Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Monday, October 29, 2018

Fresh Picks: 13 Newly-Added Horror Movies on Prime (Halloween-curated Marathon Festival for Lost Causes and Autumnal Catalepsies)

Halloween is here! And out east things are autumnal like they never were last year - it feels like it actually is Halloween and I'm excited to... well, sit around and watch tons of horror films, because here in NYC there's too many screaming kids during the day and vomiting amateurs at night. But luckily Amazon's got our number. For horror films alone, Amazon Prime RULEZ.

Especially now that Filmstruck is going to be shut down (to either make bigger Xmases bonuses for their top execs or because they hate art, because art reminds them too much of how swinish and short-sighted they are), Amazon Prime is more essential than ever. Prime doesn't have Criterion or a lot of of older bigger studio films but they have some (like THE AWFUL TRUTH and WIZARD OF OZ) and if they don't have something now, they'll have it tomorrow. The other day I was reading about INITIATION OF SARAH, the CARRIE-inspired 1971 TV movie starring Kay Lenz. I was thinking hmmm - I'd like to check it out, but it wasn't on Prime and I don't dig watching films on youtube (too blurry). I debated options and then literally the next day there, viola! There it is in a brand new beautiful restoration on Prime, just for me, like Prime heard I was interested via some Siri interconnected listening device (or noting I did a search for it). More and more crazy great stuff keeps coming like that, every week more and more and more. Prime hears me! It hears us all! Praise Prime!

"bad weird, like Trenton" (from Return of the Living Dead)
As I always preface, though traipsing down Prime's vast alleyways can be addictive, beware! The amount of new independent shot-on-video horror film nowheresville nonsense is almost incomprehensible. If it was a video store, Amazon Prime's streaming horror collection alone would be the size of Trenton, and, like Trenton itself, mostly the wrong kind if scary. Trust your guide and don't make eye contact with anything shot on video unless you're actually in the film, or I tell you different. Stick with me, man, and hold on tight. Things is gonna get weird. But not bad weird, not like Trenton. Or misogynist, like Camden. Good weird, like Scarfolk.

(PS - As always, all images are screenshots taken from Prime for quality assurance.) Many Halloween favorites that are listed as seeable on Prime--City of the Dead, Horror Express, The Terror, Messiah of Evil--are actually in awful formats, taken from blurry video source material; others, like Seven Deaths in a Cat's Eye and Phenomena are from fine sources but the transfer is jumpy. The ones listed here are all bonny to the quick so fear not in that. Fear not... in that.

(1984) Dir. Neil Jordan 
*** / Amazon Image - A

A weird hybrid of "Red Riding" variations and Freudian-feminist horror, written by Angela Carter (author of the classic feminist Bluebeard revision, "The Bloody Chamber"), with the basic original fairy tale plot being meta-abstracted through more consciously menstrual filters into a series of stories-within-stories, dreamed by Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) about a wolf beset village a long time ago, in which a series of Red Riding variations are experienced or told as fairy tales by her, her older sister (Georgia Slowe), her father (David Warner) and her kindly grandmother (Angela Lansbury). Wolf girls come out of wells, severed paws turn into human hands, and through it all Rosaleen comes to power by using her womanly warmth and wiles to get the better of predatory male sexuality. All the exteriors are shot on a vast indoor soundstage and hauntingly lit and filmed, for maximum ethereal/earthy fairy tale mystique. Huge gnarled old growth tree roots rap around jagged rocks and twisted paths lead through all sorts of hazards where wolves and handsome foreign dandies with long teeth may be lie in wait to charm poor Rosaleen as she travels to and from grandma's remote but cozy cabin.  Stephen Rea cameos in a rather lumbering story-within-the-story involving a pregnant spurned gypsy girl crashing the wedding of her upper class lover and turning everyone into wolves (its feminist vengeance angle is soon subsumed in transformation make-up overkill) and--though I don't remember him it at all--Terence Stamp has a cameo as 'the devil.'

The real Halloween selling point for my money isn't the wolf transformations, which go on far too long, and then end with a bunch of actual dogs running around, but the brilliant sun-dappled old growth atmosphere of the sets, all giant gnarled tree roots, jagged rocks and other strange little impasses that make travel a matter of a kind of Jungian deep penetration into the unknown of the self, where every trip beyond the borders of the village means you may or may not find your way back, either in one piece, or ever. And the Amazon streaming quality is first rate, capturing a cozy amount of film grain in the image that makes it all feel alive on a movie screen midnight show full of strange little beings and forest mist.

Cons: The curly-haired local boy (Shane Johnstone) who follows Rosaleen around is never far away, like stalker bad penny. I confess I have an irrational loathing for curly-haired boys, especially those who pester the young hottie girl they grew up with--who's so clearly destined for things way beyond him--into early marriage (before she grows up enough to get away from him). I get that skeevy hometown males who try and take advantage of romantic promises you made together in grade school are a part of a woman's maturation, unfortunately we spend way too much screen time with this one like we're somehow supposed to root for his dopey stalker 'sincerity.'

(1971) Directed by John Hough
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Very recently Prime has added some of Hammer films, though the heavy hitters like Dracula and Frankenstein aren't around. There are however some beautifully transferred early 70s side dishes, sex and violence-streaked non-Drac vamp films like Twins of Evil. In past versions, all the outdoor sequences looked wan and depressing but with the deep colors of HD remastering, right beautiful they are. Here lots of old growth forest is dappled with thin rays of light through the mist betwixt the old growth and tombs and girls in nightshirts scampering hither and yon. And the HD deep blacks of the cobwebbed crypt recesses are what Halloween is all about. Here Peter Cushing is a very repressive Puritan-style church leader in the bad habit of burning girls at the stake rather than risk the king's displeasure by doing the same to the real evil in the village, Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), who always has an eye out for the local lovelies to join his coven. Cushing's borderline-perverse over-protectiveness towards his sexy twin nieces (Playboy playmates Madeline and Mary Collinson) drives one to run away and join Karnstein's kinky vampire club. The other daughter is 'good' which means she obeys the patriarchy and clutches crosses (naturally the wrong one is almost burnt at the stake). Kathleen (Sister Ruth!) Byron is the twins' devoted nanny; David Warbeck is the music teacher at the local girls' school fighting to keep the 'Brotherhood' from burning up all his students.

The real star though is the lavish Satanic atmosphere at and below the castle (some very impressive Gothic sets, well lit and cobwebbed) and the twins are sexy in a fresh, American kind of way with the usual flawless dubbing that makes every Hammer heroine seem so capable, sultry, imperiously intellectual and swaggericious. If you've a yen to get into the era when Hammer was taking advantage of looser censorship but hadn't yet given up on lavish period detail, solid writing and character development and vivid Gothic atmosphere, 1971 is the magic year, and Twins is one of the two best. May it compel you to seek out the other of the year's entrants in Hammer's Karnstein/Carmilla trilogy, The Vampire Lovers. And then, backtracking to 1960, the best of all the Hammers (even though Dracula does not appear), The Brides of Dracula (1960). (Neither is on Prime streaming, but Vampire Circus is, and recommended though the transfer quality is very uneven).

(2012) Dir. James Watkins 
*** (Amazon Image- A)

My one main caveat with Corman's Poe films is that the sets were never dark enough to be scary, and the same with Hammer, sometimes, sort of, but here's a new Hammer, offering interesting proof how truly important pitch blacknesss is in making old semi-deserted candle-lit mansions truly chilling. Though heavily indebted to The Ring as far as the old "unravel the mystery and give her missing corpse a burial and maybe the killings will stop before they get to your doorstep" storyline, what counts here is that--despite the immense attention to Edwardian period detail--enough to suffocate any ordinary picture--is that Woman in Black is never stuffy and really rather ripping in its moody, familiar way (making excellent use of that modern advancement, the motor car, as a key plot hinge). A surprisingly solid Daniel Radcliffe is a junior solicitor sent off to inventory to a dark decaying mansion perched in the midst of a thick mucky tarn, in a remote, fearful hamlet where kids suddenly get called to wander off to their deaths at the hands of vindictive woman in black. There's a great metaphysical shocker ending involving a speeding train, and the woman in black turns out to be a vindictive wraith like Eva Graps and her ghost daughter. She's a genuine fright, albeit one with the bad habit of opening her mouth far too wide too fast at the last minute and screaming, as if that was somehow scarier than her just quietly smiling or very... slowly.. creeping forward... or slowly beckoning one out into the tarn to be sucked under, or a dozen other thing than the old sudden jaw drop scream trick which is by now so played out it's a bummer Watkins didn't trust the already strong sense of Lewtonian less-is-more genuine creepiness he was getting from the darkness alone. That said, it's easy to forgive, because the darkness is so all-consuming.

This is especially due to a ripping extended sequence wherein Radcliffe is alone in the house trying to sort through the estate papers, ever distracted by strange noises, never sure if he's imagining it, if its the wind (in one broken window, a crow got in and started a nest on the bed). You get the eerie feeling in this stretch that you usually only get when you're alone for a long time in a very empty quiet house and suddenly you realize night has fallen and all the lights are off, and its gotten very dark and oppressive, and all of a sudden you can't wait to get out of there, turn on all the lights, or turn on the TV, very loudly. When this happens in the era before electric current, when light means candles or oil lamps, and in a big dark house like this, single light sources barely illuminate a two foot radius (the darkness seems to gulp it up). It's a hard feeling to convey properly (after all, the camera is always there, and unless the cinematographer is very good and the director very patient, he will need a lot of light to get an image, and that means when a character lights a candle the whole room magically fills with a golden glow). Here Radcliffe feels totally alone, we don't even feel like we are there, the darkness never lifts beyond a thin gray, and Watkins wisely refrains from using any music in this whole stretch, so that the silence and the little noises in it gradually swell in our brains and we see faces in the dim reflections of the wallpaper and shadows; we feel Radcliffe's mounting fear ourselves as he runs from one weird noise to the next. And when he finally gets an ally in the darkness-shrouded town (Ciarán Hinds) with whom to have glass of whiskey, it's only then that the darkness begins, ever so slightly, to lift. Screenplay is by Jane Goldman, based on a novel by Susan Hill! And though most of the face time goes to Radcliffe, he never tries to win an award or call attention to himself with a lot of banal 'shy / nice guy' mannerism (there's no romance, a few offhand gazes at the innkeeper's daughter aside), and seems all pale and pasty like he's never seen the sun. And like all the best horror films, it's not long (95 minutes). In other words, Hammer should be proper proud.

(1978) Dir. Gus Trikonis
*1/2 (bad movie rating: ***1/2) - Amazon Image - B

An undersung New World bad movie gem from 1978, The Evil is clearly meant to ride the late-70d obsession with Jay Anson's 1977 runaway bestseller The Amityville Horror (beating the movie version into theaters by a year). A tale of a big Civil War-era mansion sitting on the trapdoor to Hell, this has an off-center youth center therapist (Richard Crenna) bringing in some of his counsellors to help get this old building into shape to use as a halfway house for troubled youth. Things go wrong early on as the boiler incinerates the drunk caretaker (Ed Bakey). Soon the cast roll around pretending to be rocked by malevolent house quakes, pin scratches on the celluloid stand in for electric shocks, and--because it's New World--there's an attempted ghost rape of a girl (Lynne Moody) trying to take a nap on the upstairs cot.

As the Crenna's girlfriend and fellow counsellor, who's open enough to the spirit realm that she bothers to read the ancient journal that spells out what's going on (and has an accompanying 'good' ghost to guide her), Joanna Petit masterfully hides her Brit accent and rocks some of the grooviest clothes, hair and two-shaded lipstick of the entire 70s decade. She tries to wake materialist douchebag (you know he's 'hip' because of his beard and weathered army jacket) Crenna up to the evil but he's too busy mansplaining reality and, eventually, opening the locked door in the basement floor, of course. The wind rushes up, the Satanic laughter echoes, all the doors and windows lock shut, and Crenna has to think fast to explain it all aways as wind gusts. Fan favorite Andrew Pine--that quintessentially 70s laid-back lanky hipster (Grizzly)--is one of the more pro-active counsellors who tries to facilitate an escape over the side of the third floor balcony once it's clear that their fearless head shrink guidance counsellor (for at-risk youth?) has led them all into a locked box of doom and still can't quite accept who's actually behind it (prefix a the letter 'D' if you're at all confused what 'the evil' is).

Sure, it's not a good film and it take a few beats too long to get started (old Bakey seems to wander around that old building, taking a gallon of slugs from his half-pint hip flask), but once that trapdoor opens, the action just keeps getting faster, wilder and weirder until you're shrieking with delight (I refuse to give away the totally out-there ending, so you'll just have to trust me). In other words, it's the best kind of bad there is, and so 70s you can set your watch by it. The Amazon print is just fine, a little faded but hey, aren't we all? (If you want to find more of the 'possessed mansion killing guests one-by-one' movies that were all the rage in 1978, might I be so bold as to recommend The Legacy).

(1957) Dir. Edward L. Cahn
** / Amazon Image - C-

In case you don't know, this was once a TV perennial much liked by we kids (it even had our beloved Riddler, Frank Gorshin), then it disappeared into the legal twilight never to be heard from on VHS or DVD ever. Not unlike Corman's The Undead and Bert I. Gordon's Amazing Colossal Man it appeared only occasionally on AMC back in the 90s, when they still showed older movies. And Now - viola! Here it is, on Prime. You may not know it, but baby, it's a miracle!

The bad news: it turns out that, unlike Night of TerrorSaucer Men isn't very good after all. Most of it is spent with not terribly charismatic "teenagers" trying to convince the adults of their hick town that little green men are running amok in the cow pastures they trespass on for use as a lover's lane (must smell so romantic). While the military tries to cover it up (and to break into the saucer using blowtorches), these genius aliens kill teenagers by injecting them with alcohol through retractible hypodermic fingernails and are adept at hiding the evidence of their crimes to make it look like the work of drunk teens. Also, their hands detach and crawl around on their own, (with eyeballs on the top).  A bull has a blast though when he runs into one, but for the audience it gets old pretty quick watching as they try and explain all this to the cops (we spend way too much with a charismatically-challenged young couple who take it on themselves to good samaritan their way into official military business, and not nearly enough time with the aliens.)

It's too bad, since the aliens are actually pretty effective, especially from a distance as they bobble around in the dark (filmed at night rather than day-for-night, which makes a huge difference). Looking not unlike what the real greys have been described as (child-size, with bulbous heads -above right), seeing them all bobbing around in a group in the middle of the field lit only be headlights is pretty creepy, like if you've been abducted and had your memory wiped, maybe it would trigger total recall. The whole angle of the military covering it all up is on point too. Was this movie made with government assistance as disinformation, to make anyone who sees little green men seem crazy? Officer, why won't you believe me?

Seen through my adult eyes now that "why won't you believe me??" nagging at cops and parents gets really old and tired, but as a kid who loved this film I remember I really related to their frustration and desperation. Now I see more from the adult point of view. I never understood why people who see aliens and UFOs call the cops. What are the cops gonna do, arrest a gaggle of hyper-advanced aliens with detachable crawling hands and retracting hypodermic needle fingernails? They probably don't have finger prints. Either way, terrible or not, I'm glad it's finally back from the void.

(2001) Dir. Victor Salva
*** / Amazon Image - A

I know this one's pretty well-known, but I wanted to give it a little shout anyway, as it doesn't quite get the respect it should as modern pastiche classic that offers one of the more pleasantly scary slow-burn opening stretches in recent horror movie memory. It all starts innocently during a long car ride down a single lane highway through the South to (or from college), a brother and sister (Gina Phillips and Justin Long) bicker like any normal pair of siblings who've practiced the same time-killing license plate-naming games over and over on shared long car rides since they were kids, casually running razzing and nerve-grating gags on each other while obliquely discussing personal events like mom's depression and big sister's break-up (his made-up on-the-spot country song about her boyfriend is hilarious). The writing and acting is so good, the real-time tick-tockality so well-orchestrated, we feel like we're kickin' it in the backseat, staring out the window, half-listening, half-guessing what hick stretch of almost totally-deserted one lane highway they happen to be on. Then... they drive past a Hitchcockian sight --someone grabbing what looks like a human body wrapped in a bloody sheet out the back of his truck. From then on.... the tension and weirdness starts accruing, but so well-measured over what feels like real-time that we're never not 'in' it with these two kids.

So many memorable moments and details: the grinding of the car gears; the tied-down trunk; the sudden wing erupting from the roadkill demon; the head landing on the hood; Justin beholding the vast amount of missing persons notices on the police bulletin board; the termite attention paid to the precinct's cops and denizens, and the eccentric locals: the people at the diner; a surprise cameo from Eileen Brennan as the shotgun-toting cat lady; the sad-eyed psychic with her strangely calming terror; the tracking shot along the jail where they do the head count "show me some skin" (the bird being flipped just gets a fine "Thank you, I love you too" from the good-natured cop); the way enough shit happens in front of them that the cops can't dismiss the siblings' wild claims (thus avoiding that tiresome 'the adults won't believe us!' plot point).

The ultimate link in the chain between the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Terminator, this also benefits from one of the great stealth talents of his generation, Justing Long. You can taste his fear after being run off the road by the crazy killer's car, his glaze of sweat and frenzied yelling, the metallic tang of it. Sssshssshiss. There's a vividness to his plight made all made the weirder when considering the personal history of its director, whose proclivities perhaps find the perfect artistic sublimation subject in the saga of a monster obsessed with certain bits of a young man's anatomy (the sister as she just assumes any self-respecting demon would prefer her royal hotness to her yucky brother). Yikes. Whatever, Salvo did his time; maybe he's still a monster at least now it's all sublimated nice and proper onscreen, making this a blast from start to shortly before the finish (for it ends on quite the downer note - be warned!)

(1985) Dir. Dan O'Bannon
***1/2 (Amazon Image - A)

The realm of post-Romero zombie movies is vast - thankfully it's now dying out, so to speak, but in the midst of them all stands this, directed by Romero's co-writer on the original 1968 classic, Dan O'Bannon (who also wrote Lifeforce, below). The recently-departed and much beloved James Karen has one of his best roles as a medical supply company clerk who, on the first day of training amiable punk rocker Freddy (Thom Mathews), tries to freak him out by telling him Night of the Living Dead was based on a real event, then showing him the military grade containers containing the dead and the toxic substance that revived them, which--"in a typical military fuck-up"-- were accidentally mailed to their very company back in the 1969. In demonstrating how solid the canister is constructed, Karen kicks it, knocking a bolt loose and releasing the toxins and setting the wheels in motion. Meanwhile, Freddy's punk rock friends wait for him to get off work in the nearby cemetery, partying on the gravestones, with Linnea Quigley's death obsessed party-naked punk chick the highlight who dances on a gravestone while her friends dance around her waving flares (by then its dark out) and fantasizes about being ripped apart my a bunch of old, dirty men (which happens, as you may imagine, not too long afterward).

As if this couldn't get any better, there's also ace comic turns between Clu Gallagher as the supply company owner and Don Calfa as the funeral parlor owner next door. These adults somehow manage to be more punk than the kids without even trying, and I remember my punk friends and I who saw this in the theater at the time, all agreed on that point. The intergenerational ensemble comedy work is beyond compare. And it's scary too - these dead don't die from a blow to the head, dismembered hands and feet still wiggle, and this is the one where they talk and shout "more brains!" In other words, there's no escape. If you haven't seen it, you've been wasting your life. And if you haven't seen it again, lately, now's the chance - it holds up like glue and looks damned great.

(For more Groovy Punk Rock 80s horror comedy on Prime - see TERRORVISION and LIQUID SKY)

(1985) Dir. Tobe Hooper
*** / Amazon Image - A

Make it a Dan O'Bannon double feature! Thanks to Cannon Films and Tobe Hooper, his script for this stupid-brilliant film gets full gonzo wings to fly fly fly. A full roster of capable British male thespians like Peter Firth, Michael Gothard, Patrick Stewart, Frank Finlay, and Aubrey Morris scream, scream and scream in terror at the presence of gorgeous, naked Mathilda May, a soul energy-vampire whose ship travels in the tail of Halley's comet (it was passing around this time, and sci-fi films like this and Night of the Comet were making the most of it). Raiding planets as they pass, storing up souls for the winter, the lead vampire girl uses Jung's concept of the archetypal unconscious anima (the female ego of the masculine unconscious) to take her luscious form. Steve Railsback is the Yank astronaut from whose mind she takes her idealized shape (though really, she could be taken from the unconscious desires of any straight male in the audience). Without her hot Mathilda May make-up comes off, so to speak, she's a giant Basil Woolverton-style bat monster, but what are ya gonna do? Just stay drunk, Steve! It's a pretty intriguing idea (the vampire myth originates from the past visits of Halley's comet) from a novel by Colin Wilson and featuring knowing nods to an array of movies like SHE and THE BLACK CAT (as per her blue ray aura above). It's easily the best film in Cannon's short-lived but memorably crass and entertaining oeuvre, and the Amazon print is sublime, though I'm not sure if it's the longer, better British cut or not. Either way, it's a hilarious three AM must. (See Ten Reasons)

(for more cult sci-fi horror so recommended it's great if not good, on Prime - Galaxy of Horror)

(1965) Dir. Roger Corman
**** / Amazon Image - A+

You'd be a fool not to make this a Halloween perennial, for Vincent Price alone --when he's clearly having a blast making a movie, it's impossible not to have one too. Add Peter Lorre, Karloff and Jack Nicholson, plus Hazel Court as the buxom Lenore--they all vibe together tremendously well-- and some beautiful massive art direction, with sprawling atmospheric Gothic sets, and there you are, the best AIP Gothic horror comedy of all time. I was trying to just focus on lesser-known works for this list, but who's to say who's seen what anymore? The canon is too sprawled out, and no one watches the same thing at the same time like we did back in the 70s, man, when this was on afternoon TV with some regularity, to every kid's flipper-flapping couch somersault delight. The Mickey Mouse-ing score by Les Baxter may get a little too pleased with itself in spots, but it does certainly cast a mood when it wants to and Lorre, Nicholson and Price especially invent all sorts of funny weird little bits of business as they go. Watch it again and feel yourself at the delightful center of Halloween ground zero, the ultimate in cool spooky parties. (See: Mephisto from Missouri)

(1974) Dir. Paul Maslansky
***1/2 (Amazon Image - A)

This dusty AIP gem from 1974 is a wry, clever blaxploitation New Orleans zombie urban revenge film that knows how to take it easy and enjoy itself, arranging voodoo deaths for deserving honkie mobsters with a refreshing lack of scruples. Marki Bey stars as a sweet, sexy, witty fashion photographer Sugar Hill. When her voodoo-themed nightclub-owning boyfriend won't sell out to a bunch of syndicate thugs (led by Count Yorga-star, Robert Quarry), he's beaten to death in his own parking lot, so Sugar has probable cause and motive to return to her ancestral swamp homestead and see about getting some old-school voodoo revenge. Sugar's grandmother is Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), and her demon familiar is the laughing Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who shows up in different stereotype-satirizing disguises during the elaborate juju sting operations. Great touches, like the zombies being the dead slaves dumped by slave ships in the 1840s before they got into harbor. Their silver ping-pong ball eyes, a dusting of gold glitter and cobwebs, wearing slave shackles, and brandishing machetes and big evil grins, these monsters aren't necessarily convincing or 'realistic' or whatever that means, but who the fuck cares: they seem to be having a good time mugging for the camera as they reach forward with their ratty fingernails. More than most, it's just great to see black on white violence so freely and joyously celebrated. The deeper they go into their cake walk style display of how genteel black folks ought behave, the more relish they seem to feel when they laugh at whitey's inevitable display of raw terror, and the deeper our sense of macabre catharsis.

I love any movie where a smart take-charge woman trusts us to not be narcs or prudes and just to ride with our heroine into the moral abyss, especially if she's smart and badass enough that I don't have to worry about her getting beat up, sexually assaulted, imprisoned, outsmarted, or turning soft at the last minute, etc. (i.e. "there's been enough killing, today!" throwing down of guns, et al.) None of that for Sugar Hill, a stone fox who puts on an endearing Morticia Adams-style thrill in her voice, as if having a blast making fun of how white people talk almost to the point she's cracking herself up. Yes, it's great to be able to root for a murderous voodoo priestess and not have to worry she's going to develop a conscience thanks to burgeoning love for a dashing black homicide cop who's so clueless he genuinely believes locals will want to help him find whoever's doing the killing, even though the victims are the mobsters who plague their community and the killer is one of their own, and all-seeing. But don't worry about that cop, or how crude the production values may be, but Mama, Sugar and the Baron don't need fancy props and sets to work their dark miracles and no handsome cop's going to foil Sugar's game. So take Blacula back with ya; I'm ridin' Sugar's shotgun 'til the doll becomes enflamed! (full)

Sugar Hill, with her zombie

(1933) Dir. Ben Stoloff
*** / Amazon Prime Image - B-

A long-unavailable old dark house swirl of a thriller with proto-slasher movie signatures, Night of Terror is violent pre-code melodrama highlighted not only by an unusually florid Bela Lugosi performance but by an unusually lurid string of murders, all committed by a knife-wielding madman, who grins impishly from the bushes with knife raised, prowling unmolested in and around a rolling, fog-enshrouded estate, ramping up a body count in the double-digits. From the opening double murder of a necking couple in a convertible down in Lover's Lane, it plays more like a 70s-80s slasher movie collided with a hoary old 30s mystery. Weirder even than that is a a dotty scientist (George Meeker) planing to uses test his new 'suspended animation' death-duplicating drug by burying himself alive. Even weirder still: he has inexplicably earned a fiancee (Sally Blaine) the rich heiress endangered by a tontine-style will of her kooky, clearly delusional (and murdered) father. She's so passive she even lets herself be pawed by Wallace Ford as--what else?--a nosy reporter. The mysterious Hindu servant Degar (Lugosi) and his spirit medium-housekeeper wife (Mary Frey) --who sees death in the future!--are also in for a share of the dead man's fortune, so they're either in danger too, or the murderers. The black chauffeur (Oscar Smith) alone is smart enough to want to skedaddle.

This rare Columbia B-movie gem was one that, as a dyed-in-the-purple Bela Lugosi fan, I'd been looking for since forever. Oh, ever so long I waited. Suddenly it's on Prime in a decent if fuzzy SD print after never being on VHS, DVD or local TV. That I'm actually not disappointed after all that expectation (35+ years of waiting) says a lot. What sets this apart from so many other old dark houses is the wild pace and the abundance of little macabre touches and the way the killings just tumble along one after the other, the killer mugging to the audience like some insane off-Broadway ham. (Full review here)

(1933) Dir. T. Hayes Hunter
*** / Amazon Image - B

To be a classic horror fan is to get excited at any movie that features both Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (they co-starred in two James Whale classics: Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein). Here they're home in England, at Gaumont, but with Universal horror in their wind. Karloff stars but gets almost no lines as an eccentric, dying Egyptologist living in the eerie, fog-enshrouded ever-dark English countryside. Most of his remaining fortune has been spent on a huge mystical emerald which he thinks will bring him back from the dead... if its buried bandaged in his hand (and not stolen at the last minute by any quick-thinking pallbearer). After he dies, and his eerie Egyptian-style procession to the strains of Wagner's immortal "Siegfried's Funeral March" is concluded, the real show begins. The first person to break in finds the gem already missing, thanks to nervous but well-meaning butler (Thesiger) but there's also Ralph Richardson as an overly-friendly parson; Cedrick Hardwicke as a grumpy Dickensian lawyer; the great Harold Huth is Aga Ben Dragore, the art dealer who sold Karloff the jewel --after stealing it. Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell are legal inheritors, cousins who bicker over old grievances, but then stand "shoulder to shoulder" against the spooky goings on.  Kathleen Harrison provides the comic relief as Hyson's pal who comes along for moral support and ends up swooning over Dragore's tales of whipping slave girls for miles across the desert on his camel. It all takes place over a single, wild night (my favorite kind of movie). Naturally Karloff come back from the dead and skulks about the mansion search of his expensive emerald. The bit where he carves an ankh symbol on his chest has been restored! 

Long just a streaky duped public domain blur, available only on second-hand dupes, The Ghoul as since been spiffed up and now is a personal favorite that's just oozing with delicious spooky Universal-does-Edgar Wallace atmosphere (with dabs of The Mummy). As with all the best horror movies, there are no daytime exteriors. It mostly takes place over a single long foggy night. Pure 30s horror / old dark house mood it is, with enough fog to carry it through to the giddy end. And if you lose track of who has the jewel, or where it's hid, or where everyone else is relative to everyone else on the grounds, don't worry, just vibe on the old dark house glory of it all, and watch it again later. It gets better, and easier to understand, with every viewing... now that you can see what's going on, kind of, in the fog. 

(1957) Dir. Ronnie Ashcroft
**1/2 (Amazon Image - B-)

One of my new Ed Wood-school favorites, this kidnappers-vs.-alien in the deep woods saga was never on UHF late night/early morning TV in the 70s the way its confederates like Plan Nine and Bride of the Monster were, but it still feels like I've seen it a plethora of times. Lord knows I've tried, in recent years, to fill the gap, only recently pushing my # of viewings into the double-digits. I would have loved this, also, when I was drinking in the 90s. It would have fit perfectly between Faster Pussycat Kill Kill and Cat Women of the Moon. So many wasted hours wasted! Oh well, it's here now, on Prime. So are the Ed Woods, Cat Women of the Moon and Mesa of the Lost Women. They don't tumble one after the other like a 6-hour tape might, so you have to choose them of your own free will. But that would be foolish. Anyway, there they are, waiting, a click away. Do you dare?

The Astounding story riffs along the old crooks on the lam meet monster gag you might recall in that early Monte Hellman effort for Roger, Best from the Haunted Cave. This, she's a much better, because it's worse enough to rule, and occurs mainly almost in real time over a single night and has a great monster: with her extreme eyebrows and glittery body stocking adorned with big beatnik medallion, glowing in the dark as if the lens is wet from her awesomeness, Shirley Kilpatrick evokes everyone from Ann Francis to Divine (when she's on the rampage at the end of Multiple Maniacs), Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers) and Tura Satana (Pussycat). Her whole attack style is to just slowly advance towards people to try and kill them with a radioactive touch. (She also polishes off various wildlife stock footage). The humans trying to stop her are include: a cigarette-voiced kidnapper (Ed Wood favorite Kenne Night of the Ghouls Duncan), his alcoholic moll (Jeanne Tatum) who polishes off one whole bottle and is eager for the next during the course of the film (my kinda gal), their blonde heiress hostage (Marilyn Harvey, sporting the sexiest blonde hair / black eyebrow combination since Jean Harlow in Hell's Angels); Incredible Sun Demon Robert Clarke is the stalwart geologist hero. The same library music from Ed Wood's Plan Nine soars ominously and repetitively. Clarke's cute collie (Egan) deserves better than to, as always, get zapped early. Don't all dogs suffer cruelly in horror movies? Aren't they the real heroes? Even kidnapper Kenne is nice to Egan because he "likes dogs as much as the next guy." So why, Ronnie?

The Amazon image is just OK but then again, you should really see this with bleary eyes to get the full effect anyway. And then, since you're now obsessed, find Mesa of Lost Women, Cat Women of the Moon, and Plan Nine from Outer Space (not the colorized one), all now on Prime, and two of them at least lookin' pretty good. You can't possibly go righter. 

That's all for now, kids. Don't watch these all at once, or you may lose your mind.
More Weird and Spooky PRIME Picks:

These might not all still be on there, but honey, you're bound to find something... or some... thing waiting just for you to open its dusty case and set it free to lope... and slither...

More of EK's Obscure/Cool Halloween Recommendations:

New and Old Favorite Horrors:
Bitches' Sabbath: Alex di la Iglesia's WITCHING AND BITCHING (2011)

+ Audio, Books, TV etc:
HAUNTOLOGY for a De-New America (2015)



  1. Aw, thank you for posting about The Astounding She Monster. I wanted to see that again and forgot what it was called.

    1. You're welcome KC. I know it's easy to get mixed up with The She-Beast, She-Freak and the She-Creature

  2. 'twasn't Dan O'Bannon who co-wrote Night of the Living Dead, it was John Russo, who wrote a novel called Return of the Living Dead, which he planned to turn into a movie directed by Tobe Hooper. Dan O'Bannon was brought on to do a script polish, Hooper backed out to make Lifeforce, and the rest is history.

    1. Oh riiight - must be getting old in forgetting that. Thanks Manuel!

  3. Happy Halloween Erich, I think I'll be watching Mandy on Wednesday after your previous post. Hope you have a good one.

  4. "directed by Romero's co-writer on the original 1968 classic, Dan O'Bannon"

    John Russo co-wrote NOTLD.


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