Tormented (1960) ***

Effective island-based thriller. The marriage plans of jazz piano “genius” Tom (Richard Carlson) are thrown into disarray by the sudden arrival of old flame Vi (Juli Reding). A tryst atop an abandoned lighthouse ends in disaster when Vi tumbles over a railing and Tom refuses to rescue her. Fishing her corpse out of the water the next day he finds instead he is holding wet seaweed.

Cue all sorts of strange events: footprints on the beach, a lingering smell of perfume, a vinyl platter recorded by Vi playing all on its own, missing wedding ring, wilting flowers, wedding dress is covered in seaweed, ghostly apparitions of the dead woman.

Richard Carlson and the disembodied.

Initially denying his guilt, Tom soon finds himself consumed by it. Blind Mrs Ellis (Lillian Adams) suspects the supernatural. Fiancee Meg (Lugene Sanders) is soon on red alert, the situation exacerbated by her younger sister Sandy (Susan Hubbard) who develops an unhealthy crush on Tom and has a creepy hold over him.

Tension is racked up by the arrival of boatman Nick (Joe Turkel) intent on blackmailing Tom ahead of the imminent wedding. It doesn’t end the way you’d expect, but Tom proves a darker character. This kind of thriller you’d expect a final twist but you’d have to be very savvy to guess this one.

It’s a bold enterprise for a B-picture. Director Bert I. Gordon had made his name on special-effects-driven pictures like The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) but here that element is underplayed, the main focus on the gradual disintegration of Tom as he succumbs to guilt and the voices and sights he imagines. Some images are clearly inside his head, but Mrs Ellis and Meg detect the perfume scent, the flowers wilt in full view of everyone, and Sandy is present when the ring vanishes. Gordon employs the Hitchcockian technique of having subsidiary characters propose various unsettling possibilities to the guilty party. The jazz soundtrack is not the cool music you might expect but a more jangly score. And any time there’s a quiet moment you can hear thundering surf in the background.

B-picture and sci-fi veteran Richard Carlsen (The Power, 1968) isn’t quite able to suggest sufficient internal anguish, you’d need a James Stewart in Vertigo mode to manage the kind of obsession required. But Carlsen goes neatly enough from composed epitome of “cool” to nervous wreck, likely to land himself in trouble from reacting too violently to the unreal.

And there’s enough peripheral tension, Meg’s wealthy father (Harry Fleer) opposes the wedding, believing a jazz musician a poor candidate for his daughter’s hand. Mrs Ellis probing a little too close to the bone, the innocent Sandy unwittingly endangers herself. Virgin Meg is oblivious to the fact the man she is marrying is scarcely in the same category.

It’s a chamber piece, a few characters rattling round each other, uneasiness emanating from Tom visualizing phantoms. And it’s short, barely 75 minutes, classic length for a supporting feature, and it’s to the director’s credit he makes no attempt to puff it out. One twist after another and specters everywhere, all the template you need. It set some sort of record for killing off careers. It was the last movie for Juli Reding, Susan Gordon and Lugene Sanders but you might recall Joe Turkel from The Shining  (1980).

Very good example of what you can do with a low budget, an edgy script and a director who doesn’t lean too heavily on the special effects.

M3GAN (2022) ****

Sharp psychological drama about attachment, abandonment and loss masquerading as sci fi/horror. Plays off riffs old – Ripley in Aliens and the elevator scene in The Shining – and new, the “Final Girl” trope aka last person standing of the horror film becomes “Final Child.” While not a slaughter-fest in the Halloween/Friday the 13th vein demonstrates ingenious methods of bumping people off.

The starting point is not, as the trailers and adverts might suggest, the invention of a toy robot companion that evolves beyond initial conception, but a young girl, Cady (Violet McGraw) orphaned in a snow plough accident, who is sent to live with workaholic robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams), the least maternal woman on the planet.

Knives out and not an onion in sight.

In her own mind Gemma has good excuse not to prepare for this sudden onset of parenting by buying some new toys or child-friendly food or creating a playroom. She is on a deadline having spent $100,000 inventing a new doll called M3GAN that, unfortunately, doesn’t work. So tough luck for the poor little orphan until Gemma can enrol the little girl as the test pilot for the Megan experience.

And that’s a hell of a boon for Cady since the cutely dressed doll, about the child’s size, empathizes with her human companion, actually listens to her, can record and store the child’s memories and seems like it’s about to kickstart a toy revolution. That is, until it develops an exceptionally high protectionist tendency.

When its charge is whacked by an unruly boy or menaced by the dog next door, Megan steps in to deal out fitting punishment. Except the doll has no “stop” button and is inclined to go on meting out punishment until there’s no life left in the victim.

It’s not long before Gemma twigs that the doll is turning into one of those mad parents you find in thrillers, or even like Celia (Lori Dungey), the annoying woman next door who cares more for her dog than her neighbors. The signs are there when Cady starts to run amok. Well, not quite amok, but handing out slaps to adults, and reacting badly when deprived, like a child of its computer game, of the companion.

Gemma, whose idea of commitment is Tinder, takes a very long time before she can put the needs of the child ahead of her career, and when it comes to a showdown finds she is not the match she thought she was for her invention, which, like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or any other man-made monster since time immemorial, objects to being ended.

The grown-ups don’t come off well here, either idiotically bickering so much they cause the accident that renders the child parentless, or obsessed with dogs or work, and even social worker Lydia (Amy Usherwood) assigned to find out if Gemma is a fit mother seems unsuited for the work, inclined to take a rather robotic view herself of child engagement and certainly playing power politics.

Gemma’s boss David (Ronny Chieng) is a mean-minded insecure obsessive unaware an  underling is quietly harvesting his ideas for sale to a rival. All the adults view the child as a doll, a necessary adjunct to show how well the robot works.

Gemma fails to understand, as spelled out by the snotty social worker, that a child who has lost parents will attach herself to the nearest sympathetic person. But Cady, dealing with abandonment and loss, is not the only one with attachment issues. The robot has them in spades, chucked aside on a whim when her creator takes against her or when all attention is transferred to the child.

This all builds up to a tremendous climax when Megan cuts loose in the toy factory, slicing and dicing, and providing the kind of example of her prowess that would have sequel-makers salivating as they detect robot soldier opportunities. And when Gemma tries to bring her to heel finds that (to hell with the obvious pun) the boot is on the other foot.

You can see why this – and other horror thrillers like Barbarian (2022) or Black Phone (2022) that eschewed a conveyor belt of bloody thrills in favor of something deeper – has struck such a chord with the younger audience that makes up the bulk of the audience for Hollywood pictures. This is intelligent. Who hasn’t as a child dreamt of, or even invented, the ideal companion? Who as a child has not thought there must be a better way of being brought up than being left in the hands of parents with little aptitude or interest in the job.

None of these horror pictures has got the slightest chance of being nominated for Oscars while pictures with far bigger budgets, which have not the slightest chance of attracting an audience or are boring them to death, get all the critical hype.

I couldn’t make up my mind whether the doll, being so lifelike, was CGI or human and it turns out she was played by newcomer Amie Donald, though presumably either with a stunt double or a computer doing the crazy dancing. Whatever, the doll is very convincing. As it has to be said, are Allison Williams (Get Out, 2017) and Violet McGraw in her movie debut.

But the star of the show is undoubtedly director Gerard Johnstone, also a movie newcomer, who had the guts to opt for  slow-burn rather than visceral fright and develop themes that would resonate with any adult. Screenplay honors go to Akela Cooper (Malignant, 2021) while director James Wan (also Malignant) cops the story credit.

Virtuoso thriller. Can’t wait for the sequel.  

The Sorcerers (1967) ***

I should point out before we go any further there’s a Raquel Welch connection. Husband Patrick Curtis was a producer and La Welch is down as an assistant producer, at a time when the pair were setting up their own production company Curtwel. Hard to see where Raquel would have fitted in but wouldn’t it have been sensational to have her as the devious mastermind?

The concept is better than the execution. There is an inconvenient truth about science. Successful experiments often require guinea pigs. Brain-washing was one such scientific notion, generally seen as an invention of those dastardly Communists a la The Manchurian Candidate (1962) although The Mind Benders (1963) suggested it was as common in the British halls of academe. As indicated by the title here brain washing could be termed  modern-day witchcraft.

But where government scientists could hide behind the greater good, personal advantage is the notion here. And it did make me wonder how many scientists took vicarious pleasure in seeing guinea pigs doing their bidding, enjoying the power to inflict change on the potentially unwilling.

Professor Monserrat (Boris Karloff) and wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) have invented a machine that through hypnotism can alter a subject’s mind in the longer term, make them prone to acts of savagery. Their chosen target is young man-about-town Mike (Ian Ogilvy). Bored with gorgeous girlfriend Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy) and ripe for adventure he is despatched on an orgy of violence, rape and murder.

What makes this potentially fascinating is that while the Professor draws back from the experiment, Estelle wants to continue. The sadistic female was coming into her own during this decade, Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina as a deadly tag-team in Deadlier than the Male (1967), Suzanna Leigh in Subterfuge (1968), but these were sidekicks, pawns in the control of devious men.

Estelle wins a battle of wills against her husband and his weak opposition fails to deter her from authorizing ever more despicable acts, as if she is unleashing her own pent-up aggression. Not only can she control her husband but she is in command of the virile young Mike. Sensibly, the film stops short of setting her up as a James Bond-style megalomaniac, but there is something more infernal in committing these acts from a small run-down apartment rather than some underground space-age cavern.

Turning Boris Karloff into a bad guy tripped up by conscience is a neat casting trick. But making him prey to his initially subservient wife is a masterstroke. Her violence is gender-neutral, as happy to force Mike into battering a work colleague as attempting to rape a young woman.

And there is also a sense of the old taking revenge on the young. The old have been left behind in a Swinging London awash with discos and barely-existing morals. Why shouldn’t old people tap into base desire, and better still, not have to lift a finger, their victim carrying the can for every deed. 

It’s stone cold creepy. And would  been a much tighter – and scarier – picture if director Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968) had not wasted so much time with the dull youngsters, complete with pop groups performing in a nightclub. Ian Ogilvy (Witchfinder General) doesn’t bring much to the party, no more than your standard good-looking young fellow.  

Boris Karloff (The Crimson Cult, 1968) is much better value especially when excitement at his new discovery wears off and he realizes he is playing second fiddle to his wife. For once, there’s nothing inherently evil in him. But Catherine Lacey (The Servant, 1963) is easily the pick, delivering a well-judged performance, assisting her husband in his endeavors until the time is right to take over. You might spot Susan George (The Straw Dogs, 1971) and Sally Sheridan, both a Fu Manchu and Bond girl. Tom Baker (Witchfinder General) co-wrote the script with Reeves.

Provides more to ponder than actually appears on the screen.

The Demon / Il Demonio (1963) *****

I was riveted. 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 cleavage-exposing 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 the action takes place in broad daylight, rather than the twilight and darkness beloved of Hollywood (and British) horror.

It is set in an impoverished town in the Italian mountains, where farming is so primitive the soil is tilled 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 old-fashioned 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.

Less conformist notions include a wedding night rite involving 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.

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 the sight, Exorcist-fans take note, of 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 realizes she has been raped, for example, 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 abandon 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 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 often vengeful action and forceful word.

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 by pagan or Catholic means, focus on getting the demon to speak his name. The ritual performed by heathen priest Giuseppe 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) and thought she would be put to better use in bigger-budgeted pictures made in color that took full advantage of her face and figure and that stuck her in a series of hardly momentous movies such as The Silencers (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969) 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 a 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 is 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, 1969) comes off best. Director Brunello Rondi (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968) is better known as a screenwriter for Federico Fellini. 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. 

You would need to chase up a secondhand copy to find this, I’m afraid.

The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll / Jekyll’s Inferno / House of Fright (1960) ****

One of the most shocking films of its day with its unusual focus on sex and violence, this takes the famed Robert Louis Stevenson tale down a different direction in that Dr Jekyll enjoys the base animal instincts he has unleashed with his experiments rather than expressing remorse or guilt. Evil has never been more demonstrably enjoyed.

Dr Jekyll (Paul Massie) is a shy cuckolded scientist when he takes the magic elixir that diverts his dull personality towards a more dynamic, if ultimately perverted, destination. From being fearful of life, he begins to sample its more exotic pleasures under the guidance of louche best friend Paul (Christopher Lee) who is carrying on an affair with the good doctor’s wife Kitty (Dawn Addams).

Not only does the reincarnation of Jekyll as the lusty Hyde consort with prostitutes and manage to snare exotic dancer Maria (Norma Marla), a beautiful woman who would normally be way out of his league,  he develops a fetish for violence, almost beating to death a hooligan (Oliver Reed) in a dodgy club, only prevented from committing his first murder by the intervention of his friend.

Sure, there’s some philosophising about the nature of good and evil and whether violence is inborn or nurtured and there are moments when guilt rears its ugly head, but these are pretty fleeting to be honest, and most of the time he can hardly wait for another draught of his poison in order to shake off his insipid persona and revel in the new creation.

But magic will only take you so far. Believing he is now irresistible to women he fancies his chances with Paul’s amour, who is of course none other than his wife, but she will have none of it, finding him a poor alternative to the charming Paul. In one of the most controversial scenes of the day, and perhaps only ironically acceptable at the time, Hyde proceeds to rape the resisting Kitty. This skirts so close to the edge of taste, not just the worst type of domestic abuse (though husband assaulting wife would be no less unusual in Victorian times than it is now), but almost the neanderthal man taking what he wants, that it makes for uncomfortable viewing, especially as it is presented as a come-uppance for the adulterous hoity-toity Kitty.

Perhaps more interesting is that having won over the cold Maria, a trophy lover on a par with the higher-born Kitty, that’s not enough for Hyde.

Also, for the time, is an extremely risqué scene involving Maria and her snake, especially when having completed the usual survey of her curves, the reptile ends up down her throat. That the Victorians were masters of the art of hypocrisy comes as little surprise, but the extent of it takes the viewer aback.  

There’s another twist. When it becomes apparent that his crimes are about to catch up with him the cunning Jekyll attempts to blame Hyde.   

Sumptuously mounted by Terence Fisher (Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966) and with nary an attractive character in sight – none of the innocent victims of the vampire sagas, for example – to leaven the sight of such unmitigated wickedness, the director offers an unique vision of how easy human beings will degenerate given the chance. At the outset Paul appears the most obvious villain, leeching on his friend to pay his gambling debts, while at the same time making hay with his wife. But initial audience sympathy for a wife, presented as a beautiful woman who for the sake of security has made a bad marriage and who needs an outlet for passion, soon dissipates as her true character is revealed.

The refusal to temper the ongoing degeneracy with one good character is a bold choice. Budgetary restrictions eliminated the usual transformation scene but that was probably for the best, since Hyde merges as though from a chrysalis into a stronger personality rather than undergoing some body-wracking physical change. It’s almost as if the director is determined to show how easy, given opportunity, a good but essentially weak man will embrace the dark side.

Accusations that Fisher has failed to bring sufficient suspense to the film I find unfair. Certainly, there’s not the tension of the will-he-be-found-out vein, but since the story is so well-known that appears a redundant course sensibly avoided. The director replaces that with ongoing friction between Jekyll and his friend on the one hand and his wife on the other, both of whom are unaware that the man they know as Jekyll is aware of just what a fool has been made of his alter-ego.

The emphasis instead falls on how and when the cuckold will take his revenge. And although the rape scene is unwelcome, there’s a certain ironic sadness for Jekyll to discover that his new persona is no more attractive to his wife than his old one.

Paul Massie (Call Me Genius, 1961) is of course far removed from an actor like Spencer Tracy (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1941) and he relies overmuch on rolling the eyes but even so this is a decent performance. Christopher Lee (Dracula, Prince of Darkness) is the revelation, creating a very believable insidiously charming man who never quite approaches outright villainy. Dawn Addams is excellent as the spoiled entitled wife.

One of the unusual aspects of the picture is that where Hammer had been and would remain a breeding ground for new stars – Christopher Lee a most obvious example – everyone else featured here came to, in cinematic terms only I assure you, an untimely end.

This turned out to be Paul Massie’s only starring role – he only made another three films during the entire decade – and was soon relegated to television. Dawn Addams only managed another nine and, apart from House of Sin/The Liars (1961), spy flick Where the Bullets Fly (1966) might be counted the peak.

David Kossof only made another four, and none beyond 1964. And this was the final film in an extremely brief two-picture career for Norma Marla. Only the uncredited Oliver Reed (Women in Love, 1969) and of course Christopher Lee (Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966) went on to bigger and better things.

As did Terence Fisher who helmed most of the best Hammer pictures of the decade. Wolf Mankowitz (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961) wrote the script.

Generally dismissed at the time, this has for good reasons acquired a substantial following and is well worth a look.

Burn, Witch, Burn / Night of the Eagle (1962) ****

That rare event, a piece of cinematic alchemy. None of the principals had any particular form yet it all comes together quite splendidly.

Director Sidney Hayers was a journeyman, for every Circus of Horrors (1960) or Southern Star (1969) there was Cliff Richard vehicle  Finders Keepers (1966) or Three Hats for Lisa (1965) starring pop star Joe Brown. Apart from The Innocents (1961), Peter Wyngarde did not make another movie for nearly two decades and fame eluded him until he grew one of television’s most iconic moustaches for Department S (1969).

Janet Blair was attempting to revive a moribund career that had stopped dead with The Fuller Brush Man (1948). Ditto Margaret Johnston, nothing since Touch and Go (1955).

More prominent names were attached to the script: Richard Matheson had made B-movie waves with The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Charles Beaumont for The Premature Burial (1962). But the script itself, an adaptation of Fritz Lieber Jr.’s novel Conjure, Wife, was not in itself extraordinary.

Instead, it’s a prime example of what a director can bring to material. It begins with credits on one side of the screen and a wide-open eye on the other. Scenes brim with suspense yet often we have no idea what’s going on and with only music to guide us are sucked into a devilish plot. Most of the time Hayers concentrates on eyes, reaction, rather than lengthy scenes of dialog.

The fact that Hollywood ignored the depth of Wyngarde’s performance seems beyond belief. And you might be interested to know it was one of the earliest feminist pictures, the wife in control, acting as protector for the husband.

Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a handsome successful college professor in the running for promotion. While he locks horns with lazy pupil Fred (Bill Mitchell), he charms others to the point of infatuation, witness Margaret (Judith Stott). But after a bridge party at their home his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) becomes obsessed with finding something. Upstairs, by accident Norman comes across a dead spider that she claims is a good luck charm from a holiday in Jamaica.

Eventually, while he’s asleep, she finds what she’s looking for, hidden in a lampshade and burns it. Later, a suspicious Norman uncovers all sorts of strange objects. All three scenes of the characters looking are filled with suspense and masterpieces if you like of how to use a camera and hook an audience, no explanation given, just a background of increasingly ominous music.

Confronted, Tansy admits she is a witch, that decision triggered by an incident in which her husband nearly died. Her spells, she claims, have brought him not just good luck, but protected him from bad sorcery, his success not just down to his charm. He insists on burning all her material, including, to her horror, a locket with his picture. And no time is spent, a la The Devil Rides Out (1968), in explaining the intricacies of the occult.

From then on his life turns sour. He is nearly run over by a van. Fred makes a complaint against him and then comes after him with a gun, Margaret claims he raped her. Gradually, Norman, an atheist where the Devil is concerned, believing that neurosis causes the wrong kind of faith, comes to realise he is a victim.

They are both up against someone more powerful. Some of the events have a supernatural tinge – doors that swing open in a storm, Tansy praying to “let me die in his place” – but others appear severe accentuations of the normal, a loudspeaker blaring out his voice from a tape recording over the college grounds, an eagle that hunts him down, big enough (in one astonishing scene) to break through a door, and with a 9ft wing span appearing enormous in a corridor.

The curse plays out to a fabulous end, a tremendous finale, full of human drama, emotions ripped apart, confrontation, Norman’s failed schemes to save his wife.

To say I was mesmerised was an under-statement. Just a brilliantly-done little picture with cracking direction and excellent acting all round.

Not only is the picture ripe for reassessment you would have thought it was well worth a remake.

Barbarian (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Slow-burn thriller geared more towards suspense than horror, turning on their heads most of the usual tropes and coming away with a fresh look at the genre.

Tess (Georgina Campbell), in Detroit for an interview as a movie researcher, turns up at  a rental only to find it already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgard). Cue various negotiations as she tries to find out if he’s for real and then work out a viable sharing concept – she gets the bedroom – and to some extent whether he is some skank hiding behind a handsome and charming veneer just lying in wait for a victim. This picture takes its time getting anywhere but not knowing just where it’s going only adds to the suspense. Eventually, they get to know each other enough for good vibes to kick in and there’s a moment where it could have gone all the way to sex.

Next morning she departs for her interview but not without noticing she is in one hell of an odd neighborhood. On her return, Keith is nowhere to be seen although his clothes are still there. When she investigates, down in the cellar finds a rope in a wall that reveals a tunnel and she hears him shouting. Having seen way too many horror movies she does the sensible thing  and leaves – nope, she does the next sensible thing and makes sure she can actually see where she’s going. And all this time of course you’re thinking – aha! This is what he wanted all along, he was a charming skank hiding behind a veneer, but still you don’t know where this picture is going because the director is damn good at suspense.

And once she does find out what’s going on we jump to another character, breezy actor AJ (Justin Long) belting along the highway belting out songs only to be given the bad news he is being accused of rape. Upshot is he turns up at the rental in Detroit because he’s the owner and now needs to sell it pronto so he’s absolutely delighted to discover it’s goes not just into a cellar but an extended basement that goes on and on because he’s measuring the shit out of it, just ignoring the stained mattress, camcorder and bloody handprint because, heck, the extra space could mean his property is worth a whole lot more which is ideal because he’s in for some hefty legal fees what with confessing to another dude that his accuser did in fact need some “convincing” before they had sex.

You don’t worry too much about AJ following in the footsteps of Tess because he’s mean, not in the John Wick fashion, but in the sneaky way that sneaky people have of never getting caught out. And he’s got a gun.

Naturally, there’s something a good bit meaner down there and there’s a hint that’s the reason the neighborhood is so rundown.

I’m not going to go into that aspect of the movie which in some respects is well done and in other respects not. And there’s a couple of character-driven twists that you won’t see coming and a great scene when police refuse to believe that a female running loose complaining of monsters is more likely to be a drug addict with monsters in her head rather than a genuine victim.

All in all one of the best horror films in a long while and precisely because it bends the rules without losing the shock value we come to expect from the genre. Prey for the Devil (2022) which I saw on the same day goes in more for the standard horror elements with considerably less effect and The Banshees of Inisherin, which I saw in between this pair, could have equally well been described as a horror picture, and although the bulk of the damage is self-inflicted seeing a fellow walking round with all his fingers sheared off but still with one complete hand left so he can chuck the digits at a door has all the trappings of horror.

Stick with Barbarian, a horror debut worth applauding from writer-director Zach Creggan (Miss March, 2009). He’s got the sense to let suspense build up by letting audiences do all the work, their expectation far more effective than his misdirection, and he allows his cast time to let their characters take root. Georgina Campbell (Wildcat, 2021) is an impressive lead and because the director doesn’t spend all his time putting her in situations where she can do nothing but scream she gets the chance to act. Bill Skarsgard (It, 2017) and Justin Long (House of Darkness, 2022) complete an interesting trio of performances. How rare to go to a horror picture and come away raving about the acting.

War-Gods of the Deep / City Under the Sea (1965) ***

Hollywood careers rarely end in a blaze of cinematic glory. Sudden death ensured Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (The Misfits, 1961) and Spencer Tracy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967) went out with a bang but more likely a  career is just going to tail off and end with this kind of whimper. Director Jacques Tourneur, in any case, was long past a heyday that saw him set the horror genre agog with Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943).

If that wasn’t enough to solidify his credentials he dipped into another genre, the nascent film noir, and helmed gems like Experiment Perilous (1944) with Hedy Lamarr and Out of the Past (1947) with Robert Mitchum. Thereafter came swashbucklers The Flame and the Arrow (1950) headlining Burt Lancaster and Anne of the Indies (1951) plus crime drama Appointment in Honduras (1953) with the ever-dependable Glenn Ford and Joel McCrea western Wichita (1955). Then, miraculously, it was back to horror with Night of the Demon (1957) and the late flurry of The Comedy of Terrors (1963).

You can tell where I’m going with all this. War-Gods of the Deep has nothing on any of these pictures. The backstory is much more interesting than the actual film.

Basically, this is one of those pictures where an unlikely pair, American Ben Harris (Tab Harris) and eccentric Brit Harold Tufnell-Jones (David Tomlinson) get themselves into an unlikely situation and have to get themselves out of it.

Set in the smugglers’ paradise of the British Cornish coast around the turn of the last century, on a hotel on top of a cliff, the duo need to track down another American, Jill (Susan Hart), who has disappeared down a plughole, sorry mini-whirlpool. This leads to a legendary underwater city where smugglers led by Sir Hugh (Vincent Price) have found the secret of eternal life, a paradise now endangered by tremors from a nearby volcano.

The Italians didn’t fancy the two titles on offer so came up with their own
by purloining the Jules Verne classic.

He sent his enslaved Gill-Men to kidnap Jill in the erroneous belief that she is his dead wife. Bored out of their minds with listening to Sir Hugh prattling on endlessly about how the underwater city came into being and how important he is to the whole affair and what imminent dangers the inhabitants now face, and of course faced with their own imminent demise as sacrificial victims, the pair decide to scoot, having found a willing accomplice.

There’s a chase and whatever, and some undersea adventure, but there’s not much to it.

However, what you do get when you add someone like Tourneur – and to that extent Vincent Price and his ominous tones – to this listless mix is atmosphere. Tourneur can inject eeriness almost just by switching on a camera, despite a very stage-bound picture, and he knows how to add a music score that tremendously aids his enterprise. The opening section by the shore and in the hotel adds the necessary element of mystery to make the whole idea float.

There clearly wasn’t enough of a budget for the Gill-Men to appear as anything but peripheral figures which actually might have helped since, the state of special effects in that time might have made them laughable rather than distantly disturbing.

The best you can say is that Tourneur made the best of a bad job. Vincent Price (Diary of a Madman, 1963) only has to turn up to inject an element of danger. Tab Hunter (Ride the Wild Surf, 1963) and Susan Hart (Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, 1965) needn’t have bothered turning up for all they bring to the party. And David Tomlinson (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 1971)  brings far too much, saddled with a pet comic chicken for no apparent reason except to extract a few laughs.

AIP, having made its name in the horror department by raiding the portfolio of Edgar Allan Poe, turned up this source material deep in that vault. But the only connection to Poe is the original idea –  which was not that original, other poets having plumbed those depths prior –  and that appears only in occasional desultory recitations of the poem. But, as a marketing tool, hey, Edgar Allan Poe, that’ll scare their socks off!

So, you are warned, but also you can’t help but warm to this final movie by one of the Hollywood greats as he tries to put a sheen on something that in other hands would have sunk like a stone.

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.

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