Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Haunting - An Excellent Haunted House, Supernatural Thriller

Review by Steve D. Stones
Based on the 1959 novel – The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting (1963) ranks as one of the best haunted house-ghost story films in the genre. The film really packs a punch of scares and will make you want to sleep with a light on after you see it. It's a perfect film for the Halloween season. 

Built in a remote area of New England by a man named Hugh Crane in the early 1870s, Hill House has a reputation for being evil and haunted because of a series of unfortunate accidents that took place there. Ninety years ago, the carriage of Crane's young wife crashes into a tree, killing her, before she even sets eyes on Hill House. 

After the accident, Crane stays in the house and remarries while raising his daughter Abigail. Shortly after the marriage, his second wife falls down stairs in the house and is killed instantly. Crane is accused by locals of killing his second wife, so he flees to England, leaving Abigail in the house with a maid servant. 

Abigail stays in the same nursery room of the house for her entire life until reaching old age as a bed ridden invalid. One night while calling for the maid, Abigail dies in the nursery room. The maid inherits the house, but years later goes insane and hangs herself at the top of a spiral staircase in the library. The spiral staircase proves to be one of the creepiest features of the house, as we see in two separate incidences later in the film. 

Being intrigued by all the stories and misery surrounding Hill House, Dr. John Markway, played by distinguished British actor Richard Johnson, decides to conduct a supernatural experiment in Hill House with carefully selected human subjects. 

A distant relative in Boston of the maid rents the house to Markway, but warns him that everyone who ever stayed in the house never stayed there more than a few days. Luke (Russ Tamblyn), whose aunt now owns Hill House, is one of the group of four staying in the house during Markway's experiment. He is a skeptic of Markway's investigations and beliefs in the supernatural. 

Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom) arrive at the house as test subjects. Eleanor has spent the last eleven years taking care of her ailing mother, so she is anxious to be a part of the group. Theodora was selected by Markway because of her skill of extra sensory perception. Eleanor was selected for experiencing a poltergeist as a child. 

During the first night at Hill House, Eleanor and Theodora hear loud pounding sounds in the walls that get progressively louder. The pounding transitions into a loud laughter of a female voice. While passing Eleanor and Theodora's room that night, Luke and Markway claim they did not hear any pounding in the walls. The two women laugh off their experience as something unexplained. 

At breakfast the next morning, Luke is asked if there is anything that frightens him. He mentions something in the hallway leading to the dining room that frightened him, so he takes the group to the hallway. On the hall wall written in chalk it says: Help Eleanor Come Home. 

Already fragile, Eleanor has a complete breakdown after seeing her name written in chalk. Down the hall from the chalk writing, Dr. Markway discovers a “cold spot” in the hallway near the nursery where occupants standing in the spot can see their breath and feel cold chills. 

Markway's wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) arrives at Hill House to warn her husband that a reporter has learned of his investigations at Hill House despite his attempts to keep the investigations a secret. Markway asks his wife to leave immediately, but she insists that she stay in the house with the group, even though she is a skeptic of the supernatural, much like Luke. She wants to stay in the nursery where Abigail spent most of her life. 

Markway tells her the room is locked and he does not have a key, but the door is wide open as the group approaches the room. Loud banging in the walls and high-pitched wind sounds penetrate the halls of the house the night Grace arrives. Markway runs from the parlor to go check on Grace in the nursery. Grace has disappeared and cannot be found. 

While the group searches for Grace, Eleanor climbs the spiral staircase in the library and is frightened by Grace when she appears through a trap door at the top of the stairs. 

On the DVD audio commentary for The Haunting, actress Julie Harris, who plays Eleanor, mentions that she felt very isolated and distant from the other actors during the production of the film. Her feelings reflect and enhance the great performance she gives on screen because she is the outcast of the group who is always emotionally fragile and distant from all the other actors on screen. On the DVD audio commentary, Actor Russ Tamblyn confirms that Harris was very distant from the other actors during the entire production. 

 Perhaps the biggest star of the film is the richly ornate, Rococo interiors of the house. The richly detailed relief wall carvings and sculptures in the house are a visual treat. A close up shot of a wall relief in Eleanor's room gives the chilling appearance of the face of a monster. 

The stark black-and-white photography greatly enhances the scary and foreboding feeling of the film, which is one of many reasons why the 1999 color remake fails viewers. The 1963 film relies on the psychological impact of not showing any horror on the screen, but instead allowing the viewer to anticipate the horrors that might appear. 

This Halloween season, I highly recommend the original 1963 chiller – The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. Happy viewing and Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 26, 2020

Halloween re-boot in 2018 was a successful thriller

Review by Steve D. Stones

Is the new Halloween movie as good as the 1978 original? Will it become a great classic in time as the original? Perhaps only time can answer these questions. I feel that the new Halloween is not as good as its original, but it has plenty of knuckle-biting sequences to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat, particularly the last twenty minutes of the film. As I watched the film, I enjoyed picking out references from the first film and finding similarities in how scenes are shown.

References to the first two films can be found throughout this film. A mother carving a ham is hammered in the head by killer Michael Meyers as she is watching something on TV in the kitchen, in a scene very similar to one shown in the second film. A babysitter is also murdered and draped with a white ghost sheet – which gives reference to Meyers draping a ghost sheet over himself when he confronts actress P.J. Soles in an upstairs bedroom in the first film.

When Lori Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is thrown through an upstairs window by Meyers, her body is no longer laying on the ground when the camera cuts away from Meyers standing above her, which is similar to the first film when Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is looking out the upstairs window of the Meyers home after Meyers falls to the ground from multiple gunshots at the end.

The director is careful not to reveal the face of Meyers when he is questioned by an interviewer in an opening sequence. He is chained to a block, standing inside a painted square in the yard of a mental institution. Here we see a much older, graying Meyers, but his height and size still make him very imposing.

In the first film, the viewer is not shown how Meyers obtains his iconic mask. Sheriff Brackett simply tells his daughter at the scene of a hardware store burglary that someone stole some Halloween masks and tools from the store, so the viewer assumes that Meyers took the mask from the hardware store. In this new film, the viewer gets to see where Meyers obtains the iconic mask by taking it from the trunk of a car of two reporters who attempt to interview him at the mental institution.

What makes the first film so effective to me is that the violence is much more subtle, and often only implied. This new film uses techniques more appealing to the millennial generation by showing extreme, graphic violence in which the violence is drawn out for a much longer period of time in the scene, such as a gas station bathroom killing sequence near the beginning of the film.

The opening credits also show a similar type face design to the credits shown in the first film, which is a nice touch to the opening of the film. Instead of the camera slowly zooming in on a lit pumpkin as we see in the first Halloween, here we see the pumpkin slowly reshaping itself from being squished.

The new Halloween movie is well worth the price of admission, but only time will tell if it becomes the great classic of the original 1978 film. Happy Halloween!!

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Sadist is a low-budget scary masterpiece

 Review by Doug Gibson

Simply stated, ‘The Sadist’ (watch it here) will scare the hell out of you: Imagine that you are trapped with a psychopath who holds all the cards and seems intent on killing you. While he’s terrorizing you, you can hear the sounds of life going on for all those others who are safe in the world, but you’re just a little bit away from normalcy, and you’re going to die as a result.

That’s the plot of “The Sadist,” a nail-biting, knuckle-crunching, nerve-wracking little movie made in 1963 for $33,000. The plot: Three schoolteachers, two men and a woman, are heading to a baseball game. A detour leads them to psychopath Charlie Tibbs (Arch Hall Jr.) and his moronic girlfriend, Judy Bradshaw (Marilyn Manning). The tension and fear level builds -- in real time, by the way, just like "High Noon" -- as it becomes apparent what a murderous loon Tibbs is. He quickly kills one of the male teachers and engages in a game of I'm Going To Kill You Soon with the others.

Make no mistake: Tibbs is planning to kill the others, Doris Page (Helen Hovey), and Ed Stiles (Richard Alden). They know he lusts to torture and kill them, and like mice locked in a cage with a snake, they desperately seek to extend their terror-filled existence just a little longer. Big-budget studios spent scores of millions of dollars making "Natural Born Killers" and "Kalifornia," but both pale in comparison to the impact of director James Landis' "The Sadist," which has steadily gained fans since its obscure beginnings. The cinematography is top-notch and it ought to be since it was helmed by future Oscar winner Vilmos Zsigmond.

I mention the characters can hear normal life going on through the 94 tense minutes of this film. The radio of the teachers' car is left on and we hear the pre-game show for the Dodgers baseball game. The jocular tone of the announcers heightens the nightmare the victims are living through. They will die yet life will go on. It's a tough message for most of us to accept. The secret of good horror filmmaking is to care about the victims to the point of empathy. Landis achieves that in "The Sadist."

The film was made by producer Arch Hall Sr., who made several films in the 1960s starring his teenage son, Arch Hall Jr. Most of those films are campy for their earnest cheapness . Arch Jr. was a singer with an striking -- not always to a positive -- face. He's best known for the unlikely hit "Eegah," also starring Manning, which has been lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Hall Jr. made only one great film and it was "The Sadist." He is terrifyingly loony and evil playing with his victims. Hall and Manning must have reminded audiences of the then-recent real-like killer Charles Starkweather and girlfriend Caril Fugate, who went on a murder spree only five years earlier.

I want to spare a paragraph talking about Helen Hovey, who played the victim Doris Page. This was the only film she ever made but her acting is mature. She doesn't fall to pieces or gain unnatural inner strength. The ordeal turns her into a survivor, a person willing to scrabble and fight for every second of life. I have no idea if this was intentional but watch her closely in the film. Hovey's character gets more beautiful as the film progresses.

"The Sadist" was paired with another cult film, "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed- Up Zombies" on the drive-in circuit of the 1960s. It took decades for this film to gain its full respect. Had it been made today, DVD exposure probably would have made stars of Hall Jr. and Hovey. (Below is a scene with Hall and Manning and another with Manning terrorizing Hovey). 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Dracula film at 89 -- Lugosi remains the iconic vampire

Read these two Plan9Crunch reviews of the 1931 Universal "Dracula" by your bloggers, myself, Doug Gibson, and Steve D. Stones. Besides "Dracula," TCM is also airing "Dracula's Daughter," "Son of Dracula" and "Nosferatu!"

On with the reviews, and have a delightfully spooky Halloween!.

Dracula, 1931, 75 minutes, Universal, black and white. Directed by Tod Browning. Starring Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, Helen Chandler as Mina Seward, Dwight Frye as Renfield, David Manners as Jonathan Harker and Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing. Schlock-Meter rating: 9 and 1/2 stars out of 10.


As a film, Dracula too often appears like a stage play. Most of the actors aren't particularly strong, and the climax of the film (Dracula's death) foolishly takes place off screen. Nevertheless, thanks to Bela Lugosi -- and to a lesser extent Dwight Frye -- the film remains a classic, a true cult film that brings viewers back for repeat visits to Transylvania, foggy London and Carfax Abbey, the lair of the Count. The plot: Dracula prepares for a move to London. He drives Renfield (a Londoner in Transylvania to help him move), mad, and then arrives in London. He soon ingratiates himself with the Seward family, and lusts for the blood of two ladies. He is foiled when a family friend (Van Sloan) suspects he is a vampire, and pretty Mina Seward (Chandler) is saved when Dracula is destroyed.

It's safe to say that first half hour of this film is perfect, in atmosphere, Lugosi's Dracula, etc. After it moves to Carfax Abbey and the Seward sanitarium, it dips a tad in quality, but returns to perfection when Lugosi is in a scene.

Lugosi's performance is magnificent. He is truly the Count, with his urbane charm, his sly humor (I never drink ... wine.), his greedy eyes sighting blood, his melodramatic answers to questions, and his artful fencing with vampire hunter Van Helsing. However, few critics capture another personality of Lugosi's Dracula: His desire to die. In a poignant scene at an opera, Dracula expounds in melodramatic fashion the peace of death. One realizes in that scene the Count wants to die, that he's as much a prisoner of fate as his victims. He simply lacks the will power to end his long existence.

Frye's Renfield is marvelous. He succeeds in convincing viewers that the secret of the Count -- discovered first hand -- is so horrible that it would drive anyone insane. His mad chuckles when discovered on a deserted ship are chilling. Frye also conveys terror and adoration when pleading with Dracula late in the film. Manners and Chandler are barely adequate as two lovers threatened by Lugosi's Dracula, but Van Sloan is pretty strong as Van Helsing. He manages a sense of humor despite the seriousness of his task, and reminds me of Donald Pleasance's slightly crazy psychiatrist who pursued monster Michael Meyers in Halloween.

Lugosi's eyes, used to seduce victims, are hypnotic. He knew this character -- he'd played Dracula on Broadway. Director Browning conveys atmosphere early in the film with scenes of a coach in the wilds of Transylvania and a ship tossed at sea. Unfortunately, the last two-thirds of the film is often too static and talky. But every scene with Lugosi is a pleasure, and he turns an ordinary film into a classic of the genre.



Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” — Dracula

Creeky castle doors, thick spider webs, a fog-infested cemetery and coffins filled with earth from Transylvania. These items stir up images of one of the greatest screen villains in cinema history — Dracula. The vampire Dracula has appeared on screen and stage more than any other fictional character in the history of literature and films.

What would Halloween be like without Dracula and vampires? We have Irish writer Bram Stoker to thank for the count's immortal image. Considering the fact that Stoker's novel was thought by many critics to be nothing but a trashy, late-19th century exploitation pot boiler that many readers didn't want to know about, it's amazing to think just how long the story and image of Dracula have lasted.

From the moment Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi emerges from his coffin in Tod Browning's 1931 “Dracula,” Hollywood history was made. Lugosi's old-world mannerisms, receding hairline, thick Hungarian accent and flowing cape set the standard for every vampire movie that followed. No actor who portrayed Dracula after Lugosi has been able to top him.

Seeing Dracula on the big screen is a sight you will never forget. Close-up shots of Lugosi's face show just how menacing the immortal count can be. His image both attracts and repels the viewer. He is the ultimate boogeyman who will stop at nothing to leave behind a trail of victims. When Dracula says “there are far worse things awaiting man than death,” we believe him.

Dracula's contribution to popular culture cannot be overestimated. He appears on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs, action figures, comic books, Halloween masks, postcards and lunch boxes.

After the success of “Dracula,” Lugosi became a victim of the fickle Hollywood industry who typecast and pigeonholed him as an actor who could only play Dracula. He appeared as a vampire a total of three times, which included the hugely successful  “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” in 1948. Lugosi was never able to obtain the riches of his rival, Boris Karloff. Today, sales of merchandise associated with Lugosi surpass those of Karloff’s.

May the story and image of Dracula live on for centuries.

Originally published in the Standard-Examiner newspaper.