Friday, August 26, 2016

The Sadist will scare the heck out of you

Review by Doug Gibson

Simply stated, ‘The Sadist’ 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 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 genius 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 awfulness. Arch Jr. was a singer with an unfortunately homely face. He's best known for the laughable 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 killed 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.

Friday, August 19, 2016

White Zombie – Bela Lugosi in the zombie classic

Review by Steve D. Stones

To the younger generation of today, White Zombie refers to a 1990s heavy metal band founded by singer Rob Zombie, and inspired by low-budget B-movies of the past. To the much older generation, White Zombie is a low-budget 1930s forgotten B-movie starring the legendary Bela Lugosi, shortly after his success in the 1931 universal studios film – Dracula. Victor and Edward Halperin produced and directed the film.

In White Zombie, Lugosi plays a sinister West Indies witch doctor named Murder Legendre who is in control of an army of mindless zombies. The zombies are in a trance to do his bidding at a sugar mill.  Charles Beaumont is the sugar plantation owner who invites a young couple to the plantation to be married. He becomes obsessed with the beautiful young bride-to-be named Madeline, and employs Legendre to pull her away from her fiancĂ©.  Legendre stages a plot to put the young bride in a trance at the wedding alter to make her appear dead. The plan works, and the locals soon stage a funeral and bury Madeline.

Legendre revives Madeline in her crypt, and she is taken to a castle by the sea. Beaumont wants to love Madeline, but finds she has no human emotions because she too, like Legendre’s zombies, is in a zombified trance. Madeline’s fiancĂ© discovers she is still alive and arrives at the castle to rescue her.

By all appearances, White Zombie has many interesting elements similar to the silent era horror films that preceded it. There are long, drawn out sequences of no sound but the crackling of the film itself. One particular instance of this is in an opening shot where a stagecoach carries the young couple to the plantation. The coach stops as Legendre walks up to the opening of the coach and stares longingly at Madeline to pull a scarf from around her neck. This helps to build some creepy tension early on in the film. The scarf is used in a later scene to place a trance on Madeline.

The film is full of many memorable creepy scenes. Another sequence in the film shows a group of zombies in the sugar mill slowly turning a grinder as they walk in a circle. The zombies wear hooded cloaks and have dark circles around their eyes. A zombie falls into the grinder as the remaining zombies continue to turn the grinder and show no sympathy for the fallen zombie.

A number of scenes show close ups of Lugosi’s eyes, which would later be used in lesser classics like the unwatchable 1936 film - Revolt of The Zombies, also produced and directed by the Halperin brothers.  The 1931 Dracula also has a number of shots showing close ups of Lugosi’s eyes.

White Zombie is certainly an exercise in creating a genuinely frightening Hollywood film on a shoe string budget. Some accounts suggest that the film was shot in two weeks and only cost around $62,000. Lugosi was said to have only been paid $500 for his role. The Halperin brothers wanted to keep the dialogue of the film to a minimum by trimming over 100 pages of the script. The minimum sound and dialogue also gives the film a quality reminiscent of earlier silent era films.

For further information about White Zombie and other classic horror films of the voodoo genre, refer to Bryan Senn’s excellent book published in 1999 - “Drum’s O’ Terror – Voodoo In The Cinema.” Be sure to include White Zombie on your list of horror films to watch this Halloween Season. Happy Halloween!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The New Poverty Row: A history of low-budget hustling for film dollars

Review by Doug Gibson

I enjoyed Fred Olen Ray's book, "The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors," McFarland, 1991. Published 25 years ago, it's still for sale by its distributor. 

FOR is a very talented writer. I always enjoyed his articles and letters in my old Cult Movies magazines. When he wrote this he was still a low-budget filmmaker, with a decade-plus of experience, trying not so much to break through as a director, but as a filmmaker who could take his product and make money. Hence his efforts to distribute with American Independent Productions.

FOR feels a kinship with his subjects, and for the era, a few years before the Net changed research, what we have are seven superbly researched, of various essay lengths, profiles of FOR and six other low-budget filmmakers who tried to increase profits through self-distribution. They are:

-- Jerry Warren, Associated Distributors Productions, Inc.

-- Roger Corman, Filmgroup

-- David L. Hewitt, American General Pictures

-- Sam Sherman, Independent-International Pictures

-- Lawrence H. Woolner, Dimension Pictures

-- and Fred Olen Ray with AIP

Much has been written about Corman, but FOR manages to provide the future legendary low-budget filmmaker's struggles to create his own distribution dollars. Filmgroup lasted a few years but the margins, even for the most minutely budgeted films, were tiny or non-existent. The best parts of the Corman chapter are the accounts of making tiny-budgeted films in Puerto Rico. It's also interesting to learn that many films grabbed for revision by low-budget directors/producers came from behind the Iron Curtain. Queen of Blood was one.

Warren, as FOR explains with affection, was the type who just wanted a film in the can; forget the quality, sell the sizzle. What's most interesting about Warren is that the films he cobbled and mangled for release, usually with the stately Katherine Victor, were likely better in their original versions.

Sherman and Woolner represent the types of filmmakers in the last decade of big-screen-only features. Like Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman, they were interested in pushing the boundaries of what could be shown on the big screen. Whether it was a mix of gore and sex, such as Blood Island films or Al Adamson's horror opuses, or just plain sex, with nurses or stewardess films, they were sold to drive ins with teens and young adults glancing at the screen in between make out sessions. Sherman and others were also great at mixing movies, taking Movie A, adding much of Movie B, and throwing in a dash of Movie C. Not surprisingly, they would often remix the movie, change the title, and presto, have a new release. Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, which played on TV last Halloween season, is a great example of a blended movie. The Shermans and the Woolners, or their successors, finally threw in the towel when the majors begin to mimic them; think Friday the 13th and Porky's.

Hewitt was my favorite chapter, maybe because even today there's so little out there about the guy who helmed The Mighty Gorga, The Wizard of Mars, or my favorite, Gallery of Horrors, and a couple of other films. He also distributed the neglected gem, Spider Baby. (Only in this world could Spider Baby be the second big-screen offering to micro-budget bores Gallery or Gorga!) It's fun to learn that Gallery's ineptitude is partially caused by producers with financial pull nixing Hewitt's idea to film it as a type of comic book -- and this was at least 15 years before Creepshow!

FOR's chapter is very personal and describes how he learned the basics of filmmaking just by doing it and learning from mistakes. From the first, one learns that you almost always won't make money from distributors if you're a low-budget filmmaker. FOR understands that and recounts his experiences without pity, and sometimes with wry humor. His first film cost about $12,000 and featured Buster Crabbe. I really enjoy FOR's passion for the old genre stars, and his efforts to have them in his films. He's been so prolific the past 35 years, directing in just about every genre.

FOR has many, many anecdotes, and they make for great reading. The old "stars," Carradine, Chaney Jr., were used by so many poverty-row directors for a day and later hyped on ads with promises that the films can never live up to. The New Poverty Row is filled with old movie stills and ads of distinct marketing pitches. It's amusing to see one film's ads under different titles. FOR also is very frank in his assessments of many of the films. He's quick to pan the films he feels deserve that label.

An underlying, subtle theme to this book is its featuring the low-budget filmmakers-cum-distribution hustlers who were in the business during the quarter century before VHS became big and basically threw low-budget filmmakers away from the big screens and into living rooms with the direct-to-video labels. (I know that was a very cumbersome sentence. I may edit it some day). That sell-it-for-home-use strategy still exists today with DVDs and online/cloud video, which now threatens the existence of the DVD market. The cycle of film challenges for dollars continues. 

FOR's book, already detailing a now-gone era of low-budget filmmaking, is a treasure for genre film fans. Read it. If you don't want to pay $25, it can be purchased used. I bought mine for a few dollars. It was an old copy that was once in The City University Library in London!

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Return of The Vampire - Columbia's Take On Dracula

By Steve D. Stones

In the same year that Columbia Pictures cast Bela Lugosi as a vampire in The Return of The Vampire, Universal Studios cast the stocky, mid-western actor Lon Chaney Jr in Son of Dracula (1943). Chaney's Dracula lacks the old world charm and mannerisms that made Lugosi so famous in the role.

By 1943, Lugosi's star power had faded. Universal Studios would not allow Columbia Pictures to use the name Dracula, so Lugosi's character was named Armand Tesla in The Return of The Vampire.

Armand Tesla is a 200 year old Hungarian vampire who roams the London countryside in 1918 with his werewolf sidekick Andreas (Matt Willis). After Tesla feeds on the necks of young victims from the village, Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) find Tesla's resting spot and drive a stake through his heart while he is sleeping in his coffin.

Two decades later, a bombing raid during World War II unearths Tesla's grave. Two grave diggers walking through the graveyard notice the stake in Tesla's chest and mistaken it for a bomb splint. They remove the stake from Tesla's chest. Little do they know what they have unleashed. Tesla returns to life.

Like the original Dracula (1931), Tesla becomes obsessed with a beautiful, young blond woman. Nicki, played by Nina Foch, is the ingenue who falls under Tesla's spell. Nicki was bitten in the neck by Tesla in 1918 when she was just a little girl. Tesla returns to seek revenge on Lady Jane for driving a stake through his heart. Professor Saunders dies in a plane crash, which is a curse placed on him by Tesla.

Lady Jane employs Andreas in her research lab as an assistant. Little does Lady Jane know that Andreas has teamed up with Tesla and once again becomes a werewolf. With the help of Andreas, Tesla takes on the identity of a Dr. Hugo Bruckner, a respected scientist.

The graveyard sequences in The Return of The Vampire give the impression that the film is a Universal Studios picture. Lugosi and Andreas walk through a fog-covered ground with twisted trees and eroded tombstones, which look similar to the graveyard scenes in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Lugosi covering his face with his cape in an opening scene as he walks through the graveyard looks like a sequence that Ed Wood could have easily used in Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).

The film ends with another bombing raid striking the graveyard, but this time the raid kills Tesla. Andreas is freed of his werewolf curse and returns to normal. Tesla melts into a hot glob of wax. The police commissioner of Scotland Yard, arriving on the scene, looks at the audience and asks if they believe in vampires.

After Dracula in 1931, Lugosi was type-cast to a career of low-budget, bottom of the barrel productions with studios such as Monogram and PRC. Despite his poor salary on many of these films, Lugosi always gave an amazing performance, and was always a true professional in all his work. No actor plays a vampire with as much charm and effectiveness as the great Bela Lugosi.

Happy viewing.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Lederer as the vampire, Return of Dracula

By Doug Gibson

I avoided watching "The Return of Dracula" for a long time, mainly because it always annoyed me that Bela Lugosi was passed over for so any Universal monster rallies (except for Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein). It would have been cool, and a potential career boost for Lugosi to have played his signature role in a real Dracula sequel. But he was long dead by the time Gramercy, not Universal, made this inexpensive $125,000 "sequel" in which Count Dracula, posing as artist Bellac Gordal -- who he kills off on a train in Hungary -- to visit relatives in California who are eager to see him, consider him a dear member of the family, but apparently have never swapped photos with dear Belac!

Eventually, Count Dracula, the faux artist, behaves so oddly (He's never around during the day, you see, and spurns affection, and demands that he not be disturbed in his "room") that family teenager Rachel Mayberry, played by a sexy Norma Eberhardt, begins to suspect that her dear relative may be something more sinister. A game of cat and mouse develops between the old predator and the young teenager, and it eventually leads to a finish to the film, directed by Paul Landres.

If this has started to sound like a pallid "remake-in-everything-but-name" of Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Shadow of a Doubt," give yourself 10 points because you are right. It's not nearly as good, by a mile, as the standoff between Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright, but as a low-budget 1950s horror flick, it's not too bad. The film moves swiftly and the acting is passable with one positive exception.

The positive exception is Francis Lederer, who is marvelous as Count Dracula. He blends the cold continental manners of a Bela Lugosi with the physical menace of a Christopher Lee to produce -- amazingly -- an unforgettable portrayal of the vampire. I cannot call it iconic because not enough people have seen the film. Lederer is arrogant, merciless and predatory when consumed by a thirst for blood. He is a film monster that may stay in the nightmares of viewers for awhile. It his for his portrayal that I recommend this movie.

There is a lot of hokum in this film, thanks to the low budget. Virginia Vincent, as a victim of Dracula, overacts badly as an ill shut-in, and mediocre writing contributes to a ridiculous scene in which Rachel discovers her vampire guest has painted a picture of her in a coffin! Nevertheless, this is a breezy, corny vampire flick, likely overshadowed by Hammer's Horror of Dracula, that should merit a watch by cult film fans.