SOME OLD (and NEW) HORROR MOVIES
I remember a Saturday night show called "Chiller" that ran old horror movies in the early 1960s. Here are a few of them.
Blood of Dracula (1957, American International, dir. Herbert L, Strock, 68 min) set up a girls boarding school in which one student gets turned into a vampire under hypnosis. Actually, the film has a long suspenseful building, with a dorm party and some classroom scenes with an English literature class where the teacher (Mary Adams) promises students that the reward for their diligent studies will simply be knowledge of English literature. Then it all cuts loose.
The Werewolf (1956, Columbia/Clover, dir. Fred F. Sears, 79 min) is about as basic as it gets. The Werewolf really looks like one at the end, and it takes a silver bullet to kill him.
The Hypnotic Eye (1960, Allied Artists, dir. George Blair, 79 min) is one of those films that is "bad for you." Pretty girls start to mutilate themselves after being hypnotized at a show, one of them with sulfuric acid, another but inserting her face into a fan. The doctor promises that "you will be just as pretty as you were before." They aren't. But the announcer warns the viewer, never to do anything you are told to do by a hypnotist. Really!
The Clutching Hand (1936, aka "The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand", Sinister, dir. Albert Herman) was a series on a Saturday morning show called "Movies for Kids" in the 1950s. It featured intermittent scenes of people being strangled or choked from behind by an unidentified hand. There was a theatrical version of 74 min, and a long series of sequels. I recall that the series was followed by a series called "The Woolworth Mystery," starting with a car crash, and not showing up on IMDB.
The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955, American Releasing, dir. David Kramarsky, Lou Place) starts with economic problems in the California date country, when an alien craft lands and animals behave strangely. It all leads up to a climax where you see a huge insect-like beast with a huge compound eye. The film has a crunching music score, with the frantic b-minor scherzo of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony in one place. The ending was reassuring.
The Beast with Five Fingers (1947, Warner Bros., dir. Robert Florey, story by William Fryer Harvey). People in an Italian town are terrorized by several murders apparently committed by a dead pianist's severed hand. The hand is shown crawling and clutching and is very effective.
The Crawling Eye (aka "The Trollenberg Terror," 1958, DCA, Quentin Lawrence) has an alien creature looking like a gigantic eye with tentacles nestled on a mountaintop in the Alps, and decapitating wayward climbers.
The Disembodied (1957, Allied Artists, dir. Walter Grauman, 65 min) has a photographer stumbling in to a voodoo cult with a voodoo queen, and some enticing sacrifices. The concept might have inspired Terry Gilliam (Tideland) a half century later.
The Undead (1957, American International, dir. Roger Corman, 71 min) has more substance than a lot of these. Two ghostbusters, so to speak, regress a prostitute back to times when she escaped beheading as a witch in the Middle Ages, so, as in a time machine story, she can change history for us today. The popular word is "vampire" (like in the defunct soap "Port Charles") but this film is more along the lines of a horror Joan of Arc.
The Blob (1958, Paramount/ dir. Irwin S. Yeaworth, Jr., 87 min, PG) is a comic classic that introduced Steve McQueen as a country bumpkin who, with his girl friend (Aneta Corsaut) takes on an alien life form that lands in a pod and creates a crater. It’s kind of a microcosm of “War of the Worlds.” It starts when an old man touches the slime that comes out of the pod and it envelops his hand like a glove. McQueen drives him to the doctor, and the blob grows into a pinkish-purpose mass anticipating Kaposi’s sarcoma in color. It consumes the old man, then the doctor, then everything in its path, including a movie projectionist. They come up with an amateur home remedy, fire extinguishers with dry ice spray, frozen carbon dioxide. So the fibbie come and pick up the Blob in a canvas and drop it into the Arctic and maintain that the world will be safe as long as the Arctic remains frozen. Did they anticipate global warming in 1958? See also The Thing (1982)
Donovan’s Brain (1953, United Artists, dir. Felix E. Feist, based on the novel by Curt Siodmark) has a scientist Patrict Corty (Lew Ayres) keeping the brain of a millionaire (Donovan) in a fish tank. It starts to affect the stock market. This film would have been apt during the periods of stock market volatility, even before the scandals starting in 2001, as pundits started expected total shakeouts and capitulations.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, Paramount, dir. Rueben Mamoulian, novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, 98 min). This (with Frederic March) appears to be the version shown in Chiller, since it is short enough to fit in to the broadcast schedule. There is a longer 1941 version from MGM with Spencer Tracy (Victor Fleming director). Of course, the story, of a man being good and evil at the same time (here by taking a potion) is an allegory to the personality disorders that we see in people today, even in some of the Internet sexual predator cases. Or look at it as an allegory of the problem of "the knowledge of good and evil."
Kronos (1957, 20th Century Fox, dir. Kurt Neumann, story by Irving Block, 78 min) has a UFO clash into the ocean, and a huge, megamachine rise to sap all the energy out of Earth's civilizations. Perhaps inspired by Cold War tensions, it also anticipates Asian horror.
The Tingler (1959, Columbia, dir. William Castle, wr. Robb White). A creature called the Tingler grows on everyone's spine. A man kills his deaf-mute wife who cannot scream and the Tingler escapes as a monster.
The House of the Seven Gables (1961, Universal/Legend/Genius, dir. Arthur Hiller, novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 55 min) was presented on NBC's Shirley Temple show. Shirley plays Phoebe Pyncheon, who returns to the mysterious New England house to uncover family secrets, including a history of family deaths and a framing for a murder that may not have been murder after all. I read this in junior English for a book report, after we read The Scarlet Letter in class, and the book is considered a romantic example of transcendentalism, although theatrically (and this DVD is a filmed play) it comes across as a mild ghost story. With Robert Culp, Agnes Morehead, Martin Landau. There is also an obscure 1940 film from Warner Bros. directed by Joe May.
The Terrible Clockman (1961, Universal/Legend/Genius, dir. Allen Reisner, novel by Jules Verne, 55 min) appears on the same DVD as House. In 1540 in Switzerland, a mad scientist invents a robot (which a clock face with Roman numeral hours) that can manipulate time, scrambling night and day and winter and summer. Perhaps this novella inspired Clive Barker's The Thief of Always, as well as the more obvious novella by H. G. Wells, The Time Machine. Appearing when it did, the film seems like a commentary on the knowledge of good and evil (mentioned in the script), given man's desire to master all of the elements of physics and maybe destroy the Universe. Verne's novella may be the first prediction of a robot, but the story seems to be resurrecting the idea of the Renaissance Man--inventor, like Leonardo da Vinci, and questioning what the endpoint of the work of such men will be. Visually, the Clockman is quite effective as a Kronos-style monster.
Liquid Sky (1983, Cinevista, dir. Slava Tsukerman) has invisible aliens landing on a New York apartment building and going after a bisexual (female) lover of a drug dealer and abducting her sexual partners. Funny and twisted, an barely pre-AIDS.
Halloween (1978, Compass, dir. John Carpenter) is a famous horror/slasher movie about an escaped "MP" slashing his way through the streets. See Halloween: H20. There were eight sequels in the franchise. Remade in 2007 by Rob Zombie and Dimension Films.
Friday the 13th (1980, Paramount, dir. Sean S. Cunningham). A mad slasher goes through a summer camp. The ad read something like, "they were doomed, and nothhing could save them." There is something misogynistic about all of this: let a young women assert herself, and she is going to get it when left in a horror house. Ari Lehman is Jason Vorhees. Betsy Palmer, as "mother", wields the ax at the end. This became a famous slasher movie franchise with many sequels, similar to "Halloween" in style.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, New Line, dir. Wes Craven) has Robert Englund as Fred Kreuger, the dream stalker of children of members of a lynch mob (and lynching and nooses have become a political hot topic recently). People disappear into vortices in beds like on "Supernatural." John Saxon, Ronee Blakley. Various franchise sequels exist, including "Freddy and Jason" (2003) (Jason comes from Friday the 13th).
So, Now, for some more recent horror movies.
Nightbreed (1990, 20th Century Fox/Morgan Creek, dir. Clive Barker, based on the novel "Cabal" by Clive Barker) is a delicious little odyssey in which a group of mutants (creepy crawly things who look weird) band together as a cabal to escape a psychotic serial killer and various vigilante roamers. Craig Sheffer is Aaron, the young man who helps them, Anne Bobby is Lori, the girlfriend. They wind up in some kind of cemetery and some of the mutants are quite striking minions to look at. This reminds me of an unpublished story that I read in Dallas in the 1980s about atomic mutants around Lake Murray in Oklahoma.
Candyman (1992, Columbia/Polygram, dir. Bernard Rose, based on a story by Clive Barker) has Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) visitng the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago to investigate an urban legend of a one man monster Candyman (Tony Todd) who appears out of thin air if you say "Candyman" five times in front of a mirror.
Underworld (2003, Sony Screen Gems/Lakeshore, dir. Len Wiseman, story by Kevin Grevious and Len Wiseman, R, USA/Canada, 121 min and 133 in directors cut) pits the vampires (death dealers) against the werewolves (Lycans). Kate Beckinsale is the lead vampire, and she falls in love with a hybrid Michael (Scott Speedman), a threat to all of the bloodlines, that attracts enemies Kraven (Shane Brolly) and Viktor (Bill Nighy) in a fratricidal bloodbath. The setting is a surreal dominion of mixed technologies, that can combine steam engine passenger trains, computer terminals, night vision rifles, and what looks like the Toronto subway. The evolved werewolves are great monsters, as are some of the tricks at the end (the half-head decapitation). The look of the film, while resembling the Matrix movies a bit, anticipates what a film of Clive Barker's Imajica could look like. In 2006 there is a sequel called Underworld Evolution.
The House of Usher (1988, Columbia, dir. Alan Birkinshaw, based on "The Fall of the House of Usher," short story by Edgar Allen Poe, 92 min, R) Poe is the one author that high school students get to read for horror (maybe Hawthorne sort of counts, and in a sense Shakespeare can) so its interesting to see the major entry for this as an R film (when teachers might want to show it otherwise). I remember my own Junior English (when kids survey American literature) teacher (back in 1960) admitting that Poe could be "morbid." Oliver Reed is the mad uncle Roderick, and Ryan (Rufus Swart) and Molly (Romy Windsor) go to visit. Walter (Donald Pleasance) is quite mad, and Roderick may not have a whole lot longer himself. The house may well fall down, literally, with them in it. There are other modern novels or narratives ("Burnt Offerings" and even "Amityville Horror") with similar premises.
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996, New Line, dir. John Frankenheimer, novel by H. G. Wells) has Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau, who has performed experiments, vivisection and DNA cloning on humans turning them into monsters on an isolated island. With David Thewlis and Val Kilmer.
Freaks (1932, MGM, dir. Tod Browning, 62 min, sug PG-13). I remember visiting a county fair in Vernon, TX in 1984 and going though the "freaks" trailer, and meeting people who would make one feel defensive about being morbidly curious enough to want to see them. This film made Entertainment Weekly 's 25 most controversial list, because it hired real circus sideshow people to be the curiosities, and the deformations are indeed tragic (half-bodies, limbless "tree trunk", etc), although they seem more abstract in black and white. The story has a "normal" trapeze girl Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) going after a midget Hans (Harry Earles) for his money, but really in love with the Tarzan-like hunk Hercules (Henry Victor). The word gets around, and in time the "freaks" gang up against her, for a horrifying finale. There is a stage wreck; Cleopatra and Hercules try to escape, but Cleopatra becomes "one of them" herself when a huge tree falls on her and crushes off her legs. There is a scene where the gerbils attack Hercules, strip him and possibly emasculate him (not shown). Cleopatra winds up in the show herself, quacking, and Hans seems like the evil mastermind. The film was often banned, and audiences squirmed, one theatergoer claiming a miscarriage. The producers manipulated and cut the ending in various ways to make it more "acceptable." The film also has a prologue that explains social attitudes toward the severely disabled, which in the 1930s often stigmatized the blood family and often led to attitudes of moral revulsion. One out of every six movies ought to be a horror movie, indeed.
The Cave (2005, Screen Gems/Lakeshore, dir. Bruce Hunt, PG-13, 97 min) First, one of my friends in graduate school was called "The Cave" after his real last name, La Cava. Here, the Cave lies beneath an underwater river in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania (the film is shot on location), and was once sealed of by the Knights Templar, for good reason. Some men get trapped in it around 1975, with the church exploding. Three decades later, some scientists come from the Yucatan to explore. Going deeper and deeper, they find critters that first look like cephalopods, but as they get bigger the resemble the arthropods from Alien. The had possessed the bodies of the explorers thirty years earlier, and they may want to get out, to make an excuse for "The Cave 2". Cole Hauser, Eddie Cibrian, Morris Chestnut, Lena Headey.
The Descent (2006, Lions Gate/Pathe/Celador, dir. Neil Marshall, 99 min, UK, R) is pretty much the same movie. This one is made in the UK and is supposed to take place in Appalachia (there are even some stripmine boxcuts) but was actually shot in the Lake District in England. There is no lake over the cave, just the spelunking itself, and a prologue with a rear end auto accident where a girl gets impaled. It seems unrelated (actually the movie starts like a shot from "The River Wild") and pretty soon the four girls get together to go caving. That's the other thing, all female cast. A girl falls and gets a compound fracture (shown), and pretty soon the monsters are after them, and they look like sightless embryos. And pretty soon the girls turn against each other. They won't all make it out, and anyone who does may become one of Them herself. So it is the same story. Is it a coincidence? This film is technically a little better, with sharp photography. Note the Lions Gate trademark, where machinery is behind a keyhole that opens a gate to the hereafter.
See No Evil (2006, Lions Gate/WWE, dir Gregory Dark,wr. Dan Madigan, Australia, 84 min, R). A boyhood friend once said to me, "one out of every six movies made should be a horror movie." Maybe this is what he meant. Or maybe it is too much of a gross out. Kane (Glen Jacobs) is the super serial killer whose specialties are a Green Giant shaped body, a meathook, and a compulsion to gouge out eyes and collect them a la Jeff Dahmer. Eight teens are sent from jail to the Blackwell Hotel for a weekend of community service, cleaning up the hotel to make it into a homeless shelter. Unbeknownst to the police, Kane has holed up in the delapidation for four years since the opening massacre (where arms roll). You know you are going to watch them "get it." There is also a recalcitrant mother (a la Psycho) to get it. Will anyone get out? Maybe. There is even some on camera canine scatology at the end. The 80s reviewer "Joe Bob Briggs" would have said, "Check it out." This one is competition for "Pieces." Other horror films (of the trapped-in-the-cellar, serial killer genre) from this studio (the "Saw" franchise, as well as "Hostel") offer much more meaty ideas than does this gorefest. Kane is no Jigler; he is not interested in "playing a game." (The political film "Syriana" had used "See no evil" as a working title, and fortunately changed the title.) Cast includes Christina Vedal, Mike Pegler, Samantha Noble, Michael J. Pagan.
The Devil's Rejects (2005, Lions Gate / Cinerenta, dir. Rob Zombie, 109 min, R) is said to be a sequel to the same director's "House of 1000 Corpses". A B-movie in Grindhouse style, a few members of the murderous Firefly family escape and go on a rampage in West Texas. A pretty pointless exercise in cruelty, without even claiming to be torture porn. The final drive-in confrontation with the sheriff lasts forever.
Night of the Living Dead (1968, Walter Reade/Continental/ rerelease New Line Cinema, dir. George Romero, 96 min) is a notorious B-movie horror classic shot in grainy black-and-white near Pittsburgh. Once upon a time, corpses start coming back to life if they are not buried in time, and stalking and devouring people, all over the eastern states, in an epidemic of mindless murder and mayhem. Most of the characters are holed up in a farm house as they watch media reports on an old TV or listen to an old Zenith radio console. Gradually, NASA puts the pieces together, as radiation from a space probe returning from Venus has gone awry. Gradually, sheriff's departments around the country get the world: "shoot the brain, kill the ghoul." Or set them on fire. In subsequent years, the film would be condemned by some people as vulgar and anti-social, but today it seems like a parody of anti-Red paranoia.
The Ninth Gate (1999, Artisan, dir. Roman Polanski, novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte). Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is hired by Noris Balkan (Frank Langella) to find a couple remaining copies of a mysterious book about the occult, and the journey takes him into the supernatural, and maybe to Satan or the fallen angels themselves, at every turn, hoping across Europe.
Saint Sinner (2002, USA Films / Universal / Paramount / Sci-Fi Channel, dir. Joshua Butler, story by Clive Barker, 86 min, R, Canada / DGC (of course!)). "A saint does not know that he is so. If saints knew what they were, there wouldn't be any saints." A couple of lines from the script of this silly (at first) horror flick reminds one of the dilemma that Mother Theresa faced. This film was brought by some of the same elements (it seemed to require a lot of companies to make it) that gave us the "4400" series and has some similar ideas. In 1815, a settlement of monks in the general area of British Columbia (Lewis and Clark must have just left) find and guard an old "sculpture" that turns out to be a fossil of two succubi. In an incident, a monk inserts his arm into the blob and it gets amputated. Another monk, Thomas Alcala (a very smooth Greg Serano) invokes the associated Wheel of Time and gets "abducted" to the future (familiar? -- modern day Seattle or Vancouver), 2002, where he has to chase the succubi down. Like the vampire lesbians from Randy Shilts's "Conduct Unbecoming" they can take men down, turn them into blob and do all kinds of horrible things to their bodies.
Most of the film is pretty silly, although you get to see some of Barker's "Nightbreed" monsters, like one giant cockroach. (One of the male victims has been turned into a blob for the police (without Steve McQueen) to find.) Yet, in his larger novels, British author and artist Clive Barker's bizarre ideas start to hang together and make for a real, if personal, theology and belief system, an intellectual message that gets lost in the low budget horror films. He gets the paradox of faith and lifetime sexual commitment, as something that denies perfect knowledge and yet protects people from being rejected and cast away as unwanted. You have to give up something to be needed. Not everyone wants to.
Dawn of the Dead (2004, Universal, story by George Romero and James Gunn, 100 min, R) is an adaptation of the Romero film above. This time the ghouls go shopping in a Milwaukee mall. (It's actually hot there today.) Media reports talk about a virus (in the spirit of "28 Days Later") but then the media goes off the air. People are on their own and any sense of normal respect for human life seems to vanish. At one point, a black fundamentalist pastor who reminds one of Alan Keyes attributes the epidemic to "sin" (including abortion and gay marriage), saying that hell is so overflowing that the dead walk the earth. Finally the living try to escape in busses, like they could really go Greyhound. Kevin Zegers, a young Canadian actor, makes an appealing appearance, along with Sally Polley, Jake Weber, Ty Burrell. The DVD contains a short, fun introduction by the handsome director. It also contains a 20-minute spoof in Orson Wells style, "We Interrupt this Broadcast" to show what the broadcast media would do if an "epidemic" like this really did spread around the world in 24 hours.
The Reaping (2007, Warner Bros. / Village Roadshow / Dark Castle, dir. Stephen Hopkins, wr. Brian Russo, 99 min R). Hilary Swank plays biologist Katherine Winter, who first debunks a plague and miracle in Chile as caused by something like a methane leak. Back at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (where I stayed when I visited New Orleans post Katrina in 2006) she explains the ten plagues in Exodus with the usual History Channel science. (The first born died because they ate more fungus-poisoned food, but they have have actually inhaled more carbon monoxide.) Then she is sent to a small bayou town ("Haven") where the plagues seem to be repeated, starting with the wetlands water turning red. No, it's not algae. The townspeople seem to be grooming a girl to replicate Satan, and in this case the firstborn (and only children) survive, and the others are sacrificed. How's that for birth order morality? There is a lot of other theoretical material here, and the special effects at the end are explosive (and tragic). This film was held up in release, probably because of Hurricane Katrina.
The DVD has extras, including "The Science of the Ten Plagues" and it starts with a discussion of the Santorini Volcano. For the last plague, it shows a real volcanic eruption in Iceland in the 1970s and the chlorine burns on the legs of residents.
The Eye ("Jian gui", 2008, Lions Gate / Paramount Vantage, dir. David Moreau, Xavier Pulad, wr. Sebastian Gituirrez, Canada, remake of film from China, 111 min, PG-13). Jessica Alba plays Sydney Wells, a concert violinist who had been blinded playing with fireworks in early childhood. When she gets a double cornea transplant, she starts seeing ghostly images (like golems) of her donor, and sometimes her field of vision just gets replaced with imagination. Her doctor (Allesandro Nivola) has to break HIPAA confidentiality to reveal the donor, in Mexico, as they travel there to unlock the "cellular memory" from the donor. What happened to the donor is horrible enough, and then to save lives the violinist will pay a big price again. The music included Beethoven (Spring Sonata), and Mozart (3rd violin concerto), and a concert rhapsody resembling Saint-Saens but apparently written for the movie by Marco Beltrami.
Grindhouse (2007, Dimension, multiple directors as below, R, 191 min, USA/Mexico) is an entertainment experience simulating a double feature "B-movie horror" from times past. The previews are of fictitious films "Machete", "Werewolf Women of the SS", "Don't", "Thanksgiving"; The two "features" are:
Planet Terror (dir. Robert Ridriquez). A US military installation has become "infected" with a strange virus from a forlorn attempt to capture Osama bin Laden. Now, zombies are running around, covered with tumors that resembled neurofibromatosis, and they disintegrate easily, sometimes liquefying, when shot by a vigilante team. There are plenty of gross-out effects like castration (almost on camera), multiple amputations with gunshots, and a women who has a stump from a missing thigh fixed with a prosthetic assault rifle; she can actually walk on it. The stump effect reminds me of some sequences from the first "Crash" film -- the forgotten 1996 film with James Spader.
Death Proof (dir. Quentin Tarantino). A serial killer (Kurt Russell) picks up victims in bars or on outdoor movie sets, and lures them into car crashes. One crash at midpoint is particularly graphic as to how trauma injuries really do occur in high speed autochases. In the second half of this segment, the "bimbos" get their karate revenge after catching up with him.
More discussion of the movie-making in "Grindhouse" is at this link.
Alien Trespass (2009, Roadside Attractions, dir. R. E. Goodwin, Canada, 96 min, PG) A miniature "Grindhouse" and 50s spoof. Blogger.
The Darkroom (2006, Overture/Mindfire, dir. Michael Hurst, 87 min, R, USA). Layered story about a mental patient befriending a teenage boy with a sex-offending stepfather. Blogger.
Jennfer's Body (2009, Fox Atomic, dir. Karyn Kasuma, 102 min, R, USA). Layered story about a mental patient befriending a teenage boy with a sex-offending stepfather. Blogger.
Legion (2010, Screen Gems, dir. Scott Stewart, 100 min, R). Angels take over weak souls and provoke Armageddon. Blogger.
The Cursed (2010, TriCoast/Chain Gamg, dir. Joel Bender, 110 min, R) A young novelist ferrets out a Civil War golem in a Southern town. Blogger.
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