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: 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.

Growing Up in the Strange & Spooky ’70s

Carl Sagan wants his wardrobe back.

As this photograph can attest, I’m a child of the 1970s. Although I would come of age in the time of MTV, the end of the Cold War, and the Days of Day-Glo, my childhood was spent in that strange decade between the radical 1960s and the “Me, Me, Me” years of the 1980s. I was blissfully unaware of the many bad things happening then–the recession (although my father was regularly out of work due to the nature of his job, I never missed a meal), the gas shortage, the war in Vietnam, Watergate, et al.–but instead viewed it with the wonder (or naivete) only childhood can provide.

For me, the 1970s was a time filled with strange, exciting occurrences. It was an era when Bigfoot, UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster could be discovered any day by turtleneck-wearing scientists who studied these things very seriously. It was an age when the wealth of King Tut was slowly making its way across America, and I got to see the Boy King’s funeral mask in a dimly-lit exhibition room in New York City. It was a time when imagination and reality shared a liminal space, and if you were an six-year old boy, anything was possible.

I’m much older now, looking down the barrel of 50 and, like most people, having had the not-so pleasurable experience of living through the worst pandemic our world has seen in a century. Both of these events induced a great deal of introspection on my part, and not a little bit of escapism. The quarantine months saw me looking back at my youth. I had time for revisiting movies and other media from the late 1960s and 1970s, much of it far more mature matter than I would have been allowed to consume the first time these things appeared on the scene. This winding path led me through the thickets filled with folk horror, hauntology, “hexploitation” paperbacks, British occultism, reruns of In Search Of…, and many other strange and spooky offerings that emerged during this time. They all served as a balm on my shredded nerves, a reminder that there was a time when science was respected and we looked to the future with excitement instead of dread. A time when anything could happen and life could only get more interesting. Only later did I learn that that’s true of any time, but I digress.

Now as the pandemic recedes (which is different from vanishing), I find myself still fixating on the strange, spooky years of the 1970s. Nostalgia, some of which is for something I never actually knew and may not have ever existed, is one of the driving forces behind this fixation. Like most people, I have the desire to return to the simpler time of my childhood, yet with the knowledge and tastes I’ve developed in the more than forty years since intact. And since doing so isn’t going to harm anyone, why not indulge that nostalgia? Which brings us here today…

As the title suggests, this blog is going to focus on the strange and the spooky aspects of the late 1960s and the 1970s. The things that send a shiver down your spine and your shoulders to shudder. I’ll be using is as my field journal, a place to record my notes as I excavate my childhood years for relics undiscovered the first time around. A catalog of curiosities I didn’t know existed then, but which captivate me now. Hopefully, this blog will showcase how strange a time the 1970s was for those who never experienced it firsthand and as a rose-colored telescope looking back to those who made it through that decade alive.

Won’t you please join me?