House on Haunted Hill (1959) – A Horror Movie Review

Halloween has come and gone but I would like to add a few more movies to the list and maybe finish off with some kind of summation.

The date (1959) is inserted in the post title to differentiate this film from the 1999 remake.  I actually paid money to see the remake in a theater and still consider it one of the worst judgement calls of my rather checkered movie viewing career.  It’s right up there with Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.  Ah well.

The 1959 original is a masterpiece of cheesy 1950s horror film goodness.  The plot, such as it is, revolves around a millionaire, Vincent Price, and his wife who invite three men and two women who are only casually familiar with the hosts, to stay overnight locked in a haunted mansion.  That total of four men and three women matches the number of men and women murdered in the haunted house and therefore the number of ghosts haunting it.  Got it? Good.  If they stay, they each win $10,000.  If they die, they get $50,000 or at least their beneficiaries do.  The building is locked completely and until the next morning no one can leave.

Although Vincent Price stars in this gem and brings to bear all of his formidable overacting ability I would say that the star of the film is the screams produced by the two main female characters in the movie.  The piercing quality and protracted duration of the various screaming jags is remarkable.  Especially considering the low body count of the action.  These gals will start singing at the drop of a hat or at least at the drop of a severed head.

In second place in terms of importance to the atmosphere of the film is Watson Pritchard, the character played by actor Elisha Cook Jr.  You may know Cook from his notable roles in such high-profile films as the Maltese Falcon and the Big Sleep where he interacted with the likes of Humphrey Bogart.  But this is not the Maltese Falcon.  This not even the Maltese Bippy.  In House on Haunted Hill he is interacting with actors of the caliber of Vincent Price, at best.  Pritchard is a morose alcoholic survivor of a previous ghost attack whose brother is one of the ghosts haunting the house.  His main function is to drink booze and tell the participants in a droning, despondent voice, that they are all doomed and soon to be themselves ghosts in the house forever.  In this role he is truly annoying and it is sort of beyond the suspension of disbelief to think that none of the other characters would beat him into silence.  In the most egregious occurrence of Pritchard’s pessimistic prognosticating, the male romantic lead, airline pilot Lance Schroeder, runs into a room holding a mummified woman’s severed head by its long dark hair and yells to Pritchard, “where’s Nora!”  Pritchard immediately proclaims, based on no evidence we’ve been given, that not only have the ghosts already killed Nora but that she’s already actively working as one of them to kill the rest of the living occupants of the house.  Then Nora walks into the room and Pritchard doesn’t even bat an eye but goes back to his drinking.  Apparently ghost listening is far from an exact science and his radar was slightly thrown off by the straight bourbon he was pouring down his throat at the time.

And Lance is the only other character played by an actor anyone has ever heard of.  He’s played with astonishing mediocrity by Richard Long whom you may or may not remember played “the Professor” in the forgettable 1970s tv series “Nanny and the Professor” with Haley Mills’ less talented but more attractive sister Juliet playing the role of “the Nanny.”  The rest of the actors on House on Haunted Hill probably ended up as extras on Gunsmoke, Bonanza and the Twilight Zone.  Some may even have lasted long enough to do a stint on “Love American Style.”  But I digress.

As host, Vincent Price distributes party favors (semi-automatic .45 caliber pistols) and a private bed room to each of his guests.  The guests form various alliances and attempt to protect themselves from harm but despite this, Vincent Price’s wife is quickly found hanged from the ceiling of the stairway.  It’s a really nice-looking braided rope.  This of course triggers an avalanche of shrieks from Nora.  Richard Long comforts her, which cements their romantic attraction and allows her to rest her tonsils for the next bout of screeching.  And that can only be a few minutes away.  Just to summarize, there are secret passageways, ceilings dripping with blood, vats below the floor filled with really, really, fast-acting acid, a blind hag that seems to slide along the floor as if being pulled along on roller skates, a ghostly apparition outside the window, a walking, talking skeleton and a self-propelled rope that can wind around women’s legs without any hand moving it.  There are another couple of characters that I haven’t described but honestly, they don’t have much to do.  There is a plot line that involves Vincent Price and his wife which actually explains a lot of the plot elements but knowing it doesn’t really add or detract much from entertainment value of the movie.  It’s a ridiculous horror movie and I enjoy it immensely on its own terms.  If you like bad 1950s horror movies then I recommend House on Haunted Hill as the pinnacle of the genre.  If you don’t like bad 1950s horror movies then I can’t help you and you’re probably a monster.

Psycho – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Re-Posted from October 2017 in honor of Halloween.  Boo!

In honor of Halloween I’ve gone through the Universal Classic Monster Movies.  Moving along let’s look at the first modern horror movie.  And let’s start by defining what a modern horror movie is.  Well, what it isn’t is Frankenstein or Dracula or any make-believe monster.  In fact, it isn’t even a more contemporary monster like a zombie in “Night of the Living Dead.”  The generation that had lived through World War II and the Korean War and was living under the threat of nuclear annihilation probably couldn’t pretend to be afraid of rubber-masked monsters.  What they could fear was the monster that might be living behind the eyes of the boy next door.  Insanity was a monster that they knew had broken free before and once loose inflicted real horror on all in its path.  So that’s the modern horror movie monster, a homicidal maniac.  And before there was the Red Dragon, or Hannibal Lector or Saw there was Norman Bates.

Psycho was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who wrote genre fiction in Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery categories.  It was inspired in part by a truly depraved serial killer named Ed Gein but the details of the story mostly came out of Bloch’s imagination.

But the reason Psycho is the subject of this review is that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make that movie.  Always an innovator and aware of the need to push the boundaries of what was allowable on screen, he produced a film that fit its time.  The sexual nature of the relationship between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis is highlighted.  The murder scenes although tame by today’s standards are truly frightening.  For audiences of that time (1960) some of the scenes would have been shocking.

But Hitchcock didn’t make just a scream fest.  The movie is a complete story.  Each of the main characters and many of the smaller parts are skillfully crafted with loving detail and come to life on the screen.  And one character who has been dead for ten years and only survives inside the tortured brain of a madman gets several good lines including the closing soliloquy.

And here is one of the strangest twists of the movie.  The monster gets to tell his side of the story.  In the scene where Norman Bates brings Marion a meal, he tells his side of the story and even gives his mother’s side too.  Obviously, it’s couched in self-delusion and the confusion associated with a split personality but he describes his life as being in a self-inflicted trap that he no longer even tried to escape.  And he admitted that he depended on his mother as much as she depended on him.  And the portrait we see is personable, sympathetic and pitiable.  Of course, this just sets us up for what follows.

Norman’s sexual frustration is illustrated in the voyeurism we are shown and of course the maniacal rage is on display in each of the murders and the attempted murder.  When the psychiatrist comes on at the end as a deus-ex-machina, he not only explains the origins of Norman’s psychosis but also reveals that there have been additional women victims of “Norman’s mother.”

And finally, in the soliloquy that ends the dialog, we really get to meet the monster.  Mother tells us how sad it is that Norman must be punished and how innocent she is of all the blood.  But the dishonesty and the cruelty are on display and at the very last image of “her” we see the monster showing.  And the very last image we get is Marion’s car being winched out of the swamp (her coffin being exhumed from her grave).

What do I like about this movie?  Everything.  The actors are excellent.  The dialog is perfect.  Even the music and sound effects reinforce the action on the screen.  I don’t watch this movie often because I don’t want to wear it out.  But it’s the perfect adult horror movie.  The only thing that gives it competition is Silence of the Lambs.  I find it to be the perfect embodiment of the modern monster.  Man.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 1

Re-Posted from October 2017

 

A friend of mine at work is a movie fan.  But being a Gen X aged guy he hasn’t been exposed to the full gamut of classic Hollywood films from the ‘30s and ‘40s.  Recently he’s begun a systematic review of these films.  For instance, he just finished up an exhaustive viewing of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films in chronological order.  He even watched the early silent films Hitchcock made.  Now that is dedication.  On the whole he seemed impressed by Hitchcock’s body of work.  While he recognized weaker efforts he also felt that Hitchcock was an extremely competent craftsman who produced quality work.  And he noted that Hitchcock innovated over the course of his career and broke new ground in several ways.  He did chide him for birthing the slasher films with Psycho.  But all in all he was a great director.

This month he started on a smaller project.  He’s watching the Universal Classic Monster films.  He just finished up on Dracula, Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein.  When I spoke to him he was surprised and disappointed at what he judged a lack of quality.  I told him I predicted he’d really be shocked once he’d watched the Wolfman.  He is soldiering on but I could see he was let down.

After my comment, my friend questioned whether I disliked the Universal series.  I told him I have a fondness for them but have no illusions about the artistry they represent.  My exact words were, “Peter, they were made to scare children and simple people.  They were wildly successful at doing this.  And if you watch them in the right frame of mind they still can entertain.”  I’m not sure if I convinced him but it got me thinking about what those movies could say to an audience today.

First off, let’s see how they do with today’s kids.  I have a 13-year-old grandson who has been fed a steady dose of these films from about the time he was five.  Now, they may have become tame fare for him now but he still likes watching them.  He probably recognizes the relation to such modern fixtures as the Count on Sesame Street and Hotel Transylvania.  And basically kids are still kids and monsters are great fun for kids.  So, one audience still exists for these movies.

For those of us who grew up watching these movies their charm although thinned by use still survives.  They’re like old relations who diminish in importance as we grow up but still are fondly regarded and maintain an association in our minds with the happiness of childhood (if your childhood was happy).  This audience is shrinking but is still a large population.

And finally, there are those who are fans of all things fantastic.  If you are a SF&F fan then how can you not, at least, have a curiosity about the origin of all those First Blood and Underworld stories?  Sure, the 1930’s models were vastly less cool, what with their crosses and holy water, but even if just from an historical perspective, they should be viewed and discussed.

Being solidly in the second and third camps I feel entitled to give my opinion.  And that’s what I’ll do.  I’ll plow through the canon and give the pluses and minuses as honestly and objectively as I can.  It should be fun.  Stay tuned.

Southern Dust – by Caspar Vega – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

Caspar Vega must be an interesting character.  His books are a bizarre mixture of fantasy/horror and crime drama.  Many of his characters are not the kind of people you’d want to live next door to or even meet.  They range from anti-social to sociopath to worse.  And his books are never linear.  They track back and forth in time and place and skip from voice to voice in unexpected directions.

I’ve read and reviewed two other books by Caspar Vega, “The Pink Beetle” and the “The Eclectic Prince.”  And after each one I confirm both to myself and to my readers that Mr. Vega’s stories are way outside my wheelhouse.  Not that I only read or enjoy light-hearted fare.  I enjoy horror and even crime drama.  But there is something nihilistic about the atmosphere in these stories that is off-putting for me.  I must be getting old.

But here I am again.  I decided to try out Southern Dust.  The premise of the story is that in the near future the Democrats assassinate a Republican president and install one of their own through chicanery.  In response, a revolt in Alabama breaks the state away from the Union.  And in short order a good number of other states also declare their independence.  This story follows the fates of three individuals that collide in this strange new world.

Along with the other suppositions of this world are super soldiers, vampires and black magic.  But the mainstay of the story are the characters.  And they live up to the type that I remember from Mr. Vega’s earlier books.  Even the good guys are very troubled individuals.  The criminals on the other hand can be at least somewhat sympathetic but brutality is their stock in trade.  Murder for hire, framing up ex-girlfriends and bounty hunting all occur but brain-washed undead is probably the weirdest plot device you run into.  And even when one of the characters tries to do a good deed it boomerangs back on him in the classic no good deed  goes unpunished catergory.

I’ll finish my review of this book much as I’ve done with its predecessors, with a mixed message.  This is an interesting book.  But it’s not for everyone. It’s for those who like gritty crime dramas with a staccato, post-modern, minimalist writing style.  Your call.

Whispers from The Abyss – An Anthology of H. P. Lovecraft Inspired Short Stories –  Edited by Kat Rocha – A Horror Book Review – Part 3 – Conclusion

Whispers from The Abyss – Part 2

 

So, I’ll sum it all up.

Are you an H. P. Lovecraft fan?  Then for you, “Whispers from the Abyss” is a no-brainer.  It’s a cornucopia of Lovecraftian themes and inhuman doom.  You are bound to enjoy the majority of the stories and probably find some writers whose work you’ll want to check out.  And for those of you who buy books made of paper instead of electrons, I’ll say that the paperback book was a high-quality item with very nice cover art and excellent readability.

For you Lovecraft agnostics it’s a judgement call.  There is a mixture of styles and as a fellow agnostic I was happy to find a few stories that I thought were very good.  And there were a number that didn’t work for me.  And that make sense.  Without the Lovecraft bias the authors are fighting an uphill battle to get my sympathy.  And I would say there is a generational thing going on.  Any time the author includes even the smallest left-wing jibe, whether it’s an anti-religion or anti-male remark it jars me right out of the story.  So, I’m probably not the target audience for several of these stories.  So that needs to be taken into consideration if you have similar inhibitions.  But if not then you’ll probably be fine with the material in all these tales.

I’ll close by saying if you’re a horror fan and especially if you’re a Lovecraft fan I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Whispers from The Abyss – An Anthology of H. P. Lovecraft Inspired Short Stories –  Edited by Kat Rocha – A Horror Book Review – Part 2

Whispers from The Abyss – Part 1

Taking up where I left off, I’ll discuss some of the longer works in the anthology.  I arbitrarily divided the works as those eight or more pages long and those shorter.  First up, “Secrets in Storage” by Tim Pratt and Greg Van Eekhout.  It’s a straightforward tale of a man who looks in a mysterious box.  The set-up is up to the minute Americana.  A man spends his whole nest egg on the contents of a storage locker.  He goes with a hunch and of course exhibits more guts than brains when he reacts to an impossible scenario by literally climbing into the paradox.  I like the ending.  It reminds me of the ending of Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.  Only instead of no mirrors, no boxes or pools.  It’s a refreshing change of pace.

Next is “The Substance in the Sound” by W. B. Stickel.”  This is also a simple tale but well told and the details of the characters and the harbor environment is interesting.  The tie-in to the mythos is not the conventional one and allows some added surprise.  As a New England resident it’s always interesting when the stories return to Lovecraft’s old stomping grounds.

My favorite long story is The Jar of Aten-Hor. By Kat Rocha.  It is a story linking back to the Egyptian religious customs surrounding death.  The description of the funerary artifact around which the story revolves is very vividly described. As with some of Lovecraft’s best imagery it calls out for a visual representation.  But the description is detailed enough to bring it to the mind’s eye.  The protagonist at each turn is provided an avenue of escape and each time she believes that she is deciding her own fate but by the end of the story it is evident that she was the one being manipulated.  Although Egypt wasn’t the most frequent focus of Lovecraft’s mythic sources he did borrow from it for some of his Old Ones names.  I remember reading a description of the pyramids that Lovecraft wrote for some event of Harry Houdini’s.  It was entitled “Under the Pyramids.”  It was one of the better things Lovecraft ever wrote.  It’s nice to see a story that links Lovecraft back to a rich source of highly relevant mythic material.  The inexplicable changing images on the jar provide the link to show the change going on in the protagonist.  Her fascination with the jar grows past a professional interest until finally it becomes an obsession.  The story is well crafted and full of interesting details.  If only Lovecraft himself had been as careful with his writing.  Then I wouldn’t have to make so much fun of him.

In my final post I’ll sum up my thoughts on Whispers from the Abyss and I’ll even throw in some more abuse of Lovecraft at no extra charge.

Whispers from The Abyss – An Anthology of H. P. Lovecraft Inspired Short Stories –  Edited by Kat Rocha – A Horror Book Review – Part 1

 

Anyone with a comprehensive knowledge of this blog knows that I have a love/hate relationship with the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

Why No Love for the Craft of Howard Phillips? – Part 1- The Whisperer in the Darkness

Space Opera (High and Low)

On the one hand, some of his stories are, in my opinion, terribly written.  The action and narration are painful to read and sometimes seem like parody.  On the other hand, some of the images he presents possess the potency of an archetypal nightmare.  I feel that he had an extremely powerful imagination but for whatever reason lacked or neglected to use the writing techniques needed for good story-telling.  For this reason, I continue to circle around Lovecraft’s works.  Aggravated by the reality but fascinated by the potential.

So, I just finished the stories in this anthology.  I read them over the course of yesterday and today.  That’s twenty-eight stories inspired by the writings of Lovecraft.  By any protocol currently in place that is dangerously north of the recommended median safe dosage.  And what I found is consistent with both what I know about Lovecraft and what I know about anthologies.  Let’s look at the categories.

Case 1:  Assume you are a rabid Lovecraft fanatic.  Then by definition you’ll love this anthology.  It’s chock full of Lovecraftian bug juice.  You’re not gonna find a stronger dose of the real thing.  But even you, the grand master of the Lovecraft Day Parade will enjoy certain stories more than others.  Stands to reason.  Because even though the stories have the main attraction it’s there in different dosages and also it is flavored with the other ingredients.  Suppose you are a rabid right wing Lovecraftian and you hit upon a story that includes some feminist story elements or sentiments.  Then that would decrease your enjoyment.  Or suppose you’re a Cthulhu Mythos purist and a story contains some element that you see as heretical, say humor or some science that disagrees with your vision of the saga.  This also would be a negative.

Case 2:  You’re a Lovecraft agnostic.  You don’t hate or love him.  Then each story is taken on its merits.  And so, even more powerfully than in Case 1 your own spectrum of preferences come into play and by definition you will have a much lower average score for each story since it won’t start out on the Lovecraftian plateau.

Case 3:  You despise Lovecraft.  Well, in that case you’d have to be reading this collection out of some kind of masochistic impulse.  Because even if the story characteristics agreed with your other requirements for good fiction, the Lovecraftian elements would be a constant irritant.  Chances are a much smaller subset would be acceptable.  These would be stories that have all the other personal qualifications going for them to offset the anti-Lovecraft bias.

As previously stated, I fall into the second category.  The story will work or not based on how well the elements resonate with my tastes.  And since I’m an old geezer brought up in the paleolithic era I respond well to regressive, patriarchal, hetero-cis-normative, Europhilic, western pro-American themes extremely well.  All other influences lower the enjoyment quotient to some degree.  By definition, anything written after 1957 is going to suffer from a certain deviation from this baseline point of view.  End of truth in advertising disclaimer.

So let’s get started.  The story that best represents the nightmare quality that I think is the most powerful part of the Lovecraft experience is also one of the shortest pieces in the anthology.  I’ve always thought that parents’ emotional bond to their children is the strongest point of attack for horror writers.  In his story “When We Change,” Mason Ian Bundschuh identifies what can be truly horrific about humans being forced into a meat grinder.  Forcing people to make unthinkable choices is the very essence of tragedy and horror.

Interestingly, another of my favorites is a parody, a Lovecraftian farce.  James Brogden’s “The Decorative Water Feature of Nameless Dread” was very good.  It falls into the British tradition of Wodehouse, Fawlty Towers, The Office and anything else that juxtaposes the English desire for propriety and normalcy against the actual absurdity of real life. I definitely was smiling during my read of this story.  It aligns very nicely with my own sense of humor.

In the next installment of this article I’ll give my ideas on some of the larger stories.