31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde

I’ll state this flat out: For years, I though this movie was a blaxploitation movie, as I knew nothing about it but the title.  Imagine my surprise to find out it’s actually a Hammer period horror film, one set against the backdrop of the Whitechapel murders. It’s a general highly-regarded film too. I now set out to correct my misconception of the film and see how it stacks up against my renewed expectations.

As you can likely guess now that you too know it’s not a blaxploitation film, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) is a take on the novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. You can probably also figure out that there’s a twist to this adaptation. Instead of becoming the brutish and despicable Mr. Hyde, the good doctor’s research transforms him temporarily into a woman, the bewitching and murderous Mrs. Edwina Hyde. Edwina quickly decides she likes being around and the internal battle for control begins. Will the doctor’s upstairs neighbors, Susan and Howard Spencer, each of whom is smitten with a different aspect of Jekyll, become casualties of this battle and which personality will triumph?

I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely impress with the movie at first, but the more I thought about it, the more my opinion of it grew. It does a great job of mixing much of sinister history of the late Victorian era into a single film, throwing Jack the Ripper and Burke and Hare into the plot in addition to the Jekyll and Hyde tale. There’s just enough humor to make the movie entertaining when not being horrific here, too. The film doesn’t exactly push the Feminist movement forward, but the idea of the masculine and feminine in a single body isn’t something we’ve seen a lot on film, especially in 1971, so it earns points for at least attempting a new take on Jekyll and Hyde.  The transformations are also very effective, utilizing mostly camera trickery instead of prosthetics and special effects.

In light of my rethinking—and despite my disappointment it wasn’t a blaxploitation film—both of my personalities give Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde a solid 3 out of 5 skulls.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: The Pack

“Joe Don Baker” is not what I want to see as the first credit to any film, so this movie had me terrified mere seconds into its running time. Can the man best known to MST3k fans as “Mitchell!” deliver in tonight’s film? Let’s find out!

The Pack (1977) leaps right off the spinner rack of the local drugstore onto the celluloid screen in this adaptation of the novel by David Fisher. The movie is set on a remote island, one popular with summer tourists. Much to the regret of the island’s year-round residents, these city folk have an unpleasant habit of adopting dogs from the pound, bringing them out to the island for the summer, and then turning them loose at the end of the season when it’s time to go home. The dogs run feral and, by the time the movie gets going, they’ve decided that humans are a viable food source.  Standing between the islanders and canine Armageddon is Joe Don Baker as Jerry, a Department of Fish and Game researcher stationed there. Can hunky JDB stop the Pack before everyone becomes dog chow?

 The premise of the movie is laughable. I’m not saying it impossible that people do decide to adopt a dog, take it away on vacation, and abandon it when it’s time to go home (especially in the 1970s). However, I do have a hard time believing this is a regular thing on Seal Island (which should be renamed “Dog Dump Island” if the movie is to be believed), something that happens often enough to result in a pack of 15 to 20 wild dogs.

That being said, I found myself liking this film a great deal. Not because it’s a work of cinematic genius, but because it feels like such a faithful adaptation of its source material. I don’t just mean the plot, I mean the entire cheap paperback you buy at the drugstore or supermarket feel. The kind of book you ironically take with you on vacation and leave behind when it’s time to go home. The film flies by, every dramatic beat hitting on schedule, and the film ends in the perfect mix of fiery climax and hope for the future. I even enjoyed Joe Don Baker.

Like a warm pile of feral puppies, The Pack melted my heart enough for me to award it a score of 3 and a half out of 5 skulls. You might feel a little less fond of the film if you have a low tolerance for imaginary violence toward animals. There’s a couple shots that made me wonder if there was any actual oversight during the production, but the ASPCA seal of approval appears in the credits. Still, deduct a skull and a half at least if you’re sensitive to such things.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Prophecy

Today’s movie was one that I’ve heard a lot about and always meant to check it. It’s a classic of eco-horror, the genre where humanity’s tampering with the environment comes back to haunt them with deadly results. Eco-horror sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s, a sub-genre of the “science gone mad” movies where atomic testing birthed monster. I’m not sure if you can find a better eco-horror film from the 1970s that this one, as it’s very much a product of its time.

Prophecy (1979) stars Talia Shire (best known as Adrian from the Rocky films) and Robert Foxworth as Maggie and Rob, a scientist and his cello-playing and secretly pregnant wife who travel to Maine to conduct an ecological study. A paper mill and the Native America locals have come to loggerheads (see what I did there?) over acres of forest and someone needs to look into the matter. The movie’s opening already introduced us to the grizzly (I did it again!) fate of a search-and-rescue team in the woods, so we know there’s more going on than just clear-cut logging.

Once on the ground, our heroes encounter the Native protesters, led by, as in The Manitou, another very non-Native Armand Assante, in the role of John Hawks. Hawks explains his people are getting sick and there’s an increase of birth defects going on. Rob previously encountered a 5’ long salmon and is later shown a tadpole the size of a full grown bullfrog, so he’s already suspecting bad things are afoot. It seems something’s in the water supply. This same something is responsible for what’s out there in the forest eating search-and-rescue teams—a mutant bear of immense size. Maggie and Rob are about to learn that when a bear gets that big, picnic baskets just won’t suffice.

As stated above, Prophecy is a very ‘70s movie. Themes of Native American rights, environmental pollution, inner city decay, and government negligence run rampant throughout it. Against this backdrop, we get people doing ‘70s outdoorsy things, like kayaking and camping as if they’re an Adventure People playset come to life. Cut out the mutant bear, and this could have been an episode of Grizzly Adams or Gentle Ben. I enjoyed the nostalgia for my childhood the film conjured up.

The movie—directed by John Frankenheimer—takes some cues from Jaws. We don’t see the bear much at first, which is probably a good thing as it’s clearly a guy in a suit (Kevin Peter Hall, also known as the Predator and Harry from Harry and the Hendersons). Leonard Maltin famously described the bear as a “giant salami,” although its walk reminded me more of Grimace from old McDonald’s commercials.

The main question I had upon finishing the film was “How come nobody told me this has the greatest death scene in movie history?” It involves a mutant bear, a kid in a sleeping bag, and a rock. You can find it here, but I’d suggest you actually watch the movie first as it really should be seen in context.

For this amazing slice of 1970s’ nostalgia, I give Prophecy a score of three and a half mercury-saturated skulls out of five. Check it out and tell Katahdin I sent you.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Mark of the Witch

As this blog demonstrates, I’m a fan of the hexploitation period on the 1970s. Many books and movies cashed in on this pop culture phenomenon, but so few of them do so in such an obvious manner as this evening’s movie, Mark of the Witch (1970). This is a film starring nobody you’ve ever heard of and directed by someone who’s biggest film was Return to Boggy Creek (1977). It’s clearly an independent film that used local talent and had about a buck and a half in its budget.

The story begins with a witch being hanged 300 years ago in England. On the scaffold, she curses the line of the Stuarts after her fellow coven-member and lover Mackenzie Stuart turned traitor to save his own neck from the noose. Jump three centuries forward to Texas, USA, and the many-times grandson of this treacherous Stuart is now teaching psychology at the local university. Good old Professor Mac (as his students call him) has been hosting study sessions involving tarot cards, Ouija boards, palmistry, and more at his home as part of his “Psychology of Superstition” course. You can tell this is a different time as a college professor inviting co-eds over and providing them with beer would be frowned upon these days. One such co-ed, Jill, turns up with an old book she found while sorting donations for the upcoming book fair. The book contains an incantation to summon a witch and the class tries it out. Nothing seems to happen, but Jill starts acting a little strange thereafter. It seems like Jill’s not the only one home in her body now…

This is not a good movie. The acting is poor, the sets are cheap, and the plot is underdone. The writers clearly thumbed through a few hexploitation books and yanked out some details, but there’s not enough here to save the film from all the other cinderblocks weighing it down. If you’re looking for a far better movie that rode the witchcraft craze of this era, I happily steer you towards Season of the Witch (1972) by George Romero. The best thing Mark of the Witch has going for it is a 1:17 runtime.

For all its flaws, Mark of the Witch scuttles back to the pits of Hell it was called up from with a measly 1 and a half out of 5 skulls. Point your athames elsewhere if you’re looking for witchy entertainment.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: The Manitou

I can think of no better way of explaining why The Manitou (1978) has been on my “I must see this movie” list other than quoting the plot summary:

A psychic’s girlfriend finds out that a lump on her back is a growing reincarnation of a 400-year-old demonic Native American spirit.

That’s not a plot you’re going to run into twice in one lifetime, my friends. And the movie delivers everything that summary promises and far, far more.

Harry Erskine (played by Tony Curtis of all people) get a call from out of the blue from his old flame, Karen. When the two reunite, Karen reveals she’s about to undergo surgery to remove a swiftly-growing tumor on her shoulder and neck, one that’s perplexing her doctors. One specialist goes so far as saying if he didn’t know better, he’d think it was a fetus. And fetus it is, the physical manifestation of the spirit of Misquamacus, an ancient medicine man who’s been down this road before. This time, however, if Misquamacus gets his way, not only will Karen die in the process, but the world may very well be destroyed. Harry seeks help in the form of a Native American shaman named John Singing Rock (played by a very un-Native Michael Ansara) and the two join forces with some reluctant modern physicians to save the world.

The Manitou is a strange, strange film, but utterly enjoyable for being so. If you told me there was a movie that climaxes with Felix Silla (best known by my generation as playing Twiki in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) naked and covered with blood being shot at with lasers while Lucifer looks on, I’d have called you a filthy liar. Yet, here we are.

It’s an additional pleasure to see Tony Curtis in this movie. I love it when big actors of yore end up slumming in horror films, be it Curtis in this or Gregory Peck in The Omen. Between that and the sheer wackiness of the film (based on the novel by Graham Matheson), The Manitou earns a happily-awarded 4 skulls out of 5. This isn’t high cinema, but it certainly is unforgettable.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: From Beyond the Grave

If I’ve learned anything from this year’s prolonged movie marathon, it’s how much I enjoy the Amicus portmanteau films like The House the Dripped Blood and Asylum. I’ve not yet seen all of them, but with last night’s entry, I’m rapidly running out of one’s I haven’t.

From Beyond the Grave (1974) follows the now-familiar Amicus format of a framing story wrapped around a number of short films, each running the gamut from the outright horrific to the horrifically humorous. This film’s framing story is an antiques shop run by Amicus and Hammer regular, Peter Cushing. Well, not actually Peter Cushing, but Pete plays the role of the shop’s proprietor, named simply “The Proprietor” in the credits. Each story kicks off when the protagonist of that short’s plot visits the shop and cheats the Proprietor during their business transactions. This is a nicely unexpected change of pace from the usual “buys a cursed antique and brings trouble home” theme.

The first story involves an antique mirror possessing the spirit of a serial killer. David Warner plays the mirror’s buyer who unwittingly arouses the spirit within during an impromptu séance and finds himself controlled by the ghostly killer. Of the four films, I found this one to be the most effective, even if the plot is a little trite by today’s standards. I was frankly surprised at the lack of a “Jack the Ripper” connection, which I entirely expected.

The next film is a strange one and didn’t entirely work for me. It concerns a business manager who feels unappreciated at home and work and is desperate to recapture the respect he knew during the war (although we’re left uncertain about how much truth there might be to this). He takes pity on a veteran peddling matchbooks (played by the always wonderful Donald Pleasence) which leads to him engaging in a case of stolen valor when he attempt to purchase, but then steals a Distinguished Service Order medal from the antiques shop. The peddler, seemingly impressed by the manager’s wartime service decorations, invite him home to meet his daughter (played by Pleasence’s real-life daughter, Angela). It quickly appears that Angela is a bit otherworldly and soon the manager’s wife has a number of unsettling encounters. The story wraps up in a completely unexpected manner, which is why it didn’t work for me. I enjoy a good twist ending, but there’s twists and there’s “utterly out of left field with no inkling this was even a possibility” climaxes, and the film suffers from the latter.

The third film is a fun little tale involving the purchase of a curious door from the shop. The buyer is the only one of the shop’s clients who doesn’t attempt to swindle the owner, meaning he’s probably going to come out OK in the end. The door, once installed on a closet in his study, starts opening to an ancient blue room, occupied by the undead alchemist and necromancer who constructed it. The dead man wishes to escape, but needs lives to do so, putting the door’s buyer and his wife in danger.

The final film is the most humorous of the four, largely thanks to the over-the-top performance of Margaret Leighton as “Madame Orloff,” a clairvoyant who enters the story when the film’s protagonist ends up with a homicidal elemental attached to him (likely due to him switching price tags on snuff boxes at the shop). The story itself isn’t anything special, but Leighton is entirely enjoyable as the slightly befuddled but all-to business-wise Orloff. She would have felt right at home at Hogworts.

Although From Beyond the Grave falls short of The House the Dripped Blood, it’s nevertheless a solid, enjoyable film presented in bite-sized chunks, earning it a decent 3 out of 5 skulls.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Peeping Tom

Hailed as one of the proto-slashers, Peeping Tom (1960) takes us into the mind of a murderer and examines what made him that way. Infamously yanked from British cinemas after a mere five days, the film effectively terminated the career of director Michael Powell, but has since gone on to be considered a classic piece of film-making.

Peeping Tom is the tale of Mark Lewis, a socially-inept man who makes a living as a focus-puller at a film studio and moonlights as a pornography photographer for the local newsagent. We learn right out the gate the Mark is also a murderer and never goes anywhere without his 16mm movie camera. With this, he films his killings, reliving them alone in the upstairs room of his boarding house. Mark is attempting to capture the “perfect moment,” but none of his murders meet the elusive criteria he’s searching for (“The lights fade too soon,” he says, ominously, and we can’t help but think he means the light in his victims’ eyes). When Mark catches the attentions of his downstairs’ neighbor, Helen, he finds himself connecting with another human being for the first time in his life. But will his urge to kill rob him of his one chance at normalcy and happiness?

Peeping Tom is an amazing movie, especially considering it was filmed in 1960s. Shot in London just before it started swinging, the film makes Mark a complex character, perhaps even more so than Psycho’s Norman Bates, a film Peeping Tom is often compared to. Mark is a tragic figure, a victim of childhood trauma beyond his control. This doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does make him more than some mindless, masked slasher killing teenagers with the contents of a toolshed. We’re left hoping that maybe there’s some redemption around the corner for Mark and that maybe he and Helen can build a future together.

Tame by today’s standards, Peeping Tom is nevertheless one of those must-see films for any serious film aficionado. I give it a hearty 4 skulls out of 5 and have no qualms about calling it one of the best of the films I’ve watched in 2021. I’m shocked I never heard of this one before this year, but I see myself returning to it again in the future to make up for this oversight.  

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Mill of the Stone Women

Almost two months ago, I was midway through my annual horror movie marathon, one I intended to conclude on Halloween of 2021. Life suddenly got in the way and I had more pressing matters to attend to. I fully intended to pick things back up when I had the chance, but the opportunity never arose before Halloween came and went. Now, as the year rapidly rushes toward a conclusion, I have a little more time to spare on frivolities like watching movies of questionable quality every night. Hating to leave a project unfinished, it’s back to the streaming channels to wrap this up before the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.

We pick things up with Mill of the Stone Women (1960). This one is an Italian production directed by Giorgio Ferroni, whose work I’m utterly unfamiliar with. The film concerns journalist Hans von Arnim who comes to the home of Professor Gregorius Wahl, an art instructor and proprietor of a sort-of clockwork Grand Guignol. He creates stone statues of infamous or tragic women (Joan of Arc and Cleopatra, for example) and displays them on a conveyor belt powered by the windmill he lives in—hence the movie’s title. Sharing residence with Professor Wahl is his daughter, Elfie, and the family physician, Dr. Bohlem. Living in a nearby village is Liselotte, Han’s childhood sweetheart. From the get go, we twig that not all is right with either Elfie or the good Doctor, and Professor Wahl is acting pretty sketchy too. Before we know it, Elfie is making passes at Hans, ones he’s initially receptive to despite the presence of Liselotte. Hans eventually realizes his childhood sweetheart is more deserving of his affections than Elfie, a move which results in tragedy. The film then kicks into high gear and we’re left wondering if we’re dealing with a ghost story, a psychological thriller, or a hybrid of the two.

Mill of the Stone Women was shot in Holland and makes good use of the landscape. Canals and windmills help set the film and we’re only missing some tulips for the Netherlands’ trifecta. The version I saw was subtitled, rather than dubbed, so we’re left to judge the merits of the actors on their performances and not influenced by the talents of voice actors overdubbing them. The film feels like a proto-giallo at times, especially during a sequence when Hans is experiencing a nervous breakdown. The lighting is very giallo with garish greens splashing across the sets.

Ferroni is no Brava or Argento, but has a steady film making hand. The movie, as one that is set inside a windmill is wont to do, ends in an inferno and we’re treated to the destruction of the clockwork models as they melt in the heat. “Wait,” I hear you cry, “weren’t those stone statues?” You’ll have to watch the movie and discover what was really happening in the Professor’s studio late in the night. I give it a solid 2 ½ skulls out of 5. It’s a decent film with some good moments, but unlikely to serve as more than an evening’s diversion.

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.