Tag Archives: Gothic

CAPSULE: THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1967)

AKA Castle of the Walking Dead

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Harald Reinl

FEATURING: Christopher Lee, Lex Barker, Karin Dor

PLOT: Count Frederick Regula sought eternal life by sacrificing thirteen virgins, but he only made it up to twelve before the authorities nabbed and executed him; years later, descendants are haunted by his spirit, contrived by a sinister inheritance.

Still from The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (1967)

COMMENTS: First, let’s get Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” out of the way. It’s a very short story serving as an exercise in building suspense through dread. There’s no plot to it; it is literally a stranger in a cell menaced by various torments until he’s rescued by a deux-ex-army at the end. Take note, lest you think I disrespect the Master of the Macabre, that Poe himself would go on to mock his own story with the satirical A Predicament, about a curious woman getting slowly decapitated by the sharp minute hand of a clock. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is about a man getting slowly sliced up by a descending blade. If you want to blow this up into a whole movie, you’re going to have to pad it out. Well, Poe does mention (“Nobody expects… !”) the Spanish Inquisition, so there’s our padding right there.

So now that we’ve dialed our expectations back from Eurotrash to Euroschlock, we can start with the pleasant surprises. The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is actually a stylish (but very outdated) Gothic-period horror flick of the kind that Hammer Films, Amicus Productions, and Tigon were cranking out at the time. In fact, it is exhaustively derivative of the European 1960s horror genre, to the point where you could assemble this movie out of pieces of other movies and get the same result. There’s a mad scientist’s alchemist workbench with bubbling beakers of vegetable glycerin, there’s a carriage ride through the woods with wolves howling in the background, there’s a castle full of deadly booby traps and no OSHA compliance, yada yada. And boy howdy, do they ever love skulls as a decorative element! This movie could serve as a shopping list for a trip to a Spirit Halloween store.

Christopher Lee is Count Frederick Regula, the gluten-free equivalent to Count Chocula. The evil Count is executed for murdering twelve virgins—but this was decades ago, and we switch to the movie time frame proper where Roger Elise (Lex Barker) and Baroness Brabant (Karin Dor) receive mysterious letters inviting them to a castle. One is to receive an inheritance, and the other is just a “find out the secrets of your past” deal. Turns out they each have a connection to the castle’s former owner; Roger is a son of one of the executioners, while the Baroness is the descendant of Regula’s intended 13th victim. You see, the whole murdering-virgins bit was so the Count could achieve immortality by brewing blood into an elixir. Not that Count Drac-oops Regula is a vampire (Christopher Lee playing a vampire? Preposterous!), but because he just dabbles in the black arts that way. Well, he did before he got executed, but never mind all that, because a member of the Count’s loyal staff has sworn to finalize his resurrection plans, and has a whole castle dungeon full of diabolical weapons at their disposal.

Before we get to the castle, there’s a whole half-movie worth of set-up to plow through. First, they have to ask directions, because the letters didn’t include a Google Maps link. All the townspeople have to scowl about the sinister rumors around the castle. Then they have to have a not-quite-trusted monk along for the ride to act as a guide. Then they get waylaid by a gang of bandits on the road, since locking doors for horse-drawn carriages hadn’t been invented yet. We also tour the most haunted woods ever, populated by trees that sprout corpses and skeletons willy-nilly. After all this, the castle turns out to be subterranean, entered via a spiked iron door. Minutes later, we hear the line “I knew it! We’ve fallen into some sort of trap!” Darn it, if only there had been any ominous events and signs along the way to warn us.

On the plus side, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is filled with gorgeous sets and atmospheric practical effects. The performances are capable and even though the whole story is one big Gothic formula, they do the genre proud. One downside is the music, which is way too whimsically “spooky” and lighthearted for the intended tone. The soundtrack becomes a sarcastic commentary punctuating every major scene, like if you had Frank Zappa score a Batman episode. You will also need to rub some liniment oil on your jawbone so you don’t hurt yourself yawning at the dragging pace, despite its 79 minute run-time. This is the part where we’d normally call it a vintage Euro-horror treasure, but let’s be honest: there are so many movies exactly like it that we’d like to sign some kind of Pittman Act where we opt to melt a bunch of them down to reclaim the celluloid. The weirdest thing about The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is its ridiculously misleading title. The promotional art for this film hypes this image, setting you up for an Ilsa She Wolf of the SS exploitation boob-bath. What you get is a hum-drum, if stylish, West German Edgar Allan Poe “adaptation.” We already have so much Poe around here that we have to scrape the raven crap off the index periodically.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an odd one; the basic plot is very familiar indeed, but it has bizarre and decidedly eccentric touches to it.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

CAPSULE: CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH (1968)

Im Schloß der Blutigen Begierde, AKA In the Castle of Bloody Desires

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Adrian Hoven

FEATURING: , , Janine Reynaud, Elvira Berndorff

PLOT: The Earl of Saxxon presides in his castle brooding over his deceased daughter; fortunately, he’s a doctor, and a bunch of drunk aristocrats are about to stumble into his clutches.

Still from Castle of the Creeping Flesh (1968)

COMMENTS: While contemplating the genre of German horror films, it occurred to me that I don’t often have the opportunity to see a German horror film. I checked and it seems others out there have noticed this too. German horror is a rare bird, says the author of the linked listicle, because Germany lived through so many real-life horrors in the 20th century that they lost their taste for theatrical scares. Wikipedia concurs, noting that German film ratings board clamps down on horror and drives it underground. I can support these claims.

But what does exist of mid-20th-century German horror—from what I’ve seen so far—seems to be tamer than the contemporaneous international horror standards. Film scholars will beat me over the head with their cassettes of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, berating me for my blindness to German culture’s tremendous contributions to horror. That’s not what I mean. I mean “tamer” as in “less scary.” There seems to be no German kaiju, xenomorphs, or hockey-masked slashers. You know that bit where Freddy Krueger rips into somebody’s guts and jumps rope with their intestines? You can’t find that in German horror.

The promotional posters  for Castle of the Creeping Flesh promise to break the mold of German horror restraint, looking as intense as any other Eurotrash gore-fest. Indeed, Jess Franco (peace be upon the name of the prophet) appears in the writing credits, while actors from his staple troupe appear in the cast.

It’s hard to reconcile this promising setup with the resulting movie, to put it gently. Castle opens with a jazzy mondo theme over a swanky party that evokes a wingding at a EuroPlayboy mansion, without a scare in sight. The carefree ladies doffing their duds in the powder room provide the flesh already, even if it isn’t creeping yet. At least this movie readily adopts the sleazy side of European exploitation cinema: gore taboo, boobies fine. As the upper class folk break up the party, only to travel via horseback to reconvene at another nearby mansion, the partying keeps up. The host, Baron Black (Michel Lemoine) regales the crowd with tales of the Earl of Saxxon, keeper of a nearby castle with an ISO-standard Gothic history. As one guest, Eleanor (Elvira Berndorff), impulsively rides off to go see for herself, and the rest of the party is obliged to search for her, we Continue reading CAPSULE: CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH (1968)

1964 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: HORROR CASTLE AND CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD

Our Next Attraction…

“The most exciting feature of the year! Lady in a Cage… and Olivia de Havilland is in it! A lady in a cage, locked in her own madhouse of insane intruders, powerless to stop the psychopathic horror that hems her in. Olivia de Havilland helpless before the rage of such characters as the Wino, half-crazed with his own destroying sin… the Hustler, a blousy has-been—the most amazing role Ann Southern has ever played… the Muscler, lusting for the last wild thrill of killing… the Weirdo, a blonde psycho driven to tempt, to taunt, to destroy… the Wildo, frenzied by a woman’s body or the razor edge of a sharp, glittering knife. They’re all in Lady in a Cage, the picture that is not for the weak; and perhaps, not even for the strong! If you cringe at violence, scream at fear, faint at horror—Lady in a Cage may not be for you. But if you can take the screen’s hyper-dramatic excitement—don’t miss it! Olivia de Havilland is shocking the screen as the Lady in a Cage.”

Also…

Party Girls for the Candidate. See the wild sex party that rocked the nation’s capital. Party Girls for the Candidate will bring you love scenes that only adult moviegoers will understand. Party Girls for the Candidate will show you party girls who will do anything for a price. Party Girls for the Candidate stars those two sensuous personalities, Mamie Van Doren and June Wilkinson, and introduces to the screen three exciting new personalities: Ted Knight as the candidate; Eric Mason as Buddy Barker, the ex-senate page-boy who built an empire of influence in the nation’s capital; Rachel Romen as Mona Archer, the innocent girl who succumbed to Buddy Barker’s web of sex intrigue. Party Girls for the Candidate is the most explosive film ever produced in Hollywood. Party Girls for the Candidate is a must see for every moviegoer. Don’t miss it!”

And Now Our Feature Presentation!

Horror Castle (AKA The Virgin of Nuremberg, directed by Antonio Margheriti) is one of the first Italian Gothic films shot in color. It was successful enough to green-light a followup the next year: Castle of Blood, starring . Having coaxed the genre into two of its earliest, most popular color productions, Margheriti should be better known; but ultimately he’s merely a competent craftsman instead of an inspirational original, and the move to color inevitably proved an aesthetic step back (although financially beneficial) for the genre. Still, Horror Castle is a reasonably effective entry. The color, like the surreal lounge score by Riz Ortolani, is paradoxically both ill-fitting and striking. Margheriti’s sensual color palette echoes the auburn quality of minor Italian cult starlet Rossana Podesta and he compositionally caresses her into the macabre surroundings.

Still from Horror Castle (1963)Storywise, Horror Castle is hardly earth-shaking. Newlywed Mary (Podesta) has some horrific visions within the ancestral German castle of husband Max (Georges Riviera), who resorts to the standard “you must be tired Continue reading 1964 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: HORROR CASTLE AND CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD

LIST CANDIDATE: A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jason Isaacs, , 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 could 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 are even legends about ancient evils perpetrated by a degenerate 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 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 uncertain waffling than inspired 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 a 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 eerie events of just a minute ago 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 its 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)

265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

Rekopis Znaleziony w Saragossie

“Simultaneously erotic, horrific and funny… This is one mother of a film.”– on The Saragossa Manuscript

Must See

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zbigniew Cybulski

PLOT: During a battle in Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars, a soldier wanders into a house and discovers a large book which enthralls him (and his captor). In it, he reads the story of the Walloon captain Alfons Van Worden, who meets, and is seduced by, two princesses while sleeping at a haunted inn, only to wake up under a gallows between two hanged men. Van Worden’s further adventures include meeting a hermit, a cabalist, a gypsy leader, and other colorful characters, each of whom have tales to tell—often leading to stories inside of stories.

Still from The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Saragossa Manuscript is a mostly faithful, if necessarily abridged, adaptation of Jan Potocki’s massive 19th-century novel “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa” (occasionally translated as “The Saragossa Manuscript: A Collection of Weird Tales”). Potcoki was a fascinating character, worthy of his own novel. A Count, adventurer (he was the first Pole to fly in a hot air balloon) and polymath, he published The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in fragments during his life. Legends revolve around his spectacular 1815 suicide: he shot himself with a silver bullet he made himself, and which he had blessed by his castle chaplain beforehand.
  • Noted fans of the film include and David Lynch.
  • The restoration, which included the addition of about an hour’s worth of material cut from previous prints, was initially financed by The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, who died before it was completed in 2001. Filmmakers  and (who included it in his series “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”) took up the cause after Garcia’s demise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Near the film’s climax, Van Worden stares out through an gap in a castle wall and sees a vision of himself receding into the distance with the two princesses, headed towards a poster bed standing alone in the middle of a desert. The only other features in the landscape are a cow’s skull and a dead crow half buried in the sand. There’s a wonderful trick to the shot, indicative of the film’s obsession with misdirection and game playing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Between hanged men; incestuous Islamic princesses; five levels of flashbacks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Saragossa Manuscript winds through a Gothic journey replete with gallows, ghostly seductresses, duels, occult symbols, Inquisitors in bondage gear, and more, an epic tale told in the ever-receding stories-inside-of-stories style that Guy Maddin would later adopt (in a more fetishistic fashion) for The Forbidden Room. Wojciech Has’ 3-hour adaptation of Jan Potocki’s grandiose novel is storytelling in its purest form; it’s a world cinema classic that has been unfairly neglected, out-of-print in the USA for far too long. The film’s design unfolds slowly, wandering through a disorienting labyrinth of stories that eventually resolve, only to dissolve again in a mystical finale in the Spanish desert.


Re-release trailer for The Saragossa Manuscript

COMMENTS: “All that has made me confused,” complains Captain Continue reading 265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART ONE

An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of . He was overlooked by serious critics for decades. It was genre fans who kept whispering Bava’s name until it reached an echo and reverberated in critical circles. Called The Father of Italian Giallo Cinema, he influenced the likes of , ,  and (among others). Predictably, Bava’s fan base is given to religious zeal, but his body of work merits immersion in spite of his fanatical cult.

It should come as no surprise that Mario Bava’s original ambition was to become a painter. The son of sculptor and cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario found painting a less-than-profitable life goal and followed his father’s footsteps. Landing a job in Mussolini’s film factory, Bava’s apprentice work included lensing numerous films, beginning in 1939. It wasn’t until 1957 that Bava (uncredited) co-directed his first feature with Riccardo Freda: Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri).

Still from Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri) (1957)Although neither a great horror film nor a great film, Lust of the Vampire (not to be confused with the later Hammer film, which makes this one look like a masterpiece) is historically important for being the first Italian horror film. There are no vampires to speak of. The victims are the result of surgical horrors, and there’s little doubt that this film was a considerable influence on s Eyes Without a FaceAlthough crisply paced in its 78 minute running time, it’s saddled with dull, verbose characters. Lust of the Vampire teeters toward full-blown Goth cinema, but it also has scenes that hearken back to the mad scientist films of the 1940s; one has to look twice to make sure we’re not witnessing and up to no good in their labs. Visually, it has wonderful set pieces and almost surreal matte-work standing in for Paris. A portentous spiraling stairwell, shadow-doused laboratories, decaying beds, skulls falling to the floor, nooses inexplicably dangling from the ceiling, a mist-laden forest, an ornamental tomb façade, secret chambers, and beautiful women injected with serum transforming into withered drama queens all add up to an evocative early Italian horror. Gianna Maria Canale has the standout performance as Giselle du Grand, smoking cigarettes in front of mirrors. There’s a lot of debate as to how much Bava directed. The film has elements that could be attributed to the styles of both artists. Although Bava is clearly the superior director, Freda (who co-wrote the script) went on to make the effective Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and it’s sequel The Ghost (1963), both with . Freda walked out mid-production Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART ONE

232. HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

“Directors always say—and I think they mean it—that they’re telling a story. They tell a story and they don’t want to have an interpretation of what it ‘means,’ symbols… I think, for example, Hour of the Wolf, it can look like it was a lot of symbols. I don’t think it is. It’s a scary story, narrated very simply, even if the persons are very surreal.”–actor Erland Josephson (Baron von Merkins)

Recommendeds

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: The prologue explains that the artist Johan Borg disappeared from his home on the Frisian islands, and that this film is a recreation of events from his diary and the recollections of his wife. Borg has disturbing dreams, and the characters from the dream, along with an old flame, appear before him in real life. As the days wear on, the hallucinations become so intense that his wife seems to share in them, and the ghostly party invites the couple to visit them at the local castle.

Still from Hour of the Wolf (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • According to the film, “the hour of the wolf” is the time between midnight and dawn when most people die and most babies are born.
  • The film began life as a screenplay entitled “The Cannibals.” After Bergman was hospitalized with pneumonia, he stopped working on the script and instead produced Persona.
  • Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann had an affair during the making of Persona, and Ullmann became pregnant with Bergman’s child. The actress did not want to relocate to Fårö to live with Bergman (who was still married to concert pianist Käbi Laretei at the time), and stayed in Oslo until Bergman sent her the script for Vargtimmen and convinced her to come to Fårö to make the film. She gave birth to the child before the movie was completed.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: When describing the figures that appear to him in his nightmares, Johan Borg mentions “the old lady, the one always threatening to take off her hat. Do you know what happens if she does? Her face comes off along with it, you see.” That’s not just a tease; although we never see Borg’s sketch of the character,  Bergman later comes through with the literal vision of the old woman removing her face along with her hat.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy at the beach; walking on the ceiling; face-off hag

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Themes of creative frustration, infidelity, humiliation, forbidden sexual impulses, and existential angst manifest as a court of demonic aristocrats who lure the artist and his love into a web of madness and self-destruction in Hour of the Wolf. Gothic imagery fits Ingmar Bergman like a comfortable shadow, and his only outright horror movie is every bit as philosophical, eerie and inscrutable as you could hope.


Clip from Hour of the Wolf

COMMENTS: According to Liv Ullmann, when, pregnant, she fled Ingmar Bergman’s arms after completing Persona, he convinced her to Continue reading 232. HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)