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.
Monday, 19 July 2021
Wednesday, 14 July 2021
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
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
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
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.
Tuesday, 29 June 2021
The Silencers starts with a pretty good opening credits strip-tease sequence which establishes the decadent mood rather nicely.
Matt Helm had been a top agent for an American counter-intelligence outfit called ICE. Now he’s a photographer. What he photographs are girls, sometimes with their clothes on. Considering the palatial gadget-filled house in which he lives we assume he’s doing very well. He has no wish to go back to being a secret agent. In fact he’ll do anything to avoid doing that. Then a bodacious blonde tries to kill him and glamorous fellow ICE agent Tina (Dalia Lavi) turns up to save him, then a whole bunch of guy tries to kill him so he figures he’s back to working for ICE whether he likes it or not.
Tina and Matt head for Phoenix where a stripper is killed but before she dies she passes something (a cylinder containing a computer tape) on to the beautiful but accident-prone Gail Hendricks (Stella Stevens). Is Gail an innocent bystander or an enemy agent? Matt and his boss MacDonald (James Gregory) don’t know but they do know they can use Gail. Maybe she’ll lead them to Sam Gunther, a suspected top operative for the nefarious international criminal organisation the Big O. Gail has no desire to help but she isn’t given a choice.
It’s all connected with an underground nuclear test and some missile tests. The Big O and its leader, the sinister Tung-Tze (played by Victor Buono as a kind of chubby Dr Fu Manchu), have some very nasty plans cooked up which you won’t be surprised to hear involve world domination. Gail being so clumsy you don’t expect her to be much use to Matt but she does manage to kill a surprising number of bad guys.
Apart from saving the world Matt has to do a balancing act between Gail and Tina, which is much more difficult.
The climactic action scenes are on a much smaller scale than you’d see in a Bond movie but there’s some fairly satisfying mayhem. The producers were confident enough they were on a winner to include a post-closing credits promo for the next film in the series.
The Matt Helm of the novels might be one of the Good Guys but he’s a cold-blooded assassin entirely without scruples. The Matt Helm of the movies is of course a cheerful irresponsible playboy. Surprisingly some of the personality of the book version is still there in the film. The film Matt Helm can at times be ruthless and manipulative. The movie is basically a spoof but there’s still a vaguely serviceable spy thriller plot and while Dean Martin mostly plays the part for laughs he does have his action hero moments and there are even brief moments when he becomes a no-nonsense secret agent. While he built his successful movie career mainly on comedy as anyone who has seen Rio Bravo can attest Dean Martin could be a very fine dramatic actor when he wanted to be so he handles the action scenes and the very rare serious moments without any difficulty. He has outrageous amounts of breezy charm and charisma and carries off the rôle with a great deal of panache.
Stella Stevens provides plenty of glamour and proves herself to be quite an adept comic actress as well. Gail is hopelessly clumsy. Being clumsy and glamorous at the same time isn’t easy but Stevens manages it with ease. Daliah Lavi adds extra glamour. Roger C. Carmel and Victor Buono ham it up outrageously but delightfully.
The movie keeps some plot elements from the novel but obviously they’re treated in a tongue-in-cheek manner. We are not expected to take this movie the slightest bit seriously. You just have to lie back and enjoy its sense of good-natured fun. The Matt Helm movies were clearly an attempt to cash in on the enormous success of the Bond movies but with the tongue-in-cheek approach much more heavily emphasised.
There was a reasonable amount of money spent on the film (although it’s obviously much much cheaper than a Bond movie), the sets are reasonably sumptuous, the gadgets are amusing and there’s plenty of action. And there are plenty of beautiful women. While Bond got to drive cars like the Aston Martin DB5 Matt Helm has to make do with a station wagon. And if your cover story is that you’re a photographer you’re not going to be able to carry much camera gear around with you in an Aston Martin. Matt doesn’t just drink and drive, he drinks while driving (the station wagon has a bar and a bedroom). Still, the station wagon was a mistake.
I saw this movie on television a decade ago and wasn’t all that impressed but the lousy pan-and-scan print didn’t help. Watching them on DVD (from the Matt Helm Lounge boxed set which includes all four movies) makes a big difference although the transfers aren’t spectacular. And having since seen the other three movies I’ve grown to really appreciate the cinematic version of Matt Helm.
This movie was based (very loosely) on the first and fourth of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels, Death of a Citizen and The Silencers (although mostly on the latter).
While it’s obviously a Bond rip-off it’s closer in tone to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series. The Silencers is silly at times but it’s meant to be. On the whole it’s light-hearted fun. Recommended.
Thursday, 24 June 2021
Chuck is driving along in his bus when he picks up two hippie chicks. The bus is actually a bus converted into a mobile home and Chuck’s job is to deliver it to Tallahassee. Carol is anxious to go along with Chuck because she digs him. Maureen has a really bad feeling about the whole thing because for starters Chuck is an Aries. Once she does a tarot card reading she knows it’s going to be a bad scene but Carol is determined that they’re going to go with Chuck.
They run into a bad storm, there are road closures and they have to take a detour. They end up in a swamp. Chuck and Carol are pretty zonked out on drugs by this time.
Now at this point you’re probably expecting the film to veer into sex and violence and territory but it doesn’t. This movie is much much stranger than that.
You’d think that this trio would be kind of worried about being lost in the middle of the Everglades but they really don’t mind. They think it’s kind of groovy. There are trees and birds and things. It’s nature, man and nature is really cool.
Chuck and Carol decide that the best response to the situation is to have sex. A lot. Maureen starts having visions and stuff. She meets a priestess of Apollo who seems to have a mission for her.
They all start having flashbacks. Carol flashes back to losing her virginity. Chuck has a flashback to being hassled by his over-protective Mom who was stifling him so he left home. Maureen has a flashback to being seduced by a priest. Maureen has an encounter with a US Senator who is wandering the Everglades handing out campaign literature. And she meets a sinister clown.
We’re heading into surrealist territory now and we keep going deeper into that territory.
Maureen tries to give herself home-made stigmata by burning her hand. Chuck and Carol have more sex and frolic hand-in-hand through the swamp. Chuck hunts boar for food.
And things keep getting stranger, especially when Chuck and Maureen decide to have sex and they find a convenient temple in the swamp.
There are various ways you could interpret this movie. It could all be Maureen’s crazy visions. Or when they took that last detour, the one that led them into the swamp, maybe they left the real world. Or maybe there are occult influences at work that cause all three to imagine stuff. Or maybe Maureen is some kind of witch. Or maybe Chuck is the devil. Or maybe all three have just done too many drugs.
The movie doesn’t answer any of these questions, which is on balance a good thing. It just keeps ramping up the weirdness while the audience is left to try to figure out what the hell is going on.
Bernard Hirschenson directed and this seems to be his only directing credit. He also co-produced and edited the film and did the cinematography. Jack Winter co-produced and wrote the script and this also seems to be his one and only writing credit. It’s actually a pity that their careers began and ended with this movie. It’s particularly sad that Hirschenson didn’t go to make more movies. He has no idea how to pace a movie and no idea how to construct a coherent narrative but he does know how to provide interesting imagery that is subtly disturbing without ever becoming too obvious or blatant.
This is clearly a very low budget production but that’s not a problem. Hirschenson manages the surreal stuff effectively without having to resort to special effects or fancy sets. This is surrealism on a zero budget but it’s more effective than many much more expensive efforts.
There’s lots of nudity to keep drive-in audiences happy but anyone seeing this movie and expecting a standard hippie skinflick would have been in for a surprise. This is more an art film than a skinflick.
This movie is included in Mill Creek's Drive-In Cult Classics 32 Movie Collection. The transfer is (surprisingly) 16:9 enhanced. Image quality is OK but not great. The colours are a little bit muted but it’s perfectly watchable.
Pick-up is not a good movie judged by conventional standards but it is different and it is weirdly fascinating. If you’re looking for a trippy surrealist movie that will play with your head then it’s worth a look.