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.

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.