Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tod Browning was a director who made movies for a Halloween evening

(This column originally ran in the Oct. 25 Standard-Examiner newspaper)

By Doug Gibson

My friend, Steve Stones, and I have a blog on cult movies. As a result, sometimes we are asked to recommend a suitably chilling Halloween movie. That’s a little like being given $25 and being asked to buy that one novel you want more than any other novel. There’s just too much competition.
To enjoy great films, think of them as samplers of genres, directors or stars. You like Bela Lugosi, (I do), Check out “Dracula,” “The Black Cat,” “The Raven” and “Son of Frankenstein.” You like Vincent Price? Try “The Tingler,” “Tower of London” and “The Conqueror Worm.” I favor the older films but I don’t discriminate against new films. Watch Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” and then rent his earlier films “Army of Darkness” and “Dark Man.”
This year I hope people will discover, or re-discover Tod Browning, a director whose popularity peaked during the silent era. Although he directed Lugosi in “Dracula,” his career declined in the ‘30s and by 1939 it was over. As a boy late in the 19th century, Browning ran away from home and joined the circus. He was a contortionist and lived closely with the carny lifestyle. Later he was a fairly successful early silent movie actor before gaining fame as a director.
Always fascinated with the circus lifestyle, Browning cultivated the talents of a young actor named Lon Chaney. Dubbed the man of a thousand faces, Chaney was the biggest star of the late silent era. The actor was an incredible physical specimen, and a perfectionist. He created faces in two films, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the now-lost “London After Midnight,” that have not been matched in fright value. Chaney died just before he was to film “Dracula.” His death opened the door for Lugosi and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein’s monster) to achieve stardom.
In 1927, Browning directed Chaney in the silent film “The Unknown.” It is my first selection for a Halloween evening. Set in a circus, it stars Chaney as circus attraction, “Alonzo the Armless,” who shoots arrows safely at a pretty circus girl, Nanon, played by a very young — and gorgeous — Joan Crawford. Chaney really isn’t armless, he’s a violent criminal on the lam. With a trusted assistant’s help, he wraps his arms to his sides to escape detection. Chaney is in love with Nanon. With his eyes and facial grimaces, he lets us know what a possessive, frustrating, tinder-box love it is. He can’t bear the sight of the circus strongman, Malabar the Mighty, who admires Nanon, and he encourages Nanon to distrust Malabar.
Chaney’s obsessive love for Nanon leads him to really remove his arms in an operation. When he returns weeks later, expecting to pursue Nanon and find his love requited, he discovers Nanon and Malabar have fallen in love and will be married soon. In my opinion, the two minutes of Chaney’s reaction to the news, bewilderment, frozen smile, pantomime of maniacal laughter and threatening glare, is the finest acting of the silent era. This is a tight, 50-minute film (some inconsequential scenes are lost).
Besides “Dracula,” the film Browning may be best known for is the 1932 “Freaks.” It is a masterpiece of surreal horror. The plot involves a selfish, beautiful trapeze artist (Cleopatra) who marries a little man (Hans) for his money. With her strongman lover (Hercules), she plots to kill Hans. Their big mistake is that they assume the circus “freaks” are little children, rather than adults capable of retribution. What they learn too late is that the “freaks” — and the actors really were such — act like children as a defense mechanism. They want to be left alone. But threatened in their environment, they draw strength from numbers.
For 40-plus minutes of this slightly longer than an hour film, we are not scared. Instead, we learn about life in a circus, and we view the “freaks” as human beings. The last 20 or so minutes are horrifying as the “freaks” gain revenge on two who would falsely request their trust and then try to kill one of them. The scenes of the “freaks” with knives and guns, peering through windows and under wagons, slithering, hopping, sliding and pursuing Hercules and Cleopatra through a dark rainy night are frightening. For years, the fim ended with a brief, jarring shot of what the “freaks” had done to Cleopatra. It’s one of the most shocking finales in film. But I recently saw “Freaks” on Turner Classic Movies and the print added an epilogue with Hans and other characters that diminishes the impact a little.
“Freaks” was ahead of its time. The suits at MGM hated the film and barely distributed it. More than any other film, it damaged Browning’s career. In fact, it was banned in Britain for 40 years. See it for yourself: it’s a masterpiece that draws on Browning’s love and respect for carnival life.
One more Browning film worth seeing is the 1936 “The Devil-Doll.” It stars Lionel Barrymore as Paul Lavond, a framed banker who breaks out of France’s Devil’s Island prison with a mad scientist who can turn people into doll-sized humans who can be manipulated by human masters’ thoughts. It’s a wild plot. Outside Paris the mad scientist dies. Lavond’s and the scientist’s widow — who is as crazy as her husband — continue the experiments. She wants to turn the whole world little; Lavond just wants to gain revenge on his ex-partners who framed him and also help his blind mother and daughter, who were impoverished by his imprisonment. He uses the “devil dolls” to get his revenge on his ex-partners and clear his name.
Watch this film for the special effects and Barrymore’s performance. He’s great as a mostly decent man who can’t control his thirst for revenge and knows it.
All these films are inexpensive, pop up on Turner Classic Movies and can be rented. Trust me, they are far better than “Saw VI,” or any of the “Saw(s)”.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: Two Thousand Maniacs


(This review was originally published in The Standard-Examiner newspaper)

"Two Thousand Maniacs." Directed in 1964 by "The Godfather of Gore," Herschell Gordon Lewis, who gave us such cult favorites as "Blood Feast," "Color Me Blood Red" and "The Gruesome Twosome." This film is appealing to me because it is a reworking of "Brigadoon," and has a charming "backwoods," hillbilly flavor to it that is very fun to watch.

A small ghost town in St. Cloud, Fla., comes to life to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. The town diverts a carload of Northern tourists to the town to include them in a series of gruesome festivities, such as a man placed in a rolling barrel spiked with nails, a woman tied down to a bull's-eye target with a giant boulder hanging above her, and a young man tied to two horses that pull his body in two directions.

The musical performances add to the Southern hillbilly tone of the film. The film also inspired cult director John Waters' 1970 film "Multiple Maniacs," and is said to have inspired the name of the pop-rock band 10,000 Maniacs.

-- Steve Stones

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oogah, oogha Eegah!

Eegah, 1962, 90 minutes, directed by Nicholas Merriwether (Arch Hall Sr.) Starring William Watters (Arch Hall Sr.), Arch Hall Jr., Marilyn Manning, Richard Kiel, Ray Dennis Steckler. Color. Schlock-Meter rating: ******* out of 10 stars.

Eegah is a rotten movie. Let’s make that clear right away. So why does it merit 7 stars. Because it’s so much fun to watch (and laugh at). The plot involves a prehistoric ageless giant (Richard Kiel, who later gained fame as “Jaws” of the James Bond films) who invades Palm Springs. This giant has the hots for Roxie, a pretty, adult woman (Marilyn Manning) who “acts” in the movie as a teen queen. Her boyfriend is an ugly 16-year-old kid named Tommy (Arch Hall Jr.) who sings with no talent. Hovering around is Roxie’s dad (Arch Hall Sr.) and some talentless extras.

The acting is worse than anything Ed Wood ever did. The direction is pathetic. You feel pity for the ugly Arch Hall Jr., who as star is being asked to carry a film. He fails. There’s no sparks between this ugly runt and his supposed girlfriend, and that’s not surprising since she must be five years old than him. Marilyn Manning also can’t act. When the caveman “Eegah” has her trapped in a cave with rape on his mind, a smile never leaves her face and she cracks tasteless jokes. One can understand her interest in the 7-foot-plus Kiel, since he’s a far better catch than Tommy.

In the end, when Eegah invades Palm Springs, grunting and bellowing for his Roxie, he attracts less attention than a middle class matron window shopping in Beverly Hills. Extras smirk as Eegah “chases” them through old motels and dingy restaurants. Eventually, a cop, bored with the whole act, shoots Eegah at a pool party, killing him.

Yet, Eegah is worth a rental, and the MST3K version is a scream. It’s so bad it’s funny, and viewers find themselves drawn into the movie, waiting for the next scene of bad dialogue, inept acting, poor singing, horrible special effects and mediocre editing. In fact, this film grossed over a million dollars in the 1960s and was a big hit on the drive-in circuit, according to Arch Hall Sr.

--Doug Gibson

Monday, October 26, 2009

Review of Flash Gordon! (the newer one)

Flash Gordon, 1980

Originally published in the Standard-Examiner newspaper.

If ever there was a "guilty pleasure" that makes me "feel good," it is the 1980 film "Flash Gordon," starring Sam Jones in the title role. As a boy, I saw this film in theaters at least six times. When my parents got cable television in 1981, I watched it at least three times on HBO in one day.
Based on Alex Raymond's popular comic strip of the 1930s, Flash Gordon rockets to the planet Mongo with Dale Arden and Professor Hans Zarkov to save the Earth from the evil clutches of Ming the Merciless, played by Max von Sydow.
I find this film appealing because Sam Jones in the role of Flash seems a bit naive, and the lava-lamp-cheesy special effects add to the campy flavor of the film. If you don't take it too seriously, "Flash Gordon" is a delightful film to watch at 3 a.m. in the morning. Keep watching the skies!!!

-- Steve Stones

Saturday, October 24, 2009

All about The Beast of Yucca Flats

The Beast of Yucca Flats 1961, 54 minutes, B&W. Anthony Cardoza, Executive Producer, written and directed by Coleman Francis. Starring Tor Johnson as Dr. Joseph Javorsky. Cast includes Francis, Larry Aten, Bing Stafford and Conrad Brooks. Schlock-meter rating, 3 stars out of 10.

Few films are as inept as The Beast of Yucca Flats. After watching it, I'm convinced that a talented group of ninth graders with a few thousand dollars and a long weekend could do a better job than Tor Johnson, Coleman Francis and company. The plot? A woman is murdered. A defecting Russian scientist (Tor Johnson) is attacked in a desolate part of Nevada by communist agents. An atom bomb explodes. Tor is turned into a mutant beast who wants only to kill. Tor kills, then chases a hapless family through the Yucca Flats. Finally, two inept cops kill Tor.
Be forewarned: The preceding plot summary is far more exciting than this dog of a film. There is virtually no action, and when Tor is on the chase, his big, aging blubbery body inspires far more pity than fear. Francis shot the film without dialog, which was dubbed badly into the finished film. The viewer rarely sees lips move when actors speak. Also, the self-pretentious Francis adds ridiculous, over-the-top narration, spoken like a man on LSD. My favorite meaningless phrase is "Flag on the Moon."
It merits three stars only because The Beast is Tor Johnson, whose always fun to watch bellow. Those who dare watch it should see the MST3K version. At least there's a few laughs. (Doug Gibson speaking: I must admit, adding to this a few years later after originally writing the review, the film has grown on me. It is bad, but unique and strangely watchable; a real cult film. I give it an extra star!)
Notes: Ed Wood actor Conrad Brooks has a small role; Cult figure Titus Moody helped with production; Coleman Francis directed three films spoofed by MST3K: Beast, Skydivers, and Red Zone Cuba; Francis' wife and sons were in the film. The non-MST3K version has a very brief nude scene. "Beast of Yucca Flats" is essentially a silent film, with narration and brief dialog, obviously recorded since you don't see the speaking actors' faces. The entire film can be seen on YouTube. Watch it below.

-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI — Directed in 1919 by German expressionist filmmaker Robert Wiene, this silent masterpiece has been regarded as the first cult film in cinema history. The film concerns a young student named Francis who encounters an evil magician named Dr. Caligari at a traveling fair. Caligari's "act" at the fair consists of a frightening somnambulist named Cesare, who has lain asleep in a coffin for over 25 years. When awakened, Cesare predicts certain death to Francis' friend, and is blamed for a series of murders that take place in the nearby town. (A scene from the film is shown above left)

This film has many interesting characteristics of both German-Expressionist painting and film, such as the transformation of everyday objects — furniture, windows, walls and buildings — into unmistakable symbols that reveal a hyper-psychological essence and the opposition of the standards of naturalism.

"Caligari" is an important film in the history of the cinema because it lays the groundwork for many devices used in contemporary horror films, such as the use of the "mad doctor" or "mad scientist" theme used in many Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, and the use of light, a sense of terror and tension in filmmaking. I highly recommend this film to anyone studying silent films.
(This review was originally published in the Standard-Examiner)

-- Steve Stones

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rob Zombie's Halloween 2007

John Carpenter’s classic film Halloween literally took the box office by storm in 1978. It was immediately hailed as “the new Psycho of the 1970s” and remained the highest grossing independent film for more than 20 years, despite a budget of only $320,000.

It ushered in the “slasher genre” of the 1980s, and remains a classic of the horror film. Its influence can still be seen in many horror films of today.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. Rob Zombie’s 2007 reworking homage to Carpenter’s film is also a real treat for the horror film aficionado. Zombie concentrates on giving the audience the point of view of the Michael Meyers character, his childhood, and the transition he makes from a child’s clown mask to the iconic Michael Meyer’s mask that has become so familiar to moviegoers and horror fans.

This time we see a more human side to the Meyers character and less of the supernatural characteristic that defines Meyers in the Carpenter film. The Meyers family can be defined as the typical dysfunctional, middle-American family, with a divorced mother, Deborah Meyers, who works as a stripper, played by the director’s wife Sherrie Moon Zombie, and her deadbeat lazy boyfriend who constantly argues with Judith and avoids the children.

The Meyers home is in constant chaos, which drives Michael to trapping and killing animals in the home bathroom while wearing his clown mask. Zombie makes many of the same references that Carpenter makes in his film, such as a scene of Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing playing on the television, and the music of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” Young Michael Meyer’s even wears a KISS T-shirt to school.

The one reference that got my attention immediately is a scene of a young couple having sex in the Meyer’s rundown house while they play the punk rock song “Halloween” by The Misfits, which is sung in Latin. Zombie has also kept the eerie Carpenter score from the original film intact. Zombie spends more time showing the audience the interaction that takes place between Dr. Samuel Loomis, played by Malcolm McDowell, and Michael Meyers as a child. Dr. Loomis records his thoughts into a tape recorder while videotaping young Meyers in his handmade masks.

Meyers spends his time at the sanitarium making paper mache masks. His obsession grows to a room full of masks covering every inch of wall space in his cell. Another major difference between the two films is that the Lori Strode character in the Carpenter film is a virginal, bookworm babysitter who avoids boys out of complete shyness. Lori Strode in the Zombie film is at times a very sexual, nasty teenager who isn’t afraid to use foul language and talk about boys. She appears to be more confident about herself, and enjoys participating in the normal behaviors of a teenage girl.

From a complete visual standpoint, I found this film to be very well made, with genuine scares that kept me on the edge of my seat. Zombie manages to make horror films that combine bizarre visuals and rapid montages that work well with his choice of sound and music. Like his music and live performances, you will walk away from Halloween feeling very entertained and genuinely frightened.

I highly recommend this film to any horror film buff and fan of Zombie’s music. Two thumbs way up on this one!!!!!

-- Steve D. Stones

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The '60s space opera The Human Duplicators

The Human Duplicators, 1965, 80 minutes, color, directed by Hugo Grimaldi. Starring George Nader as Glenn Martin, Richard Kiel as Dr. Kolos, Dolores Faith as Lisa, Barbara Nichols as Gale Wilson, Hugh Beaumont as Austin Welles. Schlock-Meter rating: 7 stars out of 10.

“The Human Duplicators” is an absolutely funny movie. It boasts horrible, funny special effects, an Outer-Space android villain (Kiel) who speaks like a surfer valley boy in California, a blind “girl” who is clearly an adult (Faith), and the worst performance ever by a female secret agent (Nichols).

The plot: Kiel is sent from another planet to take over from an earth scientist the creation of android duplicates of humans. He takes over the scientist’s house and laboratory and turns everyone into androids, except the blind “girl,” who he develops a crush on. Two government secret agents (Nader and Nichols) are called in when one of the androids crashes a secret government agency (which looks a lot like a motel) and creates havoc. The androids appear to be made of porcelain, since they crack into pieces when they stumble.

Eventually, Kiel turns traitor to his cause, battles the androids he has created and saves the day. In a scene meant to bring tears, he returns home to be destroyed, (or perhaps receive a new voice accent). There is one cool scene where secret agent Nader escapes from a dungeon and has to battle his android, himself.

A real treat: Late in the movie, during an action sequence, a cameraman filming from the outside can clearly be seen. As mentioned, Nichols, who also plays Nader’s girlfriend, is pathetic. This high-level government agent boasts a terrible New York accent that Fran Drescher would spurn. Also, her giggling cutie-pie persona and annoying nasal whine makes her more suitable for burlesque than the CIA.

However, this is one of those truly “so-bad-it’s entertaining” cult fiascoes and is worth a rental. The MS3K version adds to the hilarity. Notes: “Leave It to Beavers” Hugh Beaumont has a small role as a government agents and 60s actress Margot Teele, who often played “sexpots” in The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle USMC, has a small role as a lab assistant/android. Faith starred in another Grimaldi film, "Mutiny in Outer Space."
-- Doug Gibson

Monday, October 19, 2009

Billy the Kid versus Dracula ...??

Billy the Kid versus Dracula

Billy the Kid versus Dracula, directed by William Beaudine, Circle Films, 1961. Starring John Carradine as Count Dracula, Chuck Courtney as Billy the Kid, Melinda Plowman as Betty Bentley. Others in cast include Harry Carey, Jr., Roy Barcroft, and Olive Carey. 1966, Color, 73 minutes. Schlock-meter rating: 6 stars out of 10.

I have a soft spot for this movie, which puts me at odds with just about every other film critic. Okay, I know that the plot is feeble, the acting poor, the special effects a joke. And it's a fraud to vampire lore, since Carradine spends a lot of his time out in broad daylight.

Nevertheless, it's a fun little film if not taken seriously and the offbeat plot (Hero Billy the Kid matching wits with Dracula) is unique enough to merit a few stars. The plot: Dracula (on vacation?) is in the Old West. He provokes Indians into killing everyone on a stagecoach, then assumes the identity of a rich Eastern banker whose niece (who Dracula has the hots for) is about to marry a reformed Billy the Kid. THAT IS a bizarre plot -- even Ed Wood may not have come up with something that unique.

This is definitely not Carradine at his best; in fact he seems many times to just walk through his role (he considered it his worst film), but the old vampire master has a few good scenes, and manages to be quite sinister at times. Billy The Kid versus Dracula was made with Jesse James meets Frankenstein's Daughter (not quite as good). Both were directed by Beaudine and played primarily Saturday kiddie matinees together. The film can be seen occasionally late at night on TCM.

-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Another review of Carnival of Souls

CARNIVAL OF SOULS — Directed in 1962 by independent filmmaker Herk Harvey. Utahns will be pleased to know that a large part of this film was directed in Utah, including the old Saltair fairgrounds at the Great Salt Lake and various locations in downtown Salt Lake City, such as a scene in front of Temple Square.

A carload of drag-racing teenage girls plunges into a river. Soon after, the car is towed out of the river, and one girl survives. ... To forget the tragedy, the girl (Candace Hilligos) moves to a small town here in Utah to become a church organist. She begins to have paranoid hallucinations of being watched and chased by zombie-like phantoms.

Her only escape is to trespass on the grounds of the old Saltair fairgrounds to confront the zombies who haunt her mind. There, we discover she meets her second death to the zombies because she actually died in the car crash at the beginning of the film.

This film is said to be the inspiration for George A. Romero's horror masterpiece "Night of the Living Dead." A true cult classic.
(This review was originally published in the Standard-Examiner newspaper)

-- Steve D. Stones

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bela Lugosi's last British gig: Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire

By Doug Gibson

LUGOSI'S FINAL BRITISH FILM ... is NOT THAT GOOD ... BUT it's not as bad as many claim. In fact, it's the final film Bela Lugosi made where he looked healthy and in charge of the production. Its main weakness is that it's a unique bit of very low-brow British comedy that was popular from the 20s to the early 1950s. "Old Mother Riley" was an ugly, cockney, ignorant widow (played by actor Arthur Lucan in drag) who muddled herself into various ridiculous situations, dragging around her fatherless daughter, Kitty, played by Lucan's wife, Kitty McShane.

Lucan and McShane gained a reputation in music halls within the British provinces. They made a string of "Mother Riley" films that earned small profits in England but were not released in the U.S. By 1952, the series was about kaput, and Lucan and his wife were separated. Renown Pictures, which was producing Mother Riley films, noted the success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and used a Renown executive, Richard Gordon, to get Lugosi to make "Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire." Gordon, a frend of Lugosi, had arranged a Dracula stage tour for Lugosi in England. For $5,000, Lugosi, well past his prime, was eager to make the film.

The plot involves Mother Riley getting her mail mixed up with a mad scientist named Von Housen (Lugosi) who thinks he's a vampire. Mother Riley gets a killer robot, Von Housen gets a bed warmer. Von Housen uses the robot to kidnap Mother Riley to his mad scientist house, with sinister servants and secret passageways, etc. Von Housen, delighted to find out Mother Riley has his favorite blood type, serves her lots of rare beef and liver. Von Housen, also seeking uranium to build more robots, has kidnapped a young lovely (Maria Mercedes) and her boyfriend. The girl's dad apparently knows where to find uranium, or something.

It's often not too clear because this movie is not really a Lugosi film. It's a showcase for Lucan's manic Mother Riley, with her rapid dialect that is hard for Americans to understand. Lugosi plays well in the film. As he did in every film, he gave it his all. Lucan's humor is very corny and not too funny. The final half of the film is comprised of Mother Riley trying to get the cops to believe her, a very unfunny battle with the robot, and a wild chase through London. As many critics have mentioned, "Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire" fails because it makes the bad guys, the "monsters," look ridiculous. "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" succeeds because the monsters stay scary, and only the comedy stars do comedy. The director of the film was John Gilling, who later directed better films, including Hammer's "Plague of the Zombies." The role of a helpful maid, that might have gone to Lucan's estranged wife, Kitty McShane, was instead played by Dora Bryan, who later gained a measure of fame as a serious actress.

Gordon tried to pitch the film in the U.S. as "Vampire Over London," but there were no buyers. Lucan's Mother Riley comedy was too unique to British provinces for the U.S. market. Gordon considered taking out all Mother Riley scenes and shooting new scenes with Lugosi for a film called "King Robot," but Lugosi's soon-declining health killed that idea.

In the early 60s, it was eventually released as "My Son the Vampire," with comedy singer Allan Sherman singing a song with that nonsensical title in the opening credits. That version, which omits a dark Lugosi chuckle at the beginning as well as the actor's screen credit, is what is sold in the U.S. today and plays on Turner Classic Movies. The original British version, which might be interesting for Lugosi completists, can be purchased at AmazonUK as a Region 2 DVD. Sinister Cinema sells a print with the little-used "Vampire Over London" title. The credits at least include Lugosi's name, although there is no Lugosi chuckle.

A footnote: For many years a myth endured that Lugosi's 1952 British Dracula stage tour failed and the actor and his wife were left stranded and broke in London. The myth further states that he made "Old Mother Riley ..." just so he and his wife could have transportation fare to return home. That myth is still repeated in books and on Web sites. It's a fun tale but completely untrue. As authors Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks recount in their book, "Vampire Over London," the Dracula tour provided steady work for Lugosi -- who enjoyed good reviews -- in England for several months. It played the English provinces and suburbs of London. Its only failing was that it was not of enough overall quality to make the West End, Britain's Broadway. The "Old Mother Riley" film was in fact a bonus for Lugosi, a nice windfall -- he and his wife had already earned enough money to easily make it back to the states.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Conqueror Worm: Classic British horror

The Conqueror Worm (Also known as Witchfinder General)1968, United Kingdom, American International release, Color, about 88 minutes. Stars: Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, Hilary Dwyer as Sara, Rupert Davies as John Lowes, Robert Russell as John Stearne and Ian Ogilvy as Richard Marshall. Schlock-Meter rating: 9 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

Ever wanted to see how really evil a person Vincent Price could portray in a film? Go rent, or buy, the Conqueror Worm. This is a magnificent film about 17th Century England and witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (Price) who is the law in a war-torn land. The plot: The sadistic Hopkins and his henchman Stearne (Russell) terrorize towns by executing “witches” and collecting cash for their services. In Brandiston, they torture an aged preacher. In order to save the preacher’s life, his niece Sara (Dwyer) agrees to be Hopkins’ sex slave. But after Stearne rapes Sara, Hopkins loses interest in Sara and kills her uncle.

Back from the wars arrives Sara’s intended Richard Marshall (Ogilvy) and when he finds out how his fiance has been treated, he swears vengeance and goes after the witch hunter, who lays a trap for Marshall. I won’t give away the climax, except to say that the intensity of the last scene has been matched by few cult films.

Atmosphere keeps The Conqueror Worm moving at a fast pace. The characters seem believable, whether they are in a pub, at war or witnessing the execution of a “witch.” Critic Danny Peary describes Price as never having been better. Peary also talks about the triumph of evil, which “will emerge victorious” despite whether Hopkins or Marshall kills the other. In the film, the viewer is jolted into a sense of overwhelming pessimism of the situation. One wonders at the end if the protagonist (Marshall) is really any better than Hopkins.

Credit to the gloomy but effective mood of Conqueror Worm goes to the director Michael Reeves. He was a major new talent in Britain in the 1960s. Besides Conqueror, he directed The Castle of the Living Dead, 1964, and The Sorcerers, 1967, with Boris Karloff. Sadly, Reeves took his own life in 1969.
-- Doug Gibson

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Devil Bat: Don't forget the after shave!

By Steve D. Stones

Here’s another quickie released by PRC Studios (Producers Releasing Corporation) and directed by Jean Yarbrough starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. Paul Carruthers. Carruthers lives in a small town called Heathville, named after the Heath family, who Carruthers once worked for. Carruthers perfected a shave lotion for the Heath Family Company and settled for a $10,000 award from the company for his invention. The company went on to make millions from the product.

The Heath family is holding a party to celebrate the engagement of their son Roy. Carruthers is invited to the party, but does not attend. He is busy in his laboratory conducting experiments on a giant bat and perfecting another shave lotion. He plans on seeking revenge on the Heath family for the company making millions off his invention. Little does he know that the Heath family wanted to present him with a $5,000 check that evening to help compensate for some of his lost profits on the product.

Roy Heath arrives at Carruthers’ home that evening to present the check to him personally. Although Carruthers is happy to receive the check, he still wants to execute his diabolical plan of murdering members of the Heath family to seek his revenge. He convinces Roy to try some of his newest shave lotion. Roy leaves and is attached by a giant bat launched from Carruthers’ attic. The bat, killing him instantly, severed his jugular vein. The bat is instantly attracted to the scent of the shave lotion.

Johnny Layton, a newspaper reporter, is assigned to the case of covering Roy Heath’s murder. Dave O’Brien, star of the 1930s cult classic Reefer Madness, plays Layton. Johnny’s boss informs him that the bite on Roy’s neck could have been from the talons or beak of a large bird, and that mouse hairs were also discovered on his body. Layton suggests that the mouse hairs indicate that it could have been a giant bat that attacked Roy.

Tommy Heath, Roy’s brother, is the next victim of the devil bat. The bat is shot and killed while attacking Tommy. Layton’s photographer, played by Donald Kerr, star of Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars, stages a fake photo of the devil bat for newspaper publicity by taking a picture of a toy bat on a wire. Layton’s boss later discovers that the photo was a fake, so he fires both Layton and the photographer.

Henry Morton, also an employee of the Heath family company, is the next victim, attacked by a second devil bat. Layton suspects that Carruthers must be the murderer because all the victims of the devil bat had his after shave lotion on their necks at the time of their deaths.

To try and trap Carruthers, Layton asks him if he can try some of his shave lotion, and asks Carruthers to sit outside on a park bench and wait for the devil bat to attack him. Carruthers is reluctant to join him, but later agrees to wait for the bat. While waiting, Layton quickly splashes the shave lotion on Carruthers, and the devil bat attacks, killing Carruthers.

Most film encyclopedias give this film a very bad rating, which is unfortunate. I urge you not to trust what critics say about this film. The expressions on Lugosi’s face when he watches his victims splash the shave lotion on their necks and then tells them goodbye is quite priceless. Lugosi’s gaze of looking through the window of his laboratory with goggles on as he watches the lab instruments jolt the giant bat is also quite a delight to watch. You can say whatever you want about Lugosi’s low-budget films made by Monogram and PRC, but Lugosi was a man who could get into any role and play it very well. Don’t miss The Devil Bat!

Legend Films has recently released a colorized version of the film. I prefer the black and white version much better. Careful with the shave lotion you use this morning!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Carnival of Souls -- SLC's movie!

Carnival of Souls, 1962, 84 minutes, Black and white. Directed by Herk Harvey. Starring Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry, Frances Feist as Mrs. Thomas, Sydney Berger as John Linden and Harvey as The Man (uncredited). Schlock-Meter rating: 9 stars out of 10.

Carnival of Souls is a very spooky gem -- filmed mostly in Salt Lake City -- about a woman (Hilligoss) who survives a car wreck in a lake that kills her friends. She walks out of the water, seemingly unhurt. An accomplished organist, she takes a job across the country. On the way, she keeps seeing a haunting, white-faced spectre (Harvey).

However, when the woman, named Mary Henry, arrives at work, rents a room and takes a job, she feels herself disconnecting from the rest of the world. She's haunted by music, an abandoned dance hall (at the old Salt Air for movie buffs), and she's seemingly lost the ability to feel for others, as a nerdy would-be suitor (Berger) discovers. Also, she keeps seeing the creepy man spectre. She begins to wonder if she is really alive.

This film is scary, and I wouldn't watch it alone. As Mary Henry's confusion, panic and terror mounts, the audience is drawn into her fear and paranoia. You feel her fear, and there is a scene, where she visits a psychiatrist, that will make you jump from you seat with its payoff shock. The climax takes place at the abandoned Saltair amusement park and dance hall, and literally offers a dance featuring the dead.

Director Harvey keeps the pace moving well, and is very talented in providing a haunting mood throughout. This gem was mostly ignored when released, but maintained a small cult following and eventually was brought to greater publicity in the late 1980s by film critic Roger Ebert, and it played at many art houses. A sort of semi-remake was attempted in 1998, but attracted little attention, and quickly moved to video stores.
-- Doug Gibson

Friday, October 9, 2009

Robot Monster: Attack of RO-MAN!!!

Robot Monster, 1953, Astor Films, most prints run about an hour. Directed by Phil Tucker. Starring George Nader, Claudia Barrett, John Mylong, George Barrows. Schlock-Meter rating: 7 stars out of 10.

See Robot Monster! The plot: A gorilla with a diving mask (or it may be a goldfish bowl?) calls himself Ro-Man, from a planet that may be the moon. He's hanging out in a cave in Bronson Canyon near Los Angeles with a bubble machine and a TV communicator where he talks to The Great One. Apparently Ro-Man has killed everyone on earth except a scientist, his family, and the scientist's assistant (Nader). He did this with a calcinator death ray. We are shown badly edited stop-animation of small-scale dinosaurs fighting (over and over) to explain the earth's demise.

Try as it might, Robot Monster can't kill the plucky six humans left in the earth that are camped a few hundred yards away. Finally, Ro-Man gets the hots for the scientist's attractive daughter, who just married Nader! The Great One kills Ro-Man as punishment for his lust and destroys the world. More stock footage. It turns out to have all been a dream of a little boy. Or was it? Ro-Man is seen lumbering toward the camera three times in a row. The film was first shot in 3-D.

Robot Monster is so bad that it is funny. This film is tagged as a horror, but it's so non-scary that I wonder if director Tucker may have been making a kiddie matinee film. The acting is atrocious. The German professor's (Mylong) accent is bogus. Ro-Man looks ridiculous waddling through the countryside (HE DESTROYED THE WORLD?). The stock footage doesn't match and often makes no sense. But, it's funny, and that makes it worth a rental.

Here's some dialogue, the scene where Ro-Man, consumed with a lust for the daughter, bellows out his emotions: "Yes, to be like the hu-man. To laugh. Feel. Want. Why are these things not in the plan?" Sheer idiocy. But this cult film is fun, and goes well with a party after midnight. I also like the part where Nader complain that his girlfriend (Barrett) is so bossy she should be milked!

The late director Tucker was a fixture among Grade Z films. Besides Robot Monster, he also directed Dance Hall Racket (with Lenny Bruce!) and Cape Canaveral Monsters. Rumor has it Tucker worked a lot with Edward D. Wood, Jr., but he was always mum when asked about that part of his life.
-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Horror of Party Beach .. Oh the horror!

The Horror of Party Beach

The Horror of Party Beach, 1964, 78 minutes, Iselin-Tenney Productions, B&W. Directed by Del Tenney. Produced by Tenney and Alan V. Iselin. Starring John Scott as Hank Green, Alice Lyon as Elaine Gavin, Allen Laurel as Dr. Gavin, Eulabelle Moore as Eulabelle. Featuring the music of the Del-Aires. Schlock-Meter rating: 6 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

OK, this film is no masterpiece, but I disagree with those who include The Horror of Party Beach in worst film lists. Have they ever seen Monster A Go Go? Director Del Tenney lacked time, money, acting talent (some directing talent, let’s admit) and special effects worth a damn (the monsters are RIDICULOUS), but he had a pretty good filmmaking imagination, and Horror of Party Beach boasts a pretty good tale that may have been better with a bigger budget and better singing talent.

Here’s the plot: Radioactive waste is dumped into the Long Island harbor. Somehow it resurrects sailors long drowned at the bottom of the ocean. The radioactivity turns them into monsters who appear (I’m not making this up) to have hot dog franks stuffed into their masks. The creatures are pathetic looking rubber fiends, and one wishes Tenney would have spent just a little more cash on the makeup.

Anyway, the monsters seem attracted to the hot teen spot on the beach, where lots of silly white kids dance to the tunes of an inept band called the Del-Aires (pay close attention to the song The Zombie Stomp, it’s a howler). So, the monsters kill a lot of girls and women before finally being foiled by hard-working Dr. Gavin (Laurel), his teen-queen daughter Elaine (Lyon), and Dr. Gavin’s assistant Hank Green (Scott) who has the hots for Elaine, which is reciprocated by her. There’s also a black maid Eulabelle (Moore), thrown in for comic relief, but today would be considered a racist stereotype.

Despite clich├ęs and contradictions, one of which has the monsters being killed by sodium, even though they became monsters in the salt water ocean, the film is rarely dull and provides a lot of laughs, albeit unintentionally. The actors try hard and except for some jokes on the beach intended to make viewers laugh, the film takes itself seriously. It’s no classic, but it can serve as a fun video to show friends at midnight. Audiences liked The Horror of Party Beach when it was released. It and another Tenney film, Curse of the Living Corpse, were huge hits on the drive-in circuit for distributor Twentieth Century-Fox in 1964.

-- Doug Gibson

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Night of the Ghouls -- Classic Ed Wood!

Night of the Ghouls, 1958, B&W, about 68 minutes. Directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. Starring Kenne Duncan as Dr. Acula. Valda Hansen as the White Ghost, Tor Johnson as Lobo, Duke Moore, Paul Marco, and Criswell. (Also known as Revenge of the Dead) Schlock-Meter rating 7 stars out of 10.

Night of the Ghouls is a lot of fun. It features a bizarre plot, weird characters, ridiculous special effects and actors who -- like all Wood films -- take the convoluted plot very seriously. Narrated by Criswell (in a coffin, of course) It involved a fake medium (Duncan) and his girlfriend (Hansen) who have inhabited the old mansion that Bela Lugosi's mad scientist lived in in Bride of the Monster. The hulkish Lobo (Johnson) is still hanging around as well.

As with any Wood film, plot holes are a mile wide, so it's best to just sit back , don't think much, and enjoy the chaos onscreen. Two cops from Plan 9 From Outer Space, Moore and Marco (who was also in Bride), eventually team to stop the scam artists. It's not very scary stuff, but it's a pleasure to watch if you're a Wood fan, particularly since it's the only horror film Duncan ever made for Wood and the only Wood film the teenage ingenue Hansen starred in.

As with all Wood films, the director was thrifty and used anything he could to add to plot and save cash. Here's an example: Wood used scenes from his completed short, Final Curtain (starring Moore) and inserted it in the middle of Night of the Ghouls. The only problem was Moore is wearing a tuxedo in the Final Curtain clip. No problem for Wood, of course! He just has cop Moore, early in Night of the Ghouls, all dressed up in a tux, ready to leave the station house and go to the theater! Of course, Moore is asked to work overtime and visit Dr. Acula, so he takes right off, still wearing his tux! Sometimes you just have to admire Ed Wood's ingenuity ... or his just plain gall!

---Doug Gibson

Monday, October 5, 2009

'The Corpse Vanishes': Don't smell the wild orchids! But watch the film below!

By Steve Stones

This is my favorite Bela Lugosi Monogram film. It is also the first
Monogram film I ever remember seeing on TV as a child sometime in the
late 1970s. The scene of police opening a coffin in the back of Lugosi’s
car is priceless. The look on Lugosi’s face as they open the coffin is
unintentionally hilarious.

Speaking of coffins, the film also stars Tristram Coffin as Dr. Foster.
Coffin starred in many serials of the 1940s and 50s. Angelo Rossitto,
star of Freaks and countless other Monogram cheapies, plays Lugosi’s
midget assistant Toby. He is billed in the opening credits as simply
Angelo. It’s interesting to note that Rossitto would go on to star in
the Mel Gibson film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome some forty years later.
He also starred in Al Adamson’s cult classic Dracula vs. Frankenstein.

Young brides are dying at the altar and Dr. Lorenz, played by Lugosi, is
kidnapping their bodies for scientific experiments to rejuvenate his
wife’s youth and beauty. Newspaper reporter Patricia Hunter, played by
Luana Walters, discovers that all the kidnapped brides were wearing a
rare wild orchid. Her investigation leads her to Dr. Lorenz, who raised
the rare orchids. Apparently the smell of the orchid caused the brides
to collapse at the altar.

On route to Dr. Lorenz’s home for an interview, Hunter meets Dr. Foster,
who warms her of Lorenz’s eccentric and weird ways. Arriving at the
Lorenz home, the countess Lorenz expresses her unwelcoming nature to
Hunter by slapping her in the face. Lorenz convinces Foster and Hunter
to stay the night because of the pouring rain outside.

During the night, Hunter discovers a passage to an underground mausoleum
and sees some of the kidnapped brides being held there. She also
witnesses Lorenz and his wife sleeping in separate coffins. Lorenz
explains to Hunter the next morning that sleeping in a coffin is much
more comfortable than sleeping in a normal bed. Lorenz also suggests
that Hunter was having a bad dream when she thought she witnessed seeing the kidnapped brides in the mausoleum.

Hunter decides to return to her newspaper headquarters and comes up with
a plan to trap Lorenz in the act of kidnapping a bride by staging a fake
wedding. The wedding day is set, and Lorenz does not fall for the trap,
but instead kidnaps Hunter at the scene of the wedding. Foster and the
local police catch up to Lorenz just as he is about to conduct an
experiment on Hunter. The film ends with Hunter and Foster getting
married. This time Lorenz cannot kidnap the bride.

It’s also interesting to note that Barney A. Sarecky was the associate
producer of this film. Sarecky was one of the screenwriters for the
Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, starring Buster Crabbe as Flash.

Any fan of Bela Lugosi cannot afford to miss The Corpse Vanishes. All of
Lugosi’s Monogram films are an absolute delight to watch. I particularly
love this one because of the simple plot. Watch for the scene of Lugosi
whipping his laboratory assistant named Angel. It’s a precursor to
Lugosi’s famous scene of whipping Tor Johnson in Ed Wood’s classic The
Bride of The Monster. Enjoy!