Night of the Living Dead (1968) ****

Ground-breaking thriller in the apocalyptic vein that appeared destined for oblivion after being judged too over-the-top by the AIP/Hammer criteria suitable only for the denizens of late-night horror quintuple bills. I say “thriller” because even by today’s slaughter-fest standards when the heroes/heroines generally escape, it was unheard-of for the entire cast to die, especially considering the post-ironic ending which made a sharp political point.

Brother and sister Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea), having driven 200 miles to visit their father’s grave, are ambushed in a cemetery by a zombie. Johnny is chalked up as victim number one. Barbara escapes to what appears to be an abandoned house, attacked by more zombies, where in a by-now near-catatonic state she is eventually joined by the more action-oriented Ben (Duane Jones) who boards up door and windows and fires at the ghouls with a rifle.

The days when the Edinburgh Film Festival could put its imprimatur on breakthrough movies is long gone.

Hiding in the cellar are the Coopers, Harry (Karl Hardman) wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), ill from being bitten by the monsters after their car was overturned, and Tom (Keith Wayne) and girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley). In the ensuing panic and continued onslaught, the numbers of zombies growing by the minute, Harry determined they would be better off hiding in the cellar and at one point locks Ben out of the house.

Radio and television broadcasts reveal a mass outbreak of people rising from the dead and feasting on the living, the result it appears of radiation in space, caused by man-made accident. The zombies can be killed off by a bullet or blow to the head or being burned. A gas pump being nearby, Ben, Tom and Judy drive there but while Ben lays down a carpet of fire to deter the marauders Tom accidentally spills gas over the truck which catches fire. Ben escapes but the couple are incinerated, turned into a tasty barbecue for the invaders.

While the relentless siege continues, Karen dies and is reanimated. And so, as you don’t expect, there is no escape, the survivors fighting zombies outside and the living dead inside.

The final image, a photographic montage, takes the movie in another direction, down the Civil Rights route, as the corpse of the only African American is hoisted up on meat hooks.

Until George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead, 1978) took this idea and ran with it, the indie-scene was populated by cheaply-made movies of no discernible artistic credit aimed at the bottom end of the distribution market or by artistically-minded directors who hoped their talents might be acclaimed and lead to a fat Hollywood contract.  

Although there was no shortage of shockers, most had laughable special effects, little in the way of narrative, and certainly no earth-shattering concept like nobody gets out of here alive.

A budget of just over $100,000 ensured there was little room for grandiose special effects but nonetheless the scenes of relentless zombies striding forward, the single creature at the outset joined by a mass, was cinematic genius. Nor were these fragile ethereal beings, but strong enough to physically kill and turn over cars. On top of that was the revelation that death did not sate their hunger, and they weren’t vampirically-inclined either, the tastes lying in the cannibalistic. If you were able to die quickly enough to be reanimated you might escape being turned into a meal.

Taboo-busting came easily. Never mind flesh-eating zombies, and graphic violence, what about matricide? And perhaps a nod towards the power of relentless pressure, the armies of the night here could easily translate to the armies of protesters taking to the streets in broad daylight to march against injustice and Vietnam, whose continued opposition to government would drive change.

No doubt the decision to film in black-and-white was budget-driven, but that turned out to be a boon, no need to invest in gallons of what might pass as red blood, or create bloody corpses, just focus on the relentless threat.

It helped, too, that the characters under siege were very human, Barbara going out of her head with fear, isolationist Harry willing to kill the others to defend his notion of hiding out in the cellar, hoping to escape unscathed.

This was the ultimate word-of-mouth picture, critically dismissed not to say reviled on initial release, but gradually picking up an audience until it became a must-see movie. Romero’s horror approach became widely imitated, though his influence took years to permeate down. Co-writer John A. Russo later became a director, helming Santa Claws (1996).

Diary of a Madman (1963) ***

Contemporary perspectives occasionally raise a film in the estimation. Here, our knowledge of the psychology behind serial killers sheds quite a different light. The idea that a killer can blame outside forces over which he has no control was one of the original tenets when the ordinary mind could not take in that some folks just enjoyed the act of murder so much they were inclined to do it over and over again.

Where I come there there’s a saying – “a big boy did it and ran away” – a device used by small boys in big trouble. And that’s pretty much the idea here. The innocent can be taken over by an evil entity, rather than admitting to surrendering to their most heinous desires.

A prisoner condemned to death in 19th century France confides in magistrate Simon Cordier (Vincent Price) that his murdeorus acts were the result of direction by the mysterious and, unhelpfully, invisible “Horla.” Naturally, Cordier dismisses the notion until, in self-defence, he kills the prisoner. Disturbed by his action, he seeks counsel and is advised by a psychiatrist (an “alienist” as such a person was known at the time) to spend more time on his hobby, sculpting.

Although Cordier appears to be a model citizen, there lurks in his past a suicidal wife who killed their child, and the notion that somehow he was responsible. Into his world comes woman-on-the-make Odette (Nancy Kovack) who earns more money as an artist’s model than her husband Paul (Chris Warley) does for his paintings. Unaware  that she is already committed, Simon proposes marriage. It doesn’t take long for him to suspect she is not what she seems and he does away with her only for Paul to become the main suspect and be condemned to death.

Cordier, discovering by accident that the Horla, is frightened of fire, lures the entity into his deserted house (servants sent away) and plans to destroy the entity but in the process the fire melts the door handles and Cordier can’t escape, dying in the process.

Price and Kovack.

A modern reading of course would set it up a different way, putting greater emphasis on the past, trying to uncover what drove Cordier’s wife to suicide. That he gives in to overwhelming urges might well be followed by periods of guilt until he realises that the only way out is his own suicide.

But the 1960s moviegoer – possibly still recovering from the murderous goings-on at the Bates Hotel, and grateful that it was fiction, and The Boston Strangler only just getting into his stride – was not quite ready to put any faith in a landscape filled with predators and victims, so it would make more sense for outside forces, voices or the like, to be controlling the ordinary person.

An eerie glowing light comes over the eyes of Cordier (and the earlier convict) any time the urge to kill dominates. But if you were going to set this up as a picture of innocence driven to dark deed you would not populate it with Vincent Price (Witchfinder General, 1968), who had form for dastardly deeds. Nor is Price quite able to pull it off, those sepulchral tones always seeming to indicate something lurking, and he’s hardly in the debonair category so at the very least he belongs to the caste of entitled rich taking advantage of a poor woman to press his case for marriage.

Nancy Kovack (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) is more convincing as the manipulative object of his desire. I half-expected her to turn into a murderer in order to rid herself of her the husband getting in the way of her chance at a new, wealthier, life. Chris Warfield (Dangerous Charter, 1962) is the talentless dupe, whichever way you cut it, and you have to admire his wife for sticking with him for so long.

Given that director Reginald Le Borg’s career dated back to the 1940s and he had been lumbered with the Joe Palooka series and any number of B-movies, it was perhaps surprising that horror, although still strictly on B-movie budgets, became a forte – The Black Sheep (1956) and Voodoo Island (1957). While this one was clearly filmed on a studio backlot, he does a good job of bringing a bit of lushness to the proceedings.

Perhaps the most interesting element is that the idea originated in the mind of famed French short story writer Guy de Maupassant – you might be surprised to learned that nearly 300 movies and television adaptations have been made from his works, a dozen alone in 1963 including Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. Worth comparing with Maniac out in the same year where the idea of the mad killer is exploited for a different end.

Very old-school, but with passable sfx.

Quatermass and the Pit / Five Million Miles to Earth (1967) ****

Five million dollars.  That’s roughly the budgetary difference between Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit and Twentieth Century Fox’s Fantastic Voyage. Although the protagonists in the latter face the unexpected, the movie is (as would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) an exercise in awe, in controlled exploration of wonder, whereas Quatermass, lacking the money for special effects, concentrates more on story and human impact. The government funds the experiment in Fantastic Voyage while Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds nothing but obstruction from his superiors.

Quatermass and the Pit is a masterpiece of stealthy exposition. Virtually every minute brings another development, gradually building tension, stoking fear. The principals – Dr Roney (James Donald), Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) and the professor – are cleverly kept apart during the early stages. A human skull discovered on a building site for a London Underground station is followed by a skeleton. Palaeontologist Roney determines it is five million years old, older than any previous find.

A metallic object is found nearby. First guess is an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. But it’s not ticking. And a magnet won’t stick to it. Col Breen (Julian Glover) is called in along with hostile rocket expert Quatermass. They have been locking horns from the outset.

There’s a whole bunch of apparent red herrings, mostly of the demonic variety. The location, historically associated with weird occurrences, is a nickname for the Devil. A pentagram is detected. Touching the object can give you frostbite. Col Breen argues it’s a leftover German propaganda machine from World War Two. A hideous dwarf and other spectral images are sighted. Telekinesis is involved. And tremendous vibrations.

Some people, such as Barbara, have a more receptive brain and can play memories millions of years old that reveal the alien truth. But this is an alien race with genocidal tendencies and able to unleash psychic energy.

The genre requires the scientists to discover an improbable solution which of course they do. Given the miserly budget, the special effects are not remotely in the Fantastic Voyage league. But that hardly matters. The movie coasts home on ideas, marrying sci-fi, the demonic, dormant and institutionalized evil, the militarization of the Moon and the ancient infiltration of Earth by Martians, no mean achievement, and a vivid narrative.

Director Roy Ward Baker (aka Roy Baker) provides many fine cinematic moments as he chisels away at the story, finding clever methods of revealing as much of the aliens as the budget will permit, focusing on very grounded characters, concentrating on conflict, and human emotions, mainlining fear rather than awe, building to an excellent climactic battle between man and monster.

Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the stars, in part because she is at such a remove from her normal Hammer scream-queen persona, but more importantly because she brings such screen dynamism to the role. It’s refreshing to see her step up, as she carries a significant element of the story. Oddlyenough, although she has as good a movie portfolio as Andrew Keir and is certainly superior to James Donald, the denoted star, in that department, she is only billed third.

While Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967), warm-hearted for an intellectual, and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963), trying to keep a cool head in the middle of inclination to panic, are good, they don’t bring anything we haven’t seen before. Julian Glover (Alfred the Great, 1969) is never anything but imperious and/or irascible, so ideal casting here.

The innovative electronic music was down to Tristram Cary and the unsettling credit sequence deserves some recognition. Nigel Kneale, who originally explored similar ideas for the character on television, came up with the screenplay.

The Invitation (2022) ***- Seen at the Cinema

Two words – “Whitby” and “Carfax” – hint at what’s coming but luckily have no resonance for impoverished New York ceramics artist Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) who takes up an invitation to visit long-lost relatives in an English mansion of significant splendour. Immediately taken by her host, lord of the manor Walt (Thomas Docherty), who comes across like a Regency buck, she finds herself a surprising guest of honour for a forthcoming wedding.

Head butler Mr Fields (Sean Pertwee) and the statuesque Viktoria  (Stephanie Cornelissen), another guest, are snippy but the others, a smorgasbord of three influential European families, make her welcome. A nightmare and a few things unexplained drive her into the arms of the sympathetic Walt and before she knows it, she has agreed, in jest, to marry him. “The Big Reveal” – a subject of the last two posts – is well-paced giving Evie time to react to her unexpected circumstances. Like Hide and Seek (1964) she has been led into a trap of her own making, millennial entitlement coupled with the chance to mix with the rich and famous enough to do the trick.

She, it transpires, is the bride of a very particular individual and despite her efforts to escape it will be a very red wedding.

If there had been no mention of Whitby and Carfax – and I don’t remember anything in the trailer – I would have been completely unprepared for what followed, at least in the vampiric context, for the other goings-on did not tilt the viewer in that direction. The romance was refreshingly modern, with various reversals, including Evie standing up for menials who had fallen foul of the butler, and for herself against belittlement by Viktoria.

The ice-house, a mainstay of such buildings prior to refrigeration, also turns out to be fit for purpose and in another twist Walt favours the harem approach to marriage.

Considerably less savage than your modern horror picture, and definitely a shade more romantic, I can see why it would go down poorly with the modern horror cognoscenti but I felt it was very well directed, much more in the classic tradition of pacing, character development and twist. And it has an excellent ending that I suspect might kick-start a sequel.

Nathalie Emmanuel – best known from a stint in Game of Thrones and F9: The Fast Saga (2021) – will surely be elevated to stardom after her first leading role. A big-screen natural, she carries the picture effortlessly, and even though effectively playing the innocent abroad, there are few moments where the character is out of her depth, tribute to her innate acting skills. This could have gone wrong in so many ways, but her performance evokes natural sympathy while at the same time you would not make the mistake of pitying her.

A bright future also awaits Thomas Doherty (High Strung Free Dance, 2018) who carries off his role with style and except until necessary does not hint at the real character underneath the charm. Sean Pertwee (The Reckoning, 2020) shows he can glower with the best of them but Stephanie Corneliussen, in her movie debut,  makes an excellent queen bitch and her whimpering sidekick Alana Boden (Uncharted, 2022) proves anyone can turn nasty given the right amount of prodding.

Big shout out to Scottish actress Carol Ann Crawford – better known as the dialect coach for Outlander – as the maid who sets Evie right. I do believe I was at university with her.

Director Jessica M. Thompson (The Light of the Moon, 2017) does an excellent job of keeping a tight rein on proceedings and even when all hell is about to break loose ensures that the ensuing havoc is carried out with some style. Blair Butler (Polaroid, 2019) knocked out the screenplay.

My only gripe is that Emmanuel and Doherty make such a fine couple – with the kind of screen charisma that is in short supply these days – it was a shame that the story had to take a turn into horror rather than continue (forgive the pun) in the romantic vein.

Orphan First Kill (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Evil meets its match” would have been a good tagline for this neat B-picture, a slow burn that starts off as horror before swerving into a more straightforward thriller. A prequel to surprise hit Orphan (2009) and a perverse take on the origin theme so beloved of the MCU/DC movies, this begins in Estonia where Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) is an inmate at a psychiatric institute.

At first it looks like the tale is heading in the direction of Leena’s relationship with new art therapist Anna (Gwendolyn Collins). But that is quickly stymied when Leena, having orchestrated an escape through her manipulative and seductive powers, knocks off Anna as well, pausing only long enough to harness the woman’s computer to find a lookalike missing girl, the American Esther Albright, she could pretend to be. The wealthy Albrights, mum Tricia (Julia Stiles), devastated artist husband Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and spoiled brat son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) live in a huge mansion in Connecticut.

And at first again, we go down another rabbit hole, this time the question of whether Esther can maintain her disguise, coming up shy at times in the old memory department. A psychiatrist is initially a bit suspicious and there’s a cop, Inspector Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa) lingering in the background. But Esther bonds with Allen over their shared interest in painting and the husband believes he has unearthed a new shining talent.

We also go down a rat-hole, so to speak, when Esther befriends a rat (an unlikely inhabitant in such a deluxe property, but there you go) whose only purpose you guess right away is to die, poisoned in one way or another. You imagine the poisoner is going to be Esther just wanting to maintain her killing skills.

Not so. The poor old rat is killed by mistake by Tricia who is, it turns out, trying to rid herself of this imposter, a lass she knows only too well cannot be her missing daughter for one very unsavoury reason which I won’t divulge but certainly took me by surprise.

So then the film switches onto a completely different tack, and one that is far more satisfying than just a deranged maniac, as in most horror pictures, going round slaughtering everyone in sight.  Donnan has re-entered the frame by this point, continuing his investigations to the point of sneakily snatching Esther’s fingerprints so he can try and do a match.

So now it’s game on and Esther is out- numbered, up against a pretty dangerous mother-and-son combo, with only the dim husband as ally. And no matter what clever stunts Esther dreams up to rid herself of this infernal duo and live happily ever after with the doting father, the equally tough Julia is quietly setting her own snares.

We were already expecting trouble the moment we set eyes on Esther, who, with her baby-faced features and size, that was a given, if ever there was a monster-in-disguise it was her. But beautiful socialite Tricia is a different story and so if there’s a “secret” this time round it’s to do with Tricia’s family, the pair involved maintaining an ongoing masquerade with the unwitting father.

Esther’s survival depends not so much on killing her way out of here but on winning over the father sufficiently should that, inevitably, if her plans work out, bereft of wife and son he will turn to her for consolation.

Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan) is even better than she was before. Then she was a young actress playing a young maniac. Now she’s over a decade older and having to act more than a decade younger and that certainly takes some doing. But Julia Stiles (Hustlers, 2019) is the revelation, the cold-as-ice beauty, barely holding her family together after the previous tragedy, on the one hand welcoming Esther because it revitalizes her almost-dormant husband, on the other needing to exert considerable control otherwise their carefully constructed lives are going to explode. Although the surname is not new to me, the actor is, and Rossif Sutherland (The Middle Man, 2021) gives a touching performance as the grieving, brooding father finding himself, especially good in his scenes in his studio with Esther. In only his second picture Mathew Finlan (My Fake Boyfriend, 2022) isn’t given much scope as a spoilt brat son nor is Hiro Kanagawa, best known for the Star Trek: Discovery TV series.

Director William Brent Bell (The Boy, 2016) does a decent job, especially given he has to stradde the twin genres or horror and thriller with a nod in the direction of film noir. The scenes between Esther and Julia, where they realise they are adversaries, are especially well done. There are enough twists to keep the plot spiralling along and clever use of doubles to make you believe Fuhrman is a little girl.

Far from a great picture, but enough to be getting along with in the absence of a blockbuster. The hardier of the moviegoer species, people like me who pop along to their local cinema every week regardless and find something to watch, will be less picky about this kind of fare than those who get in for nothing or are sent a streamer due to their status as critics. Exhibitors have complained for over a century now that the best movies are never spread out over the year, but clustered into various time zones. Their livelihood, after all, depends on a constant string of winners. It’s a different story for cinemagoers. We just want to sit in the dark and see a film and as long as it’s reasonable enough we’re not going to complain.

In what should have been an indifferent week for moviegoing – given I had already seen Bullet Train, Nope, Top Gun: Maverick etc – I managed quite a nice triple bill on my weekly outing. This was the sandwich between the charmingly tolerable Fishermen’s Friends: One for All and documentary Girls Can’t Surf.    

Night of the Blood Monster / The Bloody Judge (1969) ***

Handsomely mounted historical drama set in 17th century England on the brink of revolution  meets Son of Witchfinder General. An uprising headed by the Duke of Monmouth in the south-west threatens to overthrow King James II. Involved in the plot are Harry Selton (Hans Hass), son of suspected agitator Lord Wessex (Leo Genn), whose beloved Mary Gray (Maria Rohm) is in the sights of Judge Jeffreys (Christopher Lee) after he has condemned her sister Alicia (Margaret Lee) to be burned as a witch.

The minute witchcraft enters the equation the narrative thrust is constantly interrupted by scenes of nudity, blood and torture, mostly involving women, but actually the film does attempt to cover the rebellion and its notorious aftermath when hundreds of rebels were executed, the “Bloody Assizes” with “Bloody Judge” Jeffreys to the fore. Conflating witchcraft with a genuine historical episode does not work very well and unlike Witchfinder General (1968), the murder of innocent women is more of a sideshow, despite the brutality involved, and you get the impression the story has been hijacked to accommodate supposed witch Mary in the interests of adding titillation.

Even as the story of the rebellion unfolds, the threat to the crown spelled out, the origins of the revolt mostly made clear (Monmouth being the illegitimate son of Charles II, and nephew to James II) although the sectarianism behind the rebellion is ignored, the narrative keeps jumping back to the witch element. Jeffreys connects the parallel narratives, hunting down rebels and witches, while handling most of the exposition. Given the budget, there’s a surprisingly good battle sequence, cavalry charging cannon. Given his later reputation, Jeffreys also reflects on the meaning of justice.

And while there are some camp moments – Jeffreys playing the organ while attired in grand robes, dancing girls sticking pins in his effigy – the twists and turns (Mary captured and rescued, captured again)  are effective enough. Despite the copious nudity, there a couple of low-key love scenes and, oddly enough, a touching moment when Mary licks the blood from a dead prisoner. And for all the blood, that is effect rather than cause, nothing too gory.

But with the powerful all-mighty, and investigators able to plant evidence, and the innocent forced into immoral acts to save their loved ones, lawlessness is apparently next to godliness. But in reality the wicked did not get away with their crimes so various villains get their come-uppance.

Most peculiar sight is Christopher Lee in a love scene where he is not about to sink his incisors into a neck. Occasionally, the film bursts into German with English subtitles – as if various versions were pillaged to produce this copy – or has lines like “you turn me on.”

However, fans of Spanish cult director Jess Franco (The Girl from Rio) who expected something more along the lines of 99 Women (1969) and Venus in Furs (1969) may be disappointed that he spends so much time on the historical elements and less on the random T&A. You might not be surprised to learn of the involvement of ubiquitous producer Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967).

The Birds (1963) *****

Years ago I was asked to write a book on the six best Hitchcock films and from those choose the one I considered his very best. My choice was The Birds (1963). And it is for these reasons.

Firstly, unusually in the master’s work, there is a proper meet-cute. In most of his films, the couple are either already together (Rear Window, 1954; Torn Curtain, 1966) or when they get together it is for a hidden reason, one is on the run, or being pursued by the other, and the getting together is a convenient way of reaching an ulterior goal. When Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) meet in the pet shop it is a certainly a precursor for the future and ensures that Mitch gets in a stickier jam he would otherwise likely have avoided but in the true sense it is the traditional Hollywood boy-meets-girl.

Secondly, and now cutting more to the chase, this is where the modern action film was invented. You might think that honour rested with Dr No (1962) or any other of the Bond pictures or even as late as Bullitt (1968) with its epochal car chase. But although the Bonds are filled with derring-do and escape, there is nothing to match the scene when the birds attack the town, wave after wave, as if they were World War Two bombers. There is even the point-of-view from the air which Hitchcock also invented and has been repeated in airplane war films ever since, most famously Pearl Harbor (2001).

But the way in which full-scale disaster, with everyone rendered helpless, unfolds is a true first. People in the café can see the river of petrol and the match about to be discarded and can only observe as the river of flame reaches the petrol tanker and in a perfectly ordinary town setting – rather than a military base – there is an almighty explosion. It is terror for the sake of it. And there is no escape, no one racing to the rescue, just pure devastation,

Lastly is the ending. It is apocalyptic. In every other Hitchcock when the hero/heroine escapes from dire peril, that is the end of the matter, there is no final twist as with a film like Carrie (1976). But although the birds are now silent and the couple can pick their way through their lines, you know full well this is not the end and that the birds will soon be as inexplicably massing somewhere else.  

That’s three reasons but there are many more. For a start, in other films where the hero/heroine is in danger, the peril is not relentless. And often it is the threat of danger or of being captured that provides the narrative spring. And if there is physical threat in that era it was not unrelenting. And it is with another character whom you can fight or at least attempt to outwit. Not just, later in this instance rather than sooner, realize that there is no way to defeat these marauding creatures, no way at all. So, compared to his other films, when attacks of one kind or another punctuate a film, here it is like a battery of machine-guns and not episodic but virtually non-stop for over 30 minutes.

The storyline since it is after all a meet-cute is excessively simple. Melanie and Mitch meet, trade remarks, she leaves him what would easily be interpreted as a love token, and they link up after she is attacked by a gull. Wherever they go now, there will be no escape. Gulls attack children playing outside. The same day sparrows invade Melanie’s home. There is another attack on children. In town the gulls swarm in wholesale, wreaking the devastation mentioned above. All his is just a prelude to the final overwhelming siege. Except in modern horror pictures where a body is dispatched every ten minutes or so, there is  nothing to match the unremitting attacks. It is as though Mitch and Melanie are in the front line of battle, under siege, Zulu (1964) with birds perhaps, but with no hope of salvation. Unlike Zulu, there is no sign that in raising the siege, the birds are hailing their bravery.

Unusually, too, for a Hitchcock film, there is considerable back story that informs current action. Mitch has an overbearing mother who seems to hover over his life attempting to scare off any woman who comes near. Annie has been left behind precisely because he needed to escape his mother. For her part, Melanie’s mother ran off with another man and she is a spoiled socialite with a habit of getting into trouble, possibly attention-seeking behaviour as a result of abandonment issues. Full to the brim with sophistication. Melanie is the least likely candidate for motherhood, yet her maternal feelings rush to the fore when she has to care for a terrified child.

Tippi Hedren’s career when south when she parted company with Hitchcock so we only have this and Marnie (1964) to consider her worth as a star. This is easily her best performance, shifting from icy cold to playful to romantic to maternal and of course no one has quite emoted such shock and terror. This is Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) coming into his stride as a leading man. He always had the charm and certainly the brawn, but rarely displayed both in the one picture. You would not have picked the Rod Taylor of Seven Seas to Calais to lead a squad of mercenaries in Dark of the Sun but he might well be first pick after this performance.

Hitchcock got so many of his effects by laying on the tension, a man or woman on the run, an innocent framed, a man displaying dubious morality (Rear Window, 1954, and Vertigo, 1958) nonetheless being presented as hero, the question in every instance being whether they will escape their fate. Here, the barrage of devilry is so intense it is almost inconceivable that anyone could get out alive. That they sneak out by the skin of their teeth, watched by their silent conquerors, for me was only the prelude to The Birds Part Two.  

The Black Phone (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Most original horror film since Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and sharing that film’s ability to throw the audience off guard by constantly twisting expectations and slowly taking its time to reach an incredible denouement. Be warned, though, it is about child abuse and some of the scenes come down to the knuckle. But it is also, surprisingly, a coming-of-age picture.  

In 1978 in a Denver suburb, Finney (Mason Thames) and younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live with widowed alcoholic father  (Jeremy Davies), prone to beating his kids with a belt. Although bullied by classmates, Finney always picks himself up. Gwen has dreams which may be real – her mother committed suicide after similar visions.

When Finney becomes the latest victim of masked serial child kidnapper The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) he finds himself trapped in a basement, empty except for a mattress and a phone that doesn’t work. The cops are baffled. Gwen attempts to reach her brother through dreams. When the phone mysteriously does ring it’s always one of the Grabber’s five previous victims offering practical escape advice. At the top of the stairs a half-naked masked Grabber sits in a chair gripping a leather belt waiting for his captive to become “naughty” so he can be punished.

I’m going to be in spoiler alert country if I tell you anymore but if you’ve seen the trailer be aware that’s far from the whole story. Part of what makes this so good is how realistic is the portrayal of the kids and the venal world they inhabit. They have no defence against the brutal father and in some respects expect adults to behave in horrific fashion. A boy who Finney helps with schoolwork acts as his protector but when he is kidnapped the bullies take revenge, handing out a bloody beating. Although brother and sister are close, there are few limits to their teasing. And Gwen has the lip of an adult in taking on a couple of unwary cops.

All the time you are left guessing. Is the Grabber behind the phone calls? Is it another of his elaborate games? Does he intend to offer escape, only to snatch it away? Can Gwen summon up spirits at will or will she flounder helplessly trying to save her brother. And if he disappears for ever, what prospect could be worse than living with her awful dad? Have the snippy cops got any leads at all? The father’s not out helping the hunt for his boy, so it possible he’s involved, especially since he wields a belt similar to the killer? Is Max, the visitor from out of state, possibly the killer, even though he appears to be a harmless cocaine-sniffing conspiracy nut?

And if five previous victims are gone, presumed dead, what chance has Finney, a vulnerable kid if ever? His protector was a very tough kid, one capable of beating a bully to a pulp, and if he can’t survive the kidnapping what chance does Finney have?

Over it all is the malevolent presence of the Grabber who wears two-piece masks (with devilish horns and long chin) that show different parts of his face but never the whole, who sometimes just sounds like a guy who has lost his way and means no real harm, if only he could sort out what’s gone wrong.  His kidnapping ploy is to drop his shopping on the sidewalk and hope a nice kid is going to help, especially as he is a magician with a stack of black balloons, the kind of conjurer who might appeal to an edgy teenager who thinks The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the greatest film ever made.

Jump-out-of-your-seat shocks are few but this is a rare horror movie that has little reliance on such tricks. Tension is maintained with magnificent ease.

Mason Thames (Walker TV series 2021) and Madeleine McGraw (Secrets of Sulphur Springs, 2021-2022) are terrific as the kids, not putting a foot wrong as they move in the sometimes inexplicable adult world, but sharpening their teeth on vicious childhood. Sure the mask does a lot for Ethan Hawkes (The Northman, 2022) but his voice and his movements do the rest and this is a bold part to take on, way out of his comfort zone. Jeremy Davies (The House That Jack Built, 2018) is every bit as creepy.

While Scott Derrickson has dipped his foot into horror (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2005.) and for that matter the supernatural (Doctor Strange, 2016) before, he has never done so with such distinction, reining in the shocks in favour of escalating tension, never shifting focus away from the kids. He co-wrote the screenplay with Doctor Strange collaborator Robert Cargill based on the short story by Joe Hill (Horns, 2013).

Behind the Scenes: “The Blood Beast Terror” (1968)

Sherlock Holmes vs Sherlock Holmes was the initial tantalizing casting prospect. Basil Rathbone, the most venerated actor to don the distinctive deerstalker, and Peter Cushing, just signed up by the BBC for a new 16-episode series, the former signed to play the villain, the latter his nemesis in a film that started out with the title of The Death’s-head Vampire, the first film by a new production shingle Tigon Films.

While Tigon was new, with a distinctive logo, its driving force was well-known British producer Tony Tenser who with partner Mike Klinger had initially specialized in exploitation pictures with titles such as Naked as God Intended (1961) and London in the Raw (1964). The pair split after the artistic and commercial success of Roman Polanski’s Cul de Sac, Tenser initially setting up under his own name for Mini-Weekend/Tomcat (1966), mining the exploitation vein as before, and The Sorcerers (1967) a new venture into the horror market. Expanding the business with fresh capital and new partners, Tigon was born.

Supporting feature to “Witchfinder General” on ABC circuit release in Britain.

Explaining the new departure, Tenser said, “Films needs to be inexpensive. They need to sell, they need to appeal to an international audience, and one subject that always finds a market is horror.” Horror budgets were low, the genre did not require big stars, and the films had a surprisingly long shelf life.

First movie on the new company’s agenda was not The Death’s-head Vampire. Instead, Tenser had hooked Raquel Welch for a ghost story The Devil’s Discord to be produced by her husband Patrick Curtis, who had performed a similar task on The Sorcerers, and star Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965). When that fell through, he held onto Cushing for a proposed Horror of Frankenstein and when that also bit the dust turned to him for The Death’s-head Vampire on a budget of just £40,000 (about $100,000). Offered the choice of playing villain Dr. Mallinger or Detective Inspector Quennell, the actor plumped for the “goodie,” Basil Rathbone lined up for the other role. The concept of older man/younger woman with action concentrated on an isolated house and the surrounding countryside was a horror trope.

Vernon Sewell (Strictly for the Birds, 1964), entering his third decade as a director, had worked with Cushing on Some May Live (1965) and was primarily known for low-budget and B-movies, and more importantly from Tenser’s perspective, sticking to a budget without any artistic pretensions or improvisation. He didn’t waste time on anything that would not be captured by the lens. He was calm on set, “nothing fazed him.” Cushing was a kindred spirit, never complaining, except famously, on this picture, when he told Sewell it was the “worst picture” he had ever made. The pair, however, had a very good working relationship to the extent that Sewell never offered Cushing any advice on the role –“he didn’t need my input.”

The Sherlock Holmes connection is promoted in this poster.

Just over two weeks before the August 1967 start date, Basil Rathbone died of a heart attack. Robert Flemyng, the last-minute replacement, was Cushing’s opposite, complaining all the time. The cast was rounded out by 32-year-old Doctor Who star Wanda Ventham (mother of actor Benedict Cumberbatch) and 18-year-old Vanessa Howard whose career highpoint thus far had been a duet with Cliff Richard for a television presentation of Aladdin (1967).

Interiors were shot at Goldhawk Studios, a converted three-story building in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, with exteriors at Grims Dyke, the former home of W.S. Gilbert, in north-west London. The 19th century manor house had lain empty since 1963.

Roger Dickens, who had cut his teeth on Thunderbirds Are Go! (1966) and worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and would be later lionized for the mini-beast bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1979) was responsible for creating the monster. The model for the giant larvae was a much simpler task than creating a believable female giant insect. He took a mold of Ventham’s face, giving the features a repellant slant,  using costume jewelry for the eyes, adding a furry cap and two-foot long antennae, a representation  that would only really work if you scarcely saw the creature. For art designer Wilfred Woods his woods set turned into a disaster when the trees wilted and lost their leaves.

Opinions differ as to whether Tenser interfered with production. He saw his role during the film process to ensure that the project followed the script. “Sometimes you can put something in a film which will hinder the selling, sometimes you need to put something in which will help the selling.”

Comedian Roy Hudd, playing the morgue attendant, thought the script so awful he was delighted to work with Cushing on improvements. 

When John Ford’s boast that he never shot an extra foot of film in order to prevent a producer turning in a different film has resulted in many a masterpiece, the same did not hold true for Sewell. Sticking so close to the script, not filming anything that was not absolutely necessary meant that the movie was too short. Editor Howard Lanning commented: “I put in everything that was available. Even with expanding the lecture scene and the amateur dramatics as long as possible, to the detriment of pace, the picture clocked in at just 81 minutes, not the length expected of a main feature.

To ensure the movie came in at the required length, Tenser added the African sequence at the beginning (an extra five minutes) and re-shot the morgue material (two more minutes), encouraging Cushing and Hudd to improvise. The final product was over-budget and a week late. The version shown to the censor was 87 minutes though the official running time was a minute longer.

Tenser now deemed the working title as insufficient, preferring “something catchy and something that told people what you were selling.” His first stab at a new title was Blood Beasts from Hell. But in the final analysis it was altered to The Blood Beast Terror. Hoping to sell it to a circuit as a main feature it was originally shown in a double bill with Castle of the Living Dead, but despite the supposedly attractive title, audiences were not interested. To cut his losses, the film was repackaged as the support to another Tigon production Witchfinder General (1967) which meant Tenser would not have to share receipts with another distributor.

The Blood Beast Terror did not prove so sellable overseas either. It was shelved in France until 1971, although, sold for a flat fee, it did well in South America. A.I.P. who had U.S. distribution rights to Witchfinder General – title altered to The Conqueror Worm – had no interest in The Blood Beast Terror but it was picked up by Pacemaker Pictures who were also in title-changing mood and released it in summer 1969 as Vampire Beast Craves Blood on a double bill with Curse of the Blood Ghouls (1964).

Tenser’s predictions of long shelf life were correct. In Britain, the movie was reissued on a late night double bill with The Secret of Blood Island (1961), and then was revived with The Devil’s Hand (1961) before being re-teamed with Witchfinder General on a Sunday’s-only screening. Although none of these would be circuit releases in the sense of a nationwide day-and-date opening, they were nonetheless likely to get reasonable bookings to fit specific engagement profiles. In the States where there was endless demand for horror triple- and quadruple bills and all-nighters, The Blood Beast Terror received ongoing bookings.

SOURCES: John Hamilton, “The Making of the The Blood Beast Terror,” Little Shoppe of Horror, Issue No 43, p67-91; John Hamilton, “Regretting Nothing: John Sewell, Little Shoppe of Horror, Issue No 43, p92-98.

The Blood Beast Terror (1968) ***

As the title suggests there’s a vampiric element, and there’s not a great deal unusual in that, Hammer having successfully revived interest in bloodsuckers. What is unusual, however, and a couple of years before that studio’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) is the idea of female empowerment. Previously, the sole purpose of a damsel in a horror picture was to lay bare a convenient bosom for a passing thirsty creature, or, have their clothing disarrayed and let out a scream when a monster pounced.

The twist here is that the vampire is a woman, Clare (Wanda Ventham), and men who are the victims except on the occasions when her father Dr Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) hypnotizes young women in order to give the creature a blood transplant. The beast exists as a creature and then morphs into Clare. For a time it looks as if Clare is merely possessed, but in reality appears much more as if she is enjoying being the beast, abandoning the enforced respectability of the times, luring men into the forest to have her rapacious way with them, the men naturally thinking they are in for a romantic tryst rather than being targeted by a predator.

Continuing the theme of misleading the audience, this poster cleverly suggests that it’s a man who is the beast and the woman who are the victims.

There’s a wonderful scene that gives an insight into her mindset. Her friends put on a little play. Her role is the monster, a part she seizes with relish.

It’s one of those films you have to work out backward. In standard horror fashion it leaves the twist till close to the end and it would have been far more interesting if we had discovered at the outset that Clare was the beast, leading the men for the most part a merry dance, outwitting Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing) and her adoring father Dr. Mallinger (Robert Flemyng).  

The inspector, faced with a growing pile of corpses drained of blood, is baffled throughout, no Sherlock Holmes clever deductions here, and it naturally would not occur to any of the males, beyond Dr Mallinger who is in on the secret, to imagine a woman capable of not just committing such crimes but of exerting such power over a man. The story glosses over the genetics, it’s a version of Frankenstein obviously, but the background to it is missing, and I can see why. There has to be some mystery.

Hitchcock could not have done a better job of misleading the audience. For a start the story is told entirely through the male perspective. And it’s set up as a murder mystery, Quennell our lead as he dances from one corpse to the other, helped along in his information accumulation by lugubrious mortuary attendant  (Roy Hudd), who is, ironically, as hungry as the beast, but for normal food rather than blood, always seen devouring something. Mallinger is not a mad professor either, but a distinguished one, celebrated in his field, giving lectures and attracting proteges like Britewell (William Wilde).

Initial British release double bill cleverly bringing together Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee –
though in separate pictures.

Although his daughter acts as laboratory assistant, Mallinger is hardly aware that his daughter is sizing up every male visitor as a potential victim.

The posters give away that the creature is a giant moth, and by and large the special effects (no CGI available of course) pull this off, the creature usually just glimpsed or seen from the distance, and the possibility that Mallinger is aware of what he is harbouring apparent when he enters a cellar wearing a leather hood and carrying a whip.

Tony Tenser’s production company Tygon has acquired cult status, in part for having the temerity to take on British horror giant Hammer at the height of its powers in the 1960s, and in part from the distinction of its output, making such films as The Sorcerers (1967) with Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing as Witchfinder General (1968) and Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele in The Crimson Cult/ The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). Tenser ploughed a different furrow to Hammer at a time when that studio was also expanding into bigger-budgeted movies such as One Million Years B.C. (1966).

Capably not to say cleverly director by veteran Vernon Sewell (The Crimson Cult) it is miles ahead of its time and generally delivers the goods. Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965) is excellent as usual, Robert Flemyng (The Deadly Affair, 1967) proves a more interesting scientist than usual, steering clear of any craziness.

Wanda Ventham in her first leading role provides a fascinating character study, but you have to work backwards as I said, to realize just how good she is, the way she has, for Victorian times, her father under her thumb, and the seductive glances she casts at men, not to mention the ease with which she assists her father in his diabolical experiments without him realizing why she is so enamored. Female monsters had evolved from creatures before – in Cat People (1942), Snake Woman (1961) and Hammer’s The Reptile (1966) – but this was a more rapacious example of the species. Vanessa Howard (Some Girls Do, 1969) has a small role and you can spot Scottish character actor Glynn Edwards (Zulu, 1963) and television comedian Roy Hudd in his movie debut.

Screenwriter Peter Bryan (The Brides of Dracula, 1960), something of an expert in the horror field, turns the whole genre on its head with the gender politics examined here.

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