Friday, September 23, 2016

Black Sunday – A Film To Make Your Skin Crawl With Goosebumps!

Review by Steve D. Stones

If someone were to ask me what I thought the top ten scariest horror films of all time are, I would definitely list the 1960 classic Black Sunday in the top five. The film certainly deserves to rank as the best horror film of the 1960s. If ever there was a film that fits the title “Gothic Horror,” Black Sunday is it.

Italian director Mario Bava is masterful at creating an eerie atmosphere of old world decay. Black Sunday marks his directorial debut and was also a first for the beautiful raven-haired English born actress Barbara Steele. After the success of Black Sunday, Steele went on to star in a number of 1960s European horror classics, such as Nightmare Castle, Terror Creatures From The Grave, Castle of Blood, The Long Hair of Death, and the Roger Corman classic The Pit & The Pendulum.

Steele plays a Russian princess named Asa living in 17th century Moldavia. Asa and her companion Javutich are accused of witchcraft and making a pact with the devil. Both are executed at the stake with a spiked demon mask hammered into their faces. Before their deaths, Asa vows to return from the dead and seek revenge on all her descendants.

The film then takes us into the future to the nineteenth century. Dr. Choma and his young assistant Dr. Gorobec are traveling through Moldavia in a coach when one of the wheels breaks. The two stop to rest as the driver attempts to fix the wheel. They wander into an old crypt filled with bats and lots of thick, creepy fog. Choma is immediately drawn to a coffin with a glass window. The coffin is of witch Asa executed two hundred years ago.

Dr. Choma accidentally breaks the glass with his cane while trying to hit a flying bat. He reaches into the coffin to remove Asa’s demon mask and cuts his hand. Large scorpions crawl out of the empty eye sockets of the dead Asa. Her skin also reveals the spike punctures from the mask. This is one of the creepiest sequences in the entire film. Choma’s blood drips onto the face of Asa, bringing her back to life.

Another frightening sequence shows a young Russian girl strolling through the dark woods at night to fetch a pail of milk. While milking a cow next to an old cemetery, she witnesses Javutich crawl out of his two hundred year old grave as Asa summons him. He removes his demon mask to reveal a pasty, shriveled complexion covered in cobwebs. This scene makes my skin crawl with goose bumps every time I see it.

What follows for the rest of the film are attempts by Asa and Javutich to murder Asa’s descendants. One of the descendants is the beautiful Katia, also played by Steele, who resembles Asa perfectly.

Black Sunday was also known in European markets as La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of The Demon), House of Fright and Revenge of The Vampire. Sinister Cinema in Medford, Oregon sells a beautiful widescreen print with scenes cut from the American release. The film was banned for nine years in England because of some of the intense, graphic scenes of horror and violence. Director Bava went on to direct many less effective cult horror classics, such as Planet of The Vampires, Kill Baby Kill, Blood & Black Lace and Baron Blood. None of these films achieve the stylish gothic horror atmosphere that makes Black Sunday such a great classic of the horror genre.

Black Sunday is a film I would highly recommend as part of your Halloween festivities this season. Happy viewing and Happy (upcoming) Halloween!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The first Dracula -- the vampire Nosferatu

Nosferatu is the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula novel. Stoker’s widow Florence was unhappy with the similarity of the film to the novel, so prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Fortunately, the film remains in print today, and has been digitally remastered by various DVD distributors with filtered colored scenes and music scores to select from. Many worn public domain prints with missing intertitles are also in circulation.

Real estate agent Thomas Hutter is assigned to travel to the Carpathian Mountains to sell a house to Count Orlok, a strange pale recluse with fangs and elongated fingers. At Orlok’s castle, Hutter is bitten on the neck by the count and held captive in the castle. Hutter escapes, but discovers that Orlok has traveled to Wisborg, Germany with coffins filled with his na├»ve soil and rats to spread the plaque. 

Director F. W. Murnau creates an eerie, dreamlike world where much is left to the imagination of the viewer. Blood is often mentioned, but never shown on screen. A carriage ride sequence shows the film negative in reverse as fog travels through the forest and around the carriage. Other scenes show Orlok’s shadow cast on walls to suggest imposing doom as the count approaches his victims. The count rises from his coffin on board a ship like an erect, phallic symbol. 

After Universal Studios made the 1931 version of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, the count was forever changed as a handsome, sophisticated and aristocratic man. Max Schreck’s characterization of the count, however, portrays him as a rat like creature with claws that repels anyone who encounters him.  In fact, Schreck’s name means “horror” in German. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu has never been matched, and remains the best of all vampire films in the history of cinema. German director Werner Herzog remade the film in 1979, with Klaus Kinski in the role of the count. Happy viewing! 

Steve D. Stones

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: Bloodsuckers From Outer Space

By Steve D. Stones

Just the title alone of this mid-1980s low budget horror film made me want to seek it out. The theme song of the film is also quite campy, yet very catchy. “Bloodsuckers From Outer Space, there’s something in the air! They’re not in it for the money! They’re not in it for the love! They’re out for blood!” I found myself singing this song over and over again in my head as I sat through the film and wrote this article.

A Texas farmer feeds his animals and tends to his duties as a strong wind blows across his farm property. As the wind dies down, the farmer begins to act as if he has a pain in his stomach. He falls to the ground, throwing up blood. As he lies on the ground, it’s obvious that a tube is placed under his left chin as someone is pumping out gallons of stage blood. A young photographer named Jeff Rhoades arrives to photograph some bloody corpses lying in a field near his Texas hometown. Sam, the sheriff’s deputy, insists that Jeff cannot print photos of the corpses in the local newspaper. He asks Jeff to report the cause of death as “exposure to the elements” to avoid public panic.

Beauford, the local hillbilly, suggests that the deaths were caused by local “devil worshipping homos.” Meanwhile, a group of young scientists are conducting experiments at Research City on some of the bloodsucking zombies. One of the zombies happens to be Dr. Pace, who once headed Research City. It seems he has now become one of the bloodsuckers. Dr. Jeri Jett of the group looks and talks similar to the actress Annie Potts in Ghostbusters and the Designing Women TV show of the 1980s. Also in the group is Dr. Ralph Rhoades, who is the older brother of newspaper photographer Jeff Rhoades. After a failed attempt at photographing the corpses for his newspaper, Jeff pays a visit to his Uncle Joe and Aunt Kate. Joe and Kate raised Jeff after his parents were killed in an accident when Jeff was just a boy.

Uncle Joe is interested in Jeff working for him on the family farm as a diary farmer. Jeff insists that he is an artist, and wants to continue to photograph for the local newspaper. “When you gonna learn that art is sh*t? No one understands it,” says Uncle Joe to Jeff. He gives Jeff an ultimatum to either become a diary farmer and inherit the family farm, or go off on his own and keep being a photographer for the local newspaper. Jeff needs time to decide, so he leaves their home to collect his thoughts. While leaving his Uncle’s home, Jeff’s car has a tire blow out. Jeff discovers his spare tire is flat, so he gets angry and breaks all the windows and lights on the car.

A cute brunette in a Corvette pulls up and offers Jeff a ride. He is very happy to accept her offer. She tells Jeff that she’s wandering through town, trying to get away from her hometown of Dallas, Texas. General Sanders of the U.S. Army visits Research City with Major Hood. The general fits the movie stereotype of a general. He smokes large cigars, has a southern accent, wears sunglasses, and arrogantly talks trash of other people.

Dr. Rhoades and Dr. Jett inform the general that an energy field has descended upon some of the local citizens and has had a bizarre effect on those who were infected by it. They go on to say that the infected have respiratory problems that cause blood hemorrhaging in the blood vessels, causing them to become bloodsucking zombies. General Sanders does not buy into their analysis, and labels them as “scientific wise *sses.” He insists on destroying the bloodsuckers, instead of allowing the scientists to continue to conduct research on them.

After making out at Jeff’s home, Julie and Jeff return to Uncle Joe and Aunt Kate’s home for dinner at the dairy farm. Jeff and Julie arrive, only to discover that his Aunt and Uncle are now bloodsucking zombies. Uncle Joe attacks Jeff. Jeff cuts off Joe’s arm with a shovel. Jeff and Julie flee the home. The two stop by an abandoned home to make a phone call, where another bloodsucking farmer attacks Julie. Jeff finds a chainsaw and cuts off the farmer’s head as he is standing. The corpse continues to walk around as blood pours out of his neck.

Jeff and Julie’s only hope now is to go to Research City to find his brother Dr. Rhoades. When they arrive, they find that Dr. Pace has broken free, and is giving a lecture in an auditorium to the four remaining research doctors. All four doctors are sitting on the front row dead, including Jeff’s brother Ralph. Once again, Jeff and Julie flee the scene. They run out of gas and are forced to sleep in Julie’s car overnight. The next morning, Jeff and Julie go looking for gas in a small town named Enloe.

Jeff calls Sam, the sheriff’s deputy, to tell him about the events he has witnessed. Sam is uninterested and does not believe him. Jeff has called Sam while he is having sex with his girlfriend. Sam and his girlfriend quickly take a shower together before Jeff and Julie arrive. Here they experience a strong wind blowing in the shower that turns them into zombies. They too have become bloodsuckers, and greet Jeff and Julie as zombies when they arrive.

The military arrives in the town of Enloe to kill the zombies. The soldiers fall victim to a trap the zombies have set for them. The zombies corner the soldiers and rip them apart. General Sanders calls the President of The United States to suggest that a nuclear bomb be dropped on the infected area of Enloe. The President answers the phone call with a busty blonde woman sitting on his lap. She looks just like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. The President points out that a nuclear bomb cannot be dropped on a town of innocent American citizens. The beautiful blonde stokes his hair and smiles frequently. He continually stares down at her cleavage while talking on the phone with Sanders.

Finally, the President gives in to the general’s demands if he promises not to call or bother him any further. The general has the President’s authority to drop a bomb. This is one of the funniest scenes in the entire film. General Sanders pushes a button on a computer, launching a stock footage sequence of a missile darting out of the ocean and an A-bomb explosion. Major Hood informs Sanders that the bomb came nowhere near the target, but instead landed on a Methodist encampment some 60 miles away from the target. At least he was able to destroy some religious fanatics, even if it was a big mistake. No big loss.

As I watched this film, I thought of so many other low budget films that I have seen a million times. I immediately thought of the 1956 version of Invasion of The Body Snatchers. In that film, it’s giant space pods that take over the bodies of a small California town. This becomes a metaphor for the “red scare” tactics of McCarthyism that was going on in the 1950s.

In Bloodsuckers From Outer Space, it is the wind that impacts the citizens of a small Texas town and causes them to become bloodsucking zombies. General Sanders even refers to the bloodsuckers' problem as a “communist conspiracy.” This is where I drew the connection of Bloodsuckers From Outer Space to Invasion of The Body Snatchers.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Review: In Search of Lost Films -- by Phil Hall

Review by Steve D. Stones

In his recent book, In Search of Lost Films (published by Bear Manor Media), author Phil Hall gives an interesting analysis for why so many important films have been lost over time. Two reasons, with regard to the silent era, have to do with the easy destruction of nitrate (nitrocellulose) film catching fire and the fact that the artists who made these early films may have seen them simply as a disposable commodity to make money, with no desire to want to preserve the films as works of art for future audiences. 

As Hall points out, sculptures, paintings and manuscripts are usually the work of an individual artist. Films, however, are a collaborative process involving many individuals. This makes it all the more puzzling as to why great effort was not taken to preserve these old films. No art medium is permanent, unfortunately. Even in our internet, digital age, images are subject to being lost forever over time. 

The book contains sections on not only lost films, but also lost film careers and lost scenes from well known films.  Actress Theodosia Goodman, later known as Theda Bara, dreamed of being a big star on Broadway, but it never happened. Fox Studios cast her in her first role in The Stain in 1914. She disappeared for a short time, then starred in A Fool There Was (1915) where her name was marketed at Theda Bara. With this film, Bara established a strong sex appeal, and perhaps became cinema's first female "sex symbol." Today, only five of Bara's films have survived. 

Although many films of Lon Chaney are still with us today, Hall discusses Chaney's most sought after film - London After Midnight (1927) which was directed by Tod Browning and is considered lost. Some critics and film historians have suggested that the film may have been confusing, boring, and did not appeal to silent era audiences. Nevertheless, London After Midnight is considered one of the most sought after films in cinema history. What remained of the film is thought to have been burned in a fire in Vault #7 at MGM studios in 1967. 

Of particular interest to me was Hall's mention of two lost Phil Tucker films - Space Jockey (1953) and Pachucco (1956). In the world of "bad" cult movies, Tucker is best know for his delightful anti-masterpiece - Robot Monster (1953). Tucker states that Space Jockey was his worst film, but fans like myself would still love to see the film, but likely never will. Space Jockey was made prior to Robot Monster. Elmer Bernstein, a respected composer in Hollywood, and composer of the Robot Monster score, is said to have composed the music for Space Jockey. 

Ed Wood's gritty porn film Necromania (1971) is also mentioned in the book. Necromania was thought to have been lost, until a print was discovered at a yard sale in 1992. 

Speaking of Wood, some internet buzz in recent years has suggested that Wood may have had something to do with the gay porn film Him (1974), also discussed in Hall's book. The Medved brothers' 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards mentions that Him is "the most unerotic concept in pornography." The Medveds mention Ed D. Louie as the director of Him, which may be a screen pseudonym for Ed Wood. This has never been confirmed. 

My view is - Why would Ed Wood make a gay porn film in the first place? He may have made heterosexual porn films, and he may have liked to dress in women's clothing, but that does not give any reasoning for him to journey into the gay porn genre. It's safe to say that Wood had nothing to do with the film - Him. 

Chapter six of Hall's book discusses sequences missing or taken out of known films, such as Greed (1925), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943), and Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). 
Test audiences viewing Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man laughed at Bela Lugosi's spoken dialogue as the monster. His Hungarian accent will forever be associated with Dracula (1931), which may be one of many reasons why the test audience did not like Lugosi's sequences of spoken dialogue. Lugosi's talking sequences were removed from the film, trimming its length down considerably.

Stanley Kubrick's Cold War parody - Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb had a scene cut from the film in the War Room. The scene is said to be a Mack Sennett style, slapstick comedy sequence in which dignitaries at the war room table throw cream filled pies at each other. Studio executives were skeptical of the scene, and requested that it be shot in one take. Kubrick later eliminated the pie fight scene from the film. 

Hall ends the book on a positive note in saying there is always great hope that lost films of great cinematic and artistic significance will be rediscovered somewhere, whether it's in someone's basement, a lost Hollywood vault, or perhaps at a yard sale. Rediscovering old, lost films is a very fluid situation, as Hall points out, but there is always hope that more and more films will be discovered in the future. 

In the meantime, we can only hope that a print of London After Midnight will show up one day. I'm still waiting for a print of Andy Milligan's lost film - The Naked Witch (1967) to turn up.  Happy reading!