31 Days of Horror: The Terror

If Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee working together couldn’t save a movie, what hope do we have with the super team-up of Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller? Let’s find out!

If you’re familiar with American International Pictures during the 1960s, you know immediately what you’re in for as the API logo appears during the opening credits of The Terror (1963). Roger Corman was making bank adapting Edgar Allan Poe tales on a shoestring budget, casting horror icons like Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff on the cheap, and cranking them out on dodgy sets. And while The Terror isn’t technically a Poe tale, it can be considered an honorary member of Corman’s Poe cycle since the same methods were implemented in making it.

The Terror concerns Lt. Andre Duvalier (Nicholson), a French officer, separated from his unit. As he rides across the rocky, Pacific-looking coast of France, he encounters a mysterious young woman named Helene. She leads him to water, saying little about herself. An incident occurs that nearly drowns Duvalier, and he awakens in an old woman’s hovel, with Helene nowhere in sight. Looking for answers and better shelter, Duvalier pays a visit to the local noble, the Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe (Karloff), who dwells in the moldering pile of a castle with his servant, Stefan (a young Dick Miller who nevertheless looks exactly like old Dick Miller). Duvalier spots a woman in the castle’s window that resembles Helene, but the Baron assures him that the only woman to ever occupy the castle is his long-dead wife, Ilsa—who looks exactly like Helene in a painting hanging in the castle hall. Duvalier decides to hang around and get some answers, but digging into the past has a tendency of bringing things to light people would be better forgetting…

The Terror was filmed on the coattails of the much superior Poe film, The Raven. The movie recycles not only the set, but Karloff and Nicholson, and is a much dour film compared to the one with Peter Lorre walking around in a feather suit. The Terror is clearly in the Poe/gothic tradition with lost loves, terrible secrets, sealed crypts, voices in the night, and secret passages aplenty, but it’s hard to forget the California sun is burning bright just outside the studio building as Karloff and Nicolson stride across the API sets. Still, it’s a treat to see Nicholson at the beginning of his career and Karloff at the end of his, together. The streaming version I watched via Amazon is of terrible quality, unfortunately, delivering a muddy, blurred film as if the movie had been recovered from the flooded crypt of the film’s climax.

While The Terror has plenty going against it, there’s enough in its favor (including a certain Francis Ford Coppola as uncredited director) to save it entirely from the ashcan of Hollywood. I’m awarding it 2.5 skulls out of 5. Add an extra half-a-skull if you’re a fan of Corman’s cheap movie making and/or Dick Miller.

31 Days of Horror: Scream and Scream Again

Just as I was about to start catching up on my viewing, I got sidelined by a bad reaction to this year’s flu shot and spent 48 hours in misery. I’m still on the mend and it’s going to be dicey whether I get my 31 films in this year before October’s end, but I’ll persevere.

A jogger suffers a heart attack as he runs through the park. An unknown rapist and murderer stalks the British nightclubs. A man crosses the border into an unidentified Eastern Bloc country, fascist-looking flags and insignia plastered everywhere. Somehow, these are all threads in the same movie. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see how they all come together!

Scream and Scream Again (1970) is one of those movies you’re certain is going to be a stellar piece of vintage horror just from the cast. How many other films can boast it features Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, AND Vincent Price?! (the answer is “one”). Unfortunately, what looks good on the tin doesn’t always deliver in the tasting.

As I mentioned above, the plot of Scream and Scream Again features at least three separate storylines and we jump back and forth between them. The heart attack victim awakens in the hospital to find he’s missing a leg. The police discover the nightclub victims have been drained of blood. A sinister, unnamed Eastern Bloc government tortures captives and plans a gambit against the West. It takes about an hour before two of these plotlines meet up, and the final one gets tied in with about 10 minutes to spare of the film’s running time.

The wheels start falling off early when Peter Cushing is dispatched after a single scene (the shoulder is apparently humankind’s deadliest weak spot). Christopher Lee pops in now and again as a government officer involved with the Eastern Bloc plot, and we only get Vincent Price a few times, even though it’s pretty evident he’s going to turn out to be our villain. I mean, he is Vincent Price, Peter Cushing’s dead, and Christopher Lee is merely a civil servant of an evil government agency, so it’s an easy conclusion to jump to.

Despite a story that includes artificial people, blood-drinking, acid baths, government intrigue, car chases, a showdown in a chalk quarry, and a dazzling look at Swinging Sixties London nightlife, Scream and Scream Again can’t stick the ending. Vincent Price claimed that he never understood the script at all. I’m not sure he needed to bother to try. The movie might have had good intentions, but it ekes out a meager 2 skulls out of 5 for its efforts.

31 Days of Horror: Devils of Darkness

I’ve been traveling for a few days and I’m running behind on my movie marathon. Looks like I’m going to have to step up the pace to get my 31 in before the clock strikes midnight on Halloween.

I’m a fan of Swinging London, the Austin Powers movies notwithstanding. When I heard there was a movie that had black magic, vampires, and Satanism all set in 1960s Chelsea, I suspected I’d found the movie for me. When I saw the cast, which contains absolutely nobody of note, I knew it was a movie right in my wheelhouse for this year’s October movie marathon. With names like William Sylvester and Hubert Noël as our stars, how bad could this movie be?

Devils of Darkness (1965) is like Dracula, except terrible. Vacationing Londoners visiting Brittany stumble upon the cult of Count Sinistre, a sorcerer cursed to eternal life and buried alive in the town cemetery.  Count Sinistre, risen from the grave and now with the villagers under his control, kills two of the Englishmen for disturbing his cave coffin, then feeds upon another of the party. In the process of doing so, he loses his magical talisman, which our hero, Paul Baxter, discovers. The rest of the film involves Sinistre and his cult trying to recover the talisman—for reasons not entirely clear—before Baxter discovers Sinistre’s secret and puts an end to his diabolical plot.

Sinistre travels to London in pursuit of the talisman, his coffins vanishing upon arrival and perplexing both customs officials and Scotland Yard. His cult across the Channel is comprised mostly of bored dilettantes and the wealthy who hang around Chelsea, partying late into the night at the eclectic gallery, The Odd Spot. It is there that Baxter meets Karen, a sometimes model who has most recently agreed to pose for a suave foreign painter. You win absolutely nothing if you guess that painter is Count Sinistre. Little does Karen (or Tania, Sinistre’s current vampire bride) suspect, the Count plans on taking Karen as his new consort, setting up pins that are bound to be knocked down before the final credits roll.

Theoretically, this movie has everything I’m looking for: vampires, Swinging ‘60s London nightlife, buxom redheads, bland heroes, black masses, and a bunch of looney cultists. Unfortunately, the film delivers them in a steaming mass of nonsense. The insistence of Count Sinistre calling upon “the Devil of Darkness” throughout his fiendish rites had me wondering if he was worried about mistaken identities. How embarrassing would it be to call up the “Devil of Happiness” to your black mass?

The movie does have the distinction of being the first British vampire film set in the modern era, and I can’t think of a better period than 1960s London. This is the place and almost the time that gave us the Highgate Vampire after all. However, hammy acting and a meandering plot can’t deliver the goods, earning Devils of Darkness a mere 1.5 skulls out of 5. Better luck next time, Hubert Noël!

31 Days of Horror: And Now the Screaming Starts

Amicus Productions is giving Hammer a run for its money this year. As the “also ran” of British horror film houses of the 1960s and 1970s, Amicus is primarily known for their portmanteau films, but it’s not a one trick pony as it turns out. They might not have the quantity of films Hammer has, but they can make a good film when they put their minds to it. Case in point: tonight’s installment.

And Now the Screaming Starts (1973) is an unfortunate title for the film. It even surprised the movie’s stars, who thought they were making a movie called “Fengriffen,” based on the book of the same name by David Case. Clearly, producer Max Rosenberg was courting a specific audience with the rename.

Poor naming aside, Screaming is a fantastic film in the gothic vein. We’ve got a manor, a family curse, ghastly apparitions, howling out on the moors, people walking about in the dark with candelabras, and stormy nights with wind rattling the casements. We don’t get our heroine running across the moor in a nightgown as a single window glows alight in the manor’s tower, but that’s the only absence.

The plot involves the newly-married Catherine, who arrives at Fengriffen manor with her husband, Charles. For a few minutes, she’s happy with her new home and the life she’s about to begin with Charles. Then the movie hits her (and us) with a jump scare and it’s off to the gothic races! We get a lot of eyes cast pityingly in Catherine’s direction. We get a disembodied dismembered hand crawling across the carpeting. We get solicitors duty-bound to keep their employer’s secrets. We get Peter Cushing finally showing up after the movie is half over despite his star billing!

Screaming is unique among Amicus’ films as it’s the only period piece they made, but boy what a period piece. Despite its meager budget, Screaming is a textbook example of how to make a good gothic. I’m not sure if novelist David Case or screenwriter Roger Marshall is more deserving of praise, but I’d put Screaming up there with many of the other great gothic films. I think this one is a legitimate overlooked gem of a film. I have no hesitation in awarding the film 4 skulls out of 5 for being both an entertaining horror movie (I jumped, which doesn’t happen much) and a seriously good movie despite its humble origins.

31 Days of Horror: Satan’s Triangle

It’s probably obvious that I hold a special place in my heart for 1970s weirdness. That love met this year’s watch-fest in tonight’s film, Satan’s Triangle (1975). But can that love prevail over the stink of an ABC “Movie of the Week”? Let’s find out!

Satan’s Triangle was clearly an attempt to cash in on the zeitgeist of the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon that pervaded pop culture during the 1970s. The plot concerns a US Coast Guard rescue helicopter dispatched to investigate an SOS call put out by a ship “smack dab in the middle of Satan’s Triangle.” When the copter arrives, Haig (Doug, not Troy, McClure) descends down to the ship and discovers a number of dead bodies, including a priest hanging from the main mast and a corpse floating in mid-air in a forward compartment. Haig also finds Eva (Kim Novak), alive but in a state of shock. When he tries to get them both back on the chopper, an accident leaves them stranded aboard the ship. Eva, now recovered, begins regaling Haig with the story of what happened in the days before the SOS went out. The rest of the movie proceeds as flashback detailing the curious behavior of Satan’s Triangle. Is it supernatural? Is it all hogwash? Is the helicopter pilot Earnest Borgnine?

I had an eerie premonition this was a made-for-TV movie in the opening moments of Satan’s Triangle. It had that quality from the start and once the first fade-to-black for a commercial interstitial appeared, I knew what I was in for. That being said, for a cheesy TV movie, Satan’s Triangle isn’t an utter failure. The film weaves back and forth across the border of the supernatural and the rational as first Eva tells her tale, and then Haig debunks the causes behind the strange events. The film could have ended 10 minutes sooner and I would have been much happier with it. Instead, it proceeds to barrel on with a coda that undoes all the effort it put into skirting that line between the plausible and the preternatural.

Unfortunately, playing with audience expectations somewhat deftly was the only thing the movie had going for it (although I do suspect US Coast Guard applications went up a notch in the week after the film aired. It’s not Top Gun, but it was made with the USCG cooperation and does its job as a recruitment ad). Once that’s taken off the table, all you have left is a mediocre-acted, no-budget TV movie. I award it 2 skulls out of 5 for at least trying to do something interesting and the fact is clocks in at a lean 74 minutes.

31 Days of Horror: Asylum

After enjoying The House that Dripped Blood so thoroughly the other night, I decided to dive into another of Amicus Productions’ portmanteau films. This one was Asylum (1972)

Like THtDB, Asylum features four(ish) short films wrapped inside a framing story: a young doctor arrives for a job interview at a mental asylum only to find the administrator has been admitted as a patient for attacking his colleague, Dr. Rutherford. Rutherford is now running the asylum and challenges the young doctor to interview the four patients in the upstairs wing and deduce which was is the former administrator. If he chooses correctly, the job is his. The patients include a woman whose plan to murder her lover’s wife went horribly askew; the tailor who was hired to make an extremely unusual suit; a woman whose brother and nurse were killed by her friend, “Lucy”; and lastly a surgeon who’s making tiny robotic homunculi resembling himself and his professional acquaintances. I say four(ish) stories because three are contained short films, while the fourth bleeds directly into the framing story.

The cast is again composed of B-list British actors, and not nearly as interesting as the performers in The House that Dripped Blood. Peter Cushing returns (bringing this year’s Lee to Cushing ratio to 3:2), along with Patrick Magee (who played the victimized writer in A Clockwork Orange), Charlotte Rampling (Zardoz, Orca, and The Verdict), and Britt Ekland (The Wicker Man) making up the remaining most recognizable stars.

The individual films aren’t as entertaining as those in House, although again Robert Block returns as writer. They’re all largely in the EC comics vein of horror and anyone whose read an issue of Eerie or watched Tales from the Crypt will likely see where things are headed long before the plot train leaves the station. Only the second story, with Peter Cushing, had me wondering how things were going to play out and wrapped up in a way I didn’t expect.

While not as solid a film as The House that Dripped Blood, Asylum was still entertaining enough to score 3 out of 5 skulls. I’m not likely to rewatch it again anytime soon, but it did wonders to wash the taste of Blood Bath out of my mouth.

31 Days of Horror: Blood Bath

Vampires in the big city! Beatniks! Sid Haig! Yesireebob, this movie has everything but actual entertainment value.

I had my suspicions of what I was about to get myself into when I saw the American International Pictures logo appear in the opening credits of Blood Bath (1965). The 62 minute run-time also strongly suggested I was in for a stinker, and, boy, was I.

Blood Bath is the tale of a modern vampire prowling the streets of Venice, but which Venice? You know you’re in trouble when the movie’s description and its contents can’t seem to agree. The description says it’s Venice, CA, but the plot involved an 11th century artist and his bell tower abode, so I’m guessing we’re supposed to be in Italy.

A little digging into the film’s production explains the conflict, which, if your know AIP, you can probably guess involved the penny-pinching hand of Roger Corman. It turns out ol’ Rog had a bunch of footage lying around from a movie called “Operation Titan,” shot by Francis Ford Coppola in then Yugoslavia. The movie was deemed unworthy of a US release, so Roger hired writer and director Jack Hill to come up with a movie that could use that footage. Hill shot that movie, whose plot involved a murderous sculptor, but Roger didn’t like that one either. So he shelved that movie for a year before hiring Stephanie Rothman to revise the movie, change the sculptor to a vampire, and shoot additional footage. Thus, Blood Bath was born.

This is one bath that should have been thrown out with the baby.

The movie concerns a bunch of people you’ll never care if you ever see again living the Bohemian life in either Venice, Italy or Venice, CA. All of the female leads are brunettes with names that start with “D,” so you’ll probably forget who’s who in the hour it takes you to get through the movie. A mysterious painter named “Sordi” is the current hot commodity and his paintings of nude, dead women are selling like hot cakes, much to the displeasure of artist, Max, who considers Sordi to be a sellout. Max, the ringleader of a small cadre of beatnik artists, is trying to push Art’s boundaries with such techniques as “quantum painting” (a technique that literally involves shooting a paintball gun at a partially completed canvas). When Max’s girlfriend/model Daisy goes missing after posing for Sordi, Daisy’s roommate and her sister (Dorean and Donna, respectively—see I told you!) become concerned and try to discover what happened to her. Complicating matters is the fact that Dorean is dating a dreamy new artist—Sordi, himself.

A bunch more stuff happens, including dream sequences and a witch/vampire lover of Sordi from the 11th century. Then the dead walk, somebody screams, and the movie ends. You now know everything you ever need to know about Blood Bath. Go do something productive with the 62 minutes of your life I just saved you from squandering.

Blood Bath earns 1 skull out of 5 and that’s only because I found Sid Haig and the rest of the beatnik artists moderately amusing.

31 Days of Horror: The House that Dripped Blood

Oh, Amicus Productions, how I love thee. Why film just one movie on a standing set when you can film four? You’re the British answer to American International Pictures.

The House that Dripped Blood (1970) is one of Amicus’ classic portmanteau films, an anthology of four or five movie shorts wrapped up inside a framing story. As the title suggests, the four films in this picture are all centered on a lonely country house and its inhabitants. Each occupant moves into the home only to find themselves confronted with the supernatural: a writer finds his villainous creation seemingly come to life; a lonely bachelor discovers a figure in the local wax museum is identical to the woman he loved and lost; a widower is far too strict in the raising of his young daughter for good reason; and a declining horror actor acquires an opera cloak which possesses unfortunate properties. All these stories are revealed by a Scotland Yard detective’s investigation of a missing person.

The film has a stellar cast of B-list British actors, many slumming from Hammer Productions. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing turn up (unfortunately in separate stories), as does Denholm Elliot (last seen as the Antichrist’s uncooperative father), Jon Pertwee (The Third Doctor Who), Geoffery Bayldon (Catweazle), and Hammer bombshell, Ingrid Pitt. The stories are the work of Pyscho author Robert Bloch, so they have a solid horror pedigree, even if they’re a little predictable to modern sensibilities.

Of the four, “Waxworks” with Peter Cushing is my favorite. The wav museum as the setting for a horror story is old hat and this tale brings nothing new to the table. Cushing’s performance, however, as a retired bachelor whose plans to “read, listen to music, and do some gardening” are upended by a trip to the museum and the unexpected arrival of an old friend is wonderful. Cushing brings a humanity to the role, and I identified strongly with his character in many ways.

“The Cloak” with Pertwee and Pitt is more comedic than the rest, making it a bit off-key from the rest of the shorts, but Pertwee is enjoyable as the pretentious horror actor, Paul Henderson. Whovian fans will enjoy his vampire costume, as it’s almost identical to his Doctor Who outfit. And he’s not above throwing a little shade in a co-star when Henderson declares “That’s what’s wrong with the present day horror films. There’s no realism. Not like the old ones, the great ones. Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, Dracula – the one with Bela Lugosi of course, not this new fellow.” The new fellow in 1970, being, of course, Christopher Lee.

“Sweets for the Sweet,” which features Lee, while being a fine story, also includes a treat for Tolkien fans. Christopher Lee famously read The Lord of the Rings every year, and the film contains a brief scene with his character sitting before the fire, reading from a copy of Tolkien’s masterpiece, which appears well-worn for a movie prop. Perhaps it’s Lee’s own copy taken from his dressing room?

I watch a lot a terrible movies each October, but it is movies like The House that Dripped Blood which make it all worthwhile. I occasionally discover one of these long-overlooked (by me) gems that provides 90 minutes of pure enjoyment. While not the greatest film ever made, The House that Dripped Blood earns a solid 4 skulls out of 5 for being a wonderful example of early 1970s British horror film-making.  

31 Days of Horror: The Devil Rides Out

When we last saw Christopher Lee, he was leading a satanic cult. Now, 24 hours later, he’s out to thwart one. What a difference a day makes!

The film in question is the classic The Devil Rides Out (1968) based upon the Dennis Wheatley book of the same name. Lee plays the film’s protagonist, Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau, a scholar of—but by no means a proponent of—the occult. Nicholas and his friend Rex are old war buddies, having served in the Great War with a third friend. When their comrade was slain, Nicholas and Rex swore to look after his son, Simon, who has now come of age. When Nicholas and Rex get together for their regular reunion, they pay a visit to Simon, interrupting a “astronomical society” gathering held at his home. Nicholas is suspicious of this clique, given that there are 13 of them and they all possess names with occult resonance. When a quick search of Simon’s observatory turns up magical trappings and a pair of chickens in a hamper ready for sacrifice, Nicholas’ fears are confirmed. He and Rex immediately kidnap Simon to get him away from the coven he is about to join.

Back of the home of the Duc de Richleau, we learn that Simon was about to undergo his satanic baptism into the coven led by Mocata (played by Charles Gray, undoubtedly best known for his roles as Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever and as the Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Nicholas knows that Mocata will not rest until Simon, along with another young member, Tanith (played by Nike Arrighi) undergo their unholy initiation into the world of black magic. Can he and Rex thwart Mocata’s scheme before the Simon and Tanith succumb to his hypnotic commands?

The Devil Rides Out has a good reputation in horror movie circles and it’s a well-deserved one. Lee cites it as his favorite film that he performed in and, for a lower budget Hammer movie, it certainly delivers. Wheatley based the character of Mocata on Aleister Crowley, and Charles Gray does a tremendous job of channeling the public image of Crowley into the role if not the actual man, himself.

The movie’s MVP in my opinion, however, is Leon Greene as Rex. In most modern occult horror films, we get a lot of mumbo jumbo about curse breaking and undoing rituals, with the occasional supernatural conflict thrown in. While there is that in The Devil Rides Out, we also get Rex dashing into the thick of things, throwing haymakers at Satanists and exorcising the Devil, himself, by trying to run it down in a 1920s roadster and yeeting a crucifix at the Prince of Darkness. I don’t recall Father Merrin trying that in The Exorcist! This is two-fisted hexploitation at its best, very much in the vein of “The Guardians” books. Having not read the Wheatley novel, I’m not sure how close this adheres to the literary version, but I won’t complain if it’s a liberty taken by the screenwriters.

Some of the special effects might be on the hokier side (the Angel of Death looks like an escaped Nazgul from Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings), but you’ll probably be having too much fun watching Christopher Lee play the rare good guy and cheering on Rex throwing uppercuts at black magic dabblers to care. For punching Satanists alone, The Devil Rides Out gets four out of five skulls and a date on the rewatch list.

31 Days of Horror: To the Devil a Daughter

I had an eye issue plague me for a few days that made it impossible to work at a computer, but didn’t prevent me from watching the TV from across the room. Here’s the first in a few entries about the watch-fest to bring me current for the month.

I somehow made it a week into this year’s plan to watch mostly British films from the 1960s and 1970s without managing to encounter Christopher Lee. I had to correct that immediately with a hefty dose of the one-and-only Mr. Lee. We begin with To the Devil a Daughter (1976), a film which features both a hefty cast of recognizable faces, but perhaps the greatest ratio of on-screen phone calls to running time in cinema history.

The plot involves Catherine Beddows, a young nun raised by a churchfrom childhood, played by a 14 year-old Nastassja Kinsky. Catherine is on her way to London to see her father, Henry (played by Denholm Elliot, perhaps best known among viewers in my age group as Marcus Brody from the Indiana Jones films). The trip has all been arranged by Father Michael Raynor (Christopher Lee), who, when we last saw him, was in the process of being excommunicated by the Church. Surely, that must have been reconciled since we see him still parading about in his vestments and collar and leading the church that young Catherine was raised by.

As Catherine flies to London, we meet American occult novelist John Verney at a book signing organized by his agent Anna (played by Pussy Galore, herself, Honor Blackman). A desperate-looking Henry crashes the signing, looking to speak with John, and a hushed conversation later, Verney is on his way to the airport to pick up Catherine in Henry’s place. He takes the naïve novice back to his apartment, where Henry is supposed to come for her, but a phone call from him reveals its best if Catherine lay low at Verney’s place for a while. It turns out there’s some angry Satanists after John—or so he claims. The truth might be they’re actually after Catherine.

 Suffice to say, with a title like “To the Devil a Daughter,” you know there’s some sketchy progeny involved in the plot. It’s the most convoluted case of birthing the Antichrist I’ve ever encountered. No, really. I’ve watched the movie and apparently the means to manifest the Devil on Earth involved a whole lot of steps, including giving birth to a Guild Navigator from Lynch’s Dune. The birth of the Beast in Good Omens is a cakewalk comparatively.

Despite this, which if you just go with a “ah, whatever” attitude and let things unfold, the movie is entertaining. It’s always good to see Chris Lee as the heavy, and, man do his eyebrows deserve a supporting role credit in this film. Kinsky does OK in her role as Catherine, mostly because Catherine is utterly naïve and unacquainted with the world at large. “Slack-jawed” isn’t always a great adjective to be associated with, by Kinsky makes it work. I will say this about the movie, though: there are a lot of phone calls in this film. Characters calling characters calling characters, and even Raynor and Verney’s initial faceoff is done thanks to British Telecom. It takes a lot to make a phone call dramatic in film and unfortunately, To the Devil a Daughter can’t quite pull that off.

To the Devil a Daughter would be Christopher Lee’s final film for Hammer until 2011. For the man who helped build the studio, it would have been kinder is he’d left on a stronger note. To the Devil a Daughter isn’t a bad film, but it’s not Hammer (or Lee’s) best work, earning it a rating of 2.5 skulls out of 5.