Archive for September 2015
October’s nearly here! The shops runneth over with Christmas wrap and…oh wait. While it’s true that the stores have shelves full of reindeer and elves, I walk past them to get to the skull display. No skull display? What kind of store is this? I won’t be coming back to this Babies R Us! Anyway, I love Halloween and horror films and skulls so I’m trying to do my 31 Days of Horror thing again. Every October, I try to watch 31 horror movies and do 31 reviews. Watching’s the easy part. I won’t write Proustian rehashes, but I will attempt to get my act together and write some fun horror reviews. Before you say, “Hey! There are more than 31 films listed here! I cry foul!” I say, “Oh hush. I just like to have choices.” Jay from http://thirtyhertzrumble.com/ is doing a 31 Days challenge as well. He mostly writes about James Bond and records, but he likes a good scare as much as the next guy. I’ll use #31DaysofHorror on Twitter to announce new posts.
Here’s my list!
The 7th Victim (1943)
- Stop Me Before I Kill (1960)
Scream of Fear (1961)
- Torture Garden (1967)
From Beyond the Grave (1974)
The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
Dead of Night (1945)
- Cat People (1942)
- Whip and the Body (1963)
- Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966)
- The Beast Must Die (1974)
- Frogs (1972)
Picture Mommy Dead (1966)
And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)
- Deranged (1974)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Gorgon (1964)
- Horror of Dracula (1958)
- The Bloody Judge (1970)
- Madhouse (1974)
- All Cheerleaders Die (2013)
- The Blair Witch Project (1999)
- The House of the Devil (2009)
Stonehearst Asylum (2014)
- Dead End (2003)
- Ghosts of Hanley House (1968)
- The Lodger (1944)
- Wolf Creek II (2013)
- Late Phases (2014)
- Black Sabbath (1963)
- Big Ass Spider! (2013)
- The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- Martin (1977)
- Curse of the Undead (1959)
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
The Houses October Built (2014)
Archivo 253 (2015)
Helter Skelter (1976)
Monster-a Go Go (1965)
Don’t Blink (2014)
V/H/S: Viral (2014)
The Village (2004)
Ghost Adventures: Clown Motel and Goldfield High School (2015)
Attack of the Beast Creatures (1985)
The Deliberate Stranger (1986)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
If gruff, anti-social private eye Philip Marlowe had come of age a few decades later, he’d have been Lew Harper. Sarcastic, flippant, and completely unconcerned with others’ opinions of him, Harper might have responded as Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe did when Lauren Bacall complained about his manners in the 1946 film THE BIG SLEEP. “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.” Paul Newman’s Harper could get away with that.
THE BIG SLEEP comparisons don’t end with the protagonists. In HARPER, the private detective meets his invalid client, Mrs. Sampson under the hot lights of Sampson’s tanning room. In THE BIG SLEEP, Marlowe (Bogart) meets his wheelchair-bound client, General Sternwood, in a stiflingly hot greenhouse. Both films feature wealthy, rudderless people getting conned out of their money by pros. Both films feature glittering facades and gritty interiors. Both films show people succumbing to their baser instincts. This often ends poorly. In THE BIG SLEEP, gamblers and pornographers pull the strings. In HARPER, smugglers and religious charlatans have their hands out. Both Philip Marlowe and Lew Harper meander through labyrinthine plots to find people who may or may not want to be found. Both men use logic and horse sense to cut through the tangled web the bad guys keep weaving. Both men get roughed up a bit and both men do a little conning themselves. The most entertaining scenes in both films involve the detectives’ assuming different identities to get information. Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP pretends he’s a snotty book collector and Newman in HARPER feigns a Texas accent and an attraction to the vulgar, alcoholic Shelley Winters. Both actors manage to lighten up scripts filled with death and debauchery by using their natural charms.
THE BIG SLEEP was based on the great Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. The screenwriters managed to capture the dry wit and world weary attitude Chandler gave Marlowe in his novel. Marlowe’s a smartass with a brain. He’ll bend the rules, but he won’t break them. He’s true to his word and loyal to his friends. He knows the ropes. The good guys trust him and the bad guys can’t figure him out. Paul Newman’s Harper has the same sarcastic quality with a difference. The 1950s saw the beginning of the rebel as hero character and Newman plays the role as that kind of loner. In the 1970s, Bob Rafelson and Arthur Penn would use Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman as their loner/rebels.
Jack is not appearing in this film.
HARPER, based on Ross Macdonald’s novel THE MOVING TARGET was adapted for the screen by prolific writer William Goldman. In the transition from book to film, Lew Archer became Lew Harper. One reason for the switch is the change in leading man. Originally set to star Frank Sinatra in the title role, HARPER reportedly got a new name because of new star Paul Newman’s success with H films. THE HUSTLER (1961) and HUD (1963) helped establish Newman as a star who could act and HARPER and 1967’s HOMBRE reinforced the idea. Newman requested the change and the producers obliged.
“Today’s film is brought to you by the letter H.”
THE BIG SLEEP and HARPER have casts filled with veteran character actors who can handle the witty scripts and fast pace provided by both Howard Hawks (HIS GIRL FRIDAY, RIO BRAVO) and Jack Smight (AIRPORT, DAMNATION ALLEY) respectively. Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Bob Steele, Regis Toomey, and Elisha Cook, Jr. add depth to THE BIG SLEEP. Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Strother Martin, Robert Wagner, and Shelley Winters contribute their considerable strength to each scene in HARPER. There are even connections between the characters in each film. Martha Vickers’ boozy flirt becomes Pamela Tiffin’s spoiled tease. John Ridgely’s gambling boss becomes Robert Webber’s smuggling impresario. One can even make the comparison between Elisha Cook, Jr.’s stand-up guy and Robert Wagner’s handsome fly boy.
One of the things I like best about HARPER is its timelessness. With a slight change in music and wardrobe, HARPER could ride a TARDIS to the 1970s or even back to the 1940s. Written in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, HARPER puts a modern spin on the notions of tough dames, wise-cracking shamuses, and slimy con-men. With his role in HARPER, Paul Newman joins the ranks of Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, and Humphrey Bogart, all of whom played Philip Marlowe, by the way. The 1970s would see a resurgence of jaded private eyes with Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) and Dick Richards’ FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) and give Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum each a turn as the iconic Marlowe.
HARPER did well at the box office, cementing Paul Newman’s star status and allowing him to take his pick of the best films offered him. The next year Newman would eat fifty eggs. In 1969, he’d pair up with Robert Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, launching them both into superstardom. The success of HARPER also paved the way for a second Lew Harper outing in 1975 with Stuart Rosenberg’s THE DROWNING POOL, also starring Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward. HARPER is an entertaining and well-made film that succeeds in bringing fedoras (well, mental ones) and double scotches to sunny California. Through HARPER and its subsequent incarnations, the legacy of THE BIG SLEEP lives on.
A slightly different version of this piece appears in the Brattle Film Notes blog. The Brattle Theatre is a wonderful independent theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here’s a link to the piece. Brattle Film Notes
British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s have a certain macabre look to them. The lighting is dim and Gothic architecture and misty moors abound. The films also look similar because they often cast a veritable repertory company of actors. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Barbara Steele, Ingrid Pitt, Patrick Magee, and American actors like Vincent Price, Burgess Meredith, and Jack Palance often appeared in low-budget films made by Hammer or Amicus Productions.
In Britain during that era, Hammer Productions was the largest and best known of the horror houses. Hammer Productions kept the legends of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy going long after Universal Studios had forgotten them. Hammer’s horror films often starred Lee and Cushing and that alone induced people to buy tickets. At the same time Hammer was running Van Helsing ragged, Amicus Productions was also making horror films. Though Amicus made full-length films like THE DEADLY BEES and THE SKULL, portmanteau horror movies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT gained that studio the most attention.
Competing with Hammer and Amicus and sharing office space at Hammer House in London, Tigon British Film Productions made fewer films, but often used the same actors, sets, and props as the other studios. That means you can see Lee and Cushing in Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, Amicus’ VAULT OF HORROR, or Tigon’s THE CREEPING FLESH. Often directors like Freddie Francis, Peter Sasdy, Terence Fisher, and Roy Ward Baker shuttled back and forth between studios as well. All three studios showed a little gore and a little skin and all three were popular with audiences.
Tigon cast its actors for 1968’s THE CRIMSON CULT or CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR from the Hammer/Amicus horror repertory company. Most of the actors had worked together in earlier films. THE CRIMSON CULT leads Christopher Lee and Michael Gough appeared in films together including HORROR OF DRACULA for Hammer in 1958 and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR for Amicus in 1965. Lee and Boris Karloff starred in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD for MGM in 1958. Familiarity breeds comfort. The fact that these seasoned actors had already worked together allowed them to converse naturally on camera. The best scenes in the film feature the leads sharing a drink and a few barbs before a fire.
“An then the Prime Minister said, Chris…he calls me Chris.”
After his brother goes missing, Robert Manning (Mark Eden), antiques dealer and bon vivant, travels to Craxted Lodge in fictional Greymarsh to find him. The lodge’s owner, Morley (Christopher Lee) and his niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell) invite Manning to stay at the lodge while he searches for his brother. There he meets friendly torture-device expert, Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff) and crabby Elder (Michael Gough). Naturally, Manning’s arrival coincides with the annual bacchanal commemorating the burning of an infamous witch in the village. Manning gets on well with Morley and even better with Eve. Wink wink nudge nudge. He has fun while he’s awake, but at night Manning has hallucinogenic nightmares involving ritual sacrifice and document-signing. In his dreams, Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), an ancient witch sporting green makeup and horns, and her animal mask wearing cohorts try to force Manning to sign an ancient agreement. In his dreams, he fears signing the contract will mean losing his soul.
“You sure you don’t want that TrueCoat?”
Later Manning stumbles upon secret passageways and an altar room, both of which figure prominently in Hammer films and his frightening dreams. With all the talk of contract signing, I couldn’t help thinking of other films in which the characters are coerced to ‘just sign here’. Manning’s dreams remind me of a psychedelic version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, but with less coffee and more blood rituals.
“Pentagrams are for closers.”
The interplay between Morley, Marsh, and Manning is my favorite part of the film. The screenplay by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln has enough witty banter for actors like Lee and Karloff to have fun with. As usual, Lee plays an erudite aristocrat who tells only enough to make you suspect him of something. The looks and asides between him and Karloff are priceless. What about Marsh? Is he the crazed occultist invading Manning’s dreams? He does have a mysterious air and a weird hobby.
Manning and Eve have real chemistry too and their mature love affair is a far cry from most of the American films released in 1968. Vernon Sewell directed THE CRIMSON CULT and it looks as if he had a blast. The party scene, the witch-burning festival, and even the costumes suggest the film-makers were enjoying themselves. Still, a few questions remain. Will Manning find his wayward brother? Will he be able to resist the beautifully verdant, but evil Lavinia Morley? Will Manning stop chugging Professor Marsh’s fifty-year-old cognac like a teenager at a keg party? And finally, who will win the mellifluous voice contest, Karloff or Lee?
THE CRIMSON CULT bears only a slight resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s story, THE DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE. In that, a college student who studies math and folklore begins to have dreams of witches and child sacrifice while living in an accursed house in Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, Massachusetts. The hero also dreams of traveling to other dimensions and meeting intelligent shapes. The filmmakers decided to stick with the more corporeal aspects of the story.
“He’s too old for that hood.”
THE CRIMSON CULT’s distance from Miskatonic University matters less than the presence of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff in one of his last roles, Barbara Steele with horns, and a weird party featuring guests drinking champagne off a woman’s body years before Salma Hayek did it in that Mexican vampire bar. Despite the absence of Cthulhu or even Yog-Sothoth, THE CRIMSON CULT has enough secret doorways, plot twists, and Christopher Lee to make it fun to watch.
A slightly different version of this piece appeared earlier in the Brattle Film Notes blog. Here’s a link. Brattle Theatre
A lone, black candle burns against a black background as we join a séance in progress. The camera pans over the anxious faces of the circle of believers. A soft, reassuring voice breaks the silence. The medium, Myra Savage (Kim Stanley) soothes the unruly spirits.
“I hear dead people.”
After the séance, the faithful step outside, blinking at the daylight and we meet the players. Myra and her husband, Billy switch on the lights to reveal a room full of overstuffed chairs and bric-a-brac. Shabby and overdone, it looks as if it’s been stuck in time for fifty years. As dominant, unbalanced Myra goes on and on about her ‘gift’ we see the weak-willed Billy. He listens to her quiet ramblings with the resignation of a beaten man. As the two discuss their history, Myra belittles Billy, not coarsely, but softly and gently with a sweet lilt in her pretty voice. Amid the ‘yes dears’ and ‘you’re probably rights’, we see that Billy kow-tows to Myra, but she’s dependent on him as well. Constantly seeking reassurance, Myra makes Billy tell her over and over that he needs her and loves her.
“Tell me you love me, Billy!”
“Of course, dear.”
These two quiet, middle-aged people have a plan. You see, for years Myra has held her weekly spiritual meetings for pitiful pay and even less recognition. She craves attention and the means to pull herself out of her drab environment. They plan to commit a crime. Myra will use her psychic powers to solve it thus cementing her reputation as a medium and gaining them some spending money. It’s clear that Myra’s plan doesn’t sit well with Billy and he tries weakly to talk her out of it. Myra can’t be moved and the story begins.
“Does this rag smell like chloroform?”
Their detailed scheme is set in motion as Billy goes out and Myra dispenses instructions from home. Even after the first part of the crime goes off without a hitch, Billy has reservations and the strain of it shows on his face. As the pair dive deeper into their twisted conspiracy, it’s clear that the plot, their marriage, and her sanity rests on a house of cards doomed to collapse.
“Do you smell toast?”
Bryan Forbes (THE STEPFORD WIVES) directs SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON subtly with a slow, but deliberate pace that gives Stanley and Attenborough room to show off their prodigious talents. The dialogue sounds natural and the two experienced character actors paint us a picture of an immature, possibly mad woman and the compliant, dependent man who indulges her. The duo work in shades of gray allowing Myra and Billy to experience a range of emotions and pull us into their strangely touching relationship. Stanley and Attenborough are all restraint and give beautifully nuanced performances. Both were nominated by the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). Attenborough won. The Academy nominated Stanley and she won both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics’ Circle best actress awards. Forbes was also nominated for a BAFTA award for his screenplay based on Mark McShane’s novel.
“Did they spell our names right?”
Gerry Turpin’s cinematography was also BAFTA nominated and deservedly so. The gorgeously shot black and white film has a look that screams 1960s Britain. Turpin contrasts the bleak English countryside and the dull interior of the couples’ home with the clean, modern home of the rich victims of their heinous crime. Forbes and Turpin chose beautiful tableaux to film and spend time there. There are no jump cuts. The suspense comes from the framing of the story and the understated performances of the two leads and the veteran actors like Patrick Magee, Mark Eden, Nanette Newman, and Gerald Sim working with them.
This house; you have to watch it every minute. Wait, wrong movie.
The music and sound effects heighten the suspense as well. Much of the film has no music which accentuates the suffocating stillness of the Savage home. The sounds of nature coupled with John Barry’s (Yes, THAT John Barry!) spare score add to the quirky eeriness of this dark tale.
I recommend SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. It’s a chilling character study that makes me want to see every British film of this era.
“Yes, I know I Want to Hold Your Hand is number one. Yes, I know it’s a séance. You say that every time. Stop giggling.”