Sunday 25 July 2021

Condemned to Live (1935)

Condemned to Live is a 1935 horror movie made by an outfit called Invincible Pictures (soon to be absorbed into Republic Pictures). This is another of the vampire bat movies that were so popular at the time.

The movie begins in a cave with three members of an exploring expedition (presumably in South America since the cave is infested by vampire bats) taking refuge from hostile locals. One of the three is a pregnant woman and she manages to get bitten by a bat.

We then jump forward a generation or two to a small European village, sometime in the 19th century. It appears to be northern Europe, possibly one of the Scandinavian countries. Professor Kristan (Ralph Morgan)  is much loved by the villagers who look to him for advice about absolutely everything. They’re now much in need of advice. Two people have been found dead, drained of blood, and rumours abound that this is the work of a gigantic bat.

The middle-aged Professor Kristan is about to be married to pretty young Marguerite (Maxine Doyle). Marguerite is actually in love with a young man named David (Russell Gleason) but Professor Kristan is a much better match and he’s such a kindly man and she really respects him and she’s sure she will learn to love him and be a good wife.

The murders continue and while the villagers still insist that it a bat is responsible there are those who are coming to think that perhaps this is an all-too-human fiend. Professor Kristan and his friend and foster father Dr Bizet (Pedro de Cordoba) have their suspicions. The audience already knows (and has known since the beginning of the movie) that the Professor is the fiend and it would in any case have been very obvious. In fact the point of the movie is that we know the identity of the monster but we get to know him and there’s a strong element of tragedy. Professor Kristan is a good man but he has a terrible affliction over which he has no control. Even more tragically, he remembers nothing of his crimes and does not know that he is the killer.

Of course to add some suspense we know that Marguerite is going to be in danger, m a danger of which she suspects nothing.

We naturally get mobs of villagers with torches wanting to hunt down the monster and naturally they pick the wrong man.

Ralph Morgan’s performance is low-key but that works quite well. The problem is that he makes the Professor somewhat sanctimonious.

Maxine Doyle is a reasonably likeable heroine in danger. Mischa Auer is very good as the Professor’s devoted servant Zan.

While this was an Invincible Pictures production it was shot at Universal studios. This movie apparently made use of sets left over from bigger budgeted productions (according to some sources including The Bride of Frankenstein) so for a Poverty Row feature the production values are a lot higher than you might expect.

There’s even some location shooing, at Bronson Canyon in California.

Director Frank R. Strayer incidentally also directed The Vampire Bat. He spent his career mostly making B-movies. His main fault in this movie is that he lets things drag a little at times and it gets a bit talky. On the whole though it’s a well-crafted movie and it packs more of an emotional punch than most low-budget horror flicks. The slightly sympathetic monster is one of its many resemblances to Universal’s great horror movies of the ’30s. One gets the strong impression that Strayer was trying to do a Universal monster movie on a Poverty Row budget, and with a surprising degree of success.

The film runs for 67 minutes but probably would have been better with a little judicious trimming.

Condemned to Live has been released on DVD as part of The Film Detective Restored Classics series. Yes I know what you’re thinking - it probably hasn’t been restored at all. To be honest I don’t think it has either (or at least not very much) but having said that this is still a pretty good transfer. The image is reasonably sharp, contrast is good and while there’s some print damage it’s not intrusive. Some quality is quite acceptable.

Condemned to Live isn’t quite a neglected gem but it’s a decent B-feature that tries for a degree of subtlety which it sometimes achieves. It’s enjoyable enough and is worth a recommended rating.

Monday 19 July 2021

Eye of the Devil (1966)

Eye of the Devil (originally titled 13) is a very neglected 1966 British horror film that can be seen as a kind of dry run for The Wicker Man. The resemblances really are quite marked.

It was actually quite a big-budget production, with some big names in the cast.

It’s also notable for being a David Niven horror movie and you don’t see many of those.

Philippe de Montfaucon (Niven) is a French aristocrat who has been forced to return to the family’s estate, Bellinac, in a very traditional rural part of France. Philippe’s family have owned their estate for a thousand years. He has to return because the vineyards are failing. But how on earth will his return help the vineyards? We shall see.

He tries to discourage his wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr) from returning with him, and from bringing their two children.

The chateau at Bellinac is magnificent and everything is bathed in brilliant sunshine. There’s an atmosphere of cultured wealth. And yet people seem to be behaving rather oddly. The locals are glad that Philippe has returned but there’s an air of melancholy to their reception.

Despite Philippe’s efforts to dissuade her Catherine arrives with their two small children in tow. Like Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) in The Wicker Man she finds the atmosphere at Bellinac slightly disturbing without being able to put her finger on what’s wrong.

She definitely finds young Christian de Caray (David Hemmings) and his sister Odile (Sharon Tate) very worrying and rather frightening.

She is even more uneasy at the scene she witnesses on her first night at the chateau. It seemed to be some kind of ritual but probably not a wholesome one. And Philippe has become rather secretive and evasive. Their son has also started sleep-walking.

It gradually becomes apparent that while the locals are pious in their own way, they are not pious Christians. They have clung tenaciously to their old pagan beliefs (unlike the locals in The Wicker Man who have converted from Christianity to paganism). As in The Wicker Man, these are beliefs that are uncompromising and could lead to terrible consequences.

One thing that is a little off-putting is the extreme Englishness of the cast, given that all of the characters are supposed to be French.

You’re certainly not going to buy David Niven as a Frenchman but he gives one of those effectively subtle haunted performances that he was quite capable of when given the opportunity. Deborah Kerr’s rôle was originally intended for Kim Novak (in fact shooting began with Novak). Novak would have been a better choice given that Kerr is perhaps a little too old for the part but Kerr was a fine actress and she’s very good. Donald Pleasence is, of course, deliciously sinister as the local priest.

The real standouts in the cast are David Hemmings and Sharon Tate (in her feature film debut). Their job was to make Christian and Odile de Caray mysterious, unsettling, vaguely other-worldly and disturbingly sexually ambiguous. Both Hemmings and Tate achieve this objective admirably. There’s a definite hint of incest, or at the very least of repressed incestuous eroticism to their relationship. And they have the right look - they look like they could be angels or demons. They’re both quite superb in their rôles. It’s certainly Sharon Tate’s finest moment as an actress.

The film was shot in black-and-white and looks superb. The locations are terrific.

J. Lee Thompson is in my view a very underrated director. He was not the first choice of the producers, in fact he was the third choice, but he does a fine job. Erwin Hillier’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous.

Eye of the Devil
’s problem is that it inevitably gets compared to The Wicker Man. They’re both very subtle low-key horror films dealing with paganism in modern Europe and the central premise is pretty much identical. There’s no question that The Wicker Man is the better film but Eye of the Devil has its own strengths. It is in its own way every bit as atmospheric. While The Wicker Man deals with a kind of revived synthetic paganism everything in Eye of the Devil is very very old. The beliefs of the people have not altered, probably for millennia. The eroticism is much more subdued in Eye of the Devil, but more disturbing.

The paganism in Eye of the Devil is also more troubling. It’s more organic, but more deeply threatening because it isn’t a fad. There’s also a disturbing ambiguity. Could there be any actual supernatural influence at work? Could Christian and Odile actually be sorcerers, or perhaps more pertinent, do they believe that they are?

The Warner Archive MOD DVD presents us with a really lovely anamorphic transfer.

Maybe Eye of the Devil isn’t quite as good as The Wicker Man but it’s more effectively weird. A very very good low-key chiller. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday 14 July 2021

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Blu-Ray review

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, released in 1969, is the fifth of Hammer’s Frankenstein movies.

Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) has had to leave Bohemia after certain unfortunate events. He had been in the process of obtaining important scientific supplies. Just the usual things. Human heads, that sort of stuff. He disturbed a burglar. The burglar made his escape and went to the police with a horrifying story of severed heads and dead bodies in the cellar of Frankenstein’s house. Frankenstein decides it’s time to pack his bags.

Frankenstein now has a stroke of luck. He discovers that a young doctor named Karl Holst (Simon Ward) has been stealing and selling drugs from the mental hospital at which he is employed. This knowledge allows Frankenstein to blackmail Dr Holst into becoming his unwilling assistant. Dr Holst’s fiancée Anna (Veronica Carlson) is drawn into his plans as well.

One of the patients at the mental hospital is a Dr Frederick Brandt. Brandt had been working in the same field as Frankenstein - human brain transplants. The asylum’s chief doctor, Dr Richter (Freddie Jones), is convinced that Brandt is now hopelessly and incurably insane. But Brandt has expertise that Frankenstein needs so he hatches a scheme to snatch Dr Brandt from the asylum.

One thing about Frankenstein is that he is not easily dismayed. When he discovers that Dr Brandt has at most a couple of days to live he simply changes his plans a little. He’ll just transplant Dr Brandt’s brain into a fresh body. Problem solved.

Well, not quite. Frankenstein’s ruthless manipulation of other people will have consequences for him, he cannot entirely trust either Karl or Anna, he has the police after him and even the best-laid plans of evil geniuses don’t always go smoothly.

This is a Frankenstein movie with a monster who isn’t very monstrous and is very sympathetic. He’s a man not a monster, but his brain is in another man’s body. Having a relatively non-monstrous monster was taking a risk but it pays off handsomely giving the climax a real emotional punch. And it actually makes the film much more horrific and genuinely tragic.

Bert Batt wrote the screenplay, from a story by Batt and producer Anthony Nelson Keys. It’s a script that doesn’t just recycle the themes of the earlier Frankenstein films but adds some new touches and some new emphases.

This is the Hammer A team in action, with Terence Fisher directing, Arthur Grant doing the cinematography, Bernard Robinson handling the production design and James Bernard composing the score. And they do some of the best work they ever did for Hammer. There is nothing about this film that seems cheap or shoddy. Hammer always worked under tight budgetary constraints but at its best the studio could turn out very high quality productions and this movie is prime Hammer horror.

Peter Cushing is in fine form. He’s all icy determination and supreme arrogance. Baron Frankenstein is so convinced of his own genius that he genuinely believes that the ordinary rules of morality do not apply to him. He kills without mercy and casually destroys lives. He has become more of a monster than any of the monsters he has created. Cushing really is chilling. All of his performances as Frankenstein are slightly different and this may well be his best. And it does make sense that after devoting so much of his life to the more bizarre aspects of science the Baron has finally lost the last vestiges of his humanity.

Freddie Jones could be engagingly hammy but when he put his mind to it he was a fine actor as he proves in his later emotionally wrenching scenes in this film. The characters played by Simon Ward and Veronica Carlson at least have some depth. They know they’re serving an evil genius but they can’t see a way out. Thorley Walters is amusing as Inspector Frisch although these brief moments of humour seem slightly out of place in what is actually a very grim and very serious horror film. And it has to be said that, in keeping with the film’s overall tone, the humour is subdued.

There is of course the notorious scene in which Frankenstein rapes Anna. This scene was a late addition and was apparently included over the strong objections of Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson and Terence Fisher. It does seem a bit unnecessary and it feels out of place, although on the plus side it does have the effect of forcing on the audience the realisation that Frankenstein really has become a monster with no redeeming qualities.

There’s not much actual onscreen gore but there’s a great deal of implied gruesomeness. These were the days when horror movies still relied on the horrific nature of the ideas presented rather than just throwing buckets of blood at the viewer. This is also a movie that doesn’t just rely on horror.

There are a couple of excellent suspense moments, especially the police search of the boarding house in which Frankenstein’s laboratory is concealed. Terence Fisher started his directing career making slightly noirish crime thrillers and he demonstrates that he can be cinematically compelling without any need for blood or gore.

The Warner Home Video Blu-Ray offers a really lovely transfer. The lack of extras is perhaps a bit disappointing but the quality of the transfer makes up for it.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is overall the most satisfying of all the Hammer Frankenstein movies In fact it’s one of the most satisfying of all Hammer’s horror movies). It has a real edge to it. There’s no high camp here. The mood is relentlessly grim and the shocks really do shock. Very highly recommended.

Friday 9 July 2021

The Bride from Hell (1972)

The Bride from Hell (Gui xin niang) is a Shaw Brothers movie from the period when they were making tentative forays into horror territory.

Nieh Yun Peng (Fan Yang) is a wealthy young man travelling through the countryside with his faithful servant Dahuozi. They encounter a young woman. They fear she is contemplating throwing herself into the lake. They suspect she is a ghost. After this slightly disturbing incident they seek shelter for the night in a lonely house. The mistress of the house, a young woman named Anu (Margaret Hsing Hui) seems rather reluctant to take them in but eventually relents.

That night Nieh Yun Peng accidentally sees Anu naked. She is shocked. She explains that she is a virgin and that her reputation has now been compromised. Nieh Yun Peng (a good-natured but perhaps slightly naïve young fellow) gets rather flustered and quickly agrees to marry her. Meanwhile his servant has blundered into the bedroom of Anu’s maid, with the same result. Nieh Yun Peng and his servant have both now acquired brides.

Given that both Anu and her maid are young, beautiful and charming this is not such a great hardship.

Nieh Yun Peng’s uncle and aunt are rather disturbed. They suspect that Anu may be a ghost. The aunt takes the precaution of sewing a Taoist image into a gown they are giving Nieh Yun Peng as a wedding present. The image is a kind of talisman against ghosts.

Anu is strangely frightened by her husband’s new gown and insists that he toss it into the garden, where she burns it.

While praying at his mother’s grave Nieh Yun Peng encounters a Taoist master, Taiyi. Taiyi can summon ghosts but he suspects that in this case he’s dealing with a very powerful ghost indeed.

Of course a complication is that ghosts don’t always know that they’re ghosts.

Twenty years earlier a woman was raped and murdered and there may be a connection. She may have come back looking for revenge. And she may be looking for revenge on certain members of Yun Peng’s family.

I always get a warm feeling inside when I see the Shaw Brothers logo come up at the start of a movie. Their movies were variable in quality but even their lesser films are at the very least interesting and enjoyable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Shaw Brothers movie that left me truly disappointed. And of course their movies were always visually interesting. Like all Shaw Brothers releases from this period The Bride from Hell was shot in Shawscope (their version of Cinemascope) and in colour - extremely vibrant colour.

I love Chinese ghost stories. They’re fascinatingly different from western ghost stories. Chinese ghosts can be malevolent or benign and they are corporeal. They can eat and drink, and they can engage in the pleasures of the flesh.

Unfortunately this movie really does turn out to be a bit of a letdown. The special effects are embarrassingly crude. Surprisingly for a Shaw Brothers film it looks cheap. The script is rather unfocused - we need to get to know Anu in order to care about what happens but too much time is spent on the comic subplots involving Yun Peng’s servant. It’s also a bit too obvious. Very early on we know exactly what is going on so there isn’t a great deal of dramatic tension.

The Bride from Hell
was directed by Hsu-Chiang Chou who also helmed a slightly earlier Shaw Brothers horror film, the odd but intriguing The Enchanting Ghost (which is a much more interesting movie than this one).

88 Films in the UK have released this movie on Blu-Ray. The only extras are the liner notes by Calum Waddell and they’re mostly concerned with politics.

The Bride from Hell is a bit of a mess although it does have its spooky moments. It’s mostly worth seeing as an early example of Hong Kong horror which (aside from the comic relief with the servant) takes its subject matter fairly seriously. If you’re interested in Chinese ghost folklore then it’s possibly worth a look.

On the subject of Chinese ghost stories I reviewed Pu Songling’s fascinating early 18th century collection of such tales, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, not too long ago.

Sunday 4 July 2021

Night Train Murders (1975)

Night Train Murders was one of the notorious video nasties embroiled in the 80s moral panic in Britain (although it should be added that the question of which movies were actually considered video nasties is confusing to say the least).

Directed by Aldo Lado, Night Train Murders (also known as Late Night Trains) was made in 1975. It’s sometimes regarded as a knock-off of Wes Craven’s infamous The Last House on the Left and was also influenced by Bergman’s Virgin Spring.

Lisa (Laura D'Angelo) and Margaret (Irene Miracle) are two teenaged girls heading off to Italy to spend Christmas with Lisa’s parents. They decide to go by train which turns out to be a really bad move.

Also on the train are two thugs, Blackie and Curly. They’re moronic and dangerous and not really in control.

The real problem is yet another passenger, a stunning blonde woman in her 30s referred to in the credits only as the Lady on the Train (she’s played by Macha Méril). She proves to be the detonator that explodes the violence. Blackie tries to rape her in the rest room only he doesn’t have to because she really likes having sex with thugs she’s never set eyes on before.

Due to a bomb hoax the girls have to change trains in Innsbruck. They find themselves in a carriage that is almost empty, apart from a sleazy middle-aged guy, the two thugs and the Lady on the Train. And due to a trivial incident this carriage is effectively cut off from the rest of the train.

The Lady on the Train taunts the two girls and gets the two thugs into a state of hyper-violent sexual frenzy. Lisa and Margaret are subjected to some pretty hair-raisingly violent treatment including some very disturbing rape scenes. The violence level escalates.

Then the movie kind of changes gear, focusing on Lisa’s parents. By an unlikely coincidence Blackie and Curly and their depraved lady friend encounter Lisa’s parents and more violence ensues.

This movie has a few problems. In fact it has so many problems it’s difficult to know where to start. First off there’s the pacing. The film takes forever to get going. That would be OK if that time had been spent giving the audience a chance to get under the skin of the characters but this doesn’t happen. It’s just pointless meandering.

There’s the acting, which is just not very impressive.

There are the appallingly heavy-handed political speeches. Speechifying is bad enough but the film’s political analysis is on the level you’d expect from a 16-year-old. It’s truly embarrassing.

And the payoff is obvious and uninteresting.

The one bright spot is the Lady on the Train. Macha Méril’s performance is genuinely very disturbing and she’s the only character who is at all interesting. She’s crazy and depraved but while she thinks she’s the one pulling the strings the situation slowly slips out of her control, and her control over herself starts to slip as well.

While the violence isn’t as graphic as the movie’s reputation would lead you to suggest and there’s nowhere near s much gore as you might expect it’s the mindless stupid brutality driving the violence that makes this movie uncomfortable viewing. And it’s not what you see that’s unsettling, it’s what you’re not shown directly that is chilling.

This is an incredibly badly made movie. It’s clumsy and amateurish. And, despite the violence, it’s dull.

Also Lado also directed the extremely interesting giallo Who Saw Her Die? (1972) which is an infinitely better movie in every way than Night Train Murders.

The DVD from 88 Films in the UK offers what appears to be an uncut print. The transfer is pretty good. There are a couple of extras including an interview with Irene Miracle. 88 Films have released this one on Blu-Ray as well and Blue Underground have also released it in the US on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

Night Train Murders is an unpleasant movie. Unpleasant movies can be worth watching but this one is too deeply flawed to be worth recommending. I honestly don’t think it’s even worth a rental. If you’re interested in Aldo Lado’s work buy yourself a copy of Who Saw Her Die? instead.

Friday 2 July 2021

around the blogs

Some links to some interesting reviews of cult movies from various other bloggers.

There’s a review of the extremely interesting 1963 Hammer science fiction movie These Are the Damned (AKA The Damned) at Dusty Video Box.

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965) is reviewed at HK and Cult Film News.

At I’m in a Jess Franco State of Mind there’s a post on a somewhat neglected early 70s Franco movie, Diary of a Nymphomaniac (AKA Sinner).

And at Not This Time, Nayland Smith there’s a review of Jean Rollin’s wonderful The Iron Rose (1973), a movie that is a personal favourite of mine.

As for my other blogs, I reviewed the excellent Mamie van Doren juvenile delinquent musical Untamed Youth (1957) and the steamy Carroll Baker potboiler Station Six-Sahara at Classic Movie Ramblings. At Vintage Pop Fictions I’ve reviewed Spaceways, the novelisation of the intriguing 1953 Hammer sci-fi movie of the same name. And finally, at Cult TV Lounge there’s a review of the first season of the terrific 2002 anime series Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex.