2019 OCTOBER HORROR-A-THON: THE SECOND ELEVEN

Horrors of the Black Museum (A. Crabtree… 1959)
Circus of Horrors (S. Hayers… 1960)

Anglo-Amalgamated Productions, the great rival to Hammer in late 50’s/early 60’s British genre cinema, has largely been absent from discussion when great works of the period are debated. Hammer had the heavies in front of the camera (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley and Oliver Reed) as well as behind it (Freddie Francis, Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster) and, in the subsequent years, lucrative home video distribution deals, always insuring that their films were easily available in VHS or DVD packages across region. I wondered if that was why Hammer has so lapped AAP in genre fans opinions, as outside the two Corman UK Poe films made with AAP (Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia) you don’t often hear the films uttered positively with the greats. Perhaps when you look through their catalogue you begin to see why: nearly half are Carry On films, the British version of National Lampoon; cheeky humor, often made solely to cash in on poking fun at prevailing popular movements and genres elsewhere (akin to ‘spoof’ movies). Then there are all the dramas: kitchen sink/angry young man films that they made about about a dozen of, many of which are masterpieces of their type, but decidedly not Horror. Criterion’s release of Peeping Tom (1960) more than a decade ago helped expose it to many American fans, myself included, but it was often stated on the back of Michael Powell’s shoulders, and not anything to do with AAP’s assistance. Taken all together, it’s not hard to see why they’ve lagged against Hammer then, Hammer was committed to one type of film and they poured out variations, some having more gore than others, all having a baseline in quality insuring they were the high-water mark (still) for British Horror. But AAP, at the dawn of the 60’s, managed three films in stark relief to Hammer’s supernatural hysterics and spooky period films. There’s the earlier mentioned Peeping Tom, one of Horror’s darkly subversive and perverse masterworks, and then there’s the two being considered today. Taken as a trio, remarkably, they’re nearly able to challenge the first wave of Hammer films that grossly outnumbered them.

It’s because they’re that different. Hammer initially made inroads by remaking the Universal Monsters canon, while AAP attempted lurid, pulp modernity. Horrors of the Black Museum, the tale of a horror writer and yellow journalist who, in so being enthralled with death and mayhem, begins committing murders on his own and with his understudy accomplice (who he’s drugged to become a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-type fiend) so that he can have fodder for his weekly crime columns. Similarly, Circus of Horrors posits a brilliant facial plastic surgeon who sees a case go bad and, in fleeing arrest must live undercover (via a facial reconstruction) as a circus promoter outside Britain on mainland Europe, stocking his show with single women who have no ties, but are suddenly made beautiful after his scalpel has done its brilliance. Both stories are fronted by British gentlemen of impeccable taste—Black Museum sees Michael Gough limp around as the astute Edmond Bancroft while Circus of Horrors has Anton Diffring’s debonaire Dr. Rossitor/Dr. Schuler—but who are also very clearly deranged psychopaths living both on the margins of perverted sensibility just as they travel freely amidst the wealthy caste elite. They’re modern monsters, and the violence both films illicit is at time nightmarishly brutal (certainly for its time) and sexually titillating in equal measure. Here is truly British giallo, but a decade before the party started in earnest a few thousand kilometers away in Italy.  

I’ll leave the plot descriptions this minimal as I want to tease and prompt those unfamiliar to seek them out, they’re both wonderfully trashy movies, very much ahead of their time. This is the camp sensibility that rock n’ roll and the Sixties counterculture came from, and while we see the past very much on the screen in production, attire and locale, we also see  everyone slowly warming to getting more from life then dull TV dinners, endless workaday jobs, and post-war preconception. Sure, these initial stabs are very much stabs—blood and guts and sexual violence abound, but it’d settle down after the brutish infancy, and then it’d get even more gleefully violent, but oh what a time these films show!

 

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Spookies (B. Faulkner/T. Doran/E. Joseph… 1986)

I sometimes can’t believe how the trashy Horror of my adolescence has grow into a cottage industry as I approach 40. Most readily, I occasionally see the exorbitant prices VHS tapes go for, tapes that a half decade ago I unloaded for free to clear up space in rental units I suddenly found myself sharing. Surprisingly now fetching 20 to 80 dollars on mere kitsch value, buyers never realizing that often times the films sat in better DVD releases. But that wasn’t the point they (and me, only years before) would argue, that the blown out analog tape was the whole point, damn the film! At some point, the actual film became the whole point to me, and if I watched it once, or even twice, and its charm gone, the VHS, no matter how much hipsters deemed it worth, didn’t matter to me. That so many of the films were outright bad to unwatchable, only made me realize that I was decidedly in the right.

Spookies would have been one such film. I’d seen it arrive onto my radar this year when a site that releases 80’s Horror soundtracks on vinyl—that have never seen release previously on any form!—released its soundtrack. I’d never heard of it (or so I thought, upon finishing it, the ending recalled something I might have seen decades ago), but the description seemed interesting enough. But can you imagine an economy for such an item? Made even more insane when the film is actually put on, the images and soundtrack experienced for yourself. It’s the tale of two carloads of dickheads (male and female) being marooned near a large white estate that we quickly learn is inhabited by a ghastly collection of Horror cliches. The film, cheaply made but fun in bargain special effect, nonetheless only has enough plot for about 20 or 25 minutes, but we instead strain our eyes through dimly lit, barely distinguishable action for another 75 (for a total runtime eclipsing 85 minutes). It’s a cult movie now, for a cult who’s brains are about as dead as the zombies we see aping Night of the Living Dead at the films close.

It took me several pauses and attempts to get through this, a very short film by most standards. People love it, but those people are not me. Pass.

 

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Evilspeak (E. Weston… 1981)

Like Spookies, Evilspeak has, in the subsequent decades following its release, gathered a (considerable) cult status around its appraisal. In the case of Evilspeak though, it started larger, garnering buzz immediately upon release in 1981 for its violent imagery and religious iconography and then grew even larger when it was cited as one of the central films in the Video Nasties craze in Thatcher’s Britain. It was a perfect case of banning something will only make those wanting blood and guts on screen now want to see it even more, eventually setting the film up as something of a classic for trash fans. It’s somewhat understandable, the kitsch appeal is high for hipsters—dated computer graphics, decent gore spectacle climax—but, as usual with so many of my reviews in these areas, it’s a really bad film otherwise, making you sit through nearly 75 minutes of tedious bore before giving the goods for the final 12 and change.   

Evilspeak is best understood as Carrie, but with a male at its center. Problem is, Carrie has several things going for it: Sissy Spacek is at its center, Brian DePalma is behind the camera constructing material that Stephen King wrote (and actually tried while crafting it, before coke would assist him in getting the insane volume of work done he’d be tasked with in the 1980’s when he’d fully blown up), and the supernatural story is a metaphor for Spacek’s puberty, aligning the film with a touching humanism amidst the murderous rage. Evilspeak, meanwhile, has Clint Howard (already balding at 22, lol) as Coopersmith, a loser who is endlessly bullied at his military prep school who emits a watchability somewhere between nil and nonexistent. The school is partially also run in conjuncture with a church, so when it’s revealed that is sits atop the burial site of a long dead Satanic disciple of centuries past, we set in motion Coopersmith accidentally bringing back the spirit via his trusty Apple II and a book he finds while pulling cleaning detail in the cellar. Once the bullying climaxes with the killing of his new puppy, Coopersmith’s rage melds into the Satanic spirit, thus unleashing his fury on all those that have ever wronged him. Heads are lopped off or split in two, hearts are ripped out and a hellfire entombs the church, and it’s all pretty fun, or at least chuckle inducing, a shame it took such Herculean efforts from the viewer to get there (the other outlier is when the Dean’s secretary, who has also come across the book, is attacked by murderous pigs while naked in her shower).

Overall I could never recommend this one in good faith, but would send anyone reading this to try to find a clip of that final sequence. I’m quite shocked it’s never been remade or sequel’ed upon, but perhaps it’s best to, like the spirits of Satan, just let sleeping dogs lie.

 

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Uncle Silas (C. Frank… 1947)

Seeking to catch up a bit on my list, I dove into an outlier to my watching thus far—a relatively straight period gothic melodrama from cinema’s golden age. Uncle Silas comes from a popular Sheridan le Fanu source novel of the same name and boasted a prestigious production; shot for over a million bucks in 1947 and featuring lavish sets realized with all the deep focus tricks from Citizen Kane and a piercing score provided by the London Symphony Orchestra, it must have been a jewel in the Denham Studio crown. I’m sort of surprised it flies so under the radar, but then perhaps herein lies some of my issues with it, a sitting that had me squirming a bit during the lengthy second act as I awaiting a twist I already knew coming.

Known in the US as the infinitely more pedestrian, The Inheritance, Uncle Silas is a tale as old as time. We open to Caroline (a young, effervescent Jean Simmons) and her wealthy father discussing her future, a fact made all the more prescient when he passes at the end of the film’s first act, opening up a pit of danger around the newfound heiress even if she at first doesn’t totally realize. She’s been instructed in the will—that father Austin was attempting to rightly alter only to die before doing so—to the care of her Uncle Silas, a rather eccentric, crazy drunk of a man, who we come to learn is also broke as a joke. Eventually, after Uncle Silas’ creepy son attempts to rape Caroline do we learn that Silas’ crazy antics are mostly a con, and with the help of vampy former governess Madam de la Rougierre has murderous plans in store for Caroline in hopes of getting the family fortune all to themselves (as Silas is next in line as the sole beneficiary after Caroline).

The film appears, given my opening, a prestige picture melodrama in the gothic tradition, but that only appears as a thin veneer. Underneath is a rather campy movie, full of over-the-top performances from our trio of villains. Usually this sets it up to be some watch, and the surface delights are the films strengths: you don’t mind watching it because there is a ton of atmospheric and creatively eerie black and white photography. But in the end the push and pull between low and high alienate performances against the film as a whole which badly lacks psychological subtext, and the direction doesn’t totally know how to juice up the middle, which labors in sub-plots that, though they prove themselves eventually necessary, are often tedious to watch. Perhaps in the hands of say, George Cukor, the great vamp performance of Katina Paxinou would be better utilized and her claret swilling Madama de la Rougierre would be one of the ghouls for the ages, and the central idea of Victorian patriarchy where females (victims or villains) are cast into very similar positions for the sake of survival would better flourish. Oh well, not a terrible way to spend an evening…

 

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Lifeforce (T. Hooper…1985)
Ferat Vampire (aka Upir z Feratu/Der Autovampir) (J. Herz… 1982)

Recently I unearthed a conversation at work that I’ve had perviously herein—the idea that my favorite sub-genre in my favorite genre (Horror) is the Vampire film. I’ve said I find it (quite easily actually) the deepest in the Horror canon, probably two dozen deep in terms of masterpiece level films, and at least that many a slight tier just below that. It was quite wonderful then, when, upon completing the very silly but highly fun Lifeforce, that I thought another bizarro take on the vampire sub-genre could be done and interesting overlaps could emerge. Boy was I not wrong, as clear an indication of the malleability and breadth of the vampire idea as you’ll see should you want to throw an anchor and dive down deep.

Lifeforce is truly something else, a relatively big budget epic (it’d be the equivalent to a $60-65 million dollar picture now) that attempts to wrestle with larger themes, even going so far to be uttered as a ‘thinking man’s sci-fi film’. Nevertheless, it’s a very silly film, made more so because it does think larger and play it all so very straight. This obviously helps immensely, as there is no irony here, and the loving ode/borderline remake to Quartermass Xperiment/Pit run of films for Hammer a few decades prior fleshes itself out that much cleaner. If you know that touchpoint you know the plot; a joint British/US spaceship, the Churchill, finds itself adrift in space near an alien craft that it eventually boards. Finding entombed humans inside it, the crew ‘rescues them’ and brings them aboard only to find that once they’re on earth the humans are actually aliens in disguise, and that they need regular doses of human ‘life force’ every 2 hours to remain alive. Thus, they’re something like vampires, as once you get past the special effect electric hysterics of ‘sucking souls’ you understand them as bloodthirsty zombies meet Dracula, and that London could very easily dip the world into the apocalypse if not properly contained (the film’s final 30-40 minutes deal with just this scenario).

On the other hand, Ferat Vampire is considerably smaller, but incredibly more bizarre. The tale of the fictitious sports car company, Ferat, who are attempting to seek buyers (and funders) for their new sports coupe, the Vampire. But they’re a shadowy, vile company run by a pale woman looking like death warmed over draped in Chanel, so suspicious takes are warranted. Oh, and the speedy car also runs on human blood, a fact they’re keeping under wraps. It takes our hero doctor and his conspiracy theory loving scientist buddy to unearth the scam as the film unfurls itself as a quite wonderful piece of anti-corporate subversion, which enough nodes to the diminishing returns of branding on our modern world to stimulate this particular lefty to high heavens! You chuckle as you hear, rather matter of factly, that, ‘under an oil embargo, blood is cheaper than gas’. Ha! It has as many issues with how cars mangle and kill as JG Ballard’s Crash does, but it’s darkly funny instead of wholly unsettling, and in the end does attempt to understand the joy that so many have motoring.

Taken together they’re a blast—it’s fun to see Hooper continue the career decline he lived for decades, while still doing almost nothing but highly entertaining trash. Seriously, you start with a genuine masterpiece trailblazer (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and then you just slide, for 40 years, into the garbage bin, but lovingly never turning your back on the muck and grime you loved as a teen. It’s highly respectable in a way. On the other hand, I’ve loved Herz for quite some time, and not unlike David Lynch, his films are often excursions into the scary or the macabre, but generally never straight Horror works. But here he’s made his sole, definite Horror film. The results, as I’ve alluded too, are terrific, the film is full of glorious sarcastic wit with an artiness that never intrudes, it’d play for the grindhouse about as well as it would the arthouse. In laymen’s terms, that’s about the rarest, and best, of things.

 

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Office Killer (C. Sherman… 1997)

I’m not sure the impact Office Killer had upon release in the 1990s or if anyone hotly anticipated its arrival. The acquisition by Miramax for distribution leads me to believe there must have been some buzz for it (Miramax, by 1997, was the indy for edgy low budget cinema), but that could just be me reacting to having my personal aesthetic thoroughly piqued at seeing feminist artist Cindy Sherman direct a film from a Todd Haynes script (he’s credited with three others, including Sherman). Because in reality it seems to have just come and gone with minor discussion, making the fact that I’d never heard about it previously make a ton of sense. 

What’s here is due for a critical reappraisal, or perhaps more apt, an actual critical analysis in the first place. Despite some flaws, it’s aged better than the few sole 1997 takes on it would have you believethe tale of a lonely a magazine editor, Dorine (Carol Kane, holding everything together with icy creepiness) who is forced to cut her hours and work from home when the magazine she works for, Constant Consumer, hits hard times is, after all, quite prescient for our time. The commentary gets thicker when her new schedule is promised a smooth transition because of new officewide ‘email’, an invention that connects her tasks even more to an inhuman machine. Being home, without much in the way of a social life, and stuck with her annoying, belittling mother, Dorine asks for a coworker to come help troubleshoot a computer problem, and after she accidentally electrocutes him and he dies, she snaps. Realizing that she likes seeing those that bully her in the office die, she begins slowly re-constructing the office in her basement, matching where each coworker sits in relation to her old desk, only this time they’re all stiffs, and not the working kind. (her fellow employees are all well realized with Molly Ringwald and Jeanne Tripplehorn being especially notable)   

The film, though clearly small in production, shows itself beyond its mere deficiencies. Sherman’s photography background suits her well, the film is always great to look at, and her editing patterns exhibit the appearance of a seasoned director, not one making their feature film debut. Her scene construction utilizes an interesting montage of tightly cropped minutia of setting—an office and a small, quaint home—and traditional dialogue shots. While the film ultimately fails as searing social critique or slasher film, instead teetering unevenly between the two, most of the subversive shots land, and as neoliberalism further entrenches itself in a global, digital economy, it’s wonderful to consider a major studio releasing a film this open with its critique on the marginalization of a workforce. This is truly what the ease of connectivity online did, and it’s pretty damn cathartic to see some blood shed over it.

recommends, but it is fun, so long as you don’t think too hard about the whodunnit plot they try hard to maintain. You solve the mystery quickly and gape at the plot holes wide enough for semis to pass through. What do you want though, it made me laugh. If this scared ‘em in ’59 I’d have loved to be around then, seems like heaven.

 

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Arena (P. Manoogian… 1989)

I’m really at a loss how this steaming piece of trash and I crossed paths. What would have prompted me to add this to my list this year? It’s not Horror in the slightest, more something of a Bloodsport meets the Star Wars Cantina sequence, but made on the budget of three 1980’s Battlestar Galactica episodes. That’s pretty much it, it’s a hellish world set in the year 4038 depicting the intergalactic arena fighting of alien beasts, some of which wear metal robot suits. The hellishness is implied, mob money runs (and ruins) the sport, making it so that no human can really hope to compete and succeed, with the previous human fighter being some 50 years prior. The only problem though is that the ‘hellishness’ is only if you think what this world should be, we don’t actually see it on screen, instead we see cheap sets and B-acting, and a lightness of the PG-13 rating, no doubt heavily indebted to the George Lucas train of thought that if you make sci-fi dumb enough, the children will pack the seats and it’ll do gang-busters in toy sales, but no sensible adult will want to be caught dead within 50 feet of a screen playing it. Oh well, ones that are screening it show the tale of lanky pretty boy Steve (he’s like a blond Christopher Reeve right down to the nearly identical voice!) who does eventually get to fight in the arena because he needs money to pay off a debt or he and his little 4 armed buddy get killed. He eventually wins, just as you expect he would, and you get all fuzzy inside (or is that nausea?).

This is the worst one I’ve watched this year—a shame as I’d started to assume that moniker was safely in the hands of Spookies—but that made me laugh heartily several times. This–thanks PG-13—had nothing for us weirdos. Epic pass. In fact, burn all the surviving copies.

 

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The Bat (C. Wilber… 1959)

This one is pretty fondly remembered in classic Horror circles as an effective, low-budget chiller, and it’s easy to see why. It boosts two good, quirky central performances from real pros—Agnes Moorehead as successful mystery writer Cornelia, and Horror legend Vincent Price as small town doctor Malcolm Wells. It’s no doubt Price’s inclusion that’s made the film last in the minds of aficionados (well that and the fact it’s now in public domain, making it easy to see in nice prints) and it’s an odd duck of a movie, almost worthy of watching as a curious oddity, even if the results on screen pack little actual wallop.

Today’s audiences would think the title implies a masked avenger in comic book fare, while older ones no doubt would have envisioned a blood-sucking romantic from Romania. It’s weird then that both are wrong, but only slightly so—The Bat is a man who dresses in a costume to lurk about at night (his costume design is certainly the real highlight of the film) and does prey on young women, but he’s really just your garden-variety serial killing creep who just so happens to have a bit of panache in glove wear. So once we realize he’s not sucking anyone’s blood and from an early kill we’re actually thrust into a whodunnit mystery, where we’re supposed to guess who is The Bat from a grouping of likely candidates, we settle in for light entertainment of a Horror trope. Bodies start mounting up in and around Cornelia’s annual vacation stay in local banker John Fleming’s family estate, but you see he’s recently embezzled a cool million from the bank on the idea that him and Dr. Wells can posit a body in his place on a hunting trip so he can fake his death and get off scot free. Fleming reveals he’s totally fine if the body is Wells’ if push comes to shove, a fact Wells responds in kind by killing him (in apparent self-defense). When Wells doesn’t alert authorities, we begin wondering if he’s The Bat in search of the loot stashed somewhere in the old Fleming home now inhabited by Cornelia and her three girlfriends and a suddenly suspicious (to us) new chauffeur from Chicago (via England apparently by his accent).

The horror is light, but the movie’s a breeze at 80 minutes. Price’s inclusion alone probably warrants the slightest of recommends, but it is fun, so long as you don’t think too hard about the whodunnit plot they try hard to maintain. You solve the mystery quickly and gape at the plot holes wide enough for semis to pass through. What do you want though, it made me laugh. If this scared ‘em in ’59 I’d have loved to be around then, seems like heaven.

 

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Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (J. Sholder… 1999)

Here’s one from outside my list, watched because the first one had played to such belly-busting uproar several weeks prior. The original is a trash classic, the funny romp of the evil, dickish Djinn prying on unsuspecting wishmakers whether or not they ever played along with his tricks or not. So it’s understandable that’d we’d want to see what sort of hi-jinx our Persian Demon was up to again in the modern world of the late 1990s. The original had made a great return on a rather small budget, so it’s no wonder a sequel was produced quickly thereafter. This seems obvious of course, but this was also made-for-TV, a strange fact dooming it to an incredibly small return, perhaps forever clouding the series in limbo, leaving the next two films to have different directors and a new Djinn. Perhaps, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. To insinuate that this series needs consistent artist oversight is probably quite a leap. All it really needs is an arrogant Djinn at the center and a bunch of comically gratuitous practical effects kills played at a brisk clip. This provides that, and though not nearly as entertaining as the original, argues that maybe, just maybe, this is one of the most consistently entertaining Horror franchises.

We pick up where we left off in the original, the Djinn still trapped in the fire opal. We understand that since Robert Englund is massacred in the first film that his art collection has transferred to a museum. Sure, it’s a plot hole time paradoxif the Djinn is trapped, and never unleashed, does Englund really die? But who cares, the jewel is back in the statue and we open to an art heist that goes wrong and an errant gunshot nicks the stone and chips just enough to free the gem. It’s quite a ludicrous run of events, but nevertheless within moments our plot is set sprinting in motion. The Djinn soon begins capturing souls (he’s targeted a ghastly number—1000—to capture by the films conclusion), and that’s not the half of the preposterous ideas here, he also intentionally gets captured and put into prison, where he begins tricking unsuspecting prisoners into making deals on their afterlives. But the Djinn again has his sights on a young female again (this is, when all the old world hokum is stripped away, a final girl slasher franchise after all). She’s Morgana, one of the burglars in our opening sequence, and she spends the rest of the film trying to elude the Djinn (both in dreams and in the flesh) while also undertaking something of a spiritual redemption story. There’s a bunch of religious hooey here (a redundant term, I know) and she’s assisted by a dreamboat priest who also battles the Djinn for the title of biggest stiff in our film.

As I said, it’s not the film the original is, but man, it’s still fun, made even more so watching with friends of a similar persuasion as me. That’s to say people who like ludicrous plots and get cheap thrills from gory kills in B-films. I rigged up a digital projector to screen this bad boy, revealing in the compositions and artistry on display. Ha, I’m joking of course, it’s all big dumb fun, and since it was made-for-TV, we laugh in glee at the thought that when our explosive, chaotic blood-letting in the films climax (similar to the original this must be one of the series’ calling cards) happens we’re seeing a lady fart out coins in a casino on a big screen. It’s how this stuff should be seen, not damned to the eternal hell of the small screen. Ha! I’m with Scorsese, there’s power in seeing cinema as big and as bold as you can!

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