The Whip and the Body / The Whip and the Flesh / What? (1963) ****

Has there ever been actress so skilled at displaying fear as Daliah Lavi? Where the female stars of horror movies too quickly succumbed to the scream and goggle eyes, Lavi could run a whole gamut of terror without uttering a sound and continue doing so for virtually an entire picture. Top-billed ahead of the reigning king of British horror Christopher Lee, this is another acting tour de force, not quite sustaining the intensity of The Demon (1963) but at times not far off it.

Italian director Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, 1963), here masquerading as John M. Old, has stitched together a mixture of horror and an early form of giallo, the picture taking place in the classic old dark house, in this case a castle perched on a rock above the sea, the deaths grisly, and almost fitting into the “locked room” subgenre of the detective story, where the murders appear impossible to carry out.

Originally released as The Whip and the Body, it underwent some title changes, first to The Whip and the Flesh, the German title translated as The Devil and the Young Woman and while in the U.S. it was shown as What?

The disgraced Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) returns to his ancestral home, begging forgiveness from his father Count Vladimir (Gustavo De Nardo) and hoping to reclaim his inheritance and his betrothed Nevenka (Daliah Lavi). While his father exonerates him, Kurt is denied the rest, Nevenka already committed to marriage to his brother Christian (Tony Kendall). Other tensions are soon evident: the housekeeper Giorgia wants revenge on Kurt for the death of her daughter and Christian is in love with another, Katia (Evelyn Stewart).

Nevenka who outwardly protests how much she hates Kurt quickly reveals masochistic tendencies as she gives in to a whipping. But Kurt’s sudden inexplicable murder instigates an investigation, suspicion falling firstly on the father, then Christian and finally Giorgia.

But Nevenka is not convinced Kurt is dead, although his body has been entombed in the castle crypt. Torment creeps into her face at his funeral and we can almost see her grow gaunt in front of our eyes. In a brilliant scene where she tracks what she imagines to be the sound of whip it turns out to be a branch lashing a window in a storm. Some of her supposed visions are easily explained, muddy footsteps leading from Kurt’s tomb actually belonging to the limping manservant Losat (Luciano Pigozzi). But how do you account for the hand, in an almost 3D shape, reaching out to her in the darkness or her ecstasy in still being whipped, her nightdress stripped from her back?

Although sometimes relying too heavily on atmospherics – windows swinging open at night, storm outside – Bava brilliantly marshals the real and the imagined, until the investigation into murder involves all the characters. Once the film begins, the drawbridge in a sense comes down, and nobody else enters the castle, and so we move from one character to another, each with their own motive for possibly committing dire deed. And with each passing moment we return to the demented Nevenka, who wishes Kurt dead but cannot live without him, and, craving the whip, cannot escape his sadistic power. Her faith in Kurt’s resurrection is so intense that the others are soon seeking signs that the dead man is still alive.

This is superior horror to Hammer. Using the same leading man, the British studio generally expected Lee to be over-the-top, his innate malevolence very obvious from the start. Here, he is at his most handsome and although definitely sadistic, the emphasis is less on his pleasure than that of his victim. And while Bava resorts to a similar kind of Hammer set, this castle is remote, has no relationship with villagers, and exudes regal dominance rather than just the normal fear of a Dracula picture. Bava employs a more subtle color palette and the piano theme tune by Carlo Rusticelli has a romantic tone.

But for all Bava’s proven skill, this would not be the same without Lavi. I doubt if there is a single actress in the horror domain throughout the 1960s who could match the actress for portraying fright, as she marches up the scale from mere anxiety to full-blown terror. And although women in Dracula movies succumbed to vampire teeth with more than a frisson of sexuality, there is a different deeper sensuality at work here, in what must rank as one of the greatest-ever portrayals of masochism embedded in love.

As noted previously, Lavi, in stepping onto the bigger Hollywood stage of Lord Jim (1965) and The Silencers (1966), lost the intensity she displayed here and never came close to matching this performance or that of The Demon. Christopher Lee, although claiming to dislike his experience, continued to rule the horror world until afforded a wider audience through James Bond, Star Wars, J.R.R. Tolkien and Tim Burton. 

Tony Kendall made his debut and soon graduated to the Kommissar X series, spaghetti westerns (he played Django twice), horror (Return of the Evil Dead, 1973), and thrillers such as Machine Gun McCain (1969). Evelyn Stewart went down much the same route, her long career sprinkled with gems like Django Shoots First (1966), The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) and The Psychic (1977).

Mario Bava continued to exploit the horror vein including Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Lisa and the Devil (1973) with Telly Savalas and Elke Sommer.

Censor (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

From video nasty to video laughty in one easy move. I was laughing out loud when the picture started to get nasty and I doubt this was the intention of director Prano Bailey Bond, making her movie debut. The movie is set in the uber-drab 1980s, where color was apparently in short supply, and all the characters inhabited offices or houses that appeared to belong to the black-and-white era.  The notion that iconic characters like Boy George, Madonna and Princess Diana might have been around at the same time is largely ignored in the bid to make every character flat and conformist.

In fairness, working in the British film censorship department was hardly likely to provide a bundle of laughs. As well as being as being as buttoned-down as they come, Enid (Niamh Algar) is also riddled with guilt since she was in charge of her younger sister when she went missing two decades previously. A chunk of the film is almost a spoof of The Office, with characters hidebound by officialdom.

And there are a few excellent set pieces. As with The Night House, the scenes that deal with grief, Enid’s parents finally coming to terms with their daughter’s disappearance, are very well done. The dialogue among the various censors, judging whether to reject movies or heavily edit them, rings very true and there is a terrific scene involving film-making where the director is kept off-camera while an actress is literally standing in the spotlight.

Tight-lipped Enid becomes obsessed with the idea that her sister is not only alive but actually an actress in a video nasty.  To that end, she tracks down smarmy producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley). As I said, it may have been the director’s intention that Smart is killed by ironically managing to have an award statuette rammed down his throat, but I’m not so sure and at that point I began to lose faith in the picture. It goes on to a perfectly bonkers climax which had me in stitches, again not entirely a recommendation.

The Night House (2020) ** – Seen at the Cinema

An overloaded atmosphere cannot make up for the lack of directorial killer instinct, resulting in a ghost story that leans more towards the preposterous than horror.  Beth (Rebecca Hall), dealing with the suicide of her husband, begins to imagine a ghostly  presence in her remote house on a lake. Left a very odd suicide note, she pieces together stranger aspects of his life, involving the occult and a photo on his phone of a Beth lookalike.

The picture divides very neatly into the entirely believable grief of schoolteacher Beth – she nips at a moaning parent, knocks back the brandy, makes inappropriate comments to her workmates and displays sufficient off-the-wall tendencies to alarm pal Claire (Sarah Goldberg) – and the various tropes that need to be knitted together to take the story into the ghost/horror realm, few of which work. Mysterious footsteps, sometime muddy, sometimes bloody, appear, harmless neighbour Mel (Vondie Hall Curtis) is presented as potentially malevolent, and music suddenly blares out in the middle of the night.

Had the story remained entrenched in Beth’s imagination, where she almost willed her husband either to be still alive or enough of a presence (as in Ghost, 1990) that she could touch or be comforted by, and gradually either became subsumed by grief or came out of it, it might have worked very well. But the minute it started to delve into the area of the unbelievable it became largely unbelievable. Even when it is obvious her husband is not at all what he once seemed, the picture just ignores the obvious.

And that is a shame. Even more so than Stillwater, reviewed last week, this is a thespian tour-de-force. Beth is scarcely off the screen and her ever-changing mood displays terrific acting skills. But just like Stillwater, it loses its way, going for plot instead of character, and the film cannot make up its mind whether she is going mad, or just mad with grief, or whether she is victim to unseen predator. There was only one genuine jump-out-of-your-seat shock and the introduction late on of elements of her backstory served to confuse rather than elucidate.

Rebecca Hall (Godzilla vs. Kong, 2021) can certainly hold the screen and hopefully this will lead to better roles in bigger films. None of the other actors are particularly noteworthy. Director David Bruckner (Netflix’s The Ritual, 2017) seems to be focusing on horror – Hellraiser is next – but whether he needs a bigger budget or a better script to scare the pants off an audience remains to be seen. Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Stephanie, 2017) also appear to be specialising in this genre.

Old (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Surely no director has cut his cloth according to his means more than M. Night Shyamalen. After a series of big-budget failures, he returned with a series of low-budget numbers like The Visit (2015) and Split (2016) with a couple of forays into television to keep his hand in. And although his movies sometimes don’t work, usually from over-ambition, he is still a brand name and as a triple-hyphenate one of the few working directors to completely control his output.

So the starting point is you don’t know what you’re going to get, except there will be twists and occasional shocks along the way. Even the Glass films aren’t a trilogy in the accepted sense of the word. 

Old is a neat idea. A group of strangers on vacation end up on a strange beach where time moves along at quite a clip and they can’t escape. Most of the action involves the characters responding to one calamity after another and despite a couple of gruesome moments Shyamalan seems intent on swapping jump-out-of-your-seat moments for a continual slow burn. He takes the disaster trope of who’s gonna die next – the bad old guy or the cute younger person – and inverts it until nothing makes any sense except impending apocalypse, at least for all stranded in this apparent paradise.

Speeded-up life makes for speeded-up dread. While wounds heal in seconds and pregnancy might last, oh, a half hour or so, the malfunctioning body malfunctions at lightspeed.

The great thing about Shyamalan is he is a writer first so the characters here are all very well drawn. He gives a geeky kid the geekiest of all character traits, going up to everyone he meets to ask their name and job. But it’s an ensemble picture so nobody is more important than anybody else. And the characters bring along a hamper full of tensions – there’s an epileptic, a couple on the verge of divorce, a doctor on the verge of a breakdown. He also has a distinctive visual style, preferring to track the camera from one character to another rather than using cuts.

It slightly runs out of steam as the body count mounts and it might have been an idea to introduce the shock ending – which asks significant questions about the direction society is heading – a bit sooner

There’s a solid cast, good actors rather than A-list stars, a bundle of whom are best-known for television. Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004) takes pole position in the credits, supported by Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle television series, 2015-2019), Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps (Das Boot, 2018- 2020), Ken Leung (Lost, 2008-2010), and Abbey Lee (Lux Aeterna, 2019).  Scions of Hollywood royalty get a leg-up here – Francesca Eastwood being the daughter of Clint and Alexa Swinton cousin to Tilda – and there are cameos from the likes of Embeth Davidtz (Schindler’s List, 1993)

Otherwise it’s a decent addition to the Shyamalen oeuvre, enough at least to keep him chugging along until he gets the next big idea or budget. While the chances of him alighting on another Sixth Sense (1999) or Unbreakable (2000) might appear remote bear in mind the guy has barely passed 50, an age when top directors are just coming into their prime – Hitchcock was a few years older when he hit the hot streak of Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest.

There’s a fair chance the ending is uncomfortably close to science fact rather than fiction and if Shyamalan can activate social media along those lines the picture could build up enough of a head of steam to bring the director back into the big-budget Hollywood fold or ensure at least that he is never cast aside.

Saw this at the cinema as part of my Monday double bill. – but on the previous week to Suicide Squad/Jungle Cruise.

Readers’ Top 30

I’ve been writing this Blog now for one year, beginning July 2020, so I thought I’d take a look at which posts proved the most popular (in terms of views) with my readers. So here’s the annual top 30 films, ranked in order of views.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark and Senta Berger – making her Hollywood debut – behind the Iron Curtain in gripping adaptation of the Alistair Maclean thriller.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
  3. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) – remarkable documentary about the other side of the music business as ageing rocker Dave Doughman tries to keep his dreams alive.
  4. Age of Consent (1969) – British actress Helen Mirren makes her movie debut as the often naked muse for painter James Mason in touching drama directed by Michael Powell.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966) – Robert Vaughn shakes off his The Man from Uncle persona in taut Cold War thriller also starring Elke Sommer as his traitorous wife and Boris Karloff in a rare non-horror role.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) – French cult thriller starring Daniele Gaubert as sexy cat burglar forced to work for the government.
  7. Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
  8. The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
  9. Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
  10. The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
  11. Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
  12. Our Man in Marrakesh / Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) – Entertaining thriller sees Tony Randall and Senta Berger mixed up in United Nations plot involving the likes of Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom.
  13. The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
  14. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) – Rod Taylor and Jim Brown head into the heart of darkness in war-torn Africa with a trainload of diamonds and refugees including Yvette Mimieux.
  15. The Guns of Navarone (1961) – men-on-a-mission Alistair Maclean World War Two epic with all-star cast including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, James Darren and Gia Scala.
  16. The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
  17. 4 for Texas (1963) – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as double-dealing businessmen in highly entertaining Robert Aldrich Rat Pack western starring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg.
  18. Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
  19. Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
  20. Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
  21. Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
  22. Wonder Woman 84 (2020) – in one of the few films to get a cinematic screening during lockdown, Gal Gadot returns as mythical superhero to battle supervillain Kristen Wiig.
  23. Genghis Khan (1965) – Omar Sharif as the Mongol warrior who conquered most of the known world, tangling with rival Stephen Boyd and Chinese mandarin James Mason on the way.
  24. A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
  25. The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
  26. In Search of Gregory (1969) – wayward Julie Christie embarks on pursuit of Michael Sarrazin who may – or may not – be a figment of her imagination.
  27. Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
  28. The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
  29. Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
  30. Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

The Crimson Cult/ Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) ***

Horror is a small world and at any moment you are likely to bump into stars of the caliber of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele – or in this picture all three. Investigating his missing brother Peter sends antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) to a remote country mansion where he encounters owner Morley (Christopher Lee), his seductive niece Eve (Virginia Weatherall), the wheelchair-bound authority on witchcraft Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff), deaf mute Elder (Michael Gough) and a centuries-old mystery.

Morley can legitimately deny that Peter has ever set foot on the premises since it was common for the brother to adopt an alias when seeking out significant antiques. By the time Robert amasses sufficient clues to challenge Morley on this particular issue, it appears that further ideas of more sinister goings-on may be illusory. On his first night Robert observes an annual celebration of the Black Witch but although an effigy is burned this festival appears to have more to do with the innocent consumption of alcohol and heady bouts of sex than satanism.

Thanks to career reinvigoration after Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets” (1967)
Boris Karloff gained top billing in the British release.

And after a while, Robert indulges in carnal delight with Eve. However, he is plagued by a nightmare that involves a grotesque trial by a jury wearing animal heads. Gradually, he learns that Morley, meanwhile, is such a congenial host, and his niece delightful and sybaritic company, that the finger of suspicion points at Elder, who does take a pot shot at Robert, and the professor who has a collection of instruments of torture.

Were it not for veteran director Vernon Sewell (Urge to Kill, 1960) beginning proceedings with some kind of black mass complete with floggings and female sacrificial victim, the audience might have been kept in greater suspense. As it is, the non-violent annual celebration throws us off the scent as does the seduction of Eve and the prospect that Robert’s nightmare is little more than psychedelic hallucination. The denouement is something of a surprise. The ritualistic aspects of the picture are well done and given this is a Tigon film rather than Hammer you can expect harsher treatment of the S&M element, flagellation delivered by women, especially for the period.  

In the U.S. – where it was shown both as “The Crimson Cult” and “The Crimson Altar” – Christopher Lee was accorded prime billing status.

The eerie atmosphere and well-staged witchcraft scenes are a plus, but, despite the involvement of a handful of horror gods, the movie’s reliance on lesser players to drive the narrative is a minus. Lee, Karloff and Steele (though in a more minor role) are all excellent as is the demented Michael Gough but Mark Eden (Attack on the Iron Coast, 1968) is too lightweight to carry the picture although Virginia Wetherall in her first big part suggests more promise.  More of Lee, Karloff and Steele would have definitely added to the picture but since this type of film often requires the young and the innocent to take center stage that was not to be.

Reboot Rodeo: Cruella (2021) ** and Spiral (2021)***

Cruella (2021)

Should have X-Certificate written all over it to prevent millions of kids being duped by a cynical marketing ploy that has nothing at all to do with the beloved children’s book or the animated version of 101 Dalmatians (1961) or even the 1996 live-action revamp. Under the pretense of an origin story for villainess Cruella De Ville that is more The Devil Wears Prada than Batman Begins, Disney throws a heap of cartoon characters at a big-budget picture in the hope that it can generate a new series.

Even Emma Stone’s characterization of Cruella sinks under a series of grimaces and clamped lips as she struggles to switch from put-upon orphan deserving of our sympathy to some kind of vengeful criminal mastermind. The two-dimensional earlier cartoon has a good bit more depth than this. Cruella’s nemesis The Baroness (Emma Thompson) is little more than a caricature of an English toff. Cruella is saddled with the comic henchmen from the book – Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) – while the Baroness has a bunch of one-dimensional sycophants. and a trio of teeth-baring spotty dogs rewiring their inner rottweiler. For the most part there is more going on with the costumes than with the characters, but watching a face-off between dueling fashionistas , more image than substance, soon palls.

Once the comedy is reliant on searching dogshit for jewels, rats let loose at a party, and pulling hairs from people’s noses you can see a picture that has fast run out of ideas. And this is all a pity because there is a decent germ of an idea here since orphan Cruella turns out to be every bit as psychotic as her mysterious mother, presenting the character with the choice of which path to follow. The scenario would have worked a lot better if it had been a stand-alone picture and not one that had its genesis in 101 Dalmatians and just had the guts to go down the dark side that the story clearly requires.

And all of this basically to set up a sequel as this one ends with a composer tinkling out the “Cruella De Ville” theme tune from previous films and the dogs from the original novel, Pongo and Perdita, making an appearance as puppies. As it stands it’s a pantomime where you want to hiss the villain for spoiling a good story.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)

I was never a big fan of torture porn nor for that matter of Chis Rock, too loud and brash for my liking, but oddly enough they make a compelling combination in this unusual idea for a reboot. This is pretty much a police procedural, corruption the background beat, with torture – or at least the victims – providing the clues. I was astonished to realize Rock (Bad Company, 2002) is now in his mid-50s and that could certainly account for the loss of some of his manic energy but the rest I have to admit is down to the emergence of a genuine acting talent.

Like the Russell Crowe character in American Gangster (2000) or Al Pacino (1973) in Serpico he is what cops appear to hate – incorruptible – so he is loner detective Zeke Banks until newbie detective William Scheck (Max Minghella) is forced upon him. Whatever horrific crimes are now being committed appear to point to a past when Banks’s father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson) was king cop. and to his relationship with Zeke’s current boss (Marisol Nichols).

You could view this as a cynical attempt to revive a series well past its best, and these genre mash-ups rarely work, but in this case, mostly thanks to Rock, it has all the makings of an entirely new series.

As ever, the deaths are inventive and gory. But the gory bits are well sign-posted so you can skip past them and catch up on the detective elements. Max Minghella (Horns, 2013), who has been off the movie screen for over half a decade, makes a good comeback and for once a Samuel L. Jackson character has some depth. Marisol Nichols makes a strong impression also, given that she had mostly been a television player. Perhaps as interesting as the jump taken by rock is that director Darren Lynn Bousman, who has three previous Saw outings in his portfolio, has not just managed to refresh the idea but devoted as much attention to the various detectives as to the gore.

The Demon (1963) *****

I was riveted. Never mind the spider-walk, this is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Highly under-rated and largely dismissed for not conforming to audience expectation that horror pictures should involve full moons, castles, darkness, fog, costumes, nubile female victims, graveyards, a male leading character, shocks to make a viewer gasp, and the current trend for full-on gore. So if that’s what you’re looking for, give this a miss. Even arthouse critics, spoiled by striking pictures by the Italian triumvirate of Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni, were equally scornful. For the most part this takes place in broad daylight and is set in an impoverished town in the Italian mountains where primitive farmers till the soil with horse and plough and water is collected in buckets from the river.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is that it creates its own unique universe. The townspeople are both highly religious and deeply superstitious, every traditional Catholic ceremony matched by age-old ritual. Even some of the formal traditions seem steeped in ancient belief, sinners marching up a steep hill with people being scourged or carrying a heavy rock, in a convent the tree of a suicide covered in barbed wire. At a wedding in a church, how low the candles flicker is deemed to indicate the length of the marriage. A wedding night rite involves shoving a scythe under the bed to cut short Death’s legs with the bedspread covered in grapes – to soak up evil and discord – arranged in the form of a cross to act as bait for bad thoughts and poison them before they can cause the couple harm. When the people run through the town brandishing torches it is not, as would be genre tradition, to set fire to a castle but to vanquish evil from the air.

French poster.

It is filmed in austere black-and-white. In the Hollywood Golden Era of black-and-white movies, lighting and make-up transformed heroines, rich costumes enhanced background. Here, if the heroine is wearing make-up it’s not obvious and the only clothes worth mentioning are a priest’s robes or a plain wedding dress. Otherwise the most arresting feature is the stark brightness against which the black-dressed figure of the heroine Puri (Daliah Lavi) scuttles about.

And although there are no jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, there are moments that will linger on in your mind, not least the heroine enduring a vicious extended beating from her father, an exorcism that turns into rape and (Exorcist-fans take note) a spider-walk, the young woman’s torso thrust up high on elongated arms and legs. Virtually the entire success of the picture relies on atmosphere and in places it is exquisitely subtle, the audience only realizing she is being raped by the look on her face.

The picture opens with a dialogue-free scene of stunning audacity, foreshadowing the idea from the start that image is everything. Puri pierces her chest with a needle, cuts off a chunk of her hair to mop up the blood, throws the hair into the oven and rams the crisp remains into a loaf of bread. Not to be consumed, as you might imagine, but as a tool of transport. Shortly after, having failed to seduce Antonio (Frank Wolff), she tricks him into drinking wine infused with the ashes of her bloodied hair, bewitching him, so she believes, to abandoning his betrothed. In an echo of a Catholic sacrament she shouts, “You have drunk my blood and now you will love me, whether you want to or not.”  

The next morning when collecting water at the river she has a conversation with a boy Salvatore, only to discover he has just died. His death is blamed on her because his last words were a request for water, which she is judged to have denied him. She is beaten by women. She is feared by everyone in the village, her family tainted with the same brush, wooden crosses nailed to their door. She is not a ghostly figure, flitting in and out of the townspeople’s lives, an apparition tending towards the invisible, but fully formed, highly visible in her black dress and anguished expression, doomed by her often vengeful actions and forceful words.

Much of the film involves Puri being beaten or chased or captured, at one point trussed up like a hog. Attempts to exorcise her, whether pagan or Catholic, focus on getting the demon to speak his name. The ritual performed by heathen priest Guiseppe involves blowing on a mirror before taking on sexual aspects which culminate in rape. The Catholic version in a church in front of her family is primarily, as it would be in The Exorcist, a duel between the priest and whatever possesses her.

Movie producers who took one look at the beauty of Palestinian-born Daliah Lavi (Blazing Sand, 1960) thought she would be put to better use in bigger-budgeted pictures made in color that took full advantage of her face and figure. So they stuck her in a series of hardly momentous movies such as The Silencers (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969). they should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring her astonishing acting ability. And much as I have enjoyed such films, I doubt if I could watch them again without thinking what a waste of a glorious talent. This is without doubt an acting tour de force, as she alternatively resists possession and adores the being who has taken hold of her mind. She dominates the screen.

The rest of the mostly male cast are dimmed in comparison, as if overawed by the power of her personality. Future spaghetti western veteran Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) comes off best. Director Brunello Rondi (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968) is better known as a screenwriter for Federico Felllini. He made few films, none matching this in scope or imagination, perhaps as a result of the picture not receiving the praise it deserved. Even now it does not have a single critical review on Rotten Tomatoes.

One other point: you may have noticed that in general the proclivities of male horror characters are never in need of psychological explanation. Nobody considers that the Wolfman must have suffered from childhood trauma or that a vampire drinks blood because he was a rejected suitor. Strangely enough, as would be the case in The Exorcist and other instances of female possession, psychiatry is usually the first port of call and here all reviews I have read implicitly see Puri’s actions as based on sexual inhibition and rejection by Antonio.  

I saw this on an old DVD but you can catch it for free on Youtube.

The Skull (1965) *****

I have no idea why this masterpiece has not been acclaimed. For virtually half the picture, there is no dialogue, the entire focus on camerawork and reaction. Even Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980) gave in to grand guignol and The Exorcist (1973) was filled with over-the-top scenes but here the psychological impact of possession remains confined.

Initially, it appears we are in familiar Hammer territory, a grave-robber detaching a skull from a corpse only to meet an untimely end. There is another flashback to the gothic where the presence of the skull drives an ordinary man to murder. But this is an Amicus production and set in contemporary times with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing once again in opposition, but this time only in an auction house bidding for demonic artefacts. Exposition is straightforward. A dealer (Patrick Wymark) sells Cushing a book about De Sade bound in human skin. Wymark may be a con man. He claims to possess the skull of the Marquis de Sade but his attitude towards it, kissing its head, plucking its nose socket, and the fact that he willing to halve his asking price, suggest otherwise. Lee, who once owned the skull, warns Cushing against it.

The rest of the film covers Cushing’s possession of the skull and the skull’s possession of him. There is a notable Kafkaesque sequence where Cushing is arrested, taken before a judge and forced three times to play Russian roulette before ending up in the house of the dealer where he steals the skull. What is less often commented upon is that this nigh-on 15-minute sequence including a 90-second taxi ride conducted in virtual silence, the camera mostly on Cushing’s face, that silence only broken by the feeding of bullets into the barrel of the gun and the barrel being rolled round. It is not long before Cushing commits his first murder.

There is a famous scene in the Last Tycoon (1976) in which Robert De Niro explains to a truculent word-obsessed British writer why dialogue is redundant in the movies. All you need is camera and reaction. That sets up The Skull’s greatest scene, a 17-minute dialogue-free climax, where Cushing is effectively preyed upon and consumed. The skull itself appears to have a point-of-view, various shots of Cushing through the skull’s eyes. The actual special effects are limited to what is imminently achievable, the skulls glows, it moves through the air. The impact of its presence is shown on Cushing’s face and by his action. It is just hypnotic.

Various directors have been anointed for the way they move their camera – Antonioni’s 360-degree turn in The Passenger (1975) comes to mind, large chunks of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the long wait for sunrise in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the lengthy shots of James Stewart driving a car in Vertigo (1958). But I have never seen anything as innovative as the silent sequences in The Skull which would be a waste of innovation were the sequences not so effective, especially on the small screen. Freddie Francis directed from a story by Robert Bloch. Equally innovative is the jarring music by avant-garde composer Elizabeth Lutyens.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.