, with lots of odd but delightful little visual flourishes and in-jokes (there are some wonderfully fanciful Victorian gadgets that give the movie almost a steampunk feel at times). And it’s also possible that movie audiences simply couldn’t accept the idea of an adventure film with such an outrageous scoundrel as its hero. Be that as it may, the elements that ensured the movie’s commercial failure are the very elements that make for cult success and Royal Flash has over the years accumulated a small but devoted following.

Malcolm MacDowell is fun as the unscrupulous and unapologetic rogue Flashman, Alan Bates is delightfully villainous, Florinda Bolkan is glamorous and charismatic as Lola Montez and Oliver Reed gives one of his most memorably sinister performances as Bismarck. Bob Hoskins, Alastair Sim, Michael Hordern and Lionel Jeffries give great support in minor roles, and even Britt Eckland is surprisingly good as the ice princess Flashman finds himself forced to marry. Royal Flash is highly entertaining and looks glorious, and the recent DVD release from Fox (which comes with some very tempting extras) should do much to rescue this movie from undeserved oblivion.

Friday 5 October 2007

Women in Revolt (1971)

Like all of Paul Morrissey’s films you’re either going to love or loathe his 1971 production Women in Revolt. I thought it was hilarious, but then I have an odd sense of humour, and an odd sense of humour is essential for a proper appreciation of this movie. It’s a comedy about feminism that also touches on gay liberation, starring the three most famous drag queens from Andy Warhol’s Factory. The amazingly glamorous Candy Darling plays her role, as a wealthy society woman who desperately wants to be a movie stare, dead straight. Surprisingly this approach works perfectly, and she is both very funny and also at times rather touching. Jackie Curtis is more overtly campy as the female activist who masterminds the organisation known as PIGs (Politically Involved Girls). Holly Woodlawn is unfortunately somewhat overshadowed by her co-stars. The movie is largely improvised, so it’s very uneven, but it has moments of bizarre brilliance. If you’re not familiar with Morrissey’s work then definitely rent this one before buying – his films are an acquired taste.

Thursday 4 October 2007

Judex (1963)

Louis Feuillade had enjoyed enormous success during the silent era with his action/adventure serials involving master criminals such as Fantômas and master crime fighters. Georges Franju’s Judex, made in 1963, is a remake of the 1916 Feuillade production of the same name. It’s a movie that really does seem to come from another era – you have to keep reminding yourself that this movie came out after the first of the James Bond films. Franju’s movie is deliberately archaic, and once you get used to the feel of it its considerable charm starts to win you over. It has the touches of the surreal that you expect from the director of Eyes Without a Face, and it really is unlike any other movie of the 1960s. The convoluted plot involves a crooked banker (is there any other king of banker one may ask), his beautiful daughter, a masked-avenger style crime-fighter called Judex, and a remarkably appealing and very sexy (and very wicked) female criminal named Diana Monti. She gets to wear an extraordinary array of costumes, ranging from typical 1914 women’s clothing to black catsuits and at one point she even gets to dress up as a nun. Francine Bergé’s performance as Diana is the highlight of the movie. The great crime-fighter Judex is played by an American stage magician named Channing Pollock, and his magic act plays an important role in the movie, especially in the memorable masked-ball scene early on. Audiences whose ideas of pulp cinema are derived from Quentin Tarantino may find Judex a little slow and disappointingly lacking in mindless violence. This is a movie that has to be accepted on its own terms – it’s an arty, surreal action/adventure movie and if you can get your head around that concept then it’s a fascinating viewing experience.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Two Orphan Vampires (1997)

Two Orphan Vampires (Les Deux orphelines vampires), based on one of his own novels, was Jean Rollin’s return to the genre he loves most, the vampire movie. The most recent movie of Rollin’s that I’d seen previous to this was his 1982 zombie movie The Living Dead Girl (one of the very few zombie movies I’ve really enjoyed), and I approached Two Orphan Vampires (made in 1997) with some trepidation, fearing that Rollin may have lost his touch. Would the Rollin magic still work? I need not have worried. Two Orphan Vampires is one of his best films. It’s very much a Jean Rollin movie, making no concessions whatsoever to modern trends in horror movies. Louise and Henriette are two blind orphan girls, living in an orphanage run by kindly nuns. They’re not always blind, however – at night their sight returns, and they leave the orphanage to seek out graveyards, and to seek out blood. Their existence changes dramatically when they are adopted by an eminent eye specialist. The girls seem to have created their own private mythology, with themselves at the centre. The have lived many times, and died many times. They have been Aztec goddesses, and they have been magical girls in other times and places. Have they really been goddesses? Have they really lived and died before? Are they actually vampires? If you’re looking for definite answers to these questions then Jean Rollin is probably not the film-maker for you. To Rollin dreams and fantasies are as real and as important as anything in the waking world, and whether these dreams correspond to any objective reality is an entirely irrelevant question. Dreams and memories are important in themselves. To ask if a memory is true or false is to ask the wrong question. If you approach this film expecting or hoping for a conventional horror movie you may be very disappointed. There’s virtually no gore, there’s virtually no action, and (surprisingly for a Rollin movie) there’s very little nudity. If you accept that Rollin is not really a horror director but is in fact working in the genre the French call the fantastique then you will find this to be a beautiful and haunting movie. If you’re already a Rollin fan then you know what to expect, and you shouldn’t be put off by any negative reports you may have heard on this one – it compares very favourably indeed to his earlier work. It was shot in New York and Paris, and the look of the movie is somewhat similar to his very underrated and in fact quite superb 1973 feature The Iron Rose (La Rose de fer).

I’ve read some negative reviews of the Shriek Show DVD release, but I thought the image quality was perfectly acceptable. It includes interviews with Rollin and with the two lead actresses. Two Orphan Vampires is most definitely worth seeing.

Friday 28 September 2007

The Door with the Seven Locks (1962)

The British thriller/mystery writer Edgar Wallace, who died in 1932, enjoyed enormous popularity in Germany. This popularity was maintained for many years after his death, and spawned countless movies based on his books. The best-known are the series of krimi (or mystery thrillers) made by Rialto Films in the 60s. The Door with the Seven Locks (Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern) marks my first exposure to this genre, and I’m completely hooked. It starts a little slowly, and at first you could be forgiven for thinking this is going to be a fairly straightforward, if rather complex, murder mystery. As the story progresses, though, it just gets weirder and weirder, and more and more entertaining. Elements of horror are added to the mix, and there’s a quite bizarre mad scientist sub-plot (with Pinkas Braun making a wonderfully crazed mad scientist). The plot is impossibly convoluted but it doesn’t matter – there’s too much fun being had to worry about the intricacies of the plot. Alfred Vohrer directs the film with energy and style. The sets are outlandish – a mixture of high-tech modernist and gothic but with some truly grotesque and fascinating touches. Heinz Drache as Inspector Martin of Scotland Yard (although made in Germany the film is set in England) makes a likeable hero, and Sabine Sesselmann is an engaging heroine. There’s a whole galaxy of major and minor villains, all played with considerable panache by a very solid cast. There’s even Klaus Kinksi in a small role as a nervous safe-cracker. The Door with the Seven Locks is fast-paced outrageous fun and I recommend it highly. I can see myself buying lots more of these German Edgar Wallace krimi films! In fact I have another one waiting to be watched at the moment – The Black Abbot.

Thursday 27 September 2007

Poison Ivy (La Môme vert-de-gris, 1953)

Eddie Constantine is today best-known for his role as special agent Lemmy Caution in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. In fact he played Lemmy Caution is a long series of French action thrillers in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the earliest of these films, dating from 1953, is Poison Ivy (La Môme vert-de-gris). FBI agent Lemmy Caution is on the trial of a gang of bullion thieves. His hunt for the criminals takes him to exotic locations such as Casablanca and Tangiers, and to various seedy waterfront dives and bars. In these bars he meets lots of hard-boiled no-good dames, which is OK because Lemmy rather likes hard-boiled no-good dames. And the dames like the craggy-featured tough guy Lemmy as well. In between chasing dames Lemmy manages to get himself captured by the gang, led by the smooth-talking Rudy Saltierra (played delightfully by cult movie icon Howard Vernon). Poison Ivy is clearly inspired by American film noir, but it’s also influenced by comic-books and, I suspect, by movie serials as well. It’s quite outrageously pulpy, and it’s a great deal of fun. It features a classic film noir femme fatale in the person of the glamorous night-club singer Carlotta de la Rue (portrayed by Dominique Wilms, who also appeared in several other Eddie Constantine movies). The acting is very campy and it’s all very tongue-in-cheek. Highly recommended to fans of B-movies.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein was made in Italy more or les simultaneously with Blood for Dracula. Morrissey had by this time left Andy Warhol’s Factory, and these two films have a definite European visual flavour to them. Although they’re often considered to be rather bizarre spoofs of the horror genre, there’s really a lot more than mere spoofing going on here. The opening and closing sequences with Baron Frankenstein’s children are very very disturbing indeed. In the opening scene the children dissect and then behead a doll, and that really sets the mood for the whole movie. The movie is very funny in parts (provided you have a somewhat twisted sense of humour), there’s rather a lot of gore, and it’s also oddly beautiful. The combination of beauty, gore and perversity are fairly typical of Italian gothic horror, but Morrissey’s very strange, very unemotional and distanced, approach to his material adds a whole new layer to the mix, and a very unsettling one. The blending of the Morrissey trash aesthetic with the European aesthetic works surprisingly well. Joe Dallesandro seems a little out of place, but then the hero of a horror movie always does seem out of place, being an outsider who has somehow become caught up in seriously weird goings-on with which he has no real connection, so it actually works. Udo Kier gives a performance that is truly unforgettable – it’s very very camp, but it’s also amazingly and horrifyingly evil, and yet peculiarly innocent as well. I doubt that any other actor could have produced such a performance.

In Flesh for Frankenstein Baron Frankenstein is trying to create a new and perfect race, but his motives have nothing to do with any desire to benefit humanity. This new race will obey his every order and he will become, in effect, a god. Firstly though he has to persuade them to start producing children. He already has his new Adam and Eve, but his Adam still needs the right head. It has to be the head of a man dominated entirely by sexual desires. The baron’s own sexual desires are unusual, to say the least. He is married to his sister, but necrophilia is also on his personal menu. And not just necrophilia, but necrophilia involving assorted internal organs. Especially the gall bladder! Meanwhile Baroness Frankenstein is amusing herself with the sexual favours of the gardener (Dallesandro). And the two children are much too interested in things they shouldn’t be interested in. The Frankenstein family could be described as just a little on the dysfunctional side.

The Region 4 DVD unfortunately lacks the rather tempting extras that are included in the various R1 and R2 releases, but on the other hand I’m surprised it got a Region 4 release at all. The movie is worth seeing anyway, but Udo Kier’s performance makes it an absolute must-see.

Friday 21 September 2007

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

The Velvet Vampire is a very low-budget 1971 American vampire movie, and is unusual for a horror movie of that era in being directed by a woman, Stephanie Rothman. It’s an odd mix of traditional and non-traditional vampire movie elements. It has a very conventional plot, with a young couple staying at the house of a mysterious woman who turns out to be a vampire. On the other hand it has a contemporary setting (still unusual for a vampire flick in 1971), a vampire who spends a lot of time in the sunshine, and a complete absence of gothic trappings. And a complete absence of shadows – everything is bathed in brilliant sunshine. The biggest problem is the acting, which really is dire. The desert setting works very well, and there are some nice visual touches. The dream sequences, with the young couple making love in a bed in the open in the middle of the desert, watched by the vampire woman, are very effective. Rothman achieves an unsettling dream quality very economically without any special effects. Visually the movie is always interesting, with a bold use of colour (perhaps not surprising, as Rothman had worked with Roger Corman). The soundtrack kept reminding me of the classic (and very disturbing) early Doors song The End, and it also works well. The movie could be seen as showing the clash between two counter-cultures, the decadent vampire counter-culture of sex, death and blood and the hippy free love and peace counter-culture of the early 70s. The vampire lady doesn’t have to work terribly hard to seduce these two young people! I suspect that the actors were cast because they looked right for their parts, which they do. They certainly weren’t cast for their acting abilities! It’s a fairly slow-moving but strangely hypnotic film. Despite its faults, and despite some slightly cringe-inducing 70s moments, it has more than enough interesting qualities to make it worth your while trying to find a copy. If you’re a vampire fan you’ll definitely want to see it. It probably won’t appeal to modern horror fans accustomed to large doses of gore and mayhem, but if you enjoy subtle and off-beat horror it’s highly recommended. The Sinister Cinema DVD looks surprisingly good – it’s fullscreen (I have no idea what the original aspect ratio was) and a little grainy in places but overall it’s clear and bright and the colours are vivid and natural-looking.

Thursday 20 September 2007

I Don't Want to Be Born (1975)

I Don't Want to Be Born (also known as The Monster and The Devil Within Her) is a 1975 British horror flick starring Joan Collins. It’s one of several horror movies she made in the 70s. She’s a stripper who has a curse put her on her by her partner in her night-club act, a dwarf, whose sexual advances she has spurned. As a result she gives birth to a demonic child. Now I know what you’re thinking – not another “woman cursed by sex-starved dwarf” movie – but how many movies are there with evil babies that punch people out and drag corpses about? For some reason that is never explained the evil baby concerned did not want to be born, and now that it has been born it’s really peeved. It expresses its annoyance by making large amounts of noise, throwing its toys about the nursery, and killing people. It’s possible that some of the people involved may have believed they were making a serious horror movie. I’m quite certain that Joan Collins did not share this delusion. She gives an outrageously camp performance, and she’s one of the main reasons the movie is worth seeing.

There are other reasons to see it, though. There’s some mind-bogglingly awful dialogue, much of it delivered by Ralph Bates in one of the most unconvincing Italian accents I’ve ever heard. There’s Eileen Atkins as his sister the nun, with an even worse Italian accent. There’s Donald Pleasence as her doctor (and I’m sure Donald Pleasence also cherished no illusions about the quality of this motion picture). When you’re giving birth, what could be more comforting than to notice that the doctor in attendance is Donald Pleasence? You just know everything is going to be fine then. Yeah right. There’s also an exorcism scene, and they’re always fun. The movie tries to copy both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, and while it fails miserably it does have the advantage over those films of having the aforementioned sexually frustrated evil dwarf. And the final reason for seeing this cinematic gem is to see the strip club in which Miss Collins earns her living. I have no idea what strip clubs were like in London in 1975, but I’m fairly sure they were nothing like this. It seems more like a combination o a 19th century music hall, a circus and a ballet. Perhaps strip clubs really were like this in England in 1975. If so it’s a scary thought. And I’ve never seen a stripper wearing so many clothes! I always imagined that strippers took their clothes off, but Miss Collins seems to have added several additional layers of clothing. Curiously enough she does do a nude scene in the movie, but not in the strip club, which makes one wonder why they made her character a stripper? One can only assume it was done in the hope that audiences would flock to the film expecting Joan Collins to be naked for most of the running time, when in fact she’s naked for about six-tenths of a second.

The special effects were kept to a minimum, and you don’t see the evil baby performing any of its numerous acts of mayhem and murder. Presumably it was felt (quite rightly) that there was no way you were going to be able to convincingly portray a baby wielding an axe. The few special effects that are used are remarkably unexciting. Peter Sasdy had directed several quite good horror films for Hammer in the early 70s but he never really gets a grip on this one. I Don't Want to Be Born has just about everything you could hope for in a bad movie, and the end results are wonderfully entertaining. A true camp classic.