The Dunwich Horror (1970) – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Move Review

(War Pig loves really bad sf&f movies.  This one’s for you War Pig.)

This movie is so monumentally bad that I feel compelled to dissect its awfulness so that we can learn something from it.  First of all, look at the date.  1970 is something of a low water mark in American cinema.  Now granted this was produced by American International Pictures and they only ever made really cheap and schlocky movies.  But that sets the stage for how this movie became what it was.  Next, the story is an old H.P. Lovecraft story so the cost of buying the movie rights must have been pretty close to zero.

Next take a look at the actors.  Sam Jaffe and Ed Begley were actual actors at one time but their careers were coming to an end and they probably really needed the money.  Dean Stockwell was a young guy whose career had begun as a child actor in the big studio system but with that system now a thing of the past he would earn his daily bread working in schlock and it suited him.  Sandra Dee was a product of the post war teen movies of the late fifties and early sixties.  She had played all the Gidget and Tammy parts and was now too old to be the girl next door.  This was what was next on her ride to oblivion.  It’s also funny to see that before she got some big screen parts in movies like the Godfather and Rocky, Talia Shire had a small role in this stinker.  So, there are some actual actors in this movie.  But what can they do with this thing?

And finally, what is the plot?  Well, in the original Lovecraft story Wilbur Whateley, played by Dean Stockwell, and his monstrous twin are the product of some kind of bizarre ritualistic impregnation of their mother by one of the Great Old Ones, Yog-Sothoth.  The book chronicles the attempt by Wilbur to use the Necronomicon to allow Yog-Sothoth to break through from his own dimension and conquer Earth and eat all the humans for lunch.

But the geniuses at American International Pictures decided that what Wilbur wanted was to go for another generation of Yog-Sothoth baby making and Sandra Dee would be the baby mama.  The monster brother is still in the plot but it seems like a sort of dangling appendage that nobody knows what to do with.

Ed Begley is Dr. Henry Armitage, a university professor who has a copy of the Necronomicon and is Sandra Dee’s boss.  He will try to save her life and foil Whateley’s diabolical plan.  And to round out the cast Sam Jaffe is “Old Whateley,” Wilbur’s grandfather who seems to have inexplicably changed his mind about being an evil servant of the Great Old Ones and now just runs around warning everyone about how dangerous everything is.  Comically they’ve painted thick black eyebrows on his face.  He sort of looks like Groucho Marx in that sense.

Well, before you know it Wilbur convinces Sandra Dee to come to his groovy farmhouse and drink some tea and after he pulls the distributor cap off her car’s motor, she has to spend the night.  She has dreams that look like they were filmed with my kid brother’s super 8 movie camera.  Semi-naked hippies who look like rejects from the Manson family hopped up on hair tonic and looking for love chase her around.  It’s quite ridiculous.  When she wakes up, she shares these dreams with Wilbur and we can see that it’s all having the hoped-for result.  She’s looking for some Yog-Sothoth action.  So, Wilbur brings her up to an oceanside cliff with an altar where she will wear some kind of poncho-like garment that allows the cameraman to show us the side of her leg and butt for what seems like hours.  And Wilbur spreads her legs apart and props the Necronomicon against her groin while he reads passages to Yog-Sothoth.

At some point Wilbur’s brother breaks out of his room and eats about five people including Talia Shire.  We never really get a good look at him.  He’s got tentacles and eyes and I don’t know what else.  He makes guttural noises and he has problems with his adenoids for sure.

Finally, Ed Begley shows up at the cliff and he and Wilbur posture and spout meaningless syllables at each other.  Begley’s babbling proves to be the stronger and Wilbur’s head bursts into flames and he jumps off the cliff.  We briefly see what might be Yog-Sothoth appear as a cartoon character suspended over Sandra Dee’s groin before he disappears.  Then Ed Begley helps her off the altar and the movie ends but as it ends, we see an image of a fetus near Sandra Dee’s belly.  Yog-Sothoth scored again!

So, there it is.  It’s embarrassing to admit I even made it to the end of this awful waste of time.  As far as I know Talia Shire is the only living victim of this terrible thing.  I imagine it still haunts her.  Maybe her rich brother Francis Ford Coppola can buy the rights to the movie and destroy every copy so their family’s shame can end.  I’ve never been a big fan of Lovecraft’s prose.  His imagination was fertile and the images he came up with were vivid.  But his prose style was lackluster.  But even he deserves better than this.  The Dunwich Horror was one of his better stories.  Maybe someday someone will do a decent job of making a movie of it.  This was not that movie.

The Haunting (1963) – A Horror Movie Review

There is a place called Hill House built in the 1870s in New England that has caused the death of all those who have owned it and lived in it.  A researcher in the paranormal, Dr. John Markway, has gotten permission from the present absentee owner to stay in the house and investigate its behavior.  Markway hires two women, Theodora, a psychic and Eleanor, a neurotic woman who attracts supernatural activity, to help him detect the supernatural activity there.  In addition, the owner has designated her nephew Luke Sanderson to be present as her representative.

Eleanor is more or less the protagonist of the movie.  She has led a tortured existence having spent eleven years as the caregiver for her invalid mother.  Becoming involved in the paranormal research seems like her chance to escape from her dreary existence and strike out on her own.

Theodora is a lesbian and she takes an immediate interest in Eleanor.  But it’s obvious that her attentions annoy Eleanor.  Eleanor on the other hand seems attracted to Markway who unbeknownst to her is married.  Luke is the scoffing skeptic who finds the whole idea of a haunted house laughable.

During the first day nothing notable happens but during the night the two women hear very loud and frightening pounding on the walls and at one point the doorknob in the room they’re in starts to turn.  The men had been outside chasing a dog that seemed somehow to get in the house on its own and had heard nothing.  On the second day Eleanor has several sensations caused by supernatural presences.  She is especially overcome by a horrible smell coming from the library where, as it turns out, one of the owners had hanged herself.  That night more noises and voices are heard.

Next day, Dr. Markway’s wife Grace shows up.  Eleanor is crushed when she realizes that the man she’s been interested in is married.  Grace announces that she will sleep in the nursery, the room where the eeriest happenings were known to have been centered.  While she is upstairs in her room the rest of the party is downstairs when the pounding starts again.  But this time things get out of hand.  Whatever is making the booming noise is also able to push against a thick wooden door and bow it in as if some inconceivable weight or pressure was being brought to bear.  As soon as it ends Dr. Markway runs upstairs to find how his wife is, but she’s gone.

Meanwhile Eleanor runs into the library and climbs an extremely dangerous metal spiral staircase to the top of the forty-foot tall room with the intention of throwing herself down in order to become a permanent part of the ghost community.  Markway risks his life climbing up the tottering staircase to stop her.  Rather than go back down the stairs they open a trap door to the attic to escape their predicament.  And at that moment Grace Markway sticks her face down the trap door from above and scares Eleanor into a fit.

In the next scene Markway has decided that the whole experiment is a mistake and orders Eleanor to leave.  He will continue to search from Grace who has somehow eluded them again.  Eleanor begs desperately not to be sent away.  She feels she belongs in the house.  But Markway is adamant and he is sending Luke with her to make sure she returns home.  But at the last second Eleanor drives away without him and heads down the long driveway.  But some force takes control of her car and eventually she crashes the car into a tree and dies.  The others reach her car and find her dead.  Grace has been wandering around and happened to be right at the scene of the crash.  The consensus is that Eleanor got her wish and will stay with the house.

In the last scene we’re shown a nighttime view of the house while Eleanor’s voice talks about being part of the ghost community there.

As far as haunted house movies go this is probably the best one until The Shining was made in 1980.  That’s not to say that the film and the characters aren’t extremely annoying, because they are.  Eleanor is a thoroughly neurotic and unpleasant personality.  The others are tolerably less annoying than Eleanor but none of them is going to win any personality contests.

All that being said, the movie does have an atmosphere of foreboding about it and the sights and sounds do produce the desired effect of creepiness.  Without a doubt the spectacle of frightened isolated women does effect a movie audience powerfully.  If you’re looking for a good haunted house movie it’s this or The Shining.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) – A Movie Review

This movie review is only for those who revel in cheesy, almost unwatchably bad horror and sci-fi movies of yesteryear.

Before I get started, I want to give a personal anecdote about this movie.  Back when I was ten years old, I was a big fan of horror and sci-fi movies that I watched mostly on the New York City local television station channels 5, 9 and 11.  They each had some kind of weekly show like Creature Feature, Chiller Theater or Million Dollar Movie that often featured such classics as Attack of the Crab Monsters or Tarantula.  Well at some point I saw “The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake” and became fascinated with the idea that there were such things as shrunken heads.  Coincidentally a kid’s toy came out called Witch Doctor Head Shrinkers Kit by a company called Pressman that had the cheesiest commercial demonstrating how you could make the aforementioned shrunken heads.  Suffice it to say that from the time the commercial appeared until next Christmas I harangued my parents relentlessly to make this my one and only Christmas gift.  Now money was short back then and this toy was on the pricey side but sure enough it was under the tree that morning at Christmas.  I was ecstatic and wasted no time making my first shrunken head.  I added the “plastic” powder and the warm water to the with doctor’s cauldron and stirred it while reciting the mystic spell, yikes.  Then I poured the goop into the mold and let it set.  Anyway, the stuff was like a gelatinous plaster of Paris and after it set for a day, I guess it somewhat shrank but honestly it wasn’t very much for all the hype associated and within a week or so it was in the garbage pail.  A very important lesson for me in the difference between expectations and reality.  And now seeing this movie for the first time in fifty some odd years it’s a similar experience.

Don’t worry about any actors’ names.  No one has ever heard of any of these people, either then or now.  The plot is that the Drake family has a curse on them because 180 years previous their ancestor was a merchant down in the Amazon jungle and one of his men was kidnapped by a local tribe of headhunters.  During a rescue mission it was discovered that the kidnapped man had been killed and his head cut off in preparation for it being shrunk.  Ancestor Drake became so angry that he had the whole village slaughtered.  The only one who escaped was the witchdoctor who took the head of the employee killed.  After this a curse was placed on the Drakes by the witchdoctor.  All the male heirs of Drake would have their heads cut off at about age sixty and shrunken down.  The skulls were kindly returned to the family crypt but not the shrunken head.

Skip ahead four generations and Jonathan and Kenneth Drake are the last male descendants of old Drake.  Jonathan is concerned for his brother Kenneth because his sixtieth birthday is approaching.  But before Jonathan can reach him an extremely tall Amazonian Indian stabs Kenneth with a curare envenomed blade.  He’s interrupted right after the lethal stab but later on he returns to the casket containing Kenneth’s body and decapitates it and takes the head away in this nifty hat box shaped wicker basket.  Then we meet Dr. Emil Zurich (from Switzerland!) who assists the tribesman in processing the head for shrinking.  It’s all very official.  The head is boiled then the skull is very cleverly removed and the rest of the head is filled with ashes and hot stones that miraculously transforms it into the charming shrunken head that would look sporty hanging from a rear-view mirror or possibly on a keychain.

Things get complicated with Jonathan’s daughter Alison and an appreciative police detective Jeff Rowan and a medical doctor named Bradford and a police forensics guy whose name escapes everyone.  Eventually we learn that Dr. Zurich and the really tall Indian are two hundred years old and have been doing the killing all along.  Zurich is a zombie with the head of the original victim from Drake’s Amazonian adventure sewn onto an Indian’s body by the witchdoctor who is the really tall Indian.  During the fun and games.   Jeff and Dr. Bradford save Jonathan from a curare attack by the Indian and in revenge Zurich has Bradford’s head removed and stored in what looks like a food pantry.  Finally, Jeff kills both the villains and the movie ends with Jonathan cutting Zurich’s head off.  This allows him to turn to dust and the movie mercifully expires too.

This movie is nowhere near as entertaining or witty as I’ve made it sound.  It’s awful.  It takes a special individual to sit through this.  Someone fearless and intrepid.  War Pig, this one is all yours.

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

I have to admit I have mixed feeling about calling this a classic movie review.  Even though it falls within the “Golden Age” of Hollywood time period “The Beast with Five Fingers” is hardly a masterpiece.  But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet and vice versa.  Warner Bros. still had Peter Lorre on the payroll from his days in Casablanca and other more mainstream titles so it made sense to have him as the bug-eyed maniac in this little gem.

The story takes place in a small town in Italy circa the year 1900.  Francis Ingram is a rich man who until recently was an acclaimed concert pianist.  He had suffered a stroke that left all but his right arm extremely weakened so that he needed a wheelchair to get around his house.  With him at the time of the story are a circle of people that assist him in various ways.  Conrad Ryler is a friend who has agreed to transcribe music into notes that can be played on the piano with one hand.  Hillary Cummins (played by Peter Lorre) is Ingram’s manservant.  He has attended to Ingram’s household chores for years in exchange for access to Ingram’s library of books on occult studies.  He is more than a little nuts.  Julie Holden is a recent addition to the household.  Since his stroke, she has been Ingram’s nurse.  She has been extremely kind to him in his illness for which he is extremely grateful.  But she has become terribly worn by the job and wishes to leave.  She and Conrad are also in love and planning to leave the town to get married.  Ingram’s lawyer is also in house, a man named Duprex who has just finished drafting Ingram’s new will.  All the above residents of Ingram’s home are there to witness his new will.  But this crystalizes in Julie’s mind the need for her to leave Ingram’s employ and she and Conrad go out into the garden to plan their departure.  Hilary overhears their plans and communicates them to Ingram.  But Ingram flies into a rage believing it to be jealousy at Julie’s preferred status with the master.  He grabs Hilary by the throat with his good hand and practically strangles him to death before Hilary escapes his grip.  Ingram fires Hilary and tells him to leave the next morning.

But that night there is a wild storm outside and the sound of the wind and banging shutters wakes Ingram and he manages to get into his wheelchair by himself and heads into the second-floor hall looking for Julie to help him.  Somehow, he becomes disoriented and ends up falling down the long staircase in his wheelchair and breaks his neck and dies.

The local police chief or as he is titled “Commissario” Ovidio Castanio (played comically with a Chico Marx Italian accent by J. Carrol Naish) investigates the death and declares it an accident.  The will is read and it turns out that Julie is the heir to all of Ingram’s property.  At this point Ingram’s relatives, his brother-in-law and nephew, Raymond and Donald Arlington show up and are unhappy about the new will.  They feel that the will is debatable.  They make it clear that they want to get possession of the estate and liquidate it for cash.  When they mention selling the library Hilary becomes unhinged and says that the books were bought for him and no one will take them away.  We find that he believes that esoteric knowledge found in these books will allow him to possess untold powers over the mysteries of the universe, or something.  Anyway, he’s really incensed at the Arlingtons.  They on the other hand take practical steps to gain possession of Ingram’s estate.  They cut a deal with the lawyer Duprex to have him use his legal acumen and his knowledge of Ingram’s mental state to have the will overturned in return for a third of the value of the estate.

But a funny thing happens that night.  A light is seen shining in the mausoleum where Ingram is interred and later on Duprex is murdered, strangled by a powerful hand that leaves the same kind of marks that Hilary got from Ingram.  Upon examination it is discovered that Ingram’s corpse in its tomb is holding a knife in his paralyzed hand and his good hand has been cut off and is missing.  A small broken window and hand prints on the ground out side the mausoleum makes it scientifically certain that the dead man cut off his own hand and that the dead hand is navigating about and strangling people and also by the way playing the piano in the Ingram house.  Well sure.

Commissario Castanio investigates the murder and confirms that fingerprints on the throat of the dead man and several other places are of Ingram.  Later on, Donald Arlington is unsuccessfully strangled, allegedly by the hand and the whole household is starting to get spooked enough to want to bail on the house for safer lodgings.  At about this time Hilary witnesses the hand playing the piano and after capturing it he nails it to a piece of wood to slow it down somewhat.  Not everyone believes him.  But when Donald Arlington recovers and opens up his uncle’s safe, he finds the hand nailed to the board.  He panics and runs out of the house with Conrad in hot pursuit.

Meanwhile Julie confronts Hilary with proof that she has that he was the one who strangled Duprex and Donald in order to keep them from getting possession of his precious books.  Now we learn that Hilary is guilty of the crimes but he really does believe that the hand he cut off of Ingram is animate and committing the murders.  But Julie’s clear portrayal of his actions convinces him he must kill her too.  He attempts it but she fends him off and locks herself into her bedroom.  But of course, there is another door and for whatever reason she was too stupid to lock it.  As he gets ready to stab her this time, she convinces Hilary that she can hear the hand playing the piano downstairs.  Hilary snaps back into his crazier persona and promises to save her from the hand.  He heads downstairs whereupon Julie locks both doors and throws herself on her bed and has a breakdown.  Now why she is sure there isn’t a third door is unknown to me.

At this point we get to watch Lorre’s Hilary go completely bonkers.  He sees the hand at the piano and grabs it and starts grappling with it.  Eventually he throws it in the fire place and tries to keep it in there with a poker.  But for some reason eventually he just sort of sits there with his bulging eyes and does nothing while the hand crawls up his shirt, grabs him by the throat and strangles him to death.  Loser.

The next day Commissario Castanio shows Conrad the string that Hilary used to trigger a recording of Ingram playing the piano that everybody attributed to the hand.  Everything else could be explained by Hilary walking around with the severed hand and strangling people.  Julie decides to give the estate to the Arlingtons and she and Conrad get exit visas from the Commisario to start their new lives together elsewhere.  At the very end of the film a servant girl starts screaming because she sees a glove on the staircase.  The Commisario picks up his glove and puts it on and says how silly to think a hand can move on its own.  At which point in the close up shot we see a hand coming up to his throat.  Pulling the shot back we see it’s his hand.  Hilarity ensues.

This thing is almost silly enough to be an Abbott and Costello horror movie.  But I would say Peter Lorre’s disturbed manner, voice and face adds just enough creepiness to make it interesting.  Your mileage may definitely vary.  Let’s call it mildly fun.

Dead of Night – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“Dead of Night” is a 1945 British film that consists of a group of characters thrown together in a home and each tells a supernatural story.  Then these characters turn out to be the subject of another character’s dream.  And finally, the whole story turns out to be part of an endless recursive dream nightmare, a dream within a dream, within a dream like the images produced by two mirrors facing each other.  The only actor I recognized was Mervyn Johns who played Bob Cratchit in the 1951 movie Scrooge.

The stories include a young girl meeting the ghost of a boy who was murdered a century ago in the old house where the girl is visiting.  Another story involves a race car driver who while recovering from a crash has a vision of a hearse driver inviting him into the coffin.  Later he sees the same man as a bus conductor inviting him to board the bus.  He backs away and as he watches the bus drive off and crashes killing everyone aboard.  A third story involves a bedroom mirror possessed by a murderous spirit.  The fourth story is a comical golf ghost story.  And the final story is about an evil living ventriloquist dummy.

Back in the underlying scene the character who recognizes the other characters from his dream commits a murder and then somehow finds himself inside the five stories we have just witnessed in a mish-mash of the stories until finally he awakes in his own bedroom.  His wife consoles him for having another nightmare.  He then receives a phone call that sends him to the house where the earlier story takes place.  And the whole thing circles round to the introductory scene.

Despite the theatricality of some of the scenes the movie works.  Of course, it’s all ridiculous but the atmosphere of the movie is claustrophobic enough to produce the requisite discomfort in the audience that makes a ghost story work.  Admittedly the golf story is a bit of a distraction from this mood but there are enough creepy moments and characters to make this movie a success.  I’ll have to say that the fact that the cast look like ordinary people and lack the movie star good looks of an American production actually goes a long way to aiding the illusion we are inside the story with them.

Like many British films from the middle of the 20th century the story had to depend on a good script and competent actors instead of expensive sets and special effects to immerse the viewers in the story.  And because of that this movie still works as well today as it did back then.  And it stands up after repeated viewing.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The British love a good ghost story and this one has several.  Dead of Night probably won’t work for those who depend on comic book special effects to tell a supernatural story.  But if you have an imagination you may like this one.

Horror Then and Now

My longtime readers know that I indulge myself in the run-up to Halloween with book and movie reviews that concur with my preferences for that holiday.  A couple of years ago I wrote reviews for all the Universal Classic Monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  I usually take the season as an excuse to reread Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and watch the movie for good measure.

But last year I reviewed Psycho and this year I intend to review the Thomas Harris novels that include the character Hannibal Lecter.  Many years ago, a friend gave me his copy of Red Dragon and I found it to be one of the most unsettling things I had ever read.  And although the violence and insanity were pretty extreme by the standards of that happier time, the thing about the book that truly frightened me was the plausibility of the killer’s method for stalking his victims and the impossibility of protecting your family from someone who was determined to kill in that fashion.  I guess it was the fact that I had a young family at that time and the idea that I might be powerless to save them that horrified me.  And that is when I first became aware that true horror always has a human face.  It won’t be a normal human but it will look out of a face that is attached to a driver’s license and a cellphone and a bank account.

So, there is a difference between the good old days and the bad new days.  We stopped trying to gently scare children and now we horrify adults by showing them what’s really out there.  I’ll be the first to admit that watching Frankenstein or Dracula doesn’t actually involve any fear for anyone over the age of ten.  It was natural that movie makers and writers would escalate the violence and cart out the gore to tempt adult thrill-seekers, mostly in their teenage years, to spend their entertainment dollars on the latest fright fest.  Back in the 1970s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the poster child for exploitation movies aimed at frightening audiences out of their seats.  Since then every year has upped the ante until lately the content has gotten so bad that the real name for what this represents has been designated.  These movies are portraying torture through grisly dismemberment.

I consider that a distinction can be made between these gore fests that are almost bereft of meaningful characters and plot and crime drama like “Silence of the Lambs” which while it does include the description of horrible violence and depravity is not focused on flinging gore across the screen to delight the demented.  It tells the story of people.  This includes the victims, the police and even the murderer.  We supposedly learn a little about what drives some of these characters to become monsters.

I’m not a devotee of crime drama or fiction.  As I said I was given the Red Dragon book long ago and because of it I went to see the Silence of the Lambs when it came out.  Out of a sense of curiosity I read the rest of the Lecter books and saw the movies and tv series.  I don’t think the later books were as good as the first two but I will review them all for general interest purposes.

But I have all the Universal Monster movies on DVD and I intend to watch them all with my younger grandsons as soon as the lockdown ends.  They’re the correct age and they’ll get a kick out of them.  And truth be told, so will I.

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.