Saturday, April 6, 2024

Messiah of Evil – An underrated 1970s horror film

Directed in 1973 by Willard Huyuk, Messiah of Evil is an underrated 1970s horror film that deserves some newfound attention. If you're a fan of zombie movies, you may find some interest in Messiah of Evil. Huyuk's treatment of zombies is much different than how zombies are portrayed in George Romero's zombie films. Romero gives viewers a clear explanation for why zombies become the way that they are. Messiah of Evil leaves the explanation for zombies ambiguous.

Arletty Lang (Marianna Hill) travels to a small coastal town called Point Dune in California to find her artist father, who she has not heard from in weeks. Her father, Joseph Lang (Royal Dano), is part of an artist's colony at Point Dune. The local art gallery does not have any of his paintings on display, as Arletty discovers when she approaches the gallery curator to inquire if anyone has seen her father or spoken to him.

After failing to find anyone who has spoken to her father, Arletty arrives at her father's beachfront house, only to find it abandoned. She decides to stay in the house until she can discover where her father has disappeared to. She spends time going through his art studio and personal belongings and discovers a diary. In the diary, Lang talks about darkness and evil consuming Point Dune, and strange nightmares he experiences in his sleep. Most of his writings in the diary appear to be directed at Arletty. He speaks of her frequently in his writings.

While continuing to search for her father, Arletty is told by the art gallery curator in town to go to a local motel to seek out some individuals who inquired about Lang's paintings earlier that day. Arletty arrives at the motel and speaks with Thom (Michael Greer) and his two attractive traveling companions – Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anita Ford). The trio are currently interviewing a crazy homeless man who tells them strange stories about the history of Point Dune.

Thom, Toni and Laura are asked to leave the motel, then make their way to Arletty's father's house. Arletty allows the group to stay in the home overnight. Since Thom is a stereotypical womanizer, he attempts to make sexual advances towards Arletty. This angers Laura, so she leaves the group and hitchhikes with an albino truck driver (Bennie Robinson), who eats a live mouse while driving the truck. Frightened by this, Laura gets out of the truck and makes her way to a grocery store with an empty parking lot. In the store she witnesses zombies eating raw meat in the meat department.

Unlike the slow moving zombies in George Romero films, the zombies in Messiah of Evil move quickly and run after Laura in the store. They are hungry for human flesh, as most zombies are in any zombie film. Laura's friend Toni suffers the same fate when she attends a movie and is barricaded in the movie theater with zombies who attack her.

After viewing Messiah of Evil a number of times, I have yet to understand how the opening scene connects to the rest of the film. In the opening, a profusely sweating man is seen running to a swimming pool. He lays down next to the pool, gasping for breath. A teenage girl approaches him, smiles at him, then slashes his throat with a razor. The scene then transitions into the title and credits of the film. I spend the rest of the film trying to connect this opening scene to the remainder of the film, as bizarre as the scene may be. The scene gives the appearance of a flashback sequence, yet it never connects to the rest of the film.

Look carefully for a scene in Woody Allen's 1977 film – Annie Hall, which shows a theater marquee advertising Messiah of Evil on the marquee (see still above). It's not likely that Messiah of Evil was ever shown on a double feature with Annie Hall. Messiah of Evil was put on a double feature DVD with The Devil's Nightmare (1972) by Diamond Entertainment in 2001. Happy viewing.

Steve D. Stones

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Horror Hotel – One of the best horror films of the 1960s.


Horror Hotel (1960) ranks as one of the best horror films of the 1960s. The film certainly should be on any serious horror movie fan's list of the 100 best horror films of all time. Some similarities can be found in this film to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, also released in 1960, since both films center around a young woman who travels alone to a hotel run by a disturbed individual. The film is also known as City of The Dead, which includes longer dialog from actors in many of the scenes seen in Horror Hotel. Although not considered film noir, Horror Hotel has very dark exterior shots with lots of fog and deep depth of space, which gives viewers a constant sense of menace and atmosphere.

A beautiful young college student named Nan Barlow (Venitia Stevenson) travels to a small Massachusetts town called Whitewood to conduct research on witchcraft for a college course taught by Alan Driscol (Christopher Lee). Barlow finds her way to a creepy, old motel known as the Raven's Inn. The motel is run by Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel). Barlow picks up a hitchhiker named Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) who disappears from her car after they arrive at the Raven's Inn.

After borrowing a book on witchcraft from a local bookstore owner Patricia Russell (Betta St. John), Barlow hears loud chants under the floorboards of her motel room. She opens a trap door in the middle of the floor of her room and finds an underground passage. She stumbles upon a secret chamber with a coven involved in a witchcraft ceremony. One member of the coven is her professor – Alan Discoll. Another member is Mrs. Newless, who is actually the ghost of Elizabeth Selwyn – a woman burned alive as a witch over 200 years earlier.

From the moment Christopher Lee's character of Professor Alan Discoll appears on the screen, the viewer gets a strong sinister sense of evil and doom in his demeanor. On the surface, Discoll appears to be friendly to student Nan Barlow, and wants her to succeed in writing her term paper for the class, but as the plot of the film advances, we see that his intentions of sending Barlow to the Raven's Inn are for his own purposes of sacrificing her to the coven of witches.

Horror Hotel exhibits an interesting contrast of science versus folklore and supernaturalism. Nan Barlow's brother, Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), who is a professor of science, is a skeptic of Driscoll's lectures about witchcraft. He directly tells Driscoll that witchcraft is superstitious nonsense, which angers Driscoll and adds to his sinister appearance in the film. The two men argue about the validity of witchcraft as Barlow makes snarky remarks to Discoll about the topic. Even Nan Barlow's boyfriend, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor) is a skeptic of Nan's desire to learn more about witchcraft and discourages her from traveling to Massachusetts to conduct research on the topic.

Like many Gothic horror films, Horror Hotel relies on the symbolism of the Christian cross to defeat or repel evil in the end. After Bill Maitland crashes his car into a tree on his way to Whitewood to search for Nan, he picks up a cemetery marker of a Christian cross and walks towards a witches coven in the cemetery. The coven is about to sacrifice Patricia Russell on an altar. The shadow of the cross burns members of the coven as he moves closer to them.

Horror Hotel would make an excellent double feature with another 1960s film that deals with witchcraft – The Witchfinder General (also known as The Conqueror Worm), starring Vincent Price.  You can watch it on YouTube here. Happy viewing.

Steve D. Stones

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Vampires in Silent Cinema provides a timeline to Dracula


Reviewed by Doug Gibson

In Gary Rhodes' new book, "Vampires in Silent Cinema," (Edinburgh University Press, 2023), the author cites a "non-fiction" article in the June 15, 1732 issue of The American Weekly Mercury periodical. In Hungary, it was claimed, "certain Dead Bodies (called here Vampyres) killed several persons by sucking out all their blood." 

As Rhodes notes, more than sensationalistic press caused the public to be intrigued by vampires. There were novels such as "The Vampyre: A Tale," and plays like "The Phantom." Both involved bloodsuckers menacing the innocent. They were among the preludes to Bram Stoker's classic novel, "Dracula," which arrived just before the twentieth century.

It took a while for silent cinema to embrace what we consider the traditional vampire today, Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee. Rhodes writes, "... vampire-hunting historians have at times perceived the undead in films where they do not reside ..." 

The average film viewer may regard "Dracula" as the first vampire film. A more sophisticated viewer may tab "Nosferatu" as the first. It was actually a very obscure, lost 1915 Russian film called "The Afterlife Wanderer." Olga Baclanova, who kind of played a "vamp" in "Freaks," starred in the film. The film was banned in one city.  What percentage of the population knows this; a tenth of a tenth of a percent? 

Silent cinema remains a very fertile ground for unearthing original scholarship. Recently, Rhodes and co-author Bill Kaffenberger, with the "Becoming Dracula" books, unearthed original information on Bela Lugosi. There's much of the same original research in "Vampires in Silent Cinema."

The earliest "vampire" silent films weren't really vampire films. Characters in films might dance in a gothic, mysterious way, arousing interest and suggestions of the undead. But only the obscure "Loie Fuller," 1905, has what is described as a "vampire dance," says Rhodes. In the early years of the 20th century, "vampire dances" were popular attractions. As Rhodes notes, a 1912 film, "The Vampire Dancer," (English title), shows the title character mimicking biting an unfortunate suitor's neck.

The next wave of silent "vampire" films involved "vamps," a term still in existence. An extension of the vampire dancer, a vamp is an evil woman who, through her passion and charms, manages to destroy the soul and physical health of an unwise, unwary man. Theda Bara personified a vamp during the silent era with films such as, "A Fool There Was." The vamp's genesis derived in part from Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The Vampire," and artist Philip Burne-Jones oft-revised painting, The Vampire," which shows a beautiful, dark-haired woman, pale white, ravishing a defenseless man. Films and stages boasted healthy, voluptious woman feasting on men's souls. As Rhodes writes, the woman vamp, or vampire had been a staple of 19th century literature, including in a Sherlock Holmes novel. And some vamps loved blood. Rhodes includes a snippet from the 1833 poem, "The Vampire Bride," by Henry Liddell:

He lay like a corse (sic) 'neath the Demon's force,

And she wrapp'd him in a shroud;

And she fixed her teeth his heart beneath,

And she drank of the warm life-blood.

Eventually, Rhodes writes, there were films of "He-vamps," or men destroying the souls and virtue of women. The vamp persona remains today, but by the 1920s it was more often used in comedy or satire. Bara herself made some films where she spoofed her vamp image.

The word vampire was also used to depict a criminal. Rhodes devotes a chapter to films that advertised the vampire as mesmerizer who leads others to crime. Examples include an early Universal film, "Vasco the Vampire," 1914, with a Svengali-like villain leading children to crime. The 1915 serial "The Exploits of Elaine," has a chapter called "The Vampire," in which the villain tries to drain the blood of the heroine to save a confederate," notes Rhodes.

Rhodes describes a 1916 serial, "The Mysteries of Myra," as a precursor to bringing the supernatural to film screens. It is a virtual monster rally, with chapters devoted to battling supernatural adversaries every week. Chapter titles include The Mystic Mirrors, The Hypnotic Clue, Invisible Destroyer, Witchcraft, and Suspended Animation. In "The Mysteries of Myra," notes Rhodes, there is a character called "The Vampire Woman." (But) "she drinks no blood. She is not undead, but is very much alive," writes Rhodes. He adds that she is a vamp-type character, but surrounded by supernatutural events. However, in 1919's "Lilith and Ly," a woman materializes from a statue. She later seeks blood, Rhodes adds.

With relationship to Bram Stoker's "Dracula," Rhodes devotes chapters to the lost Hungarian film, "Drakula Halala," 1921, and the classic "Nosferatu," 1922. The former is likely the first film adaptation of "Dracula," but with a lot of artistic license. The character is not a vampire, but a patient in a mental asylum. It appears a surreal blend of a vampire film with '"Cabinet of Caligari," and I desperately hope a print is located some day. The film played in the early '20s, and as late as 1927, then disappeared, Rhodes notes. A real treat of "Vampires of Silent Cinema" is that Rhodes includes the complete published novella of "Drakula Halala," published in conjunction with the film.

So much has been written about "Nosferatu" that Rhodes provides a  fun, original take on the chapter. As narrator, he has readers experience the film's premiere in Germany at a weekend festival as if the reader was there. Besides an experience of the festival's happenings, Rhodes includes newspaper columns of the event and reviews of the film. "Vampires in Silent Cinema" is an academic publication, but this more lighthearted chapter is still full of information and does not detract from the seriousness of the subject.

In the chapter on "London After Midnight," Rhodes explores star Lon Chaney's iconic portrayal of the fake vampire, and how it has been used in popular culture, including cartoons. He talks about efforts to find the long sought-after lost film and the various hoaxes anouncing its "rediscovery." I have seen the attempt to recreate "London After Midnight" via stills, that Rhodes writes about. It has shown on Turner Classic Movies. As Rhodes notes, without the facial expressions and physical movements, it cannot really capture the film's impact. He includes in the chapter observations from individuals who saw the film.

There's another chapter on the arrival, from stage to film, of "Dracula," 1931, the most iconic one, with Bela Lugosi. Before that is an interesting chapter that discusses two 1920s untitled silent amateur-produced vampire films, preserved as "F-0343" and "F-0332." Stills in the books show efforts to create a vampire-type movie. These are quirky facts that I enjoyed learning about. Apparently they are included in a Something Weird 2001 DVD of "Monsters Crash the Pajama Party Spook Show Spectacular." The film was a low-budget theater offering in the 1960s, and I have seen it. I'm looking forward to watching that DVD again.

Rhodes' book is only slightly more than 200 pages, but it's full of original information, presented affably. It entertains as well as informs. It moves through the 18th through 21st centuries, providing a history of vampire culture, and how it was presented through press, books, the stage and screen. The hardcover book is very pricy, but Rhodes has noted that a paperback version will be priced more reasonably.  

Rhodes has been a prolific writer and researcher. "Vampires in Silent Cinema" meets his high standards, and I'm sure more genre books will follow.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Bela Lugosi adds some class to average comedy-horror The Gorilla


Review by Doug Gibson

"The Gorilla," 1939, from 20th Century Fox, is another one of those "old dark house" horror comedies of the '30s. The plot involves a serial killer, nicknamed "The Gorilla," threatening to kill a wealthy man, Walter Stevens (Lionel Atwill). He hires three bufoonish, slow-witted detectives (played by The Ritz Brothers) to protect those in the mansion-like home. Besides Atwill's character, other main cast include his niece and her fiance, a maid, Kitty, (Patsy Kelly) and the butler, Peters, played by Bela Lugosi. A nervous night is spent trying to both elude and capture the killer.

This is not close to one of the must-see films of Bela's career. For years I've avoided finishing it for two reasons. The Ritz Brothers, in my opinion, barely elicit a chuckle. And Patsy Kelly, while possessing good comedy timing, screams and screeches so much in this film that it grates on the nerves. Kelly is no Una O'Connor, who genre films will recognize. Atwill gives a good -- although subdued -- performance.

Recently TCM aired The Gorilla and I decided to give it a try and watch the film in one take. I was pleasantly surprised. Bela Lugosi, despite being several notches below in the cast, livens this film up. He's by far the chief reason to watch The Gorilla. He's able to allow his comedy talents to shine. He plays the sinister servant who always seems to show up just after the others in the cast have been frightened. Lugosi relished roles like this, in which he could play his menacing character with his tongue in his cheek and almost a smile. His elegant, reassuring cadence preserves the dignity of his character yet never quite completely triumphs the fears of his castmates.

Although there are stretches where we don't see Lugosi's butler (we have to endure comedy hijinks of those Ritz fellows) I particularly enjoyed two scenes with Bela. One is where a Ritz brother tries to muscle Bela's Peters and gets flipped for his impudence. It's clumsily shot and I'm sure that's a stuntman, but I loved it. Another great Bela scene occurs at the climax, but I won't give that away.

Anita Louise and Edward Norris play the love interests, Norma and Jack. See them in the top photo with Bela. They are both pretty bland. An actor named Joseph Calleia is not too bad as a forbidding character listed as "The Stranger." The film, directed by Alan Dwan, is based on a then-popular play. Lugosi was a year away from a comeback role as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein. Struggling at the time, he was fortunate to get the role after Peter Lorre was unavailable. The 66-minute B film cost $175,000. With that budget I assume it made a profit. The Ritz Brothers (Jimmy, Harry and Al) remind me of milder versions of the Three Stooges without big laughs. They get off jokes a lot but many deserve groans. I wonder if they ad-libbed some. The Gorilla can be watched online for free in several websites and streaming services.

The second top photo shows a listing of The Gorilla in Los Angeles. It's from The Tuesday, Aug. 8, 1939 LA Times. Below is an article from the Thursday, May 18, 1939 Hollywood Citizen- News. It includes a review of The Gorilla. They liked it. I preserved the entire article so readers many need to squint or try a magnifying glass. Both of these clips were provided by my friend, David Grudt, who lives in Long Beach, Calif.