Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Monday, October 15, 2012

Ten Left-of-Dial Horror Gems


October is a time for chillin' with cheap horror. And chillin' means takin' it easy, which means skipping the clogged B&T streets and bars, and parties filled with overwrought nonsense. Because there're movies on! Now if you're a seasoned horror fan like me, of course you have a lot of the primo stuff in your private collection of devil island discs. but aren't there some you may know less about, or heard bad untrue things?

 KILL BABY KILL
1966 
It take a few viewings to really appreciate KILL BABY. It's not as highly regarded as some of director Mario Bava's other work, which is probably due to a history of bad prints and title changes. A Victorian Gothic Italian rural villa ghost story, KILL, BABY, KILL's Italian title was OPERAZIONE PAURA! (Operation: Terror!). We don't blame them for changing it, but why make it sound like a giallo spy thriller?  Instead there are beautiful 'old master lighted' bowls of fruit, great wind effects, sedatives ("give her 20 drops") and an array of strange and wonderful women, including an Anna Magnani-ish bruja (Fabienne Dali), a terrified innkeeper's daughter (Micaela Esdra), a stylish and terrified med student named Monica (Erika Blanc), and Melissa Graps, a ghost girl with blonde hair (to tie the film even deeper into RIGHT ONE, she's played by a very spooky boy, Velerio Valeri) and looks like Italy's Victorian era version of THE BAD SEED times the SHINING's murdered twins divided by Norman Bates in "wouldn't hurt a fly" drag. See it again! Again!

BURN WITCH BURN 
1962
 It is hard to think of who other than Bava could ever get this chilled in color, and harder to think who other than Lewton could sneak so much genuinely intelligent female characters into a black and white horror film The evil witch has great lines, mocking our hero's 'desperate stretching of logic' to continually deny that which he knows to be true. Meanwhile a whole litany of superstition rolls by: charms, spells and obscene phone calls, all topped off by some wild ass NIGHT OF THE DEMON-style monsterizing. So while the world knows to bow for the stealth-intellect and shadow-shelved soul of the Lewton box and the CURSE OF THE DEMON and HORROR HOTEL DVDs, no one, at least here in the states, knows that BURN, WITCH, BURN deserves not only bowing, but scraping, and more scraping, until the very celluloid below your finger nails is engulfed in black and white flame. (more)

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB
1971
The first time I saw this I fell madly in love with Valerie Leon. It also helped that I'd just read Bram Stoker's novella--The Jewel of the Seven Stars--right before seeing this, not knowing it was actually based on said novella until about half-way through, and since the story is all deja vu and murderous spirits embodying beautiful women rising from the ashes to kill those who dared desecrate her tomb, et al, it was a perfect meta moment for me. It helps us through the rough stretches that Leon's mod fashion choices are spot-on during her killing sprees--I'm a sucker for the pale skin, black velvet choker look--and she underplays recklessly in a double role. Just look at that awesomely haughty ambivalence in her eyes above!

MIMIC 2: HARDSHELL
2001
You don't often get to see awesome sequels with badass etymology teachers navigating treacherous urban streets and fending off insect suitors. Alix Koromzay is great in the lead, using sewing scissors as mandible talons to rend the exoskeletons of her imperfect dates. She brings a lot of depth and characterization. So so what if there's just a smudge of direct-to-video cheapness? It's the ideal third or fourth entry of any all-night horror binge. Koromzay and the director clearly decided to treat this like A-list material and give it their all and budget be damned; that's what a true artist does! Bzzzzzz! No less a luminary than Kim Newman recommended this and the third sequel as some of the best of the direct-to-video horror sequels ever.

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS
1970
The year 1970 was a very good year for horror movie women in England as it was a time of relaxed censorship standards but not yet just softcore Maxim-style boredom. In other words, there was still the sizzle, and some of steak too, with a high level of proper adhesion to narrative and atmosphere in addition to the Sapphic seduction. (See also that far tamer but in its own way intriguing version of Fanu's same story BLOOD AND ROSES - both on streaming and in Erich review) And as any Ingrid Pitt fan can tell you, nothing beats Ingrid Pitt. (more)

PRINCE OF DARKNESS
1987
This John Carpenter movie gets a bad rap--the devil as a jet of gravity-defying green ooze? No thanks. But it grows on you, like moss. It's certainly not the worst John Carpenter horror film of the 80s, and it is a Carpenter film in all the best ways: ominous synth scoring, dopey but likeable actors, a relentless sense of creeping dread, siege mentality, and cots. Like his mentor Howard Hawks, Carpenter repeats his motifs and recycles actors/characters, so as a nervous priest here's his favorite quiver-voiced patriarch, Donald Pleasance; as scientists: John Lone and Victor Wong; there are countless super po-faced in-jokes (a character is named after Corman regular Susan Cabot; a severed hand is crawling with bugs like Un Chien Andalou); a crazy proliferation of crosses on the walls recalls In the Mouth of Madness. The church is called Saint Godard's. Lurking amid the homeless demon hordes outside is Alice Cooper. Just don't fall asleep!

THE TERROR
1963
A kind of exquisite corpse of a Corman Poe film, THE TERROR came together when Corman still had two days of Karloff left over on the contract for THE RAVEN, Corman's beloved Poe comedy. Not wanting to wast two days of Karloff, Corman put Peter Bogdanovich on it, Jack Nicholson got his first chance to direct parts of it --he also stars, as Andre, a Napoleanic lieutenant who gets lost along the Big Sur coast. The result was a tug-of-war in storyline as well - what starts as a tale of, probably, the daughter of Isla being hypnotized into seducing her father to kill himself by posing as her own mother, whom he killed 20 years ago. Coppola supposedly took over for awhile and changed it to have Karloff be, in fact, Ilsa's guilt-stricken lover who took over for the count after killing him.

Being in the public domain the film has been seen all over the place, but naturally the prints seen have always looked rather like shit -- with faded colors, muffled, muted detail, and a complete disregard for coherence via scissor editing for commercial running time, reels out of order and so forth. This has helped, of course in making the film 'great' in the sense that you can watch it a dozen times and have never seen it before. However, Kino has a gorgeous blu-ray version, with all the Big Sur splendor and Karloff walking back and forth to answer the door restored. And you should care!


CHARLIE CHAN: THE CHINESE CAT
1944
It's lower budgeted Chan, from Monogram, but I love Sydney Toler's bemused but cagey yet weary warmth in the role and his way with lines like: "When head of large family all other problems meaningless." Warner Oland was great, but always a little too demonic with his big white grin compared to Toler's tossaway ease in the role, the difference between a comfortable old recliner and a plush velvet divan, perhaps. Then again, no one says "You... are murderrrer" with the same lethal purr as Oland.


Actually the biggest drawback of the Monograms is the bug eyed stereotype antics of Mantan Moreland as the perennially scared comic relief --it gets a little annoying in the later editions, but he generally comes through in a clutch, and at least he got regular work, and maybe too much screen time. Either way there's always great atmosphere, as in this CHINESE CAT's funhouse climax (see top image). I used to dislike Chan films, but now that I'm an adult, older than the #1 son of Chan, I am most taken by mix of comfortable mystery and unique poetry of Chan's endless proverbs. And in the Monograms the scripts are still tight and frequently stocked with seances, skeletons, thunder and old dark houses. Thank you... so much. 

 THE GHOUL
1933
 British studio Gaumont's attempt to make a 1930s Universal horror reveals just how great Universal horrors were by contrast. At any rate, GHOUL's foggy and cozy as a cup of Earl Grey at a midnight graveyard picnic. Karloff is an eccentric Egyptologist who spends 75,000 pounds on an emerald he thinks will bring him back from the dead. He dies soon after and is entombed to the strains of Wagner's immortal "Sigfried's Funeral March" but apparently without the gem. Soon thereafter a cast of skulking emerald seekers materialize out of the fog including Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorious!) and a grumpy Dickensian lawyer who employs rather elaborate strings of words like "I intend to grant myself the pleasure of calling on her this evening." They're all either looking for the emerald, stealing it from someone else, having sadomasochistic fantasies (how very British!), writing notes, making peace with angry cousins, or being strangled by a Karloff... back from the dead! (more)

THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE 
1962
A trash favorite of everyone who grew up with UHF TV. We all still jump out of our skins when crazy Herb Evers shows up on Star Trek or some TV western. Shout, do we, at the screen, "Hey Herb, where your head at??!!" And Virginia Leith as the head has that sexy scratchy voice as she seduces her unseen fellow scientific curiosity in the closet: "I am only a head, and you are whatever you are," she rasps. "But together we're strong!" I used that byte in nearly every DJ mix I made in the 90s (in the late 80s I'd already driven my girlfriend crazy watching it over and over on bourbon jags). I thought the world knew of BRAIN's greatness... but apparently not. Times have changed. The head remains forgotten. Yet alive, waiting... for you to click play... hit it! Hit it again!

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