Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Phantom Ship -- Lugosi in Britain

By Doug Gibson

This British 1936 film is a treat for Lugosi fans. He is Anton Lorenzen, a broken-down one-armed sailor who inspires a pity as part of the doomed crew of the Mary Celeste, a ship that in real life in the 1870s was discovered in the Atlantic sans crew.

This film, released in a much longer -- unfortunately lost -- version as The Mystery of the Mary Celeste in Britain, is an entertaining murder mystery. It sort of plays like a rough version of Agatha Christie.

The plot: A captain and his bride (Shirley Grey) set sail with a ragged, rough, sinister ship's crew, including Lugosi, who inspires pity. One by one people start to die. The captain and his wife disappear. Finally only Lugosi's Lorenzen and the sadistic first mate are left. At that point, Lugosi, acting like a 30s version of The Usual's Suspect's Keyser Soze, announces he is the killer, there to avenge a previous wrong. He kills off the first mate but then is hit by a beam of wood and falls into the sea to his death.

Before he dies, Lugosi brags of killing the capain and his wife. That scene appears clunky though. It almost sounds as if Lugosi's voice is dubbed. This is important because the ONLY remaining print is the 62-minute U.S. version, The Phantom Ship. The longer, lost 80-minute version, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, apparently had an epilogue where the captain and his wife are discovered alive on an island, having escaped death on the Mary Celeste via a raft. It sure would be fun to locate a copy of the lost version. Lugosi biographer Frank Dello Stritto has located director Denison Clift's original shooting synopsis for the film and it includes the island epilogue.

Lugosi is great in The Phantom Ship, which used to be rare but in today's digital world can be found easily and in fact watched for free on the Net. He inspires pathos and pity and then effectively turns cold-blooded killer. He did this very well also in the 1930s The Black Cat, the Monogram Black Dragons and even Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster. Rest of cast is capable and the ship scenes are quite effective for the low budget. Definitely worth a buy. One of Lugois's best late 1930s films. (This film airs on UEN's Channel 9 in Utah's Sci-Fi Friday Show)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

An interesting silent curio: The Haunted House from 1908

We came across this early silent short via YouTube. It's really quite impressive for a film made 105 years ago, directed by Segundo de Chomon. The stop-motion work, and other FXs, are particularly well done. It's only six minutes so enjoy. I wish there was music but it's still a treat. (Hat tip to The Monster Club on Facebook)

-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Conqueror Worm -- Price at his most evil

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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Night of the Ghouls

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 Hansen starred in.

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! Watch a scene below!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Vincent Price in House of Wax

House of Wax, 1953, 90 minutes, Warner Brothers, Color. Directed by Andre De Toth. Starring Vincent Price as Professor Henry Jarrod, Frank Lovejoy as Lt. Tom Brennan, Phyllis Kirk as Sue Allen, and Charles Bronson as Igor. Schlock-Meter rating: 5 stars out of 10.

The real problem with House of Wax is that it's dull. Vincent Price does a fine job as the mad, scarred professor who wants to wax over many humans in his new museum of horrors, but the film is stagey, with lots of talk and few shocks.

House of Wax also fails to achieve any real cult status for another reason, which is a left-handed compliment. It's too competent a film technically to be corny. The sets are nice. The direction OK. The special effects adequate, and the color nice and unfaded.

The ending bumps House of Wax's Schlock-meter rating a tad. It's quite suspenseful to watch Price casually preparing to murder before being stopped and falling to his death into his own vat of wax. Movie fans will enjoy seeing a very young Charles Bronson in the role of Igor, a mute confederate of Price's.

Still, House of Wax is just too talky and dull in stretches to recommend as a rental. Catch it when it airs on AMC cable, and enjoy a master of the genre, Vincent Price, perform in his usual above-average manner.

-- Doug Gibson

Friday, February 8, 2013

The original Dracula! Bela Lugosi is the Count!

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackal -- one bad flick!

By Doug Gibson

Sinister Cinema has released "The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackals," a truly terrible film that was almost completed in 1969 by the Vega International, a Las Vegas-based film company. Never released to theaters, it was eventually grabbed for video by Academy Home Entertainment in 1986 -- the peak of the video era when fly-by-night video firms were grabbing cheapo 60s and 70s thrillers and packaging them as if they were more modern horros.

The film stars Anthony Eisley as a scientist, David Barrie, obsessed with a the perfectly preserved mummified corpse of the Princess Akana (Marliza Pons). He believes he can bring her back to life and does, but it comes with a couple of twists. The first is that Eisley -- in scenes so badly produced that they defy description -- turns into a jackal/werewolf and kills a few unluckies. Also, Ankara's revival prompts the revival of the mummy of one of her past admirers. They monsters eventually traipse through parts of Las Vegas where the most fun is watching passers-by try hard, and often unsuccessfully, not to giggle.

John Carradine is the "name" attached to the project. He shares a couple of scenes as a mentor to Eisley's scientist. Both Eisley and Carradine are solid professional who provide good acting performances. The rest of the cast varies from adequate to mediocre. The music is canned stuff that fails to provide any lift or emotion to the scenes. The whole mess ends in a confusing manner, with the werewolf and the mummy fighting in a lake and the Princess Ankara decomposing, with very poor FX.

As is the case with these type of films, the stoy behind the film is more interesting. As bad as The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackals is, it is faithful in plot to the old Universal mummy films, particularly the Kharis films of the 1940s. Indeed, the director, Oliver Drake, an old director of low-budget westerns, wrote the screenplay for the 1943 Universal Kharis film, "The Mummy's Curse." According to film historian Tom Weaver's exhaustive book, "John Carradine: The Films," Lon Chaney Jr. was originally tabbed to be the werewolf but dropped out. The next choice was another low-budget actor, Scott Brady. After he dropped out, Eisley took over. For Carradine, it was another of those walk-on roles where he would stay a day or two (at $1,000 a day), read his lines and leave, never seeing the completed script or film, and forgetting that he had ever been in it when queried years later. Perhaps Carradine's most humorous line is when he tells a copy, "We can't just stand by and let a 4,000-year-old mummy and  a jackal man take over the city!"

Enjoy a scene from this wretched film below. It really captures how bad this film is: