Tag Archives: Telly Savalas


“The most bi-polar epic ever made” would be more apt.

Big budget Hollywood Bible blockbusters are a category that can put shame to the campiest excursions found in low budget horror and sci fi pics. The king of sword, sandal, and sacred cleavage (male and female) was undoubtedly Cecil B. DeMille. Like many patriarchal types, DeMille was, by most accounts, a mean-spirited, obsessive controlling showman, who aggressively pushed his propaganda in some of the greatest howlers ever committed to celluloid. The trademark DeMille camp was intact from the beginning, with his silent King of Kings (1927) gifting us some of the most jaw-dropping intertitles in cinematic history. Mary Magdalene, in jewel studded bra, on the way to meet her lover Judas, mounts her chariot and barks the command: “Nubian slave, harness my zebras!” Still, even DeMille was ecumenical enough to place blame for Jesus’ death on the religious leaders, as opposed to Mel “I hate other religions” Gibson’s medievalism of condemning an entire race of people.

DeMille was at his most seductive in Sign of the Cross (1932), a sexy romp about first century Christians starring Charles Laughton as a leering Nero and the slinky Claudette Colbert taking a pre-code bath in goat’s milk. As usual, the sinners are more interesting than the hopeless saints.

By and large, the Hebrew Bible makes for better cinematic material than the story of Jesus. Those primitive tribal tales make no apologies about contradictory portrayals of a divine being who is, alternately, a savage and a benign father (depending on who was writing). Some of the more outlandish fantasies found in the Torah are almost hidden, which is rather convenient for the childish, self-proclaimed literalists who tend to bypass such passages. ‘s Noah (2014) looked at the troubling contradictions without blinking, and gave us one of the most challenging Bible-inspired works of art since Arnold Schoeberg’s opera “Moses und Aron.”

Still from The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)A hopelessly derivative pastiche of preexisting rabbinic narratives, the New Testament Jesus narrative is a bit more problematic. Worse, Jesus himself is, more often than not, rendered in artistic representations as a kind of reverential masochist, a bland “John Boy” Walton deity. Some of the figures that surround Jesus are infinitely more compelling. The giddy and girlish Mother of Christ delivers her Magnificat (which echoes Hannah in 1 Samuel). That soliloquy is better written than almost anything that comes out of Jesus’ mouth. The sassy Martha is the Mary Ellen Walton we all secretly root for over her hopelessly pious sister. Insert-foot-in-mouth Peter makes for a more colorful companion than that dullard, beloved John. The woman at the well and post-Gospel figure Paul have more personality than Jesus himself, with a few notable exceptions. When Jesus steps out of character and horsewhips the money changers, or mantles a Garboesque “I want to be alone” attitude, he suddenly comes to life. Oddly, those wonderful Technicolor miracles and kicking demon ass moments are often inexplicably bypassed in Hollywood treatments, probably because they are uncomfortably “unrealistic.” Of all the Tinseltown interpretations of Jesus, Continue reading THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)


Reader review by “Count” Otto Black.

AKA Pánico en el Transiberiano/Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express

DIRECTED BY: Eugenio Martin

FEATURING: , , Alberto de Mendoza,

PLOT: In 1906, an archaeologist discovers a frozen two-million-year-old ape-man in China. While being transported on the Orient Express, it turns out to be not only still alive, but possessed by a body-swapping extraterrestrial with incredible powers that might just possibly be Satan. Much hilarity ensues!

Still from Horror Express (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the face of it, the basic plot—a frozen prehistoric creature comes back to life and causes mayhem—has been used so often that it’s not even unusual, let alone weird. But when the mix also includes an extraterrestrial energy being who may or not be the Devil, a mad monk who is Rasputin in all but name, explicit brain autopsies, Cossack zombies with boiled eyeballs, “scientific” explanations that make the ones in Plan Nine From Outer Space sound like Carl Sagan, and the overall logic of a fever-dream, weirdness definitely starts to creep in. Also, there can’t be too many films shot in Spain that are set in Siberia.

COMMENTS: After the opening credits end, the very first thing we see is stock footage of some desolate place which a caption tells us is the Szechuan Province of China. Then seconds later, Christopher Lee’s voice-over narration informs us that it’s Manchuria. If they can’t get through the first minute of the film without losing track of continuity, a special kind of talent is clearly at work!

This indeed proves to be the case. Horror Express is a blatant rip-off of Quatermass and the Pit (1967). Both films involve archaeologists digging up pre-human hominid fossils and accidentally getting an unwanted bonus in the form of a dormant extraterrestrial life-force which exhibits amazing mental powers. In both cases the evil is linked with folklore and religion across the ages, specifically with Satanic lore, and generally causes mayhem. But whereas most copies of a much more widely-known and vastly more expensive film are feeble, cheesy imitations, this one redeems itself by going all-out to make no sense whatsoever. This movie is to Quatermass and the Pit what Star Crash (1978) is to Star Wars (1977), except that it doesn’t have David Hasselhof in it.

The movie’s genesis was very muddled, in a way that  undoubtedly would have sympathized with—indeed, this is the kind of film he’d probably have made if he’d still been making anything he cared about in 1972, and had had a lot more money than ever before, though still not all that much. Benmar Productions, the Spanish studio mainly responsible for Horror Express, were in deep trouble by 1972. Their first and second features were spaghetti westerns (technically, since no Italians were involved, they were “paella westerns”); the forgettable Captain Apache, and the ultra-violent, incoherent, and magnificently titled A Town Called Bastard (both 1971). Unfortunately they jumped on that short-lived bandwagon when it was already slowing down, and when they realized that the box-office returns on second-rate examples of a dying genre weren’t too good, they Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: HORROR EXPRESS (1972)




PLOT: A tourist finds herself staying overnight at a Spanish chateau managed by a butler who is the spitting image of Satan as pictured on a local fresco.

Still from Lisa and the Devil (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A mildly surreal horror, Lisa might make for interesting Halloween watching for the patient, but it’s too slow-paced with too little payoff to be counted among the greatest weird movies.

COMMENTS: “The entire setting is so right for a tall tale of gloom and perdition,” says one of the guests at a banquet as a manservant played by Telly Savalas serves her slices of rare meat. “We could make one up as we go along.” Given the almost random way the script unfolds, you might suspect that this line of dialogue is a confession rather than a throwaway bit of dinner conversation. It’s not always clear whether the frequent lapses of logic in Lisa and the Devil are meant to be part and parcel of the unsettling atmosphere, or are merely the result of lazy, indifferent screenwriting. After one of their party is found murdered, the owner of the estate in the middle of nowhere suggests to the rest of the party stranded there that there is no need to call the police—and they all accept that view calmly without offering much in the way of a counter-argument. Niggling unanswered questions proliferate: How do the chauffeur and the wife find time for a lovemaking liaison when he’s supposed to be fixing the car? Why is Lisa terrified of a pocketwatch she sees on a table? Whether these minor story issues add to the film’s dream logic or merely frustrate you as you try to settle on a context for this fright tale may determine how you react to the movie. Lisa builds to a perverse and spooky third act as the shameful secrets of the chateau are slowly brought to light, but the first two thirds of the movie are slow and often confusing. The main living denizens of the villa, a blind mother and her fey son, are an intense couple, but top-billed Savalas (who sucks on his trademark lollipop here) makes by far the biggest impression as a slyly diabolical butler. He’s not conventionally sinister or overtly threatening, but like most servants he knows more about the secret workings of the chateau than his masters do, and his blasé glances and mysterious smiles suggest a man whose subservience is an ill-fitting mask for a deeper purpose. As Lisa, star Elke Sommer, on the other hand, is little more than a blank pretty face—not her fault, as the script gives her nothing to do other than gasp, scream and fall unconscious. Lisa has no history and no reason is given for her straying from her tour group, and she is swept along by events with a bewildered expression, offering no resistance. Passivity is her only real character trait. Her lack of dialogue stands out: other characters divulge shocking confessions to her, and she has nothing to say in response. It’s not clear if her silence is a deliberate choice to make her a mysterious tabula rasa, or whether the character is simply underwritten. If it was a conscious decision, I’m not sure the gamble pays off; we are given little reason to care about the fate of this ambiguous protagonist. On the plus side, Bava’s films are always visually luscious, and Lisa is no exception. The dusty Spanish town and the aristocratic villa give him plenty of lush color to work with, and in her mod short blue skirt and mint green blazer, Sommer looks perfectly out of place romping through these classical vistas. She’s as dislocated in her fashion as she is in her psychology. A flashback/dream sequence set in a sylvan glade supplies a visual highlight, and foreshadows a later scene of a nude Sommer waking in a similar-looking ruins. Savalas’ offhand conversations with his collection of life-sized dummies and an ending that induces shivers despite being somewhat obvious are other memorable bits in this oft-odd spook story. The movie has assets: Savalas, the cinematography, and a few moments of thrilling disorientation. At its best it plays like the dream of a mad ghost; but overall this sepulchral tale is too lifeless for a general recommendation. Fans of slow-paced atmospheric horror may find it a worth taking a chance on, though.

Lisa and the Devil was a flop in Italy and was not picked up for American distribution. Producer Alfredo Leone then decided to try to salvage the movie by re-cutting it and shooting new footage with Sommer and Robert Alda (as a priest) to turn the film into an Exorcist clone; the resulting mess was released in the States as The House of Exorcism. It flopped. The 2012 Kino Classics release contains both versions of the film.


“The Bava art on full display, voluptuous and oneiric…”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion.com (DVD)