The Vulture (1966) **

The notion that the presence of Oscar-winning Broderick Crawford or that a bunch of expository scenes will divert audiences away from the lack of decent special effects, or story for that matter, comes sadly unstuck. There’s so much exposition that at times it feels like an audio book rather than a piece of cinema. The one great image – a skeleton in  laboratory – is treated with disdain. Not only has it “cult” written all over it but it must be a contender for the all-time “So Bad It Hasn’t A Hope Of Being Good” Award,

Which is a shame because on paper at least this might have sounded passable what with atomic transmutation, hidden treasure, grave-robbing, remote location, strange noises in the night, an incident in the 15th century, man buried alive, eerie tapping on windows, a creepy Church sexton, and a  mythological beast originating from the Incas or Aztecs or even Easter Island.  

But it pivots on the kind of family curse, mysterious past, strange occurrences, that Sherlock Holmes might have been called in to resolve, especially as there seemed an awful lot of explaining to do and it’s easier to hang on to every word of the world’s most famous detective rather than a scientist banging on about the inexplicable. The first two-thirds is taken up with solving the mystery, it’s only in the last section when horror takes over that a genuine sense of tension emerges.

A woman taking a shortcut through a graveyard (as one does) spies a gravestone wobbling, earth erupting in front of her and has visions (enough to make her hair go white) of a huge bird with a man’s head. Visiting nuclear scientist Eric (Robert Hutton) takes an interest. His wife Trudy’s (Diane Clare) uncle Brian (Broderick Crawford) explains the legend of a Spaniard buried alive because he turned himself into a vulture and kidnapped a small child. His buddy, German professor Koniglich (Akim Tamiroff), expands on the story.

Gold coins are found scattered close to the grave. Boys find the bloody leg of a sheep on a beach and there’s a likely unreachable hiding place of a cave in the cliffs. Uncle Brian is of the obstinate variety and refuses to the toe the line and keep his windows firmly closed so he’s next to disappear. But there’s a hungry beast to feed so Brian’s brother Edward (Gordon Sterne) is the next victim. Trudy is despatched out of harm’s way to London but lured back by a mysterious telegram.

Meanwhile, hot on the trail, Eric finds Koniglich’s lair, a laboratory inhabited only by a skeleton, but with his own understanding of the possibilities of atomic science Eric works out the German must have employed nuclear power to fuse man and vulture and set out to wreak revenge.

It was obviously a toss-up between spending the tiny budget on a fading Hollywood star and supporting bad guy actor of some repute rather than on special effects. Quite how, at that time, anyone would have managed a convincing half-man-half-vulture is anybody’s guess and the prospect of making such a creature credibly fly would have been beyond comprehension so sensibly director Lawrence Huntingdon settles for the prospect, showing talons from time to time and letting audience imagination do the rest, and I am sure if you saw this as a child you would be bolting doors and windows.

Robert Hutton (They Came from Beyond Space, 1967) doesn’t have a chance of imposing himself on the picture since he is lumbered by buckets of exposition and supposition. Though he could take a lesson from Broderick Crawford (A House Is Not a Home, 1964) in how to milk a small role. Crawford is something of a clever red herring. Given his screen persona I had expected him to be the bad guy, at the point of his appearance in the picture notions of scientific dexterity not being a prerequisite. Akim Tamiroff (The Liquidator, 1965) plays down his villainous qualities so until we are introduced to his lab, he’s not the obvious bad guy either.

It might have worked better if the audience was filled in on more of the mystery than the investigator, perhaps witnessing Koniglich at least toying with his equipment, maybe making the screen glow the way dodgy scientists were inclined to do.

This was the final film in the 30-year career of director Lawrence Huntingdon (Drums Along the River, 1963) and if he couldn’t manage a swansong of the kind Clark Gable delivered with The Misfits (1960) then I guess the next best thing was a movie for cultists to savor.

The Oblong Box (1969) ***

Vincent Price and Christopher Lee – two scions of 1960s horror – together, yet anyone expecting a clash of the giants would be sorely disappointed as they only share one short scene. This is a typical American International Pictures venture, based even more typically on an Edgar Allan Poe story, with some stylistic direction – the extreme close-up never more effectively utilized – from Gordon Hessler in his third feature.

Given that German-born Hessler (Catacombs/The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, 1965) was a last-minute substitute for English director Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968), he made an exceptionally good job of a complicated plot. The production was even more complicated than that since it was originally intended as a Spanish co-production to be shot in Spain. And at one point writer Lawrence Huntingdon (The Vulture, 1966), who did have form as a director (Death Drums Along the River, 1963), was reportedly also carrying out producer-director duties.

What seems like a mishmash of different stories – African sorcery, grave-robbing, disfigurement, forgery, blackmail, lifetime imprisonment, medical experiment, buried alive, a monster in a scarlet mask – soon comes together in a tense tale of retribution and revenge.

Nineteenth century English aristocrat Julain Markham (Vincent Price) has withdrawn to his country manor, for unknown reasons distancing himself from his fiancée Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer), but in reality to conceal from the world the fact that he has locked up his own brother, Sir Edward (Alister Williamson). When the brother, a disfigured monster, escapes he embarks on a murder spree.

The various storylines keep the narrative sufficiently entangled to sustain tension. Despite what may appear to a modern audience as primitive special effects, several scenes are bone-chilling largely through directorial manipulation. The Gothic look – graveyards, castles, the village – adds to the atmosphere. The violence was trimmed in America to avoid an “R” rating, but led to the film being banned in Australia.

There is more overt sexuality than normal, a scheming whore Heidi (Uta Levka) tempting a man with her bare breasts, and maid Sally (Sally Geeson) entranced by the monster.

The various plot strands appeared to confuse critics at the time and even now the film receives comments that it is “vague” but at a time when Hammer’s output usually comprised a straightforward – and somewhat limited narrative – I found AIP’s approach to this picture a welcome development. The slowly emerging story set the film up as much as a thriller as a horror.

It’s a bit of a reversal for Vincent Price (Witchfinder General, 1968) to be playing the good guy but that works to the movie’s advantage because you spent most of the time thinking this is just a scam and at some point he will show his true colors. Hilary Dwyer (Witchfinder General) is excellent and Sally Geeson (What’s Good for the Goose, 1969) is an example of the type of woman attracted to rather than revulsed by a killer.

Well worth a look if only to enjoy the distinctive Hessler style.

Nightmare (1964) ****

Now this is what you’re looking for when you take an unguided tour into the British B-movie. A tight gripping thriller with a parcel of twists, clever character perspective, some stunning cinematography, and pivoting on perception of insanity.

The opening is a cracker. Teenager Janet (Jennie Linden) stumbles along a dark prison-like corridor with little light hearing someone call her name. Entering a door, she spies a woman in a white nightgown lurking in the corner. She responds to the gentle calling. But once she lets the door close behind her and can’t get out, the woman screams that now they are both mad. And that’s just the first, atmospherically brilliant, nightmare.

Janet is soon removed from her posh boarding school, her constant nightmares too frightening for the other pupils. Driven home in a Rolls-Royce, accompanied by teacher Mary (Brenda Bruce) she passes the asylum where her mother is an inmate, but is surprised to find her legal guardian, charming lawyer Henry (David Knight), isn’t there to greet her. Instead there’s a nurse, Grace (Moira Redmond).

We soon learn she’s been effectively orphaned by her mother, who killed her father, Janet, eleven at the time, witnessing the murder. But without any proper home life, looked after primarily by kindly chauffeur John (George A. Cooper) and maternal maid Anne (Julie Samuel) and with the married Henry often absent, there’s little done to quieten down her obsession that she will follow her mother into madness.

The movie takes her perspective, watching her watching out for mystery, or in her point of view as she catches fleeting glimpses of a woman in white. The apparition looking only too realistic, not dashing out of view but turning and apparently beckoning Janet on and it doesn’t take much to push a disordered mind further out of kilter, leading to attempted suicide. Imagining Henry’s wife is the ghost, she stabs her to death.

End of Act One. Start of Twist No 1. You would expect the movie to follow Janet to the asylum where she would be reunited with her mother, knowing she had inherited those terrible genes, trapped in her insanity. But it goes somewhere more delicious instead.

Turns out nice Henry is not very nice at all. He contrived a situation to be rid of his wife and marry lover Grace instead. But, once married, it is Grace who becomes disturbed and the movie follows a similar arc in the second half. Unexplained goings-on. She believes Henry has another, secret, lover and is trying to drive his new wife crazy. She finds strange cigarettes in his pocket, a barman at a hotel recognizes him even though he claims never to have been there before.

The marriage quickly deteriorates although she stands her ground, telling him in no uncertain terms that she won’t put up with any philandering and slapping his face. He is charm itself, easily turning aside her insinuations and from his casual and disarming manner it’s easy to believe he is perfectly innocent. Of course, that’s before Janet’s doll turns up and locked doors open and there’s an apparition.

The beauty of this picture is the atmosphere, the intensity of the camera, the concentration on two vulnerable females, convinced by genuine or imagined guilt that they will succumb to the madness that appears to pervade this particular house. You think it’s going down one route and are annoyed you didn’t see the next twist coming.

There’s the kind of cinematic repetition that enamored critics of more critically acclaimed pieces like The Searchers (1956). It’s almost as though there’s a beam of insanity identifying the next victim. And that’s helped immeasurably by the lighting which allows no shadow on faces. Like an inverted film noir, where the light has nowhere to go, no atmospheric shadow to create, except to land square on the faces of those involved. This would be the Old Dark House except never has a building been so illuminated, not bright throughout, the illumination predisposed to land on faces rather than rooms.

There are a couple of finely composed scenes, one viewed through a staircase, neat revelations, visual and verbal, a fabulous ending with one character screaming and a telephone dangling off the hook.

You might be astonished to discover this is a Hammer picture. Nary a monster in sight. But then little is scarier than what happens inside the mind, when imagination runs riot without external assistance. That the victim is a teenager, prone to the mood swings of that age, makes it easier for Jennie Linden (Women in Love, 1969) to ramp up the emotions without her seeming too barmy from the outset. David Knight (The Devil’s Agent, 1962) is excellent, conniving he may be but the general demeanor of bonhomie never slips into stage villain. But Moira Redmond (The Limbo Line, 1968) is the pick as she morphs from accomplished accomplice to prospective victim.

Tightly written by Jimmy Sangster (Maniac, 1963), characters fully evolved, twists cleverly concealed, and with excellent direction by Freddie Francis (The Skull, 1965), not just the visuals but in drawing out of a fairly standard set of actors exactly what he needs to make this tick.

Well worth a look. A much under-rated B-picture.

Youtube has an excellent print.

Corruption (1968) ***

Admit it, you always wanted to discover what went on behind Peter Cushing’s chilly British reserve. The man who appeared to be constantly tormenting that nice Dracula or donning a deerstalker to outwit countless villains or battling otherworldly creatures like the Daleks or just a dependable character who in the unconventional Sixties knew right from wrong.

Of course, our Peter had occasionally come unstuck, the duped bank manager in Cash on Demand (1961) but even as Baron Frankenstein he never revealed a demonic side even as he  created monsters who had a tendency to run wild, always civil to the last, stiff upper lip never quavering.

So it’s something of a surprise to see him cast in the first place as the older man lusting after a younger woman. Sir John Rowan (Peter Cushing) is a highly esteemed surgeon who has fallen for model-cum-flighty-piece Lynn (Sue Lloyd) and although he sticks out like a sore thumb at a typical Swinging Sixties party full of gyrating lithe young women he is happy to put up with it for the sake of his girlfriend.

But Lynn has a strong independent streak, she’s not the submissive lass who might have been content to swoon at the feet of such a highly intelligent man, and objects to his attempts at control and can’t resist the chance to show her allure to all and sundry by giving in to the temptation to pose for louche photographer Mike (Anthony Booth), and, as it happens, the assembled throng.

Sir John isn’t going to stand for such brazenness, starting a fight with Mike that ends in a dreadful accident, destroying half Lynn’s face. Naturally, plastic surgery being the coming thing and Sir John capable of turning his hand to anything he’s able to fix up her face good and proper.

Except it’s a temporary measure, something to do with the pituitary gland, and it turns Sir John into a serial killer. There’s no mystery to it, no detective scouting around trying to put together clues, the question soon becomes can Sir John keep it up and what psychological damage is inflicted on Lynn as she comes to the realization that the beauty she had taken for granted, setting aside the predations of age which are still some way off, could vanish in an instant leaving her shrieking in a mirror.

Things get out of hand when they head for the country and fresh victims and find themselves trapped in a home invasion by a gang as gormless and vindictive as the pair from The Penthouse. It doesn’t end the way you’d expect because there’s a twist in the tail that you might accept as par for the course in the unconventional cinematic Sixties or you might just put the producers down for wanting to have their cake and eat it.

Still, it’s good while it lasts. Cushing certainly reveals a different side to his screen persona, and I can’t remember ever seeing him truly in love or indulging in a passionate screen kiss, and certainly to see his murderous side emerge is quite a treat, no scientific excuse to mask his behavior.

And it’s equally good to see Sue Lloyd (The Ipcress File, 1965) in another of those roles where she displayed considerable independence.  As an added bonus future Hammer Queen Kate O’Mara (The Horror of Frankenstein, 1970), here cleavage well hidden, turns up as Lynn’s sister.  You might also spot Vanessa Howard (Some Girls Do, 1969) and Marianne Morris (Vampyres, 1974). Anthony Booth (Girl with a Pistol, 1968) was trying to shake off the shackles of BBC comedy Till Death Us Do Part

Robert Hartford-Davis (The Black Torment, 1964) does pretty well unsheathing the beast within the context of a vulnerable older man. Derek Ford wrote the screenplay with his brother Donald before he decided the sex film was his way to British film legend. The version released abroad contains more gore and sex than when the British censor had its wicked way.

Cocaine Bear (2023) **** – Seen at the Cinema

You probably know by now that this (unnamed) bear has been on a successful box office rampage.  You’ll know, too, that the special effects (you thought it was real bear, duh!) are particularly effective. And you better believe this as hilarious as it is bloody.

What you’ll be less well informed about is the cleverness of the set up. Yes, essentially, it falls into the slasher genre (slabs of claws instead of knives) but has a different approach to the potential victims. Generally, in this kind of horror picture you’ve a good  chance of being slaughtered if you’re sinful, indulging in sex generally the marker but you might enter the killing zone for being a bully or a bitch. While it’s pretty much up to speed with the contemporary trope of the killer being a woman (yep, said bear, it turns out in one hilarious scene, lacks male equipment), but the victims don’t conform to type.

Although it may come in different shapes and sizes, this advert needs only one image.

For the most part they are dumb,  and that includes dumb innocence, but the driving force is  the misguided. Parental focus is misplaced. Sari (Keri Russell) is so desperate for male companionship she ignores the needs of daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince). Drug runner Syd (Ray Liotta) ignores son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), so steeped in sorrow he abandons his son. And then there’s detective Bob (Isaiah Whitlock Jr) who has commitment issues with a new dog.

Hankering after a male leads park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) to douse herself in perfume in a bid to inflame desire from tepid activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Three dumb teenagers attempt to rob the hulking fashion-conscious Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr), less concerned about being attacked than the damage blood can do to tee-shirt and sneakers.

Parallel storylines send Sari hunting her kids, the drug-runners and cops hunting bags of cocaine – missing after being dropped from a plane – into the path of the bear who has taken a liking to the drug. At least, without any education in drug lore, the bear knows to sniff or ingest the stuff rather than try to eat it like Dee Dee and her pal Henry (Christian Convery).

There’s a good reason this picture was set in 1985 – the date of the original “true” story – because these days nobody would believe any pre-teen kid wouldn’t know how to absorb coke, and be desperate to try it. And also because “woke” wasn’t invented so nobody needs to get preachy.

Turns out if you want lessons in maternal instinct, you’d better go find yourself a female bear.

This is keenly directed too, by Elizabeth Banks (putting her career on the line, apparently, after her last two pictures, Call Jane, 2022 and Charlie’s Angels, 2019, stiffed). It would be pretty easy to get lost in this smorgasbord of characters, but Banks has a nifty way of leaving you wondering what happened to character X only to find him/her turning up in a situation that advances the story.

I should point out it’s hilarious. Not just the classic line, “Bears don’t climb trees,” but some wonderful deadpan dialog between Daveed and Eddie and then between Eddie and one of the delinquents, gun-happy Liz’s chat-up lines in between being seven-points-to-Sunday barmy, and a pair of loved-up Icelandic tourists falling out over which band will play at their wedding. The question of how to determine a bear’s sex has entered movie comedy heaven.

Banks equally astutely switches the action between gore and comedy, but keeps sufficient focus on the characters to ensure you don’t just look on them as victims, waiting with some glee for them to be chomped up. There’s not that sense of working out who might be Final Girl. Sensibly, she avoids trying to emulate Jaws in the stoking up of tension, nor does she take the mickey out of the audience by using the kids to tug on their heartstrings.

Just like the out-of-left-field Me3an this has sequel stamped all over it. There’s still plenty cocaine left in that wood and, you never know, the bear might enter rehab or it could go down the crossover route and form chapter five of the John Wick saga. Wait, I’m forgetting the obvious. Cocaine Cubs R Us.

Whatever, this is a riot. Best title of the year by far delivers. The actors, even Liotta, prone to overacting, make it believable. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter, Killer Queen, 2022) comes up with the goods and Banks and the sfx team do the rest.

Unwelcome (2022) ***- Seen at the Cinema

Cult contender, assuming some basis in Irish legend. Otherwise, Straw Dogs (1971) meets Yoda with a side order of Barbarian (2022) and a touch of Se7en (1995). Someone’s definitely got it in for the Irish this year, but those finger-chopping Banshees have nothing on this little number.

After enduring a home invasion in the city, heavily pregnant Maya (Hannah-John Kamen) and cowardly husband Jamie (Douglas Booth) head for the Irish countryside, having inherited a rundown cottage from his odd aunt. Only thing is, warns neighbor and local publican Maeve (Maimh Cusack). you have to leave out a bit of bloody liver every day beside the back gate to assuage the Redcaps aka little people aka leprechauns aka goblins aka anything else you want to make up.

The story goes said aunt sacrificed her baby to save her dying husband, but it turns out the baby went missing, aged two, and was never found. Frosty reception at the local inn, a la An American Werewolf in London (1981), is a prank but the family of builders headed by a gobby Daddy (Colm Meaney), and his three kids, the gobby one from Derry Girls (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), a thin gobby lad (Chris Walley) – with “the brain of a rocking horse” – and a peeping tom of a giant (Kristian Nairn) are on the malevolent side.

Not content with stealing any spare cash, Jamie’s stash of chocolate biscuits and his beer, and stirring up anti-English sentiment, smoking joints when they should be working and generally acting like workshy cliches, they constantly challenge the milksop Englishman who can thump a punchbag to his heart’s content but finds it hard to raise a finger in anger.

Beyond the gate there’s some kind of magical silent wood and a stone house. And feral creatures, Yoda-shaped, with shark-like teeth who might be able to fly and might have something to do with a nearby castle. A drunk man might have gone missing. Maya might be seeing what isn’t there. It’s that kind of film, mostly suggestive until it suddenly catches fire. Then it’s an onslaught.

And if you can take the Redcaps as being covered in Boy Scout badges and displaying some neat dance moves and a climax that seems relentless with Maya forced to become Final Girl since Jamie is about as helpful as having Jack Whitehall on your team. There’s more rain than in the Seven Samurai, though, to be fair, we were warned it rains 365 days a year in Ireland, Jamie treated as punchbag, the creepy giant trying his hand at rape, the thin one about to make his bones as a murderer, childbirth, the girl full of sexual swagger, decapitated heads in shopping bags, slicing, dicing, shotguns and shillelaghs and, you guessed, it a frying pan, and ending with the barmiest, although to some extent logical, image imaginable.

Like any cult contender, your first reaction might well be to laugh your head off at the preposterous goings-on but strangely enough it does work. While continuing to proclaim his manly abilities, and his sworn duty to defend his wife, Jamie is very much the modern husband, that is to say useless, completely lacking the protection gene, leaving it to the gutsier woman to clean up the mess that his unnecessary bravado creates.

Had I seen this poster which gives the entire game away I wouldn’t have gone.

To her credit, Hannah-John Kamen (Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, 2021) goes the whole nine yards, continually playing the supportive wife to a weakling, turning the paranormal to her advantage, not averse to pulling the trigger should the occasion demand. There’s little backstory to hang her character on, apart from a desperation to conceive given a previous abortion. But she has to deal with a continually changing scenario, negotiation with the wayward family, calming the giant, taking narrative center stage.

And it might be better going into it without cinematic preconception. If you’re of the age of the target audience you might have never seen Straw Dogs, therefore the villainous quartet might not appear descendants of the previous film, and, like Barbarian, you might happily accept the importance of babies to the modern horror picture.

A bit too long perhaps, and at times you might not know whether to laugh or applaud, but in the great tradition of The Evil Dead (1981) you might come back for more. Not a horror film in the gore/splatter league, and not that thoughtful either, but still capable of exerting a cinematic spell.

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 Carlson (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.

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