Tag Archives: Horror

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973) & FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987)

‘ Tales That Witness Madness, made for World Film Services in 1973, is clearly patterned after the Amicus horror anthologies. Of course, what better way to emulate the competition than to acquire the man who directed nearly half of the Amicus franchise, along with several of that studio’s top draw actors?

The setup is simple and familiar enough: is the resident psychiatrist of an asylum, giving friend Jack Hawkins (in his final film) a tour of the grounds. Along the way, he tells the stories of four inmates.

In “Mr. Tiger,” Russell Lewis’ imaginary feline pet beast takes a sour view of his master’s verbally abusive parents. Just how imaginary the tiger is questioned after some clawing on the door and blood splattering on Oedipal walls.

A time traveling bicycle is at the malevolent heart of “Penny Farthing.” It stars Peter McEnery as an antique shop owner and Suzy Kendall as his wife. Soon, they discover the bike is literally antique and … we’re so sorry, Uncle Albert.

Still from "Mel" from Tales That Witness Madness (1973)“Mel” stretches credibility when Michael Jayston is more interested in an oddly shaped tree than he is in oversexed wife Joan Collins in something pink from Frederick’s of Hollywood. It’s the most remembered segment for a reason—it’s a camp hoot, with Collins channeling her inner jealous diva. The tree tries to upstage the human competition, which is not an easy task against Joan in a flimsy nightie, wielding an axe.

Rita Hayworth was originally cast in the final segment, “Luau,” but bowed out, citing health reasons. replaces her and gives a pallid performance as another jealous diva who happens to be a cannibalistic mother. Although not as well known or as assured as the best Amicus entries,Tales is still an enjoyable example of the genre that confirms Francis as an underrated director.

Most horror anthologies succumb to moralizing. One that avoids that route altogether and revels in its gore and perversity is the underrated From a Whisper to a Scream (1987), Jeff Burr’s first solo feature film. It’s an impressive debut that unfortunately did not lead to bigger and better projects for the director. co-stars with Martine Beswicke, , Rosalind Cash, Terry Kiser, Clu Gulager and the always underrated misfit . Price gives a solid performance in the wraparound as a Tennessee librarian whose knowledge of local history is put to use as he relays four tales to reporter Tyrell, who just came back from the execution of the librarian’s serial killer niece. The cast is uniformly good, especially Gulager who gives a hell of a performance in the first segment as an aging, pathetic grocery clerk whose relationship with his ailing sister (Gulager’s real-life wife Miriam Byrd-Nethery) is clearly incestuous. However, an unrequited love for his boss (Megan McFarland) quickly turns things uncomfortably south, with necrophilia thrown into the sororicidal brew.

White trash thug Terry Kiser is nursed back from the dead by kindly bayou voodoo practitioner Harry Caesar. When Kiser has the chutzpah to bite the hand that feeds him, a horrific fate awaits in this unfathomably grim narrative of dread.

Didi Lanier falls in love with carnival glass eater Ron Brooks, who is trepidatious about running away with her, fearing retaliation from the show’s owner/snakewoman (a delirious Rosalind Cash in her final film appearance). The intestinal finale of imploding razor blades and paper clips is gruesome enough to warrant a shower after. This is also the final film for dwarf Angelo Rossitto, who had most famously starred in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).

Cameron Mitchell, once a reliable character actor, emerged from a decade-long slump of in this unsettling Gothic Civil War tale that goes to the “you’re not going there” place. Knowing the war is over, Mitchell and his rogue Union squad take the attitude that it isn’t, but fatefully encounter a band of confederate children. Damien, the Children of the Corn and the killer tykes from that Village of the Damned have nothing on these southern juveniles who reinvent pin-the-tail-on-the donkey and don’t bat an eye at removing one adult limb at a time. Hoping to escape, Mitchell goes pedophile, locking lips with a pubescent and facing a visceral climax.

Still fro,m From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)Reportedly, Price had misgivings about the script and was unhappy with the final edit, feeling it too too extreme and devoid of the sense of nostalgia that drives his screen persona. His is a supporting role, no doubt due in part to his (clearly) failing health. Burr, co-writing with Mike Malone, Darin Scott, and Courtney Joyner, fires on all cylinders, without a weak link, and despite a relatively low budget. Obscure enough to rarely be listed, it’s more refreshingly original than the more familiar fare. Burr considers it as his only authentic film, having since been consigned to commission work.

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Anna Biller

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel

PLOT: A California witch who casts magic spells to seek out her true love finds that her lovers keep dying.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively unique—a blend of romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectic, and Technicolor melodramas—that perhaps it can only rightfully described as “weird.”

COMMENTS: One main stylistic feature of The Love Witch is the campy acting—Samantha Robinson’s Elaine speaks as if she’s always lost in an interior world of hearts and unicorns, making her sound insincere even when she’s at her most heartfelt. Other actors take an overly broad, TV-melodrama approach. This technique helps sustain the film’s sense of otherworldliness, but the other, and far more impressive, stylistic feature is the unreal, anachronistic, and impressively detailed mise-en-scene. A girly-girl café where the clientele all dress in pink and white with flowery hats—looking more like bridesmaids than ladies out for a spot of tea—while ethereal blondes play harps and sing medieval love hymns. The local burlesque house, in a lustful red-on-red color scheme, where dancers with feather boas never take it all off but ensorcell the drooling males nonetheless. The Renaissance Faire run by witches, where Elaine and her date “accidentally” end up wed in a mock pagan ceremony. The minutiae of Elaine’s witchcraft rituals, which at one point involves her honoring a corpse with her urine and a used tampon. Clever details and decorative ideas abound in nearly every scene. Reversing the seduction stereotype, Elaine uses a comically oversized brandy snifter to decrease her conquests’ inhibitions. Trish finds Elaine’s witchcraft altar full of bizarre potions and magickal totems, then walks into her adjoining bedroom to discover, oriented in exact mirror image position, a vanity set out with wig, perfume, and makeup.

The smart script is not simplistic in its satire; it prides itself on creating and holding contradictory views. Elaine and her friends toss out ideas about femininity that are sometimes laughably old-fashioned, but are sometimes still with us today, and trusts us to sort out which are which. Witchcraft is shown as harmless New Agey neo-paganism, no more or less ritually ridiculous than Christianity, but it’s also a source of implied abuse and exploitation, and a real threat to the community. And of course, the biggest contradiction of all is Elaine, a mixture of idealism and ruthless cunning, who expresses naïve ideas with a simple conviction that no one can effectively refute, simultaneously a victim and a serial victimizer.

Because the stylistic world Anna Biller creates in The Love Witch is cinematically familiar—with its widescreen compositions, brazen color schemes, cigarette smoking femme fatales and square-jawed cops—many are tempted to go hunting for movie references and homages. Indeed, I was reminded of The Birds (in Elaine’s rear-projection convertible ride up the California coast),  (the nude witchcraft rituals), The Trip (the psychedelic kaleidoscope lens when Elaine seduces the hippie professor) and TV’s “Dragnet” (in the sappy hard-boiled dialogue of the police squad room); others cite , Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as inspirations. But none of the scenes Biller stages are outright allusions or in-jokes. She absorbs the period style—particularly its vivacious use of the full chromatic scale—-without simply referencing a checklist of favorite films; you’ll search in vain for nods to her specific influences. The Love Witch is a Sixties-era Technicolor B-movie that could have been, but in an alternate universe at a slight tangent to our own. The biggest compliment I can give Biller is to say that she does something for 1960s Technicolor spectacles similar to what did for silents and early talkies: she uses antiquated techniques to create a timeless, abstract setting that reflects her own personality. It’s gratifying to see her receive critical praise for this monumentally inventive and deceptively intelligent feminist statement dressed in Satanic sexploitation robes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The results are wildly over-the-top, in a ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’-meets-‘Dark Shadows’ kind of way, but Biller’s commitment to her vision is weirdly endearing.”–Sean P. Means, The Salt Lake Tribune (contemporaneous)

1972 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DRACULA A.D. 1972, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, AND THE THING WITH 2 HEADS

1972  is perhaps the most prolific year in the most prolific decade of horror and exploitation films. It’s also the year for what may be the quintessential midnight cult move: Pink Flamingos, now enshrined as one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. Blood Freak, which is the first and only “Christian” movie to date about a turkey serial killer, is another Certified Weird 1972 exploitation picture. Competing with Freak fro sheer awfulness was Don Barton’s Zaat (AKA Blood Waters of Dr. Z), which went onto “MST3K” infamy.

In its Blu-ray presentation, ‘s maligned Baron Blood has proven better than its reputation, despite a miscast in the title role. Like most of Bava, it’s stylishly irresistible. The 1972 Amicus omnibuses Asylum and Tales from the Crypt both starred , and were critical and box office successes. Ben, Dr. Phibes Rise Again, and Beware The Blob were all inferior sequels—which is saying a lot in the case of an original monster who was just moving silly putty. tackled the two big undead kahunas (with plenty of added sex) in The Erotic Experiences of Frankenstein and Daughter of Dracula. The Count rose yet again in Count Dracula’s Great Love, starring Paul Naschy. Future King of Cartoons (William Marshall) and director William Crain fused horror with blacksploitation for the first time in Blacula. It was a enough of a box office success to warrant  (superior) sequel in 1973. Unfathomably busy, Cushing and teamed up for ‘ underrated Creeping Flesh, Gene Martin’s cult favorite Horror Express, Peter Sasdy’s misfire Nothing but the Night, and the Hammer opus Dracula AD 1972 (directed by Alan Gibson).

Widely scorned, Dracula A.D. 1972 reunited Cushing’s Van Helsing with Lee’s bloodsucker in a modern setting, even though Dracula himself is confined to a Gothic church. It’s one of ‘s favorite movies. The contemporaneous critical backlash was mostly justified. Lee, probably the best cinematic Count, is reduced to second vampire-in-waiting. But as an artifact of its time, Dracula A.D. 1972 is not entirely without virtue, enough to explain Burton’s affection.

It opens in the previous century with Dracula and Van Helsing locked in mortal combat aboard a stagecoach, which crashes, causing the vampire to be impaled on the spokes of the coach’s wheel. As Dracula attempts to free himself, a battered and bleeding Van Helsing interferes, driving the spokes in deep enough to snuff out the life of his nemesis before dying himself. Witnessing the scene is a Dracula disciple who, of course, leaves with the vampire’s relics (handy for later resurrection). Despite the preposterous   accidental impalement, it’s a red-blooded, Gothic prologue that is followed by 1972’s swinging hippies.

Still from Dracula 1972 ADInitially sounding more like old fuddy-duddy Edward Van Sloan than Peter Cushing, Lorimer Van Helsing, grandson of Abraham, lectures his granddaughter Jessica (Hammer babe Stephanie Beacham) all about the wrong crowd and premarital sex. Pooh-poohing gramps, Jessica heads straight for the wrong crowd, Continue reading 1972 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DRACULA A.D. 1972, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, AND THE THING WITH 2 HEADS

CAPSULE: CLOSET MONSTER (2015)

DIRECTED BY:  Stephen Dunn

FEATURING: Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams, Aliocha Schneider, Isabella Rossellini (voice)

PLOT: A closeted gay teenager who wants to be a horror makeup artist finds himself inhibited from the same-sex experiences he craves due to a traumatic hate crime he witnessed as a child.

Still from Closet Monster (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you want a coming out story, and you want it to be slightly weird, this is an option. If you want it really weird, you’d be better off with Der Samurai, however.

COMMENTS: In its short existence, the “coming out” film has already adopted certain cliches: the disapproving macho dad who fears a “wimp” son, the ambiguously homosexual/bisexual love interest, loss of virginity at an ecstasy-fueled rave. Closet Monster doesn’t throw away this boilerplate, but it does cleverly distract our attention from the usual structure with bizarre touches meant to evoke the troubled feeling of growing up different. Monster mixes in tropes from the horror movie (an appropriate import) and, in its most whimsical and salable touch, gives us Isabella Rossellini as the voice of Oscar’s hamster spirit guide (wittily, the pet is ambiguously gendered). A series of hallucinations, mostly stemming from a traumatic homophobic assault Oscar witnesses as a child, round out the weirdness.

Steven Dunn’s direction in his first feature is confident, although wen dreamy Wilder enters the picture the will-they-won’t-they second act does drag. The horror angle, which seemed like the film’s  hook, gets pushed aside for the type of dramatic development we’ve seen many times before. But the actors are universally competent, led by conflicted Jessup. Dad Abrams has a nicely complicated character: he is more of an all-around mess—well-meaning but impulse-control challenged—than the simple homophobe he might have been. The horror scenes return at the very end, when Oscar confronts his repressed longings, including hallucinations involving vomiting bolts and a gory impalement with an iron rod. It ends at one of the most marvelously idyllic locations in Newfoundland, a mystical modernist cabin set on a rock outcropping overlooking the sea. Closet Monster is not the whimsically surreal gay horror movie we’ve been waiting for, but it is a decent watch while we wait for someone to perfect the formula.

Closet Monster won the award for Best Canadian Film at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. At the time of this writing you can catch it streaming on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Willfully weird tale of a gay youth in a world of confusion. Noisily off-kilter… the determined eccentricity of the entire conceit—liberally laced with moments of hallucinatory surrealism—weighs the movie down, creating an airless ambiance at odds with any youthful verve which might appeal to the viewer.”–David Noh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

 

1971 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, AND WILLARD

1971 began with one of the most stylish horror films ever produced: The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a near-perfect collaboration between director and star produced a “masterpiece” of a very different kind with Dracula vs.Frankenstein, featuring the most (unintentionally) frightening performance of poor .’s career and the most hilariously inept portrayal ever of the Transylvanian vampire count (by “Zandor Vorkov”). Director Eddie Romero and “star” John Ashley teamed up for both Beast of Blood and Beast of the Yellow Night, which may be as unimaginative as they sound, but would make a worthwhile, howling triple feature with Adamson’s opus.

 was still gifting the world lesbian vampires with Caged Virgins (AKA Requiem for a Vampire) and The Shiver of the Vampires. Following suit were Stephanie Rothman with The Velvet Vampire, Ray Austin’s The Virgin Witch (starring twins Anne and Vicki Michelle), and with the bluntly titled Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed In Ecstasy, both starring the tragically short-lived cult figure . Not to be outdone, Hammer Studios contributed to the thriving same-sex bloodsucker subgenre with as a “Calgon Take Me Away” Countess Dracula (directed by Peter Sasdy), and with Lust for a Vampire (directed by Jimmy Sangster and starring Yutte Stensgaard). Neither of these were as explicit as they promised and probably should have been. Considerably better was another Hammer opus with identical siblings (Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson): Twins of Evil, stylishly directed by John Hough and featuring a superb authoritarian performance by . However, it was ‘s Belgian Daughters of Darkness, starring and Danielle Ouimet, that made the biggest impact, becoming an international cult hit that is still referenced today. Of course, hetero bloodsuckers were not be left out and had their moment under the sequel moon in The Return of Count Yorga (directed by Bob Kelljan and starring Robert Quarry), which failed to repeat its predecessor’s success. Night of Dark Shadows by Dan Curtis improved on the previous years effort, despite an absent Jonathan Frid. Oddly, it was the Japanese who were perhaps most suited to Transylvanian folklore in 1971 with Lake of Dracula (directed by Michio Yamamoto).

Still from Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)Amando de Osario charted unexpected territory with his zombie monks in Tombs of the Blind Dead, the first of his Blind Dead series (he had previously made the unrelated vampire opus, Fangs Of The Living Dead, in 1968). Although short on actual plot, it’s arguably Osorio’s finest moment. Scenes of the blackened, dead Templars rising from their graves (resurrected by Satan) and mounting horses (juxtaposed to Anton Abril’s highly effective, eerily faint score) to ride into the slaughter (filmed in slow motion) are spine tingling.

These are zombies of a different sort who raise their swords to slash at victims, before draining their blood. Scenes of the Spanish Inquisition, failed crusades, misogynistic torture of women, and lesbianism are surprisingly low-key, and often poetically surreal. Although Osorio’s influences (including Mario Bava’s color palette) are in full evidence, his is a strongly original film, almost painterly. Decaying abbeys and a potential victim standing motionless to avoid the army of blind marauders evoke a sense of dread. Even a massacre on a train is artfully restrained.

Michael Winner presented a literal-minded prequel to Harry James’ Continue reading 1971 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, AND WILLARD

LIST CANDIDATE – BLUE SUNSHINE (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Jeff Lieberman

FEATURING: , Robert Walden, Mark Goddard, Deborah Winters, Ann Cooper, Ray Young, Charles Siebert, Richard Crystal, Alice Ghostley, Stefan Gierasch, Brion James

PLOT: A plague of victims go bald and turn into psychotic killers; the one common factor appears to be a variety of acid, Blue Sunshine, taken during their college days.

Still from Blue Sunshine (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Blue Sunshine usually gets classified as a horror/thriller with a brilliant premise behind it, but it’s also a twisted satire about what would later come to be known as “The Big Chill Generation.” It’s a lot tougher and less self-flattering than The Big Chill turned out to be. Maybe if The Big Chill had an unhinged leading man and psycho killers… but Blue Sunshine is the next best thing.

COMMENTS: “Did you ever hear the words ‘Blue Sunshine’… ?”

If it had come from grindhouse producers, a good alternate title for Blue Sunshine would have been Bad Acid, Dead Hippie,… well, make that Dead Ex-Hippie. Sort of a social satire within the parameters of a horror movie (which is pretty much Jeff Lieberman’s career in a nutshell, come to think of it), Blue Sunshine benefits from a clever premise: what if all those drug-scare films were right? It was just the right film at just the right time to skewer the Sixties generation, who were turning from lives of idealism and awareness towards materialism and narcissistic self-examination.

Even though there’s enough knowing laughs to keep the audience entertained, there’s also enough to keep them unsettled and on edge, mainly with the intense performance of Zalman King, whose protagonist might indeed turn out to be as unhinged as the Blue Sunshine victims. The violence, while relatively tame by today’s standards, also is unsettling. People get incinerated and children are threatened with knives. And there’s the minor game of guessing who might be affected and who isn’t. One clue: watch the hair.

Blue Sunshine first hit DVD as a Special Edition release from Synapse Films, which was transferred from a surviving print as the negative thought to be lost to time. In 2016 it got an upgrade to Blu-Ray from FilmCentrix, after the negative was discovered and restored.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Ringer – Lieberman’s first film, a pseudo-PSA that’s actually effective, but probably not in the way its sponsors realized.  A clear, scathing look at ‘Youth Culture’.

Trailer for Blue Sunshine.

FilmCentrix promo for the Blu-Ray HD release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Much of Blue Sunshine plays like a freakout version of The Crazies (1973)… All this is helped by the (deliberately?) stilted dialogue and wide-eyed performances, amping up the paranoia by making everything – and everyone – seem just that little bit off.”–Anton Bitel, Filmland Empire (2015 Screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: ALMA (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Rodrigo Blaas

PLOT: Young Alma encounters a toy shop containing a doll bearing an uncanny resemblance to her.

Still from Alma (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: In communicating its tale of terror in a style and medium almost uniformly associated with mainstream family-friendliness, Alma stands out as weird amidst today’s persistent stream of digital animation.

COMMENTS: As this site’s regular Saturday Short feature has proven, animation is one of the most fitting mediums for short-length cinematic weirdness. Whether minimalist or elaborate, animation offers a strong opportunity to evoke a particularly singular visual concept within a short frame of time.

Former Pixar employee Rodrigo Blaas—whose name appears in the credits of some of the studio’s most beloved features—has, with Alma, added his own particular twist to this well-established cinematic convention. Drawing on his past work, Blaas bring us his simple, independent tale of surreal horror in the bright, stylized CGI that’s now all but synonymous with modern mainstream animation.

In its themes and narrative, meanwhile, Alma recalls a more antiquated form of family entertainment. Its components—the snow upon slanted rooftops and narrow cobblestone alleys; the toy shop, at once quaint and sinister; the protagonist, a mischievous little one with the air of a vagabond—bring to mind the classical elements of old children’s’ books. The plotline, which imposes a nightmarish fate upon its young protagonist as punishment for a petty misdeed, evokes the Victorian cautionary tales that Hilare Belloc so famously lampooned.

Needless to say, this results in a strikingly unique piece of short cinema; especially considering that, despite mashing together conventions of children’s entertainment from opposite ends of the 20th century, it is very clearly not intended for children. The simple plot follows young Alma, who, prancing merrily down a snowy alleyway one day, encounters a toy shop, with a doll precisely resembling her in the window. Unable to resist this singular temptation, she heads into the unattended shop to take the doll for herself, and meets horrifying consequences—ones that add a twist to the primal fear of endless damnation.

Told, like many short works of weirdness, entirely without dialogue, the story of Alma is, as befitting the nature of Blaas’ past work, communicated via five minutes’ worth of highly expressive visuals that quietly convey basic narrative and subtle details alike. Alma’s slightly ragged appearance hints at her humble background, lending context to her sticky-fingered nature. Hundreds of children have chalked their names on the wall in the alleyway in which she finds the shop. It’s also lined with what might be interpreted as a number of “Missing” posters, ominously hinting at the shop’s scourge of terror. And the store window, picturesque upon first glance, takes on the appearance of a leering monster’s gaping maw when examined more closely.

In terms of weirdness, Alma has its more obvious elements: most notably, flashes of surreal, nightmarish images when Alma seizes the doll. The genuine uniqueness of the short, however, is found in its bold effort to render an artistically-driven work of cinema in a style that’s become emblematic of mega-budget commercial family cinema. The contrast is striking. As an artistic choice, it’s not unprecedented, but Blaas, having come directly off the set of some of the industry’s leading titles, evokes the style with particular authenticity.

Development is currently underway for a Dreamworks-backed feature-length adaptation of the short. As many have already predicted, even with Blaas himself at the helm, it seems highly likely that this horrifying tale, effective chiefly for its simplicity, will lose more than a little of its punch when stretched into feature-length. If nothing else, however, said feature might draw a little more much-deserved attention to the original short.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is a fairytale of the old kind, and if you have any sensitivity at all, you’ll be shivering as the snow drifts down at the end.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

Alma from Rodrigo Blaas on Vimeo.

AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES, PART TWO (1972-1974)

Part Two of a two-part series on Amicus horror anthologies; Part One is here.

Tales from the Crypt (1972, directed by and written by Milton Subotsky) is the first of two anthologies directly adapted from Amicus’ spiritual inspiration, EC Comics.

A group of five explorers encounter a crypt keeper (no, not that one, but rather as a hammy monk) in an underground cavern. Each are shown the fate that awaits them.

“And All Through the House” taps into Francis’ best qualities, making for an excellent opening segment. While her daughter is sleeping fitfully upstairs waiting for Saint Nicholas to arrive on Christmas Eve, Joan Collins is smashing a poker over her husband’s skull so she can collect his insurance money. Meanwhile, an inmate has escaped from a nearby asylum, dressed as Santa Claus, and someone is going to open the door. Collins is, naturally, perfectly cast as a bitch from hell in the guise of a sex bomb. The dialogue is pared down to bare minimum, making this a visual segment, alight in Christmas colors and blood, and choreographed to holiday music. It’s the original Silent Night, Deadly Night.

“Reflection Of Death” is the weakest link here, about an adulterer (Ian Hendry) who leaves his wife and kids and suffers the consequences when his car crashes. Its twist ending is disappointingly inevitable, but Francis (barely) holds our attention with some innovative POV perspectives.

Still from "Poetic Justice" from Tales from the Crypt (1972)“Poetic Justice” features a superb, moving performance from as Grimsdyke. He’s one of those despicable poor people: you know the ones who are always looking for free stuff, health insurance, and government handouts, just like the ones Jesus used to kick in the ass. Although a little senile, he’s kindhearted, loved by the neighborhood children, and communicates with his deceased wife (who is poignantly represented by a portrait of Cushing’s actual late wife). He’s also hated by his neighbors, especially the greedy, uptight James Elliott (Robin Phillips), who drives Grimsdyke to suicide and… this may be the first and only film of a zombie with an elegiac heart, forced to rip out the heartless. Cushing channels his grief to craft what may be his finest character acting.

“Wish You Were Here” is a pallid reworking of “The Monkey’s Paw,” and delivers a “moral lesson” about being careful what you ask the genie for and how you ask it. Neither Richard Greene (as a zombie) nor Barbara Murray can salvage it.

“Blind Alleys” features delivering a strong performance as a blind nursing home resident revolting against dictatorial director Nigel Patrick, who is so adept at patriarchal evil that we Continue reading AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES, PART TWO (1972-1974)

LIST CANDIDATE: A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener

PLOT: A young executive goes to a remote spa planning to recover his company’s CEO, who appears to have gone insane and joined a wellness cult; circumstances lead him to become a patient as he investigates the place and learns its dark secrets.

Still from A Cure for Wellness (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s uneven to the point of frustration, A Cure for Wellness is going to be the weirdest Hollywood-backed movie of the year, making it one we need to consider. Gore Verbinski blew all the Hollywood goodwill he earned from directing the Pirates of the Caribbean series on this majestic vanity, so we are unlike to see anything this strange in cineplexes for a while.

COMMENTS: A Cure for Wellness is a spin on “Dracula”‘s basic plot. Dane DeHaan is Lockhart, the Jonathan Harker character, sent to fetch the Reinfield character (Harry Groener as CEO Pembroke) from the castle (now a sanitarium on a Swiss mountaintop) run by a mysterious aristocrat (now hospital director Volmer, a name that sounds like it could have come out of an unpublished Bram Stoker novella). The villagers living at the base of the mountain despise the residents of the castle—er, spa—-and there’s even legends about ancient degenerate evils perpetrated by an evil Baron on the site now occupied by the sanitarium. There’s a Mina Harker-ish love interest (Mia Goth’s waify Hannah, enticing  both Lockhart and Volmer). The bulk of the film has Lockhart imprisoned and convalescing, under friendly pretenses, in the demonic lair, investigating his surroundings and his host and making terrifying discoveries (Harker’s scenes inside the vampire’s castle were always the best part of “Dracula”). Water takes the place of blood as a symbol of the leeched life-force.

It’s a sturdy and well-tested horror structure, disguised just enough by the modern setting. Unfortunately, it does not completely pay off. Gore Verbinski has a chance to update the dusty old tale with new satirical furnishings: digs at the modern corporate structure and the wellness movement. The targets are set up, but not knocked down. Lockhart has a rich psychological backstory explaining how he became such a selfishly driven bastard, but while flashbacks suggest this history might hold a key to the story’s deeper meaning, it turns out to be either window dressing or a red herring. A Cure for Wellness can’t decide if it wants to be a straight horror story, a twisty psychological thriller, or a pure Surrealist dream movie. It doesn’t commit to any one of the these genres, and in the end it settles for what may be the least interesting possible compromise between the trio of possibilities. (A movie’s not knowing what it wants to be is no bar to weirdness, but in this case I suspect the rough edges are more a result of waffling than of artistic dementia).

When Lockhart first meets Pembroke, he has been tracking him through the spa’s labyrinthine steam room. He enters a room and finds that the exit has disappeared; impossibly, he’s now trapped inside four walls, filling up with steam. Turning in circles, he suddenly spies an doorway in one of the walls; a stag walks past it. He exits the chamber where he was trapped and finds the CEO sitting on a bench, sweating. Immediately, he forgets the previous minutes eerie events and starts interrogating his quarry about why he left the corporate boardroom. He doesn’t waste time asking why wild animals are roaming the halls; his experiences are immediately forgotten. That sort of thing suggests either sloppy screenwriting, or an “it’s all a dream” interpretation (a reading the script supports by repeatedly referring to a dreaming ballerina figurine crafted by Lockhart’s mom). If Wellness means to be a dream film like that more famous Surrealist institution down the road, The Hourglass Sanatorium, however, it shouldn’t take it’s silly conclusion so darn seriously.

It seems more likely that the script simply incorporates fuzzy possibilities of hallucinations into the story as a way to have its cake and eat it to. Fortunately, the cake is good–if, at two-and-a-half hours, there’s a little too much of it. Verbinski fixates on the eel as a horror image. They show up in the strangest places, and elicit delicious chills almost every time. The sanitarium is a winning setting, and slow camera pans through its off-white halls provide effective suspense. Also, I would advise not going to the dentist for at least a week after seeing this film. The whole thing may not add up to much, but the ian intensity of individual scenes is undeniable. I was totally enthralled by Wellness for the first hour or so, before it’s structure began to crumble into repetitive noodling. But it’s rare to see this much money thrown at the screen to evoke such elaborate weirdness—so I would urge readers to get out and see it on the big screen during its sure-to-be-short run.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…about as weird as modern Hollywood movies get… Simply put, nothing stranger is likely to make it to multiplexes any time soon. Savor the oddness.”–A.A.Dowd, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES, PART ONE (1965-1972)

With Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965, directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky) Amicus Productions (spearheaded by Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who previously produced for Hammer and was a cousin to ) established itself as a vital competitor to Hammer Studios. Rather than imitating Hammer’s modernization of Gothic classics, Amicus developed its own niche with omnibus films. They were successful enough to be in full-fledged production for a decade, establishing a reputation as the go-to studio for horror anthologies. This, their introductory portmanteau film, clearly influenced by EC Comics, sets a pattern of to-be-expected unevenness. Still, Amicus installs themselves as a horror studio to be reckoned with, sparing no expense in procuring Hammer’s top actors: (who would  star in all but one of the Amicus anthologies) and . For its wraparound segment, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors opens to the duo (among other passengers) on a train. Dr. Schreck[1] (Cushing, saddled with a terrible German accent and glued on brows) pulls out a deck of tarot cards. “Pick a card, any card, and tape it three times,” Schreck tells his fellow passengers. Each participant will hear of a fate that may await them. Among the passengers is Christopher Lee who will, of course, factor into one of the five narratives.

In “Werewolf,” Neil McCallum is an architect renovating an old dark house, which turns out to be cursed. The title monster is featured in this pedestrian tale of ancestral revenge with a “twist.”

With Alan Freeman  (better known as the U.K D.J. for “Pick of the Pops”) served up as a snack for a venus fly trap, “The Creeping Vine,” thankfully doesn’t take itself so seriously. It is refreshingly lightheaded hokum.

“Voodoo” is the worst of the lot; badly dated in its stereotypes, with Kenny Lynch belting out a stolen voodoo tune.

Still from "Diembodied Hand" from Dr. Terror's House of Horrors“Disembodied Hand,” has elitist art critic Franklin Marsh (Lee) driving artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough) to suicide. Landor’s severed hand returns to exact revenge on the mean critic. It’s in the spirit of The Beast with Five Fingers, among others, and chock-full of two-dimensional caricatures of both artists and critics. It holds no surprises, but with Lee and Gough engaged in a bit of whistling-while-they-work fun, it’s easily the best episode.

“Vampire” feature a young who discovers he is married to… a vampire! It barely raises a pulse.

Seen today, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is more camp than horror, and its appeal is one of genre nostalgia. Still, the phenomenal box office success of Dr. Terror green-lighted a second portmanteau film in 1967, entitled Torture Garden (directed by Freddie Francis and written by Robert Bloch). It contains no torture nor any garden. Burgess Meredith (in a preposterous disguise, reminding us of the Penguin) is Old Nick himself, going by the pseudonym of Dr. Diablo and moonlighting as a carnival barker who promises a tortuous exhibit that can reveal the future. “You’ll shake, you’ll shiver, but it’s all good fun,” Diablo hammily tells his patrons. Unfortunately, only one of the four tales lives Continue reading AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES, PART ONE (1965-1972)

  1. “Shreck” is German for “terror,” and a nod to the famous star of ‘s Nosferatu. []